Never Too Young to be a Philanthropist

Posted on 16 March 2012 | 2 responses

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.

Walt Disney

While I’m sure Mickey’s creator wasn’t talking about philanthropy when he made that comment, I couldn’t help think of it when I read about a Leesburg, VA teenager who began her own charity to provide education scholarships for children in San Pablo.

Abby Gribbin and her family spent a year in Guatemala in 2005, during which time they witnessed the devastation wrought by Hurricane Stan. Seeing the leveled homes, and health crises caused by the damage, Gribbin and her family began hauling supplies to areas in need. Once they returned home to Virginia, Gribbin started her own nonprofit to help support education in San Pablo.

One of our biggest beliefs here at Philanthropy in Focus is that everyone can be a philanthropist, and we needn’t look to government and NGOs to combat the issues we see around us. We need only, in Walt’s words, “quit talking and begin doing.” And that’s exactly what young Abby Gribbin did. She saw a need and she worked to address it. She didn’t try to “raise awareness” or join a charity walk for a related nonprofit, she got off her butt, raised money herself, and sent it directly to those she wanted to help. That’s philanthropy at its core, and that’s something anyone can do.

Also, maybe I’m just getting older, but doesn’t it seem as if philanthropy is on the minds of a younger generation today more so than it has been in the past? Whether it’s the advent of social media, increased awareness of nonprofits, or one of the many other theories I’ve heard, it’s heartening to see the youth of America engaged in charity in this manner. Coupled with the creation of academic degrees related to nonprofits and fundraising, we may be on the cusp of a generation of adults engaged and educated in philanthropy to a degree we’ve never seen before. At least I hope we are.

International Fundraising with NYU’s Sarah Porter Waterbury

Posted on 15 March 2012 | 2 responses

One of the goals of Philanthropy in Focus is to start interesting conversations with experts in the field of philanthropy. To that end, we are happy to post our first interview in what promises to be an ongoing series with leaders in the field.

Sarah Porter Waterbury has learned a lot about philanthropists around the world in her nearly two decades working with international donors, but one lesson stands out more than most: people are people no matter what country you are in:

“People everywhere care about their kids, their jobs, the environment,” she said. “And the notion of philanthropy is also the same no matter where you are. It just manifests itself differently in certain cultures.”

Mrs. Waterbury’s career and personal life have taken her around the world, and her current responsibilities as Vice President of Development and Campaigns for New York University involves responsibilities for donors in nearly a dozen countries across the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

Mrs. Waterbury took time from her hectic schedule for a wide-ranging interview with Philanthropy in Focus to discuss global philanthropy, how different cultures view charity, and what it takes to be an international fundraiser.

Lesson number one – you can’t get caught up on the differences:

“The initial learning curve (for international fundraising) makes it seem dissimilar,” she said. “For some people, foreign cultures present a barrier, and they see people differently. But [international fundraising] requires someone who doesn’t see the differences, someone who is comfortable with different people. I’m not sure you can learn that part.”

That’s not to say international philanthropists are the same as their American counterparts:

“In the U.S., people don’t necessarily give to areas in their immediate, personal community,” she said. “[But international donors] are philanthropic within their communities. In many established world religions, there is a standard for charity. There is an expectation and a responsibility to those less fortunate.”

So how does an international fundraiser like Mrs. Waterbury convince a donor from another country to give outside their community and support an American institution like NYU?

“Initially [international donors] don’t understand what we’re doing,” she said. “I need to spend time connecting with them. Like all philanthropy, you need to listen to what matters to them and then connect that [to your organization].”

Mrs. Waterbury’s recent work in China provides an example of this approach:

“In China, people with wealth are increasingly concerned that the Chinese culture is not being preserved,” she said. “So they are very interested in hearing about the work being done at NYU that highlights ancient Chinese culture. That becomes very personal for them, and suddenly NYU becomes part of their lives in a very real way.”

In her extensive experience in international fundraising, Mrs. Waterbury has identified two main principals for success:

1. Be consistent



“Go back regularly, quarterly if you can” she said. “It builds trust. It shows that you won’t abandon them, that the long flights, costs, and effort won’t be a problem for you.”

2. Work through partners on the ground

“Try to find locals who understand the cultural differences,” she said. “You have to make sure you’re not scheduling a dinner on a holiday. You have to know how women and men mix in a culture; when to send written material; when you can and can’t meet with people of higher rank than you.

“[International donors] are similar, but they are all varied in some way.”

The New York Times Drops Philanthropy Beat (UPDATE)

Posted on 13 March 2012 | No responses

The New York Times decision to eliminate its Philanthropy Beat has caused much consternation in the nonprofit world.The New York Times’ decision to abandon its Philanthropy Beat continues to elicit much hand-wringing throughout the industry in regards to its potential impact.

Pablo Eisenberg in The Chronicle of Philanthropy worries that The New York Times’ move, and others like it, will result in nonprofits operating without a media watchdog needed to police corruption and wrongdoing. He claims that:

“The news media remain the only serious accountability mechanism America has to ensure the health and integrity of nonprofits . . . Without a vigilant news media, nonprofit abuses are likely to continue, and possibly get worse. Should this occur, public confidence in nonprofits will erode even more than it has, and with that, charitable contributions will diminish.”

That is quite a dramatic and foreboding vision for the future of nonprofits. It takes quite a leap in logic to believe that the diminishing coverage of nonprofits in traditional media will lead to an increase in nonprofit abuses and, by extension, a decrease in charitable contributions.

But even if we allow that the media is a necessary watchdog for nonprofits, The New York Times’ decision doesn’t necessarily diminish the media’s role in this respect. Yesterday, we discussed a New York Times’ column from 2000 by Felicity Barringer that welcomed the increase of nonprofit coverage that was happening at the time because it would shift away from just “bad-news headlines.” Barringer confirmed that the traditional “scandal coverage fulfills an important watchdog function” in the nonprofit sector. As we can see by reading Barringer’s decade-old piece, even before the increase in philanthropy coverage, the media reported on nonprofit scandals and adequately fulfilled its oversight responsibilities. As a result, Eisenberg need not be so concerned. The media love scandal. They’ve always reported it when it happens in nonprofits and they always will. They needn’t have dedicated sections like The New York Times’ Philanthropy Beat to do so.

So if the digital age provides nonprofits a direct line of communication to their prospects and donors, and if traditional media will continue to act as an industry watchdog thanks to its thirst for scandal, what is the real impact of The New York Times’ decision? Not much at all, really. I think we can all relax on this one and move on now.

Donors Decide What’s Personal

Posted on 12 March 2012 | No responses

There’s an old political adage that the American public will decide what is and is not their business regarding a candidate’s personal life. Based on a story out of Sacramento, CA, the same might be said for nonprofit donors.

The Sacramento, CA Catholic Diocese ceased funding to Francis House, a small nonprofit that supports area homeless, because of the personal beliefs of its new executive director, Rev. Faith Whitmore. In 2008, Rev. Whitmore spoke out in favor of abortion rights and gay marriage. The Sacramento Catholic Diocese found this to be grounds to stop its annual support to Francis House, even though Rev. Whitmore was not even affiliated with the organization at the time she made her comments.

Now we have always been proponents of donor rights here at Philanthropy in Focus. People can make their own decisions in regards to what organizations they support. It’s their money, they can give it away as they see fit. So this post is not about whether the Catholic Diocese was right or wrong in their decision. Rather, our interest here is about the blurred line between someone’s private life and their leadership role in a nonprofit organization.

A donor of a nonprofit is different than a client of a company. A donor doesn’t receive goods or services in return for their money. They give because a cause is important to them. It’s a personal connection, a shared belief on an issue that matters to both parties. When a leader of an organization breaks from that common vision, an organization runs the risk of alienating its donors.

Is it fair? No. Should Rev. Whitemore be allowed to have her own beliefs without fear they will negatively impact the organization for which she works? Of course. But that’s not reality in the nonprofit world. Donors want to feel like the organization they support share their beliefs, and if that is not the case, donors may lose that sense of a shared mission that is so important to their decision to make a gift.

In terms of what a donor should and should not do with their support, there is no right or wrong to this story. Rev. Whitemore has her beliefs, and the Catholic Diocese has theirs. Instead, this story is a stark reminder that there are no personal lives among nonprofit leadership. Like the American people and their politicians, donors will decide what is and is not their business.

The New York Times Drops Philanthropy Beat: Does it Matter?

Posted on 12 March 2012 | No responses

The New York Times recently announced that it is discontinuing its Philanthropy Beat. called it “a move that could make it harder for nonprofits to get their stories told to a national audience.”

But is it?

The New York Times‘ story – like much else – was swallowed up in coverage of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video and the tens of millions of people who have seen it (daily Youtube count: 74,161,469 as of this writing). The juxtaposition of the two stories begs the question of whether traditional, national media is really the best way “for nonprofits to get their stories told to a national audience.”

In 2000, the The New York Times’ Felicity Barringer wrote a column about the “groundswell of philanthropy coverage” in the national media and foresaw a future where such coverage would work to expand the scope of stories related to philanthropy. Fittingly, Barringer now works the environment beat for The New York Times, her vision of the future of philanthropic coverage never coming to fruition.

Like many organizations in other sectors these days, nonprofits needn’t look to traditional media to reach a national audience. The communications channels between organizations and their constituents have changed, and a third-party in the media is no longer a necessary component to that relationship. Thanks to the advent of the digital age, nonprofits can now communicate directly with their prospects and donors, updating them in real-time on the progress of their programs and their visions for the future.

The death of The New York Times’ Philanthropy Beat is not a setback for nonprofits. Rather it is simply the passing of a relic that no longer has a vital place in the world of philanthropy, and yet another indication that nonprofits must embrace new methods of communications if they are to maintain and enhance their donor relationships.

Unfounded Criticisms of Invisible Children’s Use of Donations

Posted on 9 March 2012 | No responses

The makers of Kony 2012, Invisible Children, have come under fire for their use of donations.Where to start with Invisible Children and its Kony 2012 video?

First, let me preface this post by saying that I do not support Invisible Children, nor am I against their current efforts. Instead, I am still in the information-gathering stage of the topic as I form my opinions on the organization and its mission.

Secondly, if you haven’t seen the Kony 2012 video, check it out below.

The Kony 2012 story presents countless topics worthy of discussion but, for now, let’s take a look at the philanthropic elements that seem to be causing some controversy.

Invisible Children, the organization behind the Kony 2012 video, is under fire for how it distributes money raised through philanthropy. Specifically, critics point to the fact that only about one-third of expenditures in 2011 went directly to funding programs in Uganda, while remaining funds went to salaries, production costs, and other administrative expenses.

Here’s a breakdown of Invisible Children’s major expenditures from 2011 (from Yahoo news):

$8.9 million Total Spent in 2011:

$2.8 million directly funded Uganda

$1.7 million in US employee salaries

$1.07 million in Travel Expenses

$850,000 in Production Costs

$400,000 in Office Rent in San Diego

$357,000 in Film Costs

$244,000 in Professional Services

$16,000 in Entertainment


It seems obvious to me that the main goal for Invisible Children in 2011 was creating the 30-minute video, Kony 2012, that thrust the group into the international spotlight, and much of the 2011 expenditures appear to have gone to that purpose. Nothing I’ve seen on the group’s website and giving page infers that all donations go to programs in Uganda. In fact, under “What We Do” on the Invisible Children website, they state quite clearly:

We are storytellers, activists and everyday people who use the power of media to inspire young people to help end the longest running armed conflict in Africa. We make documentaries, tour them around the world, and lobby our nation’s leaders to make ending this conflict a priority.

Invisible Children’s 2011 spending sure seems to reflect that mission. Why would a donor assume that all, or most, of their gift was going to be used to support programs on the ground in Uganda?

Where I sit, Invisible Children seems very transparent regarding how it spends its funding and, as we’ve seen, its financials are a matter of public record. Just go check out their website. It’s all right there. This isn’t a case of Kayne West spending nearly all of his foundation’s money on parties and salaries. Instead, Invisible Children’s expenditures reflect the organization’s current goal of raising awareness about Joseph Kony’s activities in Uganda as a means to pressure the US government to maintain military advisors there.

Invisible Children’s CEO, Ben Keesey, gave an interview to Yahoo news where, seemingly speaking from the inside of a closet, he explained the “one-third” approach the organization uses for unrestricted giving. Donors oftentimes want their gifts to go to very specific uses, leaving non-profits everywhere starving for unrestricted giving in order to pay salaries, rent, and explore growth opportunities. As long as an organization is transparent about its mission, like Invisible Children seems to be, I see no credible criticism of its spending policies.

For those who may have been stuck under a rock for the last several days, here’s the Kony 2012 video:

Non-Profits Need Money, Not Expertise

Posted on 5 March 2012 | 1 response

I once heard an anecdote about a prominent college football head coach speaking to a room of boosters. In response to the donors’ incessant suggestions, tips, and outright demands, the coach said: “I want your money, not your two cents.”

While it may have been a crass way of putting it, the line holds true for most non-profits. They need people’s money, not their ideas and expertise. That’s why it is troubling when someone with a fair amount of influence, like Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), goes on record with the misguided advice that companies and people should give of their time rather than their money.

“Rather than just giving an organization some money, how do you actually help build their capacity?” Warner said. “It’s great if a corporation lets off all their folks for a day to paint or build a house. It’s better if the corporation can lend specific expertise to the nonprofit.”

No Senator Warner, it’s not better. Most non-profits know more about the causes they support than their donors, and non-profits know how to address the issues at hand. They just need more money to do it. In a time of dwindling government grants and foundation support, individual donors are more important than ever. We should be educating potential donors on the importance of financial support, not filling their heads with inaccurate statements about the value of their expertise.

Obviously, this is not to say that people cannot provide benefits to non-profits by lending their expertise on a specific topic. Instead, it is a matter of educating prospective donors. People just want to help, but they don’t know how to in many cases. If they are told that their time is more important than their money, they will give of their time. But all the time in the world won’t help a non-profit struggling for financial stability.

The Sinister Specter of Super PAC Donors

Posted on 2 March 2012 | 1 response

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Super PACs, many of us were concerned about the level of influence major donors would now have on our soon-to-be-elected officials.

Now that the first presidential campaign in the Super PAC era is underway, I fear our concerns may be well-founded.

An article today on traces how the “pet issues” of major donors are popping up in the ads and campaign speeches of GOP candidates.

For their part, most of the Super PAC major donors deny any influence over the candidates they support. “I never, ever ask for anything. There’s nothing I need or want from the government,” said Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who has almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s campaign afloat.

One of Adelson’s “pet issues” is calling for the US to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In Gingrich’s “Day One Plan” of action for his hypothetical first day in the Oval Office, he lists “Respect Each Sovereign Nation’s Choice of its Capital” as his fourth priority, claiming that “Israel is the only country the United States discriminates against in this regard. The people of Israel have designated Jerusalem as their capital. Yet the United States retains its embassy in Tel Aviv.”

Did Adelson specifically request Gingrich take that stand? Probably not. But major donors need not make overt demands on their candidates for their money to have a sobering impact on those running for president. Let’s not be naïve here, Gingrich knows Adelson is one of the main reasons he is still alive in the race for the White House. He is not going to bite the hand that feeds him by being against Adelson’s opinion on this issue, no matter what Gingrich’s own views may be.

But Gingrich is not alone, and his example is not even the most disconcerting aspect of this issue. While the Politico article focuses only on the GOP race, it will be interesting to see how President Obama’s remarks reflect the views of his major donors, now that he is graciously accepting Super PAC funding.

As we all know, a first-term President is also a campaigning candidate for the next election. What happens the first time such a sitting President is faced with a choice that is in opposition to the views of his major donors? What happens if said President is trailing in the polls and is in desperate need of funding to keep his slim chances of reelection alive?

We are in a new world here. Unlimited funding for politicians provides the potential for America’s wealthiest citizens to have a frightening amount of influence over our elected officials. It is a sobering dark side of philanthropy that threatens to alter the very nature of our political system. Thankfully, at its heart, at its very nature, philanthropy is a vehicle for good. Here’s hoping Super PAC funding does not turn out to be an exception to that rule.

A Lack of Transparency Hurts Everyone

Posted on 29 February 2012 | 1 response

How transparent should a non-profit be to the community it serves?

It’s a question that is asked often in the philanthropic community, and it is at the center of a battle brewing in Healdsburg, CA.

The Healdsburg Animal Shelter implemented a series of policies to insulate itself from the surrounding community, and the community is not happy. Recently the shelter imposed a media blackout for its staff and volunteers, and even closed off its board meetings to the public in the wake of several board members resigning.

So what say you? Does a non-profit have a responsibility to be transparent to the community? Or does a non-profit have the right to conduct its business without the sometime preying eyes of the public?

I don’t believe non-profits need to have an absolute open-door policy with local communities, especially among those who are not donors. But I agree with Healdsburg Mayor Gary Plass that “when you start closing the community off, they become suspicious. It’s not healthy for the community, or the organization.”

Kanye Can’t Cut it as a Philanthropist

Posted on 28 February 2012 | No responses

Kanye's West's foundation spent more than $1 million in two years, but less than $1,000 on grants to non-profits.


In 2009 and 2010, Kanye West’s foundation spent more than $1 million. Somehow, less than $1,000 of that was in the form of grants to non-profits.

I’m not sure how donors to West’s foundation feel about the distribution of funds, but the news lends credence to the belief that celebrity-run foundations are no more than PR stunts or short-lived ego trips. If nothing else, it is another example of how some people use philanthropy to boost their own images rather than actually support those in need.

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