Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

Search for donate goat oxfamWell, this is odd.

Above, a Google search for “donate goat Oxfam” is topped by ads for the World Wildlife Fund and the ASPCA.

Below, a Google search for “Oxfam goats” turns up ads for two other charities, Compassion International and Outreach International.

Search for Oxfam goats

What’s going on here?

That’s hard to know. It certainly appears as if the four charities took out Google ads that included the word “Oxfam” in order to capitalize on the brand name of a well-known global NGO. When I came upon these results after being tipped off by a friend at a small foundation, I surmised that this was guerrilla marketing, NGO-style: Nonprofits poaching on a popular brand as they compete aggressively for donor dollars. Buying search ads using rival brands is not uncommon in the business world. (See The Complete Guide to Bidding on Competitor Brand Names & Trademarked Terms.)

This, however, is not what Google intended when it established Google Ad Grants for nonprofit groups. The popular program provides free Google AdWords advertising—up to $10,000 per month—on Google search result pages to qualified nonprofits. More than 35,000 nonprofits participate, according to Google.

Ad Grants, Google says, are “designed to help organizations extend their public service messages to a global audience to make a greater impact on the world.”

Fundraising by tapping into people’s desire to buy goats for the very poor–a dubious idea, in any event, as we’ll explain–would not seem to qualify.

The story gets stranger. A WWF spokesperson who declined to be identified — which is never a good sign — told me by email

While WWF generally does not share details of its online ad strategy, in this instance we can tell you that WWF is not bidding on any Google ads for the words “Oxfam” or “goat.” As you likely know, Google uses a complex algorithm to determine where to put an organization’s ads, and only Google would be able to answer why our ad showed up in this particular search.

Notice that the use of the present tense. (“WWF is not bidding…”) Nothing about whether it has bid on the word “Oxfam” in the past.

Tim Glenn of Compassion International wrote me:

We did purchase the ad word goat and gift, but not Oxfam. I’m sure this came up solely because of those words we purchased in an effort to promote our Christmas Gift Catalog. You’re right, that would be odd to purchase another NGO’s brand name as an ad word for promotion and it’s not something we would do.

Charlotte Belshe of Outreach International explained by email:

The use of the organization name “Oxfam” in our ad was an error. When Google suggested a list of 50+ keywords to incorporate to our existing ads, “Oxfam” must have been included in the list of suggestions and was added as a part of the entire group of recommended keywords. We would never intentionally use the name of another charity to boost our content.

Danielle Arnold of the ASPCA, via email, also challenged my assumption that the ASPCA was poaching:

There are a combination of factors that impact the ads displayed on Google searches, including an individual user’s search history, current bid rates, and Google’s proprietary algorithm, so that assumption is incorrect. Beyond that, we do not comment on our marketing strategy.

Somehow I doubt that Google’s algorithm would insert an ASPCA ad into a search for “donate goat Oxfam,” but maybe that’s just me.

Search for the ASPCA, by the way, and you find an ad from Best Friends, a smaller animal welfare nonprofit:

Search for ASPCA

Google, as you’d expect, isn’t happy about this. Last month, it made changes to Ad Grants. Google told nonprofits that “branded words that you don’t own like “YouTube” or “Google” or names of newspapers or other organizations” are not permitted as keywords. That should put an end to the practice of poaching.

Why blog about this? Primarily because it’s a reminder of how competition works in the nonprofit sector, which is to say, not very well. All too often, NGOs view their competitors as other NGOS, as they seek donors or media attention. There’s more talk of collaboration in the sector than there is actual collaboration.

It’s also illustrates how big nonprofits use data. Witness WWF’s reluctance to “share details of our online ad strategy.” Well-funded NGOS use A/B testing to determine which direct mail or email fundraising messages work best, in order to maximize the impact of their ad budgets. Very few are as rigorous when it comes to testing the impact of their programs to see which work and which don’t. 

Finally, goats. Wow, they’re popular. Vanguard Charitable, which hosts donor-advised funds, buys Google ads for the search terms “donate goats.”  So do Compassion International, Save the Children and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital:

Screen shot of donate goats

Never mind that buying a goat (or a chicken or ducks) for a poor family at Christmas (or any other time) is a dumb idea.

