This 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.