Attracting — and Keeping — Talent in the Nonprofit Sector

7 12 2010

In my previous blog post, I described the Tom Barron’s ideas about empowering youth.  I have spoken to several people about this concept, and it has generated significant enthusiasm.

Recently, I traveled to Boston and had the pleasure of meeting with Mark Kramer, Managing Director of FSG Social Impact Advisors.  Mark has been an advisor to major foundation, corporate, government, and nonprofit organizations and leaders.  He had a different approach to the youth empowerment idea.

Mark said that attracting young people into the nonprofit sector is much less a problem than it was in the past.  In the 1990s, many of the brightest young people were attracted to the Silicon Valley or Wall Street.  According to Mark, the bursting of the tech bubble followed by the great recession has changed that phenomenon significantly.  Mark asserts that a significant percentage of graduates from the best business schools in the country are not only willing – but are motivated – to work in the nonprofit sector.  These people are not willing to work for $30,000 a year, because they want to raise a family and be able to send their own kids to college.  They are, however, willing to work for $80,000 or $100,000 per year in the nonprofit sector, even though they could make many multiples of that in the private sector.

As Mark explains, “the $80,000 or $100,000 salary range is what enables one to raise a family and send their kids to college – with great frugality to be sure, but without sacrificing a comfortable life.  Somehow we feel that people must make great personal sacrifices to work in the nonprofit sector and help solve social problems – however, there is a category between making sacrifices and getting rich, where the rewards of helping others are compensation enough to attract many of our country’s most talented youth.  And the added cost to our society of recruiting this talent would, I believe, be more than made up for in the greater savings from faster progress solving our social problems.”

The challenge in Mark’s view is the fragmentation of the nonprofit sector in the United States.  There are currently some 1.3 million nonprofit organizations in our country.  Mark asserts that we don’t need leadership development to get the brightest young people to run these organizations as much as we need fewer nonprofit organizations that offer more generous salaries and can attract the best management talent.  Among other things, Mark would advise The Denver Foundation to devote some resources to addressing this issue.  What do you think?

– David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation





If I Had a Billion Dollars… (Part Two)

28 10 2010

Since Bill Gates and Warren Buffett issued their “billionaires challenge” earlier this year, it has received almost unanimous acclaim in the United States.  Editorials, pundits, and other observers have praised Gates and Buffett for urging billionaires to give away at least half of their money to charitable causes.  Even the comic strip Doonesbury has gotten into the act, with a poignant series where Warren Buffett tries to convince greedy billionaires to be more philanthropic.

To my surprise, I learned recently that the billionaires challenge has received a much less positive reception in Europe.  Several European commentators have criticized not Gates and Buffett, but the United States.  In short, the writers feel that the U.S. tax structure is insufficiently progressive.  They argue that allowing billionaires to select their favorite charities is undemocratic, and that it is better to have a democratically-elected government making these major resource allocations.

Are the critics right?  Should we raise taxes in the United States so that government can do more?  As Renée Loth from the Boston Globe has observed, “Charity is…not a substitute for government…Charity will not build roads column pick up the garbage, or inspect hamburger meat.  It will not do enough to support unpopular groups like prisoners or drug addicts.”

To those who argue that raising taxes will destroy our economy, it might be noted that when Ronald Reagan became President, the income tax rate for the highest brackets was 70% – twice what it is today – and our economy did not collapse.

Despite these arguments, I personally believe that the critics are wrong and that our democratic government and capitalistic economy are the best possible structures.  Winston Churchill once noted that, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all those others that have been tried.”  The same might be said for capitalism.

After decades of attempting a different model, the Soviet Union self-destructed in the 1980s.  Even one of the last holdouts for alternative political and economic structures, Fidel Castro, recently conceded that the communist government and controlled economy system doesn’t work.  Cuba is laying off 500,000 of its 3 million government workers and urging them to find jobs in the private sector.

It seems clear that giving people political and economic freedoms is the best way to stimulate innovation and a strong economy.

So, I for one, choose the American system of government and economics.  It’s great that these systems have created more billionaires than anywhere else in the world.  It’s also great that many of these billionaires are joining Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in giving at least half of their money to charitable causes.

Just like all human beings, America is far from perfect.  We need taxes and government intervention to rectify problems and address issues that the free market doesn’t solve.  But, overall, a free-market democracy is the by far the best way to grow the economic pie so there is more for everyone.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation





If I Had a Billion Dollars… (Part One)

7 10 2010

In the early 1990s, when my kids were young, they introduced me to a song called “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Canadian music group Barenaked Ladies.  Lately, that song has been going through my head, with one letter changed: “If I Had a Billion Dollars.” 

Most people are probably aware of the challenge issued by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.  They have asked all billionaires to commit to giving away at least one half of their money.  At last report, more than 40 individuals have made this pledge. 

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me what I would do if I were one of these billionaires.  At first, I hemmed and hawed a bit, saying it depended on many factors.  My friend pushed a little harder and said, “Suppose a donor wants to give away $1 billion per year for the next 10 years.  What would you advise that donor?”

Instead of answering off the top of my head, I decided to sleep on the question overnight.  The next morning I typed up the following email.

Among the threshold questions for the donor to ask and answer are the following: 

  • Time horizon.  How long are you willing to wait to achieve success—5, 10, 20 years?  Do you want the impacts to last in perpetuity?
  • Risk tolerance.   Analogous to private equity, the size of the impact generally varies inversely with the likelihood of success.  For example, the impact of peace in the Middle East would be enormous, but the likelihood of success is small.  How will you feel if you work on something for 5 or 10 years and it fails?
  • Passion. What are you most passionate about?
  • Deep vs. broad.  Would you prefer to have a huge impact on thousands of people or a smaller impact on millions or billions of people?
  • Demographic subgroups. Do you want to concentrate more on the U.S. or on other countries?  Do you have a special interest in children, women, the elderly, the ill, or some other group?

 Ideas to consider 

  1. Solicit ideas in a retail manner. Have a very public, web-based competition to suggest ideas for how to use the money.  Billions of brains thinking about this are better than a smaller number.  Make it a wiki process so that people can see and improve upon the ideas of others.
  2. Solicit ideas selectively.  Spend a few months interviewing and picking the brains of the 100 or so most intelligent and creative people in the world from all walks of life: scientists, artists, clergy, philosophers, inventors, etc.  Also, get advice from Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and other philanthropists who have been doing this for a while.
  3. Focus on climate change. A persuasive case can be made that the biggest challenge facing the human race is climate change and that we must act immediately.  Consult Al Gore and other experts to determine where you could make a difference.
  4. Focus on solar energy. The world’s energy needs require the equivalent of a new nuclear power plant every day for the next 40 years.   The only way to meet those needs is to get a significant portion of the world’s energy from the sun.   There is more than enough energy from the sun to provide for all the world’s needs if we could only figure out how to convert it to usable energy cost effectively.
  5. Adopt a city. Pick a struggling mid-sized city in the U.S. and provide their current residents with funds for greatly enhanced public education, universal health care, infrastructure, job training, and human services.  Use money to induce employers to relocate to this city thus providing jobs and a new economic base.  As Maimonides said, the highest form of charity is to give a person a job or the means for self sufficiency.
  6. Adopt a country. Do the same thing described in #5 for an underdeveloped country.  In this case, funds might also be used for immunizations, clean water supplies, and other basic human needs.
  7. Don’t reinvent the wheel.  Pick a handful of organizations that are doing outstanding work and give them a huge infusion of funding— an endowment or a guaranteed revenue stream for 10 or 20 years.  At the international level, this might include organizations like Ashoka, which funds social entrepreneurs, or the Central Asia Institute, (created by Greg Mortenson who wrote Three Cups of Tea) which builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  At the national level, this might include organizations like Teach for America or Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone.
  8. Cure a disease. After consultation with experts from places like the CDC and NIH, select one or two diseases that might be cured in the next 10-20 years.  Get researchers from around the world to work both independently and collaboratively.  Give a large prize to the researchers who succeed.  Keep substantial funds in reserve to produce and distribute the cure in case it’s in the form of a drug or a vaccine.
  9. Provide universal preschool in the U.S. Evidence is overwhelming about the importance of early childhood education.  It’s essential in brain development and the key to bridging the achievement gap between lower and higher socioeconomic groups.  Every child should have access to a high quality preschool education with well-compensated and trained teachers.
  10. Replace the National Endowment for the Arts. Create a national endowment for the arts so that government doesn’t have to do it and so that politics will be removed from the arts.  Concentrate funding on new plays, new music, and new works of visual art.  The arts are one of the key differences between civilized and non-civilized societies.  We need food for the soul as well as food for the body.
  11. Buy out a dictator or two.  Pay a couple of dictators a lot of money to give up all power and leave the countries that they rule.  Then give many times that amount of money to the country to build a democracy.  

