Archive for April, 2010

Here comes the Wall Street

Friday, April 30th, 2010

I haven’t gotten to the blog coverage of this week’s Council on Foundations conference on Philanthropy411 yet, but the article from today’s Wall Street Journal (or as my inlaws call it, “the Wall Street”) sounds what is sure to be a discordant note. It’s a perfect example of the misperceptions and mischaracterizations that are only going to multiply as philanthropy continues to elevate its public profile. If only the reporter realized that the “brave new age” of strategic philanthropy has been in the making for years if not decades, and that the voices represented on the panels he cites are very much the minority within the field, as grassroots organizations can attest. But of course, in this artificially polarized political climate, such nuance is purposely ignored.

But I can’t help but think that our field isn’t ready for the scrutiny that’s coming. A lot of our assumptions about what makes social change are unexamined, and the reality of unintended consequences is one that we would do well to take heed of. As much as Bill Schambra’s parroting of standard conservative think-tank bromides irks me, there are some important insights that he carries forward and applies in a way that doesn’t have to be counterproductive. (And I gather he’s a perfectly nice guy.) A subject for a future post…


What are the hard problems in philanthropy?

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Probably my favorite blog, my one go-to, the only I keep in Google Reader (all the philanthropy blogs I read in Bloglines), is Marginal Revolution, written by George Mason University economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok. Cowen is the leading voice among the two, and he defines the words “erudite” and “catholic” – with a small “c,” meaning “having wide-ranging interests.”

MR had a link yesterday to a symposium at Harvard a few weeks ago with 12 leading social scientists addressing the question, “what are the hard problems in the social sciences, and what would it take to solve them?” The responses were incredibly varied, from Ann Swidler of UC Berkeley (a sociologist of culture from whom I took a great class in grad school) offering “how societies create institutions and restore damaged ones” to her polar methodological opposite Gary King saying “post-treatment bias” – the problem that in controlling for variables that matter for your analysis, you may unintentionally control for the variable really at play. (The example he gives is fascinating. If you’re looking at pay inequality in a corporation accused of racial bias, and 99% of mailroom employees are black and 99% of executives are white, but within each group, pay is pretty equal, if you control for the variable “type of position,” on the reasonable assumption that people in higher positions get paid more and so you need to control for that, you’ll end up saying pay is actually pretty equal according to your analysis, and the company may get off the hook though inequality reigns.) And the other 10 speakers ran the gamut.

So what are the hard problems in our field, in philanthropy? “The ones that most need solving, and which are most worthy of time spent working on a solution?” There are of course the social issues philanthropy works on, and that discussion is a vital one, but here I’m talking about problems within the field of philanthropy, the practice.

I’ll suggest a couple:

  • How do we ensure that program officers, who according to Tim Ogden may have the hardest job in the world, stay true to the communities they serve and don’t OD on the privilege of their position? (I’ve played a grantmaker role in the past and, no lie, that is heady stuff.)
  • How do we achieve the laudable and completely reasonable goals of Project Streamline without more regulation of the field? If the problem is that grantees are beset by having to tweak their applications subtly for a dozen different funders, how do we ameliorate that – greater coordination among funders? Achieved how? What about the beauty of an independent foundation sector where 70,000 flowers can bloom, each with the right to figure out their own indicators that respond to their own unique donor vision? At what cost to the grantees working with them? This tension is part of what I’m getting at with my first question, and this specific issue for me is one of the toughest parts about it. I’d like to think there’s actually an easy answer to this and I’m just dense, but I’m not sure…

What else? What are the hard problems in our field that most need solving?

Which one is 2002, and which one is 2010?

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Where we left off yesterday…was comparing a new set of reports from the Council on Foundations on diversity with a research study from the Joint Affinity Groups in 2002. Here are the recommendations from each report. Can you tell which one is 2002 and which one is 2010? How much progress have we made in 8 years?


Foundation culture must change for diversity to be successful.

