Don't Fundraise for Your Means, Fundraise for Your Ends

Money stars
Money stars

Would you donate money to help improve the skills of a teacher? Or, would you be more motivated to donate so the children in that teacher's classroom would get a better education, and would be more likely to stay in school?

Would you donate money to help a scientist track the pounds of carbon released into the atmosphere? Or, would you be more motivated to donate so that better carbon emission data from that scientist would influence public policy leading to reduced carbon emissions, and thus slow global warming?

Glynwood Center, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable land use was raising money for a program that brought  together land developers, town officials and land owners to decide on the best use of open space. When the organization asked donors to "Help us bring people together to decide on the best use of open farmland," funding support was meager. When Glynwood Center changed its message to "Help us save farmland," their funding increased dramatically.

Habitat for Humanity in Wilmington Delaware would report the number of homes built each year to its funders. When  the organization added information about the reduction in crime rates and increased employment due to their new homes, funders were more interested in providing support.

Tell your donors about the ends you are furthering -- the benefits to individuals, to society or the environment. The dollars are more likely to roll in.

How Do Kids Build Character? See The Character Lab

Recently we had the opportunity to work with The Character Lab and their remarkable team: co-founders Dr. Angela Duckworth professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, and Dominic Randolph, Head of Riverdale Country School in New York City, along with Executive Director Brittany Butler. The organization's mission is to develop, disseminate, and support research-based approaches to building character that enable kids to learn and flourish. The organization's work is part of a growing trend to recognize character as one of the key factors for success in kid's learning and development. What then are the elements of character? In their Character Growth Card, The Character Lab posits that the following seven characteristics can be used to assess character in middle-school children, and help teachers provide students with formative and helpful feedback. Reading these also sparked my imagination and interest in how they apply to my own life, and to those around me.


  • Finished whatever s/he began
  • Worked independently with focus
  • Tried very hard even after experiencing failure
  • Stayed committed to goals
  • Kept working hard even when s/he felt like quitting


  • Believed that effort would improve his/her future
  • When bad things happened, s/he thought about things s/he could do to avoid similar bad things in the future
  • Stayed motivated, even when things didn’t go well
  • Believed that s/he could improve on things they weren’t good at

SELF CONTROL (school work)

  • Came to class prepared
  • Remembered and followed directions
  • Got to work right away rather than procrastinating
  • Paid attention and resisted distractions

SELF CONTROL (interpersonal)

  • Remained calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked
  • Allowed others to speak without interrupting
  • Was polite to adults and peers
  • Kept temper in check


  • Recognized what other people did for them
  • Showed appreciation for opportunities
  • Expressed appreciation by saying thank you
  • Did something nice for someone else as a way of saying thank you


  • Was able to find solutions during conflicts with others
  • Demonstrated respect for the feelings of others
  • Adapted to different social situations


  • Was eager to explore new things
  • Asked questions to deepen understanding
  • Took an active interest in learning


  • Actively participated
  • Showed enthusiasm
  • Approached new situations with excitement and energy

The Character Lab is working to develop evidence-based research results to further test the validity and usefulness of these character designations. They also plan to aggregate a set of effective practices from other research-validated approaches.

Ten Ways to Change a System

Network diagram v2
Network diagram v2

This morning, my husband and I hunkered down on the squat wooden chairs in our son’s first grade classroom and had a conference with his new teacher. From our first interactions it was clear she has a keen intelligence and a gentle bearing, and she has me reflecting on my own extraordinary teachers, from childhood to today. Inevitably, I think of Dana Meadows, a scientist, writer, and systems thinker who was a professor of mine in college and who fundamentally shaped my life path. Dana was a brilliant scientist who built computer models to generate insight into how complex systems function – and who fearlessly brought her heart as well as her brain to the undertaking. She was a pioneer in the field of system dynamics, yet she took the time to invite my whole class to her house to watch the movie Gandhi and snack on carrots from her garden.

Since blogs these days seem to be replete with top ten lists, here is one from Dana:

"Places to Intervene in a System” (in increasing order of effectiveness) 10. Constants, parameters, numbers. (such as subsidies, taxes, standards) 9. Material stocks and flows 8. Regulating negative feedback loops 7. Driving positive feedback loops. 6. Information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information). 5. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints). 4. The power of to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure. 3. The goals of the system. 2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – its goals, structures, rules, delays, parameters - arise 1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

To decode much of this, you will want to her full article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. But for those among you on the hunt for magic buttons to get change fast, be forewarned. These are the final lines of the article:

“Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

Be rigorous, be humble, and let go strategically. These are lessons from an exceptional teacher that I expect to be learning for some time to come.

How to Keep a University Alive

University bubble chart
University bubble chart

Several years back, we had the opportunity to work with a small, niche university.  The big question that they were trying to answer was about sustainability – what could they do to establish a more sustainable model for themselves? If they didn't resolve this question, they feared they would have to close.

As a part of their beliefs, they highly valued small class sizes, which was integral to the learning experience that they offered.  So, while increasing class size might have been an obvious first lever to pull, such cost efficiency through class size wasn't the answer for them.

To understand their positioning, we conducted some peer research, specifically of colleges and universities that prided themselves on small class sizes.  We looked at ones who were financially sound and sustainable and then looked for markers of their success.  All of the successful, sustainable  peers with small class sizes varied from our client on one (or more) of three key levers:  average tuition, overall student population, or endowment.  Our client didn't have a strong position in any of these levers, and thus was living in a no-man's land (see diagram above). The successful institutions didn't all have the same model, but they were all finding a way to support the costs of maintaining small class sizes by pulling one or more of these key levers.

What did this mean for our client?  It turned out they couldn't easily pull any single one of those levers strongly enough in short order to close their financial gap and stay open.  They valued providing access to college to a larger breadth of household incomes and couldn't jack their realized tuition way up. They couldn't dramatically increase their endowment in the short run given the fundraising challenges, and their overall student population could only grow incrementally over time.  As a result – they needed to pull all three of the levers – in smaller amounts and gradually. And that's what they did. By paying close attention to increasing tuition where they could, growing their endowment through well-planned fundraising, and increasing their student population while maintaining small class sizes, they were able to establish their sustainability. The thus moved from the no-man's land into a zone of success.

To state all of this in simple terms: if your organization is struggling to achieve financial sustainability it can be useful to look at peers (especially those with similar values) to see if you are operating in a “no-man’s land.”  And if you are – what combination of levers can you pull to get yourself out?

How to Increase Equity and Excellence in Public Schools

Earlier this year The Equity and Excellence Commission released its final report to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  In order to decrease the achievement gap and increase equity and excellence in America’s Public Schools the Commission recommended the following:

  1. Reform the funding systems that so often mean a child’s access to education is determined by his or her ZIP code.
  2. Elevate and reform the teaching profession
  3. Ensure access to high-quality preschools
  4. Meet the non-school needs of students from high-poverty communities
  5. Shift the system of educational governance to improve equity.

All of this is critical for a nation where the average African-American eight-grader performs at the 19th percentile of white students, and the average Hispanic eighth-grader performs at the 26th percentile. And in comparison with other countries, US students rank 27th for math and just 1 in 4 American students perform on par with the average student in Singapore or Finland. I find the report's recommendations meaningful and worth revisiting. While wholesale achievement of the recommendations is unlikely in the near term, they represent a guidepost for the future.