Tag Archives: fundraising

Happy Birthday to Me!

Inspired by others’ successes with birthday Causes, I am trying to raise money through Facebook for the Fistula Foundation. So if, you know, you’re totally just loving this blog and wondering how you can possibly express your gratitude, or just wondering what to do with this extra $15 that you found in the parking lot outside your agency, or trying to think of how you can honor all of the amazing women in your life by giving a woman somewhere in the developing world her life back, have I got a deal for you!

Obstetric fistulas are one of the least ‘sexy’ causes you can imagine, which I guess is part of what draws me to this issue (which, I, of course, got passionate about from reading Half the Sky–where else?). For me, it’s also personal–I was lucky enough to have two healthy and safe childbirth experiences, both with some complications that skilled medical care handled without incident. I am reminded literally daily, then, when I look at my healthy kids, of how many women struggle so valiantly, and so unnecessarily, to bring their children into the world. I hope to be able to pay for at least one operation every year; the surgery and post-operative support costs $450 through The Fistula Foundation, and what’s especially awesome is that the organization has also trained fistula survivors to provide medical care and education to other women, thereby helping them to rebuild their lives and experience greater prosperity than before their injury.

You can go straight to my birthday cause <a href="“>here. Or check out the organization at the link above. You don’t have to make your contribution in honor of me–how about your own mother, or your favorite health care provider, or whomever else you’d like to recognize with a gift that the Foundation calls “love-a-sister”.

It’s not coincidental that pregnancy and childbirth are such dangerous experiences for women around the world. Societies fail to adequately invest in health care services for women, because women are not as valued, and they, and, therefore, we, pay the price everyday…in lives lost and in dreams destroyed.

I made a donation of $150 so far, last year’s birthday money that was theoretically for me to have a ‘getaway’ day at a spa. But, really, every day in my life is an ‘escape’, in global terms…from the constant threat and illness and violence and deprivation that are reality for so many of my sisters around the world.

I’m excited to see if Facebook can help me raise enough money to fully fund one woman’s escape from isolation, medical risk, and grinding poverty. That would be a great way to celebrate my day of birth.

Challenges in Evaluating Advocacy

As I’ve discussed here before, one of the great challenges facing nonprofit organizations trying to integrate organizing and advocacy into their social service work (and, especially trying to get foundation or other outside funding to do that work) is in defining ‘success’ in the advocacy/organizing context and measuring the extent to which agency actions can be credited for that same success.

And this is a problem. It’s a problem because not all advocacy and organizing is very worthwhile, and the really effective work needs to rise to the top, just as in any activity in which nonprofit organizations engage. And it’s a problem because many donors use (in my opinion) the rather nebulous nature of outcome tracking in social change as an excuse not to fund it, which means fewer resources for this really vital work. And it’s a problem because we can’t maximally learn from what others are doing well (and not) if we don’t have common terms, common benchmarks, and a common mechanism for sharing and, then, building on, that collective knowledge.

So I’ve been doing a lot of reading about assessment in advocacy and organizing; I’ve talked with folks at some of the foundations and consulting firms around the country that are most advanced in this, and I’ve reflected on my own experiences as an advocate participating in evaluations. I have found a couple of resources that I think are really worth sharing, and I hope that they, and my reflections shared here, will be helpful to you as you set out to not only do social change work (yay! yay!) but also to do it intentionally well, to be strategic about how to assess it, and to then freely disseminate your results with would-be disciples.

When I was on the strategy committee of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, we participated in a pretty intense evaluation of our organizing and advocacy with Innovation Network. Recently, when I was on their website, I was totally blown away by the depth and breadth of resources that they have available for free. They are outstanding: online tools for setting benchmarks and conducting evaluations, a regular newsletter on evaluating advocacy, literature on the emerging field of evaluation, and more. It’s awesome, and all you have to do is register (for free). Check it out.

I also read through almost 80 pages of a pretty comprehensive report by the California Endowment (it’s good, but I don’t expect anyone else to want to wade through it–I did link to them below, in case you are interested). There are some good resources at the back of each report, though, so you might want to check those out–some online tools (many of which are also linked at innonet) and some literature. Here are my thoughts in reading through it, and thinking a lot over the past several days about this dilemma and how advocates and donors can work through it together.