  • Diversity and multiculturalism must be institutionalized to become part of grantmaking organizational culture. This requires changing practices and norms considered standard in the past.
  • There are many ways to undertake diversity efforts, including task forces or committees to steer initiatives. The work of diversity is participatory and often takes place through teams, including representatives from all levels in an organization. Such mechanisms handle problem solving and provide a vehicle for dealing with internal culture and policies.
  • Respecting and valuing diverse staff and board members contributes to successful efforts.
  • Expanding a foundation’s staff or board as a method of diversifying is a way to initiate such a change in culture. Recruitment of multicultural decision-makers may require cultivating and identifying different networks of candidates from outside a foundation’s economic and social circles.
  • Employment benefits are a signal of an institution’s commitment to become an inclusive, multicultural workplace. Acknowledgement of multicultural holidays, domestic partner benefits and policies, and workplace accommodations for people with disabilities indicate institutional awareness and attract diverse staff.

Written materials are essential.

  • Include a commitment to diversity in key statements. Develop written materials that communicate diversity objectives.
  • Committed organizations articulate the importance of diversity through their institution’s mission, vision, values, and/or funding strategy.
  • Statements and organizational policies that reflect the centrality of diversity formalize institutional commitment and establish a standard of accountability.

Educate the field about the need for diversity.

  • Inform boards and trustees about the value of diversity.
  • Training can increase understanding and improve communications at the outset of any diversity initiative. Training for managers is fundamental. Outside professionals often undertake training, passing on concrete skills that managers can then use to train other staff.

Diversity is a conscious, ongoing process.

  • Planning, dedicating the resources required, and evaluating progress are central as diversifying takes time, energy, and perseverance.
  • Establish clearly defined internal goals, responsibilities and accountability mechanisms.
  • Focus groups, surveys, and/or diversity audits can assess an organization’s diversity climate and identify areas of concern and desired outcomes.
  • Consultants can provide expertise and impartiality. The presence of individuals not invested in internal organizational dynamics offers perspective and a distance that can make it easier to raise issues likely to cause conflict.

Expect consequences and readjust.

  • If one aspect of a foundation’s program or structure changes to become more diverse, it frequently causes a ripple effect throughout the organization.
  • Anticipate some failures, internal resistance and departures. A willingness to change systems and remove institutional barriers is a must.
  • More consideration needs to be given to sustained diversity efforts over time.


1. Consider how diversity and inclusion relate to your foundation’s mission, values, and original purpose.

2. Determine whether your board membership, volunteers, advisory committees, and governance offer opportunities to enhance the foundation’s diversity and inclusiveness.

3. Cultivate an internal culture, policies, and procedures that reflect your foundation’s commitment to diversity and inclusive practices.

4. Hire staff from diverse populations, viewpoints, and experiences.

5. Seek contractors and vendors from diverse backgrounds, communities, and populations.

6. Explore investment options that would support diversity and inclusive practices.

7. Consider and enhance the impact of your foundation’s grantmaking on diverse communities and populations.

8. Consider ways to model inclusive practices and the value of diversity in your role as a philanthropic leader and convener.

9. Assess how your foundation is perceived by the public, especially by diverse populations, grantees, applicants denied funding, and organizations that have not sought funding from your foundation.

10. Share what your foundation is learning about diversity and inclusive practices.

Too many things, too many things

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I’ve been wanting to do a philanthropy/politics blog for a while, so it’s exciting to have finally started one. Because there’s no shortage of things to comment on. PhilanTopic has a couple of good ones this week:

