Nonprofits invest in For-Profits

When the W. K. Kellogg Foundation set aside $100 million in 2007 to invest in companies that could produce both social and financial benefits, it was considered revolutionary. Historically, major foundations had used mainly stocks, bonds, real estate and other traditional asset classes to build their endowments.

In 2010, the Kellogg Foundation invested $5 million in Wireless Generation, a tiny educational software maker working to improve public education in New York City. Just 219 days later, it made a 25.9 percent return after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought Wireless Generation for $360 million.

Philanthropy is taking its cues from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The language of finance is so common that it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between an investment conference and a fund-raiser. Grants are referred to as investments, and public-private partnerships as innovations. Money used to buy vans, computers and buildings is called growth capital.

“It’s not just the language that is changing,” said Antony Bugg-Levine, chief executive of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. “The actual distinction between the two sectors, for-profit and nonprofit, is starting to collapse.”

The shift stems from a new generation of philanthropists, like Bill and Melinda Gates, Pierre and Pam Omidyar and Steve and Jean Case, hoping to stretch their dollars. As they see it, the pool of philanthropic assets — even at a whopping $4 trillion-plus — is too small to make a dent in seemingly intractable social problems like malnutrition, chronic homelessness, water quality and sanitation. So they are trying to find ways to reuse existing financing and to attract new types of capital.

Finding the balance between charitable giving and shopping

At the peak of the shopping and giving season, consumers are increasingly combining both activities. They are buying products that have charitable tie-ins, shopping through Web portals that send savings to nonprofits, and donating at the registers when they check out at stores.

These charity-linked purchases might give consumers a good feeling, but are they good for charities? Maybe so, but only if those shopping decisions aren’t taking the place of other charitable giving, say some specialists.

Charitable shopping “undermines the philanthropy of a nonprofit through diminished charitable donations,” said Sondra Dellaripa, principal consultant for the nonprofit consultancy Harvest Development Group. In fund-raising development for charities, she said, it is important to build a relationship with a donor — ­something that doesn’t happen in these ­transactions.

So, how can you make your shopping turn into giving while keeping in mind how much you’re really giving to charity? Not all products with charity tie-ins are created equal.

For those shopping online, there are pass-through sites where a charity gets money every time a consumer makes a purchase. The donated percentage of the purchase price varies from 1 to 25 percent.

Some deliver no money to charity at all; they’re just for awareness. Consumers can check this, before they buy, on the product’s website or by reading the tiny print on the product’s packaging.

Top American charities struggling

Many of America’s biggest nonprofits have officially left the Great Recession behind, but the slow economic recovery continues to dampen results at even the most sophisticated fundraising organizations.

The 400 groups that raise the most from private sources achieved a median 7.5-percent gain last year. That’s much better than for the rest of the nonprofit world: Giving USA said charitable giving over all grew less than 1 percent last year.

But the outlook among the top 400 charities is far less optimistic for 2012, with nonprofits forecasting a median gain of less than 1 percent.

The unfortunate new normal for nonprofits

The new normal — nonprofit organizations are going to have to do more with less. Sad, because the needs are great, and the funding is challenging for a lot of not-for-profits.

Although total charitable giving is rising from the pits of the 2008 recession, it’s doing so at an agonizingly slow pace and has yet to reach pre-recession levels.

In fact, last year, corporate donations dropped by 3.1 percent, adjusted for inflation, which cut into the slight gains in personal giving. Many charities, as a result, have cut staff or put added pressure on remaining employees to raise funds. Some workers, and even donors, are feeling burned out. Many nonprofits also are increasingly relying on volunteers to fill the gap in resources.

In 2010 and 2011, U.S. charitable giving grew only by an inflation-adjusted average of 1.8 percent nationwide — making it the second-worst recovery following a recession in 40 years, according to a report by the Giving USA Foundation and Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy.

If giving continued to increase at that rate, it would take 10 years to reach the amount donated in 2007.