What I’m Reading — February 2014

February 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Philanthropy Trends: The more things change, the more they stay the same

In the readings that I have focused on this past month, what I have been seeing is new trends in philanthropy, and yet more of the same.

Following on last month’s analysis of mega-gifts and increased philanthropy, there have already been numerous announcements in 2014 of huge gifts. This includes Harvard’s largest gift from a single donor, Ken Griffin gave the University $150 million, announced on February 19. Since the beginning of the year there have been many gifts of $50 million or more. You can receive weekly news alerts for these gifts by subscribing to NOZA.

Additionally, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in February that in 2013 there was a “surge in giving” from America’s wealthiest, including notable gifts like Mark Zuckerberg’s $1 billion (with a B) to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, $750 million from Texas oil tycoon George Mitchell to his family foundation in support of sustainability, and $500 million from Phil Knight to support cancer research at Oregon Health & Science University.

Is the mega gift actually back? This article from Forbes says that it will not be long for this world, according to a new survey of young beneficiaries.

According to Chronicle of Philanthropygifts to colleges and universities are trending upwards, with a ten percent increase over 2012. Alums are giving larger gifts, though the number of individual donors is trending down. Personally, I’d like to see what we in the business call higher participation levels. Everybody: give to your alma mater! It’s important.

This article from Spear’s (a magazine about wealth management), supports transparent philanthropy. That is, it opposes anonymous giving. I found this to be a refreshing piece in the way it shines a light on the complications and administrative burdens to a charitable organization that are required by anonymous gifts. Though the article doesn’t focus on this, I do support non-anonymous giving if only for the fact that standing as an example to others in the community and may encourage others to be more philanthropic.

More from the Chron of Phil on philanthropy trends from the One Percent: Some are criticising the signers of The Giving Pledge for not giving towards the world’s most urgent problems. Donors gave more in 2013, but some say that many are joining more for public relations purposes, and some sign but are not giving to capacity right away, making their philanthropic plans for later in life. Defenders of The Pledge say that it influences more effective giving, and encourages philanthropy in general. Additionally, there is a focus on recruiting international donors.

Talking of which…

USA! We’re Number One!

But just barely. Forbes analyzes the 2014 BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index, concluding that American donors give more that other countries, but by a slim margin. The article notes:

This is particularly striking given that the U.S. is the source of the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

Spear’s has some interesting analysis on the results of the study, too.

This month in “Duh!”

So, about that up tic in philanthropic gifts? Yes, it does signal economic recovery, I suppose, but also, it requires trained professionals and strong, positive organizational culture. While the focus is on health care, two new studies by the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy conclude that there is a direct correlation between investing in fundraising professionals and increasing fundraising revenue. You can read about it in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (subscription required).

Local News – Philadelphia

U. of Pennsylvania Official to Lead William Penn Foundation

News near and dear to my heart, Kim Cassidy was confirmed president of Bryn Mawr College. Anassa Kata!

Villanova class does good through documentaries – Students at Villanova are learning how to make documentary films that tell the story of local charitable organizations. Doing good.

Cool, Random, and Noteworthy:

Pope’s Harley goes for $327,000 at charity auction – That’s right, the Pope had a Harley Davidson, and the proceeds of its sale went to support a soup kitchen in Rome. This Pope is super bad. Like, totally sick. Just saying.

This could fit into the local category too: Local fundraising consultant Pamela Grow wrote a very nice piece on her blog about what motivates people to give: It’s personal. Amen, sister.

I enjoyed this piece from the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) by Fay Twersky, the director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She argues against “strategic philanthropy”, and advocates for more risk, and less certainty in philanthropy. She gently and subtly presses for less focus on outcomes and metrics and more creativity, innovation, and learning from beneficiaries. How very Silicon Valley.

In a similar vein, and also from SSIR, Phill Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy writes about Five Myths that Perpetuate Poor Philanthropic Strategy.

What are you reading?


