Yelp for Foundations

By Jessamyn Lau

The ‘Yelp’ for non-profits, GreatNonprofits, provides an opportunity for people to review non-profit organisations (full disclosure: the PF has provided funding for GreatNonprofits in the past). On anyone can share their experiences and interactions with an organisation -highlighting those who provide great services and occasionally those that don’t do such a great job. Greatnonprofits’ mission is to inspire and inform donors and volunteers, gather stories that demonstrate the work of great non-profits, and promote excellence through transparency and feedback.

What if there were a A mechanism for grantees to review their experiences and interactions with a foundation. Somewhere to inform grant seekers of what kind of interaction they can expect. A repository for great stories of grantee-funder partnership. And somewhere to promote excellence through transparency and feedback. This is not a new idea, but one that has not come to fruition yet.

As people have discussed the potential of this I’ve heard concern about whether non-profits would actually participate or give truly frank feedback as they would never want to damage a funding relationship, or their reputation with other funders -an understandable and real concern. But what if the feedback could range in its level of detail? At the very least a non-profit could give an overall rating out of 5 stars for a foundation, then if they wanted to they could give ratings out of 5 for the foundation on various general categories, and then finally have the option to go in to detail by writing an actual review -all anonymously. The general categories could be things that cut across types and sizes of foundations, like ‘clarity’, or ‘respect’.

What other categories would be telling, yet general enough to apply to all funding interactions? Comment or email me (jessamynATpeeryfoundationDOTorg) with your suggestions. We’ll pass them on should this idea get traction any time soon!

The Unimpressed

by Jessamyn Lau

Today I received feedback on an event I was involved in organising and was emcee for last month. This is only the second year this event has been held and the first time I’ve emceed anything, so I was very personally invested and anxious that it was a success.

The feedback fell in to 3 camps:

- Cheerleaders (majority), who had a great time at the event and gave us good/great/brilliant reviews across the board, - Supportive critics (minority), who obviously thought the event was a success but a portion of their feedback was critical, very valid, and useful to learn from, - And, the unimpressed (anomalies), who gave feedback that was negative.

Of course my attention went straight to to two negative reviews… One attendee rated the event as poor, and another provided feedback that my emceeing was ‘weird’.  I’m not entirely sure what she meant by ‘weird’, or why the event was ‘poor’ to the other guy, but my initial reaction was, ‘you’re both wrong, everyone else thought it was great!’. I wanted to find out who they were to ask them why and what we did wrong. Maybe they misunderstood our intentions and goals of the event. I wanted to know why they didn’t think we were good/great/brilliant, like the others.

Their opinions were totally valid and their conclusions reflected their experience of the event. From where he was sitting the event did not meet his expectations, and from her perspective I was weird. Could I/we have done anything to change them? Possibly. After reading them a couple of times, I decided to put aside the negative reviews entirely.

I think this is an interesting issue for anyone seeking to gain favour/support/approval. There will always be people who don’t get it or don’t agree with you, or simply don’t like what you’re doing. This is okay. Everyone has their own unique perception and comes at life with their own biases and expectations.

I’m choosing to ignore these two reviews for the event. I think it’s often healthy for social entrepreneurs and non profit leaders to do the same. Hopefully the feedback is not as ambiguous as ‘you’re weird’, but not every funder/supporter/partner is going to jump on your bandwagon. When the PF does not jump on their band wagon, I’ve seen many SE’s handle this issue with grace. It is impressive.

Note the unimpressed, and then focus on your cheerleaders and especially your supportive critics. This is where it makes sense to spend time, energy and resources.

If at first you don't succeed...

By Jessamyn Lau

We shut down our web form last month. This was the page on our website where anyone could go to briefly tell us about their people, idea and impact. When we set it up it seemed like a great idea, where we felt like we could be entirely approachable, not ask for detailed proposals, and able to learn about new organisations that we would be a good funding fit for.