Needless to say, this is only a partial list of hundreds of ways to spend this money wisely.  Additionally, I still have not decided what I would say if I were forced to pick only one idea.

I think this was a valuable exercise as it relates to The Denver Foundation’s upcoming Strategic Planning process.  Even though it will probably be a very long time before The Denver Foundation has $1 billion a year to give away, and even though our geographic focus is more limited than many of the ideas on the above list, the thought process involved is similar.  We at The Denver Foundation would welcome your ideas about what you would do if you had $1 billion – or, for that matter, any amount less than that.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation





The Future of Community Journalism

15 09 2010

After I finished my formal education, I spent 10 years in state and local government.  After leaving government, I went to work in the private sector.  At that point, friends often asked if I missed being in government.  One of my half-facetious replies was “It’s nice not to wake up every day and dread reading the morning newspapers.”

Indeed, when I worked for the Governor of Colorado and the Mayor of Denver, there were often days when I awoke to read a newspaper headline about some bureaucratic scandal or impropriety.  At the time, there were more than 50,000 state employees and more than 20,000 city employees.  It was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, some employee would be caught loitering on the job, using government resources for personal purposes, or even embezzling money.

In those days, Denver was in the midst of a newspaper war between two equally-strong dailies: the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.  As a result, entrepreneurial reporters had a huge incentive to get a scoop and to publish an exclusive story before the competition knew about it.  This led to occasional journalistic errors, where a story would be printed in haste – before the facts were verified or before both sides could be presented fairly.  But this environment also led to aggressive investigative reporting that was insightful, educational, and revealing.

Times have changed.  Last year, the Rocky Mountain News ceased operations after 150 years.  The Denver Post, the “winner” of the Denver newspaper war, is struggling to remain afloat financially.  Faced with competition from the internet and countless other news sources that did not exist just a few years ago, the Post has had to cut staff and other costs.  The paper today is much smaller than it used to be, with fewer reporters covering state and local news.

At one level, the end of the newspaper war is a relief.  The number of sensational, inflammatory, attention-getting headlines and stories has declined.  But, at a deeper level, the end of the newspaper war and the loss of the Rocky Mountain News have been tragic for our community.

A study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that there is an inverse relation between the number of investigative reporters in the community and the amount of local government corruption.  In other words, investigative reporters uncover corruption and that leads to less corruption.  I suppose that if people in local government know they are more likely to get caught and be publicly exposed if they do something bad, they’re less likely to do something bad.

Printed newspapers are dinosaurs; they are becoming extinct.  Many members of my generation will never lose the desire to read a hard copy morning paper, to have ink-stained fingertips accompanying breakfast.  But such a desire is almost nonexistent among younger generations.  Before long, newspapers will be a relic of the past.

What will replace traditional newspapers?  Some people argue that the internet has already replaced newspapers, that wiki sites and open-source information collecting are a better and more customized way to get news than newspapers ever were or could be.  Other people argue that we are losing a crucial piece of our civic infrastructure.  This second group urges some combination of private, public, and nonprofit sources to finance local journalism in new and creative ways.  An example is ProPublica, the nonprofit, independent news source that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year, or I-News, the investigative news network founded here in Denver by a former Rocky Mountain News reporter. 

What do you think?  Should The Denver Foundation get involved in supporting local journalism?  If so, how?

 — David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation





Interview with a Veteran of Hope: Dr. Vincent Harding

17 08 2010

Lauren Casteel and I recently had the honor of meeting with Dr. Vincent Harding, Professor Emeritus at the Iliff School of Theology.  Dr. Harding graciously agreed to talk to us about The Denver Foundation’s Next Decade Project.  Because he was so eloquent, I have decided not to try to paraphrase his words.  Instead, I am presenting this in interview format.  We did not tape record the conversation, so Dr. Harding’s comments are not reported verbatim.  However, he reviewed, edited, and approved them before we posted this.  This is a long post; I encourage you to read the whole thing if you have time. 

Denver Foundation: Thank you for agreeing to let us pick your brain about the future of The Denver Foundation and philanthropic needs in our community.

Dr. Harding: You may pick my brain as long as you also pick my heart.

Your question has touched a spigot.  The first thing that came to my mind was a conversation my wife Rose and I had with María Guajardo when we first came to Denver in 1981.  María reminded us that demographers were predicting that Denver was a few decades ahead of the United States in terms of its diversity.  Therefore, what we do here is not limited to our city.  We in Denver can make a contribution to the entire country.

I am currently writing an article for Sojourners magazine about the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Martin said he dreamt of a time when his children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.  The question that follows is how do you measure the content of a person’s character?  You must know that person as an equal, as a fellow human being.  We do not have the social or other structures to draw us into the encounters which will make it possible for us to be able to measure each other’s character.

Secondly, Martin dreamt of the time when little black and white girls and boys will be able to join hands.  Here again, the question is how they can get close enough to join hands when society today is pulling them apart.

So, this is on my mind when I think about what our community needs.  The Denver Foundation should convene people frequently.  The foundation should help to measure the character of people and to bring children close enough to be able to join hands.  Children start out with the need to join hands, but they can be discouraged by silence and by the absence of opportunities for touching and being touched.   

The Denver Foundation: What could the process of bridge building mean?  How do you practice the process of building common ground? Is the current economic and political environment changing this?  

Dr. Harding: The United States Social Forum recently met in Detroit.  This is a group of community organizers whose manifesto, which started in Brazil, says, “Another world is possible.”  They’re developing models for what a post-industrial city should look like and be like.  Grace Boggs, widow of the late Jimmy Boggs, is a first generation Chinese-American who speaks about this.  She notes that there are two aspects of the Chinese character for crisis: a time of great danger and a time of great opportunity.

The Great Depression caused a lot of pain but also generated a lot of creativity.

A West African, during the liberation struggles against colonialism in the 1960s, said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.”  You have to dream something before it can happen.

The Gardening Angels are a group of African-Americans in Detroit who moved there from the South.  They are teaching young children about community gardens.  They are one image that comes to my mind.  Schools in Detroit are now developing school gardens, where food goes straight into the school lunch program.  Look for opportunities for children to do things creatively together.

In our Ambassadors of Hope Project, we had diverse teens living together for a few weeks on the University of Denver campus.  None of these kids had ever lived with people from a different racial group.  One of these teens is now a youth organizer for Padres Unidos.  There, he is trying to bring black and brown children together.  We can help dozens of young people like him.

What kind of education is necessary to nurture young people who will be leaders in the development of a multiracial, compassionate democratic society? How do you create compassionate democratic leaders? How do you nurture people who can lead a multiracial society?  The Denver Foundation, located in a city like this, is well positioned to help with this work.

You do not become democratic just by being born here.  The democratic spirit has to be nurtured and developed.

Until Montgomery, most of us in the North (black and white) looked at rural southern black people as being somewhat backward.  Those people surprised us and became the heart of the movement to transform our entire nation.  “At risk” kids are really children of promise.

The Denver Foundation: We are increasingly concerned about boys in our society.  What do you think?

Dr. Harding: I have seen what great things young men can do.  But they have to be surrounded by people who value them.  We need to encourage young men to be all that they can be.  The New Jim Crow talks about how the U.S. penal system is turning young men into outcasts without any sense of future.  The author talks about the school-to- prison pipeline.

The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this work without being top down?

