Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact


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:

DPphaHGUIAEDYfFThe onslaught began last week. “Mark your calendar for Giving Tuesday,” said the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “One week until #GivingTuesday,” said SHOFCO. Triple your gift! Double your impact! An estimated 35,000 nonprofits participate, according to New York’s 92nd St Y, which launched Giving Tuesday in 2012.

Does #GivingTuesday do good? That’s hard to know. It’s lovely to designate a day for giving, following Thanksgiving (eat!), Black Friday (shop!) and Cyber Monday (shop online!). Last year, charities brought in $168m on Giving Tuesday, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy [paywall]. But much of that surely would have been donated anyway, and it’s a fraction of overall giving by individuals, who donated an estimated $282bn to charity in 2016. Some researchers have found that GivingTuesday has lasting effects (see this and this), but their findings rely on limited or selective data.

That said, #GivingTuesday is, at the very least, a teachable moment. So if you want your donations to do as much good as possible, you’d do well to ignore the flood of emails and turn to a meta-charity — that is, charities that rate or rank others — so that you can give with some assurance that your charity dollars will be spent wisely and efficiently. Here are four of my favorites charity evaluators; in each case, I’ve met with those in charge and come away impressed.

1. GiveWell: Founded a decade ago by Elie Hassenfeld and Holden Karnofsky, who previously worked together at an analytical hedge fund, GiveWell spends thousands of hours on research to identify its top charities. It currently recommends seven top charities, all of which it says are “evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted and underfunded.”

Four of the seven top charities operate deworming programs, two seek to prevent malaria and the seventh, GiveDirectly, makes cash transfers to extremely poor people in Kenya and Uganda. GiveWell recommends another seven standout charities, all of which also aim to serve the global poor. This makes sense because the needs are greatest in poor countries and dollars go farther there, as GiveWell explains.

2. The Life You Can Save: Backed by philosopher Peter Singer and led by Charlie Bresler, a former Mens Warehouse executive, TLYCS recommends 20 nonprofits, with a broader array of programs than those endorsed by GiveWell. It’s aimed at a mainstream donors–GiveWell can be geeky–and its website includes an Impact Calculator so you can see what your dollars will buy. (Very few nonprofits tell you what, exactly, your donation will do.) TLYCS also invites users to take a Giving Pledge, which commits them to donate a portion of their income to relieve poverty.

Newcomers to the this year’s list are D-Rev, which designs and delivers medical devices to the extreme poor, and Helen Keller International’s Vitamin A Supplementation program. The list also includes Village Enterprise, a poverty relief charity that I blogged about just last week, and One Acre Fund, which helps small holder farmers in Africa earn more money. Like GiveWell, TLYCS recommends charities that work in the poorest countries, guided, as it is, by Singer and the principles of effective altruism.

3. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy: If you’d prefer to give closer to home, check out the latest giving guide from this center, which is based at the University of Pennsylvania. It lists 14 giving opportunities, most US-based, and includes a special report on disaster philanthropy.

Domestic charities on its list include Youth Villages/YVLifeSet, which works with young adults coming out of the foster care system; Nurse Family Partnership, which matches nurses with low-income women who are pregnant with their first child; and the Center for Employment Opportunities, which helps young people coming out of prison or jail.

4. Animal Charity Evaluators: If, like me, you care about the suffering of animals, the best place to find effective charities is Animal Charity Evaluators, which, as its name indicates, evaluates animal charities. Its three top charities, announced today, are The Good Food Institute, which promotes alternatives to animal products, Animal Equality, a global advocacy group, and The Humane League, which conducts hard-hitting corporate campaigns.

ACE is also inviting donors to support all its recommended charities by giving to a fund that will distribute 75 percent of its money to the three top charities and the remainder to nine standout charities. All donations to the recommended charities fund will be matched by an anonymous donor, according to Jon Bockman, ACE’s executive director.

