Archive for August, 2011

Best of Both Worlds?

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

One of my two questions behind this blog is “What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?” I struggle with the idea that philanthropy, with its privileging of the perspective of a particular donor and her/his trustees, has a fundamentally undemocratic element.

At the same time, I’m sure that, against the tendency of the day to conflate the two, that democracy and the market are not automatically compatible – that in some respects they are in fundamental contradiction.

But I’m wondering, what if philanthropy, with its counter-majoritarian tendencies, is a corrective to both the market and democracy?

Let me explain. I think people want to say democracy and the market are compatible because both are about the will of the majority. Get more than 50% of the votes, you get to be President. This creates a “mandate.” Or something. In the market, if a product or service becomes popular, passes some kind of tipping point of adoption, it wins. I don’t know how well Google Plus is doing, but I know I haven’t been on it in at least a week, and I spend at least 20 minutes a day on Facebook. People go where the people are; winners keep winning; you have to have money to make money; etc. “Massification” is an important dynamic in market economies – we call it “scaling” in the nonprofit sector.

Philanthropy has counter-majoritarian tendencies, in two ways.

One of the main roles often ascribed to philanthropy is to be a “laboratory” for social programs. Private funders can take chances on risky new ventures, and when they prove their mettle, promote them to public funders and ask that they be adopted as part of public policy. So goes the theory.

There’s something counter-majoritarian about this. Nobody put it to a vote whether paying people to stay in school was a good idea before cities like New York City tried it. But it may turn out to be a good thing.

The other way philanthropy can be counter-majoritarian is in protecting the rights of minorities. Foundations like Gill and Arcus fund LGBT rights, and with a lot of actors and advocates pushing, pushing, pushing in municipalities and states over many years, as well as in popular culture, the needle starts to move on majority acceptance of gay marriage. The funders are far from the only actors promoting this, but they’re part of a movement and help fuel it. To protect the rights of a minority.

The first of these roles is about correcting market failures, the second is about correcting, I guess you could call them democratic failures.

So perhaps one of the roles of philanthropy in a democratic society is precisely to be counter-majoritarian. It’s undemocratic on one level, but on another, it’s about perfecting democracy. Hunh.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Of the vinyl I’m purchased since getting a turntable for my birthday last December (thanks dear!), the vast majority has been “vintage” – used records. In part that’s because I’ve long been in an older-music period (most of my records are either music from the 30s or albums recorded between the late 60s and early 80s), but in part it’s because I enjoy the idea of rescuing a physical artifact from the flotsam of history. I prefer to take an object already in circulation and gain value from it rather than call another object into being by purchasing something new. At least with records.

And I choose where to shop with care as well. There’s a cluster of record stores within a 10-block radius of Bleecker and 7th Avenue South (a quiet culinary mecca, with John’s Pizza, L’Arte del Gelato, Centro Vinoteca, Ottomanelli’s butcher shop, and a Five Guys all within sight of the same intersection). But my true vinyl source, the place that inspired me to ask for a turntable as a birthday present in the first place, is Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, MA, where I went to college (and met my wife). We went up for our annual summer visit (Porches Inn, MassMoCA, W’town Theater Festival), and I had my fingers crossed that the same dude who ran the place when I got there (gulp) 20 years ago hadn’t decided to pack it in since last October. He hadn’t. (Whew.) I spent at least an hour in there and staggered out with a boxful of vinyl. (As I write this, side 2 of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook is spinning and crackling its way along.)

I’ve written about a nostalgic mode of philanthropy. What I’m describing is a nostalgic mode of commerce. I’ve yet to read the new book Retromania on how pop music is eating itself by being obsessed with the past, but as far as music appreciation, retromania is fine with me – and extends not just to the music and artists, but the physical medium of receiving them. I like the idea of an artifact that was originally purchased and enjoyed 30 years ago providing pleasure again today. It’s a flat black time machine.

