Dream a Little DREAM

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.

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