Why to Support Nonprofits’ Technology Needs

Adapted with permission from Idealware’s “A Funders Guide to Supporting Nonprofit Technology.” Idealware helps nonprofits—including funders—make smart software decisions by providing thoroughly researched, impartial, and accessible resources about software.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a single type of funding that could positively affect all your grantees? There is: support for grantees’ technology needs. But few funders support technology, and many nonprofits are reluctant to directly ask for that support.

Investing in your grantees’ technology infrastructure—whether purchasing actual hardware, helping them choose software, or building technology skills—has a direct impact on their important work.

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Doing More by Working Together

By Diana Aviv, Independent Sector

The commentary below appeared in Exponent Philanthropy’s recent publication Outsized Impact, a report on philanthropy with few or no staff and the trends shaping its impact.

Reading up on philanthropy, I recently was reminded that the ancient Greeks so often got many things right. “To give away money,” said Aristotle, “is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

Philanthropy, done effectively, is hard work, with quite a due diligence checklist. As donors consider in what arena they want to see needle-moving change, top of mind is likely to be the vehicles—most often, the nonprofit grantees—through which they do their work. It is through these organizations that many funders are able to realize their goals and, in some cases, accomplish even more than they had hoped.

Bringing different resources to the relationship

Donors potentially bring to the table a lot more than financial resources. Donors have the potential advantage of a broad understanding of a given field, knowledge of the various groups working on particular sets of issues, and of the different approaches they use. The most experienced donors have shared that some of the best ways to learn about the work in a given field is to connect directly with the people working on the ground: the doers.

Donors and doers alike inhabit the same broad environment. Doers typically toil in the trenches and that brings them close to the issues, needs, and realities of the challenge they are trying to meet. Donors have perspective, gained from talking to many people and seeing the problem and what needs to be done from many angles. Doers often have the community networks, the experience with what works, and the ability to collaborate in partnership with others. Each brings to the relationship a set of distinctive assets and potential skills that can only make an active partnership between them more powerful. This interdependence is the heart of highly effective work with a combination of vision, perspective, grit experience, and shared passion that brings the parties together even before any formal relationship has been affirmed.

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Make No Mistake: Philanthropy Is About More Than Money

By Lauren Kotkin, Exponent Philanthropy

What is the definition of “giving?” Has the term become synonymous with nothing but money – rather than the giving of an individual’s time, talents and skills? And what about the word “philanthropy?” Has it, too, become indistinguishable from the giving of only money? Are philanthropy and giving just about money?

—e-Volunteerism, Volume XIII, Issue 2, January 2013

Today’s philanthropy is not just about giving money conclude authors Susan Ellis and Rob Jackson after tracing philanthropy’s history and evolution: “Our goal should be to encourage the widest possible spectrum of giving and philanthropy, getting people to participate as they can, when they can, while helping our organizations to see any form of gift as support worthy of appreciation and cultivation.”

For example, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service, one in four Americans volunteered in 2012, accumulating 7.9 billion hours of service worth $175 billion. See a state-by-state comparison of the value of volunteer time or search by volunteer job.

At Exponent Philanthropy, we too believe that philanthropy comes in non-dollar form. Its why we’re excited to incorporate service as part of each National Conference.

This fall’s 2014 National Conference will include two opportunities to give back:

Service Project With City Year DC

On Saturday morning, November 1, from 8:30-11:30 a.m., City Year DC invites conference participants to join its staff and corps members for hands-on activities in one of City Year’s partner schools. Participants will work in small groups on projects to benefit the school and its students. This is a wonderful opportunity to hear stories and ask questions about City Year’s impact and the students it serves.

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The Power of Community to Develop Young Leaders

By Janice Simsohn Shaw, Exponent Philanthropy

Last month, we kicked off the 2014 Next Gen Fellows Program, our second installment of a 6-month program to bring together young trustees and staff for learning, connecting, and mentoring. Just like our cohort of 2013 Next Gen Fellows, they are as diverse as any group in their passions, politics, priorities, and concerns. Yet when they come together, something magical happens. Their confidence rockets, and their collective energy, commitment to good work, and potential for difference-making follow suit.

Why is community so powerful in developing young leaders?

Philanthropy can be a lonely business. Whether you’re the only staff member in your 20s, or a sole next gen trustee or executive director, finding collaborators and honest feedback can be difficult. As one past Fellow shared, “Community has been an important professional development marker, given that I work at home by myself. Am I listening well enough? Being respectful of different opinions? Basically, playing nice with others? I haven’t been at this long enough that I have many professional relationships, so those that I do have are meaningful.”

