The I’s Have It at DVG’s 2009 Fall Conference


The 21st annual conference of Delaware Valley Grantmakers focused on the three I’s: Information, inspiration, and innovation. With presentations by Paul Brest, President of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Michele Jolin, Senior Advisor for Social Innovation for the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, the conference delivered on what DVG Executive Director Debra Kahn called the fourth I: Impact.

The conference opened on a somber note as DVG President and Brandywine Health Foundation President and CEO Frances Sheehan commented that the protracted state budget battle in Pennsylvania is hampering nonprofits at the very moment they need to be their strongest, but the mood quickly shifted thanks to a video presentation produced by local all-comedy theatre troupe 1812 Productions from Patricia “Patsy” Marie McNulty Divincenzo, host of “The View from My Stoop.”

This mix of economic realism, forward-looking optimism, and good humor permeated the conference presentations and the conversations of attendees. Paul Brest observed that this outlook helps form the backbone of successful strategic philanthropy. Brest laid out the crucial elements of strategic philanthropy (PPT) as setting a goal, forming a strategy, defining a theory of change, soliciting feedback, and completing a risk analysis.

“If you have no goal, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” but, “philanthropy never happens on a blank slate.” All philanthropy needs to learn from the field and seek great leaders and great organizations to achieve its goals and expected outcomes, Brest said.

Internal analyses performed by Hewlett have found that about 75% of foundations have strategic plans, but only about 40% have logic models spelling out how to achieve their goals. “How are you going to get from beginning to end?” asked Brest, “What connects your strategy to your goal?”

Brest encouraged funders to think of their grantee programs in terms of expected return, using a standard cost-benefit analysis formula (benefit x likelihood of success / cost). As an example, Brest offered Hewlett’s work with climate change, wherein the chance of absolute success is low, but the potential benefit is incalculably high, making the cost worthwhile. The best protection against risk according to Brest is to have a good, empirically based logic model.

Asked about the importance of risk taking for nonprofit by Seth Green of United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Brest pointed out that in the for-profit world, companies know on a quarterly basis how their risks are progressing, but in the nonprofit sector, each field has its own metrics. The more complicated problem is that there is very little evaluation of how nonprofits are doing. “We take huge risks in the nonprofit field, but we don’t know if it pays off or not,” Brest said.

Spurred by comments by Bruce Melgary, Executive Director of the Lenfest Foundation, about the importance of passion in smaller foundations who are just establishing their programs, moderator Loraine Ballard Morrill, News Director and Community Affairs Director for Clear Channel Radio in Philadelphia, asked Brest about the role of a passion in philanthropy. “It has to begin with passion,” Brest said, “If not, nothing is going to happen. A lot of Philanthropy stops with passion. Unless you’re willing to do the hard work, you’ve got passion and nothing else.”

Headlining the event was the Obama Administration’s Michele Jolin, who provided information (PPT) on how foundations can participate in and supplement the work of the Social Innovation Fund. Giving kudos to the newly formed Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, an online forum of social innovators, Jolin told attendees that “We need individuals, organizations, everyone working together to make progress on our greatest challenges.”

Jolin’s ambition is to see government act in partnership with others doing good around the country. The President created the Social Innovation Fund, Jolin said, because resources do not currently exist to spread ideas that are known to work. The fund establishes those resources to source and scale innovative community-based solutions that have the potential to deliver high-impact results.

Jolin and her colleagues will be taking a three-pronged approach to their mission: focusing on individuals doing good work in their own community or through organizations such as AmeriCorps, making the government a better working partner for public-private partnerships by breaking down barriers to participation, and creating a climate for better impact by investing in new ideas that catalyze innovation.

Along a continuum of innovative programs ranging from start-up to nascent to promising to proven, Jolin said the Social Innovation Fund will focus on the “promising” programs that have tested and evaluated themselves, but have not yet become modeled and disseminated. Though not yet written in stone, the $50 million proposed in the President’s 2010 budget would be given towards education, poverty/economic development, child and youth development, and health.

The Social Innovation Fund will be distributed to intermediary organizations to source and select nonprofit grantees; provide direct funding and support; monitor, evaluate, and support adjustments; and provide a responsible exit strategy for the project’s conclusion. Organizations that qualify as intermediaries include high engagement philanthropists, community foundations, national/regional organizations, state and local agencies, and technical assistance providers.  Funders will have the opportunity to collaborate with the Social Innovation Fund by aligning their investments with Social Innovation Fund priorities and making complementary and sector-building investments.

Jolin’s hope is that the Social Innovation Fund will provide the “rocket fuel” to help propel new ideas to wider adoption and implementation.

Several innovative partnerships were highlighted during a series of panel discussions with DVG members. The first panel featured Lisa Nutter, President of Philadelphia Academies, Inc. and Ruth Clauser of the Sunoco Foundation. The two organizations have collaborated to give students the opportunity to gain skills and make professional connections that prepare them for college and employment. Natalie Smith, a student from the program, explained that she had been able to take part in internships, gain interviewing skills, and received mentorship, in addition to care and support.

The second panel focused on the development of a medical-legal partnership by the Widner Health Law Institute and funded by the Barra Foundation, which funds innovative pilot initiatives. Barra President William Harral, III, described Barra’s funding strategy as “risk-oriented” and stressed that evaluation and dissemination are critical to the success of innovative programming.

A final panel featured Anne Marie Ambrose, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services; Zeinab Chahine, Managing Director for Strategic Consulting at Casey Family Programs; and Lawrence Bracy, Jr., a Philadelphia social worker.  Casey has worked with Philadelphia DHS over the past three years to provide front-line employees with technical assistance and tools to improve practice, with the ultimate goal of creating better outcomes for children.  In addition, Casey has supported Raise Me Up!, a national multi-media campaign that was launched in Philadelphia in September 2009. The campaign is designed to raise public awareness about the foster care in the United States and serves as a call to action to empower people to lift up and improve the lives of abused and neglected children and youth.

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