Bringing the Next Decade Blog to a close…

4 01 2011

As 2011 begins, this Next Decade Blog comes to a close.

Throughout 2010, I talked one-on-one to well over 100 individuals about the future of philanthropy and the future of The Denver Foundation. I have heard hundreds of insightful ideas and suggestions.

At this point, I feel a bit overwhelmed. I plan to spend a considerable amount of time thinking about, organizing, and synthesizing what I have heard. All of the work of the Next Decade Project will then feed into The Denver Foundation’s new Strategic Plan.

In January, The Denver Foundation will begin a new Strategic Planning process. An important part of that process will be a Listening Campaign that will include many opportunities for public input.

The next Denver Foundation Strategic Plan is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2011, with implementation to commence in January, 2012.

I am enormously grateful to everyone who helped with and participated in the Next Decade Project this past year. I wish all of you a happy, healthy, and fulfilling New Year – and decade!

— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

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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

Empowering the Next Generation: What’s our role?

18 11 2010

I recently had a “Next Decade” meeting with my good friend Tom Barron, also known as T.A. Barron.  Tom is one of the most interesting and creative people I know.

After growing up outside of Colorado Springs, Tom attended Princeton University.  He received a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Oxford University.  Then, he got a joint law and business degree from Harvard.  Upon completing his formal education, Tom went into business in New York and ran a very successful private equity firm.

In the 1980s, Tom “retired” from his first career in the business world.  He moved back to Colorado to become a writer.  In the last 21 years, Tom has published 24 books.  I think I have read all of them.  Tom’s specialty is fantasy; he has written a series of books about the adventures of young Merlin.

Tom has a passionate love for nature and the outdoors.  In the early 1980s, he climbed to the base camp of Mount Everest.  During his ascent, Tom crossed paths with Sir Edmund Hillary, who was descending from the base camp.  Hillary led the first expedition to the summit of Mount Everest and had returned to the base camp more than 25 years later.

When I met with Tom and asked him about the future of The Denver Foundation, I anticipated that his recommendations would revolve around protecting the environment.  Somewhat to my surprise, Tom’s advice was quite different.  He suggested that The Denver Foundation focus on empowering young people. 

In Tom’s opinion, we face enormous challenges in many areas.  He believes that the key to meeting those challenges lies with the younger generations.  Tom’s advice is to give young people the confidence that they have the ability and the power to make the world a better place.

He noted that empowerment is an issue that crosses all demographic groups.  The need to empower young people is important in the most privileged socioeconomic groups as well as the least privileged socioeconomic groups in our society.

Empowerment also transcends issues.  Tom notes that young people are individual bundles of positive energy.  If they feel empowered, they will tackle the issues that are of most interest to them.  Collectively, this young energy and idealism will be the key to addressing the many problems we face.

Tom’s ideas struck a very responsive chord for me.  Every time I meet with young people, I get inspired.  Perhaps The Denver Foundation should devote more resources in the coming decade to empowering our younger generations.  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

Nonprofit Boards: An Important Place to Invest

30 08 2010

One of my recent Next Decade conversations focused on nonprofit board development.

The person I met with is involved with several nonprofit organizations in Colorado and beyond.  He noted that there has been a proliferation of nonprofit organizations nationwide.  All nonprofits in the United States are legally required to have a Board of Directors.  In his experience, one of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits is governance

He believes (and I do too) that nonprofit organizations are much more successful if they are well governed.  He suggested that The Denver Foundation devote more resources to helping nonprofit organizations improve their governance.  This could be done by making more money available for technical assistance grants.  He advised that nonprofit organizations as well as The Denver Foundation should focus more on what outcomes they want to achieve.

Thinking about governance, I was reminded of my very first Board meeting as executive director of The Denver Foundation.  Shortly after I was hired in 1996, one of the five other staff people at The Denver Foundation resigned to take a job in the private sector.  Rather than replacing that person, I decided to reorganize the office and change the job responsibilities of several staff people.

I wrote new job descriptions and sent them to the Board as part of the Board packet prior to my first Board meeting.  At the Board meeting, the subject of Board reorganization came up on the agenda.  A member of the Board made a motion to approve the staff reorganization and to authorize me to fill the vacant position.  The motion was seconded.

Immediately, a member of the Board, Kerm Darkey, raised his hand and said he was going to vote against the motion.  I thought to myself, “Oh no!  This is my very first Board meeting and I’m already encountering a belligerent Board.”

Kerm went on to say, “The reason I am voting against this motion is that it is none of our business how David organizes the staff.  As long as he stays within the annual administrative budget that the Board has approved, the executive director should be free to create any job descriptions he wants and to hire any staff he wants.”

The woman who made the motion said, “You’re right, Kerm.  I withdraw the motion.”

I will always feel indebted to Kerm Darkey for his wisdom as a The Denver Foundation Trustee.  As an experienced business and civic leader, Kerm knew well the appropriate role of a governing board vis-à-vis the executive director and the staff.  The Board should set broad policy and the staff should implement that policy.

There is no doubt that there is a need for improved governance among many nonprofit organizations.  Is this something in which The Denver Foundation should invest a greater proportion of its resources?

— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation