Windmills in My Mind

December 12th, 2013

I saw a preview screening of the new Spike Jonze movie “Her” this week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. In a studiously bespoke near-future Los Angeles (all the men were comically high-waisted pants in a sly prediction of what 2020 Brooklyn will be like), Joaquin Phoenix, freshly divorced, falls in love with a uniquely intuitive operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The main romance, I guess you have to call it, is compelling enough, but it’s the throwaway details of the imagined world in which the characters live that feels so uncanny – almost too real. At a certain point, everyone is walking around talking to their OS in the same way Phoenix’s character – a thumbless version of the bubbles we all float around in on the subway in New York. All these people isolated but feeling cozily connected in a perfectly individualized way – pure, comfy atomization.

What the characters enjoy most about the OS is that it knows them intimately, based on their data (emails, contacts, browsing habits, conversation). To be understood and accepted is what everyone longs for.

Ironic then, that what is so readily achieved with one’s own device is so very hard to achieve with others. We find ourselves imagined so well and so thoroughly, our desires and needs catered to, and find it increasingly difficult to understand the experiences of others, to imagine what their lives must be like, or even to think to ask that question in the first place.

The semi-fake essay “Poverty Thoughts” blew up in my social media feed, before what now seems like the inevitable backlash of puncturing the hype balloon. The author wrote searingly of the thought processes that make “bad decisions” by poor people seem perfectly reasonable, even rational, given the circumstances. People reading and sharing it resonated with the (apparent) truth-telling, particularly at a time when the GOP was slashing food stamp benefits. Here was some real talk, insight into what it’s like and why apparently mystifying behavior (buying luxury goods when you have minimal income) can be reasonable in a frame of reference where saving for the future doesn’t accomplish anything and hope is the true luxury.

I take it as a sign that we’re so hungry to know the experiences of others that so many people, myself included, fell for this semi-hoax. The world of “Her” is not yet upon us if these kinds of stories resonate, even if they turn out not to be as cut and dry as originally presented. Our credulity is a sign of our humanity, our longing for insight and connection. So I’m glad that the Times’ series on homeless youth in New York is gaining traction.

So when it comes time to do your holiday giving, ask yourself, whose experience of everyday life do I want to improve? When I think of the “beneficiaries” of my giving, how well can I imagine them? How different are they from me, really? Giving is an act of solidarity, but it’s also an act of imagination. Dive into stories like the Times’ “Invisible Child” and make a connection with a reality outside your own. The Joaquin Phoenix “Her” future of coddled solipsism doesn’t have to be the one we create.

Partisan

December 5th, 2013

Larry Kramer, the head of the Hewlett Foundation, has written a provocative post in the SSIR opinion blog about the Foundation’s newly announced initiative to tackle political polarization in the U.S. Kramer has three pieces of advice for funders pursuing similar goals: make multiple, small bets; build bridges; and dig in for the long run.

All laudable. But I want to dig in on the implicit conception of the actors in this space. Some of Kramer’s strongest language is reserved for political parties and “myopic partisans anxious to preserve or enlarge their party’s current prospects.” Of funder strategies aimed at reducing political polarization, Kramer notes:

“Further complicating matters is the very real risk that grantmaking intended to reduce polarization will itself become polarizing. This is certainly the case when democratic reforms are a proxy for underlying substantive agendas by a particular group.”

The language is studiously neutral, but it’s hard to imagine a world where particular groups aren’t pursuing underlying – or overt – substantive agendas. What else is politics?

“Partisans” is similarly vague. It literally means supporters of a particular party, and so is appropriate in the way Kramer uses it. But what I can’t help but wondering is where social movements fit into this picture. They’re particular groups pursuing overt substantive agendas – and often through democratic reforms: the civil rights movement sought among other things to make the 14th Amendment real. Hard to be much more of a democratic reform than the Voting Rights Act.

One of the most difficult challenges social movements face is defining their relationships with political parties. In Latin America in the mid-20th century, the place and time I studied as a doctoral student in political science, the relationship used to be straightforward: citizen demands were channeled through labor unions allied with labor-based political parties. There was a structure of interest representation and intermediation. That’s basically gone now, and it’s not clear what has taken its place or how representative that structure really is.

And despite the continued strong relationship between labor unions and the Democratic Party, the situation is not all that different in the United States. It’s hard to think of the Democrats as a labor-based party: just look at what a strong hand insurers had in the most recent signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act. What’s different is that social movements organizing different elements of the Democratic coalition have emerged and have complicated relationships with the party.

