Meet the Normal Foundations

Foundation Source recently released its third annual report on the activities of private foundations. It is based on the transactions of 714 foundations that use Foundation Source’s administrative services. Its 2012 report showed that its foundation clients were a pretty good proxy for the larger field of foundations under $50 million in assets. Fundraisers should pay attention to these reports for these reasons:

  • These “small” foundations are the norm: 98% of U.S. private foundations have assets under $50 million – that’s about 84,000 foundations. More than half of private foundations are under $5 million in assets. The famed foundations coveted by your boards are the abnormally large and weird bunch.
  • They’re actively growing: on average, they added $89 in new funds for every $100 they spent in 2013, about the same as the previous two years.
  • They’re generous: their average distribution ratio – the amount they spend on charitable work compared to their assets – was 7.3%. About a third distributed more than 10%. This is higher than the IRS mandate of 5% and higher than the average for large foundations.
  • They support general operations: a little less than half of the grants by foundations under $10 million and about 28% of grants by foundations $10-$50 million were for general operating support. That compares to an industry average of about 10% if a National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy survey of all types of foundations was accurate.
  • Lastly, these are foundations started by people you know. They’re more likely to be local business owners and retired entrepreneurs, more likely to have been a part of local or regional civic groups, more likely to have gone to the same churches and groceries as one of your board members or existing donors. And, they’re more likely to have active, living donor families and groups attached – meaning they are more likely to give from their hearts and values.

Tired of being ignored by large foundations? Tired of strategic philanthropy and 15-step evaluation plans? Tired of endless questions from high-paid program officers? There are 84,000 other, more normal, choices.

What Does Your Community’s Social Economy Look Like?

What if you convened a group as diverse as codefest winners, giving circle donors, librarians, start-up leaders, and fundraisers? And what if you asked them to describe all the ways they spend time and money for the public good? 

We did just that in Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago. The Philanthropy Forum at GSPIA and Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania had invited scholar Dr. Lucy Bernholz to a two-day whirlwind of meetings related to her work on the social economy and digital civil society. Lucy’s brief definitions for those terms are:

  • Social economy – all the ways we use private resources to create public benefits or public good
  • Digital civil society – how we use private digital resources to organize, create, distribute and fund public benefits or public good

On the second day, Lucy met with a group of about 36 people who mostly work outside of the traditional grantmaking world. Many met each other for the first time, and we missed the voices of about 50 more invitees who weren’t able to attend. Lucy’s slide deck from the conversation is at http://www.scribd.com/doc/212758822/Social-Economy-Digital-Civil-Society-Bernholz.

Lucy asked the attendees to list and post: 1) all of the actions they took for the public good, and 2) all of the groups through which they took those actions.

BernholzPgh1

Pgh Social Economy Group

I used Wordle to create a summary of their actions for the public good (bigger words indicate a greater number of that response):

Pgh Social Economy Wordle

A majority of the attendees listed volunteering for a nonprofit organization, many serving as board members. A majority listed donating financially to causes. Those traditions remain strong, even with the younger attendees.

But, only about half of the activities listed were in the nonprofit sector and the attendees used the word giving without regard for receipt of a charitable deduction. A larger picture of philanthropy (defined as “voluntary action for the common good”) emerged to include social enterprises, political activities, and the uses of crowdfunding sites. The group also made a clear connection between achieving the common good and taking such actions as: buying a farm share, using sharing services such as Lyft and Airbnb, participating in Meetups, and activating their social networks for causes. They described how those actions built stronger relationships, trust, and sense of community (translated for grantmakers – “community building and social capital outcomes”).

Of course, humans volunteered together for the common good long before tax laws defined charitable giving and charitable organizations. But, Lucy noted that today’s technology and digital environments allow people to more quickly return to those roots of collective action – of sharing in community well-being. The Grassroots Grantmakers team recently wrote about this activity in Citizen-to-Citizen: Funding, Sharing, and Generating Ideas. (Translated again for grantmakers – “this is great stuff that we’ll avoid because we don’t want to deal with expenditure responsibility rules and/or it doesn’t meet our definition of strategic philanthropy.”)

What Does This Mean for Pittsburgh (or your City)?

