What I Learned About Advocacy

U.S. CapitolBy Lauren Kotkin, Exponent Philanthropy

What if you’re not good at accounting? Does that mean you get a pass on managing your foundation’s budget? Of course not.

Like accounting, advocacy is part of your job as a funder. This analogy was offered at Foundations on the Hill (FOTH), last month’s annual philanthropy advocacy days on Capitol Hill, hosted by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers in partnership with the Council on Foundations.

Walking the halls of Congress or even the local mayor’s office can certainly be intimidating. But keep in mind that philanthropy and government are a natural fit. Both parties are working toward the same end goal: robust support to help people and communities thrive.

Whereas Congress has placed restrictions on foundations in terms of lobbying for specific legislation, foundations can certainly speak to elected officials about issues important to them and their communities.

FAQs on foundation advocacy & lobbying

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Top Resources for Philanthropists With Few or No Staff

Earlier this month, we created this resource for LearnPhilanthropy’s Knowledge Library. LearnPhilanthropy, powered by the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, is a marketplace of knowledge and tools, seeking to accelerate learning among newcomers to philanthropy and evolve how learning happens in the field. Expolore LearnPhilanthropy’s on-demand learning

Across the country, tens of thousands of foundations, giving circle members, donor advised fund holders, and individual donors are intentionally keeping their operations lean and their ears to the ground. These “lean” funders seek to nimbly maneuver their dollars, skills, and influence to achieve the most good.

At Exponent Philanthropy, we’re dedicated to serving funders who choose to give big with few or no staff. We’re pleased to share the following top resources from our shop and trusted colleague organizations.

Get up to speed

If new to philanthropy or in need of a refresher, turn to Exponent Philanthropy’s Foundation Guidebook and Trustee Handbook, Council on Foundation’s Guide to Small Foundation Management: From Groundwork to Grantmaking and Complete Guide to Grantmaking Basics: A Field Guide for Funders, or LearnPhilanthropy’s 10 Things I Always Tell a New Grantmaker.

For more detail on particular topics, from administration to governance to investments, see Exponent Philanthropy’s 10- to 20-page primers or GrantCraft’s guides.

Stay in-the-know

Keep your finger on the field’s pulse with these top publications and blogs. Twitter is also a handy tool to scan news, learn from field leaders, and follow organizations and causes you support—even if you never tweet! See 3 Ways Any Funder Can Use Twitter.

Benchmark your philanthropy

Compare your philanthropy to peers’ with Exponent Philanthropy’s Foundation Operations and Management Report, Council on Foundations’ Grantmaker Salary and Benefits Report, Foundation Center’s Foundation Maps (subscription), or data from these research and information providers. See also 8 Sources of Data to Inform Your Giving.

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So, You’ve Been Hearing About Social Impact Bonds 

By Lauren Kotkin, Exponent Philanthropy

Our thanks to Arabella Advisors’ Cynthia Muller, Senior Director, Impact Investing, for her help with this article. 

A social impact bond (SIB), also known as a pay for success contract or a social benefit bond, is a contract with the public sector in which a commitment is made to pay for improved social outcomes that result in public sector savings. First created in the United Kingdom in 2010, the SIB model is being replicated in more than five countries, including the United States.

In 2012, New York City became the first U.S. jurisdiction to launch a SIB. The $9.6 million project aims to reduce recidivism among young men exiting the Rikers Island prison facility and involves the participation of Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg Philanthropies, MDRC, Vera Institute, Osborne Association, and Friends of Island Academy. Since then, more than two dozen SIBs or pay for success contracts have launched or are in development.

A word on SIBs from one of the first U.S. nonprofits to participate

In short, a SIB is an investment tool that attempts to scale what works: philanthropy finds good ideas, government creates conditions for innovation, and investors scale ideas in the marketplace. If the program works, based on criteria determined in the deal’s contract, the investors get money back plus a return on investment (paid by government or its intermediary). If the program fails, government pays nothing, allowing government to invest only in programs that work. 

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In Pursuit of Better Outcomes Through Transparency-Fueled Adaptability

By Don S. Doering, Executive Director, JRS Biodiversity Foundation

This post originally appeared in Glasspockets’ blog Transparency Talk (March 9, 2015). The JRS Biodiversity Foundation, an Exponent Philanthropy member based in Seattle, WA, supports open access to biodiversity data and knowledge.

If you’re a small foundation aiming to greater philanthropic impact, how can transparency be a tool? At JRS, we’re using transparency as a lynchpin to greater philanthropic impact through better project management and grantee relationships: transparency for adaptability rather than accountability. Open access to biodiversity information to benefit nature and society is our foundation mission. The principle that data access enables change applies to philanthropy as well as conservation and aligns well with our foundation strategy and culture. Transparency underlies practices we employ such as customized progress and financial reports, detailed report reviews, amending grant agreements and plans, and maintaining grant web pages.