Dr. Harding: Start with people like Terrance Roberts from Prodigal Son and women from Mi Casa who are already working in the community.  The Denver Foundation should be honest brokers.  Bring together people from multiple generations, from separated communities.

The Denver Foundation:  For the last four years, we have hosted a paid internship program for college students to work in local nonprofit organizations.  We focus on students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in the nonprofit sector.

Dr. Harding: This sounds like a great program.  You should ask your interns what is their purpose now.  Many of them have overcome huge obstacles.  The question is, what next?  Do they want to be famous or make money, or do they want to help create the country that does not yet exist?

I remember that in the years before the Southern Freedom (Civil Rights) Movement picked up momentum many black (and some white) southerners dealt with the terrors and injustices of white supremacy by leaving the south.  It was only after a new generation of young people decided to stay and work for change that the south and the nation could be transformed.  (For instance, Martin Luther King declined numerous job offers in the North in order to return to the South.)  The work is clearly not complete but it could not have been begun unless a generation decided to stay and commit themselves to the dangerous and magnificent work of change.  I believe the same commitment, vision and courage are needed to creatively transform our urban areas—South, North, East and West including Denver, Colorado.  I don’t think that it’s wise to give our best and brightest young people the signal that their ultimate goal should be to escape from their home communities.  Young people who do succeed in overcoming difficult circumstances should do more than just buy their momma a house.  We need to encourage them to help transform the communities from which they came.

The Denver Foundation: How can The Denver Foundation do this?

Dr. Harding: For starters, find people like me who have been through that experience who can talk to them, also, give people regular opportunities to come together.  We need to develop new institutions for nurturing people – this used to be done by families, churches and schools.  Your internship program sounds good, but do not drop them at the end of the summer.

The Denver Foundation: Who has been most influential in you life?

Dr. Harding: There are so many people: my mother, my wife, my daughter, and many of my teachers.

The Denver Foundation: What role do you think The Denver Foundation should play in education?

Dr. Harding: The Denver Foundation should help to create a humane public-school education experience for the children of this city.  Young people have to be nurtured in the meaning and beauty of multiracial democratic life.  People have discomfort taking on issues of race and class in America.  We have to address these questions with our young people.  Something has to be done to help teachers talk creatively about race and the gifts of a multiracial society.

– David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation





Help Wanted: Whole Brain Thinkers

18 05 2010

A few months ago, at a meeting of The Denver Foundation’s Arts and Culture Committee, Stephen Seifert made passing comment about a book he had read recently. Stephen is Executive Director of the Newman Center at the University of Denver and a member of The Denver Foundation’s Arts and Culture Committee. The book he recommended is A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.

I finally got around to checking the book out of the library and reading it. I found it to be fascinating and thought-provoking. Pink’s thesis is that the jobs of the future in the United States will require more right brain thinking. It has long been known that the brain has two hemispheres, each with different functions. In oversimplified and over generalized terms, the left side of the brain specializes in logic and analytical thinking, while the right side of the brain specializes in emotions and creativity. Pink suggests that the jobs of the late 20th century, such as computer programmers and engineers, stressed left brain skills, while the jobs of the 21st century will stress right brain skills. The book suggests that each of us ask three questions about our current jobs:

1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

2. Can a computer do it faster?

3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

I am happy to say that most of us in the nonprofit sector can answer the first two questions “no” and the last question “yes.” That would tend to position us well for the future. Pink goes on to describe in some detail the six senses that will be most helpful in the future. I don’t want to ruin the book by listing and describing the senses, but they include the ability to tell good stories, the ability to combine disparate ideas, and having a sense of humor.

In one of my Next Decade meetings, I met with a technology expert from the Silicon Valley. I expected his advice and predictions for the future to be very technology-oriented. To my surprise, without mentioning Pink’s book, he made several of the same arguments. This technology expert said that one of the biggest losses in education today is the reduction or elimination of art and music programs in the public schools. He posited that the skills one learns from art and music, such as creative thinking, will be even more coveted than expertise in math and science. Daniel Pink is careful to point out that everything we do involves both the left side and the right side of our brain. It is not a question of learning math and science or studying poetry, fiction, and the arts. Rather, we must teach and learn all of these disciplines.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation








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