Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

old-new-sign-istock-photo-downloadThis blog began as an experiment almost a year ago. Back then, I didn’t know whether I wanted to devote myself to writing about nonprofits and foundations. I’ve learned, fifty-two blogposts later, that I do.

Nonprofits and foundations are important. The issues swirling around them are fascinating. And they deserve more sustained journalistic attention.

So after 20 years of writing about business — most of that time at FORTUNE magazine and more recently as editor-at-large of Guardian Sustainable Business US — I recently gave notice at the Guardian so that I can spend most of my time writing about philanthropy. I’m excited to begin a new adventure. I hope to approach the work with what Buddhists call a beginner’s mind — that is, an attitude of openness, eagerness and humility, and a lack of preconceptions.

It would be disingenuous, however, to pretend that I don’t bring a point of view to my reporting. It is, put simply, that donors and NGOs need to focus more strongly on impact, evaluation and learning, so that we can do as much good as we can with the $350 billion or so that Americans give each year to charity.

In my ideal world, institutional and individual donors would have a much deeper understanding of nonprofits and their effectiveness, so that more money would flow to high-performing organizations and less would be spent on those that are average or subpar. Nonprofits would learn from one another, and donors would share their knowledge.

Happily, many others share this vision. There’s an enormous amount of activity aimed at creating what’s been called a social sector powered by information, at places like Markets for Good, the Fund for Shared Insight, Feedback Labs, Guidestar (“Better data, for better decisions, for a better world”), Charity Navigator, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, at newborn Impact Matters, and across the loose network of organizations devoted to effective altruism. Dozens of foundations and nonprofits are learning organizations that take to heart the goal of measuring and improving their impact.

None of this will come easy. In a wonderful profile of Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation in the current New Yorker, Larissa Macfarquhar points to just a few of the challenges:

The idea that foundations should evaluate their projects more carefully was not particularly controversial, but how they should do that was far from clear. Should a foundation try to guide and steer its grantees, as venture capitalists did with startups? Or should it trust that grantees, who were actually doing the work in the field, knew best what worked and what didn’t? Most grantees were not startups, and were liable to become resentful if foundation officers started meddling—though of course they would hide that resentment for fear of losing the grant. And, resentment aside, if a foundation started telling its grantees what to do, would it then become an initiative-crushing central planner, stifling the very grassroots innovation and practical know-how that it purported to encourage? On the other hand, if a foundation took a hands-off approach, was it any more than a writer of checks?

Other questions properly vex the executives and program officers at Ford, as Macfarquhar reports:

How much money should be devoted to work that helped people right away, such as encouraging self-determination in girls from traditional societies, and how much to long-term, long-shot prospects for change, such as art? Ford believed in supporting art as a means of disrupting dominant narratives, but art didn’t always do what you wanted it to. Was it better to work on issues that people were currently agitated about, or to draw attention to ones that nobody was addressing? Was it better to be bold and risk failure, or to give money to a project that had a good chance of success? And how soon would success have to happen in order to count—five years? Ten? Was it better to be patient or impatient? On the one hand, social justice wasn’t the sort of thing that happened overnight; on the other hand, there had to be some point at which a program could be declared a failure and cut off, or there would be no accountability at all.

It will be fascinating to see how Ford and other influential foundations answer such questions. While pioneering nonprofits can help reshape the sector, by developing programs and practices that spread, their influence is limited. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility  of donors to deliver the change that’s needed to the sector. Governments, foundations and wealthy individuals will have to lead; then, we can hope, individual donors will follow.

My job will be to write about all this–here at Nonprofit Chronicles, for publications that serve nonprofits and foundations, and for media outlets that reach broader audiences. I’ll need lots of help. Please send me story ideas (my email is Marc.Gunther at Google’s email). I’m more interested in practice than in theory. I’d like to identify people and tell stories that reflect the best and worst of the sector, whether we’re talking about donors or NGOs.

I’m confident that foundations and nonprofits can do better. They’ve helped make our world healthier, wealthier, safer and more free. While there were lots of reasons to be discouraged last year, let’s remember, as Charles Kenny wrote in The Atlantic, that 2015 was the best year in history for the average human being. It’s up to us to make 2016 even better. 

8 thoughts on “In with the new

  1. How Matters says:

    So glad you’re sticking around!


  2. jo confino says:

    Marc, having worked closely with you at the Guardian we should all feel very grateful that you are turning your investigative and insightful eye to this sector. You are an exceptional journalist with a strong moral compass and so I look forward to seeing you flourish in this arena. And I would love you to think that the Huffington Post represents a home for your thoughtful endeavours.

    Warm wishes


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good luck with the new order, Marc. But am looking forward to your continued insights on overlaps and interfaces with for-profit realm!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great move, Marc! This sector has grown like Topsy over the past 40 years, and until recently lacks the kind of moral leadership that used to characterize it. Darren Walker is stepping up, in the tradition of John Gardner and Paul Ylvisaker. Both Gardner and Ylvisaker believed firmly in the power of voluntary associations to empower communities, and were at the forefront of organized philanthropy — Gardner at Carnegie, Paul at Ford — when it moved into social justice grantmaking. Most people would recommend Gardner’s “On Leadership” (1989) but I particlarly favor his book, “The Recovery of Confidence” (1980).

