Archive for January, 2013

Inside Looking Out

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

This week a bipartisan congressional group announced a framework for immigration reform. That means this will be going on the legislative agenda, and we’ll be hearing about it all year, as it works its way through both houses of Congress.

On the one hand, this is a tremendous achievement of the immigrant rights movement. On the other, the work has just begun – in two senses. One is that who gets included in reform is up for grabs. How that plays out – whether domestic workers are included, whether DREAMers are included, whether same-sex couples are included – it’s all going to be negotiated. The central compromise that seems to have allowed the framework to come together is the idea that the undocumented go to the “back of the line.” Part of the need for comprehensive immigration reform is that the system is broken – those who are in line have been there too long, and the line doesn’t make sense or work well. So being sent to the back of the line could mean years and years in a twilight state. (Contrast this with how quickly some people got their deferred action under DACA this past year.) How much of an improvement that is over life in the shadows remains to be seen.

The other way in which the work is just beginning is that it’s not clear who’s going to get 11 million undocumented people registered and along the pathway to citizenship. DACA was a test case. How well did it work? How easy was it for people to find above-board, affordable assistance with the process. There are a lot of shysters in the immigration-law world. Will the supply meet the demand? What’s the role of nonprofit legal-assistance groups, and do they have the resources and support to get the job done? Lot to be figured out.

Place-based funders: have you shown your local legal-services organization some love lately? Now is the time!

This is the nitty-gritty work of social change. After years of pushing at the national and local levels, a real transformation may be imminent. But in two important senses, the work has just begun. Stay tuned. And keep an eye out for who’s on the table, and who’s lined up to help people along a potential pathway to citizenship. This election helped put comprehensive immigration reform back on the table, and sustained public pressure and awareness will help keep these important issues – who gets included, and who gets people registered – in the light where they belong. #philant

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Right Down the Line

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Tonight I went to a panel, “In Search of the Unexpected Future of Media,” hosted by The New Republic. TNR was recently bought by Chris Hughes of Facebook fame and Jumo infamy. He seems soft-spoken, thoughtful, and enamored of old-fashioned Serious Journalism. Bully for him, bring on more like him.

The panel itself was moderately interesting, the speakers were Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, and Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO. It was mostly about the business of new media, which, fine. “You can monetize smart” from Plepler – encouraging!

But what struck me is that both entities are thinking of themselves as 21st-century digital content generators but are shackled to 19th-century physical infrastructure: the newspaper printing press, and the cable/phone lines. In answering a question from a 20-something audience member who wants to watch Girls but doesn’t have a cable box, Plepler answered elaborately and at length. What it boils down to is that there aren’t enough “cord-cutters” yet to allow HBO to circumvent their cable and phone partners. Their business model is tied up with the physical infrastructure of cable and phone lines.

But here’s the rub: even as one might wish for the decoupling of the NYT and HBO from the physical infrastructure that seems to drag them down financially, I bet that a lot of those jobs, especially in the printing press, are good union jobs that support middle-class communities. (Cable companies probably less so.)

Makes me think of the latest episode of Downton Abbey, where (spoiler alert!) Matthew has invested in the estate to save Lord Grantham’s (and by extension his wife’s) bacon, but now is seeing that the estate is “mismanaged,” in his words. Lady Mary hints that what looks like inefficiency is a form of largesse that’s necessary for the local economy. Economic welfare at the level of the manor is sacrificed for economic welfare at the level of the village. I dunno, sounds kinda enlightened to me. I wonder to what extent old, infrastructure-dependent industries like newspapers and telephone companies function in a similar way.

In other words, when is inefficiency at the level of the firm effectiveness at the level of the community or town? Where’s the economics that helps makes sense of that? That would be genuine political economy.

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die (#2)

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Moving away for a minute from my usual shtick of having a song title as the title of the post, I want to resurrect (ha, ha) an old thread from quite a while back: zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die. The series (well, now it’s a series ’cause I’m posting a second one) was inspired by an article called “five zombie economic ideas that won’t die.” So I’m doing a version for philanthropy.

# 1 was: Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.

#2 is: There are too many nonprofits.

I can’t tell you how often I hear this in my work with nonprofits and the people who support them. It’s usually in reference to a particular topic area (like addressing a particular disease) or geography (X city or state). What’s behind this?

  • If there are a lot of organizations with the same mission, something must be wrong.
  • More nonprofits should just merge.
  • Someone (a funder) should go in and fix that.

Do we ask this about for-profit businesses? (I did once hear a nonprofit board member who worked in the banking sector say, “there are too many banks,” at a time of a lot of mergers in that field.) If there are too many for-profits, not all of them survive. Just ask anyone trying to open a restaurant in New York City.

What’s different in the nonprofit sector? One might say there aren’t the same market pressures; donors keep nonprofits going even when they’re not relevant, or because they’re a pet cause.

But what kind of survival are we really talking about? A lot of these organizations don’t necessarily grow, they chug along at a certain size (maybe a $500,000 annual budget) with a couple of handfuls of staff, providing services in the community. Now, we might question how effectively they provide those services, but why shouldn’t they exist?

