I have been reading a lot about “Project Streamline”, the proliferation of non-profit “labs”, and the recent announcement by Pew to rent office space to non-profits in the DC area.  These developments, along with the increase of coworking spaces, beg the question, what would happen if a number of philanthropic foundations shared office space?  Such a set-up may create a dynamic “lab” in the philanthropic world and may temper some of the redundancy, inefficiency and silo-ization present in the philanthropic sector.

Imagine 5, 10, 20 (!) foundations sharing office space.  Each foundation keeps its own mission, goals and portfolio, of course.  But there is a commitment to getting to know colleagues from “neighboring” foundations, sharing ideas, asking for feedback, and maybe even collaborating on projects.

Such a “lab” may be a win for foundations and for grantees.

For foundations (especially those with small staffs) a shared office space may foster an atmosphere of collegiality, knowledge sharing and diversity.  Working in a small foundation, I oftentimes feel isolated from colleagues in the field and need to make a concerted effort to network with other foundation professionals in order to keep up with trends and issues in the sector.

For grantees a shared office space may mitigate some of the confusing/time-consuming aspects of the grantmaking process.  One location – i.e. one address – may provide grantees with access ro a larger network of foundations.  What’s more, perhaps the foundations in this “lab” will be open to using similar grantmaking processes.  Such a step may lead to a “streamlining” of certain bureaucratic steps in the application process.

With the steep increase in small foundations and family foundations rising, a “lab” of small foundations would be an interesting experiment.  It would have to include a mindful, clearly laid out process but a fascinating one, to be sure!  Any takers?

Gali is Chair of VPF’s Grants Committee.

Cell phones

OK, so I have iPhone envy. I admit it. I mean who doesn’t? It has 3G technology! (Never mind that I had to look up what exactly 3G technology meant). I’ll probably buy one when they become available next month. But this begs the question, what am I do to with my no longer as cool Blackberry Pearl?

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 100 million cell phones are no longer used annually. These phones, which more often than not, end up in landfills, can contain metals such as lead, and other plastics and chemicals like cadmium and arsenic which are all hazardous and can pose serious health risks. The EPA also estimates that if we recycled all of these phones we could save enough energy to power nearly 200,000 U.S. homes for a year.

So, if you’re like me, and you plan on upgrading your primary method of communication this summer, let’s try to act responsibly and make sure we recycle our old cell phones. Fortunately there are dozens of places we can do this. I’m going to head on over to Collective Good’s Recycle My Cell Phone website which allows me to mail in my cell phone to a facility where they refurnish or recycle all pieces of your cell phone and importantly, they don’t export hazardous waste to developing countries, or dump it in municipal landfills.

Many cell phone companies have been pushed into creating their own recycling program for example AT&T has its own program which anyone who buys a new iPhone can drop off their old one at their point of purchase.

The dilemma of what to do with your old cell phone really begs the larger question of how we deal (or don’t) with electronic waste in this country, and in turn how we deal with sustainable consumption and production practices. For some scary facts about what e-waste is, click here. Recycling your cell phone is a good first step to taking greater responsibility for the electronic waste that you create.

Now that I know where my phone will end up, I can literally be, green with envy.
Elizabeth R. Miller is a Senior Program Associate at The Overbrook Foundation and is patiently counting down the days until July 11th.

If you’re like any average New Yorker, you probably have a very small mailbox. And at the end of the day you probably check that very small mailbox to find it stuffed to the gills with unwanted junk mail. One of the biggest offenders of junk mail is those pesky catalogs that go directly from your mailbox to the recycling bin (hopefully) or to garbage can (more likely).


Well you’re not alone. According to Environmental Defense and its Paper Calculator, 19 billion catalogs are mailed to American consumers each year. And the number of trees the catalog industry uses to produce those 19 billion catalogs is 53 million (no wonder NYC has nearly no trees…) Those catalogs use nearly 3.6 million tons of paper and create enough waste water discharge to fill 53 billion gallons of water, or 81,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.


By now you might have stopped to ask yourself – in the days of the internet, who uses catalogs anymore? And how can I get them to stop infiltrating my mailbox?


Well, that’s exactly where Catalog Choice (www.catalogchoice.org) comes in. In just eight short months, Catalog Choice has grown to be the largest opt-out service for catalogs, and remains the only free service that lets you decline catalogs you no longer want to receive. To date there are over 910,000 members that have opted out of nearly 12 million catalogs. Its user-friendly website allows you to create an account and send opt-out requests directly to merchants on your behalf.


And are these merchants complying with the opt-out request? Well some – currently about 240 catalog companies – are participating, such as L.L. Bean and Tiffany & Co., and they should be applauded for their efforts to listen to consumers. There are other companies that aren’t yet – and they need to be pressured into complying with these kinds of requests.