    As for Paul — he didn’t favor writing books much, preferring speeches instead, but oh, what speeches they were. Brian O’Connell, founding president of Independet Sector, referred to “the enormous guidance of his piercing beacon” in his blurb for “Conscience & Community”, a compendium of Paul’s greatest hits.

    Harvard Ed School dean and for years my beloved mentor. Paul Ylvisaker ushered me into ethical investing in 1983. It was a natural extension of his continued prominence in organized philanthropy — and his legacy as the guy who invented Program Related Investing before he left Ford in the mid-1960s. (Sidebar: thanks to Paul, I also taught courses on philanthropy and social enterprise at Babson College from 1988 to 1998. Wrote and consulted widely on organized philanthropy for a couple of decades, mainly as it needed to be tied better to ethical investing.)

    As someone who was in the dean’s office just about every day (and lived, whilst a doctoral student, right across the street from it) I benefited from Paul’s constant coaching and insights, which began in 1975 and continued until he died in March 1992. I feel duty-bound to continue the legacy. One of my particular favorites: “The Spirit of Philanthorpy and the Soul of Those Who Manage It,” a plenary speech given at the 38th annual conference of the Council on Foundations in Atlanta, in March 1987. (Separately, at the same conference, I gave a talk on “Mixing Asset Management and Social Policy: A Primer for Organized Philanthropy”, and gave a talk on same at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.)

    Another: “Community Action: A Response to Some Unfinished Business,” a 1963 speech in which he laid out the structure, assumptions, and values animating the Gray Areas projects. “Gray Areas” was a euphemism for “race” or “Negro”), which concentrated on those rapidly-deteriorating areas between central city and suburbs. The Gray Areas program, which became a blueprint for the War on Poverty, featured a series of grants made in 1961 and 1962 to five cities (Oakland, New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia) and one state (North Carolina). Their purpose: encourage experimentation (including coverage of administrative costs), work with existing entities (Paul abhored “coordination”, preferring “integration” instead), and foster “polycentricity” — e.g., development of holistic strategies and criteria among local public and private agencies, thus strenghtening their hand with state and federal governments.

    Another sign of contemporary relevance, from then (early 1960s) to now (2000-teens): Paul viewed cities as systems, characterized by flow, not congeries of separate parts. And not just one system, but a series of interlocking systems. Sound familiar?

    Also, the critical element was “spirit” — “My own personal hunch is that the awakening of self0respect is the most powerful agent for renewing our cities socially and, for that matter, physically. Partly this must be earned; partly — as the saints have taught us — it must be freely given.” (Paul’s Dad was a Lutheran preacher in Minnesota.)

    Darren Walker is a direct beneficiary of Paul’s work at Ford back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Why? Because CDCs, including LISC (its founder, Mike Sviridoff, was the Gray Areas guy in New Haven) sprang directly from Gray Areas. And Ford’s new FordForward agenda is almost an exact replica of Paul’s, from 55 years ago. Change Foundation methods and structure to deal adequately with the problems at hand; a holistic focus on inequality, taking a multi-systems approach; fund administrative costs as a legitimate agent for underwriting research and experimentation; the “awakening of self-respect”; promote capacity to set common goals among multiple actors, and test them in action; reengage the community to break the bottlenecks.

    Paul Ylvisaker and my other major mentor Robert C. Wood were both urbanists, public intellectuals with serious credibility. They became pals in graduate school (Harvard Ph.Ds in public administration) and active public players on racial justice, metropolitan forms of governance, and urban revitalization, Paul did Gray Areas; Bob was the inventor of Model Cities, in the LBJ administration.

    They influence me to this day. Indeed, I’m developing a 21st century model to bridge the equity AND equality gap (are you listening, Steve, my friend? :D) that builds on these legacies. It looks at the combined power of assets under management amongst ALL tax-exempt institutional investors in a given place — with Boston as a pilot. Wuuld love to talk more with you about this.

    Again, congratulations, and off we go!


    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Marcy, I need to learn more of this history and would love to talk with you about your work in Boston. I’m planning a trip there in March or April to visit with people and will put you on my list of people to contact.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. marcymurninghan832 says:

        Great! Look forward to it. And to your keen and fresh coverage of the range of stubborn issues that beset the benevolent impulse.


  5. A long conversation. As Einstein observed what is counted does not always count, and counts does not always counted. Assessment may tell you something at the end of the grant that may little, nothing or something in the future. In London now ba
    Ck the 6 th but in meetings the rest of the week, would be happy to talk.
    Re ford, does walker mean inequality or in equity? They are different see frankfurt’s inequality.

    Happy new year

    Liked by 1 person

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