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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.

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!

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.

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.

A recent entry by Sean Stannard-Stockton on Tactical Philanthropy discusses some interesting and perplexing trends we are seeing throughout philanthropy. It’s worth a read.

Gwyneth at Gucci/Unicef eventBasically, philanthropy’s popularity is growing thanks to celebrities and super star-studded events that attract attention (example: pictures of Gucci-Unicef event). But, the amount of philanthropy is not directly correlated to its effectiveness and it’s here that we find the crux of a messy matter (or the cause for the mild, constant headache amongstDrew Barrymore at Gucci/Unicef event philanthropy professionals…) : people give money because they want to help solve an issue but they want their money to be a vehicle towards an effective solution. But, the measurement of effectiveness is Gordian knot unto itself .

Stannard-Stockton rightly points to philanthropic institutions themselves as the bearer of this burden. I have heard all too many times that donors should be responsible for researching, monitoring and ultimately correctly judging the effectiveness of the institution they give their money to. But when was the last time you wrote a check after studying impact measurement graphs? There really is a very good reason why pictures of hungry African children produce more donations than ROI/SROI reports.

The “global philanthropic marketplace” is an interesting idea but 1) I am not convinced that this is a solution to ensuring that the bulk of dollars goes to the best organizations and 2) this puts the bulk of the work and responsibility back in the hands of the donors.

Ultimately, giving will always be what giving is: an emotional practice based on a desire to take care of our fellow humans and the planet we live on. No matter the brilliant structures built to guide funds into the correct pot – we will loosen our pocketbooks for a good story or a kind face over a sound, rational model of impact and effectiveness any day.

Ideally, the responsibility falls onto philanthropic institutions to ensure that money is well spent on effective projects and programs. But with collaboration between organizations gamely limping along, a lack of standardized measurement across institutions, and a growing percentage of individual donations coming from the anonymous, online environment – you begin to sink into the center of that Gordian knot and it becomes ever more understandable why responsibility is being shrugged off and given to the donors.

The good news is that people are talking about it and actively pursuing solutions. And my guess is that, like most great ideas these days, the answer lies somewhere in between.



So see, your mama was right when she said you should share. You’re helping others and feeling good too. See:

Happy Just think of the implications! As a nation nearly drowning in depression and with nonprofits that underpay their overworked staff that run under-funded projects we certainly could use a healthy dose of happy giving.

So be good, give a little and be happy!


Here’s a fun idea: randomly receive $100 with the sole purpose of giving it away in any way you choose. The only thing asked in return is to attend a “members only” party in January to share your experience with others who received the same mysterious money.

The coolest part? The Secret Society of Creative Philanthropy is doing just that.

Started by writer Courtney E. Martin, the entire purpose of this endeavor is to generate a spirit of giving and “passing it on”.

It’s so secret, that the only thing I could find on it was the original article that cued me in no matter how many Google searches I did.

Fun idea. Now how exactly does one receive an invitation…?

With all the focus on the growth of the philanthropy sector both corporate and personal, urban and rural, retired persons and youth – one would think that “philanthropy” was becoming a common enough concept. But, in fact, I am reminded on a daily basis that uttering “philanthropy” causes a raise of the eyebrows, a clouding of the eyes, or a slight shuffle of the feet. I read these responses as general either complete boredom at the thought of philanthropy or a lack of understanding what philanthropy is and could be.

And on many levels, I understand exactly what these people are saying.

Let’s take a look at the word: philanthropy. If I didn’t know what it meant, I would think it sounded like a scientific study of something or other. Something stodgy, stuffy, boring.

According to old standards, philanthropy is boring. The image is often a bunch of rich folks writing out checks to museums and cultural events from their oak-lined, Persian carpeted offices. It’s of coiffed blue hair, diamonds hanging on thin fingers and overpriced cigars.

Even if hipsters like Bono, George Clooney and the Jolie and Pitt duo are challenging this image we are still left with the distinct feeling that philanthropy is for them, not little ‘ole me.

But according to the American Heritage Dictionary, philanthropy is:

  1. The effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations.
  2. Love of humankind in general.

So essentially any joe or jane who has half a heart and desires a more positive future is, technically, a philanthropist. Somehow, somewhere along the way, by misfortune or by bad marketing, we have managed to sell off the concept of philanthropy to the less than 1% of the population that we classify as really, really rich.

But think of what we could accomplish if the other 99% (or, more precisely, the disputable 60% living above poverty) of the population was able to hop on the philanthropy bandwagon too. Some are. Most aren’t. And considering the seemingly regular reporting on the measurement and transparency foibles throughout the nonprofit sector, people certainly are being wooed none too seductively.

What must we do to undo the terrible mess we’ve made of the word philanthropy?
What can we do to take it back to ensure that all kind hearted do-gooders understand their philanthropic identity and actively promote others toward good old giving?

June 2018
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