During the past year we’ve had about 100 organisations go to the page to tell us about their work. We’ve learned about many interesting and important models. However, we found we weren’t a good fit for any of them. We were spending lots of short periods of time figuring that out and then responding to people. They added up to a significant amount of time each week. And, even though we didn’t ask for much information from each org, each org still invested time in telling us their stories -with no significant results for them or us. It didn’t work.

As we talked about this we realised this time would be better spent going out and finding orgs that we do fit with, through channels that we *know* yield results. This method feels better too. We love technology and the way it connects people, but having conversations with real people, along with all the depth and dimension that comes with that, works better for us as we are very trust/relationship based in our approach. We know that our best matches come through referrals. Referrals from those who know us well and know an org well -enough to see a strong potential and mutual fit.

So, we’ve taken down our web form. And the time we were spending on fielding, researching and responding to web leads we are now spending on deliberately building relationships with those around us who can make recommendations to us (a lot of the time this is other funders). We’re not trying to be unapproachable or close our doors to new ideas and organisations. We just know that our ratio of time spent to fits found will improve by focusing our efforts on things that we know work. We’re going back to more of our ‘beating the pavement’ approach.

I’d love to hear from practitioners and funders on this. Practitioners, what’s your take on this? Have you seen other effective ways of funders remaining open to new conversations? Funders how have you navigated this issue? Did you come to different conclusions?

I think we might be teaching social entrepreneurship wrong

By Jessamyn Lau 


(On second thoughts I’d rename this “I think we’ve got SE education wrong”)

Many schools begin their social entrepreneurship education with an intro to social entrepreneurs, teaching students what SE is and exposing them to various social entrepreneurs and the amazing solutions are they come up with. “Look how cool SE is!”, “You can change the world too!”, are the general messages reinforced.

The natural next step is a social venture business plan competition or a venture creation class. This is the way I began learning about SE, and know from first hand experience that in many ways this is great -it encourages students to think more deeply about a specific solution and sort through the myriad of details necessary to come to viable solution to a social problem. However, for a couple of reasons, I don’t think this is the best way of going about SE education.

In my opinion, this approach does a significant amount of disservice to students. They are encouraged to come up with an effective solution to a social problem, write the business plan, and launch their venture, in only a semester or two. No wonder so many ventures fail or struggle to find funding. Firstly, most students interested in SE aren’t entrepreneurs and know that -they then struggle to find where they fit and can contribute. Secondly, in general the entrepreneurial students don’t yet have a deep understanding of these extremely complex problems, or the highly developed and entrenched systems in which they are found. Yes there are a few break-out, star solutions produced by young and recently graduated SE’s, but for the most part the truly impressive SE’s whose solutions have potential to scale to the size of the problem, are those who have years of, often highly specific, experience. And perhaps have spent years wrestling with or coming to the right solution.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t start ventures if they aren’t going to be world changing ideas, or even if they will fail as ventures. I think there is enormous value in learning from a real start-up experience. What I am saying is this:

We need to set a more realistic timeline for students; for social entrepreneurs and social innovators. You don’t have to graduate and start a world changing venture or immediately get the dream job. In fact the social innovation field, and you, might be better off if you don’t. You’ve heard of patient capital? I’d like to argue we need more patient changemakers. Take your time. If this really is a life commitment, deliberately build yourself in to the person with the potential to meet the magnitude of the job.

More on this later…


Confessions of a Program Leader

By Jessamyn Lau

Earlier this month Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation hypothetically asked,what if foundation heads and program officers got fired for lack of impact? It was an interesting question to ask and a provocative way to think about keeping ourselves accountable to what should be our ultimate goal: impact. Though, obviously, easier said than done. But this got me thinking, what else should I get fired for? Or what else would/should our partners/grantees fire us or other funders for if they could…? Probably the litany of bad philanthropic practises out there.