Sometimes vinyl is cheaper (8 bucks for this 2-record, 30-song Ella/Gershwin set is a pretty good deal compared to iTunes), and sometimes, especially with new vinyl, it’s quite a bit more expensive. One of my rare new vinyl purchases was the latest Belle and Sebastian. It came with a code for a download of the full record plus two bonus tracks, and the gatefold sleeve was sumptuous, a modest art object of its own. Totally worth the markup ($17 at Kim’s Video & Music in the East Village).

Alongside my recent infatuation with vinyl, my wife and I have been doing the locavore shopping and cooking thing for a few years now. (While it’s 95% her, tonight I perfected the recipe for farmer’s market ají casero). And I’ve often wondered – if locavores can create a market for local agriculture, why can’t there be a market for local manufacture? Hello, job creation!

Now here’s what I’m getting at – and where philanthropy might have a role to play. Can we tap into the nostalgic mode of commerce – and other emotional-commercial narratives – to foster a locavorism for manufactured goods? (Locamechanism?) This is beyond my beloved records, which are made wherever. But can we tap into that kind of nostalgia to get people to buy local goods, even if they’re more expensive, so as to generate good local jobs, particularly blue-collar ones?

The L3C, a low-profit limited liability corporation, is an intriguing idea for helping to do this – and private foundations can have a role by making program-related investments. Bob Lang of Americans for Community Development, whom I met at a conference earlier this year, has been tirelessly working on this new vehicle for years. The intriguing case is using it to foster North Carolina’s flagging furniture industry by providing a way for charitably inclined investors like private foundations, who could be willing to forgo short-term financial returns in the interest of long-term community benefit, to jumpstart that industry by providing “patient capital” that helps them to recreate a market for locally manufactured goods. I haven’t been able to find articles online about how that effort in North Carolina is actually going since the law authorizing L3Cs was passed last year, but I’ll be intrigued to follow it.

‘Cause we need all the ideas we can get (HT to Marginal Revolution) about job creation these days, and if philanthropy can play a role, well even better.

Help! I Need Somebody, Not Just Anybody

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

I haven’t read The Help, but I’m interested in the discussion surrounding the film’s release. I think of Colorlines as my go-to place for acute, well-informed critique on the politics of race and racial equity. So it’s intriguing to see a take there by Akiba Solomon, timed to the film’s release, that quotes as “the best review…I’ve read so far” a piece that appeared in…Entertainment Weekly. That’s remarkable! Colorlines seal of approval on a piece of critique that appeared in as mainstream a publication as you can get.

That’s no knock on Solomon. As a longtime loyal EW subscriber, I had been pleasantly surprised to Martha Southgate’s on-point rebuttal of the film’s presumption to tell the story of a key element of the civil-rights struggle from the perspective of those who were ultimately on the sidelines. Money line from Southgate: “the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.” The point that needed to be made gets made in a place where a sizable part of the film’s audience is likely to see it. Nice.

Now, there are several layers going on here, obviously. (And I promise one of them has to do with philanthropy.)

  • Who’s the dummy now? Or, the politics of literary and cinematic ventriloquism. I should probably dig up my college texts and re-read Gayatri Spivak’s, “Who Speaks for the Subaltern?” But the question of well-meaning members of an elite who sympathize with the downtrodden seeking to help them by “speaking for” them is a vexed and long-standing one. (Although really, any of the parody 60s protest songs in Walk Hard put it to rest.) Who has the right to represent another’s experience – no matter what the intention? One of the most controversial elements of the book of The Help is that Aibileen and Minnie’s voices are written in dialect. Are there any circumstances in which this is OK? Is it ventriloquism or empathy? Apparently while in the book, there are three voices including Skeeter’s, in the movie the voice-over is only Aibileen’s. That’s at least a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I buy the idea that it makes it easier to hear subaltern voices if someone from the elite channels them first. In such an unmediated (and yet entirely mediated) world, why not just hear from people directly – why does someone need to bring us the voice of the unheard, make it more palatable? Ultimately, I think the value of the book – and of its ventriloquism – is that it gives readers the feeling that they’re being exposed to the inner life of people they would probably never think about otherwise. So I imagine it feels like a deep and moving experience, even humbling. On some level, that can’t be a bad thing. To be humbled – and then chastened by the realization that even the story that was enlightening you needs enlightening of its own: that feels like a meaningful, and socially useful experience.
  • The “women’s picture.” What I haven’t seen anyone talk about yet in this summer of successful female-led comedies like Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher is that here we have a movie that’s all about women where men are the help in getting the story on the screen – the male director was handpicked by the female author of the book, a true rarity in Hollywood. (J.K. Rowling surely had some input on who directed the first Harry Potter movie, but it’s not like she said, “it has to be this person who grew up with me and gets the very English world I tried to portray in the books,” as happened with director Kathryn Stockett and director Tate Taylor.)
  • Voice, the gift that keeps on giving. There are texts and performances that explode their boundaries. I get the feeling that Octavia Spencer and especially the divine, regal Viola Davis have done such a good job with their characters that no matter who presents their story, it’ll be their voices and their experiences that remain in the viewer’s minds.