  • Foundations and the Common Good talks about the Caring to Change project, which proposes “the Common Good” as a “unifying theme” for what foundations are after as a sector. Look at that, they even talk about negative and positive forms of freedom – freedom from and freedom to, respectively. As I posted just yesterday, this distinction is an important one and in part, but only in part, explains why democracy and markets are in fundamental tension. The classic critique of frameworks that use “the common good” as a central metaphor is that they ignore or underplay power relations, and indeed at first glance there seems to be less of an emphasis here on the ways in which power relations and inequality distort or undermine the common good. But at second glance, the people consulted in putting together include some very thoughtful and social justice-y folk, so I’ll be interested to take another look, and likely discuss further in a future post.
  • “Ten Ways” for Foundations to Strengthen Diversity and Inclusiveness: In time for its annual conference, the Council on Foundations has published a series of reports on diversity for three different types of foundations. Somewhere near the dawn of time, I edited a report for the Joint Affinity Groups on “The Meaning and Impact and Board and Staff Diversity in the Philanthropic Field,” and I wonder how different the recommendations are eight years later. Next time, we’ll do a taste test.

That’s not even getting to some of the stuff posted on Marginal Revolution or Jeff Weintraub this week. This thing is practically writing itself….

Freedom isn’t free

Monday, April 26th, 2010

One of the straw men I’d best dispense with at the outset is the one that conflates the freedom of markets with the freedom of democracy. I know no one sensible actually subscribes to the position I’m about to critique, but I feel like some version of it underlies a lot of our assumptions when we talk about the role of philanthropy in a democratic society, so here goes.

Free markets and democracy are often understood as going hand in hand, but in fact there’s a fundamental incompatibility between them, or at least a fundamental tension. The freedom of free markets involves surrendering collective outcomes to the operation of the invisible hand. While this frees individual economic activity from government regulation, it puts collective outcomes at the mercy of the logic of the market. A form of control is given up. This control is at the heart of a certain vision of democracy, of which I happen to be fond: that it involves citizens intentionally making collective decisions that effectively shape the conditions of their lives (I know, laughably quaint, right?). Do you see the tension? Either you give up on the prospect of intentional collective action, or you admit that market logic isn’t infallible and instead should sometimes be contradicted for the public good, to generate a more democratic outcome. A lot of people may be willing to take the first option; stubbornly, in my heart I’m not one of them.

Like I said, a bit of a straw man I’m tilting against here, but I think it’s important to sound a note of skepticism about free-market fundamentalism. There are all kinds of problems with the positions I’ve laid out here, like the distinction between positive and negative versions of liberty in the work of Isaiah Berlin, which I’ll get to at some point if I know what’s good for me. But for now, let me posit as a baseline for much of what’s to come a feeling, a suspicion, a stubborn refusal to accept that markets and democracy are naturally compatible. Whether or not philanthropy is a corrective or an accomplice to this tension is one of the things I’ll explore in this blog.

My two questions and why they matter

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

All right. So there are two questions that animate this soon-to-be-renamed blog.

  1. What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?
  2. What does it mean to democratize philanthropy?

Why do these questions matter now?

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between individual, major-donor, and institutional philanthropy. Individual philanthropy is what you or I do – give to organizations that we know, because we’re asked by people we know, or because we care about the cause and happened to come across them. Major-donor philanthropy is what people who can give upwards of (say) $25,000 do. Most of the time, they give for the same reasons you or I do; but there’s a growing movement for such folks to give in a different way (whether that’s more strategic, more tactical, more informed, more engaged, whatever). Institutional philanthropy is when a major donor sets up a free-standing organization that more or less takes over decision-making for grants. These three are along some kind of a continuum with lots of things in between, but those are the major points along the continuum.

So the first question matters because for all three of these types of donors, their role in a democratic society is becoming more important. Individual donors, as we saw after Haiti, have more tools at their disposal to give, and may – may – be incentivized to give more as a result. You vote with your feet, you vote with your pocketbook, your voice is your vote. When your pocketbook, your voice, and your (virtual) feet are connected through social media, and you see the results in Haiti getting millions or, heck, Obama getting elected, you may – may – think about your own power, and your own role in shaping the conditions of your own life, in a different way. So there’s something there.

Major donors don’t just vote with their pocketbooks on their philanthropic investments, they open them for political candidates and political causes. Major donors activated to be more strategic or tactical philanthropists may – may – think differently about how they engage in politics as donors. Particularly in the wake of Citizens United, when the threat of being overwhelmed by corporate donations is real.  So there’s something there.

