Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact


Chickens. Cows. Cookstoves. Toilets. Solar panels. Job training. Clean water.

Western NGOs dole out lots of stuff to help poor people in the global south become less poor. Do such programs work? It’s hard to know, but when researchers for a series of World Bank studies called Moving Out of Poverty asked 3,991 households in 15 countries how they escaped poverty, just three of those households credited “NGO assistance.” Hmm.

What we do know is that economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in such places as Botswana, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam. With a few glaring exceptions–notably China and Vietnam–these countries benefited from democratic political institutions, relatively stable governments, the rule of law, property rights and trade. “Countries need inclusive economic and political institutions to break out of the cycle of poverty,” write Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in Why Nations Fail, a sweeping 2012 book about the origins of prosperity and poverty.

Most development economists agree. Chris Blattman, a scholar of international development at the University of Chicago, puts it bluntly: “The problem in the poorest countries today is first and foremost politics.” (This, despite the fact that Blattman is best known as an advocate of cash transfers to alleviate poverty.) Blattman and Harvard prof Lant Pritchett, who are both associated with the Center for Global Development, lately have been engaged in a lively debate about poverty alleviation in blogposts (here and here) and on podcasts with Russ Roberts of EconTalk (here and here), all of it inspired by Bill Gates’ enthusiasm for raising chickens; while Blattman and Pritchett disagree on chickens and cash, they share the view that economic growth, supported by the right political and economic institutions, is the best way to alleviate poverty. As Pritchett has said: “Treating world poverty as if it can be addressed programmatically [by chickens, cash transfers or women’s self-help groups] biases attention away from the real solution to poverty, which is having higher productivity economies.”

How, then, can philanthropists, NGOs and governments help poor countries reform their institutions and enjoy the benefits of economic growth? Again, that’s hard to know, but today’s blogpost will spotlight Spark MicroGrants, a small NGO that practices what’s called community-driven development, an approach that invites communities to design, execute and manage their own aid projects–farms to feed families, power lines, schools or roads. There’s growing evidence, according to Spark, that community-driven development leads not just to more sustainable projects but to “stronger governments and institutions.”

“We help to create local democracy,” says Sasha Fisher, the co-founder and executive director of Spark MicroGrants. “People have have a platform to work together. Citizens become engaged and start driving local change.”

Spark isn’t designed to spark political reform, but when you give people a taste of democracy, well, don’t be surprised if they want more. Continue reading

static1.squarespaceYou could call Jonathan C. Lewis a late bloomer. Not until he retired from business in his mid-50s did he rediscover his 1960s activist soul and become a full-time “social entrepreneur.” Lewis founded a nonprofit impact investing firm now called MCE Social Capital that makes loans to poor people in the developing work. He created Opportunity Collaboration, a conference for activists and funders unlike any other. And he co-founded Copia Global, an Amazon-like e-commerce catalog for consumers at the bottom of the economic pyramid in Kenya.

All that came after an eclectic career for this 69-year-old Californian. He worked as an aide in the California state legislature, became a lobbyist, opened an art gallery, started a small real estate development company, came up with the idea for a retail chain selling high-end artisan merchandise, served as chief executive of the California association of health maintenance organizations and ran a consultancy helping US health care executives learn from best practices overseas. 

Along the way, Lewis kept his eyes open, made a bunch of mistakes and learned a great deal. He has distilled his knowledge into The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur, a new book about social change that manages to be both entertaining and wise. It is neither an overview of the social sector, nor a conventional memoir, nor a how-to manual, exactly. Instead, it is a collection of personal essays with single word titles — Justice, Starting, Passion, Power, Mentoring, Failure, Confessions — that can be read in any order, and should be read by anyone starting a life’s work devoted to social change.

Lewis told me recently: “The only important question is, how do you lead an honorable life when there is so much dishonorable stuff going on around you.” That’s the question this books seeks to answer.

As a writer, Lewis is smart, insightful and almost entirely free of b.s. I say almost because the term “social entrepreneur” has always struck me as pretentious. But Lewis explains up front that he’s using it as a synonym for political activist, change-maker or community organizer.