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The Pulse: Philanthro-Shaming, Benefit Corporations

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   


Economists and historians compare our current age to the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, an era of enormous fortunes when the gap between poor and wealthy was magnified. In a recent essay, Benjamin Soskis from George Mason University notices another similarity: during both eras, the public placed pressure on the wealthy to donate generously. Soskis goes on to assert that public pressure should not be about how much the wealthy give, but on how effective and relevant their philanthropy is. And, he says, “Philanthro-shaming” will not damage voluntary impulses of philanthropy. “If anything, appreciating that the public really does take their philanthropic commitments seriously should inspire more giving, and giving that is more closely attuned to the nation’s needs. But philanthro-shaming should be the beginning—and not the end—of a civil and engaged conversation about philanthropic means and ends.”

Giving Circles Popular With Minorities, Women, Younger Donors

New national surveys of American households offer insight into who participates in giving circles, groups of people who pool donations and give together. Based on these surveys, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that “Americans of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent participate in giving circles at much higher rates than whites: 21 percent for blacks versus 10 percent for white non-Jewish donors, for example.” Also, “among non-Jewish whites, women make up two-thirds of all giving-circle donors.” A leader of the Connected to Give research calls on nonprofit organizations to use the findings to uncover donor trends and engage giving circle participants as potential partners and board members.

Benefit Corporations Codify and Establish Themselves as a Field

NPR takes a look at “benefit corporations”—companies that seek a profit and also offer tangible benefit to society—and the growing infrastructure that supports them. A firm called B-Lab certifies companies devoted to communities and the environment by analyzing a company’s operations, policies, and relationships with labor and suppliers. Also, 27 states have created a legal status for benefit corporations; the legal protection ensures that “a shareholder can’t sue a benefit corporation for valuing the environment as much as profit.” Though some states don’t keep track of numbers yet, at least 750 benefit corporations are known to exist, and as many as nine states are considering establishing the legal framework. As an executive at B-Lab puts it, a benefit corporation is a way “to bake your morals and your missions into the DNA of your company.”

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Horizontal Is the New Vertical

By Henry Berman, Exponent Philanthropy

The article below is featured in Exponent Philanthropy’s just released e-publication Outsized Impact, a first-of-its-kind report on trends shaping philanthropy with few or no staff. As practiced by small-staffed foundations, donor advised funds, giving circles, and individuals who choose to give big while keeping operations lean, this unique style of philanthropy is popular, powerful, and on the rise. In the report, more than a dozen thought leaders share their insights on how these philanthropists are achieving outsized impact across the country and around the world. Download the report

Historically philanthropy has, for the most part, operated in a vertical mode. At the top were the institutions and individuals holding the most money—and often operating with the most infrastructure. Below them was everyone else, including smaller organizations and individuals, and those seeking funding. The hierarchy, for those at the top, meant it was easy to be less connected to the communities and causes they supported. For funders at the bottom, it meant being less visible and less understood, working in the shadows of those at the top.

But no more.

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Want to Create a Giving Circle? Here’s a Checklist.

By Jessica Bearman on behalf of Exponent Philanthropy

According to a new report, one in eight American donors has participated in a giving circle—nearly half under the age of 40—and participation in a giving circle can both strengthen social connections and help turn participants into committed philanthropists.

Creating a giving circle—a collaborative philanthropy in which individual donors pool their money and other resources, and decide together how and where to give them away—is a creative and fun process. Although there is no one right way to organize a giving circle, considering certain factors will help ensure good leadership, thoughtful processes, and sustainability.

The following guidelines, adapted from the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers’ Giving Circles Knowledge Center, can be a useful checklist for decision making when creating and running a giving circle:

Set Goals and Structure

The group or individual organizing the giving circle may want to make decisions about the composition of the circle in advance of an initial meeting. It can, though, be highly motivating to involve founding members in shaping the circle.

  • Who will be responsible for setting the schedule, communicating, and steering the group? (This responsibility can fall to an individual or a small group.)
  • What is our mission?
  • What specific goals do we want to achieve?
  • What is our giving circle’s name?
  • Will we use a small circle, formal organization-type giving circle, or loose network approach?

Some groups change over time, so these decisions might not be final. Set up an initial operating structure that works for you.

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The Why and How of Saving Our YMCA

By Alan Egly, Doris & Victor Day Foundation

What do you do when a key community resource is about to go under?

Due to poor management, our community’s YMCA faced closure. Its third year of emergency funding requests to fund its $600,000 debt and avoid bankruptcy were again unsuccessful. Funders had all but given up, except for our board and staff at the Doris & Victor Day Foundation and a few others who weren’t ready to jump ship—at least not completely.