If you’re already a member of Catalog Choice, head on over to their blog, and let the folks over there know how it’s working for you. If you’re not yet a member, sign up today and make some more space in your mailbox. Because in the end, it’s not about separating consumers from the goods they want to buy, it’s about increasing market-place efficiencies while reducing unnecessary waste.


Elizabeth R. Miller is a Senior Program Associate at The Overbrook Foundation and has opted out of 19 catalogs.

We’ve all been swamped with a million different threads pulling us in various directions and that is where I have been for the past couple of weeks – hence, no posts. My summer resolution is to pick up the slack and reinvigorate the blog. No more putting it off until tomorrow. With new vigor applied to time management and a series of reprioritizations, I will learn from this and forge forth.

FailureIt is this recent recognition of failure that makes this discussion ever more relevant. Basically, the question goes like this: why is trial-and-error and the risk of failure understood, if not highly regarded, in the private sector but shunned almost entirely in the nonprofit and philanthropic world?

VPF has been wandering the depths of RFP development for the last couple of months and has hit upon the issue a few times. We have been asking ourselves how much risk we are willing to take on while still funding an innovative entrepreneur that has a high-potential, creative solution to NYC’s persistent problems. Sounds like a riddle, doesn’t it?

Check out the discussion on Social Edge and add to this important conversation…

Hi! It’s Chris Cardona, Chair of VPF’s Advisory Council. I’m delighted to be contributing to VPF’s blog.

I attended part of the Council on Foundations philanthropy mega-conference earlier this week representing VPF. I blogged about the experience – and got the word out about VPF to a broader audience – on Tactical Philanthropy, here, here, and here. My VPF colleagues Gali, Lauren, and Leslie were in the house as well.
 
The Council on Foundations is the trade association for organized philanthropy. Its annual conference generally draws about 2,000 people. Given that there are maybe 10,000 foundation staff in the whole country, this is a big number. CoF also holds sector conferences for family foundations, community foundations, and corporate foundations. This year, it combined them all into one big event. It also made a conscious, if not entirely successful, effort to attract more funders from abroad. As a result, the attendance this year was in the neighborhood of 3,500.
 
For broad and deep coverage of the conference, including detailed summaries of VPF-relevant sessions on social entrepreneurship, venture philanthropy, and funding climate change, check out the following blogs:
After a few days back home, here are some reflections:
  • Institutional philanthropy is in the midst of a full-fledged identity crisis. There was almost as much discussion at the conference of why we do what we do as what we do. And the calls for “more” were legion: Philanthropy should be more global, more proactive, more communicative, more willing to embrace human rights, more willing to support advocacy. Practically no one said, we’re doing a pretty good job, and we should stay the course in the midst of tough times. That’s the sign of a field in flux.
  • The “next gen” is the place to be. Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, 21/64, and Resource Generation co-sponsored a wildly successful “Next Gen” track that was the talk of the conference. But now that a space has really been opened, what do we do with it? EPIP’s involvement in the Social Justice Philanthropy Collaborative is a good sign that we can start answering the questions, what does the next gen want, and what will it do differently?
  • We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of engagement with our counterparts in other countries. The opening plenary featured leaders of counterparts of the Council of Foundations from Canada, Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In the brief time they had, each shared fascinating glimpses into the challenges of promoting philanthropy in areas with no legal incentives in the tax code and traditions of charitable – as opposed to strategic – giving.
  • Strategic philanthropy is important, but don’t underestimate charity. Susan Berresford, former head of the Ford Foundation, made this point on Sunday, and the tragic news from Myanmar this week reminds us that sometimes the best thing we can do is to get people in dire need the very basics right away. Speaking of which, Myanmar relief options are here, here, and here. I especially like the approach of the last one.
  • It’s not clear to me that most foundations are ready to engage with giving circles in a meaningful way. A terrific panel on this very topic was woefully underattended. VPF has a lot of work to do – let’s get to it!

Given that the environment is VPF’s topic for 2008, I have been reading up on some of the really great things happening to engage, educate and change the less enviro-friendly habits of my fellow New Yorkers. One of the things I ran across recently is “The Story of Stuff”.

Watch it, learn and be totally amazed at the true story of the new gadget you are crushing on right now. Below is a sneak preview:

And for the whole mini-film go to www.storyofstuff.com

How does this relate to VPF? Well, if we are to consider the true meaning of philanthropy (which is “goodwill to fellowmen; especially : active effort to promote human welfare” thanks to Webster’s Dictionary), then caring for our local and global environment has everything to do with it.

Basically, we need to tend to the global nest to ensure a viable future for human beings. Or, in another animal kingdom analogy, we shouldn’t be doing our duty where we we sleep. So if we begin to think about how things are made and who has to deal with the subsequent waste, we quickly realize that it ends up in somebody’s bed. If it’s a somebody, then it’s a human. If it’s human, then a good philanthropist will be concerned. If we are concerned, then we might think twice about what we buy. Get it?

