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The rich deliciousness of Blue Avocado . . . in-depth stories that give you the inside scoop.

Grantseeker's Guide to Foundation Affinity Groups

Like the mysterious Freemasons and their Grand Lodges, foundation affinity groups feel open and warm to insiders, but to outsiders they seem to be secretive, cloistered societies with their own coded languages, titles, and hierarchies. Rick Cohen first tells us about the lodges -- er, affinity groups -- then gives practical advice on how to make this knowledge work for your nonprofit:

You can't be a member of a foundation affinity group unless you are on the staff or board of a foundation. Their conferences are forums where grantmakers discuss what they should be funding . . . but you can seldom go unless you're a foundation person.

Why should you care? Because knowing how to work within their circles is an important way to get insider information about foundations and to get your organization a positive profile among grantmakers . . . in short, to help you and your cause raise money from foundations.

First we'll discuss the different types of affinity groups, then give some specific tips on how to make the most of them for your nonprofit, including ways . . .

Six Easy, Nearly-Free Ways to Be More Disabled-Accessible

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations are undeniably intimidating and seem so expensive to implement, but disabilities activist Mary Lester says there are simple ways to make your office and program sites more accessible without busting the bank. Mary offers the following six easy and affordable ways to dramatically improve your accessibility for people with disabilities. Four for visitors and two for staff:

For clients, patrons, visitors

1. Put up signs, darn it! So many nonprofits have an entrance somewhere that's wheelchair accessible, even if their front door isn't. But there isn't a sign on the front door that tells visitors to "Go around to the left side of the building for a wheelchair accessible door" or "Press this bell for assistance with the door."

Similarly, if your main bathroom isn't accessible, but . . .

How Did This Happen? Part 2 of the Vanguard Foundation Story

In Part 1 of this story on the decline and fall of the Vanguard Public Foundation, we reported on how Vanguard's leadership became involved with apparent conman Samuel "Mouli" Cohen, and how millions of dollars disappeared into a get-rich-quick scheme, resulting in Vanguard's closure. In this concluding article, we explore how it was possible for a respected foundation to have come to such an inglorious end.

In August 2010, in a television-like drama, a limo was pulled over in Los Angeles by unmarked sedans and some 20 federal officers emerged -- some with guns drawn -- and arrested Samuel "Mouli" Cohen. A sealed indictment listed 19 counts of wire fraud, 13 counts of money-laundering, and accusations of defrauding 55 investors of $30 million.

The chief victims of this apparent con game? The Vanguard Public Foundation and its major donors.

Today, the Vanguard Foundation -- once a daring, progressive leader -- is little more than a telephone number, with its donors, leaders, and Cohen involved in multiple federal and state lawsuits.

The courts will eventually determine what Cohen did or didn't do and how much insiders at Vanguard -- including CEO Hari Dillon -- are to blame. What concerns us here are the questions on everyone's minds: What should the . . .

A Few Good Men: Being Male in a Female-Majority Sector

We asked Blue Avocado's male readers to let us know their thoughts on being men in the majority-female nonprofit world. What we learned surprised us -- and raised new questions:

The facts are that women comprise 70-75% of nonprofit employees (Nonprofit Almanac 2007). The experience of Ed Seay of Help Network in Russellville, Arkansas, reflects this exactly: "You go to a United Way quarterly meeting," he remarked, "and there might be one other man in a room of 35 people." But this, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg of what it's like for men who work in the female-majority nonprofit sector.

Male and female stereotypes

Readers' experiences show that gender stereotypes -- both pernicious and benign -- haven't gone away. There are stereotypes about men ("men who work in nonprofits are those who couldn't make it in the for-profit sector") and about women (women are good managers because they're nurturing rather than because they're strategic or rainmakers).

Several men spoke about being looked down upon for their nonprofit jobs by men in . . .

Decline and Fall of the Vanguard Foundation

Once acclaimed as a pioneer in philanthropy and an important force for social justice, the Vanguard Foundation is no more. The full story will take years to emerge, but we report here on some of the clues to its sorry demise:

In San Francisco, the Vanguard Public Foundation is out of business, its nonprofit status suspended by the California Secretary of State, its website down, its assets apparently gone. Federal and state court lawsuits involving donors, investors, staff and trustees question what happened to millions of dollars that flowed through the foundation to progressive causes.

But nonprofits and foundations go out of business all the time, particularly in this nonprofit-devouring recession. What makes the Vanguard Public Foundation worth special inquiries? Is it because of the celebrities associated with Vanguard -- Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, among others? But the glam factor is not the story.

The Vanguard Public Foundation (not to be confused with the Vanguard Charitable Fund related to the for-profit Vanguard), was lauded in its heyday as a new wave of philanthropy, a generational shift, an exemplar and a model.

The famous people associated with the foundation are neither the story nor the cause of the foundation's demise. Rather the story may be one of organizational hubris, board narcolepsy, and the disease of our time: the siren song of the get rich investment plan which . . .

The Board Told Me I Had to Join Rotary

If you've wondered how to break into the traditional civic leadership networks, Joan Dixon of the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois explains why the Rotary may be the unexpected solution:

At one point I was the PR director for a large clinic in Champaign with 135 doctors, and my boss was a big time Rotarian. Another fellow suggested I join the Rotary, but my boss said I wasn't highly placed enough. Now that's old school thinking.

So when I started in 2002 at the Community Foundation, our president said I had to join Rotary. Rotary was limited to men until 1989 when the Supreme Court said . . .

Foundations: Fleas or Elephants?

Pam David is Executive Director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, a private foundation in San Francisco. She has worked extensively in local government (Director of the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Community Development) and nonprofits (community organizer). She is former Chair of Northern California Grantmakers, and currently serves on the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Pam, what have you learned about philanthropy since coming to it from government?

When I first came to work in philanthropy my first impressions were "No accountability, no urgency." Particularly compared to the multiple layers of public oversight and transparency in my old job, the differences were striking. And, although I'm no longer a philanthropy novice -- in September I will have been at the Haas Sr. Fund for eight years -- I remain struck by the lack of external accountability, urgency, and transparency in the field.

What I've found in this arena is there is tremendous accountability to the trustees, and rightly so, but the only external accountability is . . .

Three Easy Ways for Foundations to Support Democracy

Pablo Eisenberg is the most vociferous, most consistent, and most cogent critic of philanthropy we know. Yet his decades-long calls for increased foundation payout still haven't had the desired effect. In this article he takes a different tack: offering some reforms that speak to democracy in the United States, and that would be pretty easy for foundations to do.

The greatest weakness of philanthropy is the lack of critical analysis about it. Nobody wants to say anything negative or bad! It is often assumed to be so good that it is beyond criticism, and grantees seldom dare to raise any concerns lest they lose their funding. Happily, the consumer movement in philanthropy is picking up steam...but slowly. But until the day that movement forces a full-throated discussion and debate about philanthropy, neither foundations, nor individual donors, nor nonprofits will meet their enormous potential.

Foundations have had a notable track record in maintaining our civil society and its institutions. But they are not having the impact on our nonprofit sector and on our country that they are capable of exerting. The same can be said of wealthy individual donors.

In fact, philanthropy as a whole appears to have widened the gap between the have and have-not communities, and in parallel, widened the gap between the have and have-not nonprofit organizations. The overwhelming amount of foundation money continues to go to . . .

Ten Things I Learned About Leadership from Women Executives of Color

While executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, Jan participated in the Women Executive Directors of Color network, conducted a study on nonprofit women executives of color, and experienced life through her lens as a Japanese American woman.

Here are some lessons I've drawn from from listening, observing, and laughing with other executive director comrades over the years. Not all women EDs of color will agree with me of course . . .

1. Note to funders: Give us (unrestricted) money. Give us the chance to experiment, to make mistakes, to sleep at night, to take the time to nurture leaders within our organizations. At one meeting of about 30 women executive directors of color, we talked about what we might ask for as a group. Should we ask a foundation for a special speaker? For a weekend at a retreat center? For a facilitator? For tuitions to expensive leadership development programs? After a long pause, one woman spoke up: "Give us money."

One of the biggest challenges that leaders face is . . .

Rockefeller Foundation and NY Times Win "Just Awards"

Other industries have their "Worst Dressed" awards, the "Golden Fleece" awards for public waste, and the Ig Nobel Prizes for dubious science-related achievements that "first make people laugh, then make them think." Until now, the nonprofit sector has lacked its own such award program. The new Just Awards have announced the "winners" for the first year's awards: one for Abominable Press Coverage of the Nonprofit Sector, and the other for Narcissism in Philanthropy.

Award for Abominable Press Coverage

For Abominable Press Coverage of the Nonprofit Sector, The Just Awards panel of judges chose Stephanie Strom's November, 2009 article in the New York Times: "Charities Rise, Costing U.S. Billions in Tax Breaks."

The article reported that the I.R.S. approved 99% of applications for charity status last year, and picked some easy targets to suggest that there are too many nonprofits, and that many or most of them are frivolous. The article asserts that the U.S. government lost $50 billion in taxes due to the amounts given to nonprofits . . . making the false assumptions that a) donations to the nonprofit sector would remain the same without the tax exemption, and b) the government could ignore the enormous financial impact of demand for services (such as emergency room visits) that would inevitably follow from fewer nonprofit programs. A better headline: "Charities Rise, Saving U.S. Billions." Furthermore, the article neglected to provide, as a basis for comparison, information on the many billions more in tax breaks provided to the private sector. The article can be found here.

In making the Award, the judges did praise the New York Times for covering the nonprofit sector, and Stephanie Strom as "generally a very good reporter." But judges felt this story was the "worst story of the year" and that its lack of research led to "bad journalism".

Award for Narcissism in Philanthropy

For the much-anticipated Narcissism in Philanthropy Award, the Just Awards panel of judges chose . . .

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