The Long and Winding Road

November 13th, 2014

Coming off a great, dizzying six weeks on the speaking and conference circuit, some of which I’ve tracked here. Philanthropy New York, Philanthropy Ohio, the community foundations conference, Minnesota Council on Foundations, and more – for this ambivert, lots of socializing, plus downtime in Cleveland, Minnesota, Austin, and Maryland to recharge. Thanks to everyone who hosted me and came out for sessions.

Here’s what I’m taking away from my time on the road:

  • Everything old is new again. The talk of the community foundations conference was a panel in which a speaker showed the agenda from the same conference…in 1925 (!)…and it was…wait for it…practically the same agenda as 2014. It’s one thing to have perennial problems in philanthropy. It’s another to willfully or blithely ignore history. I had cause recently to revisit Joel Orosz’s classic “The Insider’s Guide to Grantmaking” from 2000 – it’s great! Full of humane thinking and practical insight. Should be required reading. Not to mentions perennials from GrantCraft, Center for Effective Philanthropy, and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. My boss keeps telling me to read “The Golden Foundations” by Waldemar Nielsen. What’s on your philanthropy required-reading list? In grad school, back in the early 2000s before you could just store these on Google Docs, in my polisci doctoral program we had a CD-ROM (later a thumb drive) of summaries and outlines of classic texts prepared by students in years past that got passed down to the next class when it was time to study for qualifying exams. We could use something like that in philanthropy, open-sourced. Anyone up for jumping in with me? If it already exists, all the better – let’s build on it.
  • Going it alone is for suckers. At work, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of an ecosystem approach to strategy and capacity building. That message is really resonating with all kinds of audiences. Increasingly, anyone’s point of departure in the social-impact space has to be, what is my strategy in relation to the strategies of other actors in my space? This forces you to think about who those actors are. What capacity do I as a funder need to be a good partner with nonprofits, companies, government, intermediaries, etc.? I’m very conscious that my first point applies very well to my second, i.e., that this is not a new problem, and would welcome good sources on this.
  • Go small to go big. My talk at Minnesota Council on Foundations was about “Scaling Our Work for Greater Impact.” I argued that funders should focus on playing their roles in the social ecosystem responsibly, meaning that they’re reliable, sensible, and accountable. By getting hold of those basics, “going small,” they’re better positioned to “go big” by leveraging their impact through collaboration. Again, this is the point of departure, not just an add-on or something it’d be nice to have.
  • What’s in your utility belt? Oh, Alec Baldwin. Ostracized from TV and print, and now heckled off the agenda of the Independent Sector conference. I mean, it’s not like he didn’t bring it on himself. He’s also been replaced as the pitchman for Capital One credit cards – for a few years, it was his gravelly voice that intoned, “What’s in your wallet?” A version of that question is relevant for funders – what tools are in your utility belt, and what are you using beyond the grant to achieve impact. This one’s definitely not a new question! But I see lots of interest on it out there, and it’s tied to the capacity question – what tools should you choose, and how do you prioritize those based on the ability you have on staff and can either build or buy? Research, advocacy, convening, advancing difficult dialogues, mission investing – the list goes on. So much opportunity, so little understanding of how to prioritize based on mission, need, and capacity.

For funders, how do you think about your nongrantmaking roles? Are you clear on what roles are a best fit for your in your ecosystem? What perennial questions do you find yourself revisiting?

Behind the Curtain

October 23rd, 2014

Lots to talk about from the community foundations conference earlier this week; I’ll get into that next week. The questions that interest me at work of internal foundation capacity, non-grantmaking roles, and funder strategy in an ecosystem context were all weaved through the discussions.

In the meantime, here’s my new post on Philanthropy New York about a session I recently did on “So You Want to be a Philanthropic Advisor?” with Caroline Woodruff of Bessemer Trust.

Say Say Say

October 16th, 2014

Busy month on the speaking and conference circuit. This Friday, I’m at Philanthropy Ohio talking about “Making Strategic Philanthropy Stick.”

On October 31, in what is hopefully not a trick for the audience, I’m speaking at the Minnesota Council on Foundations annual conference on “Scaling Our Work for Greater Impact.” In that talk, I’m going to focus on tools that funders can use to play responsible roles in supporting collective action, not just from the outside, but from within such efforts. It’s a TED-style talk, short and to the point. Should be fun.

One of the topics I won’t get to cover that’s long been a passion of mine is how philanthropy can be more accessible to underserved communities. Luckily, I was honored to appear on MCF’s Fast Forward podcast series with the always thoughtful Alfonso Wenker to address just this topic. Again, so much to say! Definitely listen to the podcast, but here are a few other talking points on the topic of foundations and diversity, equity, and inclusion that I didn’t get the chance to cover.