He also can be fun to read, to wit: 

Some of my closest friends and colleagues have questioned my sense of humor and, in particular, my cringe-worthy puns and snarky quips. These critics, obviously lacking in comic judgment, are manifestly mistaken.

My kind of guy. Continue reading

9780262036085_0Consider the food bank, a staple on the menu of nonprofits in most communities. Food banks collect unwanted food from donors, including supermarkets, food manufacturers, individuals and the government, and then distribute it to poor people through food pantries and meal programs. Last year alone, food banks affiliated with the Feeding America network distributed more than 3.6 billion meals to people in need.

What’s not to like? A good deal, says Andrew Fisher, a long-time anti-poverty activist and writer.

Fisher’s new book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, argues that “anti-hunger work has become big business and big business profits from anti-hunger efforts.” 

He writes:

The charitable food sector has snowballed out of control. It has grown from what was supposed to be a temporary stopgap into a seemingly permanent feature of our country’s landscape, in part because numerous entrenched interests backstop it. Food charity has turned into big business, and an integral part of the business strategy of many corporations.

This is a story of good intentions gone awry, with lessons for any nonprofit that finds itself torn between its donors and those it wants to serve. The results, in this case: Food banks advocate narrowly around hunger but often ignore broader issues of poverty, they offer their customers unhealthy food and, alongside the food industry, they oppose restrictions on what people can buy with SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits.

Continue reading

41JJPSCf6IL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The global south is littered, literally, with the remains of failed international aid projects. So-called clean cookstoves had more appeal to western donors than to women in India, Africa or Latin America. Wells and taps that were intended to provide clean water have fallen into disrepair. One 2009 study estimated there are 50,000 broken rural water points across Africa that represents a failed investment of US $215-360 million. Oops.

It’s easy to understand how this happens. If a nonprofit provides cookstoves or water taps or chickens or books, that’s what it will give poor people, even if what they really want is malaria nets, a schoolhouse or cash.

As Jennifer Lentfer puts it: “One of the killer assumptions that has plagued the aid industry for years now is the idea that there’s a blank canvas upon which our interventions will make things better.

Lentfer and Tanya Cothran are editors of a new book of essays called Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problemsLentfer, who is director of communications at the nonprofit Thousand Currents (formerly IDEX), and Cothran, who is executive administrator of a foundation called Spirit in Action, believe that community groups in poor countries know better than experts in the west what they need.

Both are small organizations, so it’s no surprise that Lentfer and Cothran focus on small grants. Thousand Currents gave away just under $1 million in 2015, the last year for which a financial report is available on its website. Spirit in Action reported donations of just $34,000 on its 2015 Form 990.

Most of the international grant-makers who contribute to Smart Risks also embrace the small-is-beautiful mantra. More important than how much they give, though, is how they give. They support grassroots groups with flexible, unrestricted, long-term support.

In an essay called “The five essential qualities of grassroots grant-makers,” Jennifer Astone, executive director of the Swift Foundation, asks:

Why not rethink the model of pushing money and projects onto communities, and instead let local priorities determine the needs and drive the design and pace of the work?

Why not, indeed? But this bottom-up approach to global grant-making evidently remains unusual. A report on global humanitarian assistance released last week by Development Initiatives found that national and local responders directly received just 2% of funding reported to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Financial Tracking Service in 2016. That said, much funding for grassroots groups flows through intermediaries like Thousand Currents, Spirit in Action, Global Giving, Accountability Lab, and the Urgent Action Fund. These groups are showcased in Smart RisksContinue reading

Jeff Raikes

Jeff Raikes

The Internet has made it easier than ever to identify the best books, movies,  songs, hotels, restaurants, mutual funds, even foreign-language tutors. To identify the best charities? That’s harder.

The Raikes Foundation, which is the family foundation of Jeff Raikes and his wife, Tricia, wants to help, by enabling donors to do more good with their money. Last week, it unveiled a new website, Giving Compass, in beta, which was timed to the annual Giving USA report, which found that Americans gave about $390bn to US charities in 2016.

