Archive for September, 2010

Fall into the gap (local knowledge, part 6)

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Foundations are good at funding where the private sector and the government aren’t. So they fill gaps.

But who fills the gaps in the places where foundations don’t fund?

Is there a way foundations could leverage local knowledge and local modes of dispute resolution to create a penumbra effect in places where they fund – reach a certain community directly, and then indirectly reach linked communities (perhaps via engagement in a rule-setting process)?

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Local knowledge (part 5, Nobel Prize-winning edition continued)

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Yesterday I wondered about local modes of dispute resolution and what they might mean for philanthropy. Here’s the money quote from Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom:

When users are genuinely engaged in decisions regarding rules affecting their use, the likelihood of them following the rules and monitoring others is much greater than when an authority simply imposes rules.

She’s writing about how to protect forests from overharvesting, an example of the tragedy of the commons, where a resource that benefits all is gradually depleted because no one individual has enough of a disincentive to stop infringing upon it. But the language and the insight are much more general. And they’re based on “a long-term interdisciplinary, multiscale, international research program.”

What can foundations learn from this? The interesting term in the quote above is “rules.” Consciously or not, one of the ways that foundations exercise power is by establishing rules for who they will and won’t work with. That rule-setting power is an important part of foundations’ independence, but what if a foundation were willing to cede some or all of that power?

Where this gets into dispute resolution is in “monitoring others.” If a foundation wants to build a field, it may not be enough to create incentives for organizations to work together; there may need to be a joint rule-building activity that empowers organizations to engage in setting the rules and in monitoring them. Interesting to think about what this might look like….

Local knowledge (part 4, Nobel Prize-winning edition)

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

One of the elements of local knowledge that’s most interesting is local modes of dispute resolution. As a political scientist, I’m fascinated by these because they’re about power exercised and order established within a legal framework but outside state authority. How local modes of dispute resolution interface (or not) with the formal legal system may be a key transition stage between failed state/anarchy/lawlessness and functional state/governability/law & order. (I know that the opposite of anarchy is not governability, but go with it for the moment.)

It may also be an important element of economic development, and I suppose of varieties of capitalism. Last year, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for a lifetime of work on alternative modes of dispute resolution. Here’s a brief blurb on Marginal Revolution, one of my favorite blogs by a couple of small-c catholic economists.

Local knowledge is interesting in philanthropy because it’s a bipartisan issue that folks on the left and right would encourage foundations to privilege more than they do. Presumably this is because the people meant to benefit from foundation-supported programs should be involved in the development of the programs meant to benefit them. So in this case local knowledge is about how resources should be allocated, what problems and their solutions are. Ostrom’s work seems to suggest that local knowledge is also about how disputes can be resolved. What’s the lesson for philanthropy? Seems worth exploring….

Local knowledge (part 3, flipping the script)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

What if communities could design their own foundation? So often, foundations come to a community and try to learn what its issues are that fit with the foundation’s interest, and develop a program to meet them. There’s always a negotiation, and the foundation always holds the trump card of independence, and to a lesser degree, donor intent.

But what if the process were reversed? What if instead of nonprofits in a community bidding to foundations to be the ones to receive funds, what if communities came together, identified their needs, and then put out an RFP to foundations to find philanthropic capital that would meet those needs? Evaluation would be driven by community priorities and needs. Foundations would have to change their operations to meet the needs of the community?

What if a foundation voluntarily gave up its autonomy and put itself at the service of a particular community, with all the resources it could gather from other places?

They say you can tell what you should do with your life based on your answer to the question, “what would you do with a million dollars?” I guess I’m in the right line of work, because that sounds to me like something that would be fun to try and make happen. (And make it a billion.)

Local knowledge (part 2, gerrymandering)

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Saw a great documentary tonight, Gerrymandering, at a screening sponsored by Campaigns & Elections magazine, about which I’ve written before. Every ten years, following the Census, Congress redraws Congressional districts. At a state level, state legislatures also redraw state and local districts. The process is a nightmare, regulated by different rules in different states. As the film points out, this is pure politics – no voters, no policy, just protecting your power and territory and looking to maximize it at the expense of other guys.

Given how much we’re all now fluent with maps and cartography (one of the best parts of Catfish was the use of Google Maps to show the distance – and connections – between the two sets of protagonists), this seems like an issue primed for greater attention. The nonprofit Common Cause is featured in the film, leading the charge for a ballot initiative to put redistricting in the hands of an independent citizens commission in California. A representative of the New York chapter spoke after the screening tonight, and pointed out that there are even computer simulations of redistricting available online, and that for a generation weaned on Sim City, this kind of cartographic manipulation could feel intuitive.

One line that struck me during the Q&A was that there is no silver bullet in terms of an optimal solution for redistricting, and that the goal is to find a local system that works for that community. Iowa is held up as an example of relatively successful redistricting, but the point is made that it’s culturally homogeneous (and square, which seems to matter for some reason), which makes it particularly easy to redistrict more fairly. Not sure I get that, but the intriguing point is that local knowledge should really guide the redistricting process. There are three kinds of gerrymandering: racial, partisan, and pro-incumbent. In different communities, the temptation for each of those will be different.