  • Question your own assumptions – it’s well-known but bears repeating, foundations live in a bubble with little accountability. So you want to unearth your assumptions about how change happens and who needs to be at the table when decisions are made. This can extend to seemingly little things like language (“grantee partners” vs. “grantees,” for example). Who really has the power in your relationship, you who have the money or they who actually have the direct impact?
    • Now, there’s a difference between questioning your assumptions and questioning yourself. The first is about growth; the second is frankly kind of self-indulgent. It can happen when you take the philanthropy too personally, that other perennial problem of identifying the money as if it were yours. Questioning your assumptions is more like a zen practice, like mindfulness, rather than drama. How do I actually think change is going to happen? If I’m funding work in diverse communities to which I’ve never given before, how will people get to know me? Can I present myself in the same way, assuming the same level of familiarity, as I do in other environments? Does it make sense for me to go in there on my own, or with a partner who’s embedded in the community and respected there?
  • Check in with your gut, why are you doing this? Avoid “ay bendito.” My family’s from Colombia, so this isn’t a saying I grew up with, but in Puerto Rican Spanish, “ay bendito” – “oh, blessed one” – is what you say with a combination of empathy and pity. “oh, you poor thing.” Too many times, I’ve seen diversity approached from an “ay bendito” perspective. “Oh, those poor people.” This goes to questioning your own assumptions. There’s something insidious about observing that when you serve low-income communities, you’re serving “mostly” black and Latino people. The categories we use consciously, start to inform how we think unconsciously; you make that association that black and Latino people are all poor. The numbers about wealth disparity don’t lie, but then we start to make assumptions about whole groups of people that inform how we respond to an individual or an organization that we encounter, and then we get into trouble.
  • Democratize it. I’ve been thrilled to follow from afar the work of the Community Investment Network, which has been fostering African-American giving circles and has just celebrated ten years. But the thing about democracy is that it’s an ideal AND a process: “One person, one vote” AND a whole cadre of volunteer poll workers and neighborhood venues that host voting sites (mine’s in an elementary school). So democratizing philanthropy has at least two dimensions. One is communicating a democratic spirit: anyone can be a giver. The other is diffusing democratic processes of decision-making, so there are polling stations in every neighborhood, school, and church, or analogously, diffusing the mechanisms of thoughtful, effective grantmaking, whether it’s with a few hundred dollars in a giving circle or a $100 million grantmaking budget around a foundation board table. Democracy is about collective public deliberation, but even within philanthropy, which is about collective private deliberation, setting the criteria for allocating philanthropic dollars, and the process of values alignment and consensus building that are involved, are essentially democratic skills, even if they happen away from public scrutiny. That’s the paradox of this field, its simultaneous anti-democratic and democratic tendencies.

Not exactly podcast-friendly soundbites, but there you go. How do you see funders embracing – or not – diversity, equity, and inclusion in your world? What works and what doesn’t about that?

The Power of Love

September 25th, 2014

All through high school, and through my first year of college, I was convinced I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I wanted to listen to people’s troubles and help them figure out a way to solve them. I was less concerned with the tools (psychology) than with the results (relief of anguish).

Then, fall of my sophomore year of college, I took a friend’s advice and tried out Intro to Political Theory. I can still picture the narrow room in Stetson Hall at Williams College. It had a long, wide wooden table around which maybe twelve people could fit, without much clearance between the backs of their chairs and the wall. The professor sat at the far end of the table, framed by a tall picture window. I arrived late, and the only seat left was at the opposite end of the table. I slunk in and began taking notes. The subject was power.

I found myself scribbling in the margins of my notes: power to, power over, power from, positive and negative forms of power…. A whole world had opened itself to me, and I soon left psychology behind. (Didn’t hurt that I wasn’t very good at it.)

Twenty-odd years later, and if you were to ask me in Spanish what my profesión was, I’d say politólogo - politicologist, or in the parlance of the schools I attended for undergrad and doctoral studies, “political science.” I’ve studied institutional power in various permutations.

But the concern with the relief of anguish has remained. And that’s why I work in philanthropy. Because people are using the power of money, and all that it affords, to make change out of love. I was about to say, “out of love for humanity,” referencing the etymology of “philanthropy,” but I’m too much of a politólogo to think it’s just that. Love of control. Love of prestige. Love of attention. They’re all in there, to varying degrees. I’ve written about the expressive dimensions of the act of giving, and that expression has many dimensions, many of them not particularly noble.

