Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact


I’m often inspired by the idealism of the young. Well, Nancy Hughes, the founder of StoveTeam International, is 73, and, at an age when most people take it easy, the work she’s doing is inspirational.

Hughes is the founder and unpaid leader of StoveTeam, a role she fell into after her husband died in 2001. She’d never worked outside the home, but enjoyed travel and decided to volunteer with a medical team in Guatemala, working in the kitchen of a temporary health clinic. There, she met an 18-year-old woman named Irma whose hands had been burned shut at the age of two when she fell into an open fire, where her mother had been cooking dinner. As Hughes tells it, Irma tearfully thanked the volunteers at the clinic for the surgery that gave her the use of her hands after being disabled for most of her life.

“I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard–that people were cooking over a campfire in a room the size of a US bathroom,” Hughes told me. Working with the local Rotary Club, she organized a group of volunteers from Eugene, Oregon, where she lives, to install cookstoves in rural Guatemala. “We installed 129 stoves, my friends and me,” she said. “I thought we were pretty cool. Then I found out that the need in Guatemala was for six million stoves.”

She thought about giving up. Instead, she started StoveTeam–with the help of a $10,000 check that arrived in the mail from the guitarist Carlos Santana, who she’d never met, or even asked for money. This was 2007. Since then, her small nonprofit, which this year has a budget of just about $200,000, has sponsored the construction of seven cookstove factories that together have sold more than 56,000 stoves, improving the lives of more than 422,000 people in Mexico and Central America.

How, I wondered, had Hughes done it? She told me her story when we met recently at Opportunity Collaboration, a conference in Cancun, Mexico, that addresses issues of global poverty.* Continue reading


Mauricio Miller of the Family Independence Initiative

Mauricio Lim Miller spent about two decades leading a anti-poverty organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he did it well, so well that President Clinton invited him to the 1999 State of the Union address. But Miller was disillusioned. “I became very cynical about my work,” he told me.

He had come to believe that social service programs in the US focus too much on the weaknesses of poor people, treating them as victims who need fixing, while failing to capitalize on their strengths. He thought about his mother, a Mexican immigrant, who had a third-grade education but pushed him to get a college degree, which he did at UC Berkeley. “She was very smart. She was very resourceful,” he said. “But no one saw that. People put her in a box She hated that.”

In 2001, with a push from Jerry Brown, who was then the mayor of Oakland, Miller started the Family Independence Initiative, a nonprofit that enables poor people to connect with one another, share ideas and resources — and then mostly stays out of the way.

“Humanity’s very diverse,” Miller said. “You’re never going to figure it out from the top.”

The program seems to work. It has expanded into Boston, New Orleans and Albuquerque from its base in California. Miller has been named to a White House advisory panel on community services, chosen as an Ashoka fellow and recognized by the MacArthur Foundation with a so-called genius award.

But here’s the thing: Despite the acclaim for Miller and, more importantly, the evidence that FII improves people’s lives, FII remains small. It worked with about 2,000 families and raised about $6.3 million last year. Many foundations have supported FII, but mostly with modest grants, leaving hundreds of families on waiting lists, seeking to participate.

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The presidential campaign is getting me down. Inexplicably, after a week of revelations that Donald Trump forced himself on numerous women,  a poll out today [Sun Oct 16] has Hillary Clinton with only a narrow lead over the creepy and unqualified Trump. This blog has been serious, too, with posts on the suffering of broiler chickens and the ethically challenged Trump and Clinton foundations. So when a link to an entertaining video about the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service arrived in my email (via the Society of Environmental Journalists) this afternoon, I decided to share it here. Continue reading


Broiler chickens eat, sleep and live in their own waste. They never go outside or set foot on grass. Source: Compassion over Killing.


The animal-welfare movement is on the verge of ending confinement practices that keep pigs in gestation crates and hens in tight cages. What comes next?

“Broilers or bust,” declares Matt Prescott, senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Other activists agree: Their top priority is alleviating the suffering of the billions of broiler chickens that are raised for meat, as they sense victory in the decade-long, hard-fought battles to liberate pigs from their crates and hens from their cages.

Campaigns on behalf of broiler chickens could prove harder to win. That’s because the issues involved–genetic breeding, stocking levels, access to light and slaughter practices–are core to the chicken industry’s current business model, which aims to grow chickens as big and as fast as possible. These issues are also harder to communicate than the either-or questions of whether pigs should be confined in crates or hens in cages.

On the other hand, the animal-welfare movement has proven to be resourceful, working on college campuses, in the political arena and in the courts; attacking some companies and forging partnerships with others; investing in plant-based protein alternatives and even trying to persuade Wall Street bankers to consider the reputation risks posed by factory farms.

Broiler chicken issues were front and center at an HSUS conference last weekend in Washington on the future of food. (I moderated a panel of activists.) David Coman-Hidy of The Humane League, Leah Garces of Compassion in World Farming, Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing and Nathan Runkle of Mercy for Animals all said they had begun or soon would launch efforts to improve the conditions of broiler chickens. Continue reading


Were Donald Trump not running for president, it’s unlikely that anyone would have paid much attention to his charitable foundation. But thanks to the dogged reporting of David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post — here’s a list of his stories — we now know that the Donald J. Trump Foundation operated in ways that were surely unethical and quite likely illegal. Among other things, Trump asked people or companies that owed him money to donate more than $2.3 million to the foundation, and then used foundation money (most of which came from others) to buy a life-sized self portrait and a football helmet signed by Tim Tebow. Worse, he used the foundation’s funds to settle legal and business disputes. In Slate, law professor Adam Chodorow writes that Trump’s behavior “evinces a shocking disregard for the law.”

The Clinton Foundation is far bigger and more complicated, with assets of $354 million, expenses of more than $91 million and nearly 500 staff members in 2014. (By contrast, Trump’s foundation has assets of $1 million, and no employees.) There’s no evidence of misconduct, and plenty that the foundation has done enormous good around the world. (If you doubt it, see Dylan Matthews’ thoughtful, close-up look in Vox or David Crane’s personal take at Greenbiz.) Yet troubling questions remain about the Clinton Foundation’s relationships with donors–rich Americans, powerful US companies and foreign governments, including Algeria, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, who gave money while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Were they buying access or influence?

The unflattering attention paid to the Trump and Clinton foundations creates, at the very least, a perception problem for all of philanthropy. Continue reading

d5577fdfa6524f0b91a00fd8d9df84810fb5a10c_1600x1200Dan Pallotta’s powerful TED talk, called The way we think about charity is dead wrong, has been viewed nearly four million times since 2013. More important, his argument — that charities should be rewarded for their big goals and big accomplishments, and not punished for spending on overhead, marketing and salaries — has helped change the conversation about nonprofits in the US.

A few months after the TED talk’s, the three major groups that report on charities (Charity Navigator, Guidestar USA and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance) published a letter to all nonprofits  calling for an end to what they termed The Overhead Myth. Last November, Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, announced that Ford would double its overhead rate on project grants from 10 to 20 percent, and he assailed the “well-intended metrics developed by nonprofit watchdog groups that have equated lower overhead with organizational effectiveness when, in fact, the opposite may be true.”

And yet. As Pallotta acknowledged yesterday [Oct 4], until charities do a better job of measuring their impact, and reporting on it in ways that are meaningful and widely accessible, donors will continue to focus on the wrong metrics: overhead, marketing, fundraising costs and salaries.

“We have this belief system that, despite the best of intentions, keeps nonprofits tiny,” Pallotta said during a conversation with Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, at AEI’s new offices in Washington. 

“You can’t pay talent. You can’t advertise to increase donations. You can’t take risks,” Pallotta went on. “You’ve just put the whole nonprofit sector at a huge disadvantage to the rest of America.”

He’s right, of course, as should be obvious. When I buy a new iPhone, I don’t care about Apple’s overhead or marketing budget or what Tim Cook is paid. I want to know whether the phone will perform well, and what it costs. Likewise, nonprofits should be judged on their impact per dollar spent. Continue reading


Anyone who believes that people who work in the nonprofit sector are ipso facto morally superior to the rest of us might want to consider the story of The New York Blood Center and the 60 or so chimpanzees that it abandoned last year in Liberia.

The NYBC, as it’s known, is a nonprofit that generated nearly $400 million in revenues last year and had about $480 million in assets, according to Guidestar. It says it can no longer afford to feed the chimpanzees.

By its own account, the NYBC conducted biomedical research on hundreds of chimps between 1974 and 2004, in a partnership with the Liberian ministry of health. Its researchers studied the hepatitis virus, which can threaten the safety of donated blood, at a facility called Vilab II. When the animal testing stopped, the NYBC paid for the feeding of the remaining chimps until March 2015 when the nonprofit “concluded it could no longer divert funds from its important lifesaving mission here at home.”

The chimps were left to fend for themselves on a half dozen small islands, without food or fresh water, where they would have died were it not for the intervention of animal-welfare advocates led by the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS has kept the chimps alive, with the help of  a crowdfunding campaign at GoFundMe.

Earlier today [Sept. 27), HSUS held a news conference in Washington to call attention to the situation and to say that Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and UN ambassador, had joined the campaign on behalf of the chimps. Richardson made a $35,000 donation to support the chimps through his nonprofit, the Richardson Center for Public Engagement, and he called on NYBC and its donors to take responsibility for their welfare. 

Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of HSUS, said: “For a private charity with a budget in the hundreds of millions, and assets of $400 million, this is unacceptable conduct,” he said.  “Why is it okay to dump this responsibility on someone else. Because we care more?” Continue reading