Social Media And Philanthropy: Interview With Larry Blumenthal

In this week’s edition of my podcast, Public Life Today, I interview the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s director of social media strategy, Larry Blumenthal.

I recently ran across a post of Larry’s in which he describes how social media is not only a useful communications tool — but how it can also help foundations do a better job of philanthropy.

So I contacted Larry and asked if he wouldn’t mind talking about it for a bit. Our sixteen-minute conversation was terrific, and touched on a number of interesting issues, including the groundbreaking Changemakers initiative.

Thanks, Larry, for talking to me.


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Will You Support Me In Running For Annie?

Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon
Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon

As you may know, the Marine Corps Marathon is coming up in October — October 25, to be exact. I plan to run in it again this year. I am excited! Last year I came very close to my goal (I finished at 4:13:58). This year I hope at least to beat last year’s time, with a stretch goal of cracking four hours.

As I did last year, I am once again running with the Organization for Autism Research charity team.

My friend, Annie Corr, has autism. Her parents, Nancy and Ed, have honored me by asking me to do very small things to support her once in a while. Little things like a drive to the caregiver’s, or staying over a few hours into the night when they need to be away. I have come to know Annie and she always makes me smile.

Donating to the Organization for Autism Research will help that organization make practical research available to the field, to improve the lives of all people with autism, like Annie.

If you are willing and interested, you can donate here at this page.

There is no lower limit. Last year friends and family helped me raise $1,770. Let’s beat that!!

I do understand that there are many causes. My cause may not be your cause. I understand that! So, please, do not feel any pressure with this. Simply give if you feel so moved.

If you are the head of an organization and interested in gift matching in return for sponsorship (you know, like if I wore a logo t-shirt during the race or something like that), please get in touch with me.

I'm Just Not That Into "Theories Of Change"

An offhand question asked by a colleague the other day got me thinking. She asked me, “In five years, what would you like to be known for?” This is a slightly different version of the standard where-do-you-want-to-be-in-five-years query.

The way it was framed drew me up short and made me think.

My immediate answer was “I would like to be known for helping people be the people they aspire to be in public life.”

The reason this got me thinking is that I am a part of the “nonprofit sector” or “philanthropic sector.” Among my colleagues, everyone is talking about change. They’ve been talking change since long before that young senator from Illinois took the reins of power.

For years now, every nonprofit organization has had to have a “theory of change ” that it could whip out and explain. Every funding request, it seems, now requires a statement of the recipient’s “theory of change.”

All this “change” business has always made me feel out of step with my nonprofit friends, but I never quite was able to put my finger on why. Now I know. I’m not too interested in change. That’s not what drives me. I’m interested in helping people.

It seems to me, surveying the field, that the clamor for “change” has pushed out an important — and, I might argue, fundamental — aspect of philanthropy. This aspect is directly related to the root of the word: love of humanity. Organizations and individual people who just want to help others tend to get set aside as funders seek more and more impact for their donated dollars.

This effect is completely understandable and I don’t indict anyone for it. Funders really do need to stretch their donations further. There really are large problems to be tackled, problems that will take change more than charity. And, many individual people do need help due to broader forces that ought to change.

But there’s also a human scale and I fear that there are too few people speaking up for it. It’s the individual person helped to find a job, or a place to live. It’s the citizen who learns she or he has a voice and can use it.

After all, “change” can come about from individual improvement just as it can come about through systemic action. My personal bias, simply because this is where I feel most comfortable, is to know that people on an individual basis can live better lives because of something I might have done.

We need both change and charity.

So, how can we keep the human scale of philanthropy and not shove it aside, even as we try harder to do more with less?

What's On Your "Stop Do" List?

Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, recently spoke to gathered YMCA’s and gave a chilling overview of the nonprofit sector:

Early on in the crisis, we argued about whether the problem would be short- or long-term, about whether we could simply limp through to a resumption of what we’ve come to understand as normalcy. No longer. We are indisputably in the midst of profound structural shifts that will carry deep and enduring effects. There has been a fundamental breakdown in those systems that serve as the thermostat for much of our daily lives – not just in whether we can get a bank to make a loan, but also in the nature of the regulatory environment, the role of government investment, the need to manage against scarcity.

The nonprofit landscape of yesterday or today will not be the nonprofit landscape of tomorrow. Undercapitalization, chronically a problem, will become a death spiral. When revenues decline by 10 or even 20 percent, a nonprofit can put itself on a diet of discipline and flexibility and emerge at the other end with its mission pretty much intact. When demand skyrockets and revenues decline by 40 or 50 percent, however, you’re a different organization altogether.

An Honest To God Guillotine by Flickr user Augapfel
"An Honest To God Guillotine" by Flickr user Augapfel

This is the best description I have yet seen about the gravity of the new reality nonprofits face. Many nonprofits wonn’t be able to just belt-tighten their way out of it. They will have to change fundamentally or perish.

It is much like the defense industry in the earlly 1990’s, when the chief revenue source (the US government) fundamentally changed how it operated. Defense firms perished, merged, or retooled.

The good news is that, on the other side, the surviving organizations can be far more robust and effective than they were going into the crisis.

Even in good times, when I advise clients that are going through strategic planning, I tell them that no strategic plan is really complete without a “stop do” list. You really haven’t made the tough decisions unless you have included things that you are not going to do anymore.

But at times like this, when we’re in the “death spiral” that Rapson describes, it’s even more important. Organizations simply cannot afford to expend extraneous energy.

Here’s one way to think about it. Start with those things that only your organization can or is willing to do. Put everything else on the chopping block.

Here is how Rapson describes the questions that Kresge is facing:

Foundations . . . also need to ask themselves where their uniquely flexible resources can make the greatest difference. Is it in investing organization-by-organization in those elements of the safety net infrastructure that touch people directly? Or is it in putting money into efforts to change systems that bear so heavily on people’s life opportunities?

The answer to this question will drive very different day-to-day responses. Nonprofits can ask similar questions of themselves. Indeed, they must.

So what’s on your “stop do” list? What can your organization uniquely do?

Danger For United Way, And Similar Organizations

Twenty-one DC-area nonprofits announced this week that they had suspended their memberships in the United Way and were linking up with a new competitor. The new umbrella organization is called Community1st, and it includes the region’s largest nonprofits. [UPDATE to clarify: Community 1st is the name of the Washington-area campaign. It is overseen by an organization called America’s Charities.]

There were two reasons for this, and each holds a huge lesson for nonprofit leaders:

Ethics. The main reason the organizations cited was the dramatic downturn in fundraising the DC United Way was able to bring. This downturn (from $90 million per year to $35 million per year) is a direct result of the financial scandal that rocked the organization and forced its leadership to resign.

  • Lesson: Ethics at the top is not a luxury — it has a direct bearing on the bottom line and even on the survival of the organization.
By flickr user texas_mustang
By flickr user texas_mustang

New Realities. “I and a lot of others were stuck in the way things have always been, thinking that the United Way was the only way to do things,” according to one Community1st board member. That’s absolutely true. In the workplace-donations space, the field was (and is) ripe for an upstart that is nimble and can promise that a greater share of the collections will actually make it to the charities in question. Community1st [America’s Charities] promises 98% will go to the orgs.

  • Lesson: These are killer times for old organizations and middleman organizations. They both need to watch their backs. If your organization is both — watch out. You suddenly have competition where there was none.

The Downturn Hits Nonprofit Fundraising

As my friends know, I only work with organizations that hold a public trust — typically non profit organizations. Many colleagues have been talking to me about how concerned they are about the latest downturn.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy is reporting on one of the more solid pieces of evidence that the economic downturn is affecting nonprofits. The news is not catastrophic, but it is not good.

According to a survey that will be released in May by the Association of Fundraising Professionals:

Reflecting the toll exacted by the economic downturn, the percentage of fund raisers whose institutions raised more money last year was a new low in the eight years the survey has been conducted. In a typical year, 60 percent of fund raisers in the survey report being able to raise more money.

And only 28 percent of the 481 fund raisers surveyed believe their organizations will raise more money this year, the lowest level of optimism found in the history of the survey. One-third of the organizations predicted they will raise less money in 2009.

While 14 percent of the fund raisers surveyed said their organizations raised about the same amount in both 2008 and 2007, 40 percent said that their organizations raised less last year. The decreases, the researchers said, were widespread across all types of organizations, encompassing charities of differing size and geographic location.

This news held across the board — that is, both large and small nonprofits are seeing the effects. This is different than past downturns, which were more painful to smaller nonprofits.

Philanthropy’s Unique Advantage

My good friend Dave Moore writes of a middle ground when it comes to leadership at philanthropic foundations:

[A]t times foundations need to act in a “top down” or “leadership” way to innovate and take on tough issues. The critique is that this behavior is undemocratic and at times even autocratic.

I think there is a middle ground. I am a firm believer that philanthropy can and should be innovators. They should take risk. They have the freedom to act with independence that others do not have. We need them to be willing to fail and to try to succeed wildly because they took on big things. When foundations are afraid of failure they become conservative, follow the leader and tend to reinforce the status quo or incremental change.

But foundations, if they want to act with the advantages granted them under the tax code, do need to exhibit a reasonable amount of transparency and openness in their work. They should be clear about funding priorities and actually reflect those priorities in the funding choices they make. They should be clear about successes and lessons learned when things don’t go well.

I could not agree more. The same day I read Dave’s piece, the Chronicle of Philanthropy also reported salutory news. Seems that, due to investment losses, the Knight Foundation is trimming back its administrative expenses while still honoring current commitments.

What a great piece of news. In my experience, foundations can do wonderful things, yet they are also prone to the sort of insularity that comes of an almost complete lack of accountability. The seemingly neverending tussle between regulators and foundations over how much of the endowment foundations must pay out each year (and how to calculate that) is a case in point. I wrote about that a a while ago.

In my view, because of the special position society has bestowed upon foundations, they hold a special responsibility. More than other institutions in the “independent sector,” they can take risks and weather storms. Rather than retrenching and escalating their demands for “impact” and “change theories,” they ought to ratchet up their risk-taking.

Some foundations (and quasi-foundations) are great examples of this — I am thinking of the Omidyar Network here, which invests for the long haul.