Measuring Social Impact: Does Anyone Get It?

As the fiscal cliff…curb… slope…ravine… whatever… looms large, and calls increase to look to cutting or trimming tax deductibility of giving, I have found embedded in these “conversations” (often turning into diatribes) an undercurrent of judgement about what counts as having social impact.  Which organizations “deserve” tax-advantaged status for donors because they do real good for society?  What I have found is that these articles, posts and opinion pieces (here’s a link to just one of many)  betray much more about the writer’s own philanthropic motivations – what do they consider valuable “social good”? – but also points to the dearth of good, common practice in how we measure social impact.

The “elder statesman” of this world is clearly Guidestar, that was founded to be the arbiter of good practice, setting standards for cost to raise a dollar, the percentage of budget dedicated to program, the main conduit to organization’s 990 form.  What has ended up happening for so many is a massaging not of their programs but of how data will be reflected on the 990 to “rate” better in the Guidestar world.  Additionally, there is no room in this world for organizations at different phases of their development – who need to invest more in infrastructure to get off the ground and do well as they do good.  Does it benefit anyone to penalize organizations for wanting to create a solid foundation?  Must we rush to throw programs out into the world, while keeping overhead painfully low?

New player on the scene is GiveWell, that not only wants to help donors find high impact organizations but highlight those that are under-capitalized now.  Admirable!  I’m in.  But, even a quick tour of this site finds that the folks at GiveWell – who are, to their credit, doing an enormous amount of research – have brought their own prejudices to the table about how work should be done, not just who is doing their work in their own sector well.  Is it really true that those doing work to cure blindness are objectively more important and offer a higher return on investment than those training and deploying seeing eye dogs?  Hogwash.  Of course, this overlooks the fact that not all forms of blindness can be cured, and sets aside the increased earning power of those who are able to reach higher levels of integration and productive contribution into their community with a guiding eyes dog.  This is but one example of the one-size-fits-all approach to how problems ought to be solved obscures what could be truly useful approach.

We can’t allow ourselves to be stymied by the fact that this is hard work, creating social impact take nuance, tremendous focus and strategic thought.  I feel more Scrooge than like one of the Who’s down in Who-ville on this topic… Who is approaching this well?  What is the way to solve this challenge more universally, so that when public arena needs us to stand up for our sector, we are well prepared to do so?


Build Great Giving Habits: Teach Children to Give

Tis the season!  In our house, it’s the season for all things kid-centric (more than usual!) from making gingerbread houses to decorating everything in sparkly tinsel, making sure our elf on the shelf is being appropriately entertaining and magical, and doing the NYC holiday kiddie stuff.  It’s also a time that I’m stressing about too much materialism and looking for ways I can help my kids understand that this season is about GIVING.  “How can we teach children to give?” is a thought I hear echoed all around me, no matter where I am. Indeed, according to the latest data,

Many high net worth households have family traditions around giving (41 percent), such as volunteering as a family and giving to charity during the holidays. Perhaps not surprisingly, 26 percent of wealthy donors cited the joy they derive from engaging with family around charitable activities among the benefits of giving… (and) One-third (33 percent) of high net worth donors who have children involve them and other younger relatives in their household’s charitable giving activities.”  

So, my question is, how are you teaching children to give?  Let’s say you haven’t involved them in the mission of your work or in the ask (radical concept, I know… but hey, they are sometimes the decision makers at the table!) up until now.  Hopefully knowing the data above (confirmed in my conversations with donors, and the behavior of my friends and others), has inspired you to think creatively about how you might make these little people the recipients of your stewardship and engagement efforts.

Need some inspiration?  Here’s what some  “out of the box” thinkers in the development world are doing to teach children to give – joyfully!

  1. UNICEF –  Teach for UNICEF provides a plethora of free curriculum to schools who want to use UNICEF’s work in the classroom.  Voices of Youth is a website where parents, teachers and children can talk about making the world a place where every child can live in peace, have decent shelter, be healthy and well-nourished, have clean water, play, go to school, and be protected from violence, abuse and exploitation – UNICEF’s misson.  But note, it’s hard to tell that this is in any way linked to UNICEF.  Then there is Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF their mobile applications for kids.
  2. Room to Read involves young people in their work in many ways.  I highly recommend checking out their “Students Helping Students” page that speaks directly to young people, but also to educators, giving them resources to use Room to Read’s work in the classroom.  Also, the founder of Room to Read has written and published a great children’s book, “Zak the Yak” that explains their work in picture book form.
  3. The Global Fund for Children has a line of books that embodies their mission.  I’ve been given one as a thank you before and it was wonderful to use it to help explain the GFC’s work to my little ones.
  4. Fidelco‘s mission is to train and provide blind people with seeing eye dogs.  I heard about Fidelco from a mom I know who gushed about an auction item she purchased that allowed her children to walk a course with a blind fold over their eyes with a seeing eye dog leading the way.  She told me all about their mission, how they did subsequent fundraising for this organization and that she plans to take two big groups of girl scouts to their program:  “Following a highly engaging presentation, students “adopt” a litter of young dogs entering Fidelco’s six-month Guide Dog Training Program. They receive “Pup-Dates” by e-mail, with photos, to follow their litter’s progress.”
  5. The New York Blood Center‘s “Little Doctors Program” teaches 5th through 8th graders how to run a blood drive, providing a fabulous mission centric way for children to participate in an academic, hands-on, community service activity that helps young people understand the difference the Center is making.
  6. Girl Up is an entire organization dedicated to leveraging the power of American girls to support girls in at risk situations in developing countries.  Here’s an example of Girl Up giving their potential young supporters the ability to participate in easy ways that resonate with them.
  7. Many programs connect children in the US with children in developing countries so that they may learn about one another.  I’ve got LOTS more to say on this particular topic.  That’s for another day.  But feel free to follow me on Twitter @NeeshaR where I often talk about this.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the above, or if you know of other great examples, and most especially how your organization is teaching children to give!