But the love is there, the very human hunger for satisfaction of an emotional need, even if it’s just a sense of order and justice in an upside-down world.

For me, then, philanthropy is a kind of palindrome: love of the power of love. Those two qualities, ever in tension, caught up in each other. That’s what keeps me going in this field.

What motivates you about philanthropy?

P.S. Now just try getting that Huey Lewis song out of your head. You’re welcome.

Brand New Key(s)

September 19th, 2014

At my day job, we just put out a paper that I was involved in, “Ten Keys, Ten Years Later: Successful Strategic Planning for Foundation Leaders.” As much as strategy has and continues to evolve, we find that the fundamentals of strategic planning remain relevant for a wide variety of funders. One sign of this is that one of our most enduringly popular briefing papers is “Ten Keys to Successful Strategic Planning for Nonprofit and Foundation Leaders.” We just had a potential client say that’s how they found us – and it came out more than ten years ago.

So we thought it would be useful to revisit the Ten Keys and see what was the same and what changed. We also decided to focus specifically on funders this time around.

It was pleasantly surprising to see that most of the keys held up. We framed them a bit differently this time around, but the fundamentals remain sound, and easily overlooked.

There are two that receive different emphasis this time around, and they’re topics that are near and dear to my heart. One is about how non-grantmaking tools are no longer just an afterthought, but an integral part of the strategy discussion. And the other is that it’s more important than ever to frame strategy relationally – in terms of the ecosystem in which you’re embedded. If you’re an education funder, your strategy needs to address its relation to the strategy of the school district, the charter school network, other education funders – your strategy is not just yours alone, in other words. Those who get that do better in strategic planning.

What do you think about the updated Ten Keys? Do they ring true with your experience of strategic planning? How relevant do you find strategic planning in today’s environment?

Fix the Police, Part 2

August 28th, 2014

All right. Ferguson. Ferguson Ferguson Ferguson.

Let’s talk about the professionalization of the security forces (those are the police plus the armed forces). In my dissertation, I posit the idea of a “security-force configuration,” which is the set of institutional relationships among the army, police, and politicians. In Latin America, there have historically been two kinds:

  • Militarized security-force configuration: The army controls the police, in part because it has vastly superior resources, but also because it has the power of appointment and oversight. Both entities are professionalized, meaning that merit rather than connections are the primary means of getting ahead. There’s a unified military command, which means the police are in essence an extension of the army.
    • Locus of Control: Soldiers
    • Balance of Resources: Army > Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army = Police
  • Politicized security-force configuration: Politicians have the power to appoint and fire police officials. The police and army have roughly equivalent resources, and the army is much more professionalized than the police. The police have their own command, and their loyalty to the national regime is unpredictable.
    • Locus of Control: Politicians
    • Balance of Resources: Army = Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army > Police

Neither of these is a picnic. They each create a distinctive kind of vulnerability in the political system: militarized ones are susceptible to national coup (think Argentina and Paraguay), because the unified military command can turn against the government, and politicized ones are subject to local insurrection (think Colombia and Mexico), because local party actors use local forces to fight local battles.

What’s striking about Ferguson is that it reveals how much the U.S. actually has a politicized security-force configuration, even as we’re talking about how (undeniably) militarized the police have become. There’s a transfer of materiel from the army to the police, which makes the balance of resources more equal (though far from equal), but more importantly, the level of professionalization doesn’t change. If anything, the contrast gets more stark: police don’t know how to use their new tools (toys). Merit is devalued: those who know how to use these tools better don’t get ahead, because no one knows how to use them. For example, it’s been pointed out that soldiers are trained never to hold their weapons above a 45-degree angle unless they’re being attacked; police in Ferguson aren’t respecting those norms.

But what’s different about the U.S. system is that we have inherited the tradition of the sheriff from England, and that’s often an elected position. In the Colombian politicized security-force configuration of the first half of the twentieth century, the president appointed governors, who appointed state police chiefs as well as mayors, who appointed local police chiefs. There were no elected police officials, they were an extension of the party system. The sheriff is different; he or she has a direct accountability to voters.

And here’s where foundations, particularly community foundations, can play a role in depoliticizing our country’s security-force configuration – by placing greater pressure on the elected office of sheriff to be more accountable to community norms and professional practices, particularly with regard to military hardware, and funding advocates who seek to increase citizen oversight of the police.

Because there’s a third security-force configuration that we should be striving toward: a democratized one.

