Are We Really Working Together to Solve Problems?

September 9, 2014

4025619497_cc11ffd64a_zWe’re all working to solve grand challenges – they’re complex, entrenched, systems-level problems that defy typical solutions.

Again and again we hear that the only way we’ll make a difference on these issues is if we collaborate with folks from other sectors who bring perspectives different from our own.

We know that single-sector actions to address them, although well-intentioned, often make the problems worse or spawn additional grand challenges.

So, why don’t we collaborate more often? Sure, it’s hard work and first we have to grapple with all of our different views to create a shared vision for reform. But if we’re not willing to do that, are we really working to solve the problem?

If you struggle with questions such as this, we want to see you at MCF’s program on Thursday, Sept. 18: Funder Collaboratives: The Why and How of Scaling Grantmaker Impact.

  • We’ll discuss various structures that grantmakers use for collaborative work,
  • consider when it makes sense to join a learning network or funder collaborative and
  • determine which model is the best fit for your organization.

You’ll hear from grantmakers involved in successful funder collaboratives — including the Northside Funders Group and the Start Early Funders Coalition for Children & Minnesota’s Future — on what it takes to effectively come together for a common purpose and change the way we work.

This program is intended for grantmakers who are currently engaged in collaborations who can enrich our discussion and funders who are interested in collaboration but have not yet joined a formal network. Register today and we’ll see you next Thursday!

 

Photo cc edlabdesigner

Young Leadership Cohort Busts Down Barriers

August 20, 2014

11gfOdds are you’ve heard a lot about the need for grantmakers and nonprofit professionals to set aside the power dynamics that hold back their relationships and to come together as peers to address needs in their communities. If you’ve worried that’s just lip service to a never-changing problem, good news! Young people in the sector have taken up that call to forge deep relationships and work closely together.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota chapter of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy and the Twin Cities chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network unveiled a joint Leadership Institute. The inaugural cohort contains 24 individuals, with an even mix of those who work at nonprofits and foundations, including many MCF members (and staff!).

With a focus on accessibility (no cost to participate) and co-creation (members of the cohort lead sessions), the Institute is a unique opportunity that models best practices we want to see from the sector.

Learn more about it in the article I wrote for the summer issue of Giving Forum!

- Chris Oien, MCF digital communications specialist


Take a Virtual Coffee Break!

July 29, 2014

gcftPhilanthropy – we need each other to do it well, and it’s imperative that we make time to share stories, compare notes and answer questions. My favorite way to engage is over coffee or lunch, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes online advice – I call it a virtual coffee break – will do.

I know GrantCraft for their excellent guides, and I’ve used many of them in my work. The site has now been completely reorganized, making lots of great content much easier to locate and use. They’ve also made it easier to find out what other grantmakers have got brewing and to contribute your own lessons learned.

Maybe you’re working on an initiative that’s new to your community but has taken off elsewhere, or you have a burning question that you’d like a lot of people to weigh in on right now. Those are a couple of the reasons I’m hoping that GrantCraft’s new features really take off.

I encourage you to take a fresh look at the site, share your wisdom and comment on the questions asked by others. All of the discussions on the site are searchable and will be archived. Today when I checked, there were funders wondering how others help grantees beyond grants, how grantmakers help grantees find new money, challenges that arise when collaborating with other funders and how your organization structures challenge grants. These are all questions that I know many of our MCF members can help answer for other grantmakers.

Every success I have had in this field has been because of connections I’ve made and people I’ve met. GrantCraft now provides us a virtual opportunity to widen our networks and learn from grantmakers we haven’t yet met. If we take advantage of it, we’ll each improve our own practice, and we’ll better the field of philanthropy together. Let’s use it to stimulate real results!

- Trista Harris, MCF president




President Obama Announces “My Brother’s Keeper” and Philanthropy Investment

February 28, 2014

obama9Boys and young men of color too often face disproportionate challenges and obstacles to success in our society.

Today in the U.S., if you are African-American, there’s a 50-50 chance that you’ll grow up without a father at home, and you’re more likely to be poor, to not read well, to be expelled from school and eventually to end up incarcerated.

