Archive for July, 2013

Never Let Her Slip Away

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Been obsessed with this 70s song that I heard Dave Grohl talk about on Marc Maron’s WTF? podcast. The melody is crazy, it’s really challenging and fun to learn how to sing – especially since I need to transpose it to another key. Usually I think of the song for the title of a post after I’ve written the post, but I was just working on that song, so it’s on my mind.

So – Darren Walker is the new head of the Ford Foundation. Interesting that they chose someone in-house. As a colleague was saying earlier today, nice to have it be recognized that philanthropy is a real profession, and that having past experience in it is valuable for a foundation head. Often, foundation boards look outside the sector for expertise. Darren’s been embedded in big foundations like Ford and Rockefeller for more than 10 years. Will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

Part of the challenge for a foundation leader is understanding the parameters of what you can and can’t do – and bringing your board along with you. This is the challenge for a philanthropic insider – we have shared assumptions and jargon and a shared theory of change. But as I’ve been thinking about more and more lately (inspired by Patti Patrizi’s work on this topic), assessing strategy is about understanding how well it reacts to and builds upon the context in which it’s formulated.

There are two respects in which realism is needed: one is about the complexity of the context you’re trying to change. And another is about the full range of tools at your disposal. My refrain lately is that foundations do less than they can (they don’t take enough advantage of convening, advocacy, communications, field building, etc.) but that they reach for more than they can grasp (their theories of change aren’t grounded enough in reality). Boards can unfortunately be a source of both of these shortcomings. It falls to the chief executive, the board chair, and the senior staff to engage the board in a frank discussion of what can realistically be expected of these interesting and peculiar entities that get most of their work done by proxy.

These are some of the challenges Darren and his colleagues who run foundations face. Now…how to tie in that song title? Who’s the “her”? Um….how about Athena, the goddess of wisdom? Yeah, that’s the ticket. Keep her owl on your shoulder. Mazel tov.


Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Let’s talk about impact in philanthropy. I’ve been thinking all week about the outcome of the Zimmerman trial. A young black man is killed by a vigilante, who walks free. The fear and suspicion that motivated Zimmerman to get out of the car are judged to be acceptable, “reasonable.”

When we judge impact through the filter of numbers, statistics, and abstract metrics, we reinforce a mode of philanthropy that is arm’s-length. This can be good, in that it can cause us to question our biases of nationality. If the same dollar can save three lives in Southeast Asia and one life in Detroit, shouldn’t we see past our common nationality with the person in Detroit and save the people in Africa? As the Gates Foundation tagline now reads, “All Lives Have Equal Value”. Peter Singer’s TED talk unfolds along these lines.

And yet. To stand behind this Rawlsian veil of ignorance, to set aside the accidents of our birth, is to give up many of the things that make us human, that make us who we are as individuals. And in philanthropy, the love of mankind, that has to count for something – for a lot. Maybe everything.

This tendency, one might say this imperative, to think dispassionately about the impact of our giving reinforces plays into and reinforces the social distance that allows us to see nothing but “other”s all around us. To be that calculator of the greatest good, that machine, distances us from the intuitions and fellow feeling that not only drive the motivation to give but allow us to see the humanity in those who are unlike us.

It’s ironic because a lot of people’s intuitions about young black men are like those of George Zimmerman. We can’t accept our own biases unquestioningly. But we all come to our love of humanity, our philanthropy, from a particular place, from a particular (literal) embodiment of humanity. To deny that is to make it that much easier to think of others as less-than.

The skills we need to cultivate in ourselves and in our children for the 21st century, when so many forces atomize our societies, are empathy, imagination, and the ability to understand, acknowledge, and respect the humanity of others. Philanthropy can be a powerful tool for cultivating these skills. And while a technocratic, dispassionate approach to judging impact can overcome certain biases in a way that is important and valuable, it can ironically also undermine the very bases and motivations of giving. Little surprise, then, that despite trends in the field, the vast majority of individual donors decide to give not by judging impact as Singer and Gates might have us do, but by affiliation or intuition. I can’t see this as entirely a bad thing.

Maybe citizen philanthropy is especially important because you never know who’s going to be on the jury when the next George Zimmerman goes on trial. I’d rather they have the experience of thinking and feeling deeply the needs of others and giving of themselves and their money to uplift the humanity of others. That, in the end, may be the real power of philanthropy.

Stone Soup

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Whether or not comprehensive immigration reform passes this year – and after this week’s initial reaction by the House Republicans, things are looking less certain – the need for immigrant civic integration is a reality.

Here’s a modest proposal: philanthropy can help by creating and supporting spaces where communities can celebrate traditions of giving across cultures. Mutual aid societies, hometown associations, tithing, potlatch – most if not all cultures have established practices of individual collective giving.

“Everyone is a philanthropist” – and in being so, they draw on a wide variety of traditions. Let’s name those, lift them up, and learn from each other.

I was involved in a giving circle for a number of years that wasn’t culturally based, but I found it worked best as an “onramp” for people new to New York who wanted to learn more about philanthropy and nonprofits.

Community Investment Network is doing really interesting work bringing together leaders from giving circles across the country rooted in communities of color. A number of community foundations have ethnically- or racially-focused giving circles, and certainly women’s funds are popular, as the strength of the Women’s Funding Network attests.

Where I’d like to see this go is as a vehicle for immigrant civic integration at a local level. Philanthropy, community foundations, and other grantmaking public charities can be a venue for communities – both recent immigrants and immigrants from 100, 200, or 400 years ago (not necessarily voluntary…) – to learn about and from each other’s traditions are giving.

A lot of this will be based around faith traditions. As nervous as this may make some progressives, I think it’s a great place to start. Religious traditions can be  a source of social-justice righteousness or daunting fundamentalism. But they’re large and accommodate many points of view. Not saying there won’t be disagreements, but faith just has to be part of the equation. That’s what drives a huge percentage of individual giving, right, isn’t that what we always read about in Giving USA?

So: community foundations, grantmaking charities, and other place-based funders – think about building shared traditions of giving as a means to promote immigrant civic integration. Because whatever happens in Congress, communities across the country are transforming as a result of migration. It’s another moment in a cycle that has repeated throughout the history of this country. Let’s use philanthropy as a way to make this one smoother.


P.S. Congratulations to New American Leaders Project on three years of trailblazing and important work. Missed out by one on being their 1000th “like” on Facebook.