Archive for August, 2013

YHC Kick Off Event: Susan Jacoby

August 31st, 2013

If you are in New Haven, I hope you can join for this event.  Alas, I will miss it although have been working to help organize.  Grateful that Susan Jacoby agreed to come speak.

On Tuesday, September 10th at 7:00 PM, the Yale Humanist Community will host Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Susan Jacoby (FreethinkersThe Great Agnostic) for a lecture on how secular ethics bear on public policy and everyday life.Jacoby will lecture in K207 in Kirtland Hall, the Psychology Department, at 2 Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, CT. Following her talk, Jacoby will take questions and sign copies of her books, some of which will be available for purchase from the Yale Bookstore. There will also be a small reception to follow, with food and drink available for guests.

This event will be the first for the recently established Yale Humanist Community (YHC), an organization dedicated to developing, supporting, and growing a diverse community of Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious at Yale and beyond. Information about future YHC events and affiliated Yale student clubs will be available to attendees, as will members of our Board of Directors and our staff members Chris Stedman (Coordinator of Humanist Life) and Paul Chiariello (Director of Operations). This event is free and open to the public, and all are welcome. We hope to see you there!

The Overhead Myth

August 21st, 2013

I was pleased to see that arguments like Dan Pallotta‘s are having an impact.  One of his key points is that he makes is that judging a charity mainly or only by “overhead percentage” or “amount of my money that goes to the cause” is dangerous, incorrect and damaging.

Just in the past few months, three of the most respected charity “watchdogs” or third-party evaluators have endorsed this concept, too.  They have launched a website and a campaign to spread the word.  They call it the Overhead Myth.  In their words:

In a historic move, the leaders of the country’s three leading sources of information on nonprofits – GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance – penned an open letter to the donors of America denouncing the “overhead ratio” as a valid indicator of nonprofit performance.

The letter, signed by all three organization’s CEOs, marks the beginning of a campaign to correct the common misconception that the percentage of charity’s expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs—commonly referred to as “overhead”—is, on its own, an appropriate metric to evaluate when assessing a charity’s worthiness and efficiency. The nonprofit sector, which all three organizations provide information to and about, has too often erroneously focused on overhead over the past few decades, which has starved nonprofits from investing in themselves as enterprises and created what the Stanford Social Innovation Review calls, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.”

And it continues in their open letter: Overhead Myth Letter. [PDF]

Please help spread the word.

Unleashing the Humanitarian Sector

August 21st, 2013

truly giving charities the freedom to act like businesses

I was at time inspired and discouraged by reading Dan Pallotta’s two books on what’s wrong with the humanitarian (nonprofit if you prefer) sector.  I sat down to write a book review although found that Steve MacLaughlin had done a great job already.  So check that out. Or watch Pallotta’s TED Talk below.

Charity Case Cover

To summarize, the 5 key things we get wrong in thinking about the nonprofit sector are:

1. Compensation: We let the for-profit sector pay people a competitive wage based on the value of what they produce. But we don’t want people making money in charity.
2. Advertising and Marketing: We let business advertise until the last dollar no longer produces any value. But we don’t like to see charitable donations spent on advertising.
3. Risk Taking in Pursuit of New Donors: It’s OK for a big budget movie or new product to flop. But if a $5 million charity walk doesn’t show a 75% profit in the first year, then it’s considered suspect.
4. Time Horizon: Companies can go years without returning any money to investors in the interest of a long-term goal. But if a charity has a long-term goal that doesn’t show short-term results, then it’s scandalous.
5. Profit: Business can offer profits to attract investment capital and there’s an entire ecosystem around funding new ventures. But there’s no such vehicle for a charity and they are left starved for growth capital.

I was particularly struck by #5.  How can we create an equity-like market for humanitarian causes?  How can someone put up risk capital and earn some economic reward for taking risk to fund new projects, startup, transistion or capital needs for for a non-stock corporation especially one considered a 501c3.  Every idea I kept coming up with lead back to dubious legal grounds.  Under current law, in order to maintain the tax exempt status (and realistically to be able to raise donations as for-profits that ask for donations may be accused of fraud), “no part of the net income may inure to the benefit of any private individual”.

The closest I’ve found to working around this is Pay for Success or Performance Bonds championed by the like of Third Sector Capital.  Do you know of any other models like this?  Would love to hear about them.

Pallota does suggest in Charity Case that by law we create a new category called a for profit foundation.  It would be allowed to solicit donations and funnel them only to 501c3s.  It would be able to make a profit (pay taxes on it) and distribute to shareholders.  I think it is a great idea and would love to help make it happen.  Any pointers to resources on this or people working on this topic, please let me know.

If you’re interested in learning more about Pallota’s plan to change the country’s view on charities, check out the Charity Defense Council.

Celebrating Inside Out New Haven

August 18th, 2013

a public art project of and by the community

What started an idea inspired by JR’s Inside Out Project, a Sunday planning session with Ben Berkowitz and then a simple blog post, grew into a movement, a living piece of art and a community.

photo from Chris Randall

Here was the pitch we gave:

A multi-lane freeway divides what once was one neighborhood: barren concrete cuts across State at Bradley and Humphrey at State in New Haven, CT.Over the past few years, with the help of URI, we have cleaned-up, planted trees and painted fences. Inspired by the Inside Out Project, now it is time to take one more step to bring the neighborhood closer together.Let’s get to know each others faces. Inside Out #NHV seeks to post ~200 portraits of the people who live here.We will cover the overpasses with huge portraits of our actual neighbors. No models need apply. And we’re doing this with local money and local photographers.

And did people respond! Before we were done we had: over 500 people join our Facebook group, 215+ people donate money, been covered at least a dozen times in the media, and official support from State of Connecticut and the City of New Haven.

We were interested in creating public art and doing it in a way that involved and built community. Going door to door in the area to pass out flyers advertising our various photo-shoots was a another method for us. The photographers also volunteered their time and created quite the scene filling the sidewalks of the very underpasses we planned to transform.

We choose to raise money from individuals as we wanted each piece of this project to include the community. We also were curious to use Kickstarter for a project and so this one seemed perfect fit. When Ben took to social media for an hours long real-time social media fundraising session, the donors really rolled in.

More important than that we had such a positive response from volunteers willing to help hang the photographs once they were printed. People kept showing up with buckets of wheatpaste they cooked after work.

The passion of the volunteers was so great that when the project was struck by graffiti, the outpouring of support was incredible and immediate. Before Ben and I could declare an “official” response from the “leadership”, volunteers choose to start repairing the photos themselves. I was blown away!

The New Haven Independent had a pretty good wrap up of our efforts. I think most folks involved were pleased with our success.And it was pretty cool that we even briefly captured the attention of the Whitehouse.

I did hear from a few people that they were disappointed that the art did not last longer. Given that it was paper portraits, I was not expecting it to withstand the elements very long. To me part of the art was the passing nature of the work. It was a moment to be experienced.

That said in the end, some of the photos were brought inside for an official art show at Creative Arts Workshop. Go figure! And you can re-live it through photos on I Love New Haven’s two different pages hereand here, or via a video John Belanger posted on on Vimeo.

Inside Out #nhv from John Belanger on Vimeo.

Many thanks to all our backers and volunteers including Chris Randall and many others. We also had great support from Colleen and Chris from URI. We couldn’t have done it without all of you. Thank you!

Creating a Humanist Community at Yale

August 18th, 2013

meaning, service, community, ethics, education, ceremony and assembly without superstition and dogma

For the past year or so, I’ve been working to help create a Humanist Community at Yale University. As an alum living in New Haven, I feel connected to the university and wanted to contribute in another way. After founding the Yale Entrepreneurial Society, helping start the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, starting companies in town, and building community via projects like scavenger hunt Cluefest and collaborative public art Inside Out #NHV, I was ready for another project.

What is a Humanist Community, you ask? As a shorthand, you can think of it as the key elements of a church or religion without reference to the supernatural and with much less dogma. I’m talking about weaving together things like meaning, service, community, ethics, education, ceremony and regular assembly without the superstition or dogma.

Yale students have groups like Yale Humanist Society and the Open Party. Our goal is to support their work and create a larger umbrella and broader community that includes faculty, staff, students, alums, family and others.

Our efforts were briefly profiled in the Yale Alumni Magazine and we’ve made enough progress now that I would like to share the news about a few important milestones:

  • Key Staff: Chris Stedman. I am very pleased that Chris has joined our effort. His background as Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard’s Humanist Community plus his experience with interfaith and service projects making him well suited for the effort here. For now he is part-time although I hope that will grow into more. I am grateful for the support of Greg Epstein of Humanist Community at Harvard as Chris still works the rest of the time for Greg.
  • Director of Operations: Paul Chiariello. Paul has co-founded this effort with me and has done so much to create the organization. His relationship from being a recent grad student at Yale, his experience with Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy and his willingness to take action have all been very helpful. Paul is officially our first staff member and we’ve got payroll up and running! Paul is also helping to start Camp Quest New England which will be right here in Connecticut. He is their first Program Director and develop their Ethics and Humanism Curric.
  • Connections with Broader Community. We have fleshed out or board with faculty members, student representation, community members and those with connections to the broader humanist movement. More details to be announced on our website soon. Also, we’ve officially become a chapter of the American Humanist Association and have connections with the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association.
  • Applied for Formal Affiliation with Yale. We’re working to be formally recognized by Yale’s official Chaplin and be part of Yale’s Religious Ministries. Many conversations and much thought has gone into this so we’re hopeful although it is not yet complete. Perhaps in the next few months we should have official word on our application.

Have questions? Wanna get involved or help? Please let me know. Or check out the website at