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

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

Words of Wisdom from Peter Goldmark

6 08 2010

Readers:  This is Part 2 of a Blog Post about David Miller’s meeting with Peter Goldmark.  Click here for Part 1.

Peter Goldmark did not know what I was going to ask him, so he did not do any advance preparation. Essentially, I asked him what areas he might get involved in if he were running The Denver Foundation in the next several years. He rattled off a large number of ideas in a remarkably short period of time. All of his ideas were off the top of his head, so they were general concepts.

Here are some of the main suggestions Peter Goldmark made for The Denver Foundation to explore:

1. Americans have become very polarized. Do we really want Americans to be fighting each other when the economy is so bad, when millions of American children are in poverty, and when we are facing intense economic competition around the world? The United States was founded on a variety of compromises. For centuries, people in other countries have admired how we govern ourselves – our Bill of Rights, our checks and balances. There is a huge hunger in this country to overcome the growing partisanship. We should encourage our elected officials at all levels to reach across the aisle, make compromises, and work together.

2. Forty percent of carbon emissions come from buildings. We need to reduce the carbon that buildings emit by retrofitting old buildings and building new ones that are cleaner.

A model that might be useful in this regard is the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) of the 1970s and 1980s. CDCs did not just improve housing in blighted areas. They reintroduced social values.  In one building, a middle-aged woman in the Bronx got fed up with the drug dealers. She organized tenants, kicked out the drug dealers, fixed up the building, and became fierce in protecting the building and making people pay rent on time.

The CDC model was successful in part because there were some national intermediaries such as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Intermediaries will probably be necessary for energy efficiency and retrofitting because it is technically complex. These intermediaries can be a buffer between large sources of money and all the local churning. It also is helpful to have a progressive utility company. Such a project could provide jobs, reduce carbon emissions, and use energy more efficiently.

3. The Environmental Defense Fund has organized a project involving business school students and energy efficiency. Twenty business school students are selected for an internship and given a short training program on energy efficiency. Each intern is then assigned to a different company with the task of analyzing the operations of the company to save energy. The first group of 20 interns saved their companies a total of $30 million through energy efficiencies!

4. In today’s world, every foundation, including community foundations, should have an international component. One part of this should be helping to reduce the local carbon footprint, to reduce the global impact of carbon emissions. However, that is not enough. There also should be international engagement. One way to do this might be through the arts and arts exchanges.

5. We need a place where anyone throughout the world can be a citizen. We need a place with no boundaries and no military, a place that transcends nationalism. Perhaps this could be Antarctica. The current treaties regarding the non-militarization of Antarctica expire in a few decades.

6. We are losing newspapers. Think about the value and the skills of the people in the traditional newsroom. How can we preserve that? Perhaps The Denver Foundation could make grants to journalists and young people to deliver independent, high-quality news in the community. You could establish and support what would be the equivalent of a local bureau of the Associated Press.

7. Look for successful programs around the country and bring them to Denver. One example might be a project in Boston called The Community Builders. This organization provides financial coaching for families in low-income housing. It assists them with job connections and seems to be effective and efficient.

8. Work with the state government to create a public authority that buys energy efficient HVAC systems for public buildings of all kinds.

9. Get successful charter schools involved in reducing childhood obesity. These schools are already models for education reform. Use their leadership to help show how school-based programs can be used to reduce childhood obesity.

As you can see, these ideas are both broad and deep. I’m sure if I had another hour with Peter Goldmark he could have doubled the length of this list. These ideas provide great food for thought. I welcome input from readers as to which of these ideas are most worth exploring.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Boys Face Challenges

7 07 2010

“Well I talk about boys now, what a bundle of joy.” – Ringo Starr singing the Beatles song “Boys.”

A recent Lilith magazine cover boldly stated, BOYS ARE THE NEW GIRLS.” The current issue of The Atlantic has a fascinating article titled, “The End of Men.” 

When I first got involved with foundations nearly 20 years ago, there was great concern about girls. I worked closely with Swanee Hunt, founder of The Hunt Alternatives Fund, and Lauren Casteel, President of The Hunt Alternatives Fund.

Among the many issues of interest to Swanee and Lauren at the time was “girls.” Swanee was one of the founders of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado and Lauren was one of its early Board members. They were concerned about many ways in which females lagged behind males, including pay scales, glass ceilings, and elective office. The Hunt Alternatives Fund worked on a variety of projects aimed at helping girls, such as trying to reduce the math and science achievement gap and trying to reduce teen pregnancies.

Today, as evidenced by Lilith and The Atlantic, there is a growing concern about boys.

Less than 43% of college students in the United States today are males. Scholarship programs in Colorado and elsewhere struggle mightily to find enough qualified boys. The high school dropout rate for boys is dramatically higher than for girls. And, needless to say, there are far more young males than females in prison. For boys of color and boys from lower socio-economic groups, the disparities are even larger and more disturbing. These boys, as Lauren says, are “canaries in the mine.” Recently, former Colorado First Lady Dottie Lamm wrote a powerful column in the Denver Post about boys.  She asked, “If the advocacy efforts to move middle-school and high-school girls into math and sciences… in the 1980s and 90s paid off, why wouldn’t a similar effort work on behalf of boys’ literacy in elementary school?” Several years ago, Dottie Lamm was the leading feminist in Colorado. For her to talk about boys in this way is truly stunning.

No one is suggesting that the glass ceilings have been shattered. No one is suggesting that there is complete equality between men and women in the workplace. But, clearly we as a society are not doing enough to help boys succeed. I think we need to focus on both boys and girls. And, we need to focus on all ages, from infancy through college.

As we as a society strive to help all children succeed, is there a role for The Denver Foundation related to boys? Is this something The Denver Foundation should get involved in when we do our next Strategic Plan?

— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Charter Schools: Pro or Con?

15 04 2010

A few years ago, The Denver Foundation conducted a Listening Campaign.  We consulted hundreds of leaders in the local nonprofit community and asked them about issues, needs, and priorities.  To our surprise, one issue rose to the top of the priority list for people from every category of nonprofit organization.  The number one priority among people who work for health organizations, arts organizations, and human services organizations was…education.

Everyone has an opinion about education, particularly K-12 education, because all of us experienced it in our childhood.  I think it is also fair to say that no one feels public education in the United States today is adequate.  When it comes to educating our children, the United States compares poorly to most other developed nations.

We all agree that education is critically important and that public K-12 education needs improving.  Beyond that, there is very little consensus about the appropriate solutions.

Some people argue that the schools just need more money.  They cite low teacher pay and the huge array of non-educational challenges that schools must address: hunger, mental health, and discipline to name just a few.

Others argue that money will not solve the problems at all.  As one of my conservative friends once observed, “If you are headed from Denver to Colorado Springs and trying to get to Fort Collins, it doesn’t help to double your speed!”

Some people believe that the public school system in the United States is beyond repair and that the solution is private school vouchers.  Opponents of vouchers assert that they would destroy our public schools, which are an indispensable element of our democracy.

A less radical step that has been proposed in the last few decades is charter schools.  Charter schools are technically public schools, but they usually have autonomy from union contracts and other public school regulations.

In the past decade, The Denver Foundation funded a number of charter schools.  Our Board and our Education Committee have concluded that charter schools have the potential to inject more competition into the public schools without eviscerating them the way vouchers would.  In a sense, charter schools can be seen as a middle ground between vouchers on one hand and more money without reform on the other hand.

Some charter schools have been extraordinarily successful, in Denver and elsewhere.  Other charter schools have been mediocre or worse.  To their credit, the Denver School Board has gradually come to accept and endorse charter schools.  Those charter schools that have been particularly successful are being allowed to expand and multiply.

Paul Teske, a professor at the University of Colorado, has studied charter schools around the country.  Dr. Teske believes that at some point charter schools have enough critical mass to change an entire school district.  According to Dr. Teske, there is a tipping point at which this occurs.  If 15-20% of students in a particular district are enrolled in high-performing charter schools, it is usually sufficient to reform the entire district.

The Denver Public Schools is slowly but steadily approaching this tipping point.  As a result, I anticipate that The Denver Foundation will continue to support successful charter schools in the years ahead.

David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

Note: Shortly after I wrote this piece, I had a “Next Decade Project” meeting with Paul Alexander, Director of the Institute on the Common Good at Regis University.  Paul noted that the current educational model in the Denver Public Schools and elsewhere is based upon competition among schools.  He suggested that we as a society might consider a different model that is more holistic and collaborative.  Paul’s idea is intriguing and definitely worthy of more consideration.

Broad vs. Deep

22 02 2010

As I begin the Next Decade Project for The Denver Foundation, one of the questions I’m wrestling with is: “broad versus deep.” Philanthropy that is broad affects a large number of people, but in a smaller way. Philanthropy that is deep affects a small number of people in a larger way. There’s no right or wrong approach. We need both broad and deep philanthropy in our community and beyond.

Through our Community Grants Program, The Denver Foundation has consciously decided to take a broad approach. We give lots of relatively small grants to organizations that define their own needs (usually general operating support) rather than a few large grants. The main reason we take this approach is that it is an important niche that most other funders are not filling – and, as a community foundation, we’re called to address a broad range of issues.

Through our work trying to reduce hunger, The Denver Foundation takes a deep approach. We’re bringing our donors together to give grants to help meet emergency food needs and, at the same time, we’re working to address the systemic issues that keep people from getting the food they need.

Most foundations and individual donors prefer a deep approach. They specialize in a few specific areas where they want to make a measurable and significant difference. Individuals and families often have one or a few passions that they want to pursue – advancing early childhood education, curing a particular disease, or supporting a certain art form.

As I talk with leaders from various sectors over the next several months, I’ll be thinking about how The Denver Foundation should strike the “broad vs. deep” balance.

This particularly relates to another part of the Next Decade Project — I’m considering how I want to spend my own time addressing one or more community issues in the coming years. If I am to do this, I would want to select an issue that is important to the community, The Denver Foundation, and me personally.

Future blog posts will address a variety of possible issues in which both The Denver Foundation and I might get involved. I would welcome advice and suggestions from readers. This post touches upon one such issue: reforming K-12 public education.

A few years ago, The Denver Foundation conducted a Listening Campaign. We interviewed hundreds of community leaders, and public education was the top concern among leaders from all three sectors – public, private, and nonprofit.

A broad approach to reforming public education would be to work at the school district level or the state level. This approach would involve active advocacy with school boards and possibly the State Board of Education. It would involve implementing new laws and new policies aimed at improving student achievement.

A deep approach to public education reform might involve selecting a handful of charter schools and supporting them in a big way. Charter schools as a whole have shown mixed results. But several charter schools in Denver have been extraordinarily successful in improving student achievement.

A deep approach to public education would almost guarantee that a few hundred students would get a much better education. A broad approach to public education reform would affect tens of thousands of students, but the likelihood of success would be much smaller.

Which is better: a high likelihood of affecting a small number of students or a smaller likelihood of affecting a larger number of students?

One wise clergyman to whom I posed this question said, “That depends on whether you are fulfilled by winning or by trying to win.” For me personally, I think I am more fulfilled by winning. I would hate to work on a project for many years only to have it fail. I think I would prefer to work on a more focused project that has a much higher likelihood of success. Is this the right decision? What do you think?