From the first steps in grant applications through final grant reports, we try to model and achieve openness and accessibility. An important moment for new grantee relationships is an orientation video-conference that introduces our approach for managing the funded project. We use the call and future communications to promote the continued refinement of thoughtful, qualitative and quantitative indicators that can lighten grantees’ reporting burden and to let us collaboratively identify areas where plans need to change. During the project, we regularly remind project directors that the plan made months or years earlier to win our funds was merely the starting point; they need to execute the best plan today to meet their stated goals, which requires flexibility on their part and on ours. When grantees are transparent about what is going wrong, we’ll help them revise budgets and plans to do what makes sense based on the current context. Rose-colored reporting and rigid grant agreements don’t help anybody, and candor keeps the small challenges from becoming big problems. We try to keep a promise to our partners that we’ll match our attention to milestones and metrics with our enthusiasm to adapt to emergent challenges and opportunities.

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Paying Proper Attention to Your Professional Staff

Professional staff have the undeniable potential to further your philanthropy’s impact. Whether you’re currently staffed, anticipating a new hire, or simply weighing your options, here are tips to help your paid professionals flourish.

Before a hire: Put your affairs—and your mindset—in order

It goes without saying that bring staff on board requires time behind the scenes to iron out job descriptions, compensation and benefits, work space, office equipment, and other needs—and we hear from members just how often they underestimate the time it takes to complete these tasks.

On par with the time you dedicate to these logistics is the time you dedicate to adjusting your mindset about what it means to hire and develop a staff person. Successful employers know their people are critical assets—perhaps the organization’s most critical—and they view the manager’s role as an opportunity to nurture those assets for the good of the organization.

“Leaders are strengthened by those around them,” says Sharmila Rao Thakkar, executive director of The Siragusa Foundation. “The work will always be there, but priority number one for us is developing, guiding, mentoring, building, and lifting up others.”

Successful employers also anticipate—and help others adapt to—the changes that come with hiring new staff. “Moving from a model with the board fully in charge to staff having functional and strategic decision-making power is a big change,” says Program Director Erin Cinelli of the Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation. “We’re in the middle of figuring out what the dynamic is going to look like, and there are bound to be growing pains.”

Get information and expectations out of your head—and onto paper

“When you work by yourself, you don’t realize how much is inside your head,” continues Erin. “Our foundation didn’t have written documentation, aside from grant materials; that’s a task for 2015. When I was sharing information with our new hire, there wasn’t anything I could point her to.” Echoes Jack Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Foundation, “It can be tedious to document procedures the first time around, but these documents are critical to have in place.”

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Are Your Trustees Involved Too Much—or Too Little—in Grantmaking?

By Ashley Blanchard, Associate Director of Philanthropy, TCC Group, and Trustee, Hill-Snowdon Foundation

In the 10-plus years I’ve been a consultant to foundations—and the 20-plus years I’ve been a family foundation trustee—I’ve noticed a phenomenon I’ve come to call the “trustee pendulum.” Trustees often start out very engaged in grantmaking, reviewing all grants (often to organizations they know well) and managing the grantmaking process, which is typically quite informal. Then, as assets grow, programs are defined, and staff are hired, trustees tend to step back and take on an oversight role, setting policy but leaving day-to-day grantmaking to staff.

But then the pendulum swings back. Feeling disengaged from the work on the ground or feeling ill-equipped to make the strategy and policy decisions required of them, trustees dive back into the business of grantmaking. They start asking for more information instead of less. They want to read complete proposals, dissect nonprofits’ financials, and scrutinize grant reports, which would be fine, if staff weren’t tasked with exactly the same duties. Trustees and staff become frustrated with the lack of clear roles and redundancy, and grantees get put through the ringer by trustees struggling to figure out their added value. I say this as someone who has been guilty of this behavior as a foundation trustee. I would also add that the pendulum again tends to swing back as staff and trustees identify the inefficiencies of this process and attempt to correct them.

This pendulum swing is emblematic of a larger issue: When professional staff are in the mix, it is hard to figure out the right role in grantmaking for foundation trustees. On one hand, trustees need to know enough about the grantmaking to oversee it and set strategic direction. On the other hand, stepping into grantmaking’s day-to-day minutiae can lead to the aforementioned headaches.

So how can foundations figure out the right balance?

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The Pulse: Nation’s Awareness Builds of Widespread Hardship and Poverty, Toll on Children

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

I regularly explore trends influencing philanthropy by spotlighting articles, reports, and essays in the media. I cast a wide net, venturing beyond philanthropy and traditional topics to consider a variety of ideas, innovations, debates, and critiques. Read previous posts in the series  

Slowly, inexorably, like the rise of inequality itself, the United States has come to recognize the depth and breadth of economic hardship across its communities. CEOs of major corporations and presidential hopefuls from both parties—Republicans and Democrats—have added their high-profile voices to growing distress about widespread poverty and deprivation, rising income inequality, diminished social mobility, and the expanding achievement gap between poorer and wealthier children. The issue has become bipartisan, mainstream, and a constant in public discussions.