Admittedly, the group of attendees wasn’t a random sample of Pittsburghers. They were purposely invited to develop Pittsburgh’s first glimpse into its social economy and digital civil society beyond grantmakers and nonprofits. (If someone wants to develop a more complete picture, let’s talk!)

Since the conversations, I’ve been wondering about the intersections between foundations and the wider array of social economy activity. As we look ahead, how will we…

  • Act together? – Will traditional philanthropy associations such as Grantmakers of Western PA successfully include this broader set of social good doers? Or are those associations so dominated by large funders and “grants as the main tool” thinking that others won’t feel welcome? Will an alternate set of social good associations (or meetups and/or political action groups…) rise up around regional grantmaker groups?
  • Lead together? – Many of the attendees will likely become the next generation of community leaders. Could they become the next leaders of foundations and corporate giving programs? The legal structure of foundations has proven adaptable to forms of social good such as impact investing and grassroots grantmaking. But will the culture of professionalized philanthropy be ready for people who effortlessly deploy the full array of social good tools?
  • Grow together? – Groups of funders in Pittsburgh and many other cities have built capacity-building resources for 501(c)(3) public charities. Will they build similar resources to provide free and discounted management assistance, legal advice, tech support, and more to B-Corps, unincorporated groups, code for good groups, and more? And can funders build those resources in ways that don’t force those groups to follow the rules of 501(c)(3) land? Conversely, how will communities help nonprofits effectively adapt to the broader social economy and collaborate with these free agents on community problem-solving?
  • Know and learn together? – Lucy talked about the absence of a national conversation around the ethics, rules, and regulations of digital public goods – information produced and shared by charities, government agencies, and other social economy groups. The Brookings Institution has made the case that metropolitan areas, rather than nations, are now the main hubs of innovation and community problem-solving. Though digital information flows across borders, could or should communities such as Pittsburgh craft their own, shared codes of conduct around digital public goods?

Lucy and the team at Stanford PACS are tackling some of these policy and practice issues on a national and global level. My own problem-solving orientation leans more local. I’d love to see Pittsburgh – and any other community – tackle them. Maybe one day we’ll even see regional Social Economy Leagues that parallel the power of regional economic development organizations and chambers of commerce. Or, perhaps communities will create Digital Public Good Trusts that parallel the collective donor power and asset preservation of community foundations. (For philanthropy history geeks, who will write the Dead Hand Harnessed for the 21st century?)

What would a picture of your community’s social economy look like, and how would you grow that economy?

The one where the philanthropy data geeks got it wrong

Belushi food fight

Philanthropy data geek ready for battle (speculative artist rendition)

I guess you have to commend philanthropy’s paper of record – the Chronicle of Philanthropy – for trying to make fundraising data exciting with its January 17 article, Group Estimates Philanthropy Rose 13% in 2013, Clashing With ‘Giving USA’.

The article pitted estimates of charitable giving from the relatively new Atlas of Giving against the results of the long-time resource Giving USA. Forbes’ philanthropic and social good contributor, Tom Watson, described the article as a “philanthropic food fight” – a creative headline that quickly spread across philanthropic and nonprofit social media.

The Chronicle’s article drew defensive explanations from the CEO of the Atlas of Giving and the leaders of Giving USA.* If you don’t want to read the details, the arguments boil down to differing methodologies for tracking contributions and competition around monetizing those methodologies. If you do want to be geeky, you can read more about the methods at Atlas of Giving, Giving USA, and for good measure, the Blackbaud Index.

Here’s the larger issue: all of the methods miss the forest for the trees the buffet for the appetizer tray.

Ultimately, these resources primarily focus on giving to incorporated charitable (501(c)(3)) organizations. They reinforce a narrow definition of the term “philanthropy,” imprisoning it within artificial tax and legal boundaries. It’s the same mistake made by the pundits worried about the Stubborn 2% Giving Rate – U.S. giving to charity being fairly level at 2% of GDP and 2% of disposable income.

A classic definition of philanthropy is “voluntary action for the common good.” It is the generosity you and I feel and express, and it spills far beyond tax and legal boundaries (see my previous post on this issue). This recent “food fight” over philanthropic data doesn’t fully include:

  • Giving to charitable organizations that isn’t reported to the IRS – e.g. giving by people who don’t itemize on their taxes; the cash we drop into jars at counters, buckets on street corners, and collection plates of congregations; text message giving; and some crowdfunded gifts.
  • Giving to organizations that aren’t 501(c)(3)s – gifts to advocacy organizations, civic organizations, and other non-charitable nonprofits. This giving may not be charitable by some people’s definitions, but it is definitely a legitimate tool for achieving a public or social result.
  • Supporting the common good through gifts to individuals, unincorporated groups, artists, social enterprises, and even businesses through cash, crowdfunding platforms, and grassroots groups such as the Awesome Foundation and Sunday Soup. As just one example, an annual report on crowdfunding platforms shows about $2.7 billion flowing raised in 2012, with 38% going to “social causes” and 25% going to arts and environment projects. The public version of the report doesn’t show the percentage going to traditional charities.
  • Support for people in need and families through remittances instead of charities (a World Bank report estimates worldwide remittances at $401 billions in 2012).

I’ll grant that Giving USA and others know that they don’t track those forms of philanthropy and that tracking those forms is much harder than tracking gifts to 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. However, I’m increasingly convinced that these data resources – and the media hits they generate:

  1. Can distort public perceptions about philanthropy, further separating the concept from a value and action connected to everyday people and maybe reinforcing philanthropy and its attending tax benefits as a privilege of “the 1%.”

  2. May display a lack of cultural competency, as the data collection methods undercount the giving patterns of the growing percentages of non-Caucasian populations and immigrants in America.

  3. Will become less accurate over time as Millennials, and perhaps other generations, increasingly express their financial commitment to the common good outside of the charitable sector and tax-advantaged giving.

What do you think? Are these data resources useful as-is, or do we need something more expansive?

* Full transparency: I was born, raised, and educated in Indiana. Shortly after we Hoosiers learn to walk and/or drink beer, the Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy pours fundraising knowledge and data into our heads. I count I.U. staff as mentors, colleagues, and occasional fellow beer drinkers in my philanthropic career.

2/20/14 update: Giving USA and Atlas of Giving are facing off in an online radio show on Feb. 21 that will be archived for download.

Those Darned DAFs

Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs) sure seemed prevalent in the press over the holidays.

The National Philanthropic Trust’s recent report on DAFs showed that, compared to 2011, in 2012: contributions to DAFs grew 34.6%, assets grew 18.9%, and grantmaking grew 6.7%. The growth in grantmaking exceeded the growth in grantmaking by private and corporate foundations over the same period, as reported by the Foundation Center. The rapid growth of DAFs likely continued in 2013, with three donor-advised fund managers reporting increases of more than 20% in giving in a December 13 Chronicle of Philanthropy article.

Community foundations and financial advisors, of course, published articles showcasing donor-advised funds as an easy, quick, and cheap means of taking care of year-end giving. Many highlighted the ease of donated appreciated stock and other assets. These articles and posts weren’t unexpected given the general increase of charitable giving advice and news in November and December.

Less expected was the amount of press generated by Professor Ray D. Madoff, of Boston College Law School. She is crusading for higher regulation of DAFs, calling them “warehouses of wealth” that are “taking over the charitable landscape” and starving “true charities” of resources. Her December 6 New York Times op-ed spawned additional coverage in the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times. Other sources cited and commented on those articles. She rebutted the criticism she received by countering Five Myths About Payout Rules for Donor-Advised Funds.

Madoff had picked up on a thread of criticism of DAFs in the Chronicle of Philanthropy throughout 2012, including op-eds by nonprofit consultant Alan Cantor and comments by the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy’s Aaron Dorfman. Conservative commentator Scott Walter labeled the criticism Unphilanthropic Carping.

I don’t share the skepticism of Madoff, Cantor, Dorfman, and others – at least, not yet. Here are my quick takes on their concerns:

1) DAFs are primarily tools for financial advisors to make money from charitable giving.

Financial advisors, accountants, and attorneys also earn money from advising private and community foundations, other trusts, and even nonprofit endowments. The critics don’t seem worried about these sources of profit. In addition, there’s no data that the advisors are making more money, per philanthropic dollar advised, on donor-advised funds.

