Archives For February 2012


A second chance for jobless low-income youth

If $5000 suddenly fell from the sky and your goal was to give it away to help low-income people access greater opportunity, where would you donate it?

This is the task at hand for the 22 students in my Nonprofit Giving course.  The Highland Street Foundation put up the money; the students’ job is to figure out how to make good use of it.  Given that the U.S. poverty rate is currently at a record level, it’s difficult to know quite where to begin.  But fortunately there are many nonprofits doing great work to create opportunity.

One funding option the class discussed last week is workforce development.  The aim here is to mentor young people so that they obtain both job skills AND life skills.  So many American youth face the double jeopardy of not only having grown up poor but also lacking supportive adult role models to help guide them on the path toward a successful adulthood.  This is a problem that, as the New York Times recently reported, is plaguing many European countries too.  The class looked at the work being done by three nonprofits — Year Up, Future Chefs, and More Than Words – each of which is making significant inroads in mitigating this problem.

Other options for creating opportunity that we will consider in the course include Housing First and School Readiness.  Check back here to learn more about these.

Not So Pretty in Pink: Susan G. Komen’s Gargantuan Slice of the Charitable Pie

 Despite how much has been said over the  past week about Susan G. Komen for the Cure, here is a take on breast cancer fundraising you probably haven’t considered:  Since there are only so many charitable dollars to go around, when one organization gets such a large piece of the pie the impact on other causes can be adverse.

It’s been a tough road of late for Komen, its having been the brunt of an onslaught of negative press for pulling back its funding for Planned Parenthood.  This comes in the wake of the release last Friday of the Canadian documentary Pink Ribbons Inc., which criticizes the branding of breast cancer fundraising.  The film exposes how much this good cause has been tarnished by its tie-in with corporate products.  Companies become associated with the warm feeling consumers get by knowing a percentage of sales revenue goes to fight a deadly disease.  This sentiment masks the fact that some of these products, namely cosmetics, may actually be contributors to the breast cancer epidemic.

Let’s set the record straight.  These critiques of Komen are not an indictment of the importance of fighting this disease.  Mine likewise aims to separate the cause from how it is being carried out.  And the facts certainly tell a story worth investigating.  Komen raises nearly half a billion dollars a year.  One of the reasons so many people support it is because breast cancer impacts nearly everyone in some way.  But, that’s hardly the only reason.  It’s no accident that people seek to attach themselves to a cause whose marketing and publicity is literally everywhere.  It is easy to give when a charity has the resources to inform ordinary people of the importance and urgency of its work.  And when the cause is in the media spotlight – as is so often the case with breast cancer – donors feel that their giving is doing something righteous.

And perhaps it is.  Or maybe not – how much good Komen is actually doing is a bone of contention, as Pink Ribbons Inc. makes clear.  But so much of the time, feelings tied to mass-mediated causes become the currency of philanthropy supposedly done well.  And since people have finite amounts to give, other causes that do not have a well-oiled marketing arm ultimately lose out.

The cause that particularly concerns me – and which is the focus of this blog – is the opportunity divide in the United States.  This is the gap between those who have the skills, contacts, and money to secure jobs that pay well with mobility prospects and those who don’t.  The urgency of this cause has become apparent in recent months for a host of reasons – the rising poverty rate, declining mobility in the U.S. relative to Canada and Europe, and growing economic inequality – all of which the Occupy protests last year made plainly visible.

There are so many nonprofits making inroads in countering this divide, yet very few have the power to get their good works into the public eye.  Whereas Komen’s marketing arsenal enables it to amass millions upon millions in contributions, organizations working to increase access to opportunity take whatever crumbs they can get.  This is why I profile some of these organizations elsewhere on this blog.