So I’m skeptical of conflating group-based mobilization around substantive agendas with partisanship. Social movements can and should have a degree of independence and critique with regard to political parties. But when they advance substantive agendas that include the historic securing or protection of rights through democratic reforms, this is a different world than the one Kramer paints.

I look forward to learning more about Hewlett’s agenda as it plays out, and the Foundation begins to make its “multiple, small bets” addressing political polarization. I’ll be particularly interested to see how social movements are viewed and participate in its efforts.

What do you think: How independent are social movements in the U.S. of political parties? Are movement mobilizations inherently polarizing?

 

Disclosure: the firm for which I work, TCC Group, has had the Hewlett Foundation as a client within the past few years. As with all posts on this blog, the opinions expressed are my own.

Like a Turkey through the Corn

November 27th, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving! Off this week, returning next week.

Lots to discuss, including the Ken Berger post on SSIR slamming GiveWell, Peter Singer, and the “Effective Altruism” movement, which I commented on here.

Enjoy the blessings of the season.

System of a Down

November 21st, 2013

So, the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) “Supporting Movements” conference this week was as good as advertised. Great mix of speakers, lots and lots of practical tools and applications, an appealing variety of formats and topics. Kudos all around.

Substantively, I came away with a lot of questions about the term “movement,” and how it was used to describe different forms of collective action. If I understand GEO’s take correctly, what we’re talking about under the rubric of collective action are:

  • Networks
  • Coalitions
  • Campaigns
  • Movements
  • Collective impact

These are related, but have important distinctions. Campaigns are generally time-bound and issue-based; they’re probably the least permanent of the five types. There are electoral campaigns, which have a definite end date and a very specific aim. There are issue campaigns, which can last a very long time: the campaign to reduce tobacco use has evolved over decades and taken many forms.

Networks and coalitions are especially closely related. It’s not always clear which is an instance of which. Is a network a type of coalition or vice versa? I tend to think of a coalition as a type of network, one that is specifically goal-oriented. It has a target. Therefore, an issue campaign is a strategy a coalition might undertake. A coalition to advance the passage of health-care reform might run a campaign in favor of the public option.

Collective impact, as it’s been used in recent years, tends to be place-based, which the previous forms aren’t necessarily. And it tends to be explicitly cross-sector, involving funders, nonprofits, and often business and government.

Movements I think of as the most ambitious and having the longest timeframe. They mobilize one or more constituencies that have a specific claim – rights, recognition, dignity, freedom – that requires a rearrangement of existing social norms, relations, or structures. They try to change a system. And that change usually takes generations, although dramatic gains can be made in compressed periods of time, such as advances on marriage equality in the last five years.

So what I think threw a number of people I spoke with at the conference was the way the opening plenary framed a “movement” around reducing childhood obesity. For a number of folks in attendance, myself included, movements are constituent-driven and seek the transformation of existing social systems and power relations. A coordinated effort to reduce childhood obesity has many merits, but in important respects it operates within the existing status quo. It’s a really good coalition – but a movement?

This gets at a central tension in the world of collective action: how much are we talking about changing the practices of systems, and how much are we talking about changing the behaviors of individuals? Childhood obesity is a widespread conditions that’s socially pernicious. I can see a campaign against that condition. But what is it a movement for? The civil rights movement has a positive aim, it seeks to obtain the expansion of civil rights to all. If the childhood obesity “movement” were a movement for healthy children – of which lower rates of obesity is one indicator – then maybe I could see it. But even so, it’s not the children themselves who are necessarily mobilizing. Adults are mobilizing on their behalf – a remove that seems contrary to the spirit of movements as I understand them.

So, all through the conference, I was working on this dichotomy in my head and in conversations. But my tablemate at the closing plenary gave me another bone to chew on. (Ew, not literally.) She described successful efforts to address homelessness that were explicitly not constituent-driven or funder-driven. It was funders and researchers who had the ability to generate data to show what programs actually impact homelessness that were able to galvanize collective action…(here’s that phrase again) on behalf of the homeless, who weren’t necessarily mobilizing themselves.

So maybe there are movements of (positive goal of claiming a right, constituent-driven) and movements for (goal of solving a problem, not necessarily constituent-driven) – and we need a better term for the latter.

Do you find this a tenable distinction? What’s the right term for “movements for” or “on behalf of”?

Move This

November 14th, 2013

It’s funny, I woke up with that song in my head. I must be ready for for next week’s GEO conference on movement building.

