Archive for February, 2012

Miss Independent?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Interesting post from Rich Tafel on the SSIR Opinion blog about the Komen/Planned Parenthood clusterfrak. His argument is that the social sector is becoming as polarized as politics. “Until social change leaders really understand the depth of ideological diversity and the hold it has on our culture, our causes will rise and fall on the political wins or losses of those with whom we agree.” Hmmm.

Makes me think about the old idea of civil society as an “independent sector”. I usually tend to think of it in terms of independent from government or business. But there’s something to the notion that it’s about independent from politics. This is countercyclical to the trend of philanthropy being an extension of rich people’s social-change portfolios – a foundation alongside a c4 alongside contributions to candidates alongside impact investing. Perhaps a truly independent sector can’t be about efforts that are subsidiary to someone’s overall agenda. Rather it should be about mass movements, and not always organized through professional nonprofit organization.

Reminds of the meme going around this week on Facebook about X job – what I think I do, what my mom thinks I do, what I really do. The “Occupy Wall Street” has what I do, what the right thinks I do, what the left thinks I do, what liberals think I do, and what I really do – the last of which is an image of the earth with hands and arms linked together around it. I honestly have no idea what that means, but it seems like an image that resonates broadly. And the way the author think of OWS in opposition to right, left, and liberals – talk about independent!

I’ve written previously about locavorism as a potentially bipartisan issue. There’s something exciting about the possibility of brand-new political cleavages (the polisci term for issues around which people organize and argue). And to Albert Ruesga’s point about the “meaning of a nonprofit,” there may be something to the idea of the nonprofit sector as independent from politics.

To be continued….

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Belly of the Beast

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

The Komen/Planned Parenthood thing is an omen of further struggles to come within philanthropy. Private foundation decision-making is notoriously opaque; a frequent complaint of grantseekers is that it’s not clear why they’re denied, and they don’t usually get feedback about why. (All too often, they don’t even ask.) This was somewhat tenable when private foundations stayed safely on the margins of social and political discourse.

Now, more and more private foundations are seeking attention, publicity, interaction. But their practices around decision-making are not well-suited for this new reality. As Phil Cubeta at GiftHub points out, Karen Handel from Komen, the exec at the heart of the Planned Parenthood controversy, used all the “right” technocratic phrases. But the baldly political nature of the decision-making created an uproar precisely because Komen has been so successful at branding. Foundation governance and decision-making have a long way to go, in other words, to catch up with new ambitions for, I guess you could call it, belovedness.

Be careful what you wish for, because loyalty cuts both ways. In our strangely entitled consumer economy (Louis C.K. has a good bit about this, H/T avclub.com), where we expect gratification that’s not just instant but predictive (it knows what you want before you do), those brands that do pass the loyalty bar inspire such devotion that when they “wrong” us, we lash out at them. Just ask Netflix.

Decision-making and governance are the soft underbelly of the foundation world, and as the Komen thing demonstrates, when you poke it, the results aren’t pretty. Time for some sit-ups….

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

I’m back. The past few months have been a blender work-wise, but I’m back to blogging.

And thank you Albert Ruesga for inspiring my return. Your most recent post on White Courtesy Telephone, “Steve Jobs, the Meaning of a Nonprofit, and Moral Imagination,” crystallized a lot of the things that have been troubling me about sector agnosticism. As arbitrary as the tax code is on some level, the designation “not-for-profit” captures something essential about certain forms of collective action.

As much as the lines between sectors are blurring, I predict that non-profits won’t go away entirely. There’ll always be a sphere of action that is fundamentally opposed to commercial motives – as much as contemporary life in These United States is geared to make us think of “democratic capitalism” as the state of nature, unearthed and made real.

I mused last time about a progressive theory of wealth accumulation. I’ve also complained about the paucity of our theories of human behavior. At the Venn-diagram intersection of these two is a progressive theory of human frailty, of fallibility. Novelists get at this, screenwriters too – but in the political sphere, conservatives have staked out this territory as their own. In one prominent right-wing worldview, progressives believe in the perfectibility of man, that the application of reason can lift humanity out of the benightedness of religion and into a land of rational justice – while conservatives, grounded in Judeo-Christian teachings, see man as fallen, as having original sin, and therefore never being perfectible. On this view, social engineering, attempts to order society to perfect man, are not only doomed to fail but fundamentally misguided due to the fallen nature of humankind. Better to preserve traditions that have emerged organically. (Hello, antebellum South.)

But I believe there has to be a progressive theory of human frailty that is not about fallenness but about compassion and empathy. Such a theory doesn’t have to have the particular elective affinity I’m about to describe, but for me it dovetails with atheism: this is all there is, so dammit if we hadn’t better treat each other right. ‘Cause we’re all we’ve got.

Anyway. To me this is the soil from which a democratic philanthropy grows. Visions of wealth accumulation and human frailty, reclaimed from partisan clutches, put in service of human flourishing in the here and now.

So thank you, Albert, for stirring my (slumbering?) moral imagination.