2) Fund advisors are likely granting little from their DAFs because there is no regulation forcing them to do (e.g. no equivalent to the 5% rule for private foundations).

There is no data about DAFs stockpiling charitable funds without making grants. The National Philanthropic Trust reported an average payout rate of 16% for DAF managers, far higher than the average for private foundations. In addition,advisors to the funds may have legitimate reasons for paying less in some years and more in others, including: the timing of large gifts to the funds, using funds to engage children and grandchildren in philanthropy, developing and implementing strategic giving plans, and holding payments back to incentivize matching gifts at a nonprofit.

3) Grants from DAFs can be anonymous. At minimum, this anonymity shields donors from nonprofit fundraising appeals and prospect researching. At its worst, the anonymity is suspected of being a cover for funding of controversial issues.

Donors seek anonymity for a variety of personal reasons, including religious beliefs and fear of discrimination or retaliation. Progressive critics appear suspicious of DAFs held by conservative donors, and I suspect the converse is true. I’m not willing to remove the option of anonymity for donors just because I might not like the charities they support. See my previous post Why Your Grant Proposal is Unwanted for other reasons donors to foundation or DAFs choose to be circumspect in their giving.

4) Because the overall rate of giving in the U.S. is fairly static over time, the rapid growth in giving to DAFs means other charities are receiving less money.

This argument – the shift in the use of a limited pie of charitable dollars – seems a reasonable hypothesis, but is darn tough to prove. There are too many other variables in the equation, including: timeshifting of funds (the same dollars that would have gone to non-DAF charities are distributed later); the amount of giving to DAFs that might not have gone to charity at all if not for the DAF; the increased competition from the growing numbers of nonprofits; and other trends impacting giving preferences of different generations.

Your thoughts?

If you’re a fundraiser or grant writer, I’d love to hear from you. How have donors’ use of donor-advised funds tangibly impacted your nonprofit for good or bad?

Addendum 2/14/14: Rick Cohen from the Nonprofit Quarterly – a thoughtful skeptic of organized philanthropy – posted an article today with additional rebuttals to the DAF critics. He ends the article with this sentence: “For charities interested in reaching individual donors, getting comfortable with donors who give through donor-advised funds has to be a top priority in the new world of fundraising.” 

Grassroots vs. Organization Culture in Giving

Aside

Working in philanthropy often means simultaneously holding competing values as true, or at least viable. And, there are many classic tensions of values in philanthropy to navigate. Strategic philanthropy, relationship-driven philanthropy, and impulsive giving can all useful tactics. Donors can be both builders and buyers in their support of nonprofits’ growth. The freedom of nonprofits to evolve in the pursuit of their missions and the firm legal protection of donor rights can comfortably co-exist. Effective conservation happens through both systemic policy change and individual action.

I’ll admit that I’m a “both-and” philanthropoid and a pragmatic optimist. I’ve worked for too many types of donors and grantmaking committees to be completely stuck on one approach to giving or community problem-solving. Of course, I have biases based on experience and upbringing and a firm set of values for my personal giving. But, I’m generally willing to help donors and grantmaking committees pursue the philanthropic pathways and giving styles that are most meaningful to each of them.

My “both-and” brain was excited when I read Have Your People Call our People, a recent opinion piece in NPQ by the John R. Oishei Foundation’s Paul Hogan. Hogan wrote about the competing tensions of grassroots culture and organization culture in philanthropy. In short, donors biased to a grassroots culture celebrate individual neighborhood champions and entrepreneurs. Donors biased to an organization culture put their faith in established nonprofits and structured planning processes.

Hogan does a good job of showing the faults in both cultures and of describing the challenges of navigating the middle ground between them. His experience likely feels familiar to members of Grassroots Grantmakers and other grassroots-oriented donors and philanthropoids who are surrounded by organization culture types.

I’ve encountered both criticism and support when I’ve worked in both of those cultures. Like Hogan, I see the value and problems of both. Most of all, I wish more donors, grantmakers, and nonprofit leaders were willing to work in both cultures – simultaneously holding both to be truly viable and helpful.