And in fact, the conference paper’s focus on five roles for grantmakers in movement building maps pretty well to the way that I talked about non-grantmaking roles in my EPIP workshop last week. I organized them into four categories (building on the EPIP national conference panel I did a couple of years ago on the “3 I’s of Foundation Effectiveness”):

  • Influence: when a foundation uses its clout to advance an issue it cares about, by taking a public stance on an issue, envisioning and/or leading a coalition, campaign, field, or movement, or advancing difficult dialogues in its community
  • Include: when a foundation uses its convening power to bring actors around a table, such as grantees, funders, and policymakers, and practices inclusion of diverse groups in its staffing, governance, and decision-making
  • Inform: when a foundation leverages one of its key assets – the information it gathers about the grantees with which it works, the fields in which it operates, and the communities in which it works – and goes from a one-way flow of information inward to a two-way flow information both inward and outward
  • Invest: when a foundation leverages the full range of its financial and human capital, and that of its grantees, through mission-related investing, capacity building, and leadership development

The framing paper for the GEO conference, which I assume will be released next week, talks about grantmaker roles in supporting movements as investor, broker, connector, learner, and influencer. Two of the I’s are there, and you can map “learner” to “Inform,” and “broker” and “connector” are closely related to “Include.”

GEO’s talking about these roles with regard movement building, but the framework I used in my EPIP talk is about overall philanthropic effectiveness. So what this suggests is that movement building can offer a frame for understanding philanthropic effectiveness more generally. That’ll be worth talking about at the conference next week!

How do you see funders Influencing, Including, Informing, or Investing? What capacities are needed to play these roles effectively and responsibly?

“Off the Menu”

November 7th, 2013

Thanks to the EPIP-NY chapter and TCC Group for co-hosting a workshop I facilitated yesterday, “Off the Menu: Choosing the Right Non-Grantmaking Roles.” The Mertz-Gilmore Foundation were fabulous hosts.

The focus of the workshop was to help foundation program staff identify non-grantmaking roles that are a good fit for them and their foundation. Such roles include research, advocacy, communications, convening, field building, and capacity building, among others. As the workshop description put it:

As a program staffer at a foundation, it can seem like there is an endless menu of conferences, convenings, site visits, affinity groups, blogs, and publications – not to mention all of the invitations from your grantees. It’s easy to say yes when you’re excited about learning and contributing to the field.  But you also have all the other work you’re expected to do, so how do you determine what’s really important—for your grantees, your program strategy, your foundation’s mission, and your own personal development?  And how do you navigate a supervisor or organizational culture that pushes you to get out there as much as possible—or one that would prefer you to stay chained to your desk?

While you have criteria for making grants, there are few rules when it comes to choosing non-grantmaking activities. How do you prioritize and make the case for those activities that are critical to your job, your foundation, and your personal development? How do you navigate generational differences within your organization to explain what kinds of non-grantmaking roles are worthwhile?

A few things struck me about the discussion at the workshop itself:

  • The range of actors involved in non-grantmaking roles is very broad. While the session was targeted to grantmakers, the diversity of the audience, which included nonprofit leaders and consultants made for lively discussion about what kinds of non-grantmaking activities are genuinely useful. If grantmakers get more into strategic communications, how aware are they of their audiences and what kind of language and terminology resonate with those audiences?
  • Non-grantmaking roles put funders on more of an equal footing with grantees. Without the grant relationship directly mediating the connection, nonprofits and funders have the potential to engage in a more open way. This is far from automatic, however! It requires some intentional discussions, and some recognition among funders that they’re learners in this space.
  • It’s important to balance your ambitions for non-grantmaking roles with the resources at your disposal. One area that several participants gravitated to was making the information funders receive from grantees and their own research more broadly available to the field. But what is the quality of that data? It may sound good to take a more data-driven approach to decision-making, but how reliable and accessible are the data with which you’re working? That doesn’t mean such efforts aren’t worth pursuing, but a measure of realism is needed.
  • There’s a desire for more of this discussion. The internal capacity of foundations is something for which we don’t have a lot of good frameworks or explicit ways of talking about, so it’s easy to make decisions in an ad hoc fashion. By naming the types of capacity that foundations, in particular their program staff, need to play their roles effectively, and how those capacities connect to mission achievement, we can shed light on this underappreciated area.

In upcoming posts, I’ll have more to say about the content of the workshop, in particular the idea that non-grantmaking roles can be understood in terms of how foundations Influence, Include, Inform, and Invest. For now, thanks again to those who participated!

Hollywood Ending

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?

A Matter of Trust

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

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….

The Shop Around the Corner

September 26th, 2013

My blog post from the Council on Foundations community foundations conference in San Diego, about how community foundations might consider differently how to work with private business.

Read it here on RE: Philanthropy.