Chronicle of Philanthropy 400 Google Map

I just came across the Google map mash-up of the Chronicle of Philanthropy top 400.  First, just the simple fact that the Chronicle created this is just great — goes to show the power of a concrete image instead of a list.  And better yet (though not obvious) you can click on the pins in the Google map to see each organization’s name, rank, and funds raised

At first blush what’s surprising is how evenly large non-profits are spread throughout the country.  Not what I would have expected.

I do wish the Chronicle would take the map a step further, though, and I expect that they have the data and technology to do this easily.  I’d love to be able to filter the map by type of organization and date founded (religious organizations; universities; charities founded before 1950 and 1970 and 1990, etc).  We all know how hard it is to grow a new nonprofit — William Foster and Gail Fine’s great article last year in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “How Nonprofits Get Really Big” described this challenge incredibly well.  Just one data point from the article: “the average founding year of the 10 largest U.S. nonprofits is 1903.”

So I’d love the Chronicle’s map to allow some filtering that would help illustrate and understand this point, so we could visually learn more about the makeup of the top 400.

(hat tip to for pointing out the map)

What’s the right career move in the midst of an economic meltdown?

Take a chance.

Really, things are bad in the economy anyway.  It’s a hard time to get a job.  Why not take a stab at that wild idea you’re hoping to get to…someday?

Not long ago I was invited to speak to a career panel for college seniors and recent grads.  I find it tough to give out career advice – it feels like it devolves into “let me tell you what I did in my career” as if that’s a blueprint for anyone but me.

The backdrop for the panel was the blowup on Wall Street, which has only gotten worse in recent weeks (today’s 10.88% rise in the Dow notwithstanding).  I do think we’re in for a protracted period (a few years) of slow economic growth.  This means job losses, wage stagnation, the works.  So now is tricky time to be an eager recent college graduate with limited work experience who is looking for a job.  You’re likely competing with all the folks who have just been laid off (or are about to be laid off), interviewing with companies with very tight budgets who have people lining up outside their doors.

And my best guess is that this will be a record year of applicants to MBA programs, law schools and the likes.

Which is why I think now is a great time to take a risk.  Do you have an entrepreneurial idea?  Pursue it now.

For most everyone, the next couple of years are going to be tough going.  Why not take a risk and try that idea that’s been on the shelf just waiting for the right moment?  You have less to lose now than you did before, and since the foundation for “overnight success” takes years to build, you may as well start laying that foundation today.

Johnny Chung Lee’s Wii remote hacks and the power of sharing

Johnny Chung Lee figured out a way to turn a normal computer display into a close approximation of a virtual reality screen.  He also knows how to create an interactive whiteboard – which typically cost more than $1,000 – for $60 in parts and a little software code.

So what does he do with this information?  He shares it.  His video about a computer display has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube.  More than 700,000 people have downloaded the software for making an interactive whiteboard, and a “Lego robotics club” of 5th graders (isn’t it great that such a thing exists?) built one in 4 hours.

Before you finish reading this post, do yourself a favor and DON’T file this away into the “computer geek” section of your brain (along with Linux, etc.).  Why can’t (and shouldn’t) this be the approach for all great innovation — especially in the nonprofit sector where resources are scarce?

Mr. Lee is quoted in yesterday’s NY Times asking, ‘”Would providing 80 percent of the capability at 1 percent of the cost be valuable to someone?” If the answer is yes, he says, pay attention.’

Imagine if every great innovation in fighting poverty, in hospital administration, in public schooling or early childhood education were open-sourced.  Wouldn’t we all be a lot smarter and more likely to focus our attention on models that work?

I posted a manifesto the other day making the same point as Mr. Lee: that the innovation, the insight, and the direct impact matter; and that sharing that innovation with others matters just as much.

I think I’m posting one of Johnny Chung Lee’s lines at my desk: “If you create something but nobody knows, it’s as if it never happened.”  Get out there and spread the word.

(And if you have 5 minutes to be amazed, watch Johnny Chung Lee’s demonstrations on the TED website).

Acumen Fund benefit Celebration on November 11

Vusi Mahlasela
Vusi Mahlasela

Act now!  Acumen Fund is holding its benefit Celebration on November 11th in New York City.  Tony Award winner Sarah Jones will be performing and we will be graced by the voice of Vusi Mahlasela.  It will be a colorful, joyful evening with lots of spirit and a real sense of community.  Click here for more information or here to buy tickets.

(we promise, this ain’t your typical benefit.)

A new world economic order?

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of conversation about whether the current economic meltdown represents the end of capitalism.  I think the short answer is ‘no,’ but I do think an era is over — one in which the total free, unfettered markets are seen to have all of the answers.

So we will see more regulation and oversight, which I hope will prove to be effective, but you never know.

More interesting to me is the idea that a new meme might emerge, one in which there is an understanding that a nuanced approach to markets is the answer. At Acumen Fund where I work, nearly all our investments exist in that middle space between philanthropy and a fully functioning market.  Because of all the challenges and complexities of building new markets for the poor where they do not exist, these enterprises do not generate a return commensurate with their risk.  Often we get challenged because we don’t fit neatly into any one bucket: we’re not pure charity (-100% financial return) and we’re not a private equity shop shooting for 30% returns.

I think the starting point for this new conversation is the recognition that markets are fragile, and that they don’t spring up fully formed and creating optimal results.  Borrowing a little economics lingo, there are multiple equilibria, and not all of them are stable.  And the optimal one may not be the one with the highest financial returns.

The Body Shop: when stories fall short

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve been given a serious factual correction by Michael, the Brazilian fixer who worked for the photgrapher on this shoot.  Please see his comment below.  Bottom line is he’s right and I was wrong in jumping to conclusions.

It turns out this girl is not a model, she is a person who works on picking nuts that supply the Body Shop in Maranhão, Brazil.  So I was wrong here – I figured she was a model and wove a whole story around that.

Personally, I still have some questions about this choice of image and the decisions around this campaign, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that I missed the mark on this one.  Thanks to Michale for the correction, and lesson learned for me that there tearing others down is not the right way to make a point.

I’ve edited my post somewhat.  I still stand behind some of the points, but more importantly I think it’s only fair to leave up what I originally said — lesson learned on this one, though.]

I’m beginning to think that outdoor advertising is the lowest rung on the external communications ladder.

Yesterday I came across this terrible ad.  Here’s a storytelling 101 suggestion: when you think your story is done, step back, look at it, and repeat it in 10 words or less to someone who’s never heard it before and who represents the people you are trying to reach.  See what they say; ask them if the story makes sense to them.

So what is the (very low quality…sorry) “hand selected naturally!” image trying to say?  Presumably that this woman had something to do with the hand selecting of the natural ingredients to your Body Shop products, and that this makes them more real, natural and authentic. [In fact she did, according to Michael’s comment, below.] Problem is, look at the woman — down to her designer short jean shorts and her $75 woven basket.

The image is so far off that it is borderline offensive.  There are hundreds of millions of people out there who make their livelihoods in agriculture, and I’m sure many of them sell to the Body Shop.  But somehow the Body Shop was unwilling to go all the way to authenticity in this campaign and with this image — finding actual Body Shop producers and telling their stories — and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

The irony here is that people who buy at the Body Shop and who are passionate about the Body Shop  are going to notice exactly this kind of thing.  The brand was once about authenticity, natural ingredients, and our interconnected world, and it attracted educated consumers who likely care about things like the environment, the well-being of producers, and poverty in the developing world.

I guess it’s not surprising that this once-authentic brand has gotten so watered-down within L’Oreal that it’s lost all of its distinguishing charateristics — and the passionate followers who once made this brand great are gone as well.

A NonProfit CEO Manifesto (blame it on Seth Godin)

Inspired by Seth Godin, and his new book Tribes, I collected my thoughts after nearly two years in my current role at Acumen Fund.

I wrote a manifesto.  You can read it here.

This one isn’t for everyone, but you probably know someone who’d like to read it. Do me (and them) a favor and send it to them.

And tell me what you think.  I think this one is important, and since the economy is blowing up and won’t improve any time soon, now is a good time for nonprofits to rethink how they think about raising money.

Do you have someone whose job it is to say no?

I’ve worked in organizations big and small, and what’s interesting about the big ones is that there are often a few people whose principal function seems to be to say “no” to things.  Sometimes they are lawyers but it really could be anyone whose refrains go something like: It’s too risky. We’ve never done it this way before.  But have you thought about….

Naysayers are fine if they are contributors to the debate.  But if the people whose job it is to say no actually have veto power you’ve got a problem and you will never innovate.

Seem obvious?  Then fire the no-ers.  Or make them into contributors who don’t have the final say.

Sound drastic?  Your other option is to give up entirely on innovation.

Sequoia Capital sounds the alarm bell

Sequoia Capital, one of the most well-respected venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, recently organized a meeting for the CEOs of its portfolio companies. The tagline?  “R.I.P.: Good Times”.   You can check out this write-up on  the GigaOM blog.  Here’s an excerpt:

They want the companies to cut costs, to figure out way to survive and emerge at the other end of this downturn, which could last years. The speakers went through each functional area of the business and told the companies how to cut costs. By holding this special meeting, Sequoia is telling its companies to put survival strategies in place and figure out ways to outlast the broader market troubles.

Ron Conway, a well-known angel investor who has backed the likes of Google, is pushing companies to “lower your “burn rate” to raise at least 3-6 months or more of funding via cost reductions, even if it means staff reductions and reduced marketing and G&A expenses.  This is the equivalent to “raising an internal round” through cost reductions to buy you more time until you need to raise money again; hopefully when fund raising is more feasible.”

While no one wishes this kind of impact in any sector, one can imagine that non-profits are going to feel the same fundraising crunch and will also have to make some tough decisions.

Ebony Hillbillies and the sounds of New York

Having been away for a week, I particularly appreciated hearing the sounds of the Ebony Hillbillies in the NYC Subway on my way to work on Friday (I don’t think the YouTube clip does them justice – try one of their albums instead).  They are part of a group of artist who grace MTA riders with their music, providing a cadence to the week and a lift to your commute.

Outside of buying one of their albums and giving them a few dollars, I don’t know how to thank these guys and tell them what a wonderful part of my week they are.  And it’s interesting, because peoeple who are much less talented I’m sure have gotten much more fame and fortune than they have.  So check them out and spread the word – they make wonderful music.