Fix the Police

August 14th, 2014

My shtick is usually to do song titles as blog post titles, but tonight, I have to change it up a bit. But just a bit.

Ugh, Ferguson. So, my dissertation was about the military, the police, and politicians – particularly state and local politicians. Governor Jay Nixon, meet the police chief of Ferguson. There, we have the militarization of the police that has gotten out of the control of politicians. I looked at the inverse, when the politicization of the police gets out of the control of the military, which is the structure that most folks assume about Latin America, the region on which I focused.

I don’t know that I have a lot to say about how to reverse the militarization of the police, just that it’s likely to take a long time, as I’ve seen pointed out online today. It’s helpful to think in terms of organizational incentives. My Berkeley classmate Maiah Jaskoski looked at this in Peru and Ecuador, what else the military does when it doesn’t have external defense to focus on.

A brief anecdote to illustrate. I was in Colombia visiting family over Easter week. We were a few hours outside Bogota in a vacation area, driving between town and the house where we were staying. We passed a military checkpoint along the way, where nothing much was happening other than keeping some uniformed dudes busy in the sweltering heat. I asked my cousin’s husband, who’s a recently retired senior officer in the national police, why the military was running a highway checkpoint. “You see, they’re worried for their jobs. The peace process [with the guerrillas] looks like it might actually stick this time, and then what will they do?” The military has been fighting the internal terrorist threat for many years, and since the late 1950s, the national police have been the “fourth force” within the armed forces. But what does the army do when its decades-long internal enemy surrenders? My cousin was suggesting that the army needed something besides fighting to justify their continued elevated budget after the conflict would in principle be over.

With the militarization of local police departments, we see something analogous, where military-grade SWAT gear get passed on to units in towns and cities like Ferguson. One of the most impressive social-media responses has been Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tweeting that the pictures show police in a small city having better gear than the U.S. military invading Iraq eleven years go. As we’re seeing, and has been emerging under the radar until it came chillingly to light this week, the militarization of the police is a very dangerous development.

Here’s why, beyond the obvious. You have to pay attention to the professionalization of the security forces. How is their mission defined, and what are the principles on which their training is based? In early- and mid-20th-century Colombia, you had a situation where the army had professionalized, but didn’t have overwhelming force relative to the police. And you had a highly unprofessional police yoked to the whims of local and state politicians – but that wouldn’t automatically get whupped in a fight with the army. So when partisan politics turned deadly in the 40s and 50s, what you saw was police defecting unpredictably to join the rebels, and the army not able to simply quash them. So you got recurrent local-level insurrection that didn’t aggregate up into revolution, as it did in Mexico. Politicians and their enemies had local tools to fight local problems, and that’s why the conflict stayed local.

In Ferguson, we see local conflict that’s extremely, EXTREMELY one-sided, and that is not rebels vs. the government, but the government vs. unarmed people living their lives. But there’s a terrible combination of unprofessional (I don’t mean that they’re not trained, I mean that they’re not clear that their mission is to protect and serve, rather than search and destroy – H/T Talking Points Memo, I believe) and wildly over-resourced police. This is a recipe for disaster. Here, we’re not talking about the police vs. the army, but the police vs. a part of the population. And the disconnect in power, as well as a willingness to respond disproportionately, is just stunning.

So here’s what I come back to, because this is a blog about philanthropy and democracy. Community foundations have a role to play here. They are civic leaders, or they should be, and these are civic issues about how public resources are used to actually promote public safety and community welfare, which can’t happen when a significant proportion of the population is systematically profiled and demonized. I really like the approach that Perry & Mazany and Albert Ruesga take in Here for Good, talking about community foundations as “borderlands institutions” that have to embody “agonistic pluralism.” This basically means that the typical tension between the more conservative proclivities of many donors and the more progressive inclinations of grantees and staff is not a problem but actually a strength. Because as Congress demonstrates, there are precious few places where people can disagree civilly these days across partisan lines. And community foundations can and should hold that tension productively.

I think of that holding as “advancing difficult dialogues in the community,” and at work, I talk about it as one of the non-grantmaking roles that funders can play. Well, here’s a chance. “How does our community promote public safety in a just and real way – not based on uninformed, unexamined prejudices, and in a way that keeps us all safe, and does not sacrifice the public lives of some for the perceived comfort of others?” Civilian oversight of the military is one of the key innovations that has finally let Latin America emerge from a long shadow of military dictatorships. It’s sad that we have to think in terms of increasing civilian oversight of the police, but that’s what it’s come to.

How can community foundations and other place-based funders advance difficult dialogues about the proper role of the police and other law enforcement officers in promoting peace with justice?