Recently, VPF members elected the environment as the topic we will focus on in 2008 – meaning that our Grants Committee team is currently hard at work developing an RFP to actively seek out New York City’s most innovative, emerging social entrepreneurs that are tackling local environmental issues.

Appropriately, I had a discussion this morning with the Advisory Council about how we can best frame the environmental topic and differentiate ourselves from all the other funders focusing on the exact same thing. I was worried that we would be buried beneath the deluge of money currently being invested into environmental organizations and related projects. I envisioned two months of waiting for our first grant application going by with no biters because of massive wealth to be found elsewhere.

Then, to my utter surprise, I learned that though the environment is showing the largest gains in funding, it still is one of the least funded subject areas overall. For instance, in 2005 education ranked first (of 10 categories) in share of grant dollars claiming 24% of the funding, while the environment ranked sixth and gathered only 6%. Even when looking at the number of total grants given, the environment still came in sixth place (of 10), claiming only  8,195 grants from a total of 130,961 given in 2005. (Click here to see a full report from the Foundation Center 2007 Giving Trends report).

It’s a disappointment to learn this on Earth Day, of all days. But it provides more fuel for the engine – environmentally-friendly, non-polluting, fuel that is.

Forget about the Obama and Clinton snubs and plugs and put aside the blatant patting on the back of the Canadian tax system – this article offers a unique take on what’s wrong with traditional philanthropy. I was so excited to read it I forgot to finish my first cup of coffee this morning – a rare occurrence indeed.

The article uses Oprah’s Big Give as the representational apex of traditional American philanthropy (originating with the Rockefellers and Fords). Funny, I always knew the Oprah’s Big Give gave me the willies but I couldn’t articulate why further than expressing my frustration that it was promoting charity over problem solving. This article takes this basic understanding and explores it with a “US vs. Canadian governmental system” spin.

Using the example of a recent Oprah’s Big Give show in which contestants were tried with helping two impoverished elementary schools in Houston, Linda Diebel, the article’s author, states that during the entire experience “not one contestant turned to another and asked how such bleak Dickensian conditions could exist in American schools in the first place”. This, Diebel argues, is the sad truth happening right here in the US of A. While the infrastructure crumbles as the government turns a blind eye, really big money is being thrown at desperate problems with no larger impact than a temporary bandaid and the birth of another self-congratulating donor.

Yes, it’s an obvious pro-Canadian piece that over simplifies the situation – but it also offers a fascinating way to think about giving, how and why we do it and the invisible forces that drive us.

So often we think of philanthropy as an individual endeavor. Often, but increasingly less so, as something undertaken by the well-to-do and uber-wealthy. Innovation is churning within the philanthropic establishments and creating exiting new ways and means for us to effectively distribute resources where they are needed most.

But what about international states? They too act as unique entities on the philanthropic global stage though admittedly on a different scale. But they too desperately need a new way and means to distribute resources.

What got me thinking about this was this post about a recent OECD report that summarizes recent foreign aid trends amongst the 22 richest countries. Basically, despite the brouhaha Bono and Angelina bring to this work, behind closed doors government officials are scaling back their global philanthropic activities (aka foreign aid).

Dean, from the posted linked above, was on to something when he pointed out the arbitrariness of the 0.7% GNI standard for foreign aid contributors. He says that the amount should be based on “some combination of needs and capabilities to use the money” rather than a UN standard created decades ago .

I’m certainly no expert on foreign aid or it’s technicalities of distribution, but it is rather obvious that the current system is not adequately meeting needs. So what if we push into Dean’s thought further? What if, say, countries have to organize themselves enough to say what they need, how much, for how long and why and really, truly stick to it? What if they are required to state how they intend to play a part in solving the issue they require money for and are held to that, at the cost of future aid?

Admittedly, this reeks a bit of sanctions and unfair in many lights – itself very flawed. But what if we, as intelligent citizens, went with this idea as a thought experiment and wrought its inner workings? What can we take from the innovations within the domestic philanthropy sector? Would any of the ideas provide a pathway out of the current quagmire of ineffective foreign aid?

The questions continue and I can’t help but draw parallels and direct connections between individual philanthropy and foreign aid. But simple answers just no longer work anymore (and that’s all I seem capable of coming up with) and I am left dumbfounded in the wake of this recent downturn in global citizenship.

For too long now we, the public, have understood that there is something broken in this system beyond the amount that our state is giving. And people continually shock and amaze me with their ingenuity and innovation in the private and nonprofit sectors. So why a more open public is not called on to help innovate this area and help it break free of itself is really beyond me.

For now, keep your donations up at Kiva and your favorite nonprofit overseas…they need you more than ever.

I found a great post detailing a very intelligent and relatively easy way for a donor to evaluate a nonprofits. So while the effectiveness knot is being worked out within the philanthropy world, an individual can take it upon themselves to use these very clever points to dig deeper.

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