Hats Off to These Award-Winning Minnesota Grantmakers

December 10, 2010

OK, it may be too cold here in Minnesota right now to literally take our hats off, but let’s salute these award-winning Minnesota grantmakers nonetheless:

Best Buy and Cargill, both MCF members, were honored by the U.S. Chamber with 2010 Corporate Citizenship awards.  The annual awards program, hosted by the U.S. Chamber Business Civic Leadership Center, honors companies’ social and civic commitments.

Best Buy won in the Corporate Stewardship category as a nod to its overall culture, its operational practices, and for creating shared value benefiting both the company and society.

Cargill received the International Community Service award for social involvement in countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, and Vietnam, contributing to increased economic opportunity for local communities and their residents.

The 11th annual Corporate Citizenship Awards Dinner and presentation took place in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30.


Former MCF board member Gloria Contreras Edin has been selected by Century College, White Bear Lake, as one of four Women of Distinction for 2010.

Contreras Edin provides immigration law assistance to help families with many issues. Her office location on Payne Avenue in St. Paul is accommodating to the Latino, Hmong and Middle-Eastern communities. Edin is the past executive director of Centro Legal Inc., a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants. She serves on many philanthropic boards and is a national speaker on immigration policy and how it affects women and children.

Century’s sixth annual awards ceremony was Dec. 9.


The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is included in Good Magazine’s list of  “30 Places We Want to Work,” published in its Oct. 21, 2010, issue.

“Investing $400 million with 1,000 partners to advance journalistic excellence in the digital age, Knight runs on the belief that information is ‘a core community need,’ and that access to it enables democracies to thrive,” writes the magazine.

Among the 10 criteria used to determine the list are: 1) It exists at the intersection of creativity and impact; 2) It cares as much about people and the planet as it does about profit (or in the case of nonprofits, efficacy); 3) It values transparency; 4) People talk about it; 5) It loves its employees; 6) People love it, viscerally; 7) It plays well with others; 8) It uses smart technology smartly; 9) It’s appropriately located; and 10) Design is important.


In its 13th annual “NPT Power & Influence Top 50,” Nonprofit Times celebrates some of the sector’s top executives and thinkers. These executives were selected for the impact they have now and for the innovative plans they are putting in place to evolve the charitable sector. These leaders of MCF grantmakers are among the 50:

Bill Gates, co-founder, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle,Wash.: Writes the Nonprofit Times, “He who pays the piper calls the tune and so is the case with Gates and the foundation. If you can call throwing billions of dollars at something ‘targeted giving,’ Gates literally irradiates problems with the foundation’s checkbook and focuses the sector on issues that need to be addressed by more than money.”

Sterling Speirn, president & CEO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, Mich.: “Speirn started the Center for Venture Philanthropy in 1999 and has been funding social entrepreneurs ever since,” according to the Nonprofit Times. “He reshaped the foundation’s processes and is spending millions on non-traditional grants. Says Speirn, ‘We have to do more than just catch people when they’re falling … You build a strong base and then people will be resilient.’”

Laysha Ward, president, Community Relations & Target Foundation, Minneapolis, Minn.: “Ward is the epitome of a corporate foundation executive. Forget that the foundation gives away millions every week. She is out in the field making sure the dollars have an impact and is not shy about providing advice to CEOs of both small and name-brand charities. Her strategic funding has made a difference in sector policy and national service issues,” says the Nonprofit Times.

Congrats to these philanthropic leaders. Join me in a big round of “Thank you!”

– Chris Murakami Noonan, MCF communications associate

Admitting Mistakes, Finding Solutions: The Gates Foundation’s Grantee Perceptions Report

July 19, 2010

Bill and Melinda Gates and their philanthropic partner Warren Buffet have been in the news a lot lately following the announcement of their ambitious $600 billion giving pledge, an open challenge to the nation’s billionaires to commit to giving away half of their fortunes to charity.

However, there’s been other recent news regarding The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that you may not have heard. As I read today in this post on the Philanthrocapitalism blog, a recent Center for Effective Philanthropy Grantee Perceptions Report found that the foundation is facing communications challenges with its grantees.

The report is based on a survey of 1,544 of Gates’ grantees. On the positive side of the ledger, it found that the foundation is perceived by grantees as having a profound positive impact on work in the grantees’ fields, particularly in the areas of knowledge building, public policy and creating effective practices.

However, the assessment of the Gates Foundation’s communications was not so rosey. Grantee partners reported that the organization’s goals and strategies are unclear, and that similarly they felt that the foundation had a poor understanding of their goals and strategies. Respondents also noted confusion about the foundation’s decision-making and grantmaking processes and expressed frustration over program officer turnover.

As you may know, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a member of MCF. So you may be wondering why we would report on one of our members performing poorly at, well, anything. The truth is, although the report found that the Gates Foundation has a need for improvement, its transparency about those challenges is admirable and should serve as a model for those grantmakers that value transparency and accountability in their work, both key tenets of MCF’s own Principles for Minnesota Grantmakers.

The Gates Foundation has been very open about its involvement in the assessment process and the results, posting the findings here on its website, along with the audio from a number of grantee community calls. The foundation also has been clear that it will be addressing these shortcomings by reevaluating its communications and creating new strategies for enhancing cohesion and clarity between program managers and executives at the foundation and its grantee partners.

That’s why I salute the Gates Foundation for being upfront about the challenges that it faces. It’s through this process that the organization will be able to enhance its relationships with grantees, and ultimately the impact of its grant giving.

As physicist Tom Hirshfield once wrote, “If you hit every time, the target is either too big or too near.” Philanthropy is a bold endeavor with high stakes. By learning from our collective mistakes through accountable and transparent practices, we can capitalize not only on success, but failure too, and ameliorate the world-changing work that we all share, while at the same time affirming the public trust.

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate

Must We Give to the Poor? Guess Not. But Should We?

July 16, 2010

It’s official.  The wealthy are not obligated to help the poor.

That was the conclusion from this year’s “Great American Think-Off,” the amateur philosophy debate held annually in New York Mills, Minnesota.

When I wrote about this contest back in March, my attitude was, “Duh, of course the well-to-do should share with those less fortunate.”  But the winning debater — through personal story-telling and clever emphasis on the word “obligation” — was able to convince the audience (the final judges) that, indeed, we should not be required to share our wealth.  After all, if you are forced to share, then it’s really about taking, not giving, and wouldn’t you be abdicating your individual moral responsibility to share?  (You can read winner David Eckel’s essay at www.think-off.org.)

The outcome of the debate is a good reminder to us all that philanthropy in the U.S. is voluntary.  But it also brings to mind the heated discussions in the field today about the extent to which government should mandate giving toward certain groups or causes.

Well, no matter your point of view on those issues, we can probably all agree that more philanthropy is better.  And we should join forces to actively promote more voluntary philanthropy.  Today’s opinion piece by John Verant in the Star Tribune really reinforces why it’s more important than ever for the well-to-do to give, and to give generously.  Verant writes:

The past 30 years have witnessed the largest redistribution of wealth in the history of America. When Ronald Reagan came to power, the richest 1 percent of Americans held 20 percent of the total wealth. When he left office, that figure was 36 percent. Today it is 43. The distribution of income has similarly skewed. Since 1980, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans had their share of all income increase 2 1/2 times. And the top 0.1 percent had their share of our national earnings increase an amazing six times.

This summer we heard that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett challenged American billionaires to give at least half of their net worth to charity.  They apparently recognize their individual moral responsibility to care for their fellow men and women.  Let’s hope their wealthy friends — who are not obligated to give to the poor — do, too.

— Wendy Wehr, MCF v.p.  of communications and information services

“Human-Centered Design” in the Social Sector

July 24, 2009

The summer 2009 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review includes a fascinating interview with Judith Rodin, head of the Rockefeller Foundation.

In recent years the Rockefeller Foundation has started to fund “innovation.”  What does this mean?  In the case of the Rockefeller Foundation it means that they are funding efforts to bring innovation processes that have been created in the private sector to addressing challenges in the social sector.

One example is their work with IDEO, a preeminent design and innovation consultancy firm, that has developed the concept and practices of “human-centered design,” which is also known as “user-driven innovation.”

The basic concept of Human-Centered Design (HCD) is that consumers or end-users need to be involved in the design of any product or service.  The process of HCD involves three lenses:

  • Desirability – What do people desire?
  • Feasibility – What is technically and organizationally feasible?
  • Viability – What can be financially viable?

As I searched the internet for further information about IDEO’s work, I learned that IDEO has partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, International Development Enterprises (IDE), and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) to create a free toolkit that can be used by people around the world who are working on challenging social problems.

This toolkit has already been used in a variety of projects; and IDEO continues to develop and refine it.

From my own experience with IDEO 10+ years ago I know that IDEO began with a focus on product design and development.  In fact, their founder designed the first computer mouse many years ago.  I am inspired to see that they are now sharing their considerable expertise to help find new ways to address many social challenges around the world.

Join the Conversation: Are you using HCD in your work?  Or are you interested in learning more about it?

– Cindy Moeller, MCF director of professional development and member Services

Social Justice Philanthropy Seeing Resurgence

July 16, 2009
A marcher from the Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice. Social Justice organizations are receiving increased foundation support.

In this photo a young man from the Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice marches to honor MLK Day. Social Justice organizations are receiving increased foundation support.

Social justice philanthropy is on the rise, according to a just-released report from Foundation Center.  Grantmakers and practitioners alike are more optimistic about moving their agenda forward, according to Social Justice Grantmaking II, an in-depth look at current attitudes and giving patterns in social justice philanthropy.

The report examines changes in grantmakers’ strategies and practices based on late 2008 interviews with 19 leading funders and eight advocates/practitioners. It also documents trends in giving based on actual grants awarded by over 1,000 of the largest U.S. foundations.

In 2007 social justice giving reached $3 billion, or 13.7 percent of overall grant dollars.  Between 2002 and 2006, social justice giving rose nearly 31 percent, surpassing the 20 percent increase in foundation giving overall during that time.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation accounted for over half of the growth in social justice grant dollars during this period. Other top social justice funders are W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an MCF member, and the Ford Foundation.  Together, the three provide over one-third of total social justice support.

Top funding areas within the category are: economic and community development (30.5%), human rights and civil liberties (13.8 percent), and health care access and affordability (13.4%).

The Foundation Center defines social justice philanthropy as “The granting of philanthropic contributions to nonprofit organizations based in the United States and other countries that work for structural change in order to increase the opportunity of those who are the least well off politically, economically, and socially.”

Those interviewed as part of the study cited the changed political environment, success of community organizing in the recent election, and new ideas and energy in the field among other factors reinvigorating a commitment to social justice philanthropy.

Study “Highlights” are available free. The full report can be purchased from Foundation Center.

Join the Conversation: MCF members, where does social justice funding fall among your giving priorities?  What makes you optimistic about the potential impact of your and your grantees’ work?

Photo CC James Willamor

Are Some Foundations Better Than Others?

June 8, 2009
Are some ideas better left in the board room?

Are measures of effectiveness better left in the for-profit board room?

A recent blog entry in Tactical Philanthropy got me thinking, are some foundations more effective and therefore “better” than others? Donors to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seem to have spoken a resounding, “yes.”

In its Annual Report published this week, the Gates Foundation reports receiving $10.4 million in unsolicited contributions, despite stringent guidelines and encouragement to donate directly to charitable organizations.

These donors, like Warren Buffett before them, are responding to a desire that each dollar be well spent, and they perceive that the Gates Foundation has the know-how and the resources to do so.

The act of giving is very personal, and that’s why I am hesitant to apply opaque labels like “better” to foundations and nonprofits a like.

However, I believe there is value in having a conversation about what “effectiveness” means for foundations and sharing practices that can help foundations serve their missions more effectively.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is dedicated to doing just that. Over the last eight years, CEP has conducted research and created a variety of free assessment tools to enable foundations to take stock of their impact.

In fact, Phil Buchanan, president of CEP, will be presenting on this topic on June 17 at an MCF event for its members titled, “Findings from the Field: Essentials for Foundation Effectiveness.”

Join the conversation: I’d like to know how your foundation or nonprofit assesses effectiveness. Are there any tools or resources that you can recommend?

Or do you object, as many do, to the idea that philanthropic and charitable work can be reduced to quantifiable variables that can be objectively assessed? Is this a misapplication of thinking better left in the board room of Fortune 500 companies?

-Cary Lenore Walski, MCF Web Communications Associate