Archive for May, 2013

Back 2 Life

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Philanthropy creates a bubble for those who work in it. We all know this. But on the inside, it’s so easy to forget. The surface of the bubble is so shiny, as it refracts the light coming from the outside. It’s a curved surface, so things on either side look distorted. But your eyes adjust. The brain is so skilled at adapting to new realities. With time, the funhouse image feels like a mirror, or a window.

But outside the bubble, reality goes on. Surface tension, surprisingly strong, keeps the bubble aloft on gentle breezes. But it can always be popped.

What does reality-based grantmaking look like? It begins with a clear understanding of what funders can and cannot do.

  • You can fund advocacy.
  • You can do more than make grants.
  • You can include grantees and community members in your decision-making.
  • You cannot solve long-standing social problems with a three-year initiative based on project funding.
  • You cannot compare to the monetary impact of the public sector or individual giving. The budget of Hennepin County, Minnesota, is more than $1 billion. Only a couple dozen foundations exceed even that amount, and except for the Gates Foundation, their grantmaking budgets are much much smaller.
  • You cannot flit from topic to topic every few years and expect to make a difference (or get much respect).

The funders who make a difference are the ones who invest for the long term, or who partner strategically, or who accept that small victories are big in the right context. Project Streamline a few years ago advanced the notion of “right-sizing” grants – they mean grant requirements. But it’s time to right-size grants, and our ambitions along with them, to the extent of the problems we’re addressing.

Funders can do more than they allow themselves, and they can achieve less than they think they can. And that’s OK. Life in the bubble is stifling; no air circulates. Step on out. See your surroundings clearly. Touch the ground. It’ll all be fine. We could all use the knowledge you’ve gained and benefit from the independent you should be allowed to keep. But please – see what you are. Know thyself.

Back 2 Reality.

In news from the reality-based side of philanthropy, happy 10th anniversary to the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity! Lori Villarosa and her PRE colleagues have been tireless, fearless advocates for a topic that’s essential for renegotiating the 21st-century social contract. Thank you Lori and company for moving that conversation forward.


One is the number divided by two

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Wrapping up the Year 3 look back at my blog topics. Here are the questions I raised and concepts I developed in Year 1 (April 2010-April 2011).

I got a lot done the first year! Lot of material to mine here for future posts.

Here are my favorite posts from that year:

Next week, back to the future!

Three Times One Minus One

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Back again in retro mode. Here are the concepts I developed and/or the and questions that I grappled with in the second year of this blog (April 2011-April 2012):

  • The “powerless presidential bully pulpit” and philanthropy’s advocacy work
  • The “white savior industrial complex” and philanthropy
  • #KONY2012 and the cycle of backlash
  • Foundation governance and decision-making have a long way to go to catch up with new ambitions for belovedness (cf. Komen)
  • What is a progressive theory of human frailty that is not about fallenness but about compassion and empathy?
  • What is a progressive theory of wealth accumulation?
  • Ecosystems of funding: What happens when too many funders are chasing too few opportunities for impact? Or when everyone tries to promote “innovation” and no one focuses on the meat-and-potatoes work that provides the basic infrastructure of social services?
  • Steve Jobs vs. Occupy Wall Street as models of rebellion
  • The counter-majoritarian tendencies of philanthropy
  • The Help and “the gift of voice” in philanthropy
  • Would you wish the U.S. system of philanthropy on a country that was setting up its tax code?
  • So many of our theories of human behavior are just so dumb and literal-minded
  • Is there a nostalgic mode of philanthropy?
  • What kind of industry is philanthropy?
  • What is a more integrated perspective on government action?

My favorite posts:

Next week, all the way back to Year One.