Wednesday, September 23, 2015

It's hard to rock two babies

A woman I  know owns two restaurants 20 miles apart. I asked her how she manages that. “It’s hard to rock two babies,” she said.

Brian T. Moynihan, head of Bank of America beat back a serious challenge that would have required him to separate his chairmanship of the board of directors from his job as CEO. In the nonprofit world I inhabit I can't recall a single instance of this type of duality. That's because the board of a nonprofit is an agency charged with holding the organization's assets on the public's behalf. There are no shareholders.

That is not to say that nonprofits are better governed as a result of a distinction between governance and management at the very top. In BoA one might surmise that internal and external directors bring expertise to the board room and pretty much leave the CEO alone to run the company. Of course then you get the Volkswagen scandal. The tech-savvy CEO may be tossed out but where was board scrutiny? W hat did the board know and when did they know it? 

In a nonprofit there is a fundamental ambivalence that inures to boards. Are trustees there to give money, or to govern? Nonprofit CEOs, in my experience, would prefer a  board of donors over a board of governors. In the typical nonprofit the CEO plays a big role  in board recruitment - and why not? Ideally a nonprofit is staff managed and board advised. Any CEO will tell you that what they don't want from their board is micromanagement nor interference in personnel decisions. In a nonprofit achieving good governance, good giving and good getting concurrently is challenging and often one element or another is weak or altogether missing

As a nonprofit consultant and nonprofit trustee I think there are six key challenges for any board or any CEO:

Vision and strategy.
The chairman-CEO relationship.
Succession planning.
The CEO's frequency of communications to the board. (There is a difference between     data and information).
What is expected of trustees.
What trustees expect of the nonprofit.

For all I can fault in nonprofit governance and management I think we got it right on this one.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Good News!

2014 was a banner year for US  philanthropy, a big jump in giving from 2013 and really stunning proof that in most respects all charity is benefitting. Giving to religion continues to decline as the number of the unaffiliated continues to grow; and  inexplicably giving to overseas causes was down probably because the really cataclysmic events that propel crisis giving did not occur to the same extent as  in prior years. There's a  lot of glimmer  on the surface.

But war, millions of displaced people, continued climate warming, Ebola and other pandemics, totally preventable deaths from malaria, lack of sanitation, unchecked population growth  - and other natural calamities still affect the planet. On bad days I'd like to give up; on good ones I tell myself that change is one person and one event at a time.

The good news is that wealth creation in this country (and with it increasing inequality as it concentrates  in fewer and fewer hands) offers great philanthropic opportunity. The not-so-good news is that the philanthropic sector, in my view, lacks the resources, imagination, technology and plain old know-how to catch that speeding train. The neediest charities benefit the least and the uber-wealthy who have pledged half their fortunes to charity direct their gifts mostly to higher education and other large institutions. Yes, it is their money.

Last week Barack Obama had what left and right both agree was the best week of his presidency. The thinking in more than half the country is ahead of Congress, the Supreme Court and most state legislatures. The conjunction between the US  mind set now on these root social issues - and the critical leavening role of philanthropy has not been made yet and I see that as an opportunity as well.

My guess is that giving will continue to grow in 2015. The challenges will remain, as will the opportunities.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


Impact investing, impact philanthropy or social benefit investing - the terms are synonymous - are an increasing phenomenon these days. But for donors and donees alike impact giving, whatever the terminology, carries a risk for both sides. On the donor side the return on investment might be lower, riskier and perhaps below the original philanthropic intent. For the donee it might be argued that there is, conceivably, an opportunity cost: i.e. a straight-out contribution, purely philanthropic and not hooked to an investment might be greater.

This was suggested to me by an article in Financial Times May 4th, analyzing the experiences of 82 large investors. Though 27% said social impact exceeded expectations and only 2% reported disappointment, the Global Investment Network and J P Morgan study also said just  over half "were willing to accept sub-market returns as long as they were not negative." Luckily there is a contrary view emerging.

Moral philosopher Peter Singer, the animal liberation contrarian, argues that a young person wanting to do the most good shouldn't necessarily work for a nonprofit, or invest for social impact, but rather find the highest paying  job he can, make as much money as he possibly can, and donate as  much of what he makes as he can. Forget about sub-optimal returns in other words.

Withal impact investing strategy for foundations, fund managers and development finance institutions is still growing very rapidly. Moving this money around in search of some sort of market equilibrium is fee-generating but of course anything serving to enlarge the pot for charity is arguably good.

For most of my clients most of the time (and we serve smaller to medium size nonprofits) any gift is important. But few have the scale to benefit all that much from an impact investment. They can't leverage the funds significantly and leverage is the impact in impact investing. We still find  ourselves driving our clients back to the basics to achieve the greatest impact for any given project:

> Do it right.
> Do it often.
> Evaluate the outcome.