And institutional philanthropy, the world of foundations and social investors (yes, I know that’s a problematic conflation, but bear with me), is paying much more attention to the real meaning of public-private partnerships, and what its relationships with government look like. The role of the Tactical Philanthropy community in helping shape criteria around the Social Innovation Fund it seems augurs things to come. So there’s something there.

The second question matters because institutional philanthropy is set up in this country within a legal framework of tax-exemption that was created by government and could be changed by government. In response to the potential for such changes, the classic move within institutional philanthropy has been to say, “don’t regulate us, let us come up with ways to regulate ourselves.” Fine. So what do those look like? Enter discussions of diversity, the 5% payout rule, etc. So are the changes needed to head off potential regulation about making philanthropy more democratic? And what would that mean? What would it look like? So there’s something there.

I’m learning the art of brevity for blog writing, so I’ll stop there for now. But I’ll keep coming back at the outset to my two questions and why they matter, as I start to map out the terrain I’ll cover on this blog.

Market research #fail

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Well, there’s a reason they call it a beta version. Turns out there’s an organization that uses the name “Democratizing Philanthropy” for one of its programs, so I’ll need to change the name of the blog, while keeping the same mission and focus. I’ll probably keep posting while I figure out the name change just to keep things moving, but it looks like part of the beta-testing process will be a change to a name that doesn’t generate confusion. Thanks for your patience. Suggestions welcome!

And so it begins

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

In the story of the fox and the hedgehog – the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing – I’m definitely a hedgehog. Or as we say in political science, I’m a lumper rather than a splitter. The hedgehog-y lump that provides the title of this blog and the organizing framework for what may at times appear to be disconnected musings is this:

Democratizing     Philanthropy     Questionmark

All three parts are important. “Democratizing” because I’m trained as a political scientist, which means I’m interested in the distribution of power. “Philanthropy” because my career is foundation consulting and my passion is making philanthropy more accessible to communities. “Questionmark” because, well, I don’t know; my starting point is uncertainty. And I’ll write outward from that.

So the prevailing mode of this blog will be to raise questions. There are two of those implicit in the title that I plan to explore, and that I hope you, Dear Reader, will join me in exploring:

  1. What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?
  2. What does it mean to democratize philanthropy?

For a couple of years now, I’ve been burrowing away like a good hedgehog, reading tons of blogs, articles, and research about my twin interests of philanthropy and comparative politics, trying to find the glue that would cohere a lump sufficiently lump-y to serve as the kernel for a blog of my own, and if I’m lucky, the irritating grain of sand that will one day yield a pearl of wisdom. (As you’ll learn, I mix metaphors with gusto.) And I think these two questions are that kernel, that lump, that grain of sand.

The first question gets into what we mean by  a democratic society, what the quality of that democracy looks like, and how philanthropy contributes to or detracts from that democratic ideal and reality. This gets into topics of accountability, transparency, and the relationship with government. For the most part, the type of philanthropy I plan to look at under this first question is institutional philanthropy: the world of foundations, public charities, donor-advised funds, etc. To a degree I’ll look at individual giving, particularly as it relates to the metaphor of a philanthropic market. The relationship among markets, communities, freedom, and democracy will occupy a fair amount of my attention in this area.

The second question as I’m seeing it is much more about the individual side. What does it mean to make giving more democratic – more grassroots, more accountable to communities? I’m involved in a giving circle, the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund, so these topics are near and dear to my heart. By necessity, exploring the second question will touch on what it means to make institutional philanthropy more democratic. Here the two questions start to bleed together. And here I get a chance to talk about topics like diversity, equity, and inclusion, which are ones I’ve worked on professionally in the past.

So the field is set, the game is afoot. I’ll start off in my next post by digging further into the two main questions behind this blog, and why I think they’re particularly important to be asking now.

Global disclaimer: The opinions on this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer, TCC Group.