This is day two of the Council on Foundations conference. We'll be reporting on the big ideas and concepts that might have bearing on what nonprofits around the nation are doing, starting with the opening breakfast plenary headlined by Huffington Post publisher, Arianna Huffington.

Arianna Huffington Sees a Future for Philanthropy, the Media, and Scaling Solutions to Social Problems (April 11, 2011; 10:15 am)

Arianna Huffington can tell a lively, entertaining story, but the important messages she had for the foundation sector about the role of the media in social change.

While many people are concerned about the future of newspapers due to competition from the Internet and social media, Huffington looks at the social media as an instrument for social change, suggesting that social media can be a real help to the work of scaling solutions. Her point is that social media, online media like the Huffington Post, make the news actionable. “Social media is all about action, not about watching passively,” she said.

The impulse that that taps is the human need or human instinct to come together and solve problems, what Huffington calls the “fourth instinct” (the other three being sex, money, and power, not necessarily in that order). Huffington has a very hopeful and positive view of people and community. She suggested that that fourth instinct isn't something to cultivate; it exists, and what philanthropy has to to is to tap into it.

In addition to tapping people's desires to do good, Huffington thinks philanthropy can help bring the results of that instinct to scale. She contended that “at the local level, you see people coming together to make things happen…you see fundamental change; how can we take that and scale it?” The “we” is both philanthropy and the media.

She expressed her chagrin at the media's propensity to disproportionately cover the sensational and the emotional (she cited the “balloon boy” phenomenon). The Huffington Post (now purchased by AOL) has been establishing a “patch network” of digital newspapers in small towns, “to put the spotlight on what is working, to accelerate what is working…and create a critical mass of 'goods'”. Huffington's vision is for the media to “put the spotlight on conditions that need fixing and on the solutions…putting the magnifying glass on what is working.”

How should philanthropy connect to the media? She was a little unspecific. Citing the support of Gara LaMarche for the Huffington Post's investigative journalism project (which just merged with the Center for Public Integrity), Huffingon called for foundations to provide the “risk capital” that could be used to promote the role of the newspaper (paraphrasing John Knight of Knight-Ridder) “to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition…and make them pursue their own true interests.”

Huffington didn't sound the alarm for the future of the newspaper. Rather, she said the newspaper will not survive as we know it, but the good newspapers will survive and thrive if they integrate online with their print journalism. At HuffPo, she tells her reporters to “tell more stories and spend less time looking at polling data” as the way of connecting to readers' lives, expectations, and solutions.

Foundations might adapt to the same model, focusing on people and their lives and stories rather than getting overly absorbed by the data. But what might foundations do for the media itself? The patch network of small town digital newspapers might be a model if foundations thought of what they might do to support a network of nonprofit outlets, nationally and locally to cover community news and build an infrastructure of citizen journalists. That would “bestir the people into…awareness,” but we also need journalism that covers the nonprofit and philanthropic communities as well. We need support for a nonprofit, citizens journalism at the local community level and we need journalism that covers the activities and engagements of 1.8 million 501(c) nonprofits, 15 million nonprofit employees, and over 50 million volunteers.

Can Foundations Eradicate Homelessness?  By Investing in Systems Change and Housing First, According to the Funders Together to End Homelessness Affinity Group (April 11, 2011; 1:55 pm)

Can foundations end homelessness? The affinity group Funders Together to End Homelessness believes that the problem of homelessness—chronic homelessness—can be solved, if done the right way, according to Funders Together's executive director, Anne Miskey. In the midst of all of the Council on Foundations workshops, we were fortunate to find a moment to have a conversation with Anne, her communications director, Teri Larson, and three core foundation leaders in the affinity group: Bill Pitkin of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, David Wertheimer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Bob Hohler of the Melville Charitable Trust (Bob won the Council's 2009 Distinguished Grantmaker award).

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How can foundations “end homelessness”? Not on their own, for sure, but by providing catalytic investments, as Wertheimer said, to provoke change in the homeless shelter and housing system in localities. It requires a systems approach, one that moves government and nonprofits from simply “managing the homeless” to changing the system.

The concept that they all advocate is “Housing First,” the idea that putting people into housing rather than having them cycled through and managed in a shelter system results in better outcomes for the chronically homeless. Pitkin described efforts to coordinate funding in Los Angeles County to tackle the problem of chronic homelessness, roughly ¼ of the nightly homeless population of 50,000. Miskey referenced the closing of the last shelter in Worcester, Massachusetts as evidence of the effectiveness of a strategy of placing homeless people and families into housing—housing as the necessary platform—and strengthening the system of services around homeless housing so that people can access services. But without the housing first, the improvements and services that a homeless person might access don't happen.

Wertheimer cited the evidence of the “1811 Project” in Seattle, designed to address chronically inebriated homeless persons. Putting 75 individuals into housing, regardless of whether they had stopped drinking or not or whether they committed to stop drinking resulted in low turnover, some individuals on their own accessing services and stopping drinking, and a savings of $4 million after the cost of the housing.

If foundations were to pursue this model, it would require “our sector to think differently about how are resources deployed that can promote systems level change,” according to Hohler. The systems level change is to make the investments in the systems side of the homeless system—the array of services available to homeless people placed into stable housing—more efficient and functional, as opposed to the often fragmented service systems that exist in many localities. Wertheimer described what foundation funders and public sector agencies are doing together, sitting at the same table to “braid” their resources into a single funding system. Miskey and Wertheimer both talked about the system in Columbus, Ohio which makes funding decisions based on published outcome data from the service providers and funds technical assistance to the providers that fall short of goals.

The Funders Together approach confronts a variety of attitudinal barriers in making this happen: overcoming foundations tied to a patronizing approach toward the homeless based on the idea that the homeless cannot be placed in housing unless they are “cured” or unless there are mandatory services onsite or nearby; fixing dysfunctional, chaotic service delivery systems; convincing nonprofits that have developed their own alternative comprehensive service systems that it is better in the long run to fix the system rather than generate and run their own alternatives; getting funders not only to work in collaboration among themselves, but with nonprofit and public sector agencies; committing to capacity building interventions not just for nonprofit grant recipients, but for the entire array of service providers that exist to provide services to the homeless individuals in Housing First housing; and being willing as funders to advocate for systems change and invest in their own and nonprofits' advocacy.

The Funders Together theory reflects a new approach discernible among many funders, a systems change approach, thinking in systems terms. It means rejecting the notion that “the system is broken and you can't fix it” or “the system is punitive, it hurts people we're trying to help, so best avoid it.” Putting homeless people into housing, according to Funders Together, works, with evidence to demonstrate the outcomes. But it only works if funders use their leverage to invest in systems changes so that the discombobulated service systems of many cities become more efficient with the use and delivery of their resource.

How does this work in a recession where the public and private sector are hardly flush with capital and the prospects for the future, at least at the public sector, are bleak? Hohler suggested that there are things occurring that provide opportunities for intervention, such as working with state Medicaid directors who have been incentivized by legislation to begin connecting with state housing finance agnecies. Foundations can provide the capacity-building technical assistance to make those connections work better. Both Hohler and Wertheimer suggested that even with the recession, fixing the systems means when (and if) new money becomes available, the new funds will be used more effectively and efficiently rather the process of churning the homeless that occurs now.

Collaboration and efficiency are hardly new ideas, but the idea of foundations investing in systems may be the philanthropic “zeitgeist” that Huffington's breakfast speech identified as the new way that foundations are operating—or have to operate—in this political and economic climate. They cited promising models in Worcester, Hennepin County (St. Paul/Minneapolis), Minnesota, Columbus, Ohio, Flint, Michigan, but what about those localities without the locally focused funders like Melville and Hilton and without the risk-taking nonprofit and government leaders willing to take a risk on the Housing First concept? The challenge for Funders Together will be to expand from the philanthropic asset and leadership rich communities to those where foundations have yet to see themselves taking this kind of advocacy and systems change role.