Archive for June, 2012

Dream a Little DREAM

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

I’ve been learning to play that song on the ukulele, the version I know is from the Mamas and the Papas – great stuff.

So, anything much happen in politics since last week? Wow! Quite an announcement Obama made last week. I’m doing a few immigration-related projects at work, so I’ve heard a few different perspectives. One person pointed out that it’s a decision to not enforce certain rules – the absence of enforcement viewed as a victory. Hey, I have DREAMers in my life, I’m not gonna complain.

It makes me think about philanthropy, winning, and perpetuity. When a campaign wins, on some level it faces an existential crisis – we got what we wanted, what next? One answer is always, ensuring effective implementation. Fine. But is there a larger narrative that readily justifies continued action – in that particular organizational form?

I once heard someone from a workers’ rights organization make the claim that a human rights framework provides that narrative. It gives you a list of things that are linked that you can choose to achieve in a certain order, with the next item on the list waiting after you’ve checked one off. Paid time off, check. Health benefits, check. Right to organize, check. Living wage, check. And so on. Sad to say, I don’t know that the idea has caught on.

So my question, as always, is what role philanthropy plays in all this. If, as I’ve argued, the archetypal model of a foundation is about privacy, autonomy, and perpetuity, then this is where perpetuity comes into play. A foundation supports a winning campaign, it doesn’t experience an existential crisis; it can move on to the next thing. Particularly when it has multiple programs. It can emphasize other programs. Or simply choose a new topic.

Single-issue nonprofits face a deeper challenge – they have to consider whether it’s worth going on, and if so, in pursuit of what goals? This may be an argument in favor of working on multiple issues; but can you be as effective? Focus on one thing, win, and face a crisis; or focus on several things, maybe never win, and continue in the fight?

One wonders if finitude, a self-imposed deadline, might put some more urgency in foundation consideration of these questions.

The thing is, programs at foundations that exist in perpetuity are almost always finite – but in unpredictable ways. If foundations imposed a deadline on a program ahead of time, would that make a difference? “We will be in this field for 10 years. We will try to accomplish A, B, and C, and we’ll do whatever we need to in service of that goal.”

All that’s a long way from the sweet victory of the DREAMers. But as we look to foster more such victories, it’s worth thinking about how this one part of the equation can play its role more effectively.


Tomorrow Never Knows

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Does anyone in charge of a major institution know what they’re doing?

Obama misunderestimated the Republican Congress’ willingness to go all the way with monolithic obstructionism

The Solicitor General (i.e., the government’s attorney) flubbed both the health-care and Arizona arguments

Jamie Dimon looked the other way while $2 billion flew out the door

Seems like only John Roberts seems to have a clue anymore how to get things done. (And what a cost!)

Phil Buchanan is making a valuable set of arguments on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog against blind importing of “business thinking” into philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, which Albert Ruesga has picked up and elaborated on in his inimitable way.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time working with foundation CEOs, and even aspire to join their ranks one day. It’s sobering to contemplate the challenges of leadership in a globalized, politicized, post-recession world. What’s that William Goldman famously said about Hollywood?

“Nobody knows anything.”

I was in a work-related conflict once that centered on control and who had it. A mentor advised me, “you should feel for that person, because the truth is, nobody’s in control.”

And this may be the most important reason the superstitious application of business thinking is dangerous: because business ethics are…what, an oxymoron? I’m with Albert and Phil Cubeta, our work has to have a grounding in some sort of moral tradition. There has to be a way to do that without falling into the trap of moralizing, of wanting to impose one’s vision of the good life on others.

And maybe that’s the challenge of leadership in a world where nobody knows anything and nobody’s in control. To find a clear patch of ground and stand on it, even as the winds buffet you. Let it blow.

The Gambler

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I’m wondering whether the key to “strategery” isn’t found in the wisdom of Kenny Rogers: “You’ve gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

The song is about a card player, who’s observing a series of numbers, but also a group of people. It’s said successful poker players read their opponents, not the cards.

This strikes me as a useful metaphor for strategy in philanthropy, particularly at a time when “metrics mania” has taken hold. To me, it becomes “mania” when metrics are driven by superstition: DATA take on a totemic power and aren’t understood either in themselves or in relation to their context.

It’s not enough to gather data, you have to know how to use them. Which means being clear about why you’re gathering them. Which means being clear about what you’re hoping to accomplish through the use of data.

Strategy in this respect is about the judgment of when to use different kinds of data, and how to balance them against each other. Context is everything. Decision-making is strategic when it’s data-driven, but even that phrase is a bit deceptive. It’s not the data doing the driving; they’re the fuel – you have to be the driver. But all too often we act as if we’re in one of those Google self-driving cars and try to have the data “speak for themselves.” Ain’t no such thing, my friends.

So think about Kenny Rogers the next time you’re wondering how to be more strategic in your giving. Read the numbers on the cards and do your calculations, but only as you read the players and the table.