Let's ignore effectiveness (just for today)

Image courtesy of the Star Tribune

A few days ago an apartment building near my house burned down. It was one of those tragic stories that makes you hold your family a little bit closer and count your blessings. As a nonprofit geek, it also made me think about the current financial state of the Red Cross and hope that they would be able to provide services to the 64 families left homeless by the fire just days before Christmas.  Then something completely unexpected happened, an anonymous donor gave $1,000,000 to the victims of the fire. No strings attached and with the insistence that the money be disbursed immediately, so that the families would have it before Christmas. The generosity brought tears to my eyes because all I have been hearing for the last few months is how bad the economy is and that nonprofits  and the people that we serve will be left out in the cold. This donor's generosity reminded me that giving is a basic human instinct and we will continue to support each other, especially during hard times. 

It can be argued that, especially in these tough times, there are better ways to use that money. The donor could have leveraged it as a challenge grant to get more funds to the Red Cross, they could have offered to pay two months of rent for each family (and spared the families from the tax burden and other financial implications of a cash gift), they could have started a public information campaign about the need for sprinkler systems in older apartments or the benefits of renters insurance, or they could have build more affordable housing to replace the building that was lost. They could have done a lot of things but they helped in the way that they thought would be the fastest way to meet the needs of these families. As a professional philanthropist, I often get caught up in the how of the giving. This donor reminded me that the why is even more important because that is where our humanity is.

The ROI of Going Green

Tim Ferris, my favorite raving lunatic, has a great blog post about self interest and going green. From Tim:

Bestselling author David Bach used to use Flonase, Alegra D, and Singulair. He used Advair for almost ten years before he made one change that eliminated all of these medications.

He moved into a The Solaire, a green-optimized building in NYC.

Going green is something we all know we should do, but somehow most of us never quite get around to it, unless an accident or experiment shows us clear personal benefits. David moved into The Solaire for the location, for example, not the green effect.

But what if you could help the world by being self-interested? Self-interest and contribution need not be mutually exclusive, after all.

It can be done…

David should save about $30,000 in 2008 based on simple changes, and those saved expenses can be applied to investments. This is where things get interesting (and compelling); remember that $30,000 in expenses could equate to as much as $50,000 in pre-tax income for some.

Imagine if you could:

• Save $250 per year simply with smart landscaping. Strategically planting trees and shrubs to shade your home can lower surrounding air temperatures during warm summer months by up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit and can reduce wall and roof temperatures by 200 to 400 F, reducing energy costs for cooling and home carbon emissions by 3,952 lbs per year.

• Save $798 a year when you perform regular maintenance on your car to keep it running efficiently. Properly inflated tires, for example, can keep 5,800 pounds of carbon from entering the air each year.

Read the rest here

Is foundation giving fair?

Foundations are not doing enough to support the needs of minority and low-income communities, a nonprofit research group says.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington offered that assessment in anticipation of this afternoon’s hearing of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight, which focuses on whether foundations and charities are doing enough to serve the needs of minorities.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who chairs the committee, called the hearing because he believes the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed gaps in the way the government and charities provide help to minorities.

Aaron Dorfman, NCRP’s executive director, said his organization’s analysis of foundation grant data shows that foundations are not doing enough to fill those gaps.

“Sadly, while there are notable exceptions, the numbers show that foundations generally fail to provide significant support for low-income communities, communities of color and other marginalized groups,” Mr. Dorfman said in his written testimony, which is available on the organization’s Web site. “Foundation grant making for ethnic minorities is low and is not growing at the same rate as overall giving.”

Why do you think this disparity exists and do foundations have a responsibility (moral or otherwise) to ensure that their giving benefits all populations in their community?

Advice to Those New to the Foundation Field

I have just completed my first year as a program officer at a community foundation. Being a new Foundation staff member is really uncharted territory. There isn’t a handbook that tells you how to be an effective program officer and everyone seems to approach his or her position from a different perspective. I’ve made it my personal mission to try to demystify the foundation field for new foundation staff, prospective foundation staff, grant seekers, and most importantly for myself. In that vein, I have developed 6 pieces of advice for those new to the field that I hope makes your entrance into the foundation field a little less hazy.

  1. Don’t believe the hype- Positions at foundations are few and far between. There was probably a very talented applicant pool for your position and you must be very intelligent and knowledgeable about the nonprofit sector since you were chosen for your position. With that said I can pretty much guarantee that you are not as smart, funny, or as handsome (or pretty) as nonprofit and foundation staff alike may have you believe. Your program ideas are not suddenly brilliant, you are just sharing these ideas with a captive audience. False flattery is an unfortunate by-product of being in a position where you can make decisions about large amounts of money. You can handle this newfound access to wealth with grace and wisdom or you can act like a lottery winner. Please choose wisely.
  2. Treat grantees with the respect and reverence that they deserve- You get to spend your days with grantees and possible grantees that are the best and brightest of the nonprofit sector. They would make a lot more money if they used their immense talents working in the for profit sector but they are so passionate about the mission of their organizations that they choose to work for. Count yourself among the lucky few that get to spend most of your workday with passionate, idealistic people.
  3. Expand your professional network- The best ideas come from having a diverse professional network of people that have different opinions and experiences than you do. Join an affinity group of a different racial group, program area, or geographic interest to learn new approaches to issues that you face in your position.
  4. Get some support- This may be a circle of friends that you can bounce ideas off of, an affinity group like Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, which is designed to provide support and guidance to people new to the field of philanthropy, or a kickball team, where you can burn off some of the stress of your position. Figure out what kind of support would work the best for you and seek it out. If you can’t find that network of support, create your own.
  5. Never stop learning- The nonprofits that you interact with depend on your access to best practices in the field to improve their own work. Thoroughly read the reports from previous grantees. Are there lessons learned that might be applicable to other organizations that you are working with? Then share that information, within the limits of confidentiality. Scrupulously read about areas that your foundation makes grants in. Read about cities or states with similar demographics as your foundation’s geographic area. Are there any best practices from other locations that might be useful for the work that your foundation or grantees are doing?
  6. Extend your hand to those that are interested in the field- When you were thinking about entering the field of philanthropy you either had a wonderful mentor that guided you through the process or you wish that you had. Be that mentor to someone else. There are many students and professionals that just need a few minutes of your time to figure out if the foundation field is a good fit for them. Be open to informational interviews, speaking at sessions about the work of program officers, or being a mentor informally or through a program at your alma mater. You may have also noticed that since you have entered the field you now know about position opening that you never would have heard about when you weren’t in the field. Share those opportunities with your network of people that are interested in starting a career in philanthropy.

Now it’s your turn. What advice would you give to new foundation staff?