You may wonder why Charity Navigator, the best-known meta-charity, is not on my list. That’s because Charity Navigator is just beginning to gather information about impact. If, for some reason, you want to give to a nonprofit that hasn’t been vetted by an independent evaluator, please check it out on Charity Navigator, which can spotlight charities that are corrupt or spend way too much money on fundraising or overhead.

And you could do worse than to set aside some of your giving for these meta-charities. All punch above their weight, by driving donations to effective nonprofits.

A final thought: Last week, GiveDirectly, my favorite charity, published Four questions to ask before you give on its blog. They include: Can I tell where my dollar will go? Is there evidence about what good it will do? How much will the good or service cost to deliver? Good questions, I thought, and I said so, in a tweet.

An acquaintance disagreed, writing:

I’m a big fan of evaluation and rigorous measurement, but this is bordering on ridiculous I think. It’s the antithesis of the spirit of holiday giving. Frankly, as a former development director, if anyone hit me with all these, I’d probably tell them to go elsewhere. Not all giving has to be accompanied by a balance sheet, especially at Christmas….don’t think Jesus was filling out balanced scorecards when helping the poor.

Which is true, to a point. (At least the part about Jesus.) Giving begins with the heart. But there’s no reason not to use your head, too. By supporting effective charities, you’ll not only increase the likelihood that your donations will do good; you’ll make a small contribution to the idea that the social sector should be driven by results, and not by email marketing.

UPDATE: Hours after this was posted, GiveWell said it had chosen  two new top charities this year: Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program and Evidence Action’s No Lean Season program. It also retained its seven top charities from 2016. More detail is here.

villagenterpriseVillage Enterprise is a small NGO. Its annual budget? About $3.5m. Number of employees? Fewer than 150, with all but seven based in East Africa.

Yet Village Enterprise is about to test a big idea that has the potential to insure that money spent to fight global poverty has real impact. It’s known, inelegantly, as results-based financing.

Based in San Carlos, CA, Village Enterprise has been around since the late 1980s. For most of its history, the organization was run primarily by volunteers, working with individual donors and churches in the US to make cash grants to the poor in Africa.

Since 2010, when Dianne Calvi became the nonprofit’s first outside chief executive, Village Enterprise has grown. Today, the NGO provides cash, business training and mentoring to extremely poor people in rural Kenya and Uganda to help them start small businesses and join savings groups. Typically, they raise livestock, farm, keep bees or open a small store. It’s one of a number of NGOs, both large (BRAC) and small (TrickleUp), that practice what’s known as the graduation program, an anti-poverty program that has been found to be cost-effective and sustainable by randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving more than 10,000 people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as Science magazine reported in 2015.

Village Enterprise’s particular spin on the graduation program has been shaped by evidence. Its work is the subject of a pair of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), one by Innovations for Poverty Action that is nearing completion, another by IDInsight that will begin next year. Its work has also been evaluated by ImpactMatters, which praised Village Enterprise for its commitment to learn and improve. Few small nonprofits have been studied as intensively.

“Having solid evidence is important,” says Calvi, who worked in the corporate world and in international development before joining Village Enterprise. “So much money has been spent (on anti-poverty programs), and yet some of the problems have persisted or gotten worse.”

[A quick aside: Please keep this in mind next time you get a fundraising pitch from a bigger, better-known NGO, like CARE or Save the Children, whose work has not been as rigorously evaluated.]

Dianne-Calvi.square-1024x1024Last week, I got on the phone with Dianne Calvi to learn more about Village Enterprise and its venture into results-based financing. The organization got my attention because of the review by ImpactMatters and because it has been selected as one of the best charities by The Life You Can Save, which promotes effective altruism.

Recently, Village Enterprise was chosen to be part of a $5.26m development impact bond supported by three major donors–US AID, DFID, which is the UK’s international aid agency, and an anonymous foundation. The idea behind a development impact bond is that NGOs are rewarded only if they deliver measurable results. The mechanics of the project are complex but they matter, so let me try to explain.