But mainly, ask for the money.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


With the permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy I'm re-posting the Op Ed piece published this  morning at

Fundraising Consultants Need to Debunk Interest in Feasibility Studies

Feasibility studies to determine whether a nonprofit is ready to pursue a campaign are "a waste of money" and "the crack cocaine of nonprofit consulting," according to James LaRose, a nonprofit leader who is writing a book that caught the attention of Holly Hall, a Chroniclereporter. Her article on Mr. LaRose’s assertions ruffled the feathers of many fundraising consultants and filled my inbox with emails from colleagues who were furious about his assertions.
What’s interesting about most of those messages is that they focus on the fact that the author was someone none of us in the consulting world had ever heard of, rather than on the substance of his charges, hyperbolic though they are. Mr. LaRose calls the feasibility study "outmoded," and he’s right.
Most of the consultants I know, including myself, stopped using the term "feasibility" years ago. Many years ago one of the best consultants ever to work in the nonprofit world — the late Arthur Frantzreb — had come to the same conclusion. He advanced his argument cogently and without the drama.
Art’s essay back then resonated with me. We haven’t used the "f" word in at least two decades. In the mid 1990s or so I took a look back at 25 or 30 studies we’d done over a few decades and compared them to the campaigns that resulted (or did not).
So many of the variables were beyond our control that telling a client what might be "feasible" was a poor substitute for a sound plan based on an assessment of the case the nonprofit was making for support or its leadership, possible donors, timeline, and budget.
Among our findings:
  • The greatest variable of all was leadership. About half the time the best people a client could identify to lead a campaign just wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t make the money commitment or their degree of interest had been miscalculated by the client — more a hope than a possibility.
  • About a third of the time we were unable to conduct interviews with potential major donors whose support would be critical. They were either unavailable or allergic to consultants. Some gave to a campaign. Some did not. Some gave more than expected, others less.
  • We found that in several instances the two or three biggest gifts made to a campaign were not on anyone’s radar and wouldn’t have been uncovered from interviews with donors.
  • Unpredictable "black swan" events like CEO departures, board-leadership changes, complete reworking of preciously anticipated capital needs — and more — rendered any forecast of a campaign’s success moot. We advised clients not to proceed until the black-swan event was resolved.
  • More than half the time strategic planning was so poor, or non-existent, that no campaign could expect to succeed. Despite all the workshops, meetings, retreats, and other sessions to educate nonprofit leaders, that is still the case all too frequently.
While consultants have dropped the term feasibility, many clients have not.
That’s the consultants’ fault. Back in the day, we taught charities to ask for feasibility studies, and they still do. So Mr. LaRose may have a point when he objects to them as costly and wasteful if the focus is feasibility.
His assertion that precampaign studies, regardless of what we call them, create inherent conflicts of interest because the firm that does the study usually gets the long-term campaign contract is troubling. That there is potential for such conflict is true. In the past there have indeed been such abuses as low-cost or no-cost "feasibility studies." It may still occur, but I haven’t heard about any cases recently. Those of us who lead consulting firms know our name and reputation is on the line with every new endeavor. None that I know will risk either.
The consultants I know subscribe to the rules of ethical conduct established by the Giving Institute (whether they are members or not) or by the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Code of Ethical Standards (again whether they are members or not). The obligation always to act ethically is a powerful disinfectant and from my perspective removes the taint of conflict by working with a client who has spent hard money upfront to educate us about every aspect of their mission, vision, and work.
My colleagues and I bear a responsibility to re-educate nonprofits so they completely understand the limitations of "feasibility" assessments and instead opt for a better approach: careful planning, an honest assessment of their ability to move on a campaign, and, most important, a full understanding of the conditions that must be met before a campaign is, uh, feasible.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


On March 11, Prof Linda Sugin of Fordham University wrote a provocative op-ed in The New York Times, "Your Name on a Building and a Tax Break TooRe--thinking Taxes and David Geffen's Gift for Avery Fisher Hall."  The thrust of her piece is that a donor’s name on a building should be treated as a major return benefit to that donor and therefore the gift's deductibility should be reduced by the "value" conferred, in this instance $15 million, the amount the Philharmonic paid the Fisher family to surrender the name.

As a career nonprofit fundraiser, I salute Professor Sugin's attempt to encourage even more philanthropy and tax justice, and I reject her well-intended proposal to do that through changes to the charitable tax code. She theorizes that future philanthropists would give more if current ones were incentivized to forego or foreshorten a naming opportunity in appreciation for their gift - or in exchange for it, as Sugin has it. 

For most nonprofits, creative presentation of untaxed "intangible" benefits for bigger gifts--with recognition being the most powerful--represent success or failure. In practice, many institutions are already encouraging short-term naming opportunities, for just the reasons Sugin gives. Would they be helped with new laws? Be careful what you wish for. First, limits on naming terms won't work with some (desperately needed) prospects, and second, why stop there? Once the IRS is allowed to start valuing intangibles, look out. That is my main point. Clear and just as it may seem, there is no little fix and it won't stay put. As federal codes and then each state attempt to place a taxable value on a wide range of ever-creative intangible recognition benefits, all representing different circumstances, the process risks introducing serious confusions and complexities, and, I'd predict, vigorously renewed attempts to eliminate the charitable deduction altogether. Confusion and complexity depress giving in a charitable heartbeat. 

-- Marilyn Bancel

Monday, March 2, 2015

Philanthropy Outlook 2015 and 2016

We are happy to recommend and pass along a new report presented by Giving Institute member firm Marts & Lundy and prepared by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. In a word, "Total giving is predicted to increase by 4.8% in 2015 and by 4.9% in 2016."

A copy of the report can be obtained from Giving USA Foundation or Marts & Lundy.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


AS A MEMBER OF GIVING INSTITUTE our firm benefits from the work of the Nonprofit Research Collaborative (NRC), which studies trends in fundraising twice a year. We encourage our clients and other nonprofit organizations to participate in the NRC survey. The deadline  for the NRC Winter 2015 survey is Thursday, Feb. 19. NRC will learn about fundraising results for 2014 and the outlook for 2015. We will of course share the results.The survey can be found at . 

Thanks in advance for being a part of this important research. The NRC could not provide our field with this valuable trend data without input from a wide variety of nonprofit organizations, including yours!