And it’s that last point that resonates with the concept of philanthropy. Sometimes the gift of voice is the gift that keeps on giving, well beyond the giver’s intentions or frames of reference. Ultimately, giving voice to the disenfranchised and then stepping the hell to the side, may be the best thing a philanthropist – whether an individual like the Skeeter character in The Help or a foundation making grants – can do in some situations. Once again, the Beatles get it right – “help! I need somebody, not just anybody” – there are good ways and better ways that donors can be…wait for it…The Help.

My Own Worst Enemy

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

I had lunch with a colleague in philanthropy today, and she posed an interesting question: Would you wish the U.S. system of philanthropy – specifically, the ability of individuals to shelter assets from taxes by setting up a private foundation that in exchange is required to pay out at least 5% annually to charitable causes – on a country that was setting up its tax code? Our system is fairly unique; would we wish to replicate it in other countries, or would we not wish it on our own worst enemy?

The easy thing to do would be to be flip: “Of course not!” And there’s a kernel of truth there; Lord knows there’s a lot of dysfunction in the sector: Underperformance as a natural state, data clamoring to be free, both too much strategy and not enough.

But as ever, I have more questions than answers.

With the dust settling (for the moment) on the debt ceiling debate, economic inequality is front of mind. I saw a headline today that Neiman Marcus’ profits rose even more than expected in the last quarter. Clearly someone’s making out fine in this not-really-a-recovery, and it’s not your average Josefina.

So I would say, look at the Gini coefficient – countries with our level of inequality probably aren’t candidates for our version of philanthropy, which doesn’t seem able to mitigate that inequality – and may in fact exacerbate it. (Of course, there’s a whole other realm of charitable giving that’s not tied to tax exemption and the the private foundation form, which is a whole ‘nother question to be considered in comparative context.) In somewhere more equal, like, I dunno, Scandinavia, letting some folks pull their otherwise-taxable dollars out of public purview to advance private conceptions of the public good might not be so problematic.

The other thing to look at is levels of tax compliance. Part of the problem with Greece is that no one pays their taxes. In places like that, perhaps a tax shelter that ties those funds to at least some expectation of advancing public welfare would bring some assets into the semi-public realm instead of having them practically all be in the private realm. In other words, if there’s no public realm to speak of, perhaps a US-style philanthropic tax exemption could help to create one.

Problem is, high levels of inequality and lack of tax compliance tend to go together. So a US-style philanthropic tax exemption could cut both ways, positive and negative. In that case, I think the thing that should break the tie is the presence of civil society. If not much of one exists, then a philanthropic tax shelter could – could! – be a tool to help bring one about. But learning from the US example, you’d want to think carefully about the kinds of accountability for public benefit you build into that system. If civil society is already strong, you may care more about ensuring that the public sector is strong and can provide safety net services, rather than promoting private philanthropic initiative.

This gets to the heart of one of my two questions – what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society? Which is the greater good – a robust public sector or the thousand points of light of private philanthropic impulse? Under what conditions do we favor one or the other? Would we wish the US philanthropic system on our own worst enemy?