  • Having a clear (and mutually-agreed-upon) theory of change is absolutely essential–we can’t bank on achieving the actual policy change that might be the ultimate goal, but if we know what needs to take place as interim steps towards that ultimate change, then we can count those accomplishments as outcomes, knowing that they are likely to contribute to our ultimate success. I can’t stress enough how much that kind of clicked for me this week. We need to spell out what needs to happen in terms of garnering support, changing public opinion, influencing the debate, etc…in order for policy change to occur–doing so will not only allow our investors to hold us accountable for those steps along the way but also make our own success much more likely. Some examples given in the report: shifts in critical mass, changing definitions, changing community or individual behavior, influencing institutional policy, holding the line. As we measure how well we’re doing on these goals, we’ll also be gauging how we’re advancing on our goal. Kind of a light bulb moment.
  • To really break through, foundations have to get over their overblown fears of lobbying. Otherwise, nonprofit organizations withhold some of the context of their work in order to make foundations feel safer, and then what they’re talking about is incomplete and sometimes almost nonsensical.
  • At the same time, though, we need an understanding of social change that far surpasses lobbying, or even policy change. We need to think about regulatory advocacy, legal advocacy, media advocacy, and community organizing as essential pieces of this work, just as important as legislative advocacy, depending on the target and campaign. Otherwise, we can confuse policy change (which is really just a means) with broader social change (the real goal). Doing so can lead us to prematurely declare victory or pursue an unnecessarily narrow range of activities.
  • We need capacity building. If an organization is an ‘advocacy organization’, then expecting them to turn on a dime and implement X social change campaign is reasonable. But when we’re talking about social service organizations learning an entirely new way to do their work, we need to invest so that they are then prepared to respond to opportunities (again, not just legislatively, but also in the community environment) as they develop. Along these same lines, we need to educate foundation Boards and Trustees about the long-term nature of social change and the need for investment beyond the 1-3 year term.
  • We can convert the process goals we commonly use in advocacy to the outcome indicators that foundations so want to see. It’s really just a matter of shifting our thinking. Instead of the number of meetings we held: the increase in the percentage exposed to the issue. Instead of the number of press releases: the number of times the organization was quoted. Instead of giving testimony: the organization’s statistics were used in a summary of the hearing.
  • We have to balance realistic and aspirational goals as we set our benchmarks. If we’re not striving, we’re not going to win, but if we are setting ourselves up for failure, we likely won’t be able to sustain the effort necessary for the long-term haul that is building social change.
  • Nonprofit organizations have to push back somewhat on the drive towards quantification of results; while these outcomes are important, they can also diminish the validity of alternative measures that may resonate more powerfully among the constituencies with whom you’re organizing, like storytelling.Organizers and advocates know that it’s not enough just to work really hard, or even to get a lot of people to show up or get a lot of attention (although those are great things!). We have to be making progress towards the kinds of social changes our society so desperately needs. We have to hold ourselves accountable not just because we can get more money that way, or because it makes us look good, but because the marginalized communities with which we’re working have been sold inferior goods and services for far too long–they deserve to work with people who can and will deliver. We need to learn what we need to measure, and then measure it, and then not be afraid to shout that it works!

    Challenges in Evaluating Advocacy Part I

    Part II

  • Towards a New Framework for Nonprofit Financing

    I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the state of the nonprofit sector during the past couple of months. And I’m obviously not alone; the creation of the Obama Administration’s Social Innovation Fund, among other developments, has sparked some widespread soul-searching among nonprofit leaders (both providers and donors) about the future of the sector and necessary reforms.

    This report, produced out of a gathering convened by the Alliance for Children and Families, Deloitte LLP, and the Hillside Family of Agencies (large nonprofit in NY, like $180 million annual budget large) earlier this spring, echoes a lot of that thinking. There were some very good pieces included in it, and it seems that, given the relationships that many participants have with congressional and administration policymakers, the group might have some momentum to enact some of their proposed changes. Still, I was very glad that they included pictures of the participants convening (in the historic Rockefeller family estate, no less!), because it was glaringly, painfully, offensively obvious that the effort is not representative of the overall nonprofit sector, which to me should color (NO PUN INTENDED) any discussion of their conclusions.

    In the pictures, there were absolutely no people of color, and very few women. Going by the attendees’ names, I’d generously say that no more than 5 of the 21 participants were women. If we’re going to have a high-level meeting about the future of nonprofit financing and try to break out of the patterns of how things have been done during the previous decades to imagine a new day, shouldn’t it be a diverse group having that conversation? Um, yes.

    Okay, then, what did these mostly male, middle-aged white people conclude about what needs to change in nonprofit financing? 🙂

    First, what I liked the most: the group seemed to emphasize that the future of nonprofit human services MUST include significant, even increased, funding support from the federal government. They didn’t have any of this ‘work smarter, public/private, new economy’ stuff that so many of these conversations have substituted for the difficult political work of getting government to do its job and take care of the American people. Yay!

    The report has three main themes: reform the ‘dollar in, dollar out’ method of government financing; encourage integration and break down programmatic silos; and innovate new mechanisms to promote the long-term financial stability of productive organizations within the nonprofit sector. Much of the last point parallels the discussion in Uncharitable, although this group came up with a few different approaches to the same stated problem. Here, they propose a human services investment bank to support mergers and acquisitions and venture capital and to finance new programs, but they recommend that the loans would be repaid, so to speak, by outcome performance, not in cash through enhanced fundraising efforts (as Pallotta proposes). They also suggest that this bank could function to underwrite lending directly to social service clients (sort of like a Fannie Mae for social services).

    Many of the recommendations to address the first two areas, though, seemed to be inadequately developed in terms of strategies to overcome the primarily political nature of resistance to change. Yes, I can agree that the government’s current method of cost-reimbursement contracting is ill suited to long-term planning, innovation, and capacity-building. I can empathize with nonprofit executives who struggle to meet multiple, often conflicting requirements for reporting to different granting entities. I see the shortsightedness of taking whatever money we can get from the government and then cutting other programs to fill the gaps, without ever making the necessary capital investments (in technology, infrastructure, physical space, staff training) to take our organizations ‘to the next level’. I get it that pooled government funds and paying organizations for performance and reforming the rules of nonprofit accounting to allow for separation of capital budgets and cash flow would free nonprofit organizations from many of the constraints that currently compromise their long-term efficacy while encouraging innovative replication of promising interventions. I like the idea of ‘super waivers’, to open contracting and increase the transparency of the funding process (even as I fear, a bit, anything with ‘waiver’ in it, since that’s often a euphemism for something that exchanges a bit more flexibility for rather dramatic cuts in funding).

    But what I don’t really see is a strategy for how we would begin to get there. There’s little discussion about the need for better outcomes data in order to judge the performance for which nonprofits are theoretically going to be paid. There’s even less analysis of the ideology behind the devolution which has contributed mightily to the fragmentation of the sector. And, while it seems that they plan to address the issue of vested constituencies for each ‘silo’, I don’t see a plan for how you corral these interests into a movement for change.

    We didn’t get to the state in which we find ourselves by accident. And it really isn’t because we think it’s the greatest situation that we perpetuate it. Articulating the problems and pointing out what would be better does not, unfortunately, lead us neatly to a new reality. What we need, even more than technical know-how and lists of great suggestions, is the political power to bring about a transformation in the way that the nonprofit human service sector is viewed…not as charity but as a core part of our social contract and an investment in our collective future.

    And that gets me back to my first critique. I don’t see how you build a movement without bringing in more of the essential voices that comprise today’s, and, perhaps more importantly, tomorrow’s, society. I applaud many of these ideas, and I concur with the dire assessment of the status quo. And I hope that this is another pebble dropping in the pond, until it spills over and we achieve the kinds of fundamental reforms that would make the nonprofit sector a real player in human progress.

    I hate to be cynical, but I’m just not sure that the revolution starts in Rockefeller’s living room.

    Financing Human Services Report

    Foundations for Advocacy

    I am convinced that lack of adequate financial resources is a major, if not the most significant, barrier to effective nonprofit advocacy. Yes, we have challenges to overcome regarding institutional capacity and expertise, preoccupation with direct service, and, sometimes, lack of courage to take the stands needed to be effective advocates, but I truly believe that we could surmount these obstacles much more easily if nonprofit organizations could invest in the staff, training, and other resources they need to succeed in advocacy.

    And, yet, the kind of long-term, sustainable, unrestricted funding that nonprofit organizations need to build their capacity to take on these battles is declining, and lack of funding continues to be a shield behind which organizations not engaging in advocacy can hide, and a real limitation for those trying to make it work.

    All of this has led to one of my current research interests of sorts–the role of donors to social service organizations in supporting those organizations’ social change work (particularly advocacy, but also community organizing and broader justice work). This document outlines the highlights from a report regarding “Social Justice Grantmaking”, the authors’ term for grants that target work for structural change. I have contacted the authors to see if the study will be updated, since the data were collected in 2005, and I am very interested to see what the current recession means for these foundations–both those that were funding social justice work then and those that were not–and their levels of giving and priorities.

    Here are the findings that I found most notable: social justice grantmaking is only 11% of total foundation support; it has grown somewhat since the late 1990s but more slowly than overall increases in giving. The ‘big names’ represent the majority of social justice grantmaking: the top 25 foundations for this kind of grantmaking constituted only 13% of the sample of donors but gave 68% of the total dollars to social justice work. That’s huge; what it means, essentially, is that those nonprofits doing excellent work not on the radar screen of the Fords or Caseys or Rockefellers or Carnegies are going to be competing with others for only ~30% of the 11% of total grantmaking dollars. It’s still a lot of money, but it doesn’t stretch too far. By social justice ‘topic’, economic development tops the list, followed by health care access (I’d love to see how this has changed given the current political openings on health care reform), civil rights, education reform, housing, and human services. What that makes me wonder is how nonprofit organizations can frame their advocacy so that it hits those priority areas, given that, in many instances, we’re seeking the kind of wholesale societal changes that touch on multiple areas of inequity. Somewhat surprisingly, the Midwest is second in terms of its share of social justice dollars (24%, behind the unsurprising Northeast).

    The end of the report has barriers cited by grantmakers to increasing their participation with this social change work: the magnitude of the problems (um, to me, that suggests a need for MORE investment in social justice grantmaking, no?), the short-term focus of most grants (a problem it seems that they could change, right?), lack of field coherence (e.g. we don’t all use the same language to talk about change, we don’t work together like we should, advocates still need to get our acts together), and lack of outcome measures (this is another one of my obsessions right now–I’ve read at least 6 advocacy evaluation reports a week for the last month–more on that to come soon).

    But, I loathe anything that just lays out a problem without suggesting some way around, over, or through it, so I’ve sought out some resources to help nonprofit advocates get the social justice grant dollars that ARE available, as well as some really excellent individuals and organizations that are working hard to convince foundations of their moral obligation and obvious self-interest (um, solve the problems and you can do whatever you want with your money!) in investing in social change. One that I’m really stoked about is Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training. Some of their resources (like the seemingly-superb webinars–once my kids can sit still for 30 minutes, I’m totally there) cost, but others are free. I’m on their e-newsletter now, and they’ve got great stuff on how to survive the recession, how to plan good special events..it’s not all advocacy-focused, but it’s good.

    And here’s the other one I want to share right now: Grantcraft. Now, if you follow that link, you might wonder why I’m sending you to a website clearly designed for grantmakers (since I doubt many of you are sitting on millions of dollars in endowments). But here’s the idea: first, think like a grantmaker in order to influence grantmakers. Read what they read, use their same language, understand their rationale for saying ‘yes’, so that you increase the likelihood that they’ll say it to you. Second, direct the donors with whom you have an existing relationship to resources like this if they’re currently reluctant to fund advocacy/social change work. They need to know that they won’t be alone, or breaking the law, or throwing money away. They need to connect with other grantmakers who, in fact, find social justice grantmaking the most rewarding and effective part of their portfolio. And then they need to open their pocketbooks, because we’ve got work to do.

    Wither the nonprofit?

    Of all of the books that I read during this summer ‘break’, Uncharitable was the most troubling and the most likely to continually reverberate through my professional life. I know that people are busy and so I seldom say this, but, if you run a nonprofit or raise money for a nonprofit or evaluate a nonprofit, you really should read this book.

    That does NOT mean that I agree with everything that Dan Pallotta asserts in the book. I started out, in fact, pretty aghast at some of his assertions. And he remains WAY more enamored of free-market capitalism, and way more convinced of its potential for good, than I will ever be (he claims that the persistence of social problems is evidence of nonprofits’ failure, where I would look more to the systemic causes, some of which are perpetuated by the same corporate structure he seeks to emulate). But he’s honest about that, and seemingly honest about just about everything, and I respect that. And, truly, he has some very, very important (and unorthodox) things to say about the way that we do business in the nonprofit sector.

    And I guess that’s the first point: it is a business. And we have to acknowledge that and figure out what that means for the work that social workers do, within these nonprofit organizations, that many of us consider much more like a calling than a career.

    Here are his main points (you can see where the controversy comes up immediately):

  • Nonprofit organizations need to be able to operate more like for-profit ones in order to achieve excellent results: pay competitive executive salaries; solicit investors (not just donors); invest in long-term approaches, even if they don’t yield immediate results; take risks, even if sometimes they fail
  • We need to stop measuring nonprofits’ success based on a narrow measure of their efficiency: what percentage of their budget goes to fundraising–and start figuring out how we measure whether they are really having an impact on the problems they set out to solve, and then evaluating them based on those results

    I started off with him 100% on the second and somewhat skeptical on the first. Now, I can’t stop thinking about several of the points that he made, and I’ve been doing some more research (see below) on what this might look like in practice. Some of the best stuff in here:

  • Why is it OK to pay people a lot of money to hurt poor people but not to help them? Why is profiting personally in the nonprofit sector shameful, when profiting from selling video games or car engines or garden plants isn’t? If it’s okay to eschew the nonprofit sector all together (we don’t think any of our friends in the corporate world are inherently evil, right? right?), then why is it not okay to stay in the nonprofit world but make a higher salary? Why is the money that goes to salaries in nonprofits construed as money that comes out of the pockets of those served by the organization, rather than looking to the gross inequities in society and saying that they’re to blame for nonprofits having small pieces of the pie in the first place?
  • This line of argument made me think about a former boss of mine who was sharply criticized for buying some new furniture for our front reception area. When people challenged this, saying that we should have put the money ‘into programs’, he made a statement that has stuck with me: “Why should poor people have to wait in an area that just reminds them that they’re poor? If we’re going to value customer service, we have to value them from the moment they walk in the door.” I think he and Pallotta would have a lot to talk about.
  • Pallotta makes the case that addressing the problems in the nonprofit sector is absolutely crucial if we are to solve the problems the sector makes its priority. Here, I couldn’t agree more. Too often, we nonprofit types say that we don’t have time for professional development or long-range planning, or whatever, because we have ‘too much to do’, but neglecting these structural issues make it much less likely that we’ll succeed in all of that other work.
  • We need to stop judging the morality of tactics in favor of the moral of outcomes. I get what he’s saying here–(does it really matter how much money we spent on overhead, if we are the best at making the problem go away?), but this is a slippery slope of ‘ends justify the means’ that I don’t feel comfortable with. Yes, I agree that I care more about what an organization does with my money than what it spent to get it, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also care about what they did in order to get it. There ARE times, in fact, when what you had to do to get to victory negates the sweetness of that win, and I can’t accept a uniform trade-off here.
  • Pallotta, and even more some of the other resources I found, talk about alternative models, both those that would be nonprofit, and those that would not. And that got me wondering what role(s) there would be for social workers in those new structures, and what would have to change within our profession’s Code of Ethics and professional training, among other things, for us to find a fit within social entreprenuerism or social business models.
  • One of his most compelling points, to me, was that ‘nonprofits are the only entities defined not by what we achieve but by what we don’t (profits). I’ve had that stuck in my head like John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. Why aren’t we the ‘social justice sector’ or the ‘creative compassion sector’? Why are we so clear about what we’re against and not nearly so clear about what we’re for? For that matter, why are we so segmented? Why do we get mad when we ‘cross-promote’ causes, when no similar outrage arises in the corporate world, and when so many of our social problems are inextricably linked?
  • He argues that the false separation that divides charities from the rest of the economic order is apartheid, and, while I find that a bit dramatic, I can agree that it seems pretty unnatural the more I think about it. I mean, the for-profit sector helps people too, all the time, sometimes not even at greater cost to the individuals in need. We don’t have a problem with some portion of what we pay for other services going to those who deliver those services. What makes nonprofits so unique, then?
  • Social workers learn early about the dual functions of our profession: social justice and social control. Uncharitable includes discussion of our nation’s Puritan heritage and raises the rather uncomfortable idea that nonprofit organizations’ primary function is to perpetuate our ability to make a charitable gesture, even if the structure and accompanying constraints limit what we can do for those we serve. It made me think about how often I hear social workers and social work students groaning about how little they get paid–is that, in some perverse way, part of how we define ourselves? Does some of our professional self-worth come from an identity of martyrdom? Do we think that we have to be selfless to be great? Yes, that’s what I’ll be thinking about when the kids wake me up at night.
  • One of the more pragmatic parts of Pallotta’s arguments relates to the impending leadership crisis in nonprofits. We need 640,000 new high-level managers in nonprofits by 2016. Where are we going to find them, if we aren’t able to lure some of the most talented people to the nonprofit sector? Why are rich people celebrated for giving just a small percentage of their income to charity, when nonprofit executives, who give so much of their time and talent, are crucified as greedy for asking for wages commensurate with their gifts? Personally, low wages were never a problem of mine–I always felt amply compensated financially, but I just needed less work and more time with my kids. But I know that some of my students, including some very talented social workers, feel real financial stress even when working full-time jobs in nonprofits, and I can’t help but wonder what this will do to them, their practices, and their clients long-term.
  • Pallotta faults nonprofits’ Boards of Directors for being particularly risk-averse, which hinders investment in capacity building, drives risktakers from the field, and (my addition) limits organizations’ advocacy potential. Yes, sometimes we will fail. Sometimes we will make people mad or just not resonate or just see things kind of fall apart. But, really, why is that the end of the world? Looking to advocacy, how can we put together successful campaigns that speak truth to power if our greatest worry is that we don’t make anyone mad, lose funding, or make mistakes? We cannot. As he says, “We must stop trading the dreams we have for our communities for the approval we want from our regulators” (I could substitute donors, Board members, etc…).
  • Pallotta’s sharpest criticism and greatest outrage is saved for this whole question about how to really measure a nonprofit’s impact. He bemoans the system that uses 990s to draw lines between overhead and programs (making a convincing argument that this is a false dichotomy) and then punishes those organizations that exceed socially acceptable limits. I have long seen that organizations that fail to invest in capacity see their long-term functioning deteriorate–professional development, communications/technology, sophisticated evaluation. Many social workers have spent some unpleasant time in one of those organizations that has failed to invest enough in its own capacity.

    It’s true that we don’t really have a great way of defining ‘success’ or even true ‘efficiency’, especially across the entire sector, but I agree totall with Pallotta that those difficulties do not excuse our failure to really ask the right questions. This means acknowledging that it takes more money to raise money for nonprofits that deal with unpopular causes (e.g. homelessness compared to breast cancer) and that small, grassroots nonprofits are sometimes not the cheapest ways to run things (even if they are the most democratic). It means recognizing that spending money on advertising is also about raising awareness of social problems and building ‘consumer demand’ for their solutions, which, ultimately, is the only way that we revolutionize our society. It means being honest about the fact that there’s a lot that we don’t know about what makes a nonprofit organization successful in its fight against its particular social demons, and it means investing the collective intelligence in trying to articulate those questions and seek at least some answers.

    After reading the book, I found this article on L3Cs (low-profit, limited liability corporations), a new corporate structure allowed in Illinois and (with a few variations) a few other states. In many ways, this seems to shore up some of Uncharitable’s theses; one of the main purposes of the L3C is to allow organizations to receive investment capital for their work, which then serves as seed money, basically, for fundraising and marketing and other work before being repaid, with interest, to the investors who sought to both make good returns financially and morally. And here’s some commentary about what options already exist, within the current 501(c)3 structure, to do some of the same things. Check them out, and I’d love to know what you think.

    And, perhaps directly influenced by these ideas, Charity Navigator (one of the major NPO ‘watchdog’ groups) is going to start rating nonprofits based on their success in achieving outcomes, not just the percentage of donations that go to the ’cause’. And the Rockefeller Foundation is supporting the development of a Global Impact Investing group to collect and disseminate outcomes information on both nonprofits and social businesses. The latter initiative is aimed at investors looking to make a profit; the former at those making charitable contributions. VERY exciting!

    OK, so I know that this is SUPER long, but that’s how much this book impacted me. I’m thinking a lot about what this all means for social work, for the future of nonprofit organizations (I’m looking for alternative labels, now, for our ‘sector’), and for how we harness the power of human enthusiasm and moral outrage to confront our common enemies. What do you think? How does this challenge how you have learned to think about yourself, your organization, your work? What scares you, angers you, or excites you about these ideas? And why do you think you have that response?

  • Writing Grants for Nonprofit Advocacy

    True confession time: I have been avoiding this post.

    One of the most common questions I am asked relates to money–how do nonprofit organizations get it, to do advocacy? Where do you look? Whom do you ask? How do you make the case, especially when your organization is new to advocacy, that you deserve it? How do you define ‘success’ in such a way that your donors have confidence in your outcomes, without boxing yourself into a corner where you only look good if you win the ‘big prize’–policy change?

    The answer, of course, is that there’s not nearly enough money out there for nonprofit advocacy. It’s too hard to find, foundations are too reluctant to give it, it’s still undervalued as a legitimate nonprofit activity. That’s why I have been avoiding this.

    Still, when I was looking through my files the other day, I came across some grant applications (that were funded!) that I had written for advocacy work during my time at a couple of different nonprofit organizations, and it occurred to me that, even though I don’t have any easy answers for organizational advocates who are perpetually overworked and underresourced, it might still be helpful to share some of what I do know.

  • Advocate with your current donors to help them understand the importance and legality of funding advocacy. Anyone who writes grants for nonprofit work knows that building relationships with donors is essential. Your organization obviously has relationships with some donors (or you wouldn’t be open for business!)–community or local foundations, corporate-giving operations, individuals–but these partners may not be on board in terms of funding advocacy. Sometimes there are ideological gaps, and sometimes these cannot be hurdled (you need to be prepared, honestly, for the chance that your advocacy work may, at least initially, cost you some support from those donors who don’t approve of the strategies you employ or the causes you champion). Sometimes, though, the obstacle relates more to ignorance about the ways in which donors can support advocacy or how they can measure its success. Use the Alliance for Justice materials, get them on the phone with your donors, hold a roundtable discussion with those who are funding advocacy–in essence, direct some of your advocacy work towards those you want to support your advocacy.
  • Research advocacy funding to get a sense of the causes different donors support and how you can make connections. Use some investigative techniques and your coalition/relationship connections to find out who is funding the advocacy work of other nonprofit organizations you admire. This will give you some ideas for who might be willing to fund your work, explain some of the relationships among donors and recipients, suggest ideological orientations of advocacy donors, and help you as you craft both short-term and long-term advocacy fundraising plans.
  • Develop a budget that allows you to phase-in advocacy work. When we develop program budgets, we often think full-scale immediately, and that’s inarguably the easiest and best way to do program development. In this economy, though, and particularly in the arena of advocacy fundraising, it’s often just not possible. You don’t want to wait to get started on your organizing and advocacy work until you can raise the $80,000 or whatever dollar amount you need to implement a full-scale effort, so think more in terms of assigning dollar figures to each of the activities that you consider core to your overall strategy, and figure out how much it would take to get started with a particular campaign, or set of campaigns, if you can’t get everything you might want initially.
  • Sketch our your campaigns and figure out how you might approach different funding sources for each of them, in such a way as to build a budget that supports your overall advocacy and organizing effort. At El Centro, Inc., in my last year as Director of Policy Advocacy and Research, we received one grant for our work on comprehensive immigration reform (where we were specifically prohibited from spending anything on state advocacy or any other policy issue, even those related to immigration but had no limits on lobbying), one grant for our applied research work (could not be used for lobbying/advocacy at all), one grant for our grassroots organizing work (regardless of issue, but not to include any direct lobbying), and one grant for our work on anti-poverty policy (including our children/family issues, housing, and anti-predatory lending). We covered the rest of our expenses with unrestricted money that we raised from fundraisers and income-generating activities (like survey data presentations and other public speaking events). Yes, when you have to account for all of this, on top of managing the rules that govern nonprofit advocacy, it’s complicated. But this is not an ideal world, and few people are handing out blank checks for nonprofit advocacy and organizing, so the key here is that these grants allowed us to fully fund a comprehensive advocacy and organizing effort that meant that we were able to mount effective campaigns on all of the issues that mattered most to us.
  • Build relationships with those foundations, including those that you think are way out of your league, that have a history of funding advocacy. Early in my advocacy career, I read with considerable envy about those nonprofit organizations receiving large grant awards from the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation. At the urging of our development person, I even worked up some unsolicited letters of intent and sent them in–after all, these were foundations that actually encouraged advocacy requests! Not surprisingly, though, I received slim envelopes with cordial rejection letters, even once I did more research regarding the kinds of proposals and the budget range in which they funded projects. We found other ways to fund our work, and I got busy organizing. Fast-forward to 2006, when I met someone from Carnegie at a DC event regarding comprehensive immigration reform. We talked at a cocktail hour, and she was familiar with our work on instate tuition. We had many common contacts in the movement and discussed our prognoses for reform. We exchanged cards, but I was so jaded by my past rejections that I didn’t even follow up on the conversation. Then, in early 2007, I received an invitation to a Carnegie-funded training for immigration advocates. I went and saw that same grant administrator again. When I returned to Kansas City after that weekend, El Centro, Inc. received an invitation to submit a proposal to the Carnegie Corporation for $50,000 for a year of our advocacy work. Especially where these major donors are concerned, it’s not nearly as much what you do as who you know, so start meeting people and don’t assume that you are too small or too Midwest or too local to be of interest to those whose job it is to spend other people’s money to make the world a better place.
  • Craft outcomes that are consistent with your internal priorities yet measurable, in order to create accountability without leading to mission drift that will compromise the effectiveness of your advocacy. Unfortunately, many of us have had the experience of working in an organization that, at least at some point, ‘chased’ dollars, ultimately securing a grant but having to create a new program or pursue an entirely different direction in order to receive the money. That’s not a wise way to fund an organization, and it leads more often to watered-down goals and incompatible activities than to healthy funding. I know that there’s a temptation to mold your activities to try to be what donors are looking for, but you’re better off clearly defining what you want to do, what ‘success’ looks like, and how you’ll measure the extent to which you are succeeding, and then employing multiple strategies to find donors who share your goals.
  • Demonstrate that you are raising some of the money for your advocacy work through your own efforts–through grassroots fundraisers, earned-income generation, or other strategies, so that donors can see not only that you have deep and strong alliances within your community but also that you are leveraging those connections into financial support. Donors like to see that they are not going to be your sole source of support. In advocacy and organizing, there is a further advantage to highlighting your other revenue sources–they can illustrate the extent to which your target population supports your organization and demonstrate your skills and power.

    I hope that these lessons learned, and the materials that follow, are at least somewhat helpful in your grantwriting efforts, even though they are mostly reflective of a different (and slightly better) fundraising climate. I don’t have any magic answers, but I’d be happy to help folks think through where they might apply for funding and/or how to make the best case for advocacy to potential donors. Those of you currently fundraising successfully for advocacy, are you willing to share what’s working for you?

    New Voices at the Civic Table proposal
    Sample funded proposal

  • Forest for the Trees: Social Innovation Fund

    So have you heard about the Social Innovation Fund?

    The Fund, an initiative of President Obama’s, would have (SPOILER ALERT: BIG CATCH HERE: Congress has to appropriate the money!) $50 million to grant to promising nonprofit strategies aimed at addressing elementary or secondary education for low-income students, child and youth development, poverty reduction, health, resource conservation, energy efficiency, civic engagement, or crime reduction. Here are some other bloggers’ posts on the Fund, what it is, how it would work, and what purpose it serves.

    I’m not going to rehash those discussions, but you should check them out. Some of the major questions that I do think deserve some consideration include the conflict between ‘innvoation’ and proven legitimacy; the wisdom of funneling the money through grantmakers who will then grant to subgrantees vs. direct granting; and whether the federal government will use the outcomes of the projects funded through the Fund to direct additional appropriations. Under ‘steps in the right direction’, I’d file the requirement that grants be made for at least 3 years, that grantmakers provide technical assistance to grantees, and, most importantly, the requirement that the grants be used as ‘growth capital’ rather than restricted programmatic funds.


    As an advocate, what I think is most significant, is the fact that there is this much talk about how the nonprofit world is going to use this grant money once it starts flowing, whether this Fund will really be the transformation in the nonprofit sector that many hope, and the degree to which, so to speak, we should all be cheering for it…WITHOUT ANY DISCUSSION of the fact that Congress has not yet even appropriated the money, that that is, in fact, a necessary step for any money to exist, and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not this is the best use of the government’s $50 million in the budget (so, basically, very little apparent understanding of the finite nature of the federal budget or the process by which it is appropriated). It’s far from a done deal, and, yet, rather than working to ensure that it will be (or entering the highly ‘uncivilized’ but far more urgent debate over health care reform), we’re already tearing it apart on details.

    And, let’s talk honestly about that $50 million. Or, as you might prefer to think of it, less than 10% of the direct payment subsidies for upland cotton producers in 2007 (we spent $50 billion on total farm subsidies in 2004–billion, with a b). “Fifty million dollars is better than nothing,” most nonprofit leaders have been arguing. Sure, but, what about instead of nothing, we were really at the table, with the kind of organized power to not only increase our appropriations ($50 million is, after all, almost $31 million less than the earmarks secured by Senator Richard Shelby alone!) but also reform how government tackles social problems in ways that would be deeply and widely felt.

    Truthfully, some of the nonprofit voices have been raising these questions. What if the Obama Administration focused its reform energies not on the nonprofit sector but on government itself: changing how departments award contracts, changing rules for reporting, improving transparency, changing tax rules that restrict nonprofit accounting, and, most importantly, revitalizing the eroding social contract so that nonprofits are no longer expected to pick up so much of the slack created by government abdication of responsibility?

    I don’t mean to sound like the Grinch that stole the Social Innovation Fund. I do recognize that people are hungry for signs that better days are coming, and I concede that this can be seen as one such sign. I just worry that we’re missing the boat a bit. And if we allow ourselves to lose sight of fundamental questions of justice everytime we get the chance for a little more match money, then we’ll always find ourselves fighting for crumbs to sustain the really excellent, even ground-breaking work that many nonprofits manage to do despite the odds.

    The FY2009 budget contained more than $6 billion in earmarks for ANONYMOUS defense projects. Anonymous. As in we have no idea what they are, who requested them, how much goes to each, what they are even supposed to do. Imagine if those who care about social justice in our country directed all of our collective passion and intelligence and thoughtfulness at changing our democracy, so that we no longer debate over ‘national leveraging capital’ and ‘evidence-based, randomized trials’ while the defense industry walks away with $6 billion for their secret wish list?

    Now THAT would be innovative.

    Successful Advocacy=Telling your Story

    One of the blogs that I now read regularly, Katya’s Nonprofit Marketing Blog, had a feature recently on the best advice for nonprofit executives regarding fundraising and marketing. The piece that resonated most with me related to storytelling–the idea that we are most successful raising money for our causes when we can tell stories that bring people in and help them to connect with our work.

    That got me thinking, not just about how important storytelling is to advocacy (you’ll so often be asked for the ‘human face’ of a particular social policy or social problem–what policymakers really want in those instances is a good story, that they can tell to themselves and to others to explain why they took a particular stance) but also about other ways in which advocacy and fundraising overlap for nonprofit organizations. In both cases, we’re asking people to participate, to stand with us, to invest in our cause–with their money, their time, or their political reputation.

    And so we need to be in the business of collecting stories, of weaving this storytelling into our advocacy and our fundraising, and, also importantly, of then learning to tell the story of our own advocacy successes, so that we are continually ‘writing’ a new, more just future. And, maybe, we’ll even be able to raise some money while we’re at it.

    Once Upon A Time Presentation

    Words to Give By

    I’ve linked to a new report from the Council on Philanthropy and the Alliance for Justice–Words to Give By. It features interview selections with a sample of some of the most influential leaders in the philanthropic community, especially those whose foundations have experience contributing to advocacy. They talk about where they see nonprofit advocacy headed, what has been rewarding for their organizations about this work, and how they would advise other foundations to approach advocacy funding. I read it last night, and it was a lot of fun.


  • The former CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation takes his fellow funders to task, in a way, for the claim that they can’t/shouldn’t give to advocacy because it’s difficult to measure its outcomes. He points out that that’s the case for a lot of the work that foundations do support (he gives the example of mentoring)–advocacy is ‘messy’ (his word, but I really like it) to measure, and sometimes success is nebulous, but we know that it does work, and it should not be held to a different or higher standard than other interventions.
  • The former ED of the Surdna Foundation makes the essential point that, really, it’s impossible to separate advocacy from program. If people took this to heart, I believe it could lead to my ideal–every social service program integrating advocacy on the public policies that impact their work into their programming, in a seamless and synergistic way. It would be expected of organizations, and organizations would expect such support from their donors.
  • The President of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation states, “advocacy on behalf of our constituents is essential to ensure that public funds, which will dwarf the amount of private resources in scope and amount, are used effectively and applied towards the needs of displaced residents and communities that historically have had access to the fewest resources.” (in quotes to prove that she really said it, even though it’s the same thing that I say in all of my policy classes!)
  • One of the most provocative and, I think, fascinating sections is from the former Executive Director of the Public Welfare Foundation (with a long history of funding advocacy). He points to the liberals’ ‘obsession for neutral, unbiased research and action’ as a barrier to foundations’ vigorous support for advocacy, where, almost by definition, you have to take a strong value stance and, inevitably, make some people on ‘the other side’ angry. There’s a lot of truth to this; I find that my students, even, are often somewhat hesitant to really call out their opponents on a given policy issue, because social workers often try to see things from multiple points of view and find common ground, when what we need sometimes is a line drawn in the sand.

    There is a lot more of value here, both for foundations that are considering contributing to advocacy and for nonprofit advocates who want some insights into donors’ minds or need some tools they can use to convince donors to step into advocacy. Check it out, and thanks, yet again, to the folks at Alliance for Justice. You guys rule.

  • Resources for Evaluating Community Organizing

    The wonderfully helpful people at the Alliance for Justice have done it again! They have started a new website, Resources for Evaluating Community Organizing, that serves as a kind of clearinghouse for research and evaluation tools for organizations engaged in community organizing. I found the link when I was on AFJ’s website researching some of their information regarding the legality of nonprofit organizations’ attempts to influence the confirmation process for Supreme Court justices, and I spent over an hour on the site, reading through the resources they have (which are really well-organized and cross-referenced, which is very helpful). I really wish that these resources had been available when I was writing grants and setting objectives for my advocacy and organizing work, and I think that they will be very useful for my students, too, as those who are more macro-focused sometimes have trouble with their outcomes and program design classes, given the tendency for those courses to center on more micro-level interventions.

    You’ll have to check out the site to see everything they have, but I was particularly interested in the case examples of organizing and evaluation of organizing, as well as the actual tools for developing indicators by which to judge your organizing. Some of the resources are pretty theoretical (and, therefore, maybe of more interest to those of us with some academic bent), while others are very practical and instantly applicable, including many developed by some of the foundations and intervening institutions that often fund organizing work (and it’s always a good idea to know how those who might give you money define ‘success’!).

    If you are a community organizer or a nonprofit fundraiser or administrator in an organization that engages in community organizing, I’d love to hear what you think about these resources (and I’d guess that the folks at AFJ would like to hear that too!). Did you find them instructive for your development of your goals and objectives? Did you find pieces that you could implement into your community organizing evaluation? Was there anything particularly inspiring from the interviews and case studies? What was missing that you wish you had found there?