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Is Non-Profit Impermanence A Synonym for Failure.

September 11th, 2016

Richard Marker

A few years ago, a noted professor of History of Education invited me to speak to a graduate class about my role over the course of my career in the creation of a number of interesting and cutting edge non-profit organizations. With the vantage of a rear view mirror, he noted, whether by serendipity or opportunity, I had been involved at an early stage with a surprising number of well-known and often honored ones. In inviting me, his goal was to give his students a kind of inside look at the dynamics of organizational creativity. And, to be sure, I was proud of these involvements.

The response of the graduate students surprised us both. What the professor considered a litany of cutting edge creativity was not how the students responded at all. They felt that I had told a tale of one failure after another. Why? Because only a very few of these organizations are still around. That alone was proof that they hadn’t succeeded. The fact of their impermanence, whatever transformational changes they may have enabled, was all the evidence they needed.

Most of the organizations of which I spoke lasted 15, 20, 25 or more years. They weren’t brief novae invisible to no one. Some were world renowned, others had a national presence; a few were only local. Each was worth talking about because it represented innovation and change in some element of education, identity formation, or organizational design. These stories are never the work of one individual – I may have intervened at a key moment, or played a role along with others at an early stage. Often, I was a crucial behind-the-scenes player, my role evident to only a few insiders. But involved I was.

Yet these graduate students, millennials all, a generation whose lives and careers are a veritable paradigm of transiency, did not hear my presentation as a celebration of the possibility of creative change but of the inevitability of the failure of innovation. The host professor was astounded, and I was crestfallen. What the students heard was not the story their professor wanted heard, nor the theme of the book he had been urging me to write [still unwritten], nor the message he thought his students needed to hear.
I am currently very involved in the closing of two visible organizations: one is a public charity and the other a private foundation. The response to their closings has been markedly different. The closing of the public charity which has been around for about 50 years is one of anger, disillusionment, and failure. The closing of the private foundation has included some disappointment, but is characterized mostly by a celebration of what it has accomplished over its much more limited life.

The difference in response to the two closings is quite remarkable.

Why does impermanence for the nonprofit/ngo sector so often imply failure? Is it the angst and disappointment of non-profit sector leaders who watch demographic changes and cultural shifts shake their organizations’ historic raison d’etre? If they advocate closing or merging, are they besmirching a proud legacy and belittling the contributions of so many who have come before? Are they embarrassed that they may have been too slow to re-invent themselves – perhaps into something unrecognizable to their founders – just so that their organizations might continue to exist? Should they? Have they miscalculated that the loyalty of past donors will pass, as if genetically, into new generations? Has the nature of organizational life been so transformed that they no longer have the agility or the access to funds that will guarantee their relevance going forward?

Or perhaps they have made the choice willingly: they have become self-reflective and they have decided that their expertise is best managed by another organization? Their original purpose has been usurped by a changed world and they honor their past best by closing or merging? Is their long standing way of operating too inefficient for this age and they are either too small or too undercapitalized to change that? Has their funding business-model imploded? Have they acknowledged that their volunteer and professional leadership pipeline has dried up? Are their funders impatiently urging changes that can no longer be ignored?
Why is it that so many consider it failure if an organization faced with this range of challenges decides that it is time to close or merge? Why do we imagine that a nonprofit should have a claim to perpetuity simply because it has lived for one or two or three generations, and anything less is an embarrassment? So much for the legacy organizations.

But, in fairness, that wasn’t what upset the graduate students. They were presented a narrative about innovation and heard failure. Here the plot thickens. Did they fail, if fail they did, because legacy organizations overwhelmed them? Or because they never had access to mezzanine and 2nd stage funding that would be accessible in the for profit sector? Do funders talk a good game about innovation but are perfectly willing to starve it along the way? Are lean and mean start-ups asked to do more than they have bench-strength to accomplish? Is a high risk of failure the price of entry into a very fragile and tenuous market? Is failure of an organization the same as failure of an idea? Is it even fair that we ask our most creative thinkers to become organization builders?

Perhaps the question needs to be asked a very different way. Why should an organization, any organization, expect to last more than a few years, or more than a generation? A century? Don’t organizations come into existence to solve a problem? If they do so well, they have a respectable chance of being around for a while. When the problem goes away or a different problem surfaces, why even turn to these organizations? Sometimes what was once new becomes so normal that a separate organization is no longer needed. Of course, some organizations learn to “recycle” or re-invent themselves. But if an organization chooses not to, has it failed or simply recognized that its very valid and worthy contribution was of a different time or place?

Now here is the kicker: On the private foundation side, impermanence has become celebrated. There are numerous highly visible private foundations and philanthropists who have announced that they will spend their money during their lifetimes or within a defined period of time. Indeed, in my work, the choice of perpetuity vs limited lifetime is a core question, either answer to which is considered valid. The question is not new at all – Andrew Carnegie and Julius Rosenwald answered this question very differently from one another a few decades ago.

It isn’t an easy choice: every funder and foundation makes a calculated, even when well-informed, bet about the best use of limited resources. And make no mistake, even the very largest foundations have limited resources compared to government coffers and the scope of human need. Is it smarter to make “big bets” on solving one problem now, or is it more valuable to assure that there will always be an independent source of “risk capital” to experiment and respond to new and unanticipated needs as they arise?
In the world of funders, there is no unanimity at all on how to answer this question. It is a dynamic and vital discussion for every philanthropy strategy plan.

But, I have never heard a foundation that chooses to spend-out called a failure. Nor are funders who choose to give all of their philanthropy resources during their lifetime condemned. Why is it legitimate and honored for funders to make this choice but not so for public charities? Why is it a source of hand-wringing and even shame when a non-profit chooses impermanence, by its own volition or otherwise but a source of hand-clapping when a funder makes the same decision?

Over the course of my professional career and as an active volunteer board member, I have been involved in a good number of decisions about mergers, closures, and attempted reinventions. These discussions and the surrounding processes are never easy. Human beings have deep emotional commitments and investments in the answers. It matters to us and it should.
Yet the divide between how we feel about and respond to the impermanence of public charities and private philanthropy is very large. Perhaps our sector would do well to recognize that impermanence of institutions and organizations need not be synonymous with failure, and, instead, to celebrate existential life cycle decisions, including closure, as a sign of a robust and healthy sector.

A Little Mission Creep Can Be a Good Thing

August 17th, 2016

Richard Marker

That is a surprise, you say. Don’t you usually help funders develop a focus for their funding? Don’t you assist them to understand how a good strategy shows philanthropists and foundations know when to say “no”, and when to say “yes”? Doesn’t a funding mission determine whether we are achieving the impact we want our funding investments to achieve? Wouldn’t you advise that “mission creep” dilutes focus and impact, and ultimately limits one’s effectiveness as a funder?

In general, the more focused, the more likely we feel in control of our funding, we feel that we know why we are doing so, we know what to expect from our funding. And the more focused, the more likely that we trust the data and evidence we gather from our monitoring reports, site visits, and systematic evaluations.

The strength of this becomes evident when external factors force hard decisions. The Great Recession forced lots of us to take a good hard look at all those grantees. How did they get there? Our so called priorities had become a very porous barrier to funding entry. Of course, during the go-go years when our assets were growing at a fast clip, what did we have to lose? Sure those projects didn’t fit exactly, but our regular grantees didn’t suffer. But, suddenly the money wasn’t there. Suddenly all those mission and priority statements and guidelines came into play. As the money started coming back, many of us, burned, worked hard at maintaining the discipline.

At the same time, impact philanthropy, a very broad agenda discussed in more depth elsewhere, became the abiding mantra of the moment. If it means anything, it means bang for the philanthropic buck. Evidence, data, systematic review all are essential tools in the impact toolbox. Once we see our decisions being driven by impact outcomes, it is hard to ignore the significance of this information in decision making. And many funders pride themselves on their strict evidence-based approach.

Even if these factors are not the driving force in our decision making, having a clearly articulated set of guidelines certainly makes our work a lot easier. If we are only reactive to any and all requests, it is very frustrating to have to say no to the many valid requests without second guessing ourselves. Or have contentious board and family constantly lobbying for personal priorities. Getting all that out of the way before the inevitable flood of requests makes sorting through the docket go a lot easier.

There are lots of practical and conceptual reasons to resist mission creep. Why then do I say that it sometimes is a smart thing to do?

1. Evidence-based grantmaking ultimately works against innovation. After all, by definition innovation means “new” and evidence means that there is history. There are too many examples of some of the most interesting problem solving coming from risk tolerant grantmaking that would never have made the cut if evidence was an absolute condition.

2. Evidence based grantmaking can lead to a tendency to believe that we know everything that is happening. But sometimes some out of the box thinking comes from surprising and unexpected places. If we are too rigid in defining what fits, we may be missing really interesting things.

3. All funders and foundations need to leave space for change and growth. Even highly sophisticated and experienced funders can get in a rut. By leaving space for the periodic “mission creep”, funders can test out whether our well-trodden path has become too worn, too passé, too easy. By going outside of our comfort zone, we may find that it is time to adjust, rethink, re-direct, …or stay the course.

4. Sometimes there really are exigencies that deserve an “exception.” For some, it may be keeping fragile nonprofits afloat as government funding dries up. For others, it may be a natural or human caused disaster. For still others, it may be a funder collaborative with real up-side potential. And I am sure that you can add to this list.

Now, I know that you realize I am not advocating that we adapt a new anarchic approach, throwing our carefully honed priorities and guidelines away. I am advocating that we be careful about the apparent wisdom of pure evidence-based grant making and of too rigid a long term strategy of our approach to our decision making. Properly used, it may keep us more agile and responsive without jeopardizing our hard won discipline.

We’ve Only Just Begun – To Re-establish Civil Society

August 9th, 2016

Richard Marker

Except for a veiled reference to a recent ad by the Council on Foundations calling for HOPE, this post is another statement on the current civic reality and not primarily about philanthropy.

For those of us who believe that there is only one sane and reasonable choice for the next president of the United States, it has been a reassuring week. All of the polls are showing that, finally, American voters are consistently expressing their horror and trepidation of the election of Donald Trump, even if they are not all enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton. It continues to astound me that people challenge her credibility when she has been vindicated in almost all cases, and when Mr. Trump is caught in outright prevarications on almost a daily basis. Not to belittle sins of email commission, but how can you compare that to business fraud, tax evasion, enrollment scams, and spewing of hatred of all sorts?

But even if Hillary Clinton continues on this path and wins decisively, and even if she carries the Senate along with her, we will still be far from national civic weal and populist equilibrium. The last few years of obstructionism and divisiveness have taken their toll. Voices long considered below the surface and beneath contempt have been heard in too many places – with impunity. Overt racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant, xenophobia, anti-Islamism are expressed openly, publicly, vitriolicly, and dangerously at rallies and on line. Individuals are attacked verbally and physically. A decisive win will show that the populace doesn’t approve, but it won’t make all of this go away.

This is a time when “why can’t we all just get along?” won’t suffice. The divide is too wide and the chasm too deep. Trust of institutions, all institutions, is at an abysmal low. There is plenty of guilt to be spread around on why. Why should someone trust an employer that expects 24-7 loyalty with an insistence on at-will employment? Why should someone trust that higher education really is worth it when it comes with a non-negotiable long term debt at the end? Why should someone trust governments that have cut education and human service funding for years – and threaten to reduce social security and Medicare?

Reasonable people will, hopefully, continue to reject the sick and bizarre Trump candidacy but there are people who still believe what he says or that his rants represent them even when they see through his scam. I know some of these people, some of whom still intend to vote for him. The ones I know are not the uneducated, disempowered, disenfranchised left-behinds. Yet they somehow resonate with the anti-establishment rant. And while most thoughtful Bernie supporters affirm that Sanders is not just another name for Trump, they echo a profound disillusionment with the established order as not being consistent with their personal needs and destinies.

This erosion will not be corrected in the short term with policy fixes, although that will help. This deterioration of belief in government will not be quickly reversed even if the proverbial aisle that divides becomes bridged. This frightening explosion of hate – of publicly expressed hate – will not easily go back underground, or be expunged from public squares and private chat rooms with the wave of a hand or the development of a slogan of “hope”.

There are profound and abiding changes that are far more far reaching than any of the political types are addressing. Most of the political discourse addresses economics and the nature of international influence/terror/encroachment. At a time when the economy and employment is way up by any objective measure, one party runs as if we are still in recession, and many seem to agree. Why? Most murders in the US involve guns and are by citizens without a political agenda, and most of those that do have a political or ideological agenda are homegrown. Yet the fear of “the other” [read: Mexican, Muslim, African-American, Jew, Asian…] is all too real for too many. Why?

On a macro level, the indisputable reality is that the world has changed and it is not going back. There is no country that can return to economic or cultural isolation, no matter what the Brexits thought or no matter what the American nativists romanticize about. There is no way that technology that transformed manufacturing everywhere is going to return to a post WWII reality no matter what a rust belt victim may wish. There is no way that communication, social media, and news access is going to revert to the same mediated systems that existed from Gutenberg through the last century. There is no way [barring the unthinkable] that migrations of millions will somehow easily be reversed. There is no way that the world can fully mitigate the impact of climate change that our behavior has wrought without a radical commitment that so far has eluded many in the United States and China.

Yes, the world has changed and it isn’t easy to live through a time of radical transformation. For some of us, it is merely a challenge of learning to use apps so that we understand our children, grandchildren, or younger employees. For others, these changes represent a world gone unrecognizable, with no certainties, no guarantees, and no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It is unsettling and that anomie cannot simply be ignored, even if it has been maliciously coopted by many politicians over the last few years.

The solution, I reiterate, is not yielding to the basest instincts of those fears, but it is also not helped by thinking theirs is only a naïve and ill-informed political preference. Those who are opinion makers, multipliers, thought leaders, and influencers… and that is a lot of us… have to accept an extra burden beyond simply guaranteeing a Clinton win this November. We need to find ways to reintegrate those who feel disenfranchised back into normal society –not by overlooking their hateful rhetoric but by demonstrating its fallacy. We need to develop educational methodologies recognizing the altered epistemology of how most people now receive and absorb information. We need to change our formulations of how the world is now organized to recognize the porosity of our economic and cultural borders. We need to reject the destructive power of the anarchy of political obstructionism and unfettered weapon ownership. And, finally, we need to work hard, very hard, very very hard, to make sure that governments and other institutions that define contemporary life re-develop a true and authentic loyalty to our citizenry.

Our challenge is not the rhetoric of “hope, not fear”. It is the creation of a nation and people who demonstrate, authentically, at every level of civic life, that “we care.”

Everything else is simply politics – and we know where that has gotten us.

Funder Collaboratives and Exit Strategies – A periodic offering exclusively to funders

August 1st, 2016

Richard Marker

Periodically, colleagues and publications in the philanthropy field publish articles on important areas of interest to funders. We are happy to remind philanthropists, foundations, and other funders that we have practica in many areas that we share with our philanthropy advisory clients. The two listed below are available at no cost to eligible readers.

FUNDER COLLABORATIVES For the past 9 years, one of our most requested best-practice pieces has been a “how to” on funder collaboratives. It continues to be available

EXIT STRATEGIES In addition, for the first time, a PowerPoint on successful and best practices for exit strategies is being made available.

If you are a funder, please contact us directly for either or both of these documents. A reminder that both of these documents are under copyright, and may not be disseminated or used for commercial purposes by anyone without explicit permission.

Thanks for your continuing interest.

Speaking up. Speaking out.

July 21st, 2016

Richard Marker

[Those of you who read my posts for my thoughts on philanthropy may choose to take a pass on this one; it reflects continuing personal thoughts on our responsibilities in the current destructive political atmosphere.]
As this is published, many of my colleagues in the professional speaking profession are meeting at the annual conference of the National Speakers Association. I am otherwise committed these days, so I will have to rely on contemporaneous social media and retrospective reportage to get a flavor of the days. [One thing I know for sure: a meeting in Phoenix in July virtually guarantees that few will play hooky in the Arizona sun]

After last year’s conference, I chose to speak up – in writing – in response to some negative scuttlebutt about a presenter who had a clear [but non-partisan] political perspective. I thought it was great but others felt that such political positioning was an intrusion on the plenum.

My own view, as long time readers know, is that those of us who earn our livelihood by words have a special responsibility to use words carefully and also to serve as models of how one can articulate particular and challenging points of view respectfully and constructively. Not so easy, I can attest, since I have had conflicting reactions to some of my own public presentations: while some challenged me for espousing my views so readily, my favorite response was from someone who reported in his/her review: “I don’t agree with his politics, but I could listen to him all day long.”

The posts I wrote after last year’s NSA conference and in a subsequent post expanding on the topic were considered too political for NSA Facebook pages and I was asked not to post them there. They are still available on this blog.

It raises the question, though, about when should one, anyone, choose to speak up and when must one speak out.

Speaking up:

For almost 4 decades, racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist speech was eschewed in polite company. None of us is so naïve to imagine that no one harbored those thoughts, but American society had a standard of public right and wrong whatever may be harbored in the deepest private recesses of ones heart or mind. Knowing that racism is wrong didn’t eradicate it, we certainly know all too well; nor, sadly, has it eradicated anti-Semitism or misogyny, or nativism, or xenophobia – as we have learned all too vividly during this frightening election cycle, but most knew better than to indulge those private thoughts in public or social settings.

In some ways, though, because people behaved properly in polite company, for a long time, few were challenged with the dilemma I mentioned above, of deciding to or not to speak up. That choice is far more present today. To take an example:

A couple of years ago, when sitting in a hot tub while on vacation in Florida, two others in the large spa began bad-mouthing President Obama. While I completely disagreed with their politics, and was prepared to dispute the putative facts of their rants, I only chose to speak up when their rants deteriorated into overt racism. I chose to call them on it. After realizing I wouldn’t back down in my rebuke, they chose to leave. Others in the hot-tub were uncomfortable. Some agreed with their politics and some with mine but all had heard the overt racism and felt it was wrong. None of them was prepared to confront the two aforementioned gentlemen. [I never saw either of the two again; it is possible that they saw me and chose to go another direction.]

The question here: was this a correct place to speak up or did I violate social norms and etiquette that should take precedence?

Speaking out:

Obama’s election seemed to mark a change. Strange, sick, dishonest sentiments continue to arise in social media daily. The birthers, the anti-Islamists, the overt racists, the conspiricists, haters all, think nothing of saying the most outrageous things – in public. Any semblance of restraint in polite company is long gone. And they think nothing of viciously attacking the motives, sincerity, intelligence, or legitimacy of those who disagree.

