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Kimberly Luchina - What Do You Hope to Gain By Participating in Rising Leaders?

Posted By Josh Hirsch, Wednesday, May 3, 2017
Updated: Thursday, December 29, 2016
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The Collaboration Game: Solving the Puzzle of Nonprofit Partnership

Posted By Charlotte Gill, Friday, April 28, 2017

Above the desks of many nonprofit executives you will find these words: “If you want to travel quickly, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together.” And yet, nonprofits often act in isolation against complex problems, spinning reinvented wheels.

Nonprofit collaboration is harder than it sounds. Economics, game theory, and behavioral science suggest some lessons on how organizations might collaborate more often and more effectively.


Collaboration can help nonprofits achieve greater social impact at lower cost. To understand how, we can cautiously apply three core concepts of microeconomics: division of labor, economies of scale, and network effects.

1. Division of Labor

Over a century after its introduction in 1913, the assembly line—where each worker specializes in a particular task—remains the quintessential example of division of labor. The resulting efficiencies helped drive the Industrial Revolution, with all its positive and negative consequences.

The nonprofit sector would do well to learn from the factory floor. Functional division of labor among nonprofits, where separate organizations serve the same individual in multiple ways, can improve aggregate impact. One organization may be better at providing housing, another at job training. But for this to work, the organizations must have open channels of communication. Otherwise, the client will suffer—think cross-scheduled sessions, contradictory messages, and misaligned timelines. A related set of benefits can arise from the geographic division of labor by mapping to the distribution of need across space.

A factory works because common procedures, thorough communication, and a shared goal underlie workers’ coordinated efforts. Nonprofits similarly in sync can reap the benefits of organizational diversity and independence while still protecting the interests of beneficiaries.

2. Economies of Scale

An organization that can rent a large office space pays less per square foot than a small one subletting cubicles. A national network can train employees efficiently with standardized trainings. Economies of scale matter for organizations operating on thin financial margins in tough economic times.

But more importantly, economies of scale matter because they can increase social impact. Teach for America’s national scale, for example, allows cross-site learning and improved training for new teachers, all in the service of better educating students in under-resourced public schools. Large advocacy groups like the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association can mobilize people quickly and cost-effectively due to their immense size.

In some cases, small is indeed beautiful and scale can bring very real challenges. But often collaboration enables economies of scale that help the nonprofit community advance both margin and mission.

3. Network Effects

Network effects happen when a product or service gains additional value with each new user. Take Wikipedia: One contributor can provide a handful of entries, but as an open platform the site gets 10 edits every second. Nonprofits can similarly benefit from connecting individuals or organizations. For example, VolunteerMatch is an online platform that leverages network effects to connect citizens to causes they care about.

Organizations can intentionally build network effects through standardization. An often-cited example is Strive Partnership—a collaboration of nonprofits, foundations, government agencies, and corporations working to improve education outcomes in the Cincinnati area—which serves as an example for the broader “collective impact” movement. The various organizations track the same indicators and engage in regular, structured communications to inform a dynamic, community-wide strategy.

The Internet can generalize and magnify the power of network effects, especially with the use of data standards. In the nonprofit sector, the Basic Registry of Identified Global Entities (a registry of unique identifiers for nonprofits around the world) and the Philanthropy Classification System (a new taxonomy for nonprofits and grants) offer immense potential for field-level alignment—and thus field-level learning.

Properly harvested, network effects help enable nonprofit communities to achieve scale of reach while still celebrating the diversity of the network.


These microeconomic effects can help nonprofits achieve more bang for their buck once they’ve entered into a collaboration, but most organizations face serious structural barriers well before they even get to that point. Nonprofits are not alone in having to manage situations where working with others is difficult. During the Cold War, the US military spent millions hiring mathematicians to parse the dark logic of the nuclear standoff. Thinkers like John Von Neumann built the new discipline of game theory to illuminate the terrible decisions facing political leaders. Nonprofits can similarly benefit from game theory to explain—and potentially avoid—seemingly shortsighted and selfish behavior.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Consider first the most famous problem in game theory, the “prisoner’s dilemma”: Two people are held in separate cells and asked to declare the other guilty. If neither defects, each faces a light sentence—30 days. If both defect, they each get a heavy sentence—5 years. If one defects and the other does not, the defector is rewarded with freedom and the other gets the heaviest sentence—10 years. As a pair, the obvious choice is for both to keep mum. But as individuals, the incentive is to defect; no matter what the first prisoner believes the second will do, he sees he will get a better deal through declaring the other guilty.

Potential nonprofit collaborators often find themselves in prisoner’s dilemma-type situations. Nonprofits are usually oriented toward the status quo in terms of funding streams, staffing models, programmatic strategies, and organizational culture. Collaboration requires changes to each, and while they may dream of the benefits of collaboration, nonprofits also know it means risking their relative stability and safety.

For example, imagine two human services organizations: One offers sexual education programs in local high schools and another provides services to teenage mothers. Each receives $100,000 a year from the same local community foundation. Both nonprofits know the foundation sees opportunity for greater impact through greater collaboration; in fact, it might provide $300,000 in total funding for a well-designed collaborative effort. But both nonprofits are nervous about losing their existing funding. If the collaboration does not work out, would the community foundation cut their core funding? Might one organization betray the other and tell the community foundation it could provide both types of services on its own for just $150,000?

To distrust, add uncertainty and short-term costs: Even if the executive directors of two organizations want to collaborate, staff members may resist, saying the partnership will force them to restructure the program, re-do internal systems, abandon their unique culture, or—horror of horrors!—admit the weakness of their organization.

From Two to Many

These dynamics are further complicated when more than two organizations are involved. The mathematician John Nash, famously portrayed in the film A Beautiful Mind, formalized a way to think about multi-party prisoner’s dilemmas—a concept later called the “Nash equilibrium.” When a group of players interacts over time, they are prone to settle into specific behaviors. These behaviors reach equilibrium when no individual wants to unilaterally change given the others’ behaviors.

Environmental advocacy groups offer a good example. They use different approaches to achieve similar goals, or what game theory calls “mixed strategies.” The large environmental groups—including radical ones like Greenpeace and more mainstream ones like Environmental Defense Fund—share very similar goals, but have settled into a pattern of isolated operation, fractured strategies, and even betrayal. These organizations would almost certainly accomplish more together with aligned strategies that either aggregated power or capitalized on difference (think good cop-bad cop strategies). Unfortunately, no single organization has an incentive to unilaterally change; it might threaten funding or compromise identity.

But there are solutions. Research in game theory has shown that a long-term view (the “repeated game”) can completely change players’ decision-making. Intentional communication can remove the knowledge barriers that cause sub-optimal outcomes, as in the regular “Green Group” meetings of large environmental organizations. Every partnership is evidence that it is possible to transcend the dilemmas that get in the way of collaboration.


Collaboration can challenge nonprofit leaders’ sense of identity. We would be wise to respect how emotionally and intellectually difficult it can be for practitioners of social change to acknowledge that they cannot succeed alone. So let us look to behavioral science—and to our own experiences—for insights on how we might find a path to climb Collaboration Mountain.

Define the community. It is essential that collaborators find a sense of shared identity. The first step is to identify what the groups have in common: “We are defenders of tropical rainforests” or “we serve the Miami homeless.” Overwhelming evidence suggests that a sense of community plays a central role in human decisions, whether negative (racism) or positive (neighborliness).

Name the weakness. Introductions at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings begin with, “My name is X, and I am an alcoholic.” This statement puts the speaker in a humble frame of mind, making them more receptive to help. Similarly, nonprofits can open themselves to collaboration by acknowledging their limitations as independent actors. Naming the problem need not create a pessimistic atmosphere; indeed, the next phrase at an AA meeting is often something along the lines of, “ … and I’ve been sober for five years.” Nonprofits can immediately build on naming the weakness by highlighting the opportunity.

Identify the Sherpa. Multi-lateral collaboration greatly benefits from a guide—a person or organization—to manage the process, provide encouragement, and help solidify a shared vision. Without this, the short-term incentives of the individual participants will tend to prevail, and the collaboration will dissolve. Pure top-down management will not work; if nonprofit participants feel a foundation is forcing them to engage, the partnership will not be authentic. Ideally, the guide comes from the community but is not identified with a single set of interests. Like a Sherpa leading climbers up a mountain, they are both participant and leader, bearing costs and reaping shared rewards.

Make explicit the implicit division of labor. Over time, nonprofits tend to differentiate themselves: One organization takes the west side of a town, another the east; or one handles middle-school students, another high-school students. Once potential collaborators acknowledge those differences, they can capitalize on them. It is often necessary to say explicitly what implicit division of labor may have developed over time. Without that openness, participants may hesitate to speak clearly or act decisively, afraid to offend or stereotype.

Demonstrate proof points. One powerful human tendency is to do what we see others doing. Nonprofits are far more likely to collaborate if they see relatable examples of other successful collaborations. It can be a step-wise process of sharing simple examples, building confidence, bringing in new data, and making larger steps possible.
Design collective systems. Formalized systems for knowledge sharing, governance, and external communications not only create value, but also reinforce collective identity and incentivize organizations to remain in the group. This makes it more likely that the collaboration lasts long enough to achieve the desired change.

This six-step approach is neither linear nor immutable. Some collaborations may skip a step or move through them in a different order, but a trip down this path can name, build, and strengthen new communities of organizations bound together by common purpose.
The challenges the nonprofit sector faces are big and they are complex. Economics reminds us that we need collective action to achieve scale. Game theory reminds us how hard it can be to overcome our narrow interests. But society, again and again, has proven its ability to resolve these dilemmas and shown that we can break these unhealthy equilibria. Surely nonprofits can do the same. The stakes could not be higher.

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Strong Focus on Organizational Culture Drives Staffing Choices At the Best Nonprofits

Posted By Adriene Tynes, Friday, April 28, 2017

A classic source of frustration in many workplaces goes something like this: An employee expresses an idea during a meeting. The boss hears that comment but lodges it in the back of the brain and weeks later it comes out as the boss’s idea, forgetting that the colleague started it.

“It’s classic that managers do this accidentally, deliver it as if it’s their own idea. Obviously, that’s frustrating for that employee,” said Charles Best, founder and CEO of, a 17-year-old nonprofit in New York City. “Whenever there’s a workplace where employees feel like they will be acknowledged and get the justified glory for being the one to come up with an idea, they’ll come up with kick-ass ideas,” he said.

“Giving credit where credit is due is one reason why people would want to be here,” Best said.

Recognition, trust and support — both monetary and otherwise — are among the critical tenants that make up a great nonprofit to work for, according to The NPT’s 2017 Best Nonprofit To Work For. The NonProfit Times partnered with Harrisburg, Pa.-based Best Companies Group for the seventh annual report, which ranked as the No. 1 organization among medium-sized employers and No. 1 overall among the 50 nonprofits recognized. last made the list in 2015, ranking No. 3 overall after a No. 8 ranking in 2014.

The Best Nonprofits To Work For report is data compiled from a thorough organizational assessment. Each participating nonprofit completes a questionnaire along with a confidential survey completed by employees. Business partners are also polled. The information then is combined to analyze and rank the workplaces. The organizations were further categorized as small, medium and large. Explanations of the categories accompany those stories.

The NPT’s 2017 Best Nonprofits To Work For identified the top 10 key drivers for employees across the 50 organizations:

  • I feel I am valued in this organization;
  • I have confidence in the leadership of this organization;
  • I like the type of work that I do;
  • Most days, I feel I have made progress at work;
  • At this organization, employees have fun at work;
  • I can trust what this organization tells me;
  • Overall, I’m satisfied with this organization’s benefits package;
  • There is room for me to advance at this organization;
  • I like the people I work with at this organization; and,
  • I feel part of a team working toward a shared goal.

The Employee Benchmark Report represents the average percentage of positive responses to almost 80 statements or questions spread across eight focus areas. The percentage of respondents represents those who answered “Agree somewhat” and “Agree strongly.”

For the most part, the same statements and questions scored highest and lowest in a category among nonprofits that made this year’s list and those that did not. The difference was in just how big a disparity there was between nonprofits. Organizations that made the list tended to score near 90 percent across all categories while those that did not scored anywhere from 70 percent to as low as the middle 80s.

Among the eight categories of questions, the largest disparity overall between organizations that made the Best Nonprofits list and those that did not was found within “pay and benefits” (18-point differential) and “leadership and planning” (16-point differential):

  • Leadership and planning, 90 percent compared with 74 percent;
  • Corporate culture and communications, 88 percent to 73 percent;
  • Role satisfaction, 90 percent to 81 percent;
  • Work environment, 89 percent to 83 percent;
  • Relationship with supervisor, 92 percent to 85 percent;
  • Training, development and resources, 84 percent to 69 percent;
  • Pay and benefits, 88 percent to 70 percent;
  • Overall employee engagement, 92 percent to 82 percent; and,
  • Survey average, 89 percent to 77 percent.

Within “leadership and planning,” the disparities among seven questions were in the double-digits, with the highest (18 points) on the statement, “There is adequate follow-through of departmental objectives,” and “The leaders of this organization care about their employees’ well being.”

Although statements and questions within the pay and benefits category most consistently had the largest disparities between organizations that did or did not make the list, the largest found in the survey overall was on the statement, “Staffing levels are adequate to provide quality products/services,” within the category of corporate culture and communications. Three-quarters of organizations on the list responded positively to that statement compared with barely half of those that did not.

Recognition is important to employees and not just at but consistently across all 50 of the Best Nonprofits. One of the statements where Best Nonprofits diverged from others was: “This organization gives enough recognition for work that is well done.” About 84 percent responded positively to that statement compared with just 66 percent among organizations that didn’t make the list.

“You hear about places where employees can bring their true selves to work. It’s important, especially for younger people,” Best said. “We want to express a personal passion or intellectual purposes, or about current events. It creates a colleague who feels more connected to the organization, more committed to the organization, because they’re able to express all of who they are,” he said.

Best credits the implementation of a new instant messaging tool with helping to do that. moved from Skype to Slack for intra-office instant messaging during the summer of 2015. He described Slack as a sort of “next-generation bulletin board” in which users can subscribe to particular topics.

“At first we transitioned because we simply thought it would enable group chat a little more seamlessly. Of course, it turned out do a lot more than that,” Best said.

The 550 Slack forums at help nurture camaraderie as well as organize around projects. It allows for direct, one-on-one private conversations, dialogue within teams, and connections with staff across different personal interests.

Some teams use Slack exclusively for project management but the organization lets teams decide how to use it. Affinity groups have formed, ranging from cat lovers to fitness buffs to neighborhoods. “It’s a great way to get out organization-wide messages, instead of email or it might not merit emails,” Best said, adding that Slack has become the way that employee anniversaries are acknowledged.

“It’s created a greater sense of kinship, enabled colleagues to bring their true self to work,” he said, and know more about what they’re colleagues are up to yet without feeling overburdened or over-sharing.

“Slack actually conveys a lot more information to people than email ever did. Yet people are spending less time, or at least much more productive time, with their colleagues,” Best said.

The founder is confident that has enough of a performance-minded culture — “everyone thinking like an owner culture” — that he doesn’t believe there’s an issue of employees spending more time on cat lover Slack channels than work.

Last year’s No. 1 organization, Team Rubicon, returns to the list this year ranked No. 3 overall after growing some 40 percent.

The Los Angeles, Calif.-based charity hired an additional head on the human resources team and initiated programs around growing and supporting remote staff, supervisory development and automated/real-time performance management that will roll out this year.

Team Rubicon saw improvement in communication across offices by implementing best practices that are now habitual behaviors,” according to Director of Human Resources Candice Schmitt. During virtual meetings with a meeting lead, a moderator monitors the chat bar, acting as a voice in the room for those dialed in or asking for a chance to speak. Even something as simple as rearranging all-staff meeting space to identify where speakers should stand and look to engage the remote audience has received good feedback, she said.

With about half of its staff in satellite offices or working from home, Team Rubicon put a lot of effort into making perks and fun employee engagements suitable for participation across all locations. The hope was that employees would feel included and “grow a strong sense of workplace culture regardless of where they sat, but it turns out they felt it was cheesy and a waste of time,” Schmitt said. This year, Rubicon will focus on reinforcing benefits of each location and recognizing and celebrating their differences versus trying to create a virtual office culture, she said.

The last time that The Center for Trauma & Resilience made the Best Nonprofits list, it went by a different name: The Denver Center for Crime Victims.

“We wanted something that was more positive and more directly reflected what we did,” said Kathi Fanning, director of training. “We deal with trauma all the time. We’re hoping to move people toward resilience,” she said. The former name left people identifying as a crime victim but not reflective of the progress that they make.

The name change helped to expand the circle of people the center works with, despite some initial hesitation and even unhappiness from peers in their community.

The center has a contract with the sheriff’s department to do trauma sensitive yoga groups with jail inmates. Fanning said that incarcerated people typically also have been victims at some point in their lives and cope with that stress and anxiety. Staff often want the assignment and have no hesitation because inmates are such an appreciative group, she said. “Folks in jail are really appreciative of someone coming in and taking the practice to heart,” she said, using the practice to calm themselves.

There is a sort of counter-intuitiveness to it — that a victim services group is doing service for perpetrators — but “we try to have a bigger lens than that. They had victimization in their life as well and that’s who we should be serving,” Fanning said.

“We look at trauma as a health issue not just a victimization issue. Look at both victims of crime and other service providers, and what impact trauma has on someone’s health,” Fanning said. “Trauma is more than just momentary psychological impact but affects someone’s entire health,” she said.

The center’s name change has helped to shift attitudes around that as well as empowered staff to be able to address trauma in a bigger circle, helping people increase social support, reduce the risk of health problems. “It’s brought to the forefront as a staff, health disparities and those kinds of more community and long-term impact of trauma, she said.

Click here for the 2017 Best Nonprofits To Work For report.

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Cultural Development Fund for Small or Emerging Cultural Organizations

Posted By Josh Hirsch, Friday, April 28, 2017

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Young Girl Turning Suffering Into a Solution for Other Sick Children

Posted By Josh Hirsch, Thursday, April 27, 2017
Updated: Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kayla Abramowitz spent her childhood in and out of hospitals. Since then, she’s started a charity that has donated more than 12,000 DVDs, books and toys to children’s hospitals across America.


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