Coalitions: Successful or Struggling?

June 30, 2011

In a time of scarce resources and contested legislative priorities, grantmakers and nonprofits must find powerful ways to move their missions forward and influence policy. One common, and often effective, way to do this is to form coalitions.

Minnesota boasts a number of successful philanthropic and not-for-profit coalitions, including the School Readiness Funders Coalition, Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, ArtsLab, and many others. As organizations increasingly partner with one another to reach common goals, what guidelines can we use to ensure these coalitions are as effective as possible?

The California Endowment reviews the structure and components of successful coalitions in the recently-released paper: What Makes an Effective Coalition? Evidence-Based Indicators of Success (PDF).

How can you make coalitions to which you belong more effective? The paper identifies several keys to success:

  • Avoid redundancy. When considering whether to form a coalition, check for existing coalitions in your interest area. “Over-coalitioned” communities reduce the effectiveness of individual coalitions and the value of coalitions in general.
  • Balance an inclusive membership with a strategic focus. Coalition member breadth and diversity provides wide perspectives and a stronger voice for the coalition, but members with very different points of view can struggle to agree on coalition actions. Coalitions must aim for a balance between diversity of perspective and strategic focus.
  • Make decision-making transparent. Effective coalitions establish transparent decision-making processes that allow appropriate member input. Often, coalitions must choose between equitable decision-making, which allows a decision to be made even when there is disagreement among members, and consensus decision-making, which requires universal agreement before moving on. With transparency, either method can be effective.
  • Take action. Coalitions, made up of disparate organizations with their own goals and priorities, are ripe for abstract discussion. Coalition leadership must balance meaningful discussion with action.

Join the conversation: Have you been a member of a successful — or not so successful — coalition? What made the coalition work well — or struggle?

— Anne Bauers, MCF research manager

Gaining Perspective – and Having the Courage to Share It

April 11, 2011

Gaining Perspective

One of the things I enjoy the most about working within the nonprofit and philanthropic sector is that we have a culture of openness, a willingness to share successes so that others may replicate “bright spots” for their constituents.

But what about the not-so-bright spots? The pot holes on the road to progress are very instructive, yet many nonprofits  and foundations alike do not always feel comfortable charting them.

Fortunately, there are those organizations that have the gumption and the commitment to transparency to share bright spots as well as lessons learned. One such organization is the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF).

NWAF, an MCF member, shares insights on a recent 10-year undertaking to reduce poverty in a new FSG report titled Gaining Perspective: Lessons Learned From One Foundation’s Exploratory Decade.

In 1998, NWAF set out to solve one of the most pernicious and wicked problems facing communities —  poverty. The foundation laid out a bold new approach to addressing poverty over its large, eight-state region. It was an ambitious undertaking, and results varied.

However, instead of hiding pitfalls the foundation experienced on the road to results, NWAF has generously shared those insights with us, so that the field, and ultimately communities and families across the nation, may benefit. The FSG report and executive summary can be downloaded at

If you’re attending the national COF conference, NWAF President Kevin Walker will be referring to the lessons learned outlined in this report during his session. See the conference website for details.

Join the Conversation: How do you think we can create a culture of openness and continual improvement among foundations and nonprofit service providers? Do you have any other examples to share of nonprofits or funders using different strategies to increase transparency? Please leave your comments below.

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web 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

Google Moderator — Your Key to Community Input?

June 3, 2010

“Don’t do something about me without me.” I first heard Tamar Cloyd of Education Voters of America speak these powerful words during a talk on diversity and the leadership pipeline on Rosetta Thurman’s podcast.

The Suggestion Box

Google Moderator, it's like the suggestion box for the 21st century.

This phrase succinctly states the importance of community engagement in the work we do as philanthropists, and the words come echoing back to me like an idiomatic boomerang every time I recognize a new tool for grantmakers to engage their grantees and community stakeholders.

Today I’d like to share with you one of those tools, Google Moderator, and discuss how using it to crowdsource decisions can help you tap into the communities you seek to serve.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term crowdsourcing, let me give you the quick explanation. Crowdsourcing is when you use an online platform such as a website or a web application to allow people to do an activity, like donate to a cause or create and rate solutions to a problem. Minnesota Idea Open is one such example of how a foundation is using crowdsourcing to determine how to solve pressing social issues and, in turn, who should receive its grant money.

Google Moderator is a free online tool that allows anyone who has a Google account and something to talk about to start a discussion. It allows the moderator to post a question in text or now in the form of a YouTube video and solicit feedback in the form of ideas, suggestions or questions. Anyone who has a free Google account, like a gmail account can submit a response. Once a response is posted, it can in turn be rated by other users for quality, so that best input gets pushed to the top.

To see an example of Google Moderator, you can view this discussion that I just made on the topic of using tools such as Google Moderator to crowdsource philanthropy (I know, it’s so meta!) While you’re there, feel free to give the platform a test drive by posting your own thoughts.

One of the most obvious limitations of the tool is that there’s no way to pick the crowd that you’re sourcing. Currently, if you create a discussion, anyone can participate. So, if you’re a grantmaker looking to engage a very specific community, then there’s no way to ensure that you’re engaging only your target population.

However, despite limitations, it’s exciting to think how grantmakers, policymakers and nonprofits can use tools like this to partner with communities in problem solving.

For grantmakers concerned with upholding the principles of transparency and the engagement of diverse communities, figuring out how to harness these online tools effectively to support grantmaking decisions will be where the rubber meets the road, and support of these values translates to action in the 21st century.

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate

Image CC Peter J. Bury

How Information Networks Are Transforming Philanthropy

May 20, 2010
Information networks and the response to the earthquake in Haiti

New information networks like Ushahidi are changing how funders large and small are giving.

In the paper Disrupting Philanthropy: Technology and the Future of the Social Sector, author Lucy Bernholz writes that nearly one-hundred years ago Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller established the first modern foundations. These foundations were centralized, vertically integrated institutions that closely resembled the businesses that produced the surplus of wealth upon which they were founded.

These rigid, hierarchical organizations were appropriate for the time — but new technology in the form of information networks has enabled philanthropy to take on never-before-seen shapes. Empowered by more and better data than ever before, institutional funders — and now networks of digitally-connected individual donors — are making giving decisions that are transforming the philanthropic and nonprofit fields.

What do these changes look like, and how will these trends continue to transform giving? These are the questions that Disrupting Philanthropy tries to answer.

For traditional funders the report states that this new abundance of data has begun to transform how decisions are made at five key points in the grantmaking process as they:

  • Set goals and formulate their strategies
  • Build social capital to support one another, cooperate and collaborate
  • Measure progress through benchmarks, outputs and make course changes along the way
  • Quantify outcomes and impacts
  • Account for their work with the public at large and to regulators

The paper includes two case studies of FasterCures and the Edna McConnel Clark Foundation that illustrate how information networks have reshaped the grantmaking strategies of some institutional funders.

Interestingly, the authors emphasize that the changes in the philanthropic paradigm are less about the new technologies themselves, which will continue to evolve and change overtime, but instead about the behavior and expectations that result from this abundance of information. No longer will funders, both individuals and institutional, be in a position where they give “blindly”. This data will allow all of us to make more strategic, informed decisions about who receives our giving dollars.

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate

Photo CC AlphaChimp

Mapping Grants in Realtime: A Taste of the Future of Philanthropic Transparency

May 13, 2010

Imagine being able to map a disaster in real time. Imagine thousands of people with mobile phones sending texts that post up-to-the-minute data points as disasters (and solutions) unfold, whether it be the exact position of oil on the Gulf shore , where crimes have occurred in your neighborhood, or where to find resources to help your grandma to dig out of her snow-bound house in Washington, DC.

The Ushahidi platform allows users to do just that. Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a free, open-source web application that allows users to create real-time visualizations of data that’s sent to the system via SMS (texting), email or the web.  Originally developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the 2008 post-election fallout, Ushahidi has been deployed by dozens of organizations for a variety of applications from reporting on the Gulf oil spill, tracking voting in Sudan, and much more.

The potential of a tool like this for relief organizations is obvious and compelling — but I think there could be interesting applications for grantmakers as well.

For instance, a foundation could create a map to which grantees and even their constituents, the ultimate users of a nonprofit’s services, could post.  The geographic reach of a grant, as well as to some extent a representation of its impact, could be revealed in interesting, previously-difficult-to-visualize ways.

Other grants visualization tools exist. But current tools fall short in that the mapped data points apply only to the physical location of the grantee organization itself. Useful data — absolutely, but if the nonprofit provides services in other locations, the reach of that organization and its impact on those communities is not currently represented.

Imagine a nonprofit staff member using a tool like Ushahidi to send a text message to the system to map out different service locations, which would then feed back to the centralized database and be displayed. Grantmakers, policymakers and nonprofits could then use this data to identify gaps where communities are under served, and use that data to make more informed decisions about their work to support the common good.

This is just a taste of what philanthropic transparency may look like in the future. I’m looking forward to seeing what innovative grantmakers do with new technologies like Ushahidi and, most importantly, the ultimate impact the data unleashes.

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate

Thanks to Lara Hoke at NonprofitNext, whose post on the Ushahidi platform introduced me to the tool.

“Too Small” to Have a Website? 71% of Foundations Not Online

May 12, 2010
Cat plays with Iphone.

In an age when even pet cats have twitter accounts, a majority of foundations remain without a website. Are there costs for this dearth of online information?

According to a recent Foundation Center survey of 11,000 U.S. foundations, only 29% report having a website. When you consider that the 1,000 top U.S. foundations account for nearly two-thirds of annual giving, it’s a little easier to understand why this disparity exists.

But what are the costs of this disparity? Bradford Smith, president of the Foundation Center wrote a recent blog entry that examines those costs and challenges assumptions that are holding back many foundations from being online.

Smith’s post got me thinking. What are the most compelling arguments for small foundations to make the leap onto the web?

Transparency helps create public trust. Discretion, born out of modesty or a desire for privacy, can be misconstrued by the public as secrecy. In the age of social media, businesses have learned the hard way that the best strategy to control your story is to be the one telling it. Having a website can help get ahead of misunderstandings about what your foundation funds and why, and it can be a key component in upholding the principle of transparency, described in MCF’s Principles for Minnesota Grantmakers.

Clear guidelines enable nonprofits to screen themselves out. Applying for a grant requires a big investment of time and resources for a nonprofit.  When foundations have clearly articulated guidelines that are easily accessible 24/7 on the internet, nonprofits can assess for themselves whether they’re good candidates for grant opportunities, saving both sides time and money.

Maintaining a website yourself is easier — and cheaper — than ever. Gone are the days when you needed a full-time webmaster to maintain a website. Grantmakers looking to administer sites themselves have many low-cost and no-cost options that are built on systems that allow individuals with no experience with code to create and maintain their own sites.

The decision to go online can be difficult, particularly for family foundations who want to maintain a sense of privacy. But as information becomes ubiquitous in the age of web 2.0, the importance of telling your own story about your foundation’s giving will become more and more apparent. This fact, coupled with affordable, easy-to-use technology, means the “too small” excuse is quickly losing its relevance.

Join the Conversation: Has your foundation actively made the choice to get on or stay off the web? If so, why did you come to that decision? Do you think, as Smith does, that having a website is inevitable for small foundations?

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate

Photo CC Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten