Dani Robbins

Archive for the ‘Community Strategy’ Category

Options and Opportunities for White Social Justice Leaders

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on February 24, 2021 at 1:30 pm

I’m writing this piece as the first step in a conversation that’s been long in coming. I’d like to talk about what the role is or should be of white social justice leaders right now.

There have been calls for white leaders to step aside and internal (possibly unspoken) consideration that maybe we should. Many of my peers, clients, students, and friends are trying to figure out if they’re in the right spot or if the spots to which they aspire are no longer appropriate for them to ascend. Each leader must answer that for themselves.

What is the right way to honor the values that we’ve spent our entire careers advancing?

I would like to offer some food for thought while you’re still in the leadership chair as you contemplate your next move.

We can change both the systems we impact AND the ways we lead. We can change the opinions and minds of other white leaders. We can change ourselves!

If you have spent your whole career, as many of us have, trying to advance social justice and working towards racial equity, continuing on or continuing to apply or aspire to apply for the role of a leader of a social justice agency is complicated.

We have a role to play in changing the landscape of leadership by including new and diverse voices in our quest to achieve social justice.

I’ve heard the questions: “Should we step aside to create space for a person of color to ascend into leadership?” “Should we not apply at all to make space for a leader of color?”

While this sounds and is dramatically ma/paternalistic, is it in service to a larger mission? It may or may not be. Individuals have to determine for themselves what their personal sacrifice might be.

While we’re thinking about these large existential questions, our Boards may not be. The million-dollar question right now is “if we do step aside, will the board just hire a different white leader that may know less about justice, equity, the mission and leadership than we do?” If history is any guide, they likely will.

We know, and there’s certainly enough evidence to support, that white leaders get more resources, get hired more often, get paid more, stay longer, and get more grace when they make a mistake.

If we don’t want to be a part of perpetuating inequity, and we don’t, then we must consider our role. A not insignificant number of white leaders have a lot of experience, significant education, a huge network, and have earned respect across communities.

There are too few good leaders of all races anyway, and we can’t afford to say goodbye to the still majority of them that are white.

Which brings me back to my initial question: What is the role of a white social justice leader right now?

I offer the following ideas for your consideration; they all won’t apply to you, but some of them might. Special thanks to Tasha Booker from City Year Columbus, Tiffany Galvin Green from John Carroll University and John Miller from Boys & Girls Club of America for helping me articulate my thoughts around this issue. You each and all bring light to my life, appreciation to my heart, and depth to my leadership.

These are a starting place as I see it. I encourage you to share other options.

Representation matters

Make sure that you are bringing people into your organization who don’t look like you or look like each other.

Representation is built in a variety of ways; it includes where we recruit, how we hire and who we promote. It’s the Boards we build and the policies and practices we recommend. It’s the values we live, and the cultures of inclusion we craft.

It also means we create processes and outcome measures that can be assessed. Most of us don’t like quotas and also don’t like tokenism; find a way to measure without marginalizing. You will need different metrics to measure awareness, education and transparency. 

To be clear, meeting measurements may not mean you’ve changed the culture. It’s one thing to bring in people of color. It’s another to create a culture that allows them to bring their full selves to work, to be their best selves and do their best work. Retention is a good metric with which to start. 

Representation also means not allowing all white leadership or all white boards. If that happens to be where you find yourself, commit to change. Question the process that got you there. Introduce the need for diversity, educate the group on why diverse groups make better decisions, and why homogeneous groups aren’t representative of the community you (likely) serve. Plant and cultivate the seeds for change.

Talk about and improve systems regarding diversity, equity and inclusion every chance you get.

Celebrate successes and call people in as necessary; commit to creating space for alternative opinions and alternative voices. Commit to not only inviting people to the table but making sure they are embraced and made to feel as if they belong. Also commit to being uncomfortable and to holding others accountable when they’re out of line.

The goal is awareness, understanding and appreciation. You may need to create cultural competency even as you’re changing the cultural make up and landscape. Agencies can’t diversify without changing the cultural cues and raising the competency to understand what different looks like.

Commit to improve the policies and practices at your organization to embrace people from all groups and eliminate the ones that alienate, or worse, discriminate. Critique all with an eye toward potential harm and then (work with the Board to) change what does not meet your new standards.

Differentiate between feeling intimidated and being intimidated

You may feel intimidated in the new more inclusive culture you’ve established, but that may have nothing to do with the actions of other people. Learn to discern the difference between feeling intimated and being intimidated.

Impact your sphere

Take a look at everything in your sphere of influence where you can affect change.

  • How is your organization investing their resources?
  • What are your hiring practices?
  • Where are you advertising your open positions?
    • If only white people apply, what do you do next?  (hint: shoulder shrugging is not the right answer; changing where you’re advertising might be.)
  • Who are you grooming for leadership?
  • Who is in your succession?

If you don’t like what you see, change it.

Send the elevator back down

We are all standing on other people’s shoulders. Make sure there are people who don’t look like you standing on yours. Create opportunities for leaders and potential leaders of color to grow and to learn, to safely make mistakes, and to step into their power.

Normalize and invite feedback

If someone calls you out, consider your role in whatever you’ve been accused of and commit to do better. None of us are going to get this right all the time. We have to be gracious enough to realize that and to welcome opportunities to learn.

Create mechanisms and space for feedback- in whatever form it’s offered.  Everyone comes to the table from the personal perspective of their own safety. It’s the leader’s job to create a culture of safety.

Some mechanism will have to be built; we can create the polices, practice and history that demonstrate our ability to hear, accept and integrate feedback and create trust.

Amplify leaders of color whenever possible.

We can amplify others’ voice. Compliment leaders publicly and provide opportunities for them privately. We can reinforce their statements, while giving them credit for making them. We can be an ally and an accomplice to their success. This is true of our colleagues in the community, our peers in the organization and also our team members.

For our teams, I’m going to dip back to the ma/paternalistic for a minute, and we have to, because white leaders are still the majority of leaders.

We can advocate for leadership projects and provide real ongoing feedback. We can position our up-and-coming or current leaders of colors to be in a place to receive public compliments. We can identify them privately with other (hopefully not all white) leaders, provide opportunities for them to take on projects to create a profile for them to publicly represent the organization.

We can find a way to put people of color in situations where they can shine which also advances the mission, and the work of justice.

Avoid performative statements and insist on action

A commitment to diversity is great but only if it moves the action forward. Commitment must be supported by action. It can’t just be on paper and then we all go along the way we always have. If you want change, you have to change.

Consider your place and your role

The questions where we began are tough, and so are you.

Yes, you should probably apply. The hiring decision isn’t yours to make. If you get the job, know that you have an obligation.

You have an obligation to develop every person on your team to become their very best, to be prepared for whatever role they aspire to next, to step into their power and away from feeling like they’re not worthy. You should push and support them in considering roles you see they’re capable of, even if they don’t.

If you are stepping down and you’ve developed your team, encourage them to apply and cheerlead for them to be hired. Consider also keeping an eye out for jobs outside of your organization. Social justice is advanced when we work together as a community to affect change.

Change management requires change in leaders as well.

It’s not enough to change the organization. We have to change ourselves.

It’s much easier to defend our values than to live up to them.

Let’s live up to them. If all we have are words and war, let’s talk. Let’s hold up, mentor and create opportunities for the leaders our communities need. Let’s be the change and let’s develop it in others as well.

This is the way we honor the values that we’ve spent our entire careers advancing.

A New Day Dawns

In Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Non Profit Boards, nonprofit executives on November 25, 2020 at 9:53 am

Four very long years ago I wrote the article Just Don’t after Trump was elected. Since then, those of us who work for and believe in justice have endured four very long years.

Four years of hate, pettiness and meanness.

Four years of seeing our stature in the world reduced, and our friendships with dictators and autocrats increased.

Four years of the dismantling of sacred institutions and the embracing of white supremacy and misogyny.

Four years of demeaning women, minimizing rape victims, and ignoring gender imbalance, other than to exploit it.

Four (more, more encouraged and also more often denied) years of racial and ethnic injustice. Four years of minimizing our fears and embracing those from whom our fears are born.

Four years of the abject denial that there’s a price being paid by the children of those that were brought here against their will and a debt owed.

Four year of turning our backs on immigrants and refugees, despite the fact that almost all of us are the children of immigrants and refugees.

Four years of embracing the idea that experience doesn’t matter, that science isn’t real, and that news is fake, even when you saw it unfolding yourself.

Four years that allowed a pandemic to rage in the final year with no federal response, no compassion and certainly no plan.

Four years of screaming into the wilderness and feeling as if we might lose our democracy, our hope, and maybe even our minds.

Today, a new day dawns.

We have joined together to elect a president who sees us, and a vice president who looks different than any vice president who has come before her. (I cried as I wrote that.)

Together, they are building a cabinet that looks like us, to represent us.

We now can turn our energies to supporting them. We won’t agree with everything they do, and that’s okay. We don’t always agree among ourselves. This is a pluralistic society and if we do our jobs right, it always will be.

We now have the opportunity to focus our energies to move forward the missions we serve, the values we believe and the justice we desire.

Thank you to my brothers and sisters across this country who have used their voice, their bodies and their money to stand up to bullies and to stand against hatred; to stand up for what we believe.

I salute you. I see you. I am grateful for you. Thank you.

Are Your Organization’s Stories Dishonoring the Families You Serve?

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, nonprofit executives, Organizational Development on August 16, 2020 at 1:12 pm

This article, by Dani Robbins, was originally published on Blue Avocado.

Please indulge me the time to paint a picture of the backdrop against which many of us work but don’t often acknowledge. I will then use that backdrop to illustrate the challenge of discussing work that is funded by one group (donors), executed by another group (staff), on behalf of a third group (families) and how that discussion has the potential to harm the people it is intended to help.

We have a problem in this country with the idea of a class system. We like to pretend we don’t have such a system, except for when we want to describe groups, especially groups served by agencies that work for justice. We have a philanthropic class that supports agencies that serve families in lower socioeconomic income groups, or other marginalized groups typically characterized as some version of disadvantaged, living below the poverty level, poor, minority, minoritized, or _____ (insert your favorite pejorative adjective here).

Our boards and our leaders often don’t look like or have the same experiences as the people our agencies serve. The American philanthropic sector is one where, as Burton and Barnes so eloquently put it in “Shifting Philanthropy from Charity to Justice,” “often well-intentioned people make decisions for communities they do not come from, may not understand, rarely interact with, and almost never set foot in.”

Let me layer on top of that troubling foundation two theories, and even though you’ve heard of these, you may not be aware they are actual theories, taught in schools and reinforced… everywhere. I’m speaking of the Bootstrap Theory and the Theory of the Deserving Poor and the Undeserving Poor.

The bootstrap theory is baked into our country’s history. It is the foundation of the American Dream: Anyone from anywhere can come to America and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to make a better life.

Is it true that the bootstrap theory is real for many families? Yes! Do I hear some of you yelling at your screens that your grandparents did just that? I hear you and I believe they did. Mine did too. Yet the American Dream is inextricably interwoven with its less appreciated counterpart: privilege. Unfortunately, this term is often taken out of context and inaccurately understood as meaning “freedom from struggle.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every family has struggled, and most people work hard. The distinction of privilege is the breaks you get or don’t get along the way because of things that have nothing to do with you, your dreams, or your abilities, and have everything to do with what other people see and perceive about you. The distinction is the obstacles placed or removed from your path and the chances and choices other people will give you or take away based on things they believe about you that have nothing to do with you at all.

Let’s layer on top of that of this country’s acceptance of the sharp delineation between the “undeserving” poor and the “deserving” poor. That delineation is the basis for much of our public policy. It’s what underlies the decision regarding whether the homeless veteran with a history of addiction and crime gets housing or whether the family who just got evicted because of medical bills does. It’s why we have a shelter and transitional housing system instead of a robust and available permanent housing system. It is less expensive to create affordable housing than a three-layer system of shelters, transitional housing, and affordable housing, each layer staffed by paid staff working to move people into permanent housing.

Why don’t we just start with permanent housing? I submit we’re unwilling to defend housing for the long-term homeless addicted veteran over the newly evicted family, even as the Coalition for the Homeless notes, “numerous research studies have consistently confirmed that long-term housing assistance not only successfully reduces homelessness—it is also less expensive than shelter and other institutional care.”

Lest you think that’s all the delineation between the deserving and underserving poor entails, it’s also the idea of creating an extensive (and expensive) bureaucracy to make sure that the poor don’t take advantage of a system ostensibly designed to help them, even though this overladen structure costs multiples more than it would to fund what the people actually need, which we’re still funding in part but with fewer resources and much less dignity. Most services for those in need are set up on the assumption that people cheat. To combat that assumption, we have entire bureaucracies dedicated to make people prove they need assistance. We insist people prostrate themselves to defend their needs and jump through arbitrary hoops to get assistance. I submit a subset of the population will find a way to take advantage of any system that is created. That doesn’t mean we need to build systems that alienate the many to protect against the few. We could, and I believe should, set up systems to mitigate cheating while affirming dignity.

“Deserving” and “undeserving” is about blame. (Cue the bootstrap theory.) The policies that follow in the wake of these two theories set up the families we serve to receive pity but not empathy. Help but not respect. Services but not dignity.

