Just Awards: Follow-up to "The Nonprofit Justies"

Just before the Council on Foundations conference in April of this year, the first Just Awards were announced:

* For Narcissism in Philanthropy: the Rockefeller Foundation and President Judith Rodin

* For Abominable Coverage of the Nonprofit Sector: "Charities Rise, Costing U.S. Billions in Tax Breaks," by Stephanie Strom in the New York Times.

What has been the impact of these tongue-in-cheek awards? As the creators/sponsors of the awards, we -- Michael Gilbert of Nonprofit Online News and Jan Masaoka of Blue Avocado -- want to report on the response, and ask for your suggestions for next year's awards.

Rockefeller gets the word

As part of the Just Awards announcement, we commented: "A comparison was made of online mentions of three top foundations and their presidents: the Ford Foundation and Luis Ubinas, the Kellogg Foundation and Sterling Speirn, and the Rockefeller Foundation and Judith Rodin. Looking only at mentions since 2008 (when Ubinas, the newest of the three, started his tenure at Ford) we find that, in proportion to their online mentions in general, Rockefeller promotes its president more than 12 times as often as Ford and more than 176 times as often as Kellogg."

In addition to hundreds of blog mentions and tweets, the new Just Awards and the Rockefeller choice were the buzz in many hallways at the Council on Foundations conference. Many people reported "hilarity" and a strong sense that the choice was "dead on." "You couldn't have chosen a more deserving foundation!" was one typical comment.

An observer close to the foundation who asked not to be named reported that the Just Awards announcement was seen by at least two members of the Rockefeller Foundation board. And several people -- including one foundation watcher who tracks Rockefeller press releases -- noted that there was "a sea change" in the content of these releases and a dramatic reduction in the promotion of its president, Judith Rodin. This change was confirmed in Michael Gilbert's analysis that Rockefeller Foundation mentions of Rodin have dropped by three-quarters since the Just Awards. From our point of view, if a foundation focuses more on what it and its grantees do and less on its own staff, that's a good thing.

The announcement of the "(dis)honor" given to the Rockefeller Foundation made its way around the web and telephone wires. One former Rockefeller employee -- who described herself as both hired and fired by Rodin -- phoned to say that the award was discussed in the informal groups of employees who see themselves as Rodin survivors, and who fear for the foundation's course. Perhaps most intriguing: this same person reported that she and others had been interviewed by Stephanie Strom of the New York Times in anticipation of a story about the controversies that swirl around Rodin . . . but that the story never appeared.

Abominable coverage of the nonprofit sector

Judges gave the Just Award for Abominable Coverage of the Nonprofit Sector to another New York-based entity: the New York Times, specifically for the article, "Charities Rise, Costing U.S. Billions in Tax Breaks," by the afore-mentioned Stephanie Strom. "The worst article of the year," commented one judge. The award announcement noted, "The article asserts that the U.S. government lost $50 billion in taxes due to donations given to nonprofits . . . making the false assumptions that a) contributions to the nonprofit sector would remain the same without the tax exemption, and b) government could ignore the enormous financial impact of demand for services (such as emergency room visits) that would inevitably follow from fewer nonprofit programs. Furthermore, the article neglected to provide, as a basis for comparison, information on the many billions more in tax breaks provided to the commercial business sector."

The judges went out of their way to praise Strom's other work, but singled out this article for a combination of inaccuracy and, because of the wide play that it received, detrimental impact on the nonprofit sector. We did have to grin when Strom (who did not respond to our attempts to reach her for comment in advance of the awards) stated to the Chronicle of Philanthropy that she was "flattered" by the Just Award.

Runners-up: response & commentary

To maintain the focus on the two "winners," judges chose not to name the two runners up for the Narcissism in Philanthropy Award. But both were guessed and "outed" by Blue Avocado readers: the Chase Community Awards and the Santa Cruz Community Foundation (see Comments following Blue Avocado article).

We were pleased and admiring when Lance Linares, President of the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, chose to comment on Blue Avocado's website to explain the decisions that had won them a runners-up place. He noted that the decision to build an $8 million building for the foundation (which gives out approximately $4 million in grants each year) was made during the economic boom, and that the building would be used by nonprofits as well as the foundation. Whether or not readers agree with his comments, we applaud this foundation's response to community criticism: a kind of engagement in dialog about itself in which most foundations so, so rarely participate.

Doing the math on Chase Community "Giving"

Reader Sabrina Qutb made a zingy comment and analysis responding to the revelation that Chase was one of the runners up: "I've always wanted to see the value of corporate and foundation philanthropy analyzed as a math problem:

Number of applicants * hours for application process
* average hourly rate of nonprofit person
= how much nonprofits donated to Chase advertising

Let's take Chase Community Giving: Over 500,000 nonprofits participated. That means that 500,000 nonprofits allocated at least some of their staff or volunteer time to promoting the contest. Let's give Chase the benefit of the doubt and say that each participating nonprofit only spent 1 hour of time. Multiply that times $10 per hour (a very low ball number). What is the result? Looks like Chase Community "Giving" siphoned off $5 million dollars from the nonprofit sector to promote its business and gave back $4 million! This isn't just narcissism -- it is robbery!"

We love you, Sabrina.

Moving the needle on foundation culture

One Just Awards judge commented that a foundation program officer, while asking for additional information on a pending grant proposal, recently said to her (paraphrased here): "I'll probably get nominated for a Just Award for asking for this, but . . . " We've heard this and similar stories from many folks. We hope the Just Awards have made a small cultural change in philanthropy: bringing attention and just a tiny tinge of fear that might reduce egregious behavior. Or perhaps: a little cultural reminder that nonprofits are observing and judging . . . although they may not be saying it out loud.

We're already starting to receive nominations for the next year's Just Awards, which again will be announced just prior to the Council on Foundations annual conference. Keep the Just Awards in mind and feel free to nominate more than once (though we hope you don't encounter the need to)! Submit your nominations here.

Giving heart to the downtrodden

A key goal of the Just Awards was to give heart and moral support to the many people and nonprofits that suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous foundation behavior and wildly inaccurate coverage by the press. Some awards are meant for fun; others are meant to help make change; the Just Awards were intended to do both, and did.

We again want to thank the distinguished panel of judges who not only participated in selecting the first year's winners, but have helped re-shape the process to make it much stronger and rigorous next year. Judges this inaugural year included Rick Cohen, Aaron Dorfman, Robert Egger, Priscilla Hung, Ruth McCambridge, and Rosetta Thurman.

Here's what some others said about the Just Awards:

"The Sweet Science of Incentives: How Prizes and Awards Are Changing Philanthropy," at Social Entrepreneurship.

"Tongue-in-Cheek 'Just Awards' Go to Rockefeller Foundation and New York Times," in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

"'Just Awards' for the Abominable and the Narcissistic," in LA Philanthropy Watch.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Nominate for next year by clicking here!

Comments (4)

  • Ugh, just this morning for breakfast I was just grumbling about my Dannon Activia yogurt. On the outside packaging, I'm told I can help donate up to $1.5m to breast cancer awareness. Then on the inside, I'm told I can go to a website, enter all my personal info so they can spam me constantly, and TEN CENTS will be donated to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. How stupid do I look? How stupid do THEY look? Why would any foundation pimp out their name and their pink ribbon brand for a chance at a DIME? The fine print says Dannon will give at least $500,000 (including for retailer-specific programs--like what? their cost of printing pink ribbons on yogurt cups?) and at most $1.5m. So, 15 million yogurt cups, almost 15 million people taking the time to enter their email address at some website--at what point do we just tell people, if you want to help a charity, send them the $8 you were going to spend on charity-branded groceries and be done with it?

    Sep 15, 2010
  • Anonymous

    So true, Jennifer, but I think this is par for the course. My favorite examples are when corporations tout their giving with a Super Bowl commercial, and it's obvious that they spent far more on the commercial than they actually gave to the cause in which they've draped themselves.

    I'd love to see an article on examples that are the exception to this rule -- that is, when the ratio of giving to self-promotion is better (another factor to consider: if the advertising is done in a manner that leads to greater direct support for the featured charity, in an amount that is proportionate to the advertising costs).

    Sep 21, 2010
  • Some foundations require that one answers the same questions regardless of the size of the grant. I had to respond to 13 questions several years ago for a $1,000 grant. I think I more than spent the money on my time to fill out the report. Flo Green

    Sep 23, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Cox Charities in Orange County CA has a competitive grant process. Ten winners have been announced. Nine will get $5,000 and the tenth will get $10,000, based on a popular vote! I picture staffs of ten nonprofits spending hours dialling for dollars... Hmph.

    Oct 05, 2010

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