Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

41JJPSCf6IL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The global south is littered, literally, with the remains of failed international aid projects. So-called clean cookstoves had more appeal to western donors than to women in India, Africa or Latin America. Wells and taps that were intended to provide clean water have fallen into disrepair. One 2009 study estimated there are 50,000 broken rural water points across Africa that represents a failed investment of US $215-360 million. Oops.

It’s easy to understand how this happens. If a nonprofit provides cookstoves or water taps or chickens or books, that’s what it will give poor people, even if what they really want is malaria nets, a schoolhouse or cash.

As Jennifer Lentfer puts it: “One of the killer assumptions that has plagued the aid industry for years now is the idea that there’s a blank canvas upon which our interventions will make things better.

Lentfer and Tanya Cothran are editors of a new book of essays called Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problemsLentfer, who is director of communications at the nonprofit Thousand Currents (formerly IDEX), and Cothran, who is executive administrator of a foundation called Spirit in Action, believe that community groups in poor countries know better than experts in the west what they need.

Both are small organizations, so it’s no surprise that Lentfer and Cothran focus on small grants. Thousand Currents gave away just under $1 million in 2015, the last year for which a financial report is available on its website. Spirit in Action reported donations of just $34,000 on its 2015 Form 990.

Most of the international grant-makers who contribute to Smart Risks also embrace the small-is-beautiful mantra. More important than how much they give, though, is how they give. They support grassroots groups with flexible, unrestricted, long-term support.

In an essay called “The five essential qualities of grassroots grant-makers,” Jennifer Astone, executive director of the Swift Foundation, asks:

Why not rethink the model of pushing money and projects onto communities, and instead let local priorities determine the needs and drive the design and pace of the work?

Why not, indeed? But this bottom-up approach to global grant-making evidently remains unusual. A report on global humanitarian assistance released last week by Development Initiatives found that national and local responders directly received just 2% of funding reported to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Financial Tracking Service in 2016. That said, much funding for grassroots groups flows through intermediaries like Thousand Currents, Spirit in Action, Global Giving, Accountability Lab, and the Urgent Action Fund. These groups are showcased in Smart RisksContinue reading

Jeff Raikes

Jeff Raikes

The Internet has made it easier than ever to identify the best books, movies,  songs, hotels, restaurants, mutual funds, even foreign-language tutors. To identify the best charities? That’s harder.

The Raikes Foundation, which is the family foundation of Jeff Raikes and his wife, Tricia, wants to help, by enabling donors to do more good with their money. Last week, it unveiled a new website, Giving Compass, in beta, which was timed to the annual Giving USA report, which found that Americans gave about $390bn to US charities in 2016.

Some of that $390bn will do enormous good. Much will not. One reason why is that donors can’t easily find trustworthy information about the effectiveness of nonprofits.

I’ve just written a story for The Chronicle of Philanthropy about the Raikes Foundation’s effort to help people give smarter. The story also looks at Giving By All, a program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that is exploring ways to persuade Americans to give more and give better.

Not surprisingly, these are complementary efforts. The two foundations are neighbors in Seattle. Jeff Raikes was a top executive of Microsoft for 26 years, working for Bill Gates, after which he became chief executive of the Gates Foundation, again working for Gates. Jeff and Tricia Raikes were also the first Microsoft couple to meet and marry.

My Chronicle story says:

As befits their roots in the technology industry, both foundations will bring to bear the reach of the internet, the power of big data and the insights of behavioral science to their efforts to change the ways Americans give.

This blogpost will take a closer look at Giving Compass, which invites people to join “a community of donors who use the best data, technology, and peer learning to give well.” Its target audience is not the billionaires who sign the Giving Pledge, but those who are able to make gifts of $10,000 or more. It should be valuable to others as well. Its tagline: We organize the world’s information to make it easier to give well. Continue reading


A “pop-up” swimming pool in Philadelphia

People like to say that “good ideas can come from anywhere.” (The phrase generates 11.4m Google results.) They rarely act that way. Philanthropy is an “insider’s game,” the late Rick Cohen once wrote, and surveys have found that most foundations do not accept unsolicited proposals. This is understandable: Foundation executives don’t want to be swamped with lousy ideas, and they may prefer to be strategic about in their grant-making.

But still. In this political moment, when elites are quite rightly distrusted, can’t foundations find a way to open up to ideas that bubble up from below?

Of course they can.

One prominent example: The Knight Foundation, which just announced 33 winners of the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge, who will share in about $5m in grants. It’s the third time that Knight has run a Cities Challenge, an open-ended competition which grew out of similar approaches that the foundation took with a News Challenge, which sought ways to improve news and information, and an Arts Challenge, which funds the arts. Over the years, Knight has reviewed well over 35,000 applications.

These challenges had ripple effects, as Knight reported:

Contests make up less than 20 percent of our grant-making, but they changed how we work as a foundation and reshaped our traditional programs.  They helped create a “safe zone” for experimentation that has influenced other areas of our grant making. It’s challenged our routines and entrenched behaviors.

Last week, I spoke with George Abbott, who, as director of community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation, oversees the Knight Cities Challenge. Conventional philanthropy, he told me is “pretty much a relationship business,” built on existing ties between foundations and nonprofits. [For an example, see my 2015 post, Round Up the Usual Suspects.]  “The idea behind the challenge,” Abbott said, “was to be as radically open as possible.” This requires taking risks, and accepting failure. Continue reading


We may be the only lawyers on earth whose clients are all innocent. — a poster for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Steven Wise is an attorney for animals, notably two chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, who live in captivity in upstate New York and are asking the courts for relief. A rumpled 60-something legal scholar who has taught animal-rights law at Harvard and Stanford, Wise is president and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which calls itself “the only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, public policy advocacy, and education to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.” Wise and his colleagues at the NHRP plan litigation on behalf of elephants and dolphins as well. They aim not merely to win court judgments for a handful of intelligent and social animals who, they allege, are being maltreated; they want to change the legal status of animals in American courts.

Wise stars in a feature-length documentary called Unlocking the Cage, which I watched last week. It’s a thoughtful and absorbing film (now available on DVD and elsewhere*) that was directed by pioneering filmmakers D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, whose credits include Don’t Look Back (1967) and The War Room (1993). Like The Cove, Louis Psihoyos’ 2009 film about dolphin slaughter, and Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 film about an orca held at Sea World, Unlocking the Cage challenges us to think differently about animals, and it succeeds.

Unlocking the Cage makes clear from the start that chimpanzees can think, feel and communicate in ways that are only lately have become well understood. They can learn to use a simple computer. They can grieve the loss of a loved one. They can plan for the future. They can, in short, do many of the things that we once thought separated humans from animals.

And yet the law regards them as things. Continue reading




Foundations say they want to challenge inequality. The truth is, they often perpetuate it. For better or worse, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, the Buffett family and a growing number of hedge fund and technology billionaires use their large-scale giving to extend their influence at a time when rich people already have inordinate clout. This undermines democracy by further concentrating power in the hands of a few.

So, at least, argues David Callahan in his new book, The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. The founder and editor of the digital journalism website Inside Philanthropy, Callahan has written a smart and fair book, backed up by lots of reporting, even if he can’t quite decide whether to be inspired or alarmed by the way the new power elite uses philanthropy to extend its influence. He writes:

Cheerleaders for philanthropy see nearly everything that big givers do as positive, while critics can be just as myopic and, at times, paranoid. The deeper I’ve dug into today’s mega-giving, the more I’ve come to feel whiplashed between hope and fear. This is a trend that is profoundly exciting and inspiring–but also very scary if you’re worried about civil equality in the world’s oldest democracy.

What’s clear from The Givers is that, for many mega-donors, philanthropy is one more way to advance their agendas around such heated issues as education, climate change and abortion. Continue reading


Marching on Memorial Day in Rockville

This morning, I attended a Memorial Day parade in Rockville, MD, accompanied by my grandsons, Hudson, who is three, and Chase, who is one and a half, as well as my wife, daughter, son-in-law, brother, sister-in-law, two nieces and my 90-something mother, who despite her fading memory tells stories about her girlhood in England during World War II.

This was Rockville’s 73rd annual parade, and my first in a long time.  We enjoyed a brass band that played all the John Philip Sousa favorites, and then cheered police officers, fire fighters, ambulance drivers, and veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. (We didn’t stay for the whole parade–there were about 70 parade units–but I assume that veterans of the recent wars in the Middle East  marched as well.) Patriotism is alive and well, even in the strongly Democratic suburbs of your nation’s capital.

Norman Rockwell would have felt right at home at this spectacle. t this spectacle. We saw Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts. This being Montgomery Country, which is a mecca for immigrants, we also saw Chinese, Mexican and Bolivian dancers who, we can be confident, enjoy more political and economic freedom in this country than they would back home. Although a half dozen or elected officials marched and tossed candy to spectators (which was kind of weird, to be honest), there was no sign of partisan politics anywhere. Yay!

It reminded me of something I often forget: That my father and uncle served in the US Army during World War II. Both were immigrants who escaped Nazi Germany only a few years earlier. My uncle was killed in combat in Italy.

Continue reading

Detroit-SkylineA few things you might not know about Detroit:

So many people are moving into the downtown and midtown areas that worries have arisen about displacing the poor.

When the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Red Wings move into the new $700m Little Caesars sports complex next fall, Detroit will be the only city in America in which all four major sports teams play downtown.

Some 72 percent of national business leaders and 83 percent of local entrepreneurs rate Detroit as an excellent or good place to do business, according to a new survey released last week.

Detroit’s comeback is real, albeit mostly limited, so far, to the city’s core. Still, the changes that have swept through a city that could not pay its bills or deliver basic services just a few years ago have been nothing short of remarkable.

What drove the turnaround? Many things–the leadership of Mayor Mike Duggan, a resurgent auto sector, cohesive business leadership, the rapid growth of Quicken Loans (which employs 15,000 people downtown), a five-year $100m investment in the city from J.P. Morgan Chase and a fierce local pride that never waned, even in the dark days. Philanthropy played an essential role, too.

Capital Impact Partners, a community development financial institution (CDFI) and a major lender in Detroit, has taken  investments from government, banks and foundations and turned them into projects that drive economic activity and improve lives. Foundations backing Capital Impact Partners including Kresge, Fisher and Ford.

“Detroit is unique because of the collaboration that has occurred, not only on the philanthropic side, but because the city, community organizations, Wayne State (University) and CDFIs have all  come together,” says Ellis Carr, the president and CEO of Capital Impact Partners. “Everyone believed in the vision.”

I’m writing today about Capital Impact Partners for two reasons. First, there’s been a flurry of interest lately from foundations and other asset managers in what’s typically called impact investing. Impact investing is trendy (ask Bono) but it’s not new: CDFIs like Capital Impact Partners have been doing impact investing for decades.

Second, I’ve got a special place in my heart for Detroit. I lived in Grosse Pointe Park, across the city line, from 1985 to 1991, and reported for the Detroit News and the Detroit for a decade. These were tough times for the city, when it took some effort to Say Nice Things About Detroit–a motto you’d see around town on T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Then things got worse: From 1993 through 2003, no new units of housing were built in downtown Detroit.  By contrast, since 2010, Capital Impact Partners has helped finance more than 1,000 housing units, and it’s just one lender among many. Continue reading