Are there groups who are more deserving and groups who are less? Should that determine who gets services and who doesn’t? Does it impact who gets that house and who doesn’t? As I tell my classes, it always comes down to “What’s the goal?” and “Who decides?”

These two ways of framing the world also set agencies up to tell unflattering stories about the deficits of our families—or worse, exploitive ones to pull at the heartstrings of donors, to make them feel good about their magnanimity while illustrating that donors and recipients are not the same. There are people you can help, but they’re obviously not your people. They’re fundamentally different. There’s them, and there’s us. Us who have worked hard, who deserve where we landed and can now give back to those who… well… didn’t.

It’s an inaccurate story.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating to make a point, I received a letter recently from an organization saying that the children they serve “have no role models in the house.” Does that honor the dignity of their families? Is it even true? It doesn’t, and it’s not.

This letter is not an anomaly: I receive lots of similar letters from a variety of service providers. I might have even written some of them before I understood and could articulate the difference between honoring the families we serve, and not. I bet you have too. Nor is this attitude limited to donor outreach. Many years ago, I received a call from a woman who wanted to bring her kids down to my organization so they could see how “other people” live. I said no. Now you may think I missed an opportunity to engage someone, and you would be right. But I didn’t miss a teachable moment to share that a trip to another community is not a trip to the zoo. (Those might have been the words I used; I’d figured it out by then.)

Taking your kids to see how “other people” (read: not us) live sends a message both to your kids and to the people living in that community. Saying that kids “don’t have good role models” is disrespectful. Many families are doing the best they can for their kids and would be appalled if they saw that letter or met someone who was only there to see how “other people” live.

If you wouldn’t want your families to see what you allow in an appeal letter or what you’d say to a visitor or allow the visitor to do—and that should be one of your lenses—then don’t say it, and don’t do it. Moreover, the chances of such a letter alienating some of your donors (me, for one) is high. We all know that disengaged donors are not going to call us to explain; they’re just going to stop supporting us. After receiving the letter about “role models,” I did call.

If you who are in leadership positions are of a different faith, gender, or race than the majority of the families your agency serves—or if you are joining our sector from the business or government sector—I implore you to tread carefully. We ought never to be perceived as exploiting the people our organizations exist to serve. It’s disrespectful to them; it’s destructive to our agencies.

I invite you to read “How Can Nonprofits Move from Exploitative Storytelling to Justice-Oriented Storytelling?” by Dr. Debra Jenkins. We cannot, we should not—and please join me in saying—we will not exploit our families to engage our donors. It’s not acceptable. It’s not reasonable. It’s not necessary. It complicates our ability as social justice and nonprofit leaders to honor the people in our community and their lives. It is critically important that the messaging you use does not reinforce either the bootstrap theory or the theory of the deserving and the undeserving poor.

Finally, I will share that I worry that our focus on donors sometimes comes at the expense of our families. That’s not the intent, but it may be the result. Our agencies do not exist to serve donors. We should embrace our donors and invite them to partner with us to make our communities better, but we can never forget that nonprofits exist to improve our communities. The mission and those we serve must always be our primary focus.

Those of us who work for social justice can never contribute to the narrative that there are the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. We cannot reinforce the bootstrap theory. We can talk with our donors about the difference between theory and reality and about how to build on the assets our communities already have. We can hold those assets up as being worthy and deserving. To do anything less is unjust. We must tell stories that honor the dignity of our families and embrace our donors, as we work together toward creating a more equitable and just world for all.

What’s your experience with deficit or asset based story telling? What would you add, or delete? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

The Intersection of Mission, Vision and Values

In Community Strategy, Leadership, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on November 4, 2019 at 5:02 pm

I had the privilege to present at John Carroll University’s Community Forum last week on the difference between mission, vision and values. It’s a topic that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks in a variety of arenas.

My analogy is this: the values are the guardrails, the vision is the destination, and the car is the mission, because it drives everything.

Here’s another way to frame it: In elementary school, we were taught how to write newspaper articles by using the 5 Ws: where, what, why, who and when.  Nonprofit strategy isn’t much different, though we do add how.  In both cases you’re painting a picture and telling a story. 

Our story is about how we change the world. 

Where are we going?  How are we going to conduct ourselves along the way? Who do we serve?  What are we doing? Why?

If you subscribe to the Simon Sinek theory of why – and I do – you know that no one cares about the what or the how, they care about the why.  In his amazing and highly recommended Ted Talk, How great leaders inspire action, he says “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” Which begs the question:  What is it that you believe?

Nonprofit strategy is born from what you believe.

Why:

Your mission statement is the why. It’s why your organization exists.

JCU’s mission is “As a Jesuit Catholic university, John Carroll inspires individuals to excel in learning, leadership, and service in the region and in the world.”

Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s mission is to “enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.”

Local Matters’ mission, which I was honored to be in the room when it was drafted, is “to create healthy communities through food education, access and advocacy.”

You may have noticed none of the mission statements above, or most in the field, talk about programs. Mission statements are not about what you do, they’re about why you exist. We exist to do X. Programs are how you get there; programs are your theory of change. But they’re not why you exist.

You may also have noticed that I put in quotations the mission statements. Anytime you copy in a mission or a vision statement, it should be in quotations. Both statements are precise and exact. They should not be paraphrased. 

You exist to inspire, to enable, to educate, to lead…to do something.  Programs are not something; programs are the path to get to your something.  Programs are how you test your theory of change. 

How:

Values are the how.  How do you conduct yourself?  How do you talk to and about your clients, students or staff? What do you value as an organization? How does that play out?

Values, when used in the field, primarily refer to organizational values. I usually explain them as the ideas that are valued by the staff and Board of an organization. That could be communication, collaboration or individual accomplishments (not usually both), honesty, high ethical standards, or a whole host of other things. Organizational values are not necessarily things you’d include when listing your personal values, though of course they might be. This is not to say that your personal values do not need to be aligned with your organization’s values, because they do. It is intended to mean that we all might not list the same things that our organizational values include. (Ethics, Values and Integrity) When I was interviewing at JCU, I went through their (now our) values one by one, out loud and confirmed that I could and wanted to honor each one. In fact, I remember saying “I can get behind that!”

Core values are the way you conduct yourself on the path.

Where:

The vision statement is the direction you are going. It’s time-limited or utopian, and aspirational.

Local Matters illustrated for me the need to have both a utopian vision and a three-year vision.  As they explained to me, and as I now explain to others, “The utopian vision is the reason you get up every morning.”  It’s the impact you aspire make.

BGCA’s vision is to “Provide a world-class Club Experience that assures success is within reach of every young person who enters our doors, with all members on track to graduate from high school with a plan for the future, demonstrating good character and citizenship, and living a healthy lifestyle.”

The three-year vision is also the where. It answers where you are going, now.  It sets the path for your future.

Local Matters’ where: “By 2020 we will have created systemic, food-related change across diverse populations and community settings.”

Local Matters’ long term utopian where: “Equitable access to a sustainable food system and a world free of food- related chronic disease.”

You may have noticed neither of the vision statements above, or most in the field, talk about programs. Vision statements are where you are going.

What:

Programs are the what. What is the path? What will you do to get to the where and address the why?

In the nonprofit world, your theory of change is the path to your goal. What is the desired goal? What path will get you to it? Strategy is the selected theory of change; it’s the high-level plan to meet a goal. Anne E Casey defines it in their manual, which if you haven’t read I highly recommend: “A theory of change (TOC) outlines how to create that change. It is an essential part of a successful community transformation effort. This manual, created for the Casey Foundation’s Making Connections initiative, defines theory of change using Casey’s impact, influence and leverage platform, and shows community advocates how to create their own TOC by showing the relationships between outcomes, assumptions, strategies and results.”

Who:

Who? It seems like such an easy question. Who do we serve? As I learned the hard way when I facilitated the Franklin County Opportunity Youth Initiative, setting the who is not easy at all. In case you are not aware, Opportunity Youth are 16-24 year olds who are not in school and are not working. And just to be clear, we’re not talking about your friend’s kid who’s backpacking across Europe. We’re talking about the kids who got thrown out, aged out, opted out, or who were left out. It’s an enormous number of kids and you’d think that deciding who belongs in that group would be easy, but it’s not.

When I do strategic planning with agencies we start with mission, vision and values, move to high level goals to get to the vision, set strategies to meet to the goals and metrics, assignments and due dates to make sure it gets done. All good strategies have metrics. Any plan that does not have metrics, assignments and due dates is a wish list.

What do you think of my analogy? How do you talk about the intersection of values, mission and vision? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.


Discretion and Discernment: A Call to Action on Behalf of Our Young People

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Organizational Development on February 24, 2019 at 12:07 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about discernment and discretion in the past few weeks. I’ve been thinking about 9/11, Sandy Hook and Parkland and about the processes we put in place since then. I’ve been mulling what happens in the worst cases and the best cases of our policies being realized.

After Sandy Hook, schools across the country became lockdown facilities, even though Sandy Hook was a locked facility and it didn’t help. We had to do something! Hand wringing, prayers and fear weren’t getting us anywhere and many of us were devastated. Locking the doors was one roadblock we could erect.

After Parkland, many schools put in school resource officers even though Parkland had an officer outside who did nothing AND there’s ample evidence to suggest that the introduction of a school resource officer criminalizes behavior that otherwise would stay at the school level. It’s another roadblock, though I’m not convinced it’s the right roadblock.

We have reporting policies and after 9/11 have “see something say something” policies. We need those policies. We also need discretion and discernment in assessing the information that gets reported.

In an era when we have police officers being dispatched because there’s a random black person in someone’s neighborhood or a college student asleep in the common room of his own dorm, we have to have a conversation about discretion and discernment.

Sensitive content warning:

Many years ago, when I ran a program for school age youth in Texas, I had a young staff member who heard the youngest of three boys in a family use the word blowjob. She immediately decided that that meant that kid was being sexually abused at home and she called Children’s Services.

This is one of those (countless) incidences when where you sit determines where you stand. She was young, right out of college and new to the field. Would a more experienced staff member have read the situation the same way? Would you have?

What happened when Children’s Services showed up at that family’s door? Does a kid with two older brothers using the word blowjob automatically indicate sexual abuse? How could that family prove the absence of child sexual abuse? Children’s Services had to make that call. They have processes in place to help them to do so. It’s an impossible position.

The law requires staff that work with youth be mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse or neglect. We have to report and we should!

But there should also be some discretion on the part of the person who takes the call of asking follow-up questions before they deploy resources.

This is hard. I don’t harbor any illusions that this is not hard. How do you decide from a phone call what’s really a threat and what is not? How do you decide who is in danger or who just has older siblings or was allowed to watch a show that perhaps he shouldn’t have been?

After that incident we added an addendum to our reporting policy that employees should speak with a supervisor before they made such a call. That policy (and the law) was very clear that the final decision was still the employee’s and we would never stop an employee for making that call but we did want to have a conversation around discernment.

Every time we deploy police officers, children service workers or security staff, we disengage the people whom they’re questioning. We put those people in the position of defending themselves, sometimes rightly; sometimes not.

We know that once the door opens to the criminal justice system, it can be a one-way door – especially for families that are already living on the edge.

How do we not get to that door for people who don’t need to walk through it? How do we protect the kids we are entrusted to serve, and hold accountable the people who are trying to hurt them? How do we respect the dignity of visitors and not feed the racism or fear of those who want to decide who “belongs?”

How do we protect our young people – and everyone – by putting in place the right policies to keep us safe, while also protecting people’s dignity and right to be heard? How do we not create spaces where fear breeds and every stranger is a danger?

We have to figure out how to deploy our resources in the right places, for the right reasons and not further alienate those we are also entrusted to serve. We have to build policies to take into account and discern actual harm from rumor, speculation, racism, implicit and explicit bias.

I understand and support the need for locked schools. I believe in roadblocks. We can never 100% protect against a threat but we can put as many roadblocks in place as possible. I support policies that keep people safe.  But I’ve also seen too many incidences of leaders hiding behind a policy that made something worse in an uneducated attempt to respond.

We’re the grown ups and the leaders. We decide what’s safe for our community’s children and what’s not. We decide what’s a reasonable policy and what’s rife for abuse. We assess what will protect us and what will get in the way.  Let’s have the policies, but, please, let’s also have a conversation around discretion and discernment. 

What are your ideas to introduce discretion and discernment?  Have you been successful in your community? What’s your experience creating policies that protect and also discern?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

The Implications of Donor Advised Funds on the Charity You Love

In Community Strategy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Uncategorized on February 6, 2019 at 10:09 pm

Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) were created to be a charitable option for those who have or have received a significant influx of funds. They are touted as a way to democratize philanthropy. DAFs have opened up vehicles for giving to midsize donors in a way that family foundations could not. For the first time, donors with sometimes four but more often five-figure gifts to donate could do so, long term.  Of course, they could always do so short term. 

Despite the DAF commercials you may have seen (Wells Fargo wins for the most appalling), it was always possible to donate a significant gift straight to the nonprofit of your choosing.  What wasn’t available was a long-term option, other than a family foundation, which is expensive to start and has significant compliance obligations.

The introduction of DAFs allow a donor to get an immediate tax deduction, while they – in theory – can research where they want to spend their philanthropic dollars, later.