And, as President Obama stressed yesterday, “The worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics. We pretend this is a normal part of American life instead of the outrage that it is. These statistics should break our hearts and compel us to act.”

Act is what the President did Thursday as he signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing the “My Brother’s Keeper” Task Force, an interagency initiative to determine what public and private efforts are working for young men and boys of color and how to expand upon them.

The President has built a broad coalition of backers to help break down barriers, clear pathways to opportunity and reverse troubling trends that show too many boys and young men of color slipping through the cracks.

For yesterday’s announcement, he was joined by philanthropic leaders — including MCF President Trista Harris and David Nicholson, executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice — and representatives from communities, business, government and faith groups.

Foundations have already made extensive investments in support of boys and young men of color. Building on that, yesterday 10 foundations (including MCF members The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation) announced additional commitments of at least $200 million over the next five years to find and rapidly spread solutions that have the highest potential for positive impact in the lives of boys and young men of color.

Look for more next week on Trista Harris’ D.C. experience.

- Susan Stehling, MCF communications associate


The Path to Effective Philanthropy: Honest Conversations

February 27, 2014

It was a treat this week for MCF and our members to host a conversation with Phil Buchanan, president of the The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP).

Our exchange was energetic, provocative, fun and sometimes funny.  I was struck by how often we circled back to core concepts and philanthropic fundamentals.

The discussion aligned serendipitously with MCF’s Principles for Grantmakers.  Here are a few snippets that illustrate the challenges — and opportunities — of putting principles into practice.

Effective Governance
According to MCF’s Effective Governance Principle, grantmakers are expected to be good stewards of assets, to fulfill donor intent, to make sound decisions and to perform all fiduciary responsibilities.

Buchanan called for foundation boards to govern effectively by not rubber stamping staff members’ grant recommendations.  “If the board is approving every grant, they’re not taking time to see what it all adds up to and they’re not asking the hard questions.”

And he challenged foundation CEOs to practice “radical openness” with their boards – i.e., to say everything they’re thinking and to spark “messy conversations.”  Good governance doesn’t emerge from perfectly scripted board meetings at which “the most spontaneous thing that happens is when someone gets up to get a cup of coffee.”  (Yes, it’s okay to laugh at ourselves.)

Engaged Learning
The MCF Engaged Learning Principle calls for continuous learning and reflection by engaging board members, staff, grantees and donors in thoughtful dialogue and education.

Of course, learning and continuous improvement through performance assessment is at the heart of CEP’s mission.  (Buchanan readily acknowledged that he is not the expert in philanthropy . . . and he cautioned us to be wary of those who say they are.)

Because philanthropy is “wicked tough,” funding programs on theory alone is not enough.  It’s vital that grantmakers establish performance indicators and are data driven.

And they sometimes need to follow, not lead.  By replicating proven programs, foundations can learn from others and succeed.  (For more on shared goals, read Buchanan’s opinion piece in this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

Transparency
Through MCF’s Transparency Principle grantmakers strive to build healthy relationships with the public, applicants, grantees and donors by using clear, consistent and timely communications.

Being transparent includes sharing the so-called “failures.” (Our host Kate Wolford of The McKnight Foundation noted that we might be more apt to learn from our missteps by reframing them in more positive, multi-dimensional terms.)

Buchanan reported that it’s up to foundations to share the results of CEP assessments.  Some don’t share at all, some partially share with grantees (and sometimes add a positive spin!), and some share widely, warts and all.

He noted that foundations that are truly transparent are viewed as trustworthy and credible.  For example, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is fully committed to evaluation and transparency, making it all the stronger.

Cynics may say that foundations don’t need to be accountable to anybody.  But as Buchanan reminded everyone, if grantmakers aren’t honest and don’t cultivate positive relationships with their grantees, how can they obtain the candid information they need to improve philanthropy . . . and improve lives?

More to Come
Keep watching our Philanthropy Potluck Blog for future postings about philanthropic effectiveness, including video conversations with MCF President Trista Harris, Buchanan and other big thinkers.

Like our grantmaker members, MCF is committed to hosting robust conversations within and across sectors . . . because leadership for the 21st century requires honest, provocative discussion.

– Wendy Wehr, MCF vice president of communications and information services


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