Featured Articles

The rich deliciousness of Blue Avocado . . . in-depth stories that give you the inside scoop.

Regrets of a Former Arts Funder

As Program Officer for Arts and Culture at the San Francisco Foundation, I and philanthropic colleagues often bemoaned how fragile many culturally specific organizations were. One person would wonder why there were so few financially stable African American arts organizations. Then a multi-voiced litany of woes would commence about how many Asian and Latino arts nonprofits were floundering in just as weak a state.

How was this possible in a community that has no "majority culture," that has had a Hotel Tax Fund giving decades of operating grants to culturally specific arts organizations, and a Cultural Equity Program since 1993 created to redress inequities in funding?

And sadly, at the national level, arts organizations from disenfranchised communities are no more stable. Few African American, Latino, or Asian theater companies founded in the 1970s are still in existence, or if they are alive, they do not appear to be as artistically vibrant . . .

The Trouble with Turkey

If there's one day when socially conscious do-gooders can be excused for letting the cares of the world slip away in a haze of tryptophan, it's Thanksgiving. As major holidays go, Thanksgiving is remarkably worry-free, its main focus neither commercial nor ceremonial in nature. You don't have to come bearing gifts. You don't have to dress up. You don't have to stay up till midnight. Even religious worship is usually not de rigueur, unless you count prayer at dinner.

Honestly, unless you're the host, all you have to do on Thanksgiving is show up, watch football, and, well, eat. Right?

Ah, if only it were that easy.

Endorsing Candidates. Illegal. How to Do It.

Perhaps the most effective way to bring about social change is to elect the right people. Yet nonprofit 501c3 organizations are prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates running for office. Some long-time nonprofit practices address this restriction, but are seldom discussed in public. We bring these practices -- and the reasons for them -- to print:

Nonprofits can take stands on policy issues: we all know this. Our organizations can take stands on local issues (such as zoning changes), state issues (education budget), and national issues (immigration reform). We can write policy briefs and letters to the editor that advocate strongly for or against any proposed law or policy. We can lobby legislators and we can encourage our constituents to write their senators (within wide limits). We can organize a march on City Hall. But we can't say, "Our organization endorses Joe X for senator." Nor can we say, "Vote out Senator Joe Y."

In other words, we are legally able to do many kinds of political work, but not the most effective: endorsing and opposing candidates.

For decades many nonprofits have worked around these rules, taking careful, strategic steps for two reasons:

  • To influence voters in their constituencies to vote for a particular candidate
  • To establish a relationship with a candidate that will be useful once that person is in office

If we want to be effective with legislators in office, we'll be a lot more effective if we've helped them get elected. As one executive director of a national women's rights organization said recently in New York, "You can't lobby 'em if you didn't help elect 'em."

We talked with three nonprofit executive directors (in addition to the one quoted above) about the importance of endorsing candidates and how to do it legally . . .

In Defense of Strategic Planning: A Rebuttal

Mike Allison is one of the leaders who defined strategic planning for the nonprofit sector, and he continues to expand and develop his thinking and practice in the area. We're delighted to have his rebuttal to the article in the last issue of Blue Avocado, Strategic Planning: Failures & Alternatives:

I am an unapologetic advocate of traditional strategic planning.

I have to admit I am not a disinterested party in this debate. As a consultant with nonprofits for the last twenty years, much of my work has been done under the umbrella of strategic planning. I continue to do this work because I believe strategic planning is both necessary and provides a unique contribution to nonprofit organization effectiveness. In this piece and from this perspective, I respond to some of the major complaints about strategic planning that were outlined in Blue Avocado's critique.

Strategic planning is made irrelevant by major shifts in the environment.
Funding was cut for some of my clients by 20% to 40% in 2009. In the cases where these clients had recently completed strategic plans, they had frameworks that were incredibly helpful in making a series of very difficult decisions in a short period of time. Why were these frameworks so helpful? Because . . .

Strategic Planning: Failures and Alternatives

Here is Part 1 of a two-article series on strategic planning and alternatives to strategic planning.

Strategic planning swept into the nonprofit sector in the mid 1980s. Nonprofits were becoming seriously interested in management techniques, and strategic planning -- along with meeting facilitation and fundraising training -- was a focal point for that interest. Twenty years later, today no organization would dare say it doesn't have a strategic plan.

As the recession deepens, many nonprofits now have strategic plans that they can't move forward on. Those plans aren't helping them figure out what to do instead.

And even before the economic crisis, there has been widespread grumbling about strategic planning. Too often dozens of meetings fail to produce new insights. Nonprofit staff are often frustrated that "the strategic plan is never used," while many board members feel the strategic plan is simply a validation of what the staff is already doing or has decided. Executive directors often get going on new ideas long before the strategic plan is adopted, and by the time the document is finished, it can feel like old news.

