Saturday, January 3, 2009

Stop talking about what's trendy in Philanthropy and listen to the little people!

I'm really tired of philanthropists and the media writing and talking about what is sexy or trendy with philanthropy. Many philanthropists, nonprofits, and especially the media have lost sight of what is important in our sector that is, to solve social problems.

Philanthropists continue to have the same boring conversations like the one at the Tactical Philanthropy Forum with Bill Somerville and Paul Brest (sorry Sean but its true). I think Bill is trying to do great things with his funding but he isn't going to truly solve social problems because his main point is finding and funding passionate people.

Funding passionate people or organizations for that matter will not solve social problems. Dan Palotta in his book Uncharitable hit that one the head. In order to truly solve social problems we have to change the system of the nonpofit sector. Its controversial but its the TRUTH!!

In order to change the system, we need to come together philanthropists and nonprofits alike. The problem is nonprofits are too scared--who will be the first to question or challenge the funder--the hand that pays their bills? If philanthropists stopped talking and provided opportunities for these nonprofits (us little people) to talk, we could change the system together.

I recently conducted research at USD that confirmed this, in a focus group of nonprofit graduate students (all working professionals). They said they wanted to be able to question the system of the nonprofit sector and the way they do work. Anyone who has worked in a nonprofit understands this. If we change the system and the way we are funded our organizations will be more competitive, retain staff and truly solve social problems. It shouldn't be an either or and it certainly shouldn't be the philanthropists with the money decides how the sector should run.


Peter Brinckerhoff said...

Heather, you are absolutely right about this, but I think that the first need is to change the perspective of funders and of nonprofits. The funders need to realize that they are purchasing services, not owning organizations, and the nonprofits need to act like they are social change businesses, and not supplicants.
I've long described the relationship between funders and nonprofits as an eternal parent-adolescent struggle. The funders(parents)tell the nonprofits to go be independent, go do your own thing---but be home at midnight and we get to review all your friends. The nonprofits (the adolescents) want their freedom, but when stuff goes wrong, they go to the parents for cash.

Having bee an executive director AND a parent AND a teenager....well, everyone knows this is not a relationship you want to be stuck in forever.

So first, let's work on perspectives.

Anyway, great post and I enjoy your blog.

Peter Brinckerhoff

Elaine Fogel said...

Here, here, Heather!! I have been in this sector for a long time, advocating a business and marketing mindset, and it can get frustrating at times. OK, big confession - many times! :)

My mantra - no marketing, no money! Yet, many nonprofits look at the "b" word (business) as if it were a curse word. If nonprofits spent more time thinking with a business head coupled WITH the heart of a nonprofit, more missions could be achieved.

Peter, I've read your book on marketing the mission and I am an admirer.

Let's keep advocating for change.

Dan said...

Hi Heather, et al.,

I've obviously thought a lot about this - particularly the way the nonprofit sector considers capitalism and its tools (like marketing) to be contaminating. It's a knee-jerk reaction and it's utterly irrational. People blame capitalism (presumably because it's very powerful) for creating inequities in society, and then refuse to allow charity to use those same tools of capitalism to rectify them. I think the key is in how we phrase the argument. I have started to talk about "beating capitalism at its own game," and talking about the prohibition on capitalism as an economic injustice against the nonprofit sector. "Economic injustice" and "beating capitalism" are rallying cires that the most ardent ant--capitalist can rally around.

Shari said...

Happy New Year, Heather and everyone!

I of course agree with all that's been said, but I caution the direction of this discussion- it's important for npo's to recognize and utilize marketing and the other bastions of capitalism, however I think Heather's posting above displays how important it is to remember the DIFFERENCES between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, as well. In order to improve the nonprofit system, funders and orgs need to learn to operate as a symbiotic whole, not as two separate camps who are eternally wary of one another. This essentially defines the often blurry line between nonprofit capitalism and for-profit capitalism. Nonprofit needs to find its own balance between "warm and fuzzy" and "business."

Heather Carpenter said...

I appreciate all your comments and that you all read between the lines to see the importance of nonprofits operating as enterprises. However, Shari's point is very important as well. We are working in a divided sector and no one wants to talk about that.

Anonymous said...

Heather, thank you for this post. I'm new to your blog via Sean's roundup so I may be missing the larger context for your post. While I agree with the sentiment that we need change, I'd ask what you mean specifically when you say "we have to change the system of the nonprofit sector."

Presumably, it's about the donor/NGO relationship; the perversions created by restricted funding; salaries and career pathways; etc. But I'd be curious to hear your suggestions as change for its own sake isn't enough.

Some of my thoughts on these topics:

1. On raising capital:

2. On salaries/incentives:

3. On Dan Pallotta:

Stephanie said...

I agree with all that's been commented so far in that I think the two sectors have a lot to learn from each other, so that they can each become stronger forces for good in their own ways.

What I wanted to comment on was the idea that a mental shift is needed before changes can happen: Has anyone ever told you not to think about an elephant? What happens? You think about an elephant. What happens when you call an organization a nonprofit? You think about what it is NOT. If we begin referring to ourselves as social-profit organizations, I feel like that is the best way to begin to debunk capitalism. Profit doesn't have to be about money. Take that away from the capitalists. Return our attention to the work we do and the impact we have. At the same time, this keeps the door open for an acceptance of more typical business behavior like advertising, higher salaries, etc. that will allow us to retain quality staff and have a greater global impact.
This may just be semantics, but it's also our sense of identity.

ps- hello! I found you through

Heather Carpenter said...


Definitely not change for the sake of change, but change so nonprofits can truly address social problems. I've worked in too many social service nonprofits where staff and executives get burned out trying to secure funding and report on the funding "we" receive. Yah the money is great and we couldn't operate without it, but time and time again there are reports that show there is a gap between nonprofit needs and grantmaker practices. Why are there still gaps, we need to stop having separate conversations and come together so money is used in the most effective manner that nonprofits need.