So given what I’ve written about the promotion of local knowledge being a potentially bipartisan issue, where does redistricting/gerrymandering fit in? Seems like a case where some federal intervention makes sense, to ensure that local traditions don’t unfairly exclude certain populations (probably racial/ethnic). Partisan bickering seems par for the course, that’s maybe less demanding of federal intervention. Pro-incumbent gerrymandering is an interesting case, because it can cut both ways. In game theory, that’s an interesting dynamic, when the party in power has to think about the day when they’re no longer in power, and balance the tradeoffs of setting up institutions (like district lines) in a way that screws over the other guy, keeping in mind that one day they’ll be out of power and have to feel the brunt of those same institutions from the other side. I may need to think about the strategic dynamics of gerrymandering, and look at what the game-theory literature has to say about that….

This is scandalous

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

From Henry via Marginal Revolution (emphasis added):

Hence, while Hacker and Pierson show that political science can get us a large part of the way [toward understanding the political causes of economic inequality], it cannot get us as far as they would like us to go, for the simple reason that political science is not well developed enough yet. We can identify the causal mechanisms intervening between some specific political decisions and non-decisions and observed outcomes in the economy. We cannot yet provide a really satisfactory account of how these particular mechanisms work across a wider variety of settings and hence produce the general forms of inequality that they point to. Nor do we yet have a really good account of the precise interactions between these mechanisms and other mechanisms (see here for more on this).

“Political economy” is the study of how politics and political institutions shape economic policy, systems, and outcomes. Hacker and Pierson’s point is that rising levels of economic inequality in the U.S. are not just an outcome of the functioning of free markets, but that the conditions for this phenomenon were created by politics and policy. Classic political economy. The “varieties of capitalism” work that I’ve written about here is, to me, one of the more valuable contributions of political science, and it’s all about political economy.

Especially in today’s virulently anti-government political climate, it’s important to remember that markets need government, not just to be in the background and serve as the night watchman, but to actively create the conditions that allow markets to emerge and function in the first place. The “varieties of capitalism” research gives us a useful account of how this works in other developed countries, and the work of Hal Wilensky takes this to a deep historical level. If Hacker and Pierson are right, to be missing that kind of depth for the U.S. case is just scandalous.

Agriculture and…healthcare?

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

I’ve been making my way through a pile of back issues of the New Yorker, and came across this interesting piece from Atul Gawande, their great medical writer, from last winter about the analogies between health care reform and agricultural reform a century ago.

Part of the reason OMB couldn’t estimate cost savings in the healthcare bill was that so much of it was made up of pilot programs, the expected savings of which it was very difficult to calculate.

While this might seem like a problem given the crippling effect of healthcare costs on the economy, Gawande argues that a pilot-heavy approach is actually good, because that’s in essence how agriculture was reformed in the early 20th century, through piecemeal “agricultural extension” (educating farmers about more efficient practices) efforts that gradually helped bring food prices down.

I’ve written about agriculture vs. engineering as metaphors for social change, so this analogy is fascinating to me. Here’s Gawande:

The history of American agriculture suggests that you can have transformation without a master plan, without knowing all the answers up front. Government has a crucial role to play here–not running the system but guiding it, by looking for the best strategies and practices and finding ways to get them adopted, county by county. Transforming health care everywhere starts with transforming it somewhere.

This is where local knowledge becomes important. Gawande has a nice vignette about the agricultural extension agent in his hometown of Athens, Ohio, and his quiet, patient efforts to help farmers by providing access to technical knowledge that can mean the difference between survival and insolvency. That person knows the terroir of Athens, in the sense of its folkways, climate, and culture, so he can adapt technical knowledge to local needs, and find a practical, short-term solution.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about “Connectors” within a network in The Tipping Point (HT Fast Company for the term). I wonder if people like Gawande’s agricultural extension agent aren’t another kind of node, an informational one that allow for the localization of general knowledge. (I think of the Spanish verb aterrizar, to come down to earth or to land.) Rather than propagating a trend virally, they stay in one place and bring the rest of the world to that place.

I’m reminded of what my charming, mustachioed Austrian poli sci professor Kurt Tauber once told me about Marx: his conception of a “rich man” is someone who has access to and can enjoy all forms of human creativity. (This tells me I’m not completely misremembering that idea.) What he didn’t say is, “while staying in one place,” but agricultural extension is kind of about that, bringing the world to your door and helping you get the most out of your local context.

So if agriculture is a metaphor for social change, agricultural extension may be a metaphor for the kind of learning that needs to happen to make social change possible. Agriculture suggests that you have to start by understanding the land on which you stand, as well as the seasons (which go beyond the moment you happen to be in) and what kinds of crops grow well under those conditions. Agricultural extension is about bringing scientific and technical knowledge to bear in a bottom-up fashion – to solve a specific problem you have (why aren’t my crops growing) rather than to answer a general question that you may or may not have (what makes X crops grow fastest?). The thing to notice is the role of the extension agent, the person whose job it is to know the climate and the people, and to have access to the right kinds of knowledge.

“I just try to help make farming better in Athens County,” says Gawande’s extension agent. Such a simple goal, so easy to state – and that involves so much….

Local knowledge (part 1)

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

As I’ve been saying, I think the privileging of local knowledge is a bipartisan issue, or a cross-cutting cleavage, one that elements of left and right can agree on.

From the right: lefty-liberal plans for social engineering are based on the fallacy that human nature is perfectable, and subject to rational planning and persuasion. But the truth is man is flawed by nature (or by original sin), and top-down approaches don’t take into account local realities. “Unintended consequences” are the inevitable byproduct of social engineering, and can be avoided by greater reliance on market dynamics. It’s hubris and folly for a central government to try to plan an economy, much less dictate cultural norms that have developed idiosyncratically over time in local communities. As Ronald Reagan said, “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'” (Quote from this New Yorker article, toward the end.)

From the left: the corporatization of culture, food, and everyday life are a homogenizing force that threaten to erase the diversity that make our communities and nation great. “Grassroots community organizing” is a way to empower everyday people to make their voices heard and have a positive impact on the conditions of their lives through obtaining changes in policy, whether local, state, or federal. To be a locavore is to reject the evils of factory farming, which is an environmental disaster, an animal-welfare nightmare, and a public-health time-bomb. Eat local, know your farmer, avoid GMOs, celebrate the diversity of a specific place.

What they agree on: Top-down solutions are bad, bottom-up initiatives are morally and practically preferable.

What they disagree on: When to go against these principles (or preferences). For many on the left, federal enforcement of rights trumps local practices. For some on the right, the sphere of government action should be absolutely minimal, and there might not be a time when local norms (states’ rights?) should be abrogated – except perhaps in the protection of private property.

The upshot for philanthropy: Foundation grantmaking has an almost inherently top-down tendency. Many on the right and the left would be in favor of promoting greater involvement of local stakeholders in the learning, and maybe even decision-making, processes of foundations. Community foundations, with their collection of individual donor-advised funds that let a thousand flowers bloom, might appeal to the right, while funding collaboratives, where individual donors try to overcome collective-action problems to coordinate and amplify their grantmaking, might appeal to the left. The question becomes, when if ever should central oversight trump local norms. (Hint: it starts with a “D,” ends with a “y,” and rhymes with “Shmaversity.”)

The data-driven, multi-method, context-sensitive life (continued)

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

I’ve had a few posts riffing on a New York Times article about people who create databases about every idea they’ve had since they were teenagers or their caffeine consumption over months. Now comes Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow Eph, aiming to monitor his consumption – of ideas. Ethan’s hypothesis is that our media diet is actually much less heterogeneous than popular images of the freedom of the Internet would have us believe. Sounds plausible to me. That’s why I’m glad to add Philanthropy Daily to my blogroll. I’ve complained about the “conservative think-tank bromides” in philanthropy writer Bill Schambra’s work; I’d better keep myself honest and not get caught in my own echo chamber. I’m telling you, the privileging of local knowledge is a bipartisan concept….

(Hat tip to Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

Fundraising and campaigning (part 5)

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

I’ve been looking at the analogies between nonprofit fundraising and political campaigning, and asked previously if nonprofits are the House of Representatives of the social sector while foundations are the Senate – patrician, not proportionally representative, lots of tradition, have to be rich to get in.

One of the reasons I made this distinction is that Congresspeople have to campaign all the time because they’re elected every two years vs. six in the Senate. Shows you what I know: Senators are constantly dialing for dollars too. This George Packer article in the New Yorker is worth the read, a behind-the-scenes look at the dysfunction of the Senate. As much as the rules of filibuster and cloture and other made-up-sounding words drive people up a tree, Packer concludes that it’s not the rules and procedures that screw up the Senate, “it’s the human beings” in it. Food for thought in looking at the foundation sector, with its payout levels and admin ratios and other made-up-sounding phrases.

Apparently a few visionary Senators in the sixties and seventies were able to band together and actually get things done: Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, etc. Then a new crop of hardliners dragged the institution back down again. In the current political climate, it’s hard to recall what a big deal the two legislative achievements of the year, health-care reform and financial reform, really are. But Packer sees them as a brief interregnum: “Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.”

A few thoughts:

  • I wonder to what extent the Senate’s period of productivity corresponds with mainstream philanthropy’s (Green Revolution, etc.).
  • To what extent did the Establishments in both places overlap and move back and forth?
  • Is there an analog to this more recent spate of Senatorial productivity in philanthropy? Is there a crop of reformers in foundations who can help the sector achieve some big wins?