Remembering the Grassroots of the Nonprofit Sector

Young people volunteering in park

Nothing beats some good old grassroots participation. Image: Shutterstock

We’ve heard it over and over again, that real change comes from the grassroots. While national nonprofits can get a lot done, they absolutely require that the “little people” be giving them money. And that’s just on the most superficial level.

All problems faced by nonprofits are, essentially, local problems. They affect real people in real communities, even if an organization is approaching them from a top-level, abstract point of view. Curing a disease may not “feel” local, but if one remembers that the disease in question is affecting real people, with real families, in real communities, it’s a lot easier to think about it that way.

With about £64bn (a little over $80bn) going to nonprofits every year, the competition for funds can be fierce. There are many good causes out there, and a lot of those causes have big international organizations trying to find solutions. But it’s often the smaller local nonprofits that have the most impact, especially when it comes to talking to local politicians and dealing with the underlying causes behind issues like poverty or drunk driving.

It can be easy for bigger organizations to overlook small grassroots operations. In a meeting of the United Nations in July of 2016, attendees discussed the importance of working together to eradicate global poverty and other serious issues. The conversation stayed at a larger overview level until two Catholic sisters, Sr. Margaret O’Dwyer and Sr. Elsa Muttathu, urged the assembly not to forget the importance of the work already being done by local nonprofits.

“To the 193 nations supporting the SDGs–don’t forget the wisdom of the people at the grassroots, and don’t forget their voice,” O’Dwyer admonished.

Mutttathu agreed: “The way to sustainable development must involve empowerment of grassroots groups.”

So if nonprofits want to actually make changes, they need to address issues at the local level. They need to work with communities to solve problems, spread knowledge, or whatever their mission entails. And they need to address elected officials at pancake breakfasts and other events where those officials are more likely to actually hear from the people they represent. While a letter might get ignored, it’s a lot harder to ignore a constituent–or a nonprofit which helps and represents those constituents–when you’re sitting across the table from them.

What Makes Altruism Go Viral?

What makes an altruism campaign go viral? One research argues it's SMART.

A group of young women participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Photo: Saklakova / Shutterstock, Inc.

Viral altruism refers to a “new breed of wildly successful online charity campaigns,” best personified by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014. That campaign raised $115 million, but when attempted the next year brought in less than 1 percent of that total. The ephemeral nature of viral anything, which catches on like wildfire and then vanishes, is at the root of the problem. While a viral campaign can bring in a lot of funds in a short amount of time, they tend not to actually bring in long-term engagement.

And long-term engagement is what most nonprofits are looking for. All the money raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge will help, but finding a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease is a long-term project that needs constant engagement by dedicated donors. Viral campaigns aren’t going to solve the world’s problems, though they can certainly help to raise awareness.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who came of age on the Internet where, especially since the early days of YouTube, we’ve seen viral “hits” come and go with alarming speed. Marketers have tried over and over to catch this fire and make something go viral, but they’ve generally failed. It’s impossible to know what will or won’t go viral, and trying to engineer something to do so is an exercise in futility.

Still, Dr. Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge has been investigating what made the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge such a success, and to get a better understanding on how viral altruism works. His conclusion is that viral campaigns work when the creators take the SMART approach—social influences, moral imperatives, affective reactions, and translational impact.

Most often missing from viral campaigns, he finds, “is ‘translational impact’: the conversion of online token support, or ‘clicktivism’, into real-world contributions, whether financial donations or a long-term commitment to an issue.

One of the most successful long-term campaigns van der Linden saw was “No-Shave Movember,” the month-long growing of a mustache to raise awareness of issues related to men’s health such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and men’s suicide. Movember didn’t experience the virality of the Ice Bucket Challenge, but it did spur more long-term growth. It went from 30 to almost 5 million members in 11 years. By 2014, the Movember Foundation reported that 75 percent of participants were more aware of health issues facing men.