For one thing, it’s not really a goat. The small print in those charity holiday gift catalogs gives the charity the freedom to take money donated for goats, and spend it on other programs; often they do. In essence, goats are a fund-raising gimmicks. How many goat-giving charities ever report on how many goats they’ve given away, how much they cost and whether improve incomes  for the poor? Not one that I am aware of.

The bigger question is, why would donors in rich countries presume that what people in poor countries want is a goat? (It’s hard enough for me to figure out what my wife wants for her birthday.) Maybe what poor people in Africa, Asia or Latin America want is a chicken or a tin roof or school fees or, gee, cash. I wouldn’t expect someone I’ve never met in a poor country to choose a gift out of a catalog for me. So why would I choose one for them?

 

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Dispensers for Safe Water saves lives in east Africa

Of the countless well-meaning efforts to help the world’s poor, only sixteen are currently endorsed by GiveWell, a meta-charity that rigorously investigates nonprofits. Three of those are run by a little-known nonprofit called Evidence Action.

This is no accident. While GiveWell evaluates programs and Evidence Action operates them, their values are aligned: Both seek to alleviate poverty with interventions that are supported by evidence, thoroughly vetted and cost effective. These are the kinds of programs that merit support from donors, particularly institutional donors, although they don’t necessarily get it.

Evidence Action got started just five years ago when it was spun out of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a network of university researchers focused on global poverty. Evidence Action identifies anti-poverty interventions that have been tested in the field by economists, usually on a small scale, and then looks for ways to help them grow, evaluating them at each stage. All of its programs — pills to protect children from parasitic worms, chlorine dispensers to treat contaminated water, travel subsidies to enable labor mobility in Bangladesh, and remedial education for kids — began as academic research.

Put simply, and true to its name, Evidence Action takes evidence and turns it into action.

“The biggest impact at the lowest cost is what we are after,” the group says on its website.

To learn more, I went to see Arjun Pant, Evidence Action’s chief of staff, in downtown Washington DC, where the organization rents space from WeWork. (It is looking for new offices because it is adding staff.) Pant, who is 31, is a Wharton MBA and former Bain & Co. consultant who has been interested in global development since spending a good part of his childhood and adolescence in India.

Lots of aid dollars, he told me, go to programs that may or may not work, and where impact is hard to pin down. “We place a huge emphasis on measuring impact,” Pant says. You’d think this would appeal to the big, staffed foundations that support global development, but it’s not that simple, as we’ll see.

In November, GiveWell recognized three Evidence Action programs. It named Deworm the World Initiative and No Lean Season as “top charities,” and chose Dispensers for Safe Water as a “standout charity,” a tier just below.

Worm wars

Deworming as an intervention is controversial. Deworm the World is one of several charities that were formed after a 2004 paper by economists Michael Kremer and Ted Miguel found that regular treatment with a low-cost pill prevents worm infections in kids and generates long-term benefits. Their findings have been disputed  by others, including Cochrane, a respected network of health experts. (Here’s a lively summary, via Chris Blattman, of what came to be known as the worm wars.) GiveWell, which commissioned a deep rethink of deworming by David Roodman, a brainy public-policy consultant, still believes that that school-based deworming improves long-term productivity at an average cost of less than $1 per child per year; Evidence Action also points to rigorous evidence support deworming. Deworm the World was the first program operated by Evidence Action, which works with governments in India, Kenya, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Nigeria. They treated nearly 200 million children in 2016. That’s real scale.

No Lean Season is a newer initiative. It’s part of Evidence Action Beta, which tests, prototypes and expands promising interventions. Based on research by Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, a Yale economist who grew up in Bangladesh, No Lean Season provides travel subsidies of $8 to $19 to poor farmers in rural areas of Bangladesh so they can travel to cities to find work after crops are planted and before they are harvested. Here’s a good feature story from NPR’s Goats & Soda about No Lean Season.

The “top charity” designations for Deworm the World and No Lean Season are expected to bring a substantial infusion of cash to Evidence Action from Good Ventures, the philanthropic foundation of Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. GiveWell, which advises Good Ventures, has recommended that the foundation make multi-year grants of $15.2m to Deworm the World and $11.5m to No Lean Season. Good Ventures and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, a British donor, were already the biggest donors to Evidence Action, which spent about $20m last year.

As a “standout charity,” Dispensers for Safe Water gets a $100,000 grant from Good Ventures–a nice boost but not enough to sustain it for long. The program delivers, monitors and maintains chlorine dispensers at wells, boreholes and open water sources in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda. It currently serves about 4.7m people. You can track the operations of Dispensers for Safe Water on this live dashboard; few water charities match that degree of transparency.

Dispensers for Safe Water grew out of research by Kremer, Miguel, Sendil Mullainathan, Alix Zwane (who later became the first CEO of Evidence Action) and Clair Null that found that the dispensers, which provide free and convenient chlorine, are the best way to persuade people to treat their water. (Mullainathan is a well-known behavioral economist.) The Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, two of the US’s biggest grantmakers, with ambitious initiatives to fight global poverty, were among the funders of the research.

Interestingly, though, neither Gates nor Hewlett currently fund Dispensers for Safe Water or Evidence Action. (Gates no longer funds water programs; its focus has shifted to sanitation.) Nor do the Ford or Rockefeller foundation, which support global health and anti-poverty programs, or the Conrad R. Hilton Foundation, which has an initiative devoted to safe water.

A fundraising challenge

“Safe water is a difficult intervention to fundraise for,” Pant told me, saying more money flows to building wells or pipes. Some foundations prefer to fund new ideas and would rather not pay to maintain existing programs. Others want programs they support to be able to demonstrate a path towards financial sustainability.

As Evidence Action notes in a blogpost:

Traditional donor financing usually comes in the form of time-limited project-specific grants that are disbursed with the expectation of project completion or project sustainability at the end of the grant period. In reality, the end of donor financing often leads to a search for more short-term donor financing or – when donor financing dries up, the demise of a project.

Financial sustainability will be a challenger for Dispensers for Safe Water. Asking poor people to pay for chlorine treatment would sharply reduce usage, research shows, leading to more illness and death. Even when chlorine treatments are free and convenient, sustained adopted rates of Dispensers for Safe Water in Kenya and Uganda are not quite 50 % — rates that Evidence Action says are nonetheless higher than other methods of water purification.

Supporters of Dispensers for Safe Water have included the Stone Family Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, the Isenberg Family Charitable Foundation, Mercy Corps and charity: water. An unnamed European foundation is buying carbon credits to support the program; chlorine dispensers are believed to avert carbon emissions because users do not need to boil water to disinfect it. But carbon credits have not so far been a reliable funding stream for anti-poverty work, as best as I can tell.

Evidence Action says that, to maintain existing operations across its 28,000 dispensers in Kenya, Uganda and Malawi, it will need about $5m per year. Expanding the program, of course, will cost more. To reach scale, Evidence Action may have to look to development agencies or host governments to take over and fund the program. In the meantime, why won’t more funders step up?*

*The WHO says that diarrhoeal disease, which is preventable and treatable, kills an estimated 525 000 children under five each year. Safe drinking-water and adequate sanitation and hygiene could prevent many of those deaths. Few water charities are as evidence-based or transparent as Dispensers for Safe Water. See my 2015 blogpost, Water taps and information gaps

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A Beyond Meat burger

Two new books kept me busy last week: Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, by Paul Shapiro, and Clean Protein: The Revolution that will Reshape Your Body, Boost Your Energy–and Save Our Planet, by Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich.

Is a revolution coming to dinner? Well, maybe.

These authors are calling for a revolution that will be driven by new ways to produce meat alternatives and grow real meat that will all but eliminate meat produced on so-called factory farms. Conventional meat, they say, will be replaced by plant-based alternatives from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods or, down the line, by so-called clean meat, a term used to describe meat that is grown from animal cells, without the need to raise or slaughter cows, pigs of chickens.

Clean meat “could be the biggest upheaval in how we produce food since the agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago,” writes Shapiro, a vegan and lifelong animal-welfare activist who until very recently was vice president of policy engagement for the Humane Society of the United States .

Freston, an author, vegan and wellness expert, and Friedrich, the co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, are also advocates. Their book envisions a future in which people look back at “the collective efforts of individuals, entrepreneurs and communities that pushed farmed animal protect from the center of the plate to the side of it–and then off it entirely.”