US AID, DFID and the anonymous foundation are what’s known as “outcome payors.” They will pay Village Enterprise if–and only if–its program delivers agreed-upon outcomes, notably increases in consumption and savings incomes for those being helped. IDInsight, a nonprofit that does research on global poverty, will evaluate the program. (See my 2016 story about IDInsight for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.) Better outcomes will mean higher payments to the NGO, which in turn will repay its own funders.

To provide the working capital to run the program, Village Enterprise is raising money from so-called investors, who can choose to provide conventional donations, to make low-interest or no-interest loans or to make actual investments, which could generate returns of up to 10 percent, according to Calvi. If all goes well, Village Enterprise will tap into the growing but still nascent field of impact investing, where investors, including foundations, seek social or environmental along with financial returns.

The appeal of this approach to governments should be obvious. “USAID and the DFIDs of the world would rather pay for results than pay for activities or outputs,” Calvi says. Conventional foreign aid spending does not always deliver results, it’s fair to say. The results-based approach is a way of “transferring the risk (of development projects) from the public sector to the private sector,” Calvi says.

Brian Boland, a Facebook executive, and his wife Katie have agreed to make a $1m investment in the project. They are longtime supporters of Village Enterprise, and last year visited Uganda to meet the people carrying out the work; they were impressed. “They’re very strong leaders, great visionaries and passionate people,” Brian Boland told me.

Private impact-investing funds or foundations that do mission investing have expressed interest in supporting the bond. Calvi says she’s confident that Village Enterprise will be able to raise another $2m or so by spring.

If all goes according to plan, this first bond will deliver Village Enterprise’s graduation program to 13,800 households, who will start about 4,600 business in roughly two years. The Village Enterprise model differs from other graduation programs because three people work together to start and run each business. About two-thirds of those who sign up for the program are women.

One problem with impact bonds is that setup costs are high. Making sure that everything is on the up and up evidently requires not only an evaluator, IDInsight, but also a project manager, Instiglio, which specializes in results-based financing and a trustee, Global Development Incubator. They’re all non-profits but you can be sure that each will take a slice of pie, which means less money and support for the extreme poor. In fact, nearly $1m of the $5.26m budget for the project is expected to be spent on evaluation, overhead and management.

That sounds like a lot–heck, it is a lot–but Calvi says that once the structure is established and the program is proven, more money can be poured into it without substantially raising administrative costs. It’s like a building a factory: Once constructed, you can ramp up production and capitalize on economies of scale.

Besides the Bolands, Village Enterprise’s major funders include the Cartier Foundation, the Greater Impact Foundation, Geneva Global, the Younger Family Fund and the Segal Family Foundation–none of them among the US’s biggest foundations, which tend to be risk averse.

But Calvi hopes that, by building up a solid base of evidence and pioneering the development impact bond, Village Enterprise will be able to bring on bigger partners and inspire others to build upon its work. “More and more funders,” she says, “are interested in organizations that can demonstrate impact.” Let’s hope she’s right.

ST-BANNER2Carbon offsets have delivered many millions of dollars to finance cookstoves, for better or worse–probably, alas, for worse. Since the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was formed in 2010, so-called clean cookstoves distributed to poor people in the global south have been paid for, in part, with carbon offsets purchased by companies, western governments and private donors. You, for example, can buy carbon offsets generated by cookstoves in Rwanda.

But what are you buying? Carbon offsets are strange. They are, in essence, the certified absence of a colorless, odorless gas — CO2 — or of other greenhouse gases, like black carbon, that cause climate change. The thing is, it’s hard to know whether a cookstove actually prevents the emissions of CO2 or black carbon. Was the cookstove used as directed? Did it last as long and operate as efficiently as expected? Maybe, but quite likely not. That’s unfortunate for the poor, who get broken or subpar stoves, and for governments or wealthy donors, whose well-intentioned efforts to help go for naught.

This is a problem that a small nonprofit called Nexleaf Analytics has begun to solve, by using Internet-of-things technology — low-cost sensors and cloud computing — to find out whether cookstoves are actually being used as directed.

Uh-oh! Early signs are that cookstove usage is often lower than expected at first, and declines from there.