“Campaigns that allow for the creation of a shared identity between the individual and the cause over time appear to be more successful in achieving translational impact,” van der Linden said.

Lenfest Institute, Knight Foundation Award $4.8M for Digital News Project

The Lenfest Institute and the Knight Foundation have awarded $4.8M for a far-reaching digital news project

In October of 2015, Temple University, in cooperation with the Knight Foundation, launched the Knight-Temple Table Stakes project. The goal of the project was to help metropolitan daily news organizations speed up their transition from print to digital. The idea of doing so was to help these dailies reach new audiences and better engage their communities.

More than 50 leaders from papers such as the Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer spent a year focusing on creating plans to develop their digital transition strategies.

Thanks to an additional $3.3 million from the Knight Foundation and $1.5 million from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the program is going to expand to 12 additional papers including the Seattle Times, Houston Chronicle, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The initiative has also been renamed the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative.

“This project is rooted in collaboration. Bringing together major news organizations and experts in technology, journalism, and other areas, it recognizes the importance of a concerted, strategic effort to address the challenges that local news organizations are facing in the digital age,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation Vice President for Journalism. “This next phase will help to create a model for the digital transformation of news organizations that can be shared across the country, helping local journalists better connect with their audiences and develop new innovations in storytelling,”

This phase of the initiative will also include collaboration with the Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The work at UNC will be focused on local and regional news organizations, so the university will be working with eight to 12 media organizations in North Carolina—including newspapers, radio and TV stations, and digital startups—to address the challenges of news in the digital age.

The Poynter Institute will also receive $880,000 to support its efforts to assist newsrooms across the U.S. with their digital transformations, and the cultural transformations that go along with them.

Charity is a Great Motivator for Exercise

Walkathons and other "exercise for charity" programs work because people seem to appreciate the opportunity to do something they already do (exercise) and raise money for charity at the same time.

A walkathon to benefit AIDS research and treatment. Photo: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES / Shutterstock, Inc.

Given the success of walkathons for cancer cures, AIDS research, Alzheimer’s Disease research, animal welfare, and other causes, it’s apparent that “exercise for charity” programs are a reliable way to raise funds. While it might seem reasonable to assume that many people participating in such activities are already physically active and appreciate the opportunity to help a nonprofit by doing something they do on a daily basis, there are actually some other factors involved. According to research from the University of Pennsylvania, it seems like the opportunity to raise money for charity in and of itself is getting people out of their seats.

In the study, researchers split a group of 94 women over the age of 65 into four subgroups: a control that received weekly feedback only; a group whose participants received payment of $20 each week walking goals were met; a group whose participants received a $20 donation to a charity of their choice each week walking goals were met; and one group whose participants had the option of keeping, donating, or keeping part and donating part of their $20 payment.

All the participants in the study started walking more, but the group that donated the money had the largest increase in weekly steps. This implies that donating to charity is a greater incentive to exercise than even getting paid to do so.

The authors of the study did note that their participants were a pretty homogeneous group: they were predominantly well-educated, white, and already interested in exercising. They cautioned that before their findings can be broadly applied, they need to be replicated in more diverse groups.

Nonetheless, what this study does tell us is that people are inherently generous, and that they very much appreciate the opportunity to get involved in fun activities and raise money for their favorite charity at the same time. If your organization hasn’t done a walkathon or other pledge-based exercise fundraiser, it might be time to consider it.

Overhead Ratios Are A Persistent Problem for Nonprofits

Overhead ratios and the issues they cause are a persistent problem for nonprofits.

Photo: Shutterstock

In Canada, it appears that the acceptable limit of how much a charity can spend on overhead is about 15 percent, leaving a full 85 percent to be spent on its mission. While that might sound like a pretty solid distribution—after all the point is to achieve that mission—the goal of a 15-percent overhead can actually do a lot of damage to nonprofits.

While most nonprofits want to spend more money on their mission, when it comes down to it, that mission requires people, primarily employees, who should be paid a living wage. That’s overhead. Looking for ways to solve problems requires research and experimenting with new techniques. That’s overhead.

However, for many people, the smaller the overhead, the better the charity, and, according to author Gail Picco, that leads to less effective nonprofit work overall. In order to actually solve problems, which should be the goal of nonprofits and charities, organizations need to spend money, and not all of that money can be on “tangible” things that go directly to the mission.

In 2013, GuideStar, the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, and Charity Navigator began a campaign to end the “overhead myth,” the false concept that financial ratios of administrative and fundraising costs to program expenses are the only indicator of nonprofit performance.

The Overhead Myth campaign aims to correct the assumption that low administrative costs are inherently desirable. In fact, they say, under-investing in administrative costs is consistently linked with poor organizational performance and lack of sustainability.

Instead of looking solely at a nonprofit’s overhead ratio, the Overhead Myth campaign encourages potential donors to take the following steps to minimize the chances of waste and fraud.

  • Look at the organization’s website to learn about program activities, the board of directors, and a financial summary.
  • If it’s not already on the website, ask the organization to provide information on results reporting and other available information on its goals, strategies, and accomplishments.
  • Review the organization’s IRS Form 990, as well as audited financial statements that have been reviewed by an independent CPA firm (smaller organizations may not have audited financial statements).
  • Talk to the nonprofit and ask questions. Responsible nonprofits are transparent about their operations and are happy to help donors who are doing their due diligence so they can make informed decisions.

A different point of view comes from Charity Watch, which argues that overhead ratios are essential for informed giving. Although the organization agrees that “overly simplistic overhead ratios or computer-automated ratings absent of critical analysis are of extremely limited value to donors,” they strongly believe that the ratios provided by deeper study can be useful giving tools. (It should be pointed out here that CharityWatch is in the business of putting together these “carefully considered and analytical ratios.”)

One argument CharityWatch uses to support its justification for the importance of sharing overhead ratios as a tool for wise giving is that many expenses mistakenly classified as overhead could actually be considered program expenses rather than administrative expenses. One example the organization gives is a disaster relief charity that pays for first aid training for its staff. This is not an overhead expense, CharityWatch says; it’s a program expense because the charity’s purpose is to provide disaster relief and first aid skills are crucial during a disaster.

What do you think about overhead ratios? Do they accurately determine a nonprofit’s success or responsibility? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

“Mexico City Policy” Goes Back On the Books

The "Mexico City Policy" on contraception and abortion is back on the books.

Photo: Shutterstock

The nonprofit field is, often by necessity, a global one, wherein organizations in one country help people in others. Helping poor or oppressed people elsewhere is often a rallying cry, but it can also be a weak spot, as shown by Trump’s reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy, “which requires that organizations receiving U.S. federal aid ‘neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations’.”

The policy has been around since 1984, when then-president Ronald Reagan introduced it, and has been rescinded or reinstated by each president since, depending on their political affiliation.

What it means is that no nonprofit that receives U.S. federal aid can even talk about abortion in another country without losing that funding stream. While in the U.S., a group like Planned Parenthood can differentiate their funding so that no federal grants go to abortion, that’s not possible for nonprofits outside of the U.S. or American groups operating elsewhere.

The ban has also been extended to organizations that get global health money, not just family planning organizations. According to a post on Politico, Janet Kates, vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, says that the intent is to extend the ban to organizations potentially including maternal health programs, anti-Zika efforts, and the PEPFAR program to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

There is plenty of evidence to show that instating this gag rule leads to higher instances of dangerous abortions, of unwanted pregnancies, and a general decline of women’s and children’s health globally.

Marie Stopes International, an organization whose mission is to provide access to contraception and safe abortions, says of the ban, “The Mexico City Policy, re-enacted today on ‘Day One’ of President Trump’s term of office, demands that all non-US international organizations in receipt of US Government funding neither perform nor ‘actively promote’ abortion. This effectively means NGOs forfeit all US aid if they so much as tell a woman abortion is a legal option in her country, refer her to another provider, or advocate for abortion rights with their own alternative resources.

Nobody should be surprised that the Mexico City Policy is back in place, but it is something that we should be concerned about. Writer Erin Rubin said that “the global gag rule’s reinstatement is seen by many as a warning sign that further cuts to health services are coming, even when the evidence shows that services are sorely needed.”

Donating A Car? Make Sure to Think Ahead

If you're thinking about donating a vehicle to charity, follow our simple tips to do it right.

Photo: Shutterstock

In a country with so many drivers, many people will eventually find themselves in possession of a car that they don’t need, and a lot of them will choose to donate it to charity. While doing so is generous and a great way to get rid of a car you don’t want, vehicles can actually be among the hardest things to donate. Luckily, people have been doing so for long enough that we’ve rounded up some handy tips to keep in mind if you choose to donate your vehicle.

Do your research

Before making a donation—whether it’s a car, cash, or stocks—be sure you know how the organization uses its money. Use resources like CharityNavigator and Guidestar to get that information. Many organizations will also post their IRS Form 990 on their website.

Do the paperwork right

Cars have somewhat complex ownership and you can just give them away like clothes. Titles and registrations have to be transferred to new owners, and while the rules can vary from state to state, typically the donor has to handle the registration transfer. If you’re donating to a charity that regularly accepts cars, they can probably help you.

Donate to a charity that can actually use the car

Organizations that use cars in their mission are a good choice, since they can probably put it directly to use. Think of organizations that deliver meals to senior citizens, youth centers, or animal rescue groups, for example. Charities that make a habit of accepting cars for other reasons are good, too, but donating a car to an organization that won’t need or use it may make a lot more work for them.

Find an organization that handles its own vehicle donations

Some organizations handle car donations through third parties, means that organization will get a smaller amount of money from your donation. Third-party fundraisers take a cut, sometimes a pretty deep one, of whatever they raise. If a charity is just going to sell the car but goes through a third party, they’re not going to get the most value, and your donation will partly go to paying somebody else.

Have you donated a vehicle? If so, do you have any other tips? Please share them in the comments.

Nonprofit Leaders Unsure of What to Expect Over Next Four Years

Nonprofit leaders are unsure what to expect of the next four years under Donald Trump, particularly regarding funding for programs that serve America's most vulnerable populations.

Photo: Kim Wilson Photography / Shutterstock, Inc.

The Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership holds public policy meetings that, despite its 400 member organizations, usually only attract about 30 nonprofit leaders. Their meeting in December 2016 however, brought in 85 people. Their top concern? What the incoming presidential administration would mean for nonprofits in the Pittsburgh area, as well as the rest of the country.

President Trump has made many promises and statements over the course of his campaign that have left nonprofit leaders, among others, unsure of what to expect in the coming four or more years. The mood is generally not celebratory for these people, as those promises will most likely result in cuts to federal programs that these nonprofits use to help them achieve their missions.

These federal programs also protect the poor, homeless, and other vulnerable people in the U.S., and private philanthropy is most likely going to feel the need to fill as much of that gap as it can. But it’s just not possible.

“No amount of private philanthropy can replace the services that comprise the safety net that government provides for those who are most vulnerable,” Jeanne Pearlman, Senior Vice President for Program and Policy at the Pittsburgh Foundation, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Much of the concern comes from the fact that Trump has never worked in government and has no political record. While that was a big selling point for many of his supporters, it makes it impossible for anyone to really know what to expect from his administration. Analysts generally look to a president’s voting record to get a handle on how their administration will actually deal with the issues. While Trump will have a Congress that will likely support him for at least the first half of his term, no president can do everything the claim they want to.

This lack of information is at the core of the confusion and apprehension that many nonprofit leaders and the people who rely on nonprofits for help. Trump’s vow to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, is a prime example. How will that work? Will it happen, and if so, what will replace it? Without precedent to look at, leaders in the nonprofit field have no way of knowing how to budget for the next few years or how to address possible gaps in coverage.

Top Government Aides Join Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Top government aides Ken Mehlman and David Plouffe have joined the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.

The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative website.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has enlisted the help of two former government officials to assist in their charity efforts. One of the recruits is former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. Plouffe most recently served as vice president of Uber’s policy and strategy. He will now serve as president of policy and advocacy at the Initiative.

Interestingly enough, the Initiative also brought Ken Mehlman on board. Mehlman managed George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and at one point was the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mehlman will now chair the Initiative’s policy advisory board.

It’s a peculiar matchup to say the least, considering that these men come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. However, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is confident that the duo will work effectively together.

“David and Ken built campaigns for different parties but have also come together to work on issues like marriage equality,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. “They’ll work together to find opportunities to work with governments, partners, and people everywhere to advance human potential and promote equal opportunity.”

Back in December 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, pledged to donate 99% of their Facebook shares to causes involving education, curing diseases, and building communities. Both Plouffe and Mehlman expressed how honored they were to help accomplish these objectives.

“My job will be to find creative ways to lift the voices of those who want to build a better future—no matter where they live, their background, or their ideology,” Plouffe wrote on Facebook. “Curing disease, improving education through personalized learning, and building technology and tools to help organizations reach their full potential are areas with wide spread support and massive potential for mobilization, great storytelling, and smart policy engagement.”

Mehlman also took to Facebook following the announcement of his new role:

“I look forward to chairing the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Policy Advisory Board, a group of volunteers representing a cross section of American society, and I want to thank Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan for asking me to take on this exciting role,” Mehlman wrote.

During their involvement at the Initiative, Plouffe will remain a board member at Uber and Mehlman will continue his work at private equity firm KKR.

Looking to Startups for the Future of Nonprofits

Entrepreneurial nonprofits--those that train people for jobs or sell things as part of their model--are becoming increasingly popular.

San Diego nonprofit Kitchens for Good trains people to be chefs and helps them get jobs afterwards. Photo: Shutterstock

Nonprofits have been struggling for years to maintain the donations and grants that they need to pursue their missions. While some are pretty well set up, others have to scramble, especially those just starting out or addressing a problem that isn’t yet widely known or understood. While donations form the majority of most nonprofits’ income, there are those that are taking on a more entrepreneurial mindset.

There have, of course, been very successful entrepreneurial nonprofit efforts in the past—Girl Scout Cookies and Goodwill stores come most readily to mind—but the world of startups is changing rapidly every day, and it’s a good idea for the nonprofit field to take notice. Well-established nonprofits and charities might not benefit as much as, or even be able to implement ideas taken from, business incubators and the like, but for newer and smaller, more flexible organizations, it’s worth a look.

The core of this idea is that fact that businesses move products or services, through which they generate revenue to cover costs and, ideally, generate a profit. The difference is this: in an entrepreneurial nonprofit, revenue beyond covering costs goes toward achieving the organization’s mission.

“The social enterprise model, with the fact that it has sustainability and revenue built into it, is a much stronger model and it’s a much stronger story to tell people who are giving their money,” Chuck Samuelson, founder of Kitchens for Good, one such entrepreneurial nonprofit, told Voices of San Diego.

By providing goods or services, successful organizations can ensure a steady stream of revenue, one that can rely on a wider variety of “donors” who might be willing to continue purchasing those products even when money becomes tight and they wouldn’t otherwise be able to donate.

Depending on the product provided, such organizations can also provide jobs to people who need them. For groups focused on tackling poverty, this is an excellent added benefit. Feeding the homeless is one thing, but giving hungry people jobs to help them get back on their feet is another thing altogether. A well-structured, entrepreneurial nonprofit can routinely do good at every stage of its operations.