Friday, 22 September 2017

Criticising philanthropists

At its heart, philanthropy is a good thing. A private individual gives their time, expertise and most often, money to support others.

But philanthropy does not happen in isolation. It takes place in a context of politics and power and so it quickly becomes contested and complicated. Would more good be achieved if people paid more taxes instead? Should decisions about what causes get funding be determined by a wealthy elite? This opens up philanthropy to criticism and there are, rightly, calls for it to be more democratic, more strategic and transparent.

But criticism is often levelled at individual philanthropists and the choices they make and this raises a number of issues:

First of all, philanthropy is a public expression of your values. It is an exposing place to be. When philanthropists are then criticised, is it any wonder some chose to stay anonymous or only support safe causes and organisations? This goes against the desire for greater transparency. It also discourages independent philanthropists from their vital role of taking the risks that government funders cannot.

Secondly, it discourages philanthropy altogether. Promoting philanthropy and encouraging more people to give takes public support and peer role models. Philanthropy’s not the answer to all social ills, but in the UK alone there are estimates that persuading more wealthy people to give could easily grow giving by £1.3bn to £5.2bn. (see below). I am fascinated by what we consider acceptable. If you decide to go into banking, no one berates you for not being a doctor or a teacher. So why are we so quick to criticise philanthropic acts?

And lastly, choosing which causes to invest in and which organisations to back is not easy to do. And because philanthropy is personal, people will have different priorities: health, social justice, art, animal welfare. I have certainly heard it argued passionately that there is no point trying to address poverty as climate change is the key issue. And vice versa that environmental change can only occur if injustice is tackled first. Advice, research, consultation with those affected are all incredibly helpful. But there is no right answer. Criticising someone’s choices suggests that there is one right thing to do and worse, supports the idea of the philanthropist as powerful saviour. Philanthropy is better and stronger when everyone is engaged in it and all their gifts are combined – not everyone will support the arts so it is OK if some people do. There is plenty of room to give to small and large, local and global, crisis support and campaigns for long-term systemic change.

So yes, we can educate philanthropists about need. We can help them to make as much difference as they can with their money. Buts let’s do so in a way that creates an encouraging and constructive space that attracts others to join.

Emma Beeston Consultancy advises funders and philanthropists on giving strategies and processes; researching and scoping options; selecting causes and charities; assessments and impact monitoring. ;; @emmabeeston01

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Am I safe from robots?

Over the summer I have been troubled by robots. Will I be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI)?

Surely not? Surely my years of experience and practice are invaluable and difficult to replicate? As a human philanthropy practitioner, I am able to identify trends and assess all the many factors involved in deciding how good a proposal or prospect is and what degree of social change it will achieve. I can’t imagine a machine being able to understand the importance of culture, ethos and passion. I like to think my reading of accounts and plans and conversations with workers, service users, Trustees and Chief Executives lead me to robust, deep and nuanced judgments.

But then I read another account of the power of algorithms and the power of AI and it reminds me that machines fed with big data will be much quicker than me in spotting trends and correctly attributing benefits. In the financial services industry, algorithms are already making their presence felt. For example, HSBC has an online investment service using alogrithms and robo-advisors are expected to be responsible for assets worth $285 billion in 2017 (see links below).

And perhaps robots will not just be quicker at analysing data but will also be better than me. The things I rate as important such as questioning and listening skills, building rapport, and sector knowledge may lead to me making wrong assumptions and biased decisions. However objective I like to think I am, a robot is less easily swayed by a good story, charisma or being wrongly attached to a familiar intervention.

So perhaps it is only a matter of time before I too am replaced by a robot. And that may well be where my hope lies – time. How long is it going to take for someone to invest in the technology needed? Someone will have to create the algorithms and gain access to the relevant data. Someone will also have to make decisions about what impact measures to use. It is one thing to invest in robots where there is a profit to be made but who is going to invest in philanthropic robo-advisors?

The charitable sector has been slow to adopt digital. Perhaps this delay will mean that it becomes the last bastion of the value of human relationships when all around are working with robots. I might find a home there for my skills in connecting humans trying to achieve social good. But I am no luddite, and I feel uncomfortable with this conclusion. Philanthropy should grasp the opportunity that robots will bring to better understand who and what to invest in to achieve the maximum good. My hope is that I will continue to bring the human judgment and compassion, whilst my robot assistant does all the number crunching and data checks.

Emma Beeston Consultancy advises funders and philanthropists on giving strategies and processes; researching and scoping options; selecting causes and charities; assessments and impact monitoring. ;; @emmabeeston01

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Charity workers: We need you … to go on holiday

I know we are into the holiday season because emails have reduced. I hope you are about to get a break to recharge your batteries. This is not just a good thing for your own wellbeing but it is also a good thing for the charitable sector as a whole.

Burnout for those leading charities in a difficult operating environment and those frontline workers responding to people in crisis, is a real issue. Burnout comes when constant stress renders you feeling helpless, disillusioned and completely exhausted. The way to tackle it is all too familiar: eat well, sleep, relax, exercise, connect with others and take breaks. Burnout is something that Trustees should pay proper attention to now more than ever, because staff teams are dealing with rising demand and diminishing resources. Trustees have a duty of care to their staff and need to check that they are taking their leave, have supervision and mentoring in place, manageable workloads and are trained in ‘self-care’ techniques.  

Burnout is awful when it hits caring individuals. There is also a cost for the charity. Staff with valuable experience are lost and have to be replaced with new people.

But worse than that for the sector is ‘becoming jaded’ because those affected in this way tend to stay in their jobs. Jaded is “feeling or showing a lack of interest and excitement caused by having done or experienced too much of something.” When it happens to leaders it can bring everyone down and create a negative culture. The organisation becomes inward looking, risk averse and misses new opportunities. You see it in people whose response to any suggestion is “we’ve tried that before”.

Clore Social Leadership Programme’s report ‘Is the charity sector fit for purpose?’ found “If leaders’ passion and courage dissipate then all that remains is the energy to chase the funding to keep an organisation afloat. Being jaded cannot be dismissed as merely ‘the cost of doing business’ in the sector. People do not become leaders in the charity world to become jaded, they become leaders to see social justice become reality.”

The same is true with funders. In his brilliant essay ‘The spirit of philanthropy and the soul of those who manage it’, Paul Ylvisaker sets out 11 commandments for grant makers. Number 8 is stay excited and hopeful. As he explains “When you find your battery of hope, excitement, and even idealistic naiveté so drained that you don’t let an applicant finish a presentation without pointing out why it can’t be done, it’s time you departed for another profession.”

So please don’t feel guilty about taking time off. Everyone working in the charity sector needs a break to avoid getting tired, burned out or jaded. Recharge and come back excited and hopeful. Because without passion and optimism it is going to be hard to get through the uncertain times ahead.

Happy holidays!
Ylvisaker, P. (2008) ‘The Spirit of Philanthropy and the Soul of those who manage it’ in Kass, A. (Ed) Giving Well, Doing Good, Indiana University Press

Monday, 19 June 2017

Is it time for complexity-friendly funding?

When I started out in grant making 15 years ago measuring impact could be quite different from today. When asking how a charity knew what difference a particular project or intervention made, it was not unusual to get the answer “from the smiles on people’s faces”. So, the move toward measurement, evidence and a focus on outcomes was welcome. It provided a helpful approach for funders when deciding how best to allocate resources. And more importantly, a useful tool for charities to really understand what was working and where to focus their limited resources. It also provided additional internal benefits for charities, such as motivating staff and helping those who received support to see the progress being made.

But there are limits to the outcomes approach, and these are now being discussed more frequently. Some people continue to see measuring outcomes as a tick-box exercise – targets that meet the needs of external audiences - rather than an opportunity to learn. Effort can be wasted measuring things that don’t need to be measured – surely we can all agree that play is good for children’s development and people’s wellbeing improves when they connect with others? And by tying everything into a neat logic flow, from problem to intervention to result, are we not missing the fact that people’s lives are far more complex than this? That it is hard to attribute positive change to single interventions that inevitably take place in the context of so many other factors.

This brings me to my favourite read so far this year: the report “A Whole New World: Funding & Commissioning in Complexity” from Collaborate (link below). It “challenges the idea that an intervention (project, organisation or programme) can be held accountable for the impacts it makes in the world.” Instead “outcomes are created by people’s interaction with whole systems”. It puts forward the case for a complexity-friendly version of funding which puts people back into the heart of funding approaches. It calls for an approach that recognises that people working in the sector don’t need to be incentivised using targets; that measurement is just one mechanism for learning; and that it is healthy systems that support social good.

The report sets out lessons for funders. But what does it mean for charities and other social purpose organisations? It is not saying to stop measuring your impact, but to recognise other important factors such as: trusting relationships, the expertise of staff and the interconnectedness of processes, interventions and organisations. And when dealing with funders, strive to be honest; challenge narrow targets and a metrics-only focus; be confident in your expertise; speak up and out about your added value – your ethos, your people; be humble about what you claim is down to you and embrace the complexity of those you serve and the context you operate within.

Emma Beeston advises philanthropists and grant makers on how best to direct their money to the causes they care about. Support includes strategy and programme design, scoping studies, assessments and monitoring visits.;; @emmabeeston01;

Friday, 26 May 2017

A plea for plain English

At a recent event a new fundraiser asked what one tip I would give her when writing bids. My answer was: to use plain English – to articulate clearly what was wanted, why, what difference it would make without using any jargon. Her response was something I hear a lot: “but I have been told that successful bids must reflect back the language that a funder uses”.

This seems to be a common message given to fundraisers and I would love to know what it is based on. This is why I don’t think it is helpful or true:

1. A human reads your bid
Until we are at the point that an algorithm does the job, it is a person that will read your application. I don’t find funders or assessors are impressed if you just repeat their language back to them. It is no different from a job application. If you say in the job description, “we are looking for resilience”, you don’t get excited when an applicant puts “I am resilient”. What you want to know is what that means for them and how they can demonstrate it.

2. The language a funder uses may not be as deliberate and considered as you think.
As with any organisation there is a lot of scope for communication to go adrift and be interpreted in different ways. So criteria like embedded or sustainable will not necessarily mean the same thing on the website as in actual practice.

3. You don’t know who will read your bid.
Even if the wording of the criteria is an accurate reflection of the funders intentions, you do not know who the final decision-maker is. They may not be the staff that wrote the copy or chose the priorities. Think of your Trustees – some are there for their cause-specific knowledge but others are there because of their skills in law or HR or finances. They won’t all know, interpret or use the same language as the ‘official’ line.

Rather than try to parrot a funder’s language, take control of your message. The best way to do this is to use clear, plain language which gives less room for misinterpretation and assumptions. For example, you may be asked to explain how you ‘deliver an effective pathway of support’. But that does not stop you from telling the funder exactly how you will link people to the right support without them needing to repeat themselves or be bounced between different agencies.

I don’t believe mirroring language is effective and I urge all fundraisers to use plain English. But does mirroring work for you?

Emma Beeston advises philanthropists and grant makers on how best to direct their money to the causes they care about. Support includes strategy and programme design, scoping studies, assessments and monitoring visits.;; @emmabeeston01;

Monday, 15 May 2017

The persistence of application forms

Application forms are a long-standing part of life. We apply to do a course, to join a club, to take out a loan, to get a job. They are also the commonest tool used to seek funding.
There are alternative methods:

Letters – equivalent to a CV and cover letter, some funders ask applicants to make their case for support in a letter. They may make suggestions as to length and content, but it is left up to the applicant what to include and how to structure the letter.

Pitches – these are used in live crowdfunding events like the Soup movement and The Funding Network but there are also some funding events trialing this approach. It brings storytelling and emotional engagement to the fore as you appeal directly to an audience and appeal to them for funds.

Films – like a pitch, but captured in a short film and not in person. Appeal films are more often used in social media campaigns but are sometimes requested by funders as part of the application process. It is a way to clearly demonstrate what you do, visually and in just a few minutes.

Platforms – there are several models where charities put forward their details and wishes for interested funders and donors to select. This can be just as a nominated charity for the local co-op branch or one of several hundred on Localgiving, the Big Give or the Good Exchange.

So with all these alternatives why does the application form persist?

It is easier to process – it is in date at the point of a decision (unlike platforms); it consistently gathers everything that is needed for a decision (unlike letters); everyone provides the same information which can be imported and analysed in databases; it includes a signature so can be a declaration of truth and accuracy as well as permission to store data and take up references.

It supports fairness – gathering the same information in a uniform format makes it clear what information is wanted and makes it easier to make comparisons and judgements based on evidence. Inviting applications means you are open to groups you don’t yet know about. It is not just about who can tell a good story or present well. And although they do take time to do well, they probably take less time than making a film or being present for a pitch, so are more accessible for those on limited resources.

There are still things that funders can do to improve the application process. For example, only asking for information that will definitely be used; not asking for documents that are already on the charity commission website; being very clear what information is being sought and why. And an eye also needs to be kept on whether the alternative approaches become better for user-led or smaller groups, or ease the burden on fundraisers and applicants. But in the meantime, it looks as if application forms, for good reason, are here to stay.

Emma Beeston Consultancy advises funders and philanthropists on giving strategies and processes; researching and scoping options; selecting causes and charities; assessments and impact monitoring.;; emmabeeston01

Friday, 28 April 2017

The head and heart of philanthropy

I sing in a community choir and one of the songs in our repertoire is ‘Bread and Roses’.

“Hearts starve as well as bodies
Give us bread, but give us roses”

This comes from a protest poem by James Oppenheim and has been set to music many times including by John Denver. Although singing is an escape from work, this particular song always gets me thinking about philanthropy.

Philanthropy is often framed as oppositional: either ruled by the heart or by the head. At one extreme, donors are characterised as easily moved by emotive stories and thoughtlessly giving money to whatever causes they care about. At the other end philanthropists are described as dispassionate and objective, keen on impact and effectiveness and looking to scale up social change using business approaches and technology.

But of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. What’s the point of effectiveness without understanding and compassion? And money given just with the heart can be a missed opportunity to fund something else with greater impact. Paul Connelly puts this across really well in his article ‘The Best of the Humanistic and Technocratic: Why Philanthropy Requires a Balance’ – the answer is to recognise the strength in both approaches.

As a Philanthropy Advisor, my role is often about stepping in to correct any imbalance. This could mean adding the head: such as researching alternatives or conducting thorough assessments. Or it could involve ensuring the human element is part of any potential solution, for example, challenging the desire for easy measurables when people’s lives are complex and chaotic.

A recent trip to the Foundling Museum in London reminded me that the head and heart have often gone together in philanthropy. Established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, the Foundling Hospital was both the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. Coram was motivated by the plight of abandoned children but it took 17 years of campaigning and negotiating to get his hospital built. And from the start he was supported by artists – including Hogarth and Handel – who donated works and gave concerts to raise funds. Music and art was part of the children’s education and paintings lined the walls. Coram saw they needed bread – and roses too.

Emma Beeston advises philanthropists and grant makers on how best to direct their money to the causes they care about. Support includes strategy and programme design, scoping studies, assessments and monitoring visits.;; @emmabeeston01;