Philanthropic Disruption News

Aside

Foundation Center President Brad Smith had a great post last week, The Brave New World of Good. In it, he poses thoughtful questions about newer models of achieving social good that are complementing, some believe disrupting or even replacing, traditional philanthropies and nonprofits. These include open data, private markets, hackathons, innovation practices, impact investing, and transparency practices.

Lucy Bernholz then posed additional questions about the potential negative interactions between those models in her post, Good (and not so good?). Her post linked to new documents from Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab that look at related public policy challenges.

These posts came on the heels of articles about nonprofits that facilitate giving money directly to the poor, including GiveDirectly and Benevolent. These nonprofits and others are complementing, some say inappropriately bypassing, traditional social service intermediaries and international aid groups.

Lastly, philanthropic advisor Laura Loescher wrote an interesting post on how “Indie Philanthropists” are challenging traditional giving models.

I’ll concede that the posts probably don’t appeal to most nonprofits worried about making ends meet or the majority of donors and grantmakers who are content with their giving practices. And, as Doug Smith notes, there’s not much hard evidence to show new models and disruptions are consistently more effective than old models.

I think the posts and articles are on target for describing the increasingly messy and confusing world of improving communities and society. We don’t yet know how the models, practices, and policies will play out in the long run. But I think they’ll impact our daily work in philanthropic and nonprofit management sooner than we’re ready for them to do so.

In the meantime, if you know any graduate and doctoral students stuck for research topics, send them the links above. Hopefully they’ll find something inspiring in those topics and help us all learn how to lean into the unfolding changes.

Would Your Nonprofit Succeed With Donors Who “Give With Purpose”? (part 2)

Written for Philanthrogeek.com and cross-posted at http://www.philanthrogeek.com/creative-fundraising/nonprofit-succeed-donors-give-purpose/

Let’s try a quick exercise: pull up the website of your favorite nonprofit. Can you answer any of these questions based on the information on that site?

  • Does the nonprofit demonstrate familiarity with evidence and best practices related to the need it addresses by citing research, data, reports, past experience, or other reliable sources of information?
  • Does the organization demonstrate cultural awareness and roots in the community?
  • Are its results likely to stick over time for the intended beneficiaries?
  • Do the board members play a meaningful role in supporting the organization through their work and financial support?

These are just four of the 35 questions from the new RISE Assessment Tool to evaluate nonprofits. The Learning By Giving Foundation offered this tool to thousands of people who participated in its Massive Online Open Course on philanthropy, Giving With Purpose, this summer. The course describes “giving with purpose” in two goals: a) satisfy your personal motivations for giving, and b) invest in high-performing organizations. In my last post, I gave my assessment of the course itself and its ability to meet the first goal. In this post, I’ll dig into the second goal.

The RISE Framework

Course instructor Rebecca Riccio created the RISE Framework for Social Change to define four “hallmarks of strong organizations”: Relevance, Impact, Sustainability, and Excellence. The RISE Assessment Tool has a set of questions and rating criteria for each hallmark. The Foundation hasn’t released a final version to the public yet, but I pasted the questions into a document (download the PDF – RISE Assessment Tool – 2013-Aug Vsn) as an example.

Hundreds of the participants in this summer’s course tried using the assessment tool on the web sites of the 700+ nonprofits nominated by other participants. The nonprofits ranged from all-volunteer, faith-based efforts to large, long-time civic anchors. Ms. Riccio briefly encourages people to visit nonprofits in person. But, the design of the course biases participants toward finding information on nonprofit websites and online services such as Guidestar and Charity Navigator.

What if Donors Use the Tool?

In my use of the RISE Assessment Tool during the course, and in feedback I saw from other participants, nonprofit websites mostly came up short on answers. The tool will likely inhibit donations if, as Ms. Riccio suggests, donors use it before they choose to make a donation.

First, most nonprofits are small and underinvest in their communications, technology, fundraising, and evaluation capabilities. Of the 1 million public charities in the U.S. that submit 990s to the IRS, about 75% have budgets of less than $500,000. (There are also 386,000 congregations and an unknown number of very tiny, local charities that don’t have to make information available publicly.) Only a small percentage of these nonprofits choose to focus their limited resources on the operational and program management criteria in the tool.

Second, not all nonprofits are in the business of “social change.” In the course, Ms. Riccio notes that the nonprofit sector is very diverse. However, I think the assessment tool and thrust of the course work best for nonprofits providing direct services (e.g. mental health, education, or international development). Historical societies, conservation groups, arts organizations, and others will fail many of the tool’s criteria for relevance and impact.

Lastly, nonprofits are receiving conflicting advice on the focus of their websites. Ms. Riccio tells participants to look past good stories and packaging to find answers to the assessment tool’s questions. Her advice, of course, isn’t new. The Better Business Bureau and others publish checklists of nonprofit information that should be publicly available. And, her questions about results and impact are similar to the new, controversial effort by Charity Navigator to rate nonprofits on the reporting of their results.

However, nonprofits hear a different story from experts who advise on fundraising communications, Millennial and Gen X giving, and engaging donors in social giving and crowdfunding models. Those advisors tell nonprofits to lead with compelling stories, share-able multimedia content, and pictures and quotes from donors’ peers. These might describe results, but not in the ways that match the expectations of the RISE Assessment Tool and its peers.

With all respect for Ms. Riccio’s hopes for success with the course and tool, my bet is still on the nonprofit websites filled with compelling, share-able multimedia content. Here’s why…

Hearts Still Win Over Heads

Ms. Riccio joins a chorus of philanthropic advisors, authors, and consultants who earn money trying to convince donors to stop, think, research, and create criteria before they give. As an example, most issues of the Chronicle of Philanthropy have a new opinion piece telling donors and foundation what they should do. All their work isn’t changing mainstream donor behavior, at least yet.

Hope Consulting’s Money for Good reports, the 2013 Millennial Impact Report, the annual Burk Donor Surveys, and other sources report that donors say they want to see tangible results and good performance in nonprofits. This hope for giving with purpose reverberates through the philanthropy media and is amplified as a real trend. But, we donors are only human. Our behavior frequently doesn’t match our intentions and we’re susceptible to all types of cognitive and emotional biases.

We have a variety of motivations for making charitable gifts, and the emotional, social, and spiritual reasons win over the intellectual ones. One of the classic books on donor motivation, The Seven Faces of Philanthropy, showed that only 15% of donors selected nonprofits based on considerable research and evaluation. The more recent Money for Good research showed that only 16% of donors were driven to primarily support high impact nonprofits.

The Money for Good research also shows that donors don’t spend much time researching nonprofits before they give. Only 35% of the 5,000 donors researched reported doing any research. And, when donors did research, it was to validate their donation, not to find the “best” nonprofit. They were looking to see if the nonprofit seemed reputable, had low overhead, and did good work (not necessarily defined as theories of change, performance measures, business plans, etc.).

Do I Now Know How to Invest in High-Performing Nonprofits?

The Tool didn’t add to my knowledge or skills. But as a long-time philanthropoid, I’m not the target audience for the Giving With Purpose course and RISE Assessment Tool.

In my previous post, I identified some potential audiences for the course – college classes, giving circles, professional advisors, and nonprofit staff and board members. Those audiences may be predisposed to spending more time exploring their giving preferences and evaluating nonprofits. The RISE Assessment Tool could be helpful if they’re realistic about the capabilities most nonprofits have (or lack) and what information is easily publicly available (or not). If the recent research on Next Gen Donors is to be believed, Gen X and Y donors may be predisposed to ask nonprofits harder questions. The Tool’s questions wouldn’t be a bad start, though the five Charting Impact questions might be a simpler start.

Despite my critiques and challenges over these two posts, I very much hope the Learning By Giving Foundation sees the summer 2013 version of the course as a good beta test. Hopefully the foundation will take the course’s advice and evaluate the participants’ behaviors and knowledge over time, use the participants’ feedback to update the content and process, and offer future, improved versions.

Should you take the course? If you’re at the point in your life that you have more time to consistently think about and act on your generosity, the course could be a helpful launchpad for that process. If a MOOC isn’t your style, ask Nathaniel James or me about the other strategic philanthropy and philanthropic planning tools on our bookshelves and browser bookmarks.

If you took the Giving With Purpose course too, I’d love to hear your experience, especially if you disagree with my take on the course.