To be clear, it’s called Donor ADVISED Funds for a reason.  The donor can advise the DAF sponsor on where they want the gift to go.  The DAF sponsor usually sends it to the intended destination but reserves the right not to based on the law, the mission of the recipient organization and the sponsor’s internal policies. For example, your local Jewish Foundation will likely grant your recommendation to send a gift to your local Jewish Community Center, but not likely to your local hate group. 

There are a few requirements of the donor.  DAF funds cannot be used to pay a pledge.  In fact, the donor can‘t receive any benefit from the gift – this is standard for any gift you want to deduct. It’s why you can’t deduct the full cost of the gala you went to last weekend but can deduct the cost of the ticket minus the expenses to the charity.  In the case of DAFs, you can’t buy the ticket with those funds at all, since you received a benefit (gala tickets) for your gift.

DAFs can be named for your family, or whatever or whomever you’d like.  You can name it your initials, or for your dog. That makes it difficult for charities to prospect, thank or steward gifts received from those who have DAFs, or even to know from whom their most recent donation arrived. 

Another challenge for our field is that there’s no requirement that money be given out. There’s also no requirement that the name of the donor be released. In fact, there are rules against their names being released. You read that right: a donor can park significant resources in a donor advised fund, which is then owned by the DAF sponsor, to be given out without attribution to the donor, at the donor’s leisure or not at all.  In all cases, the donor gets an immediate tax benefit.

Actual charities may get nothing. The government definitely gets nothing because it goes in and continues to grow tax free. No taxes get paid. The data  suggests that donor-advised funds have a net negative effect.

The only ones who consistently benefit is the donor and the fund owner, which may not actually be a charity at all, and likely will be a for profit company managing a “nonprofit spin off.”  Here’s the Chronicle’s explanation “Much of the criticism is directed at Fidelity Charitable and other sponsors of donor-advised funds that are nonprofit spinoffs of financial-service firms. These organizations typically pay their for-profit parent to manage the money in the funds, which means they have a financial incentive to accumulate assets and hold onto them.”

How it works is this: A donor sets up a donor advised fund, either at a community foundation, or at a for-profit company that manages “a charitable institution.” The word charity is used in the loosest way, meaning under the law it’s a charity, but in reality it provides no services other than as a vehicle to house funds which will be given out at a later date, maybe. It will generate annual fees for the sponsoring institution, often but not exclusively a for profit entity, in perpetuity.

That’s part of the challenge for the nonprofit field, and the government. DAFs take huge amounts of money out of the economy, and out of the charity designation pot each year that actual charities providing real services may never see. Unlike foundations, there’s no distribution rules. Even the DAFs housed in foundations have no distribution requirement.

In other words, you could sell a business for $100 million today and put some portion of that money in a donor advised fund.  You would get an immediate tax deduction and the donation could sit there … in perpetuity.

Those who are fans of Donor Advised Funds will argue that money is given out. They say that even more money is given out because of DAFs. But because most of the giving, the “owning” and the management of donor advised funds is done in secrecy, we don’t really know. The only thing that is reported is the amount of aggregate gifts given to actual charities by the institution. So it’s possible – and even likely – that one DAF giving significant (and actual) gifts is providing cover for the other funds providing no benefit to the community, and only benefit to the donor and the institution managing the DAFs.

A smaller challenge is that many agencies don’t know how to properly thank donors who send gifts from donor-advised funds.  Because they may not understand that the gift came from a DAF, meaning the deduction has already been granted, they may send a letter with tax deductible language. The donor may not notice when the letter comes in but totally notices when they’re trying to figure out their taxes at the end of the year.

To be clear, there is a fairly significant section of nonprofit leaders who like Donor Advised Funds and many leaders do not care from whom the money comes or by what vehicle it arrives, as long as it comes.  Some will say, and they will be right, that if you know your donors, you know who has a DAF and this is not a problem.  Is that true? Sometimes. 

It’s critical nonprofits know from whom they’re receiving gifts.  There are too many instance of charities taking money from people or companies who later embarrassed them, or publicly compromised their principles or values. If you don’t know, you can’t protect your organization.

Still, some leaders love DAFs.  Of course, leaders of community foundations love them.  Community Foundations are a huge holder of DAFs.  I appreciate that and if you insist on starting one, please consider the community foundation in your area. 

There are even some charities who have started managing DAFs themselves.  Many of the big nonprofits have started their own, often aligned with their organizational values and with a requirement that a portion of the funds go to them. Still, the charities and the community foundations don’t come close to the big companies.

As far as charitable recipients, Fidelity Charitable is at the top, coming in at #1 for the second year running and in the second spot for the five preceding years of charitable data. DAFs are so significantly represented that a full 50% of the top 10 recipients of charitable funds in 2017 are sponsors of funds and not community serving, program providing, (actual) charities.  One is a community foundation. 

