Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What sector do you work in?

I love Michelle, but I must take umbrage.

201 out of 665 users used these 6 open source tools. I don’t think that’s possibly representative of the sector (especially since in the survey, the most popular CRM was CiviCRM.)
In a sector where 80.8% of registered nonprofits have budgets under $100K per year and 50.9% 990 filers have budgets under $100K, OF COURSE these data make sense (2007 NCSS data). Who can possibly afford the commercial alternatives? Open source, free and accessible solutions are the obvious choice.

And obvious and used CRM solutions like Giftworks, MS Excel and post it notes weren't even in the survey (see dotorganize survey).

IN FACT, only 30% of NTEN CRM satisfaction survey respondents had budgets under 100K compared with the 50.9% in the sector .

And I'm not just saying this becuase CiviCRM emphatically spanked the huge commercial competitors. ;)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Too bad capacity building is passe

Funny quote from a small foundation:

The foundation I work for, along with every grantmaker I have spoken with, complain about the same thing - "The grant applications we have to review are horrible. Organizations don't follow directions!" About half of these horrible applicants get their grants. Even though we continually ask for what we need from charities to evaluate their requests, are we partly to blame for the problem of horrible applications?
My thoughts for the program officer:

(1) You are giving horrible applications grants. What have you just taught the grantee? Kinda like the parent that tells their kid "no" 5 times and then gives in. The kid just learned that the parent didn't mean it when they said no. Nonprofit know that the grant application is seldom the key determinant in whether you get a grant (see Larry Lessig's new work on corruption).

(2) How much money are you giving these grantees to improve their ability to respond to grant applications? If the answer is $0, then clearly this is not a problem you think is significant enough to invest in. Again the charity understands that the application isn't very important.

Givewell: Naive or Inspired

Probably a little bit of both. Rather than get into the debate about GiveWell, I'd like to point out a basic principle that the traditional philanthropic sector just doesn't get:

Openness. I've pointed out the different interpretations of openness before, but in the nonprofit sector, here we are pursuing charitable missions, where we want to help people, it sure seems like a no-brainer to be open about what you are doing.

Givewell exhibits two important pieces of openness:

(1) Publish what the charity submitted to Givewell. I'd be curious to know how many of the documents that charities submit to funding agencies can be found on their own web sites. If the material toots your own horn, publish it!

If you are bankrolling an organization, have them share their knowledge with the rest of the sector- more people will be helped.

We all know how backward the philanthropy sector is... we can't even get an aggregated RSS feed of grants made by foundations (Grantsfire seems stillborn). But what if you could get that RSS feed with a link to the application itself? A very powerful research tool for donors.

(2) Publish the selection methodology. My experience in the private foundation world was that the methodology we usually extraordinarily good. However, since there were always grants made that were clearly not motivated by the methodology, publishing the methodology just encouraged people to figure out which board member's in-law was on the board of the organization that got a big grant even though the methodology suggested they were a less effective candidate.

I tends to come down on the side of publish the methodology and don't feel embarrassed that there is favoritism. A foundation should be able to say, we have a relationship with this organizations and choose to fund them. End of story.

But having the methodology out there is huge for the sector.

Constructive debate can now happen. The metric of "Cost per significant life change" is, in my opinion a pretty bogus figure. But someone has bothered to put a methodology out. Now others can offer alternative methodologies. Hopefully the wisdom of crowds comes up with some better metrics.

Other thoughts that I don't have time to flesh out:

Givewell does something similar to the Sunlight Foundation in politics. See Larry Lessig's switch from copyright to corruption. By bringing philanthropic efforts into the light (openness) you reduce the dominance of corruption in philanthropy (which IMHO is almost as corrupt as politics, in Lessig's definition of corruption).

The nonprofit sector is almost architected to stifle innovation. Of course brash outsiders with poor social skills are the guys that innovate.

Charity Navigator (administrative costs are everything) and Givewell ($ per life saved) are probably both wrong. But the fact they are open means eventually they or someone else will get closer to getting it right.


I'm not knowledgeable enough about the sector to confidently critique anything but the lack of transparency and public discussion. And it's this problem that stops any other problems there might be from getting addressed. -Holden Karnofsky
OK, just this quote alone makes me want to send them a check.