I have recently been in several meetings and conversations that centered on systemic change in the philanthropic sector. At a Capital Ideas Symposium at Harvard last month, we explored a wide range of new, more efficient approaches to investing in effective nonprofits. In a Grantmakers for Effective Organizations listserv discussion, several funders talked about the disadvantages of restricted, project-specific funding, and argued over the merits and challenges of operational and unrestricted funding. And the Center for Effective Philanthropy recently published a report on foundation practices that sparked some vigorous reactions. I expect that the Council on Foundations conference, which is coming here to Seattle next week, will be a backdrop for all of these discussions. Among the myriad of events, I’ve been asked to facilitate a roundtable discussion on “new” philanthropy.
All this talk makes me wonder….Am I just living in an echo chamber with a narrow segment of the sector, or is something really afoot? These are some of the questions I’ve heard discussed:
• Should more grants be in the form of unrestricted or operational funding, to give nonprofits more flexibility and greater capacity?
• How can we streamline the application process, or make it more efficient across funders? (This is an age-old question, but one that has recently been addressed successfully in a few communities.)
• Funders are collaborating more, but there is still not much of a “capital market” through which effective nonprofits can scale their solutions to social problems. (Bridgespan has done some excellent work in this realm of late.)
• How can the grant acceptance and reporting processes be streamlined to save nonprofits time, and spare them the “shell games” they play to appeal to different funders?
I want to ask all of SSIR readers—nonprofit folks, funders, policy people, academics, etc:
1) Is there a genuine wave of momentum behind some of these systemic changes?
2) And if so, what are the main ideas you’ve heard discussed?
3) What do you think are the priorities?
Paul Shoemaker is executive director of Social Venture Partners Seattle and founding president of SVP International. Previous to these positions, he acted as the group manager for worldwide operations at Microsoft Corp. and as a product manager at Nestlé USA.