Although our group lacked confidence that the YMCA’s management could turn things around, we weren’t ready to lose an excellent and much-needed facility that served a community with a significant number of low-income residents. We also recognized the importance of helping the YMCA and our city of Rock Island, Illinois, avoid the shame that would come with a bankruptcy.

One of the Day Foundation’s directors began to think creatively about solutions, suggesting the city might be willing to take on the facility. After meeting with the city manager and Department of Parks and Recreation, it became clear that the city was willing to take on the facility but not with its current financial obligations. What wasn’t clear was how to cover the financial obligations and convince the YMCA board that this was the best solution.

This would take several months of negotiations.

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Inverting the Power Imbalance: Testing a New Grantmaking Program That Enables Nonprofits to Do Their Jobs

By Suzanne Skees, Skees Family Foundation

Excerpted from the original post that appeared on Seeds of Hope, the Skees Family Foundation blog, on June 28

It sounds ludicrous—and it is: Often we donors throw roadblocks in front of the very programs we seek to support. Requiring reams of application pages, hours of preliminary meetings, and acrobatics of performance if and when we fund, is crazy-making for the social entrepreneurs and nonprofits we supposedly trust to solve our most entrenched environmental, financial, educational, and social problems.

This is not just theory. It’s not overworked, underpaid employees whining. We’ve gleaned an inside view of this reality through field visits with and story gathering for our partners, some of the world’s smallest grassroots organizations. Because our grants are tiny and our ambitions are mighty, we’ve always approached our work as if the time we give to partners’ communications, strategy, program development, and fundraising matters more than money. Our multifaceted style of partnership allows us to see a lot more than our partners’ websites, fundraising events, and annual reports. We try to work with them and for them, rather than the other way around.

No one engaged in grantmaking or impact investing wants to believe we’re thwarting our partners’ best intentions. I tried for years to convince myself that the power imbalance between the donor and recipient didn’t have to exist, if only we approached people with honesty and humility. But guess what? It does. To change that dynamic, we asked, could we change the structure of how we give?

Seeking Ways to Bring Greater Efficiency to Grantmaking

We wondered, when we undertook a landscape analysis of our own funding area (global access to education and jobs), if nonprofits could operate more effectively if they didn’t need to spend so much time, energy, and yes, even funding, on chasing down the next grant dollar. [Editor's note: See Project Streamline's Guide to Streamlining, a set of tools to help funders reduce the burden on grantees and themselves]

Our grantmaking committee and all-family board engaged in some wonderfully deep conversations about our intentions. Since we have such a small budget (~$150,000), we want to direct every dollar for maximum impact. We agreed on some core objectives:

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White House “Insider” Inspirational – Changes Are Coming to Philanthropy

By Floyd Keene, Triple EEE Foundation

Recently I attended a special reception at Exponent Philanthropy headquarters. In attendance were fellow board members, D.C. area foundation leaders, corporate partners, and a special guest from the White House: Jonathan Greenblatt, Special Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Domestic Policy Council. As Director, Jonathan leads the Office’s efforts to use human and financial capital to bring attention to community solutions.

Jonathan was kind enough to join us even though he had a very busy day. At a White House conference that day, the administration announced a number of actions to stimulate impact investing, including $1.5B in commitments from a group of dedicated private and philanthropic entities.

At the reception, Jonathan described the conference and President Obama’s views on philanthropy and public/private partnerships. My fellow board members told me that I beamed during Jonathan’s entire presentation. I cannot disagree. Never before had I heard a speaker talk about conceptual topics, where I felt like he was plucking them directly out of the beliefs of my heart and the depths of my soul. At the conference, and in the press, the Obama administration indicated the following, with my reactions stated in italics:

1. President Obama’s new stress on philanthropic initiatives was inspired by a site visit to the B.A.M. (Becoming a Man) program run by Youth Guidance in Chicago. The visit helped spawn My Brother’s Keeper, a far-reaching Presidential initiative announced in February. 

Whenever I hear this story, I almost have trouble keeping it together. My foundation has long supported Youth Guidance, which began B.A.M. as a small pilot program several years ago. To now see it inspire an entire Presidential initiative is indescribably moving.

2. The Obama administration believes that governments and philanthropists alone cannot solve social problems. Rather, the private sector must be a key player in addressing social concerns.

This thought—almost an irrefutable reality—is rapidly becoming the mainstream view. It implies a changed world of philanthropy not considered possible 10 years ago. Jonathan’s words reminded me of a belief I have held for years: World hunger will not be solved by a big food drive. It will be solved by one brilliant entrepreneur, who figures out how to make money by solving world hunger. 

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