Organizations often undertake strategic planning "to get board members engaged" or "to get everyone on the same page," objectives which could be reached in much more efficient, productive ways. Meanwhile, consultants make money (one nonprofit consulting firm charges $200,000 for a strategic plan), and foundations -- for whom the plans are mostly written -- read the plans with eyes glazing over.

This is not to say...

Get Thy Nonprofit Self Into Therapy!

For those who are interested in learning more about psychotherapy, Elizabeth Sullivan provides a good overview of the assistance it can offer. It's important to remember that there is a wide continuum of what people need or get from therapy and that results and timelines, of course, vary by person. It may not even be therapy, but, for example, coaching or mentoring, that's more appropriate to your needs. But that's a different article all together.

I worked most of my career in nonprofits, but I experienced so much dysfunction -- including my own! -- that in 2007 I decided to train as a psychotherapist.

The very dynamics that motivate us to change the world can also create unnecessary personal, psychic suffering and result in a need for psychotherapy for some. Many of us hold ourselves to an ethic of sacrifice and self-deprivation as well, often stemming from some variety of guilt or survivor guilt. Of course, we have clear, ethical, intelligent reasons to change the world. But we need personal freedom in addition to social freedom.

Top 7 reasons nonprofit people may find therapy helpful . . .

How to Hire Your First Development Director

The only thing worse than not having fundraising staff is having bad fundraising staff. To help you avoid the mistakes many others have made in hiring development staff, we've stolen a script of a scene with consultant Leyna Bernstein as she talks with an executive director contemplating hiring fundraising staff for the first time.

Olivia (the ED), in a tired voice: As you know, I'm the executive director of a nonprofit, and we've decided we need to hire a development director. We don't have any dedicated fundraising staff right now, and I spend too much of my time raising money. I just can't keep this up.

Leyna, eyebrows raised: So . . .

Grantseeker's Guide to Foundation Affinity Groups

Like the mysterious Freemasons and their Grand Lodges, foundation affinity groups feel open and warm to insiders, but to outsiders they seem to be secretive, cloistered societies with their own coded languages, titles, and hierarchies. Rick Cohen first tells us about the lodges -- er, affinity groups -- then gives practical advice on how to make this knowledge work for your nonprofit:

You can't be a member of a foundation affinity group unless you are on the staff or board of a foundation. Their conferences are forums where grantmakers discuss what they should be funding . . . but you can seldom go unless you're a foundation person.

Why should you care? Because knowing how to work within their circles is an important way to get insider information about foundations and to get your organization a positive profile among grantmakers . . . in short, to help you and your cause raise money from foundations.

First we'll discuss the different types of affinity groups, then give some specific tips on how to make the most of them for your nonprofit, including ways . . .

Six Easy, Nearly-Free Ways to Be More Disabled-Accessible

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations are undeniably intimidating and seem so expensive to implement, but disabilities activist Mary Lester says there are simple ways to make your office and program sites more accessible without busting the bank. Mary offers the following six easy and affordable ways to dramatically improve your accessibility for people with disabilities. Four for visitors and two for staff:

For clients, patrons, visitors

1. Put up signs, darn it! So many nonprofits have an entrance somewhere that's wheelchair accessible, even if their front door isn't. But there isn't a sign on the front door that tells visitors to "Go around to the left side of the building for a wheelchair accessible door" or "Press this bell for assistance with the door."

Similarly, if your main bathroom isn't accessible, but . . .

How Did This Happen? Part 2 of the Vanguard Foundation Story

In Part 1 of this story on the decline and fall of the Vanguard Public Foundation, we reported on how Vanguard's leadership became involved with apparent conman Samuel "Mouli" Cohen, and how millions of dollars disappeared into a get-rich-quick scheme, resulting in Vanguard's closure. In this concluding article, we explore how it was possible for a respected foundation to have come to such an inglorious end.

In August 2010, in a television-like drama, a limo was pulled over in Los Angeles by unmarked sedans and some 20 federal officers emerged -- some with guns drawn -- and arrested Samuel "Mouli" Cohen. A sealed indictment listed 19 counts of wire fraud, 13 counts of money-laundering, and accusations of defrauding 55 investors of $30 million.

The chief victims of this apparent con game? The Vanguard Public Foundation and its major donors.

Today, the Vanguard Foundation -- once a daring, progressive leader -- is little more than a telephone number, with its donors, leaders, and Cohen involved in multiple federal and state lawsuits.

The courts will eventually determine what Cohen did or didn't do and how much insiders at Vanguard -- including CEO Hari Dillon -- are to blame. What concerns us here are the questions on everyone's minds: What should the . . .