The six largest recipients of charitable gifts are housing but not spending that money! That money is only benefiting the holder by accruing interest and fees for the institution. It is not immediately, or possibly ever going to an actual charity doing meaningful work in a community.

I fear Donor Advised Funds will eventually preclude our ability to do our work and affect change for our communities.

The DAF debate is happening at the same time that the field and the world is beginning to challenge status quo of philanthropy. 

The following questions are currently being discussed:

When does being donor focused come at the expense of the mission, clients or community?

Should deductions be tied to community need?

Does the current model of philanthropy promote inequity?

How do nonprofits distinguish themselves in a world of social enterprise?

Does big philanthropy reinforce the inequity it purports to address?

What’s your take on DAFS? Are you asking, and how do you answer the questions listed?  I welcome your feedback, insight and experience.  A rising tide raises all boats.

What is Your Organization’s Theory of Change? What is the Path to Your Goal?

In Community Strategy, Leadership, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on July 21, 2018 at 8:04 am

I have had multiple conversations over the last couple of weeks about how to get there from here. Of course, that all depends on where you want to go AND on how you want to get there. The path matters and you need both. Similar to getting anywhere, there are multiple paths. Say you wanted to go to Chicago – you could fly, drive, bike, walk or take the train. What’s the best way forward, for you, your community, program or organization?

In the nonprofit world, your theory of change is the path to your goal. What is the desired goal? What path will get you to it? Strategy is the selected theory of change; it’s the high-level plan to meet a goal. Anne E Casey defines it in their manual, which if you haven’t read I highly recommend: “A theory of change (TOC) outlines how to create that change. It is an essential part of a successful community transformation effort. This manual, created for the Casey Foundation’s Making Connections initiative, defines theory of change using Casey’s impact, influence and leverage platform, and shows community advocates how to create their own TOC by showing the relationships between outcomes, assumptions, strategies and results.”

It’s useful at the community level and also at the organizational or even program level. It really comes down to this: What’s the goal? What strategy will you use to get there? How will you know when you do?

What if you wanted to address high school dropout rates?

You could work at the program level: You could talk to kids who graduated and find out what made them successful. You could talk to kids who dropped out and found out why they dropped out. You could shore up, revise, introduce or improve supportive programs in kindergarten, 3rd grade, 6th. and 8th. You could look at early education programs and their impact on HS success.  You could research wrap- around programs.

You could work at the community level:  You could gather school principals and district executives, youth development leaders, funders, and government officials together and agree to coordinate efforts. You could set a community theory of change, sub goals to get there, and team leaders over the sub-goals to make sure you do.  Each group can coordinate their efforts toward the goal and the funders can align grants to provide incentive.

You could work at the policy level:  You could revise academic curricula to ensure every kid is engaged.  You could address suspension rates. You could address discipline, both the way its meted out and by whom.

You could also work to change the law. We allow students to drop out at 16. We don’t have to do that. Sure, it will create a whole host of other issues if we do, but we can – we have power and choices.

The theory of change model is useful for improving process too.

This morning I was on a coaching call – shout out to you, Ken – and we were talking about increasing individual giving. What can you do you increase individual giving? You could ask (or ask more) people for money. You could assess your current practices.  You could steward your current donors better. You could look for new donors. You could move up the lower level donors you have into middle donors. You could engage the middle donors you have into larger donors. You could prospect for more donors. You could say thank you more or engage people better.  You could engage your Board and your team to create a culture of philanthropy.

Each option is a strategy to get to the goal. What’s the goal? How are you going to get there?

In the nonprofit world, the theory of change is usually implemented via a strategic plan, but it doesn’t have to be.  What is does have to be is agreed to by whomever will be working to move it forward, with sub-goals, strategies for each, metrics so you know you get there, assignments and due dates.  Strategy that can’t be assessed is a wish and as the Heath brothers so eloquently put it “hope is not a strategy.”

Where do you start?  You start wherever you are. Get all the people together who are working towards or are impacted by the issue (yes those impacted too- don’t do for people without people), start mapping, talking, wishing and planning. Social Justice is the concerted effort of a group of people to affect change.

You can spend your days putting out fires. You can spend your days addressing the end result of injustice or you can gather your fellow activists, funders, donors, leaders and fight for justice.

What social justice issue are you trying to address and at what level? Have you had the opportunity to set a strategy to reach a goal? What’s your experience setting theories of change?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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