Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact



I skipped the turkey this year at Thanksgiving. It was purely a symbolic gesture; we served turkey at my house, so my decision not to eat it didn’t mean much. Still, over the last year or so, I have radically reduced my meat consumption, largely because of the time I’ve spent with people in the animal welfare movement, in particular while reporting on the Humane Society of the United States.

This week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published my story [paywall] about the Humane Society and its hard-charging chief executive, Wayne Pacelle. It’s a story about how to make social change. The animal welfare movement, led by HSUS and with the cooperation of smaller, nimbler groups like Mercy for Animals and The Humane League, has made great strides in the last decade on behalf of animals who cannot speak for themselves, particularly around the issues of the intensive confinement of hens and pigs.

How have Pacelle and Humane Society succeeded? By deploying every tool at their command: Ballot measures, lobbying, litigation, undercover investigations, cooperative agreements with corporate allies, mergers with smaller groups, even investments in plant-based protein startups like Beyond MeatAny social-justice organization that wants to succeed in the Trump era would do well to study Pacelle’s playbook.

The animal welfare movement is energized these days by the commitment, brainpower and moral fervor of a impressive group of activists in their 20s and 30s, working inside and outside of HSUS. I think of them as today’s abolitionists–they are crying out in opposition to what they see as an evil but widely-accepted practice, just as the founders of the abolitionist movement did in 18th century Britain. Those early abolitionists built the world’s first social-justice movement, according to Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains, a wonderful history.

Why work on behalf of animals?

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fc450111In ordinary times, the words in bold type on the home page of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — ALL LIVES HAVE EQUAL VALUE — might seem anodyne. In Donald Trump’s America, they are radical.

They mean that Asian, African and Latin American lives have as much value as American and European lives. They mean we shouldn’t especially care that iPhones are made in China, or when jobs move from Michigan to Mexico. Hey, maybe we should cheer. After all, the Chinese and Mexican people need the jobs more than better-off Americans do.

Of course, few politicians–not Trump, Sanders or candidate Hillary Clinton–would say such a thing, or even attempt to explain why globalization is, on balance, good for most Americans. But one of the (many) nice things about leading an endowed foundation is that you don’t have to answer to voters. So Sue Desmond-Hellman, the chief executive officer of the Gates Foundation, cheerfully came to the defense of globalization during a #GivingTuesday conversation with Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, at AEI.

“It’s actually surprising that it’s controversial,” Desmond-Hellmann said. Continue reading

happy-thanksgiving-background-1024x716Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s often the only time each year–not counting graduations or weddings–when our entire family gets together; the rituals and menu have been firmly established. One of our traditions is to ask each person in turn to give thanks for the blessings in his or her life. This year, we will have four generations around the table; the 17 of us will range in age from one to 91 years old. That alone is reason to be grateful.

Here, I’d like to take my turn to thank some of the people who have helped me in my work as a reporter, in ways big and small, for the past year or so.  Continue reading


This blog isn’t about politics. But because I find it hard not to obsess over politics these days, I want to say that, like many of you, I’m feeling troubled and worried at the moment. I’m troubled by the election of a president who is a brazen liar, a serial harasser of women, a bully, a narcissist and a know-nothing; this man is perhaps uniquely ill-equipped by training, temperament and character to occupy the White House. And even as someone whose political views are well to the right of Hillary Clinton (who I nonetheless supported), I’m worried about what this new administration will mean for immigrants, Muslims, poor people who may be left without health insurance, blue-collar workers, civil liberties, democracy and the rest of us who are going to have to figure out how to live on a warming planet. It’s depressing.

So let’s do something about it.

Some people will dive back into electoral politics. Others will organize in their communities. Others will respond through philanthropy. That’s where Angela Rastegar Campbell comes in. Campbell, the founder and chief executive of a startup company called Agora for Good, wrote by email last week: “While many feel worried about human rights, equality and the environment, now more than ever is when we need to act and fight for the world we want.”

So Campbell and her colleagues at Agora For Good put together what they call the 2020 Vision Fund, a group of six nonprofits chosen in response to threats posed by a President-elect Trump. They are: Continue reading


We don’t have comprehensive ratings or rankings of the best nonprofits, and we probably never will. You can’t compare Harvard to Carnegie Hall to the DC Central Kitchen in a meaningful way.

But, by using evidence, it is possible to identify nonprofits that have a positive impact at a reasonable cost. That’s what the Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) at the University of Pennsylvania does in its annual High Impact Giving Guide, which was released last week, in time for the holiday giving season.

Now in its sixth edition, this is the single most useful guide to smart giving that I’ve come across since I began writing about philanthropy nearly two years ago. The High Impact Giving Guide goes deeper than broad-based platforms like Charity Navigator and Guidestar, which collect information about many thousands of charities. And it appeals to a broader spectrum of donors than GiveWell and The Life You Can Save, whose advice is shaped by the principles of effective altruism, focuses on global poverty and guides most of my own giving.

Still, most people give with their heart as well as their head–and most people want to donate closer to home. (Only about $16bn of the $373bn that Americans gave away in 2015 went to international causes, according to the Giving USA report.) If you want to give in the US and you care about low-income families, hunger and homelessness as well as global poverty, you will find value in the High Impact Giving Guide. Continue reading

feature_indoor_cookstove_main2-760x378It would appear, at first glance, to be a simple problem to solve: An estimated 3 billion of the world’s poorest people cook their meals over open fires–fires that make them sick, pollute the air and generate carbon emissions. Providing those people with efficient cookstoves improves their lives and the health of the planet. But that’s easier said than done. The cookstove sector is quite literally littered with past failures.

That’s because designing and building an efficient and durable cookstove that people want to use, at a price they can afford, is incredibly challenging. Combustion technology is more complex than you’d imagine. Changing people’s behavior around cooking is probably even harder. Eating is personal. Numerous efforts by governments and nonprofits to push cookstoves into the market have failed.

I’ve been reporting on cookstoves, on and off, for a year or so, and took another crack at it this week with a story for Ensia, an environmental website. This time, I looked at three for-profit cookstove companies that have attracted outside investment: Envirofit, BURN and Biolite. None is yet a demonstrated success, but the possibility that markets could get many millions of cookstoves out to those who need them is exciting.
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We rate restaurants. Why not nonprofits?

I’m just back from a vacation in Tulum, Mexico. I found great places to eat using Trip Advisor (try El Tabano, above), and wrote several reviews once I got home. Trip Advisor’s a great service. So imagine, if you will, a nonprofit sector with its own Trip Advisor, a guide that would help donors, volunteers and workers better understand which nonprofits do well at serving their customers.

The sector is a very long way from creating such a guide, but it is taking small steps in that direction, as more nonprofits experiment with feedback loops — efforts to listen, learn and respond to their constituents, and thereby become more effective. This is welcome news: A movement to build feedback loops into nonprofits is gathering adherents, winning support from foundations and building a community of practice.

That community gathered last week at Feedback Summit 2016 in Washington, where the excitement was palpable. Feedback loops help address a fundamental disconnect in the nonprofit world: Nonprofits typically are funded by their donors and not by their clients so, unlike businesses, they don’t have financial incentives to be responsive to those they aim to serve. Feedback loops connect them more closely to clients.

“The enthusiasm about a simple, rigorous, elegant feedback loop that includes quantitative and qualitative data has just been tremendous,” said Fay Twersky, director of the effective philanthropy group at the Hewlett Foundation.

Twersky has persuaded a growing number of foundations to support feedback loops through a collaborative called the Fund for Shared Insight. In less than three years, the collaborative has attracted funding from 36 foundations and supports feedback experiments at about 50 nonprofits, all in the US. Most use the Net Promoter System (NPS) developed for the corporate world by Bain & Co., which asks the now-familiar question: “On a scale of zero to 10, what is the likelihood that you would recommend Company X to a friend or colleague?” More about NPS, below, but first a bit of history.

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