Some of that $390bn will do enormous good. Much will not. One reason why is that donors can’t easily find trustworthy information about the effectiveness of nonprofits.

I’ve just written a story for The Chronicle of Philanthropy about the Raikes Foundation’s effort to help people give smarter. The story also looks at Giving By All, a program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that is exploring ways to persuade Americans to give more and give better.

Not surprisingly, these are complementary efforts. The two foundations are neighbors in Seattle. Jeff Raikes was a top executive of Microsoft for 26 years, working for Bill Gates, after which he became chief executive of the Gates Foundation, again working for Gates. Jeff and Tricia Raikes were also the first Microsoft couple to meet and marry.

My Chronicle story says:

As befits their roots in the technology industry, both foundations will bring to bear the reach of the internet, the power of big data and the insights of behavioral science to their efforts to change the ways Americans give.

This blogpost will take a closer look at Giving Compass, which invites people to join “a community of donors who use the best data, technology, and peer learning to give well.” Its target audience is not the billionaires who sign the Giving Pledge, but those who are able to make gifts of $10,000 or more. It should be valuable to others as well. Its tagline: We organize the world’s information to make it easier to give well. Continue reading


A “pop-up” swimming pool in Philadelphia

People like to say that “good ideas can come from anywhere.” (The phrase generates 11.4m Google results.) They rarely act that way. Philanthropy is an “insider’s game,” the late Rick Cohen once wrote, and surveys have found that most foundations do not accept unsolicited proposals. This is understandable: Foundation executives don’t want to be swamped with lousy ideas, and they may prefer to be strategic about in their grant-making.

But still. In this political moment, when elites are quite rightly distrusted, can’t foundations find a way to open up to ideas that bubble up from below?

Of course they can.

One prominent example: The Knight Foundation, which just announced 33 winners of the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge, who will share in about $5m in grants. It’s the third time that Knight has run a Cities Challenge, an open-ended competition which grew out of similar approaches that the foundation took with a News Challenge, which sought ways to improve news and information, and an Arts Challenge, which funds the arts. Over the years, Knight has reviewed well over 35,000 applications.

These challenges had ripple effects, as Knight reported:

Contests make up less than 20 percent of our grant-making, but they changed how we work as a foundation and reshaped our traditional programs.  They helped create a “safe zone” for experimentation that has influenced other areas of our grant making. It’s challenged our routines and entrenched behaviors.

Last week, I spoke with George Abbott, who, as director of community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation, oversees the Knight Cities Challenge. Conventional philanthropy, he told me is “pretty much a relationship business,” built on existing ties between foundations and nonprofits. [For an example, see my 2015 post, Round Up the Usual Suspects.]  “The idea behind the challenge,” Abbott said, “was to be as radically open as possible.” This requires taking risks, and accepting failure. Continue reading


We may be the only lawyers on earth whose clients are all innocent. — a poster for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Steven Wise is an attorney for animals, notably two chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, who live in captivity in upstate New York and are asking the courts for relief. A rumpled 60-something legal scholar who has taught animal-rights law at Harvard and Stanford, Wise is president and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which calls itself “the only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, public policy advocacy, and education to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.” Wise and his colleagues at the NHRP plan litigation on behalf of elephants and dolphins as well. They aim not merely to win court judgments for a handful of intelligent and social animals who, they allege, are being maltreated; they want to change the legal status of animals in American courts.

Wise stars in a feature-length documentary called Unlocking the Cage, which I watched last week. It’s a thoughtful and absorbing film (now available on DVD and elsewhere*) that was directed by pioneering filmmakers D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, whose credits include Don’t Look Back (1967) and The War Room (1993). Like The Cove, Louis Psihoyos’ 2009 film about dolphin slaughter, and Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 film about an orca held at Sea World, Unlocking the Cage challenges us to think differently about animals, and it succeeds.

Unlocking the Cage makes clear from the start that chimpanzees can think, feel and communicate in ways that are only lately have become well understood. They can learn to use a simple computer. They can grieve the loss of a loved one. They can plan for the future. They can, in short, do many of the things that we once thought separated humans from animals.

And yet the law regards them as things. Continue reading