What we’re talking about are the mom and pop shops of the nonprofit sector. (My TCC Group colleague Pete York is starting to write and talk about this.) I’ve written about the idea of a funding ecosystem, where you need small shrubs and bushes alongside big trees, or the big trees won’t survive. “There are too many nonprofits” may – may – be the equivalent of “there are too many bushes.”

In our rush to scale, and replicate, and leverage, it’s worth pausing to consider the value of the type of organization that makes up the vast majority of the nonprofit sector. And to really look at them, what they do well, and where they could improve. But not dismiss them with, “there are too many nonprofits.” (And hey, sometimes there no doubt are.) Get to know the forest in which you’re walking, and how the rain filters through the trees, and the shrubs, and the roots. Watch a season cycle or two, and see how the forest grows and contracts naturally.

Just be careful in some of the mossy patches, for the hand that reaches up from the ground to the strains of a violin stab…another zombie philanthropic idea. To be continued….

Such Great Heights

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Last time, I looked at how “philanthropizing” creates vertical ties where none may have existed before.

This may be due to a market failure. A necessary one. On some level, we need the insulation of institutionalized philanthropy because it’s intensely awkward to give to a stranger directly. (Giving to people you know has its own joys and complications.)

I experienced this in the Rockaways shortly after Sandy. I was volunteering at a church that was receiving and distributing donations of goods. In the late afternoon, folks started coming in to receive them. Folding tables were set up in a horseshoe in the church gymnasium. Behind them were piles of clothes, blankets, toys, canned goods, and cleaning supplies. Between the tables and the goods were volunteers.

I was on canned goods for a while. Easy enough. I noticed that it made a difference whether I offered something or asked what they wanted. I was being given the micro power to shape expectations, and I didn’t want it. But at first, fairly harmless. When a woman said, “I just want something that reminds me of Thanksgiving,” I delighted in fishing out a can of yams I had just carefully sorted into a section with other starches (yes, there’s such a thing as canned potatoes, alas).

Things got weird when I moved I over to the paper goods. How many rolls of toilet paper are enough? How many rolls of paper towels? Who the eff am I to say? We had some vague guidelines, but it was incongruous to be parroting those to people when a stream of volunteers was piling twelve-packs of paper towels atop each other behind me. I get that the guidelines were there for a reason, but it all felt so arbitrary in the moment.

Here was a vertical tie emerging, unbidden, unwanted on either end. It’s easy to think the alternative would have been a free-for-all; some structure is needed to distribute scarce goods. But I would have been glad, in that moment, for more intermediation. I had chosen this type of volunteering because I wanted to do something direct. But that particular setup and structure left a sour taste. (Delivering hot meals to homebound seniors in the Red Hook Houses felt simpler and “cleaner.”)

Market relations are corrosive when they invade every corner of life. (I’m looking forward to reading The Moral Limits of Markets, which I have waiting on my Kindle app.) Their impersonal nature erodes solidarity. But sometimes, a little distance may be helpful.

This leads me to wonder whether contemporary philanthropy needs a market framework to operate, a certain amount of structure and impersonality. That feels counter-intuitive or wrong – giving is from the heart – but that church gymnasium, with its scoreboard blankly tallying HOME and AWAY, keeps coming back to my mind’s eye.

Upside Down

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Happy New Year! My two questions in this blog are about philanthropy and democracy: What does it mean to democratize philanthropy? Is philanthropy a democratizing force?*

Every once in a while, I come back to these and unpack them from a different angle. Today it’s about the nature of the power relationship in each. Democracy is about collective deliberation, creating a new mode of decision-making. Schattschneider said when you increase the number of people in an argument, you change the power dynamic. To democratize is to change the power dynamic by giving more people access to decision-making.

Democracy has a verb. Is there a verb for philanthropy? What does it mean to philanthropize? (Well, I talked about expressive and directional modes of philanthropy, so that’s one set of meanings.) It means to give money. I think we usually conceive of it as reinscribing (a college word I always liked the sound of, but don’t think I had the opportunity to use correctly until this sentence) an existing power relationship: the rich give to the poor. Or for their benefit. (Mostly “for their benefit” – not directly to them. If anything, we have elaborate social structures so that we can avoid having to make that transaction, that gift, directly.)

So maybe what it means to democratize philanthropy is to upend that traditional understanding and image in two ways: by making giving more an act of solidarity, rather than noblesse oblige, and by remembering and highlighting that giving has always been multidirectional. Mutual aid, tithing, zakat, alumni giving – there’s a lot of “horizontal” giving, among poor and rich.

But in addition to (I almost said “beyond,” but thought better of it) image and perception, there’s a power relationship at the heart of philanthropy. It creates a power dynamic where none existed before: one who gives voluntarily, one who receives…voluntarily? Gratefully? Grudgingly? While democratizing multiplies horizontal ties, “philanthropizing” – in some of its key forms – multiplies vertical ties. So in that sense, it’s NOT a democratizing force – just the opposite.

I’ll leave for another time whether that’s a good or a bad thing. But it’s a thing.

* After completing this post, I went back to embed the links, and saw that I originally framed the first of my two questions as, “what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?”, and not “is philanthropy a democratizing force?” After nearly three years, I’ll allow myself to expand a little!