The Future of Equality in Nonprofits?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 16th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Writing this post on the morning after the primary that has a transgender person running for governor of Vermont and a Muslim almost guaranteed to become a member of the Michigan team, gives me hope as I report on a less than stellar picture of our own sector’s equality.

“Race to Lead:  Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” authored by Sean Thomas-Breitfield and Frances Kunreuther, while providing some “duh” findings also reveals some important lessons that every leader (yes, that absolutely includes board members) at every Read more

Whither Goest Our Moral Imperative?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 9th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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In an address to the National Democratic Committee Future Forum in January 2017, Rev. William Barber, II made the following statement:  “…there are times when a deep, moral crisis demands that the way we have framed things up until now is insufficient.”

He was speaking of the need for an American political Pentecost and a movement away from a world view of “right” versus “left” and towards a world view of “right” versus “wrong,” a moral fusion that crosses the usual suspects of boundaries people like Read more

The Odds of Success

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 2nd, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Long ago, at the start of my volunteer career in the nonprofit sector, a development expert told me that one of the most important ratios in her field was that of successful asks to number of asks made:  how many asks did you have to make before receiving a positive response.  This, she told me, was helpful not just for planning, but for morale.

I was reminded of this through a number of questions asked of me and observations made by a group of board members Read more

Partners in a Spirit of Service

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 26th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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The Whitman Institute, a funder that will sunset by 2022, devised what they call trust-based philanthropy.  If ever a name were to say a lot, this is it.  It recognizes that the traditional approach of a funder to a potential grantee is one of suspicion—one that asks the nonprofit to prove it is worthy of the funder’s support.  It attempts to diminish, to the extent possible, the power dynamic inherent in the funder-funded pairing.  (And while some funders have tried the use of semantics to Read more

What Matters to Donors?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 19th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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For too many decades, nonprofits leaders have been plagued by the fear of overhead:  too high and risk losing donors; too low and risk insufficient capacity to do all that needed doing.  Then, Dan Pallotta did his famous TedTalk, the Overhead Myth letters came out from the three watchdog groups and Bridgespan and the Ford Foundation jointly suggested that it was time for donors to revamp their funding paradigm.

But, did things change?  Sadly, no.  Yes, there was a greater willingness to discuss the absurdity of Read more

Advocates for Social Justice

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 12th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I have been having a lot of conversation with my masters students about the role nonprofits might play in the fight for social justice.  Obviously, there are nonprofits whose explicit mission is all about social justice, working on behalf of a group being denied that essential American promise of the ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness, and all that entails.  For those nonprofits, there is no question, but only up to a point:  the point at which the current fight doesn’t fit within the Read more

Giving by Generation

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 28th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Conflicting data about fundraising is, unfortunately, nothing new.  It is akin to the data on drinking alcohol:  don’t do it; do it in moderation for certain health benefits.  Nor is it new to feel overwhelmed by all the data, even when it isn’t conflicting.  So when three different sources predict that 2018 donations will fall because of last year’s changes to the standard deduction, people pay attention.

The American Enterprise Institute, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Tax Policy Center have all said that Read more

The Nonprofit Rule of Threes?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 20th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Let’s see if the “rule of threes,” that general belief that concepts or ideas presented in threes are inherently more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable, applies to my current concerns about nonprofits.

Start with strategic planning.   One thing that hasn’t changed in the nearly 40 years I’ve been working with nonprofits is that people don’t understand its purpose or value. Few organizations do it well; too many think it is a tool convenience rather than a solid road map, electing to follow it when convenient Read more

Status Quo Me to Death

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 16th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Recent data continues to put the nonprofit sector as the third largest employer in America, behind retail and manufacturing. That ranking hasn’t changed over the past several decades, despite the continued growth of the nonprofit sector and the regular closings, reorganizations and other disruptions in retail and manufacturing. In fact, it would appear that a lot, though by no means all of retail, does a wonderful job of reinventing itself.


Amazon started in 1994, Ebay in 1995. Moving along, we got Bonobos in 2007, Stitch Fix Read more

The Power of Disruptive Thinking

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 8th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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While I believe completely in the value of, and need for, nonprofits to have a strategic plan, the process and the plans themselves are, frankly, usually boring.  Over the years of leading The Nonprofit Center, we’ve experimented with different approaches to strategic planning, always in search of alternative means for helping our clients with their own strategic planning.  Of all of the different approaches we tried, the one I enjoyed the most (and probably the one others enjoyed the least) was planning with BHAGs—those big, Read more


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