The entrepreneurs featured in these books do not lack hubris. Hampton Creek, a company best known for its egg-free Just Mayo, has yet to sell an ounce of meat, but a sign outside the lab where it is developing technology to grow chicken from cell banks says: “DESTINATION: World’s Largest Meat Company by 2030.” Pat Brown, a Stanford biochemist and founder of Impossible Foods, last year told a reporter that “we fully intend to be producing 100 percent of the ground beef in the world within the next decade or so.”

That strikes me as, er, impossible. But there’s no doubt that momentum is building behind alternatives to conventional meat, largely because of the toll that the industrial-scale farming of chickens, pigs and cows takes on the planet, on public health and, of course, on the animals. Food Navigator, a mainstream industry publication, chose cellular agriculture as the No. 1 food and beverage trend to watch in 2018, saying it has “the potential to completely transform the food supply.” The No. 2 trend? Plant-based innovation.

Hey, maybe a revolution is brewing. Continue reading

My wife Karen Schneider and I gave just under seven percent of our pretax income to charity in 2017. Most Americans give away about three percent of their adjusted gross income, according to the Urban Institute, but our earnings are higher, so we should give away more. The Life You Can Save, a website inspired by the moral philosopher Peter Singer, has a calculator that recommends the percentage of your income that he believes you should give.*

I’m writing about our giving because (1) I’m a strong believer in transparency,  (2) I would like to influence readers to be more intentional about their giving, and (3) I would like to encourage more people to talk about their charitable giving, both to promote moregiving and so that we can learn from one another. For what it’s worth, I’ve had almost no luck engaging friends in this conversation. I’m not sure why.

My biggest donation this year went to Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation. In this, I’m like most Americans; religion was the biggest category of individual giving last year, reports Giving USA. My religious beliefs and synagogue community fuel much of my work and guide much of my life; giving to Adat Shalom is like paying the bills for spiritual energy and an ethical GPS.

My next biggest donation went GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly, which makes unconditional cash grants to extremely poor people in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, has become my favorite charity for several reasons. First, I love the idea of simply giving money to the poor, and letting them decide what to do with it; it’s efficient (91 cents of every donated dollar ends up in the hands of the poor) and studies indicate that it is effective as well. I’ve never been poor, nor have I lived in East Africa, so there’s no way for me to know whether a poor East African family needs a cow or a cookstove or job training (probably not). It makes sense to trust the poor to decide for themselves what they need. Second, GiveDirectly has the potential to influence global aid by providing a benchmark against which other programs can be measured. If these other interventions can’t outperform cash (and they often cannot) why bother doing them? Finally, I’ve had a chance to meet Paul Niehaus and Michael Faye, two of the co-founders of GiveDirectly. Michael now chairs its board and Paul is president. I’m confident that they will spend my donation well. (See below for an amusing video about holiday gift-giving and GiveDirectly by economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok.)

Third on my giving list is GiveWell. GiveWell, as you may know, is a donation platform that identifies and analyzes effective charities:

Unlike charity evaluators that focus solely on financials, assessing administrative or fundraising costs, we conduct in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent.

This is important work. GiveWell drives many millions of dollars to its top charities. Its work is a much-needed reminder that good intentions are not enough reason to support a charity. Nor, for that matter, are good results. What we want–or at least, what we should want–from our charitable donations is to do the most good that we can per dollar spent.

My fourth biggest donation went to Animal Charity Evaluators. Animals raised for food endure terrible suffering; Animal Charity Evaluators examines nonprofits that advocate on behalf of farm animals. Animal Charity Evaluators will deliver most of my donation to its top charities, which include Animal Equality, The Humane League and the Good Food Institute. All do excellent work.

My wife Karen chose the other groups to which we made significant donations. They are Mama Cash, which supports feminist activism around the world; the National Network of Abortion Funds, which provides access to abortions for poor women; and the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, which support advocates for LGBTQI human rights. (Our daughter Sarah is director of philanthropic partnerships at Astraea.)

Karen and I made smaller donations to nonprofits where friends work or volunteer. They include the International Rescue Committee, Yachad, The Life You Can Save, the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, Climate Ride and the Insight Meditation Community of Washington.

Thanks again for reading Nonprofit Chronicles. See you in 2018.

 

* I plagiarized myself in this blogpost. My giving hasn’t changed all that much from last year so I have taken some language from a similar post that I wrote in 2016.

Some great books that I read this year, and a few not-so-great:

Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua, by Stephen Kinzer. A terrific book about the rise to power of the Sandinistas, who overcame violent opposition from the US-funded contras in the 1980s. I read this while on vacation in Nicaragua in January, as outrage grew in the US over Russian “hacking” of the US election. How quickly people forget that the US did its own “hacking” (and worse) in Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. A fictional memoir that purports to be the story of Chabon’s grandfather as he lurches across the second half of the 20th Century, from his pursuit of Werner von Braun in occupied German to his encounter with a pet-killing reptile in a Florida retirement community. Some great moments, but this Chabon fan preferred Kavalier & Clay and Telegraph Avenue.

downloadWhen Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. A brilliant, overachieving neurosurgeon, about to complete his studies, faces death from brain cancer. Haunting and inspiring.

One Shot at Forever, by Chris Ballard. A hippie English teacher leads a small-town, high-school baseball team in rural Illinois on a memorable journey in the 1970s. With a cameo by Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge a curmudgeon, either. Ove isn’t who he seems to be.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. How Mexican heroine and Oxycontin devastated vast swaths of rural America. An amazing saga, well told, by an enterprising and seemingly tireless reporter.

MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live–One Meal at a Time by Kristie Middleton. You don’t have to be a vegan or vegetarian to alleviate animal suffering, argues an executive of the Humane Society of the United States.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I was so blown away by the documentary I Am Not Your Negro that I had to read some Baldwin. Unlike the movie, this felt dated. Other recommendations?

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is the gentleman, sentenced in 1922 by the Bolsheviks to spend the rest of his life in an elegant Moscow hotel. Beautifully written, and a page-turner.

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. The formidable trio of Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker and Chris Christie agree to fix Newark’s public schools. It doesn’t go well.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Put down your cell phone, turn off Facebook, ignore Twitter and read this book if you want to do more work that matters. You can skip the first half, which explains why deep work is important; the second half explains how to do more of it.

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter by Peter Singer. Is it OK to serve turkey at Thanksgiving? Buy expensive art? Have sex with an adult sibling? You have questions. The world’s most influential philosopher has answers.

41AheqCwqqL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan. How the very rich throw their weight around, using philanthropy. My thoughts, here.

Big Hunger by Andrew Fisher. Your local food bank may not be doing as much good as it could be. My interview with Andrew, here

Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination by Adam Lashinsky. This was a must-read for me because Adam is a friend and former colleague at FORTUNE. Very well done, but events rapidly overtook the story when Travis Kalanick was ousted from Uber.

Smart Risks: How Small Grants are Helping to Solve Some of the World’s Biggest Problems, edited by Jennifer Lentfer and Tanya Cothran. Why giving money to grass-roots groups makes sense. My thoughts, here

Turn Right at Macchu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, by Mark Adams. A travel writer who had never before slept in a tent recreates the journey of Hiram Bingham. Hilarity ensues. A prelude to my hiking trip in July in Peru.

The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur, by Jonathan C. Lewis. I’m not a fan of the term “social entrepreneur.” I am a fan of Jonathan Lewis and this book. My thoughts, here.

61OCvx9UU3L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilderson. How often do you finish a 640-page book and wish for more? The best book I read this year, If you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favor and order it now. Just awesome.

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. An ambitious novel of secrets and lies, featuring an idealistic young college graduate, a Julian Assange-like figure hiding in the highlands of Bolivia and an investigative reporter. Not my favorite Franzen, but still good.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Spare and simple, beautifully written, the story of a troubled relationship between a mother and daughter who are estranged until the daughter is hospitalized. Too quiet for my taste.

Give Work: Reversing Poverty One Job at a Time by Leilah Janah. Skip it. My blogpost about Janah, here.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken. I absolutely loved the audio book. Then, well, you know.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. A famous American opera singer and her biggest fan, a Japanese electronics mogul, are held hostage in an embassy of a Latin American nation, along with vividly-drawn collection of  revolutionaries and captives. Lyrical and riveting, all the way to the shocking finale.

41DKOLz-5qL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright. An expert on evolutionary psychology puts forth three startling and powerful claims in this book. First, meditation will help you see the world more clearly. Second, it will make you a happier person. Third, it will make you a better person. His arguments are compelling.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. Who’s in the kitchen with Anthony? “Wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths.” Deliciously funny.

The Golden Donors: A New Anatomy of the Great Foundations by Waldemar A. Nielsen. This 1985 account is dated, but it’s so well written that reading it was a pleasure. Besides, history matters. (Thanks to Ben Soskis, who recommended it.)

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler. A lively professional memoir by the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Insightful and, believe it or not, funny.

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts. How to spend months–or years–traveling the world on the cheap. Hey, a guy can dream.

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Participatory grantmaking at the Brooklyn Community Foundation

Nothing about us without us.

This declaration has become a rallying cry for the disability rights movement.*

It could just as well be a call to arms for participatory grantmaking — the practice of giving more power over philanthropic spending to the people that it is supposed to help.

So it’s no accident that the Disability Rights Fund, which calls itself a “grantmaking collaborative” between donors and disability rights advocates, is a leading practitioner of participatory grantmaking.

The Disability Rights Fund supports advocacy groups led by persons with disabilities, primarily in the global south. It puts persons with disabilities on its governing and advisory boards to help shape its strategy as well as to decide on specific grants.

“We’ve been trying to model the world as we want to see it,” says Diana Samarasan, the group’s founding executive director. The fund supports activists who reject a charity approach and assert their rights to steer their own lives, and so it makes sense to invite them to guide its work as well.

Has the time come for participatory grantmaking? It seems so. That question is the title of an excellent new report [PDF] commissioned by the Ford Foundation and written by Cynthia Gibson, a consultant and practitioner of participatory approaches. Gibson will follow up with a how-to guide on participatory grantmaking that GrantCraft, a unit of the Foundation Center, plans to release next year.

Participatory grantmaking fits this political moment: It reflects a populist distrust of elites and experts that, among other things, fueled the Trump and Sanders campaigns, as well as Brexit, anti-intellectualism, the idea of “fake news,” and the like.

Big private foundations are nothing if not elite. Those that fail to examine their decision-making practices face the risk of “being seen as part of the problem, rather than as the problem-solvers” they would like to be, says Chris Cardona, a program officer for philanthropy at Ford, in a blogpost about the report:

In this time of dramatic change, people are becoming distrustful of established institutions, including foundations, and are demanding greater accountability and transparency. Across sectors, elite-driven, top-down decision-making is increasingly viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Participatory grantmaking has support from the left, as you would expect: Practitioners tend to focus on social justice and human rights. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy hosted a webinar on the topic last summer.

Perhaps surprisingly, it appeals to conservatives as well. A thoughtful essay by Michael E. Hartmann in Philanthropy Daily begins with William F. Buckley Jr.’s quip that he would “rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”

Hartmann, a conservative, praises the Ford report as “a healthy and necessary dose of establishment-philanthropy self-flagellation.” While cautioning that participatory grantmaking creates risks as well as benefits, he writes:

All in all, Ford should be commended for proposing and starting an important discussion. Grantmakers on both the left and right should join the Ford-inspired debate.

True enough. But while participatory grantmaking is having a moment in the sun, the practice is being embraced mostly by smaller funders on the fringes of the philanthropic establishment. It’s especially appealing to human rights funders serving marginalized populations — disabled persons, LGBTQ or young feminists  — who can be invited into a meeting room. The Amsterdam-based Red Umbrella Fund, for example, which serves sex workers, says, quite logically, that “sex workers themselves are the best positioned to know what is needed for them, and best placed to do something about it.” Foundations aimed at protecting the oceans or researching cancer are better advised to rely on experts in those fields.

Nor is participatory grantmaking a new phenomenon, as Gibson notes in the report. The Headwaters Foundation for Justice, a small foundation based in Minnesota (of course!), has been practicing what it calls “community-led grant making” for more than 30 years. Its website says it is guided by a “a simple and powerful truth: the people who experience injustice are essential to ending it.”

It seems probable that participatory grantmaking is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. That said, it’s not easy to do. Questions abound: Precisely who gets to participate? What does “participate” mean, in practice? If grantees get to divvy up pools of money, how can funders guard against log-rolling or conflicts of interest? It’s all too easy to imagine participatory grantmakers getting bogged down in process.

