Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact


To raise awareness of the global water crisis, Mina Guli ran the equivalent of 40 marathons on seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks earlier this year.

As a marathon runner, I salute her.

As a reporter who writes about philanthropy, I’m less impressed.

A “global leader, athlete, entrepreneur and adventurer” — her words, not mine –Guli is the founder and CEO of Thirst, a charity registered in Hong Kong that aims to teach young people, mostly in China, “to become responsible water citizens, managing their own water use and the use of those around them.”

Thirst has issues. What, for starters, does it mean to be a “responsible water citizen”? For Thirst, it appears to mean making small changes to conserve water: Drinking tea instead of coffee, eating chicken instead of beef, buying fewer T-shirts and taking shorter showers. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to know if Thirst’s activities change behavior. More important, it’s unlikely that water conservation on a personal or household level will do much about water scarcity. (It could even make things worse, as I’ll explain.) As it that weren’t enough, Thirst won’t say where its money comes from, or how much it spends, or even who paid for Guli’s adventures on seven continents and produced a series of beautiful videos documenting her feat.

Thirst would not be worth our attention were it not an initiative of the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. This organization consists of people under 40 selected by the World Economic Forum, the group that organizes the annual winter gathering of some of the world’s most powerful political leaders, CEOs and philanthropists at Davos, a Swiss ski resort. These young global leaders are “bold, brave, action-oriented and entrepreneurial” and committed to “serving society at large,” we’re told.

They are also smart enough to think critically about NGOs and their impact. But the WEF’s alignment with Thirst–see, for example, this posting on the World Economic Forum website by a WEF staffer–is an unwelcome reminder that for too many people, when it comes to philanthropy, good intentions are good enough. Even setting aside the issue of transparency, which is no small matter, the more important question that must be asked of Thirst, and of any NGO that aspires to tackle a big global issue, is a simple one: Where is the evidence that its work will bring about meaningful and lasting change? Continue reading


It’s easy for most of us to take the simplest things–like flushing a toilet–for granted. Yet almost 2.4 billion people lack access to modern sanitation, and nearly 1 billion practice open defecation, according to the World Health Organization. The problem is worst in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, particularly India.

What’s to be done?

That’s hard to know, says Seeking Sanitation Success, an excellent report commissioned by Catholic Relief Services:

Very little information on sustained solutions is available, making funders and practitioners in the sector vulnerable to repeating mistakes or investing in unproven approaches.

The report also found:

There has been no NGO-led sanitation approach that leads to success at scale (depending on the definition).

The report was written by Susan Davis, who is the founder of Improve International, a small NGO aimed at improving the quality and sustainability of water and sanitation projects in poor countries. By phone, she  explains that most progress in delivering modern sanitation has been led by governments, and not NGOs.

That doesn’t mean that NGOs can’t play a constructive role, she says. They can advocate for government action, they can help spur behavior change around sanitation (which is harder to do than you might think) and, importantly, they can help figure out which of the many approaches to sanitation work best.

This is an all-too-familiar story in global development. We don’t know enough about what works. Programs are under-studied. Results are under-reported, if they are reported at all. Successes are trumpeted. Failures, not so much. Followup is rare. Continue reading

ijSummer heat settled over Washington, D.C., last week, and so it is time for me to slow down, literally and figuratively.

One of my journalistic heroes is Carol Loomis the outstanding financial journalist and a  former colleague at FORTUNE magazine. Carol, who worked at FORTUNE for 60 years, took summers off in her later years and while I’m not going quite that far, I’m going to work a lot less this month and next. From training nearly two dozen marathons during many Washington summers, I’ve learned that pacing is important. Rest days, too.

I started this blog in March 2015, and promised myself I’d write at least one post a week. I’ve kept up that pace since then, writing 81 posts and, as best as I can estimate, nearly 100,000 words (more than the average book). That discipline forced me to seek out new stories each week and expose myself to new people, ideas and institutions. It’s been a great way to teach myself as much as I can about philanthropy, in a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, the weekly rhythm led me to post stories that could have been reported more deeply or written more carefully. There’s a quantity/quality tradeoff in reporting that has been part of my self since I began writing for newspapers, sometimes churning out two or three stories a day, more than 40 years ago.

I now plan to post with less regularity to this blog for the rest of the summer, and perhaps beyond. My inclination is to write fewer stories that aim for greater depth. But as a believer in the importance of feedback loops, I’d love to know what you, the readers of this blog, think. How can I make myself more useful? Feel free to comment or email me at marc.gunther at Gmail.

Remember that my purpose here is to contribute, in whatever way I can, to a more effective nonprofit sector. As I sometimes say–we all know there are thousands upon thousands of nonprofits in the world, some of them wonderful, some of them mediocre and many in the middle. Wouldn’t be it great to know which is which?


New Story’s founders: Mike, Matthew, Alexandria and Brett

“We have crushed the Red Cross,” Brett Hagler has said, bluntly but not unkindly.