Until next time, enjoy opening those end-of-year gift envelopes and happy holidays to you and yours!

Stress and the Whole Human Fundraiser

Overheard in an advancement office near you:  “It’s business, not personal.”… “A pro learns to compartmentalize.”…“A bit of fear keeps them sharp.”  Is that true?  Or are we whole humans whom fear makes dull?  What impact does stress have on our ability to be not just good, but truly great at our important work?

Do you try to avoid messy emotions in the workplace?  Make goals and metrics scary- ambitious to drive effort in yourself and your team?

I get it—I’ve done it—we got here honestly.  From first grade on, we learned to ignore discomfort, focus on our left verbal brain, and ignore the wisdom of our right brain, our bodies, our emotions.  But advancement work requires that we learn to engage both sides again.

Living exclusively in the left, verbal brain ignores a big chunk of an advancement professional’s whole human system.  Anxiety results when our bodies get left behind.  As we pursue enormous campaign goals in competitive times,  neuroscience and positive psychology have much to share about the corrosive effects of unacknowledged anxiety in our development shops—and much to teach about learning to work with mindfulness and ease.

Human beings run on three operating systems—cognitive, emotional, and physical—that are designed to work in sophisticated synchrony.  When your mind has a thought, it creates an emotion that is felt in the body.  The body reacts.  The mind may overlook this response or heed its message.  We can learn to use this finely tuned system of checks and balances to achieve delicious productivity—but only if the system is kept healthy, open, and clean.

As a lifelong fundraiser, now a consultant and coach, I help my clients ensure that their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are not ruled by toxins like fear and harsh self-judgments that can inhibit their performance and cause exhaustion and pain.

Many campaign consultants sidestep the emotional and physical components of the human machine, providing benchmark reports and prescribing big jumps in total gift income and visits per month before fully understanding why fundraising progress is slow.  At organizations that anticipate this approach, my first visit can suck the air out of a room—until I breathe, make eye contact, and state my purpose.

I find in many under-performing advancement shops triple, intertwined threats: diffuse focus, insufficient training, and subterranean fear.  Sadly, the pervasive, contagious anxiety often starts within the very person who cares most about success—that dedicated leader semi-consciously driving herself with punitive internal messages every day.

You know that deer-in-the-headlights feeling that wears you out over time?  It starts in a flash.

Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee (2005) and others have shown that in stressful situations, fear-based thoughts activate the oldest, most primitive part of our mind—the limbic system or “lizard brain.”   The almond-shaped amygdala at the base of the brain sounds the alarm and the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, and Cortisol that prepare us to fight, flee, or freeze.  Blood flow is directed away from the cerebral cortex to the large muscles, inhibiting memory and the creation of new neurons.

Living in our sympathetic nervous system erodes thinking and health. Ironically, the first casualty in the development operation’s stress fest quite often are those courageous, delicate major gift conversations we need most.   Survival anxiety keeps us busy rewriting metrics and churning reports instead of seeking out those crucial conversations that spell campaign success.   To the lizard brain, big solicitations seem black or white, all or nothing, win or lose.  Even if we know that solicitation is a process, not an event.

This energy impacts the donor interview.  Without proper preparation, those subconscious “win/lose, make/break, do/die” messages can narrow your visual field and aural acuity so timing suffers and subtle feedback is missed.  Adrenaline spikes blunt your ability to remember details and feel the donor’s truth.  The human body easily confuses excitement and anxiety—this is true for donors, too.

There’s a better way to build transformational gifts.

Joyful, stretch gifts are inspired by love, not fear—and they are born in the present, whole-hearted conversations that only become possible when the fundraiser’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings are calm, clean and clear.

Understanding and improving work teams’ emotional experience—their inner work lives—can seem a daunting investment.  But it pays off big both on, and off, the road.

It may feel risky to explore internal messages and odd to intentionally engage the parasympathetic nervous system at work – but the payoff is huge when your team gels, trusts, and stays.  The payoff magnifies as your committed team facilitates aspirational gifts that delight donors and heal the world.

So next time you sit down with a potential donor or a new hire, slow down.  Notice, with presence and compassion, how he is a whole human, and so are you.

You can follow Beth at: @EBHermanCoach

By Beth Herman, Principal, EBH Consulting   Guest blogger Beth Herman is an advancement consultant, advancement trainer and personal coach.  She specializes in how organizations can build their capacity by focusing on the individuals within the team.

What I Learned About Fundraising Here By Fundraising Abroad

Over the last few years I have had the privilege of conducting fundraising and management work globally.  It has been an incredibly rewarding and fun experience; an experience that goes beyond merely having the opportunity to see new parts of the world.  It has in many ways confirmed and strengthened my/our philosophy of fundraising here in the United States.  My experiences have varied and of course every country and culture are different, but I’ve boiled what I’ve learned down to three main lessons.

Communicating Impact Matters – We all know this in our heart, we talk about it constantly, but I am continually amazed at how infrequently I actually see this happening.  In 2011 I was speaking at the International Fundraising Festival, a conference run by the Czech Fundraising Center in Prague, Czech Republic.  As part of the conference the organizers brought in some donors/philanthropists to speak to the attendees.  I was struck by how forcefully and constantly that talked about a need to have a clear understanding of what their philanthropy was accomplishing.  In fact, it was more or less the only thing they cared with the exception of the percentage of each donation that actually went to services, which I could also argue is part of impact.

Here in the US I rarely see impact talked about in such an upfront manner.  We tend to spend a lot of time talking about mission (what we want to do), methodology (how we do what we do) and track record (what we’ve done in the past).  We seem to rarely “bottom line” our work and come out and say “here’s how the world/community/this family,etc. is better off because of your donation” or if we do, it’s lost in a sea of other information.  Impact is why people give.  Make it front and center.

Stick to Your Vision – Over the last two years I’ve developed a personal interest in civil society development in Central Eastern Europe and South East Europe.  I’ve gone so far as to join the international advisory board of the Czech Fundraising Center and start a blog on Serbian NGOs and civil society.  In talking to some of the folks involved with the civil society sector over there they have lamented to me the fact that in many ways the nonprofits have, or are in danger of becoming, mere arms of the government.  The government or the EU or USAID puts out an RFP for certain work they desire to have done and nonprofits submit proposals to conduct that work.  This isn’t a terrible thing over all BUT I would argue that nonprofits serving communities in those countries will have a far better sense of what those communities needs are than government bodies based in Washington or Brussels.

Far more impactful and interesting and then seeing what institutional funders desire to fund is having your own vision of the impact you’d like create based on the needs that you and your organization see.  Your own vision will inspire and motivate.  Following the money results in mission drift, at best.

People are Generous – A common complaint I hear in parts of the US is that “there is no money here.  This isn’t like New York City where you’re from.”  True enough.  I understand that different regions have more or less people, industries, foundations, etc.  That said, nearly$300B was donated privately last year here in the US.  Many of the places I have been abroad have far less money available to them and far less of a culture of philanthropy and manage to carry on.

Is fundraising always easy?  No. Often it is very hard.  But altruism is a part of our heritage as human beings, hardwired into us.  Give people a clear sense of your vision and how their generosity can help realize that vision and the money will come.

you can follow me at:  @bobosborne17

Managing Your Time, Energy, and Work and Still Have a Life

Managing time is not easy.  It’s a life’s work, in fact.  For those of us in the nonprofit world, and especially resource development and institutional advancement, it feels even harder.  We have a passion for the mission; we are often understaffed; and with success comes more work, not less.

How to make it all work?

  • Start with clarity of your big priorities.  What are your top three to five “buckets” of work? As a consultant mine are clear. What are yours?
    1. Respond to current clients’ needs
    2. Get my invoices in, or the team can’t get paid
    3. Stay current
    4. Market
    5. Support the work of the rest of the team
  • Check with your supervisor.  What percentage of time should you spend, ideally, on each of your big buckets?
  • Determine reality.  How much time are you spending and what is getting in the way?
  • Have a conversation about fixing the imbalance.
  • Stephen M. Covey left us all a terrific tool. Identify those daily activities that land in each of the boxes and then find ways to eliminate all of those activities in boxes C and D. Emails come to mind.  Too many meetings. Other people’s urgencies. Use the time to fit in more activities from boxes A and B


  • Learn how and when to say “no.” This is liberating and does not have to be career-limiting.  “That sounds like a good idea.  I could devote 30 minutes to it tomorrow, but today I have to take care of (fill in the agreed upon priorities).  Should we take a few minutes and brainstorm together some other ways to take care of this?”

No one has time.  We could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and never, ever be finished.  Our responsibility, therefore, is to pick the right things to do, and the right things to let go.

follow me at @kareneosborne