“There are real costs associated with (participating grantmaking),” says Katy Love, director of community resources at the Wikimedia Foundation. “It’s beautiful and it’s amazing and it’s complicated and it’s messy.”

Then there’s the hardest question of all: Can foundation executives, with their stellar resumes and Ivy League degrees, be persuaded to share power with the less educated and less privileged? Gibson writes:

The culture change needed to make these practices part of the ethos of grantmaking organizations isn’t for the faint of heart; it can take years, if not decades, to root in a meaningful way.

Her report provides a useful taxonomy of participatory grantmaking in graphic form. Old-style foundations (“informing”) work from the top down, others bring outsiders into the process to varying degrees (“consulting” or “involving”) and a smaller number share power with their grantees or beneficiaries (“deciding”).

Here are brief sketches of three funders who are pushing the envelope:

The Disability Rights Fund: The fund’s strategy is guided by a global advisory panel made up entirely of activists, nine of whom are persons with disabilities and three who come from other human rights communities, according to Samarasan. “They talk about where the movement is going, and how that should affect our grant making priorities,” she says. Four activists from that panel sit on a grant-making panel, along with four donors. Ultimate power rests with a nine-member member board, three of whose members are persons with disabilities and one of whom is a parent of a disabled person. It’s a lot of advice-soliciting for a small foundation that gives out $2m to $2.5m a year in grants, some for as little as $5,000. Funding comes from the Open Society Foundations, as well as the UK and Australian governments.

The Wikimedia Foundation: More than 70,000 volunteers added 5 million articles to Wikipedia in 2016, according to the foundation, which operates Wikipedia and other free knowledge websites. Just as anyone can become a Wikipedia editor, anyone who edits Wikipedia can make a proposal to the Wikimedia Foundation. Through a voting process, volunteers have “the power to make decisions” about many of the grants distributed by the foundation, says the foundation’s Katy Love. How that works is necessarily complicated, involved a staff process to review grant applications, virtual and telephone committee consultations and face-to-face meetings that lead to “what can be quite difficult conversations about how to use our limited resources to make the biggest possible difference,” Love says. Grants can go to individuals or nonprofits, and many aim to spread Wikipedia to the global south. Grants added up to about $11m last year.

The Brooklyn Community Foundation: Soon after joining the Brooklyn Community Foundation as president and CEO in 2013, Cecilia Clarke launched Brooklyn Insights, an effort that engaged more than 1,000 Brooklynites in conversations about the borough’s future and the foundation’s role. She then oversaw a community-led grantmaking effort in Crown Heights, a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood of Hasidic Jews, West Indians and African-Americans. “It’s like time-lapse photography around here,” she says. “You are watching buildings going up in front of your eyes.” After a year of scattered grantmaking, and deliberations of an advisory board made up of neighborhood residents, the Crown Heights effort evolved to focus on public spaces. While the foundation’s board retains ultimate authority, it upheld recommendations from the neighborhood people, including one that challenged the plans of a real-estate developer who is a foundation donor. “It was a cultural shift,” says Clarke. “The residents lead this process.” The foundation explains how it all worked on this lively website.

What’s not clear is whether participatory grantmaking can improve the work of large global or national foundations, like the Ford Foundation. The concept aligns neatly with Ford’s belief that inequality is “the defining challenge of our time, one that limits the potential of all people, everywhere,” but if the foundation can’t find ways to share power as well as money with marginalized people, can it claim, as its does, that “addressing inequality is at the center of everything we do?” (Ford declined to be interviewed.) To its credit, Ford has made grants to intermediaries, including the Disability Rights Fund, the Red Umbrella Fund and the Global Greengrants Fund, which supports grassroots environmental advocates. The Novo Foundation and Open Society Foundations also support existing participatory grantmakers. By doing so, they are gently disrupting the power dynamics of conventional philanthropy.

* “Nothing about us without us” is the title of a book about disability oppression and empowerment by James Charlton, and another by David Werner, written by, for and with disabled persons.

IMG_6154Enemies: A Love Story, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor named Herman Broder in postwar New York. At one point, Singer, who was a vegetarian for many years, wrote:

As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: In their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.

Like the fictional Herman Broder, Alex Hershaft is a Holocaust survivor who worries about the suffering of farm animals. Hershaft, too, sees similarities between the mindset of the Nazis and those who kill animals for food, although he is, of course, careful not to equate the Holocaust to animal agriculture. The parallels, he explains, are not about the victims but about the perpetrators; their actions are made possible because of arbitrary distinctions that enable cruelty.

“You need to get permission to from your society–to believe that it is all right that one sentient being will live, and another will die,” Hershaft says.

“The Christian lives, the Jew dies,” he says. “The dog lives, the pig dies.”

A pioneer of the animal-rights movement, Hershaft has lived a remarkable life; he has told his story all over the world. Last week, he told it at a Washington event organized by Jewish Veg, a DC-based nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace plant-based diets “as an expression of the Jewish values of compassion for animals, concern for health and care for the environment.” JewishVeg has put together a video and a statement signed by dozens of rabbis who encourage Jews to transition towards animal-free diets. “The vegan movement is not going to get where it needs to go without the active involvement of the religious community, including the Jewish community,” says Jeffrey Cohan, the executive director of Jewish Veg.

Hershaft, who is 83, is an unassuming man. He is slight of build, balding and dresses in a business suit and sneakers (no leather, of course). He speaks quietly with a slight Polish accent. Born in 1934 in Warsaw, his parents were well-educated professionals; his father, a prominent chemist, was invited to work on the Manhattan Project, and was awaiting permission for his son and wife to travel to the United States with him when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

“The war arrived before the visas,” Hershaft says.

A boy of five, Hershaft was one of nearly half a million Jews who were crowded into the Warsaw Ghetto. Nearly one in five died from disease or starvation. Most of the rest were exterminated at Treblinka.

Hershaft and his mother survived because of the kindness of gentiles. A Russian maid who had worked for the family for years smuggled valuables out of the ghetto, and traded them for food that she brought back for the family. Later, Hershaft and his mother were sheltered on a farm near Warsaw, where they passed as Christians. He wound up in a Polish orphanage and then spent five years at a refugee camp in Italy before he emigrated to the US. His mother left for Israel and, to the best of his knowledge, his father was caught and killed by the Germans.

Whereupon Hershaft asked himself what many survivors do: “Why was I spared when so many people were not? Is there some lesson we can learn from this terrible tragedy?”

He became active in a number of social movements and stopped eating meat in the early 1960s. Like his father, he earned a PhD in chemistry. While working as an environmental consultant who specialized in wastewater treatment, he was sent to a slaughterhouse in the midwest, where the penny dropped.

As he tells it: “I turned a corner and saw these piles of body parts–hearts and heads and hoofs. I recoiled in horror.” They brought to mind the extermination camps. “I just couldn’t get the images out of my mind.” He came to see other linkages: Farm animals, were branded with numbers and taken to their death in rail cars. But it was the arbitrary nature of the cruelty that struck him. Until he came across I.B. Singer’s work, he thought he was the only one making that connection.

In 1981, Hershaft started FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement), the world’s first organization dedicated to advocacy on behalf of farm animals. He organized the first animal rights conference in the US, and has led the small nonprofit ever since. He was working on farm-animal issue when other animal-welfare groups, focused on puppies or vivisection, served fish at their annual banquets.

Why animals and not people?

Why, he’s often asked, has he spent so long working on behalf of animals, when there is so much human suffering as well?

He offers a couple of responses.

“Animals are the most defenseless, the most vulnerable, therefore the most oppressed sentient beings on earth,” Hershaft says. Fair enough. He goes on to say that “oppressing animals is the gateway to oppressing humans,” a claim that is harder to prove. The argument, as best as I can tell, is that vegans are compassionate and non-violent, and thus less likely than meat-eaters to oppress or act violently towards others. PETA says that “eating vegan meals has been shown to help curb aggression,” but the evidence that vegans are morally superior to the rest of us is inconclusive at best.

Hershaft also says that it’s extremely difficult to stop the killing of other humans. By contrast, most everyone has the “awesome power of life and death” over animals. This seems inarguable. He estimates that, by going vegan, he can spare about 100 animals from death each years.

He cites the famous line from Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verse 19:

I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.

Hershaft concludes: “Every time we shop for food, we literally make a choice between subsidizing life and subsidizing death.”

Here’s the video of rabbis urging Jews to adopt a plant-based diet: