Monday, January 28, 2013

From The Wall Street Journal: "Bill Gates: My Plan To Fix the World's Biggest Problems"

On January 25, 2013, Bill Gates (founder and former CEO of Microsoft now active, since retirement, with his co-founded Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) wrote the Wall Street Journal's Saturday Essay, My Plan to Fix the World's Biggest Problems, discussing how philanthropy and nonprofit organizations should use outcomes - the actual real results of philanthropic or nonprofit programs and projects - if the intended result for the beneficiary occurred and further data - and use that data (the outcomes) to measure results and then improve upon, increase, or reduce (as the results indicate is needed) the program going forward (while planning for its next iteration).

To quote Gates in his piece, " In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal..."

The Gates Foundation has been criticized in recent years for both their overseas seed distribution to impoverished farmers programs (in both parts of Africa and southeast Asia) and also in their education programs, here at home, in the United States (and by this blog's author on both fronts), to name two.

The problem with the seed is alleged here:
"The problem is that when farmers plant and harvest crops, setting a little aside for next year's seed, people eat, but corporations don't get paid. That problem has been so thoroughly solved in US food production that chemical fertilizers and pesticides create a biological dead zone of hundreds of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi, draining much of the continent's richest farmland, empties into it. U.S. law requires the registration all crop varieties, and makes it extraordinarily difficult for farmers to save and plant their own seed year to year without paying royalties to corporations who "own" the genetic code of those crops.

"But until recently in the developing world, farmers still planted, plowed and harvested without paying American agribusiness anything. The first attempt to "monetize" food production took place a generation ago in Southeast Asia and India. Called the "Green Revolution" its public face was a masterpiece of pious poor-washing."

'Poor Washing: The Gates Foundation, & the 'Green Revolution' in Africa

The same was alleged of the Gates Foundation's seed program in southeast Asia.  The Foundation took it on the chin.  The intention, of course, was to assist impoverished farmers.  The outcome was almost furthering the farmers' impoverished state rather than actually helping.  The fact is, the Gates Foundation listened to the accusations, went and looked at their program's actual outcomes (program evaluation or nonprofit self evaluation) and in response to their findings, has since changed their ways.  See Gates Foundation unveils new agricultural policy.

The same can be said of their American education programs.  Critics contended that the Gates Foundation was relying on data from competency tests given to children in the schools they were providing funding to that had been allegedly poor indicators of competency if indicators of anything at all.  In this instance, it wasn't that the results weren't being checked but rather, the method through which the Gates Foundation was checking for results (through the supposedly ineffective competency testing) was lacking if not at all accurate.  Evaluation methods vary from one field or profession to another and how evaluations are created, conducted, and tallied or tabulated (and even how those findings are interpreted) are often changing.  GIS (Geographic Information System) is one example of data collection for organizations running projects in different geographic locations (but the analysis or findings would have to be determined by whomever collects and then interprets the data).  The method of evaluation does not insure the analysis or interpretation.  Another example in the direct assistance fields, such as social work, is to conduct a client survey.  A profession's best practices (and the latest findings from studies on evaluation methods) should be something that a nonprofit's program managers and executive director stay up on the latest, always.

The Gates Foundation listened to its critics and took its lumps.  To see the criticisms and the Gates Foundation's response to them, in part, see The Gates Foundation Engages Its Critics and its links.

I spent most of my nonprofit career (and my formative learning curve in the profession and sector) in Seattle.  I am a proud Seattlite (even if now I am an ex-pat).  I do know that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does some good certainly.  In fact, I co-authored a Gates Foundation grant proposal that was fully funded by the Gates Foundation enabling people with Multiple Sclerosis.  So, I know first-hand of their success stories. 

The criticisms of the Gates Foundation directed the Foundation's programs' managers' attention to alleged issues.  The important point of this is that they paid attention, were willing to see their programs' (and the Foundation's errors), investigate the allegations (truthfully and professionally - by using professional best practices - real data (actual results experienced by the intended beneficiaries)), and then (most importantly) they listened to the findings.  They were truly invested in the outcomes that benefited the beneficiaries based on their needs and input (rather than covering their asses, or ignoring the allegations, and so on).

I am not saying that Bill Gates or the Foundation are without fault, today.  Nor am I saying that anyone has it all figured out (intending to deliver their mission) once they implement evaluation methods (that are sound and proven professional evaluation methods in the program's respective field today).  I am saying that although nonprofits and foundation aim to do good - the intention does not guarantee that good results.  If we don't check whether the beneficiary benefited - how do we know? Similarly, if we aren't checking what outcomes actually occurred via a method that would truly indicate what occurred - what are we doing (and how much money, time, and how much of our nonprofit or foundation's reputation are we wasting)?

Bill Gates' article is worth the read but follow it up with reading professional journals and attending conferences in your organization's professional field, so that you know the latest verified and accepted evaluation method (proven in studies' findings) and continue to be on top of this for the best interest of your nonprofit's beneficiaries and for your organization's ability to achieve (but also measure and correctly determine the findings of) actual outcomes.

Grant To Help Rural Communities With 50,000 Or Less Improve Their Economic Vitality & Quality of Life

From The Foundation Center...

[If you are interested in this grant opportunity, click "Link to Complete RFP" at the end of this blog post for more information]

"Deadline: March 5, 2013

"Citizens' Institute on Rural Design Invites Proposals for Rural Communities Facing Design Challenges

"The National Endowment for the Arts' Citizens' Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) initiative works to help rural communities with populations of 50,000 or fewer enhance their quality of life and economic vitality through facilitated design workshops. The program builds teams of local leaders, community organizations, and specialists in design, planning, and creative place-making to help rural communities strengthen their economies, enhance their rural character, leverage their cultural assets, and design efficient housing and transportation systems.

"Each community selected to participate in the Institute will receive $7,000 in 1:1 matching funds to plan and host a two-day workshop. CIRD will help communities to assemble teams of specialists based on local needs. The program also provides expert-led conference calls and webinar presentations that are open to the public on topics related to rural design.

"CIRD will provide two call-ins for applicants with questions about their proposals. The calls will take place on February 7 and February 28, 2013. Participation in each call is free but registration is required.

"Complete application and eligibility guidelines are available on CIRD's Web site."

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Charitable Deduction Still Exists. So, For Goodness Sake, Come Off the Ledge!

The Pease Amendment.  If you read the nonprofit sector press at all you have also seen the myriad news and editorial pieces on the for now temporary decision most popularly detailing how much the wealthiest of Americans may deduct from federal income taxes for how much they have donated for a given year (as of 2013 and on).  How much may be deducted has been lowered from previous years.  This reduction of charitable deductions is a reinstatement of the Pease Amendment which was put into place by Congress during the Clinton administration, extended by the Bush administration, and then ended in 2010.

The fiscal cliff has been avoided, for now, but not altogether completely dealt with, yet.  Congress will face the fiscal cliff issue again in March (and possibly develop further legislation created to further deal with the fiscal cliff and economy or not - we do not yet know).

These are the details of the federal decision on charitable deductions, for now:

Provisions in Fiscal Cliff Legislation Affects Exempt Organizations

These are editorials on the American nonprofit sector's state, given the fiscal cliff decision for charitable deduction, so far:

Two Sides of the Charitable Deductions Debate 

Nonprofits bracing for less from rich donors

Non-profits still teetering on fiscal cliff

How Charities Won a High-Stakes Battle On Donor Tax Breaks

Charity Hit By Fiscal Cliff?  You'll Need A Microscope To See It

Charities fear new tax law limiting deductions for big earners as precursor of worse to come.

My take on the issue?  Some of the nonprofit sector's concerns about the reinstatement of the Pease Amendment, while understandable, have raised my eyebrow more than once.

The American nonprofit sector is not only being unified more so now, due to this issue, than it has been in recent years - but it is using its unified sector's voice and communicating with Congress and the President (telling Congress and the President both  - the Pease Amendment is inconsequential and the sector meeting all other federal budget issues part way, or saying that the amendment will harm the nonprofit sector - depending on which unified voice is speaking at the time).

As it is not known what exactly the result will be of the Pease Amendment will be on fundraising, several professional nonprofit affiliations are concerned for the sector's ability to adequately plan 2013 budgets and fundraising goals not only because of the uncertainty but too, because the sector does not know what more (if anything) Congress will do to the charitable deduction (for example, one fear is it will be taken away altogether).  I do not wish to seem indifferent, here, but my response to this concern is to raise an eyebrow.  I understand that uncertainty is well.. uncomfortable but shouldn't the nonprofit sector know (by now, especially - since this amendment has been instated, before) how to budget and plan fundraising for their organizations such that the unexpected might happen (for instance, like in 2001 when the 9/11 tragedy understandably moved much of American donations to the Red Cross and other first responder related nonprofit causes)?  Nonprofits learned, then in particular, to always have as a part of their ratified annual organizational budget and fundraising plan a viable contingency and 'emergency fundraising' plan in place in case one's sector or even (G-d forbid) the nation faces another drastic draw of nonprofit donations away from one's nonprofit's cause or issue.  Nonprofits' leaders should always build 'wiggle room' and 'emergency contingencies' into organizational budgets and fundraising planning no matter: what the economic climate, what the federal authorities do with the charitable deduction or not, and whether we're in a down economy or not.

If anyone who is a leader or professional fundraiser for any American nonprofit feels that their fundraising capacity has been diminished because the tax deduction for charitable contribution has been reduced - I would ask why they believe any of their organization's donors give to their particular nonprofit.  If they truly believe that donors only give donations because they got a tax break at a higher rate but now it's lower (not altogether gone but only lowered) I would frankly question their competency on professional nonprofit best practices and how to fundraise at allDonors do not give (different various fundraising studies have shown) solely because of the charitable deduction.  Any nonprofit (all nonprofits) must make their case to potential donors demonstrating why their specific nonprofit is relevant and needed in the community, what makes them unique (or relevant) compared to other similar nonprofits serving the region, and they must demonstrate the organization's credibility and real potential to be successful at its mission such that actual demonstrable outcomes (of its work) benefit the organization's beneficiaries efficiently and wholly.  This is why donors give.  If a potential or repeat donor sees that a nonprofit is uniquely serving a population effectively and efficiently and has the potential to successfully do so again and again (and especially if that donor is thanked and told that the organization sees them as invaluable partners in its success) then the donor will give or give again.

The second to the last editorial (link above) details why the reduction in the charitable deduction, once the the pennies are added up, actually winds up being negligible at worst if not altogether insignificant.  I would posit, in fact, that given what Congress and the President are facing in having to develop real viable solutions to our national economic woes, nonprofits came out of the cuts to its sector's portion of the federal budget pretty much unscathed.

Is our sector just knee-jerk reacting?  Is it not thinking through what mathematically the cuts actually wind up meaning for our sector before reacting?  Is the sky supposedly falling when actually, it's pretty stable, especially given what could have been?  I know... you may respond to me, 'there have been studies that found that the Pease Amendment will reduce charitable giving in 2013 by X or Y'.  There have also been studies that have found that it will not reduce giving during 2013 and may actually increase it (see the final editorial link, above).

Bottom line?  We simply don't know what is coming for our sector's fundraising in 2013 but then again, we never do.  There's never been a year where a crystal ball clearly outlined for nonprofits what to expect and what to plan for in their organizations' budgets or fundraising planning.  So, frankly, we're right where we usually are if not actually a bit more informed (Congress proposed to the President the inclusion of the Pease Amendment just as the new year was rung in).  That's more 'warning' related to federal fiscal cuts and how it specifically will (or further) effect nonprofit organizations' budgeting and planning than most years.

If abiding how much can be deducted from individual federal taxes for charitable contributions is too much for the American nonprofit sector, then what are we willing to contribute in order to compromise and participate in creating a viable solution for our nation to survive this economic downturn?  Were we never going to have to give an inch?  Why would we assume this?  If we don't believe our sector needs to, like other recipients of the federal budget, accept some cuts - how then is our sector participating in developing solutions to national economic issues?  If we don't believe we should have to because we are a charitable sector I would ask whether we are American or not.  Of course we are.  Compromise is the only way any solutions are determined and if we are not willing to compromise then what are we doing in the business of charity?

Updates: news stories pertinent to this issue, in order of date published:

Charitable tax deduction facing scrutiny in Congress

Tax Status and Fees Still in Active Play Between Nonprofits and Localities

Journalist Calls for Death To Tax Exemptions for Universities

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Free Resource, "Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2013" Comes Highly Recommended For Your Organization's Welfare This Year

Are you a nonprofit fundraiser interested in learning for free what to expect in 2013 from a talented expert?  Well, Grantcraft's free publication, Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2013 a free download .PDF, will give you just that. 

About Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2013, its web page explains,

"The Foundation Center and the European Foundation Centre are pleased to partner with (its author) Lucy (Bernholz, Ph.D.) to offer the Blueprint as a GrantCraft guide. The Blueprint provides an overview of the current landscape, points to major trends, and directs your attention to horizons where you can expect some important breakthroughs in the coming year.
  • What Is the Social Economy?
  • Insight: Big Shifts that Matter
  • Foresight: Predictions for 2013
  • Hindsight: Previous Forecasts
  • Glimpses of the Future"
In order to download it for free, you simply have to provide Grantcraft with your interests in grants, zip code, name, professional affiliation, and e-mail address.  They ask you whether you wish to receive e-mail from them (and if you don't wish to, you can indicate this and they will not e-mail you).

Allowing the reader to research further, plan, and potentially make their organization more nimble in this new year, this free booklet explains what is likely going to occur in 2013 that will specifically effect nonprofits and philanthropy such as: new possible philanthropy or nonprofit legislation and taxation; what current grant donors are expecting from the nonprofits that they grant to (and why); how common grant application processes will be used more often; available streamlined 990 data for research; better grants, nonprofit performance metrics reporting; a common nonprofit performance metric; an easier mode for nonprofits to partner up; implementation of a unified unique nonprofit identifier; and equally as important - a good list of the latest, free, nonprofit (and board) resources online from some of the most respected professional nonprofit websites and affiliations.  Besides making readers aware of the latest actually helpful, professional, free, nonprofit tools online, Bernholz provides the data and logic behind each of her predictions and findings. 

Frankly, the fact that The Foundation Center is both involved in its publication and is recommending it on their home web page not only provides the Blueprint with credibility but indicates how important it is that nonprofits and philanthropists read it to understand our current climate and potentially what's ahead of us this year.

This free booklet could be a very important planning and implementation resource for whatever nonprofit you raise funds for, and its director and board.