Meantime, and more importantly, Nexleaf has come up with a business model to support cookstoves that will deliver revenues from carbon offsets directly into the hands of poor families who use the stoves. They will cut out some of the middlemen in the arcane carbon-finance industry and give users a financial incentive to cook in a way that’s better for the planet, and for their own health. Continue reading


David Bonbright has been called the Johnny Appleseed of feedback

David Bonbright traces his belief in the power of voice back to a peaceful revolution. Decades ago, while living and working in South Africa as a human rights lawyer, a grant-maker with the Ford Foundation and a founder of nonprofits, Bonbright was deeply moved by the way the anti-apartheid movement was accountable to its members and their ideas.

“I saw the power of voice,” Bonbright says. “It was so inclusive. It was so beautiful.”

He’s been obsessed ever since. Bonbright subsequently came up with a simple and powerful idea called Constituent Voice, which calls upon organizations and governments to listen to and be guided by those they aim to serve. He started a London-based nonprofit called Keystone Accountability that has helped nonprofits, foundations and governments improve their performance by obtaining feedback from their constituents. He’s been described as the Johnny Appleseed of the feedback community, a loosely-organized network of nonprofits and foundations that want to improve their performance by listening.

The seeds he’s planted for years are bearing a bountiful harvest.

Last week in Washington, Feedback Labs, a hub of all things feedback, brought together nearly 200 people to take stock of how far the community has come and discuss the work ahead. There were reasons to cheer: Dozens of foundations and hundreds of nonprofits are systematically building their own feedback loops to connect more closely with their constituents. There were tough questions to confront, too, about whether the feedback movement is truly devolving power to the people–which is one of its avowed goals–or just tinkering around the edges.

Gayle Smith 2

Gayle Smith

As Gayle Smith, the former administrator of US AID, who now leads the ONE Campaign, put it: “Is it a game-changer or is it a box you check?”

This was the third Feedback Summit. (Here are my posts about the 2015 summit and the 2016 event.) The community is growing: Nearly 200 people attended this year, compared to about 70 at the first confab. More foundations and nonprofits than ever are embracing feedback.

The need for feedback loops should be obvious. They address a fundamental disconnect in the social sector: Nonprofits are typically funded by their donors and not by their clients, so, unlike businesses, they don’t have a financial incentive to be responsive to those they aim to service. Continue reading


Direct Action Everywhere protests inside Whole Foods

Why is the FBI looking for a couple of sick pigs?

Last summer, FBI agents visited animal sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado, seeking piglets that had been removed from a large-scale hog farm in Milford, Utah, by an animal-rights group called Direct Action Everywhere (DXE). The diseased piglets were rotting to death, says Wayne Hsiung, a founder of DXE, who admits taking them and calls it an act of compassion. Smithfield Farms, the Virginia-based meat producer that owns the farm, says the pigs were stolen, and that DXE violated the firm’s “strict biosecurity policy,” according to The Washington Post.

But the FBI? Really? It turns out that under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a 2006 law passed by Congress,, a person who “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise” can be charged with a federal crime. Incidentally, Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, was a Senate sponsor of this industry-backed law, which turns peaceful protesters into terrorists.

The FBI investigation is “a demonstration of our effectiveness,” Hsiung told me the other day, via Skype. DXE is growing fast, and its raid on the Smithfield Farm property generated coverage in The New York Times.

“We are an existential threat to Smithfield, one that they have never faced before,” Hsiung says.

A constitutional amendment for animals

DXE stands apart from animal-welfare organizations because it vocally supports the liberation of all animals, ultimately, by passing an amendment to U.S. Constitution granting personhood to animals. (You can read its 40-year roadmap to animal liberation.) This may sound far-fetched — heck, it does sound far-fetched — but social movements to abolish slavery, grant voting rights to women and legalize gay marriage all sounded far fetched, until they didn’t. Interestingly, a 2015 poll found that a third of Americans believe that animals should have the “same rights as people,” about the same percentage as those that supported LGBT equality in the mid-1990s. Continue reading