Confession time… Over the past few months I made some classic mistakes: Over communicated enthusiasm, jumped the gun in suggesting a meeting, and confused someone over our investment criteria. This past week I made a different one: Under communicated on a no (almost unavoidably, because sometimes it’s a million tiny things rather than 3 distinct reasons you can put in a bulleted list).

I think with this latter mistake I perhaps compensated slightly by a offering a follow up call which they took me up on -but you’d probably have to ask them if that helped or not.

And on the other stuff… It is really hard not to communicate personal enthusiasm for an idea when you think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but your not sure if it’s not a fit for the fdn. And really hard to communicate a ‘no’. And really hard to be crystal clear about a criteria when you’re actually still developing it.

These are not excuses to hide behind. I suppose my point is to simply say, it can be tricky. And we take those tricky things seriously and take time to try our best to get them as right as we know how. There are absolutely some things we can learn from advice/research/peers. Yet, with many of the really important lessons, I’m not sure how a young foundation can figure these things out unless we are trying, sometimes failing, and hopefully quickly iterating to find a good solution. The ideal being: ‘Only make new mistakes’.

We’re still learning. There are still a lot of perhaps unavoidable mistakes that are new for me/us. And so I’m still getting some things wrong. I apologise if you’re ever on the receiving end of a ‘learning moment’. Kevin Starr, please don’t fire me yet…

A Peery Foundation Mohawk

By Jessamyn Lau

A little while ago I developed the analogy of ‘getting a Mohawk’. In a past life I actually had a mohawk, so figured I was qualified enough to define it as: a decision that is risky, but not permanent, and helps you become more of who/what you want to be.

We are a young foundation. Small. Learning. Still admittedly getting some things wrong. But with aspirations to be better. Mostly we’re trying to figure out who and what we are as an organisation, and how we are uniquely situated to be most effective in our support.

On a fairly regular basis we get a mohawk. We make decisions and try things out that involve risk, but that aren’t irreversible. Things that help us figure out what we are and how we best operate. Sometimes we talk about big mohawks with spikes and colours, and then realise they aren’t right for the moment. We don’t go through with all of them. Mostly we get small mohawks. But it is this openness to experimentation and thoughtful iteration that makes the PF an exciting, and potentially more effective, organisation to work within.

One small current mohawk: This year we’re going to have a social entrepreneur check-in with our social entrepreneurs. Sounds strange? Let me explain.

With each of our partners we aim to have quarterly or semi annual check-ins. We discuss how they are doing with their milestones, what their current challenges are, and find out if and how we can further help them. Neither Dave nor I will be the primary contact for check-ins with the PF for our Global Portfolio partners in 2011. Instead the check-ins will be with one of their own; a social entrepreneur.

One of our partners and advisors, Martin Burt (founder of Fundacion Paraguaya), has been working with us on our international due diligence, providing deeper insights in to the challenges and opportunities of global models. This year as we are not anticipating growing our Global Portfolio, and so not having international due diligence to perform, Martin has agreed to act as our quasi international program officer. He has a strong grounding in the PF’s process and networks as we’ve worked with him over a number of years in various capacities, and he performed due diligence on many of our current portfolio members, so already has a good grounding in many of their organisations. We’re hoping that our partners will feel even more comfortable talking through issues with him -as a peer practitioner- but also that he will be able to give them more useful advice and support as they discuss issues that he may have come up against and worked through himself at some point.

There are risks associated with trying this. Concerns we’ve already thought about are issues of continuity, effective communication through another layer of conversations, capturing and sharing Martin’s insights, etc. We’re still fine tuning how exactly it will work. Dave and I will not be stepping back completely from the Global portfolio, and we need to figure out how each of our partners sees something like this working for them. Some may opt out.

At the end of the day if it doesn’t work, it’s not a permanent decision. But we hope this mohawk will help us continue to learn. That’s how we’ll find a better way to do things and the best way for us to support our partners.