Double Vision

August 7th, 2014

Short and sweet this time: I heard a great description of what I think is an essential skill in philanthropy, the ability to have focus but not be rigid about it.

The firm for which I work is bidding on a project with a group of community foundations, and one of the people involved was on a podcast about philanthropy, so I took a listen. He reflected on his experience as a community foundation leader, saying “you have to be single-minded, but also open-minded,” or words to that effect.

That strikes me as just right: I think the art of “strategic philanthropy” is to take your time figuring out a problem that is at the intersection of what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and where the need is, and where a focused intervention can really make a difference. I keep thinking about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work on juvenile justice, from hearing CEO Patrick McCarthy speak about it at a conference. They saw that it really makes a difference in the juvenile justice system where kids end up on their first sentencing: if they go right to prison, their outcomes are much worse than if they’re put in a community-based setting. But the more extreme response is more common than it should be. So the foundation has focused on helping to create conditions where that sentencing decision goes the other way. They’re single-minded about making that change, because they believe in the potential upside.

But then, once you’ve found that focus, you should be open to good ideas, wherever they might come from. And such good ideas include having those directly impacted play a leading role, including in decision-making, on how resources should be allocated in pursuit of that goal. Work across sectors, empower nonprofit leaders and those directly affected to speak and lead, look for insight from throughout your own organization, draw on the experiences of your funders – once you’ve figured out what to be single-minded about, you can be gloriously open-minded about everything else.

It’s not easy to get there, because not that many problems may fit those criteria of mission, need, capacity, and ripeness, but when you find them, go all in.

Baby Come Back

July 31st, 2014

It’s been a while, but I’m back at it with the blogging.

It’s interesting to see the backlash against “strategic philanthropy” continuing to gain force. Bill Schambra’s latest continues a theme he’s hammered for a while, but when the likes of FSG (disclosure: a competitor of the firm for which I work) begin to moderate their approach, you know something is up.

Part of this has to do with an absolutism about data, which cuts both ways. Either you have to be driven entirely by metrics, or they’re the devil. If metrics don’t work, throw ‘em overboard.

But what’s most interesting, and difficult, is decision-making in conditions of uncertainty. Which is, you know, the human condition.

This is particularly important when you put data in their proper social context. As I’ve continually railed, the concept of “moving the needle” in philanthropy is inherently problematic. The scale of changes philanthropy can foster, particularly in a social-service context, just aren’t big enough – there aren’t enough people affected – to actually change social indicators. The scale is off. Maybe I’m just being too literal, but it seems like the phrase should actually mean something….

To that point, economist Justin Wolfers has a fascinating account of how difficult it is to draw meaningful conclusions even under the best quasi-experimental conditions, allegedly the gold standard of social analysis.

To wit, North Carolina stopped extending unemployment benefits as of this past January, while surrounding states with broadly similar economies and cultural backgrounds continued them. Conservatives argued that stopping benefits would incentivize the unemployed to try harder to find a job, lowering unemployment rates. Progressives argued that those denied benefits would spend less money, exerting a negative influence on the economy.

When Wolfers crunches the numbers, thoughtfully and in accord with good standards, the answer is…we can’t tell. There are changes in both expected directions, but they’re not significantly different than changes in neighboring states. We can’t tell what difference the reform made, and who’s right.

If we’re hoping data will give us greater certainty, there’s a good chance they won’t. And we’ll need to go back to good old values to decide whether or not to do certain things. Now, there are values that are out of touch with lived reality on the ground. For my money, those aren’t worth much cottoning to. So I’m not saying we abandon evidence. But let’s be clear that the data aren’t necessarily going to give us the anchor we thought they could. A degree of faith may be required that longer-term outcomes will ultimately result. Or we may want to value process outcomes more, like improving people’s dignity or promoting learning among relevant actors.

Intentionality in philanthropy is critical, but let’s be honest about what we can and can’t be certain about, and be all right with less certainty than an overly predictive view of metrics might suggest….

“A Responsible Funder Role in Movement Building” – Sat June 7, 10am

June 5th, 2014

I’ll be speaking at the Joint Affinity Groups (JAG) Unity Summit in Washington, DC this Saturday, June 7, at 10:00am on “A Responsible Funder Role in Movement Building.” It’s a 20-minute TED-style talk, so come watch me wave my hands and mix metaphors for less time than it takes to do your morning commute.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart, with a group to which I was Hispanics in Philanthropy’s representative way further back in the day than I can remember. Good to see them continuing to fight the good fight on diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy.