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Could grantmakers be persuaded to fund proposals written in plain English?

One of the frustrations of philanthropy is the special language many grantmakers use. If you use words like “logic models,” “metrics,” or “capacity building,” you’re using words that distance yourself from the public and make you seem important. Tony Proscio’s series of booklets on this subject, done for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and available from his website ought to be required reading for all grantmakers.

Proscio’s influence, however, must not be felt on the West Coast. As Alana Semuels, an Atlantic staff writer who formerly was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, notes in this article, if you’re a nonprofit in Silicon Valley wanting to get grantmakers to listen to you, you need an advanced degree in philanthropy bafflegab.

Silicon Valley, reports Semuels, has some unusual problems with its philanthropists. Many are advocates of “effective altruism,” (which I wrote about here) so they think it’s more important to put their donations to work helping thousands of people in the Third World than helping their community. More than a few drive from their homes in wealthy suburbs on an expressway to their offices and never come into contact with poor people.

So if you’re a traditional nonprofit you have to come up with new ways to get the program officers and billionaires to listen to you. Semuels gives, as a case study, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.

Now for decades, the Boys and Girls Club has had a relatively simple task—providing a safe place for kids to be after school, where they could play sports or do homework until their parents came home from work. That’s not an exciting program in 2018, and contributions to the Boys and Girls Club nationally are slowly declining.

Semuels says that Peter Fortenbaugh, CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, is an innovative director who realized he had to start hustling to get local donors to listen to him. “Traditionally, we were a safe place to hang out, but in 2018, that’s just as important, but no longer sufficient,” Fortenbaugh says.

So he’s altered what his branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs do. Some changes seem productive, such as having actual classes in science and technology, which could lead to internships at Silicon Valley companies. He’s also working with the local schools to integrate their missions and make sure they’re on the same page as far as what students are learning. But to do this, he issues an annual “Report to Stakeholders” which is bubbling with philanthropic gas.

“All students,” the report says, “need access to expanded learning opportunities that foster a love of learning.” (We have classes!) In fiscal year 2018, “we prioritized increasing the depth of our impact.” (Some of our teenagers are studying! We checked!)

The Boys and Girls Club also staged a “Shark Tank” event for potential donors. As you know, “Shark Tank” is a show where entrepreneurs try to persuade investors to put up stakes in their company. The investors then decide if enough people will buy their product to make their investments worthwhile.

But the Boys and Girls Club version had “entrepreneurs” who were actually employees and students, and what they were pitching were potential grants, “outlining just how much money they need and what ‘equity’ the donors will receive on those programs.” For example, a presentation promised the “sharks” “a unique and innovative cross-sector partnership,” which was a way to make a potential summer school program exciting. They argued that the program’s “marginal costs” were low enough so that they could educate more children for less money than the competition.

All this hustling, says Semuels, has paid off, because donations to the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula have steadily risen, and they’ve attracted some big names, such as the Golden State Warriors’s Kevin Durant, who donated money for a basketball court and for the first year of college tuition for four students.

The reason why this hustling is necessary can be found in The Giving Code, a 2016 report that consultants Alison Cortés Culwell and Heather McLeod Grant did for the Packard Foundation. This report is a straight-forward analysis of the problems older nonprofits have in dealing with Silicon Valley billionaires, particularly those who have made their fortunes while still in their twenties or thirties.

These younger donors, Cortes Culwell and McLeod Grant say, want their money to be used for big projects, in the way that the Gates Foundation is spending billions on vaccines. “This generation of donors,” they write, “is not interested in Band-Aid solutions. They aspire to get to root causes and solve social problems rather than ameliorate them; they want to see real outcomes and data, not just anecdotal stories.” Fail to adapt, they warn, and your nonprofit will be “blackberried,” as part of the dying past as the BlackBerry.

About 90 percent of these donors’ grants are made to national and international organizations, and an additional five percent to large local nonprofits such as hospitals.

That leaves five percent for smaller local organizations. If you’re a nonprofit that has a personal connection to a donor—a school, synagogue, or church which a donor or her children attend—you have an advantage. But if you’re with, say, the Salvation Army or the United Way, you have a problem in Silicon Valley. In fact, the United Way of Silicon Valley no longer exists; it merged into the United Way of San Francisco in 2016 after three years of declining contributions and seven staff members (out of 23) being laid off.

Much of The Giving Code is devoted to trying to connect donors in Silicon Valley to worthy nonprofits. Making these connections, the authors say, is quite difficult.

Donors, understandably, want to make sure their grants are used to produce lasting results instead of being thrown at an unresolved social problem. But Semuels warns that older nonprofits in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties have to adapt if they want to survive. “In the end,” she concludes, “nonprofits must do what the people with the money want.”

But perhaps the program officers in Silicon Valley could be persuaded to read—and fund—grant proposals written in plain English?


(hat tip: The Week)

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