Why has hardship reached the spotlight now? Several developments have come together:

  • The persistence of widespread and deep poverty, despite recent job growth, and regular reporting of hardship in national and local news;
  • The finding that many new jobs do not pay enough to keep families above the poverty line;
  • The growing gap between rich and poor, and regular reporting of this trend in the media;
  • Studies that show rates of poverty and child poverty in America higher than those in most other developed nations around the world;
  • Research on brain development that illuminates the damaging, long-lasting impacts of economic stress on children, raising concern that the future for millions of American children is being compromised;
  • Widespread acknowledgement, after years of questions, that deprivation does play a major role in limiting students’ ability to learn and meet benchmarks for educational attainment.

Child poverty in particular has garnered widespread attention as an urgent moral challenge for the nation.

There is growing recognition that left unchecked, hardship will expand, creating the conditions for even greater inequality. 

Let’s explore these issues through recent articles.

The Deep Costs of Child Poverty in America 

John D. Sutter, a writer at CNN, recently examined child poverty by focusing on hidden poverty in Silicon Valley, California. America has the developed world’s second highest rate of child poverty, with 1 in 5 children living below the federal poverty line. Only Romania is worse. In Silicon Valley, where housing prices have skyrocketed, two parents can work full time and still be homeless. Children growing up in poverty suffer toxic stress and are more likely to drop out of high school, go to jail, have kids out of marriage, experience lower IQs, and end up poor as adults. The costs nationally are estimated to be $500 billion a year, in economic losses, health care, and crime. Sutter asserts that child poverty is a moral issue as well as an economic and humanitarian one, because children have no power over their economic circumstances, and the consequences of poverty are likely to limit their opportunities and incomes throughout their lives. He highlights four proven strategies, which would cost less than the $500 billion that poverty exacts each year: housing subsidies, raising the minimum wage, expanded and affordable early childhood education, and cash for poor families.   

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Bringing the Next Generation on Board—at Its Own Pace

By Betsy Erickson, Arabella Advisors

It’s a lesson teachers and parents know well: No two people learn in exactly the same way or at exactly the same pace. And it’s a lesson worth bearing in mind for those seeking to create pathways for family members to engage in a shared philanthropic legacy. Arabella Advisors has worked with families for over 10 years, and we have learned that an important ingredient for success is to allow family members to decide for themselves when and how to engage in the family’s philanthropy.

We love telling the story of Bill Clarke, founder of the Osprey Foundation and our client for the past seven years, who has embraced a very flexible approach with his own foundation—one that has resulted in deep, personal, and satisfying engagement from each of his children and their spouses.

Bill established the Osprey Foundation 11 years ago to empower individuals and communities through education, health, economic opportunity, and human rights in a sustainable way. In the beginning, he didn’t know exactly where he wanted to invest his resources, much less how his three children, who were then in their early 20s, should be involved. “I wasn’t thinking about bringing them on the board right away, but I knew that we had all been involved in mission work, development, and foreign travel, and that they’d be interested in becoming more involved eventually.”

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Program Notes: Quilt Charts Make the Case for Diversification

Following each quarter close of 2014, Stephen Campisi, CFA, Director, Institutional Investments, U.S. Trust Bank of America Corporation, led a market update conference call for our members, providing a look at the quarter’s events and their effects on the investment markets, and guidance on how this information might be used in the fiduciary’s role as a steward of an organization’s financial assets.

Read the Q4 2014 Quarterly Market Update

Overall, Q4 2014 was a modest quarter and 2014 provided a modest return to investors, according to Steve Campisi on the February 17 conference call. He shared general thoughts on the Q4 market performance and then took a closer look at commodities, directing attention to the quilt chart (see below, or Table 5 of the Quarterly Market Update).

Quilt charts are so named by the investment industry because they are reminiscent of colorful block quilt patterns. Their purpose is to visually show performance of investments over time, and advisors often use it as a visual testament to the benefits of a diversified portfolio. Stocks, bonds, commodities, real estate, and any other kind of investment has the potential to swing wildly, and investing across asset classes will help you weather bear and bull markets.

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5 Ways Relationships Matter: Tips From Foundation Executive Directors

By Janice Simsohn Shaw, Exponent Philanthropy

For a number of years, it has been our privilege to offer programming and resources geared to the unique needs of foundation executive directors.

Most come to this work from outside philanthropy, through a mix of skill and serendipity, and work up, down, and across their organizations, often as sole-staffers or in very small offices. Managing everything from the mundane to the sublime, they truly live up to the moniker we’ve given them: Master Jugglers.

Last week, we brought together three foundation EDs for a well-attended conference call on ways to find, hire, and support those who serve in this role. The three EDs span geographic areas, ages, and paths to philanthropy, and together we discussed lessons learned, board–ED dynamics, juggling and prioritizing, and much more.

One subject emerged repeatedly: the role of strong relationships.

Here’s what we heard about how relationships play into the professional success and personal well-being of foundation EDs.

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