Archive for October, 2013

Hollywood Ending

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Kudos to Public Interest Projects for a great conference yesterday. “Breaking Out” was a thoughtful series of discussions about philanthropy in the 21st century.

One thing stuck in my craw, however. I appreciate the power of storytelling, and get that narrative is an important tool for engagement. The videos shown for the Girl Effect (an oldie but a goodie) and the trailer for the new documentary “A Place at the Table”, about hunger in America were compelling. They told a clear story, with a call to action, and were shot/animated and scored in a way that stirred the emotions. Their makers touted them as a useful tool for engaging broad audiences.

Part of the reason such narratives are so powerful is that they tap into mental models that have been shaped by a lifetime of consuming fictional narratives. Hollywood has taught us how to read stories, and those stories almost always have a happy ending. What’s more, movies purposely skip over the mundane details. The hero wakes up, then she’s at the office. You don’t see her hellish commute.

But here’s the thing. It’s in those mundane details that social change really happens. And more importantly, it’s where social change goes wrong, or just fails to happen. But narratives that draw on the instinctual grammar of fiction encourage us to see the world through a Hollywood lens – whether they intend to or not. Our mind fills in the blanks in the story, but does so hopefully, or with the best-case scenario. But often the scenario plays out differently. And there’s nothing more demoralizing than a story that falls flat. Look at what happened to #kony2012.

So I have to question the value of narrative and storytelling for social change, at least in the form of a three-minute video. Let’s have ground truth, in all its complexity, and not a fairy tale. I’m hopeful that the full version of “A Place at the Table” does this. And I’m looking forward to Jose Antonio Vargas’ “Documented.”

Have you seen examples of videos advancing social change that don’t draw on the Hollywood logic of happy endings, and are still powerfully motivating?

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A Matter of Trust

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Brad Smith hits it out of the park again with “The Brave New World of Good,” a very useful synthesis, reflection on, and pertinent critique of major trends in philanthropy and nonprofits such as open data, transparency, innovation, and markets. One phrase in particular stood out for me:

“Collection of data by government has a business model; it’s called tax dollars.”

It’s ironic that this timely piece came out during the latest government shutdown, because I would say that the business model is actually tax dollars and legitimacy – and the latter is in short supply these days.

Sadly, foundations have had a fair amount to do with the creation of the partisan echo chamber in which we find ourselves. It’s well-documented how a number of conservative private foundations funded the intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and policy experts that over time have moved the center of political discourse ever rightward. We’re at the point that a model of healthcare reform championed by the Heritage Foundation and implemented by a Republican governor is excoriated as a progressive overreach.

A further irony is that progressive funders are practically envious of the success that conservative foundations have had in shaping the policy discourse, not least because the tactics used are ones that progressive critics of foundation practices have championed for years: long-term, general-operating support of organizations explicitly working on policy and advocacy issues.

The success of one side has prompted a kind of intellectual arms race, with mirrored (but asymmetrical) infrastructures touting conservative and progressive ideas through relatively closed systems of think tanks, policy shops, and in the case of the conservative movement, talk radio and TV news.

Can funders instead support the emergence of a vibrant, active center that draws energy and attention away from the partisan battle consuming Washington and threatening the national and global economy? As Phil Buchanan helpfully points out, the National Purpose Initiative seeks to do just that. I applaud this effort and particularly its spirit.

One friendly suggestion: take a page from the success of progressive movements like LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights and embrace cultural-change strategies. Putting a human face on a cause, and making the “other” relatable on a personal level, is more important than ever. Our intellectual infrastructures – which again, I’m not pretending are anywhere near evenly matched – move us toward ever more bloodless forms of analysis and abstraction. And the filter bubbles in which most of us are enclosed, providing only information that shares views we already hold, reinforce this exclusion from each other. As Sally Kohn helpfully described at a recent TedNYC talk, “Absent unquestioned evidence to do otherwise, I would like to start to see a country where we all assume that we want what’s best for each other.” And this starts to happen through honest, authentic engagement with those who share views unlike our own.

This can happen usefully at a local level. An overwhelming number of foundations are local entities. Here is an opportunity to leverage the strengths of the sector in service of a less polarized political discourse. Remember that business model of collection of data by government: taxes and legitimacy. Where foundations can help build up the store of legitimacy of our political system by fostering an alternative civic culture, they should consider doing so.

How have you seen foundations play this role? What are models worth sharing?

Standard Time

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

At the Independent Sector conference last week, we had the privilege of seeing Wynton Marsalis speak and perform. I was excited for the latter, but came away floored by the former. His manner of speech and thought were so distinctive and insightful, it felt like an implicit reproach to the generalities in which big-tent conferences traffic.

All of Marsalis’ statements were grounded in a place and a time. To understand the origins of jazz, he explained how in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, English, French, Spanish, Creole, and African cultures converged in New Orleans to create the conditions for a new form of music. When introducing his talented backing band (piano and upright bass), he referred to them by name, age, and place. It matters that the pianist is 31 and from Milwaukee, and that the bassist is 19 and from Jamaica. Their generational and place-based experiences shape the music to which they’re exposed, the musicians with whom they can collaborate, and therefore how they play.

Marsalis went on to describe jazz as a metaphor for democracy: players learn to collaborate around a common theme, improvising within a structure. Mastery comes not just from technical skill but from deep knowledge of history and diverse modes of expression that have come before and exist now.

What would it mean for foundations to operate as part of a jazz trio, in the Marsalis mode, with nonprofits and government? (All right, it should be a quartet that involves business.) Above all, good jazz players are skilled listeners. They know the qualities of their instrument, and how it blends with the other instruments. The drums don’t carry the melody. The trumpet doesn’t play rhythm. But everyone gets a solo – for a certain amount of time. The players look at each other and listen to each other to understand when it’s time for the solo to end and the song to continue.

Funders need to learn how to listen better to the other players in the social change quartet, and how to ground themselves in the strengths and limitations of their “instrument” – grantmaking, convening, advocacy, research, field-building, etc. The more they understand what their instrument is and isn’t good for, the more collaboratively, fluently, and beautifully they can play.

Innovation comes through a thorough grounding in tradition, so that when you repeat themes that have been heard many times before – the “standards” – you can bring a new flavor to them while recognizing the work that’s gone before. So when funders indulge in what I call “zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die“, they should remember Wynton Marsalis and ask themselves – and their fellow players – “where have I heard that one before?” And a new song can be born….