What I’m Reading — January 2014

January 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of the most exciting stories about academia this month was the White House Summit on Higher Education. 140 college leaders, including Bryn Mawr College President Kim Cassidy (my employer, featured in this article on NPR about the Summit), gathered at the White House earlier this month to discuss and explore ways they could collaborate to better serve low-income students through their college experience.

On the topic of trends in philanthropy and fundraising, prior to the World Economic Forum, the Huffington Post posted this piece, Philanthropy as an Asset Class. The author posits that philanthropy needs to be a strategic part of the solution to the world’s economic problems, along with government and business solutions.

“Philanthropists have the capacity to articulate a vision and actually implement it over a realistic time frame by exercising the requisite skills, expertise and efficient deployment of private resources. These are luxuries rarely accessible to a President or Chief Executive.”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that charitable giving in 2013 increased by at least 13%, and the return of mega gifts is being interpreted as an economic rebound.

On the topic of data and metrics, there always seems to be interesting things to read. This month, the NP Quarterly posted a piece on the tyranny of metrics. Being a data and numbers person, I’m a believer in metrics. It’s important for any organization to be able to measure their progress to goals, whatever that may be. But I’m not so sure that it makes sense for those metrics to be uniform, such as with the model of Charity Navigator. How each organization determines success or failure perhaps requires a diversity of measures.

On the subject of data integrity, the New Yorker published this very troubling piece about an organization that sent out a piece of mail to a constituent addressed in part to “Daughter Killed in Car Crash.” How on Earth does something like that happen? It all comes down to internal processes and maintaining data integrity. What a nightmare for all involved. Let it be a lesson to us all in this business. 

On prospect research, an article in CASE Currents asks “are prospect research services worth the cost?” (subscription required). The title of this article, “The Massive Potential and Frustrating Pitfalls of Big Data” is misleading. “Big Data” is a real buzz term these days, an attention-grabber in a headline. But analytics and prospect research are really different topics having not much to do with each other. Also, I didn’t appreciate the sensationalism of the title questioning the value of prospect research in fundraising. The content of the article itself was generally good, and indeed ended in a positive place affirming that yes, indeed research is effective and important. The author consulted many well-known research and prospect development professionals, and it speaks to many of the reasons why information tools and professional staff are a good investment in fundraising. However,  it raises the typical privacy concerns that we are called on the debunk each time an article like this is published. It seems to me that an article like this that questions the value and ethics of our profession comes out about once a year. At least this lands in a positive place, but it leads and attracts attention with a negative introduction.

On leadership and management, the Harvard Business Review reports that employees who feel appreciated are better performers. Oh, really? Duh.

Finally, the January 26 edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy has many interesting reads, including the Outlook 2014 section with segments about what nonprofits should start doing, and what they should stop doing. Also, here are some nonprofit superstars doing some really cool stuff we should all know about. It also gave a nice shout-out to the humorous Tumblog of some friends of mine, When you Work for a Nonprofit. This blog is a good daily coffee break. I recommend it.

Happy reading!

What I’m Reading, July 14, 2013

July 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Two Paths for Charitable Giving: From the Head or From the Heart – From the New York Times. Interesting piece from a donor’s perspective, addressing the question of what should the primary motivator be for philanthropic decisions: heart or head, emotions, or practical impact. The answer, of course, it both, but the guts of this article get at issues of donor intent, stewardship, and raised questions for me about mission drift.

Why the long faces over $316 billion in American Giving? – From Fundraisinginfo.com. In response to the latest Giving USA report about the slow growth trend in US philanthropy. They argue that this growth should be cause for celebration, not hand-wringing. I do think the treand may be some cause for concern. People may be holding back a little as we all wait for the economy to get back on its feet, but these may indeed be encouraging signs. At any rate, perhaps there is opportunity, not doom and gloom.

The Rich are Irrelevant…and Other Thoughts about the Donor Pyramid – From the Nonprofit Quarterly. I think it’s always good to rethink the donor “pyramid” concept, especially as the geometric metaphor is kind or a misnomer. Every organization has a different shape to it’s prospect pool. At any rate, this article challenges fundraisers to think about way to prioritize potential donors at all levels. We should celebrate and prioritize donors at every level.

Worst Charities’ Report Prompts Calls for Charities to Respond – From the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) responds: “The list and accompanying article also miss several key points about fundraising and what ethical charities do and don’t do,” the association said in a statement. “The 50 organizations in the list are such extreme cases that they are not representative of what a typical charity looks like or how it operates.” I tend to agree.

Are “Sent From My Phone” Signatures Useful or Annoying? – A Discussion of the Day from Lifehacker. I find the question more interesting than the online discussion here. My opinion is that I don’t usually give the “Sent from my phone” signature much thought when I see it on email from others, but I have certainly changed my own. First, I don’t feel like advertising what kind of phone I use. Second, I do think it’s more polished to have a custom signature line. So, while I don’t judge others harshly, I do prefer not to use that tag line.

5 Practical Tips: Implementing a Social Media Policy at your organization – From LimeRed Creative Studio. Your organization needs to be on social media, and you need a social media strategy and policy. My favorite such policy is “Don’t be dumb.” However, in our world of imperfect humans, we need some more clearly stated guidelines. This post is concise and has some real-life practical ideas that you can implement at your organization.

September Is Yoga Month!

September 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

My favorite recent yoga resources

I don’t know where the summer went, but here is September! And September is Yoga Month! To celebrate and motivate (myself and others, if you are so inclined), and to honor work/life balance for information professionals (and everyone!), I am sharing some more of my recent favorite resources.

If you have never done yoga before, I highly recommend that you attend an in-person class in your neighborhood when you get started. Nothing really beats a live class. But to keep up a solid practice, doing it at home is really important, too. I have found over the years that the growing resources online have really helped me establish a solid home yoga practice. Yoga resources on the Interwebz are growing in leaps and bounds, I am happy to report, so here are some really great ones:


Unlimited yoga videos for $18 a month

Free livestream classes, and unlimited yoga videos for $15 a month. They also have four classes available for free any time. These don’t change frequently, but they are great classes and are worth repeating! I recommend Charlie Samos’ classes.

A nice variety of levels, styles, and class lengths here. Many videos available for free, unlimited availability for $9.95 a month. There is an online community and some programs for yogis/yoginis to accomplish specific goals.


If you search for “yoga” in the iTunes Store, and look at the available podcasts, you will find numerous choices. And the selection grows every day.


I always like to recommend my Pandora Power Yoga Music station. It’s a great way to discover new music that is good for yoga practice, and a great way to get some variety.
What are some others that you recommend?

Despair and Hope

October 2, 2010 § 2 Comments

The LGBT community has been saying for years that LGBT teens are at higher risk for suicide than other teens, and there have been numerous studies to support this claim. I do not recall another time where gay teen suicide has been so prevalent. This September, there have been seven suicides by gay teen boys, each story a tragedy for their families and communities.

Asher Brown, 13, Cyprus, TX

Seth Walsh, 13, Tehachapi, CA

Justin Aaberg, 15, Anoka, MN

Billy Lucas, 15, Greensburg, IN

Cody Barker, 17, Shiocton, WI

Tyler Clementi, 18, Ridgewood, NJ

Raymond Chase, 19, Monticello, NY

In spite of the hateful efforts of “Traditional Values Coalition” to spread misinformation about LGBT suicide rates, these recent suicides speak for themselves about the reality of the pain these teens feel as they are discovering their own sexuality in the midst of cruel bullying. It is heartbreaking for everyone.

In response to the fact of LGBT suicide statistics and these tragic stories, Dan Savage has launched the It Gets Better YouTube site and the Make It Better campaign to support it.

LGBT youth should not have to suffer bullying that leads to attempts of suicide. They should know that they are not alone and that they have resources to help them through. We can make it better, and we have a responsibility to do so.

Defending Prospect Research: A Response to the WSJ

May 22, 2010 § 1 Comment

This week, the Wall Street Journal published a blog post about prospect research, asking the question “is your favorite charity spying on you?” A very unflattering and biased way to introduce the topic and the debate. I cut my professional teeth in non-profit fundraising as a prospect researcher, and it is a job that I came to love, and I was proud to work for organizations that make the world a better place. Every once in a while, an article like this appears in the press, and I feel the need to speak up and defend not only a noble profession, but one that is vital to successful philanthropic fundraising.

Many colleagues have already spoken up about this article, pointing out that we have a well-established code of ethics and a Donor Bill of Rights. Also, the same resources we use in our day-to-day work are employed by the for-profit industry for the same purposes, and, as someone aptly pointed out, by journalists as they research their stories. Why is the Wall Street Journal picking on charitable organizations, and not private industry who are less likely to adhere to any ethical standards?

Information is an asset, and any charitable organization would be wise to make investments to enhance, manage, and protect that asset. Organizations who have a long-term goal of creating institutional memory in order to foster good relationships with their donors will be more likely to thrive. I have worked for organizations whose investment in their information assets have maintained successful philanthropic relationships with families and corporate donors for generations. Prospect research ensures better fundraising success and better donor stewardship.

Part of the job of a prospect researcher is to identify new potential donors. Time and again we hear that one of the main reasons people don’t give philanthropically is because they aren’t asked. We identify opportunities, encouraging philanthropy by matching interests to the programs we support.

When I started out in this business, I remember a major gifts officer telling me that savvy philanthropists expect us to do our homework. They expect us to keep good records and know something about their interests. They don’t want to be solicited beyond their capacity and be embarrassed, and for less than their capacity and be insulted. Nor do they want to have us waste their time with solicitations for causes that don’t interest them.

I am proud to be a prospect researcher. I have never met a researcher who didn’t love his/her job. It’s interesting work; we’re always learning new methods of research, analysis, and information management, not to mention the fact that we learn about fascinating and inspiring philanthropists. I was saddened to see the Wall Street Journal and Anne Kadet being so quick to judge without even talking to someone in the profession.

Social Innovation Conversations

February 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

If you are a nonprofit professional or work in any way with social benefit organizations, you should be reading the Stanford Social Innovation Review. If you are not, start now, or at least check out their blog and social media now and then.

The other day I stumbled upon the Center for Social Innovation’s Social Innovation Conversations podcasts while I was listening to my Stitcher podcasts. Yet another tremendous resource from Stanford. On the way to work, I listened to a lecture by Priya Haji, who talked about her company, World of Good, and its associated nonprofit organization, World of Good Development Organization. The combined mission of these organization is to improve economic and social conditions of women living in poverty. The business model is based on selling goods from impoverished communities that are produced ethically, sustainably, respectfully of the culture of the people, and ultimately get money back to the communities where they come from.

Haji’s enthusiasm and inspiration are infectious, and listening to this on my way to work made for an uplifting bus ride. Especially knowing that I am working with colleagues who are dedicated to ending hunger in the U.S.

For nonprofit professionals, it is important to be realistic about the challenges that our organizations face. It is equally important to find messages of hope and optimism, and sustainable business models that help us to think differently about what we do every day so that we don’t get stuck in a rut.

We should all be reading the SSIR and listening to its podcasts to keep up with industry trends as well as looking for inspiration.

Slow Adoption

April 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

On being an early (albeit slow) adopter

Along the spectrum of the Diffusion of Innovations, one can be an Innovator, Early Adopter, a member of the Early Majority, the Late Majority, or a Laggard. Since my early childhood, I have identified as an early adapter of technology tools. My decision to try new technology starts with learning about the concept of the tool in question, not just jumping in to be one of the first end users. If I’m not persuaded that the tool will be useful to my productivity, or if I don’t think it sounds fun, I won’t even consider trying it because it’s not a good use of my time or resources.

I have been using computers since I was six years old, which is a pretty early age for someone of my generation. My father worked for a Control Data Corporation in Minnesota, who owned the Plato computer system. I grew up using one of the earliest versions of the Internet, which involved chat rooms, instant messaging, and multi-player games. We had a huge monstrosity of a computer in our basement boiler room, and you had to dial into the Plato system with a rotary telephone. I would dial the number, and the system on the other end would make noises like a fax machine, followed by a staticky hiss, and I would then set the phone receiver to rest off the hook for the rest of my online session.

My dad used to take me to conventions where I would demonstrate how simple it was to operate a computer (“So easy, a child can do it!”). It’s surprising to me that I’m not more of a gamer since I spent so much of my early childhood playing role-playing games that involved building Dungeons and Dragons style characters, accumulating weapons and money and fighting scary creatures. However, since the popular advent of the Internet, I immediately took to communication tools, from email to blogging to online chat. When I stop to think about it, I realize that I have been using social networking technology for about thirty-five years, so it’s no wonder I am fascinated with Twitter, and that I’m so delighted to get in touch with old friends from high school on Facebook.

While I did not grow up to be a programmer (or a gamer), my expertise is in how technology tools can help people manage the daily onslaught of information.  In this age of innovation and information, the onslaught of new tools is almost as overwhelming as the avalanche of data that we have coming at us at any moment. As an information professional, I need to know about the most efficient tools that help to filter data in such a way that what is most useful is pushed directly to the end user.

I have not waited in line to purchase the first iPhone or Wii, but I have had a Twitter account since 2007, and my original yahoo address was simply sconner (I can’t use that account any more, with the incredible amount of spam I recieve there). It is my business to know about trends in information management tools, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time beta-testing something unless I’m confident it’s going to be a good investment of my time.

I like to wait for new products to have at least a couple of generations in production before I will spend my money on it. When I first started using Twitter, I didn’t get. I signed up for my account in November of 2007, but I didn’t start using it in earnest until almost a year later. Now it is something that I use daily to build social networks and share information.

Embracing the concept of the Slow Movement, I posit that slow adoption of technology is a prudent and wise investment of our resources.  I will always be eager to learn to new developments as they happen, but I will not actually adopt the tools until they have proven their usefulness to me.

Information Overload: Striving for Balance

March 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

I have not been posting here as often as I would like, though I’ve been collecting and organizing ideas of what I want to write about. In recent weeks, between the responsibilities of home and work, juggling work stress, illness at home, and keeping on top of chores and errands, I have been re-prioritizing my tasks and refining my organization system and tools. When am I going to have time to plant my herbs and tomatoes? I need to make sure I have time for it all.

Here are some things that have inspired me lately in getting organized, calm, better able to take care of myself and my responsibilities and still make time for building a creative life:

Namaste: Yoga Music

February 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

As an addendum to my last post on yoga podcasts, I thought I would share a station on Pandora that I have created for my yoga practice. I have come to really enjoy playing ambient music during my practice, even while I play the podcasts.

My Power Yoga station on Pandora that has shaped up rather nicely if I do say so, incorporating Thievery Corporation, Massive Attack, the Cocteau Twins, Niyaz, and William Orbit as the seeds. Since I don’t have a lot of yoga music in my collection, the station has introduced me to a lot of new artists. The station is calming, and I even listen to it at work sometimes. I have had to thumbs-down some rather stressful electronica,  or really cheesy muzaak, as Pandora is wont to play some odd choices, but I’ve been working on the station for a little while, so most of the tunes that come through are beautiful, peaceful, though sometimes can get you moving for a more vigorous practice.

Sometimes I like the ambient stations on SOMA FM for my yoga practice. I recommend Groove Salad or The Drone Zone.

As always, I welcome comments or recommendations. Namaste!

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