Frankly, for most, including me until recently, it has been safer and easier to just dismiss them as perverse kooks. We turn them off, disconnect them, un-follow them, un-friend them. But that doesn’t make them go away and it doesn’t dissuade them. They are reinforced by their fellow extremists and bigots, not repudiated by those who ignore them.

A newspaper publisher recently wrote an op-ed with which I agreed. He challenged single-issue voters to think more broadly about the implications of ignoring all the other parts of a candidate’s and party’s agenda. I thought two and three times before writing a supportive letter to the editor since I have seen the vitriol that is regularly cast his way when he opines in ways that some consider too moderate [my word, not theirs]. Did I want to subject myself to that same vitriol and character assassination?

I chose to write it since I now feel this is not the time for reasonable people to remain silent. Allowing hate speech legitimates it. Ignoring bigotry gives it sanction. Silence in the face of extremism empowers it. If I, who can pen an opinion piece with little risk, do not express my support, then who can? If not I, then who else should?

A long, long time ago, when I was a lot younger, a lot more charismatic, and actually had groupies, I was asked to consider running for elected office. It wasn’t what I wanted to do then, but it did flatter me and it held the promise of being a change agent from the inside.

Today, sadly and tragically, it is hard to imagine wanting to do that. The public square is polluted by self-interest, and political means tests. Even if I thought I could do better, the trade-offs are simply unacceptable.

If I don’t or won’t have power or authority by an ascribed or elected role, many of us do have the possibility of earned power. The one asset that I do have is words. Words in text and words in speech.

If I am correct that the time, this moment in time, requires strength of conviction, I am left with no choice, to accept a self-imposed mandate to speak out, to call out extremism and hatred for what it is, to challenge those who would destroy values that most of us hold dear, and to actively advocate for the triumph of reason and acceptance over nativistic rejectionism.

I am quite sure that I will lose some speaking engagements and some advisory contracts, alienate some who may have illusions about my views, and put me squarely in the crosshairs of those who attack disagreement. If enough of us choose to do this, it will begin to re-create a civil society that honors responsible speech and respects all others. If enough of us choose to do this, this will indeed be a country worthy of the values we espouse and of a citizenry who aspire to the ideals we admire. This call is not restricted to my fellow professional speakers, NSA members. It is to us all.

To my mind, the times, these times, require no less.

From Infrastructure to Structure – Part 2: Some Illustrations

July 6th, 2016

Richard Marker

My recent post “From Overhead to Infrastructure to Structure” has elicited a very flattering amount of attention, but also some questions and challenges. To all, thanks.

The questions and challenges fit into two categories:

One set was from those on the non-profit side of the table who wondered how they could convince their funders of the indispensability of infrastructure support as a superior funding strategy. They felt that, even though I intimated that it is now widely accepted among funders, their own experience differs and they are still finding it difficult to persuade their funders of its wisdom.

My response to them is that all I can do is write, teach, and espouse what I consider to be good practice and strategy. Hopefully, as the consensus grows, their funders will fund accordingly. Unless they choose to be clients or take courses for funders that I teach, I am not sure I can do more to make the case.

The other set of responses was from fellow funders who asked me to expand on the concluding part of the post, the need to address the structural systems that underlie the work that all of us do. They asked, in essence “Ok, how does that really work?”

The answer is the remainder of this post.

To understand how the funding pieces fit together, let us recall that there are three levels to funding: Compassion: addressing immediate human needs; strategy: providing these services efficiently and effectively; systemic/structure: addressing underlying issues to eliminate or reduce the cause of the needs in the first place.

Perhaps the following 3 illustrations will help. The first is an example almost any organization can emulate or apply to its own situation. The structural changes are internal to the workings of an organization. The subsequent two require not only systemic thinking but also mobilization of sectors working in sync. They are macro challenges that no one funder can solve alone, but require funder involvement at every level.

1. Talent management:

Perhaps it would be helpful to start with a paradigm where structural change can readily make a real difference within lots of organizations, can be implemented by a single organization, and very quickly at that.

Let us take the example of “talent management” to use the currently popular nomenclature. Though much of the recent public literature on this has focused on “millenials”, these thoughts apply to any and all work places.

The most typical case of dysfunction is when a corporate culture gives mixed and mutually competing messages: “we have empowered you to make decisions but, as your supervisor, of course I can overrule those decisions”; “we have told you how much we value your commitment to our organization, but, don’t forget, you can be fired at will”; “we brag about the expertise all of you bring to our system, but we think an outsider will be a better choice” in every c-suite search. All too often corporate culture is un-addressed in a strategic plan, and even when it is, the difficult challenge of implementing a more coherent environment is often undervalued. As Jim Collins has said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Let’s see how this can be applied to the matter of training and succession. There has been a lot of hand wringing recently about the dearth of a succession talent pool in the non-profit sector. That is, about the apparent lack of an adequate critical mass of those able to fill the vacancies that the imminent surge of ceo retirements will yield. Groups such as Talent Philanthropy have set an admirable goal of encouraging the non-profit and funding sectors to invest heavily in professional training, articulate more perceptible career paths, and eliciting external targeted funding to allow that to happen.

But, even so, all too often staff training is no more than a distinct budget line – easily cut or reduced as budget pressures take hold. Or, in those unusual circumstances where restricted funding comes from a foundation for the purpose of staff capacity building, this entire area is too often viewed as just another soft-money project, disposable as the grant expires.

We have all heard the arguments of why this is a low priority: Junior staff don’t have long-term commitments; why should we pay for their next employer’s benefit? Training and conference attendance should be an earned perk, not an automatic benefit. There are so many pressures on our budget; it is hard to justify to our funders/board all of this staff travel and time away from the office.

But none of those are credible excuses if an organization truly believes that investing in staff makes both short and long-term sense, and an awful lot of research says that it does. There is, in fact, a simple structural way to address this: instead of having staff training as a vulnerable budget line that has to be defended each year, and which then can set up an uncomfortable tension and competition among staff, why not simply consider staff training as one of the essential personnel expenses and include that in the personnel package and personnel line for every employee? If an organization does so, it affirms that staff excellence, growth, stability, and respect are a core cost of doing business.

This approach may be less sexy than emulating the tech sector by offering free snacks all day. Moreover, staff training will never make an employee more loyal to an organization that doesn’t demonstrate respect for his or her work the rest of the time. But everything else being equal, an organization that makes this simple structural budgeting change is much more likely to convey to all staff, yes, even millenials, that they really do matter. And, as every study of organizational effectiveness has shown, they really do.

2. Food insecurity:
One example mentioned in the previous post had to do with hunger and food insecurity. Hunger, malnutrition, and all of the derivative maladies are present in all too many societies around the world, including, sad to say, in the United States. Churches, synagogues, community centers, even some businesses try to do their part to reflect their compassion by collecting cans and volunteering at soup kitchens and pantries. In many communities, this goes one step further by encouraging restaurants, shops, catering establishments, even grocery stores, to make all appropriate leftovers available to those pantries every day.

Yet most know that, while this does address immediate pangs – of both hunger and guilt – it is a very inefficient way to address food insecurity. It does little to guarantee that the food is where it is needed and when it is needed; it is very reactive – depending totally on the good will of people to bring that food and to volunteer their time; and it is predictably unpredictable: will that restaurant be open that day or have leftovers? Will volunteers brave a thunderstorm? Will the church gather enough cans to feed those who arrive at the shelter?
Of course, experienced funders and pantries adjust for all of this through a more strategic and planful approach to their support. Send food and money where the needs are most predictable and where the providers are most reliable. It feeds more people more consistently. But it does not eliminate the reactive nature of this kind of voluntaristic approach. And it clearly is not addressing any underlying issues or even providing a broad-based strategic overlay to the problem.

A more broad-based strategic response is to expand the scope of societally sponsored food programs: SNAP, school based meals, etc. These programs address the issues of distribution, dignity, and predictability. In order to do that requires advocacy at every level of government. Even a decimal point adjustment in federal, state, and local support can far exceed the monies raised by private donations, and certainly is a far more efficient method than dozens and dozens of small non-profit struggles. One would hope that every funding body concerned with hunger and food insecurity has an assertive approach to advocacy.

Yet we know that there will still be those who fall between the cracks, where public funding doesn’t quite reach everyone in the family or to the end of the month, or their homelessness makes them elusive to public support, and more. Sadly there will still be needs for the neighborhood-based pantries

But, all of this only models the strategic. Many will be fed consistently, efficiently, and humanely. However, none of this addresses the true underlying causes of food insecurity: inequitable access to education and social mobility, economic instability and racism, inadequate healthcare and employment.

The dilemma for a funder is how to divide one’s resources. To only support the local pantry is compassionate but not strategic. Supporting advocacy for better public support and policies is strategic and longer term, but requires patience and political acumen, and in the meantime, lots of folks are still hungry. And even healthy and consistent public support is only a necessary but insufficient palliative for underlying causes that are hard, elusive, complex, and resistant to simple solutions. But unless one is prepared to address those underlying systemic causes, all of the best and proven strategy will simply be a Sisyphean struggle of which we are all too aware.

3. Human Trafficking:
This case is different than the first two. It starts with a systemic/structural approach and then tries to calculate what would be necessary to implement on the grass roots and strategy levels.

A few years ago, a very wealthy philanthropist from a non-US part of the world attended one of our advanced funder education courses. All of the participants were expected to present a challenging case study from their own funding portfolio. This philanthropist presented a case about a $20B effort to combat human trafficking in which he was taking a lead role.

The case was wonderfully illustrative of how no one sector alone can solve a systemic problem such as this. As the layers of challenge and potential solutions were peeled away, it was evident that, of course, human trafficking cannot be solved without international inter-governmental cooperation. Public policy and commitment to those policies is the sine qua non for beginning the conversation.

But even with those, admittedly challenging, agreements, that would only be the beginning of a solution. After all, private sector employers are often the ones who provide the cover for the entrapment of trafficked workers or who turn a blind eye to what they know to be true. We are well aware of trafficking in unlawful areas such as prostitution, or grey areas such as textile factory workers, but it might be overlooked in food service or mall workers.

And even if that were resolved, there is a need for a robust social service network for re-education, re-integration, and safe havens. Without the ngo/nfp sector, those services could rarely be offered in a consistent, professional, and non-judgmental way.

The philanthropy world is a crucial player at every layer: advocates for policy change, moral suasion to the for-profit industries, funding for the nfp/ngo worlds.

Addressing human trafficking is a paradigmatic case of the need for inter-sector collaboration, and the impossibility of making any lasting systemic difference at all without deep-seated structural change.

These examples each illustrate that structural thinking has a place at every level. And at every level, there is a role for funders with varying scope of interest, focus, and resources. Some challenges call for stretching our influence, resources, and political will to the limit. Others are no further than the non-profit we fund every year. Thinking about structural and systemic change can be a helpful tool for aligning our resources, and keeping our eyes on the impact we truly desire.

What Does Brexit Have to do with Place Based Philanthropy

June 29th, 2016

Richard Marker

What does Brexit have to do with Place Based Philanthropy?

Let me state right up front, I have nothing new to say about Brexit itself on top of the millions of words already written and said. I may have my opinion, but I suspect we will all have to wait until this plays out over the next few months or years.

But Brexit does bring to the fore lurking issues in the philanthropy world that are reflective of major challenges we all need to face up to. After all, the underlying issue for most UK voters was: “to what ‘place’ do we belong?”

For the vast majority of us, from a philanthropy perspective, “place” has a lot to do with the first claims on our resources. But what do we mean by “place?”

Once upon a time, “place” was self-evident. One lived in a particular physical community, with a particular subset of people who shared a religion or national origin or ethnic background. And when one thought more broadly about place, it was likely the place from where one came or, perhaps, a more expansive vision of the community where one lived. There was no question what and where had primary claim on ones charitable giving.

On a micro level, things begin to change as families spread out. When 3rd and 4th and 5th generations live in many locales, what is the “place” that has a claim on those families? And do they feel any sense of nostalgia or loyalty to the communities and the institutions of their onetime roots?

The plot thickens when we acknowledge the increasingly transient nature of what we mean by community. We are all part of multiple communities, including countless virtual and temporary ones. Today, for most younger people and for many of us not so young, we simply assume that transiency. We are parts of political groups before elections but not after, we are parts of social groups convening for someone’s birthday, we are alumni/ae of universities, schools, companies, employers, apartments, and who knows what else. We have religious connections, family connections, neighborhood connections… Yet, even when these connections are long term, they frequently only come together for limited purposes and for limited times. When making philanthropy choices, which ones count? As any of us who have worked with multi-generational families on their philanthropic decision-making can attest, this is the stuff of energized board meetings.

But it doesn’t end there, and now we are inching toward the Brexit question, or at least some of the underlying issues it represents.

Once upon a time, that is in the 18th and 19th centuries and even much of the 20tth, the nation-state was the model of modernity and the organizing principle that bridged ethnicities, regionalisms, dialects, creeds, and economies. It provided identity and protection. It gave financial stability and a sense of empowerment. It also led to the apotheosis of the nation as idolatry, massacres of many millions in the name of national sovereignty or some evil manifestation thereof.

The nation state proved illusory, or, at best, short term. We now know that there really is no such thing as a self contained national economy or the guarantee that a nation-state has any better values and behaviors than any other. Further, there is no such thing as a major challenge that stops at a national border or is contained within a municipality. [e.g., climate change; migrations; infectious diseases; even transportation; etc.] And if one adds cyberspace and cyber-speed, these issues are as present as one’s smartphone and as vivid as one’s twitter feed.

Where does “here” begin and end? If “nation” doesn’t suffice, what does?

“International” is a reality. For some it is an ideology, an ideal, an enemy, a threat. Or, perhaps, a market, an adventure, a vision.

“Localism” is appealing to some. We should eat locavore, shop locally, vote our local interests. But it is also limiting when it is the wrong growing season; it can restrict life style options; reduce our access to diversity in people and ideas.

“Ethnicity” has appeal for others: After all, if we don’t take care of our own who will? And isn’t our rich history and culture worth celebrating? But that can be limiting when doors close for marriage rites, and the other becomes suspect simply by being “other.”

“Religion” can be a secure space for many. It provides nurture, meaning, community, ritual. But for some that can mean exclusivity of truth, the demonization of the non- or other-believer, or a literalness of texts written in times and places long gone.

It would be nice if “families” were a safe space. And, gladly, it is for many. But, as we know, for too many it is just the opposite – either physically or psychologically.

Or, perhaps, none of these are as real as the transiency of “virtual communities” – the only commonality is the temporary nature of relationships.

What is clear is that this is a time of anomie and dislocation for all too many throughout the world. There are few commonly held truths or visions of what civil society means or what organizations or institutions or governing bodies can accomplish. And on top of that, there is a worldwide diminution of the value of human life – and I don’t simply mean by terrorists. For example, when nations and political and religious leaders deny the existential threat of climate change to vast swaths of the world, that is a diminution of the value of human life. When the world is paralyzed by the massacres of citizens and the migration of millions, admittedly an incredibly daunting challenge, it is a diminution of the value of human life. When some in the US feel that gun-toting anarchy, based on a feeble and specious interpretation of constitutional rights, takes precedence over the safety of us all, that is a diminution of the value of life.

Now, I am sure that many of you are now saying – even if all of this is correct, and it surely is sobering, what does all of this have to do with philanthropy?

It underscores the unique privileged role that private philanthropy can play, and the profound responsibility that goes with it. Private philanthropy, at least in the United States, remains largely unfettered and agnostic. We can fund whatever we want based on our own subjective preferences. It must be for the public good but that is a very broad category indeed.

To be sure, that can mean that we can be self indulgent in our choices. But it also means that we can take initiatives and risks to address deep systemic issues in way that no other sector can. We may not always be right – failure is ok – but we can always remember that we have the unique privilege of redressing wrongs, reaffirming rights, restoring social weal, and reassessing the social compact in ways that can make the difference, do make a difference. At a time of such radical social upheaval, and political disarray in far too many parts of the globe, our courageous investment of philanthropic capital has never been more essential.

We may and must continue to fund locally, however we may choose to define “local”, but, in our thinking and planning, we must, we must, we must think of the entire world as our “place.” It is.

From Overhead to Infrastructure to…Structure

June 28th, 2016

Richard Marker

One of the great pleasures of being in the philanthropy space for a long time is watching ideas you helped postulate become mainstream. One of those is the welcome adoption of the concept of “infrastructure” as the way in which we refer to non-direct service support, previously known as “overhead”.

By now, most funders are well aware of the debate about “overhead.” There were numerous parties who can share the blame for that preoccupation: some funders’ insistence on only funding direct costs and refusing to fund any support costs; some rating agencies imposing strict percentage rules for judging organizational efficiency; some non-profits, either because of naiveté or desperation, willing to accept funds with conditions that ended up costing them far more than the grant brought in, and in all cases, a reluctance to admit to the need to sustain a healthy and quality organization without which no program could long succeed.

Almost a decade ago, a number of us felt that the very vocabulary most used for non-direct support was not very helpful. “Overhead” implies that it is other than the project itself… as if the accountant who pays bills is irrelevant; or the air-conditioning doesn’t really matter; or the supervisor who does the hiring is only going through certain human resource [now called “talent acquisition”] procedures. I don’t know which of us first started using the term, but around the same time a lot of us started urging that we get away from “overhead” in favor of “infrastructure.”

“Infrastructure” implies the indispensability of that which holds things together. No non-profit, not matter how big or small, exists without it. And as too many have learned the hard way, the absence of it is a pretty reliable predictor of unsustainability. Support of infrastructure is not simply a generous add-on by an unusually well intentioned funder, but rather an essential investment in the intended project itself. Even if a funder is only interested in a small part of a multi-service organization’s work, that small part can only happen if the institution itself is well equipped to deliver that service.

Our voices were enhanced when others began to vocally challenge “The Overhead Myth” and when the major non-profit rating organizations themselves issued a very public mea culpa. They admitted that their [absolutely valid and praiseworthy] goal to develop better transparency and accountability in the public good sector led to arbitrary percentages and perceived “objective” measures that funders should use in their decision-making. In wanting to help funders identify red flags for extreme disparities in salaries or exaggerated external fundraising expenses, they had led too many funders to assume that crossing an “overhead” threshold should be an automatic eliminator. Their mea culpa statement urging funders to dig for deeper clarity, to understand what numbers may mean, and to recognize that we all must use judgment in how we look at any numbers began to swing the prevailing opinion among funders to more nuanced decision-making.

Also helpful to this change is the very healthy development over the last 20 years of the recognition that too many non-profits are fragile and have too little capacity or resilience. Our funding field accepted that we ourselves bore significant responsibility for that. If we don’t invest in capacity of staff or resources, or if we always insist that it is someone else’s responsibility to fund infrastructure, we reinforce that very fragility we complain about.

As we funders looked deeper into the very ways in which the sector is organized, we realized that once one gets beyond universities, big museums and hospitals, a very, very high percentage of social service and non profit organizations are undercapitalized, have incomplete board composition, have too littlie investment in staff training or retention, and little built in resilience when faced with any major challenge. Our part of the sector began to acknowledge that we were not only under-funding, but also not even using many other resources and tools that we can bring to the table- influence, leadership, advocacy, convening, to name just a few.

The convergence of these factors has made the adoption of the “infrastructure” metaphor both obvious and persuasive. There is far less resistance today to fund appropriate non-direct support costs than was the case even 5-10 years ago.

Now, though, it is time for us to go to the next level, from “infrastructure” to “structure.”

For a moment, let’s stick with our metaphor. One can construct a well-built and well-designed building – but place it in the middle of a flood plain. Or an earthquake zone. Or in a place with inadequate power sources. You understand.

Ideally, of course, there would be zoning rules that preempted that construction. But there are many-fold examples of there being none, or not enforced, or shortcuts being tolerated. Whatever one’s politics on all of this, we all pay the price when the structural underpinnings to construction are shortsighted or inadequate. And repairs and patches rarely can substitute for adequate prior planning and discipline from the beginning.

In many ways, our social good system functions on just such a flood plain. Even the best sit on the moving sands of public policy, and political whim. Whether we are addressing issues such as homelessness, or food insecurity, or literacy, or poverty, or employment, or public health, to name just a few, when the public policies are insensitive, or outdated, or purely politically self-motivated, no non-profit can adequately fulfill its mission.

Many funders already have figured this out. And it is not just the Gates family, or the Chan Zuckerbergs, or the Omidyars or the Living Cities partners who are addressing systemic alignment and reconfiguration as the precondition to eradicating certain diseases or human trafficking or economic dislocation or educational inequity. There are many others, some quite rich, most not so at all, who recognize that food insecurity is not solved by even the most successful soup kitchen unless there is public support for SNAP and school lunches. There may be political debate about specifics of Medicare and the Affordable Care Act, but there can be no credible debate about the millions whose access to health care exists only because of these programs.

This argument for addressing structural inequity does not at all diminish the need for strategic decision-making on the local level. Someone has to implement the infrastructure of the social good, human service, educational and health care sectors.

But it does remind all of us who are funders that we are always functioning as part of larger systems, and the questions we ask, every question we ask, implies some judgment about or commitment to some way of understanding our roles within those systems. By addressing the very structural basis on which our sector stands will surely enhance the impact of our funding wherever and whatever we may choose to fund. If we truly want long-term impactful change, it is time for us to go beyond “infrastructure” and proactively address “structure.”

A Unique American Story: Public Policy and Private Philanthropy

May 12th, 2016

Richard Marker

This post was written at the request of Exponent Philanthropy as a “teaser” for my presentation at their forthcoming annual conference in Chicago in September. It is reposted here with their permission. This is also a precis of one session of courses for funders at both NYU’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and at Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy.

Some years ago, when Jacques Chirac was still President of France, the US State Department asked me to meet with Chirac’s advisor on domestic affairs. She had completed a national tour of institutions of American voluntarism. I was the last stop on her tour, her opportunity to debrief.

Her leading question to me was “How can we develop a system of philanthropy and voluntarism in France like you have in the USA?”

My response: “Before sharing some ideas, I have some questions for you: Can you imagine France without a system of healthcare for all citizens? Can you imagine a French higher education system where students pay $30k or $40k or $50k per annum to attend? And so on….”

Her response “Impossible!” [The discussion ensued.]

This brief anecdote captures several important realities:

• The American philanthropy/not for profit system emerged from a very different set of political assumptions than most of the rest of the post-emancipation world. In the United States, voluntary institutions arose to meet real needs that the political system chose not to provide. Even today there are huge splits in assumptions and beliefs about whose role is what.
• Public policy and private philanthropy are inextricably interwoven. Sometimes these interconnections are unintended and sometimes quite purposeful.
• Neither a government centered system nor a voluntary system has the capacity, on its own, to provide for all needs and interests of growing, aging and diverse populations.
• The history of the institutions of the voluntary sector themselves reflect a social history fully connected to the political realities in place when they were created.

For many, the history of philanthropy is conflated with the biographies of famous philanthropists. And to be sure there are many fascinating narratives of the superrich and the lives they lived – some of them tales of atonement, others of beneficence, all ultimately of generosity. But that is neither new nor unique to any one nation or culture or era.

What is distinctive if not unique about American philanthropy is not the magnanimity of the mega-rich, but the commitment to give among those of lesser means. This tradition started with the recognition that there really was no option: orphans, widows, the infirm, the aged, the unemployed had no place to turn other than caring individuals many of whom they knew from their own neighborhood or social group.

Thus begat institutions. There are needs such as education and health care and policing and fire fighting that simply cannot be done by individuals. Organized around ethnic, religious, or national origin backgrounds, many of these institutions, or their successors, continue to be the backbone of the non-profit service delivery systems around the country to this day.

But the world changed and the intimacy between those of means and those with needs changed as well.

Industrialization required concentration of large numbers of workers at the same time in the same place. It changed the demographics of cities throughout the world. Those who could afford to do so moved away – to places with cleaner air and more space. The implications for the philanthropy field were profound. Those who moved away did not leave behind their communal commitments. But how?

Intermediaries emerged to solve the problem of how to match means with needs. United Ways, Catholic Charities, Jewish Federations, Protestant Welfare Funds, Community Foundations all developed in the late 19th and early 20th Century to facilitate this process. These intermediaries guaranteed to cover the annual deficits of their designated agencies that continued to provide vital human services. As the 20th Century progressed, these re-granting intermediaries became the central players in community planning, organizational methodologies, and allocation of resources, a role they maintained until the century’s final decade.

Another development profoundly impacting philanthropy behavior was the emergence of a government safety net. Before the national social security system, funders knew that were it not for their support, those with needs would have no place to turn. Gradually, though, societal commitment that none should fall between the web, no matter how porous it may have remained, allowed individual funders to look at their philanthropy differently. For the first time, philanthropists could respond to subjective interest rather than objective need.

And if funders are going to make subjective decisions, then the non-profit world will make emotive pleas for support. Thus began the competition we all recognize – every organization makes its best case using professional fundraisers, all accessible media, and carefully honed appeals.

And, indeed, Exponent Philanthropy readers will hardly be surprised that a parallel sub-sector for funders arose during the 20th century: organizations that evaluate the legitimacy of these organizations, affinity groups of funders to provide mutual reinforcement, and education centers to provide the methodologies for making informed decisions.

Who would have imagined that all of these developments would emerge as unintended consequences of the New Deal?

And now, the 21st Century, has given us new realities, new policies, new technologies, and new philanthropic methodologies. But we will wait until the conference to discuss those.

Would That Be Such a Bad Thing? A Philanthro-ethics Question

April 17th, 2016

Richard Marker

In retrospect, I wonder why no one ever asked me before. The question – in the context of a course on grantmaking strategies – was: what would be so terrible if a funder overfunded a non-profit?

In my advisory work and in my teaching, I spend a lot of time helping funders “right-size” their grantmaking. To take just a few examples:

1. A NFP/NGO requested $x. The funder’s immediate assumption is all grant requests are bloated and funds half the requested amount.
2. A NFP/NGO sends a project request: The funder suggests that they should do it for less – with little regard to what it might actually cost to create a successful project.
3. The funder requires that the grantee do an evaluation of their program/project. The grantee [as too often happens] plugs in a percentage figure to satisfy the grant requirement, with neither side understanding that a reasonable evaluation simply cannot be done for that amount.
4. A funder is committed to a particular field of service and funds a program at a multi-service organization. The funder refuses to provide any infrastructure support [often mislabeled as “overhead”].
5. A funder has an [often unstated] expectation of publishing the results or that the new project continue beyond the length of the grants, but doesn’t fund capacity expansion that this nfp needs to keep this data or to raise the sustainability funds.
6. A start-up or early stage project submits a proposal for a wonderfully exciting project, but naively understates the real financial needs for the project to have even a reasonable chance of success. The funder funds the request, fully aware that it is an underfunded project.

Recognize any? While not every funder is guilty of these, enough are that it warrants significant discussion in a best practices workshop.

Some best practice rebuttals, seriatim:

1. Only funders can establish an atmosphere allowing openness and honesty about real numbers and expectations. If we as funders have the reputation of always reducing a request by a certain amount, it doesn’t encourage the openness to determine what the real numbers are. [Note to grantseekers: even if the onus is on the funder to set the tone, you are not exempt. There is a radical difference between legitimate rounding up and exaggerated hyperbole in telling your story.] 2. Organizations are often so hungry for funds that they will say yes even to grants that are clearly inadequate to achieve success. Often the nfp/ngo’s are well aware that, in accepting this money, they are almost certainly guaranteeing mediocrity, but they feel, they dare not say no to a funder. Indeed, underfunding does no one a favor: as funders, don’t we want what we fund to bring us credit and to be known for excellence, not mediocrity? Of course, not every project succeeds even when it has adequate funding, but a failure shouldn’t be because our funding approach has made that inevitable.
3. Evaluation, impact measures, outcome metrics are all the rage. Not a bad thing. Sadly, though, in too many cases, neither the funder nor the nfp really understands what program evaluation means, what useful results would be, and what kind of financial and human resources are necessary to get there. I have sat in far too many foundation proposal review meetings where the evaluation requirement is clearly a plugged number. If we want reasonable evaluations, we need to learn what they are, and what they cost – and then fund them.
4. So much has been written about the overhead myth that I will simply emphasize what should now be obvious. No organization can support a quality project or program without a strong organizational infrastructure. These dollars are critical, not irrelevant. It is reasonable to discuss what infrastructure costs are applicable to a particular funded project, but not to consider any and all such costs as simply padding.
5. You are beginning to see a theme: We as funders need to clarify what our expectations are and fund accordingly and appropriately. For many very strapped organizations with limited tech support, publishable data is elusive, or beyond the capacity of an overworked staff. For a project to outlive our funding, we need to structure our grant in careful collaboration from the very beginning.
6. This situation applies across the board, but is particularly acute among early stage nfp’s. The idea is terrific [or you wouldn’t be considering funding in the first place] but you are well aware that the submitted budget is far below what is really needed. If this were a venture capital project with comparable appeal, the funder would be all-in, with insistence on involvement, and provide funds needed to get to the next stage. Unfortunately, that same perspective seems to dissipate when it is an nfp. The founder of this great idea may very well be intimidated by the fundraising and underprices his proposal simply because of naiveté. There are times like these that a funder may choose to give more than requested, with an accompanying offer to provide welcome advice on organizational growth.

The underlying principle in all of this is that philanthropic grantmaking is not a negotiation but an investment in the success of an idea, a project, a program, or an organization. There is no doubt that, given the power imbalance, most nfp/ngo’s will take whatever we offer, but that doesn’t make that a winning negotiation. Indeed if we underfund or under support, no one wins. Our role in most cases is to “right-size” our funding, to give these projects the greatest chance to succeed. [See #2 above.]

It was in the context of this discussion that a participant asked an intriguing question. Now comfortably on the funder side, she began her post PhD career in the human service sector. She recalled movingly how stressed the organization and its staff were on a daily basis with barely enough funds to keep the doors open. Would it really have been “wasted” money if a funder didn’t simply “right-size” but chose to give more? Would that be bad philanthropy? Does it reveal sloppiness on the part of the funder? Would it spoil the non-profit? Would it erode the carefully honed discipline urging genuine information sharing between funders and grantees?

Or, perhaps, it is a sign that a funder recognizes how stretched so many nfp’s/ngo’s really are and this bit of unanticipated generosity makes a huge statement about the importance of their work.

Something to think about.