How “strategic philanthropy” has harmed our sector, and why it refuses to die

[Image description: A grey-and-black striped cat, sitting behind a chess board, set with wooden chess pieces, glaring at the camera. The cat looks kind of menacing. Or is that just me? Image by RickJbrown on Pixabay]

Remember that couple that did a gender reveal party earlier this year and ended up starting a wildfire that lasted two months and burned down 22,000 acres? Gender reveals are ridiculous, corny, and harmful. I don’t think aliens are going to give us advanced technology as long as we keep doing inane things like this.

But what does this have to do with anything? We’ll get there. A long time ago, before Omicron, before Delta, before the original variant, I met with a foundation program officer for coffee. “We’re in a process to figure out our strategic funding priorities this year,” they said, “what are your thoughts on this?” I took a long sip of my hot cocoa, trying to figure out how to sound diplomatic. But I have no poker face and probably looked like this cat.

Continue reading “How “strategic philanthropy” has harmed our sector, and why it refuses to die”

Democracy is Dying. Philanthropy Needs to Stop Its Toxic Intellectualizing.

[Image description: A large colorful mural on a building, by artist Shepard Fairey, featuring a person looking into the distance, with the words “voting rights are human rights” painted in black on red background. Image taken by Tom Barrett on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, just a quick warning that this post will likely burn a few bridges. But as colleague Aubrey Alvarez quoted from a novelty flask, “May the bridges we burn light the way.”

Today I had breakfast with my friend Seth Ehrlich, an executive director who told me that for the third time during the pandemic a funder invited him to attend a forum where nonprofit leaders were asked to give feedback on how to improve that funder’s grant process. Foundations, please stop doing that. Here’s a checklist you can use for free. Stop wasting everyone’s time asking them how you can improve your process.

Continue reading “Democracy is Dying. Philanthropy Needs to Stop Its Toxic Intellectualizing.”

Stop saying that 80% of nonprofit funding comes from individual donors. It’s misleading.

[Image description: A grey striped cap, lying on red velvet, wearing a tiny red and golden crown, covered in Canadian dollar bills of different denominations. They are wearing a necklace with a gold dollar sign pendant. They are looking to the left, surrounded by an aural of feline regality. Image by Allange on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. Quick reminder: Please get flu shots for you and your family, if you are able to. Hospitals and healthcare workers are overwhelmed by COVID, so in addition to getting your COVID shots, get your flu shot. And then buy yourself a new house plant or some chocolate as a reward.

Every time I criticize foundations, someone steps in with “well, 80% of philanthropic dollars come from individual donors.” Usually it is a well-meaning statement, designed to give hope to those of us who are frustrated with foundations and their various archaic and ridiculous practices. And taken as a whole, it may be true. This report, for example, shows that in 2019, 69% of giving comes from individuals, 10% from bequests, 17% from foundations, and 5% from corporations.

If 17% of our revenues come from foundations and 5% from corporations, why should we spend so much time and energy bashing our heads against the walls, screaming in anguish at the foundations and corporations that require quarterly reports, make us use their own budget templates, or, worst of all, force us to remove Oxford Commas to stay within character limits? If they account for only a fraction of total philanthropic dollars, maybe we’re wasting time trying to get foundations and corporations to change and should focus more time rallying individual donors?

Continue reading “Stop saying that 80% of nonprofit funding comes from individual donors. It’s misleading.”

We need to have a serious talk about character limits on grant applications

[Image description: Wooden Scrabble tiles arranged to spell out “TIME FOR CHANGE” over a brown corkboard. Image by Alexas_Photos on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, with the collapse of the Afghanistan government, the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and the worsening pandemic, you might be thinking there are more important things to talk about than something as insignificant as character limits on grant proposals. I am writing about it because I need something concrete that I can focus on. But also, because minor things like character limits are symptomatic of some serious issues in philanthropy.

Describe the program for which you are applying and how it helps to fight racial disparities in health care or food insecurity. Share whether this is a new or existing program. Provide specific data-driven information that shows a clear understanding of what the need in your community is. (700 characters).”

I wish I had made that up. But no, a colleague sent that to me just a couple of weeks ago, an excerpt from a grant application. 700 characters is fewer than 3 tweets. Here are some common problems around character limits:

Continue reading “We need to have a serious talk about character limits on grant applications”

#CrappyFundingPractices and why we need to name and shame more often

[Image description: An orange-striped cat, sitting on the floor, one paw covering their face, the other paw covering their groin area. Image by skorchanov on Pixabay]

Around this time last year, the pandemic was getting into full swing, and all of us were terrified. I found out that some foundations were still requiring the printing-out and hand-delivery of grant proposals. These funders’ cluelessness was no longer just annoying, it was literally endangering people’s lives. I turned into a nonprofit Hulk and start smashing things around the house. But being vegan, I didn’t have the strength to do much damage. And so instead, the hashtag #CrappyFundingPractices was born on Twitter.

Over the course of the year, colleagues direct-messaged or emailed me the ridiculousness they endured—from funders refusing to pay for staffing, to others requiring quarterly or weekly reports, to one who waited 30 months to make a grant decision—and I would call these funders out by name using the hashtag. Colleagues would pile on, retweeting and commenting. Sometimes we hear nothing from the funders. Other times, they respond with committee-written malarkey, and on some occasions, they actually apologize and make corrections.

Continue reading “#CrappyFundingPractices and why we need to name and shame more often”