He’s got a point. Hagler is the 26-year-old founder and CEO of New Story, a startup nonprofit that has built more than 150 homes for families in Haiti who previously lived in tent slums. If you listen to NPR or read Pro Publica, you probably know that the American Red Cross raised nearly $500 million for Haiti relief, squandered much of it and built just six permanent homes.

The Haiti story is more complicated than that (as most are) but this is certain: New Story has crushed the American Red Cross when it comes to transparency and accountability, and there’s a lesson there for all nonprofits about the power of openness.

Indeed, New Story’s rapid growth–it went from an idea to an organization that raised more than $1.6 million in just a year–has been driven largely by two things: It promises to spend all of the money from donations from individuals to build houses (and none on “overhead”) and it connects those donors directly to the people they help.

As New Story says on its website: “We believe that when you give, you should know exactly who you’re helping and where the money goes.” Whether they give $5 or $5,000, donors get a video like this one showing a family moving into a home they helped finance. Continue reading

1337256000000.cached_0Melinda Gates had no desire to attend the Ursuline Academy of Dallas, the all-girls Catholic high school from which she graduated in 1982. “I railed against my parents for not sending me to the best academic school in town,” she recalled the other day, at a Washington event. But Gates now feels grateful for her Catholic education.

The nuns, she says, taught her that all lives have equal value–the radical guiding principle and oft-repeated mantra of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As the world’s biggest philanthropy, the Gates Foundation has since its inception in 2000 given away $36.7 billion — billion! — to promote global health and global development and to improve education in the US.

Gates co-chairs the foundation with her husband, Bill, and has shaped it from the very start. She was interviewed about philanthropy the other day by Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on charitable giving. I was intrigued during the interview by how much of her worldview and thus the work of the foundation appears to have been shaped by her Catholic faith.

“You and I as Roman Catholics believe in a preference for the poor,” Brooks remarked, at one point.

“Yes” she agreed, readily.

Catholic social doctrine, in that regard, prefigures effective altruism–arguing that it’s better to serve the poorest of the poor than to donate money to renovate a concert hall or build a new student center and dining hall at my well-endowed alma mater.

Continue reading


Some nonprofits, and people working inside nonprofits, pursue the same strategy, year after year, without stopping to ask whether they are having an impact. Not Linda Greeran influential senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who for the past 25 years has worked to get companies to clean up their act.

Originally a Washington insider, Greer has lobbied the federal government; worked closely with Dow Chemical, a notorious polluter; wangled her way into Apple to get the company to take responsibility for its supply chain in China; and, more recently, joined the board of a global apparel industry coalition that, as she sees it, needs to move a lot faster to deal with the environmental impacts of fast fashion.

Greer, who has a PhD in environmental toxicology, is street smart as well as book smart. Over a long lunch in Bethesda, MD, where we are neighbors, we talked about how NGOs can drive companies to change, why environmental nonprofits should not take money from corporations and how she has worked side by side with Ma Jun, China’s best-known environmental leader. Continue reading

Let’s start with a story about learning and failure at one foundation–and then move on to a renewed effort to share knowledge by IssueLab.

The story: Recently, I had an enjoyable conversation with Reeta Roy, who is president and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation. Based in Toronto and dedicated to poverty alleviation in Africa, the Mastercard Foundation was formed in 2006 when MasterCard, the credit card company, went public. The company endowed the foundation with shares of its stock, which have grown like crazy–up by about 1,900 percent in the last decade. Consequently, the MasterCard Foundation now has assets of about $11 billion, which makes it the fourth biggest foundation in North America–bigger than Hewlett, Packard, Kellogg, Rockefeller, etc. (Credit cards are a very nice business, particularly when people carry balances at interest rates of 11% to 23%.)

A PR firm retained by the foundation had emailed me, offering the interview. I was interested for several reasons, without having a particular story in mind. I wondered how a foundation that has grown so rapidly can learn fast enough so that it can spend its money wisely. The foundation was about to announce $10.6 million in grants to five for-profit companies that serve clients in rural Africa; that’s newsworthy, too, because foundations typically make grants to nonprofits. Finally, I noted that the foundation had initially focused on education — it is the biggest foundation funder of education in Africa — and on microfinance, which made sense, giving its roots in the credit industry. But doubt has arisen about the benefits of microcredit, and I was curious to know what the foundation had learned about microfinance, and whether it had pivoted in a different direction.


Reeta Roy

Roy and I spoke for about 25 minutes. She told me that the foundation has, among other things, broadened from microfinance to what is now called financial inclusion, a concept that includes financial literacy, mobile money, insurance for smallholder farmers and the like. “All of it is really focused on the needs of the client,” Roy said. “It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s a massive enabler in getting people out of poverty.” The foundation partners with others, including the Gates Foundation and the Equity Group Foundation, which have programs on financial inclusion, so they can learn together. And, she told me, the foundation isn’t afraid to fail. We’re trying to create an environment at the foundation where people are not afraid to say that something did not work,” she said. So far, so good.

Then things got interesting. Continue reading


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