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.

20 Feet from the Corner Suite: What Darlene Love Can Teach Us about Workplace Success

September 19th, 2013

My first post on the fabulous and essential Role/Reboot, an online magazine about the evolution of gender roles in contemporary culture.

The post was inspired by the inspiring documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” well worth seeing:

http://www.rolereboot.org/culture-and-politics/details/2013-09-what-backup-singers-can-teach-us-about-workplace-suc

Coat of Many Colors

September 12th, 2013

New York City’s mayoral primary was this week, and the discussion reveals many of the dumb ways we think and talk about race, power, and representation.

The narrative around New York politics has long been about identity and voting blocs: blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Jews, LGBTQ folks have their own enclaves, candidates, and voting patterns. Candidates for City Council or Mayor play to certain constituencies with certain targeted messages.

This election scrambled all that. The queer woman candidate lost among women and LGBTQ folks by double-digit margins, the Chinese candidate couldn’t carry the Chinese vote, and the African-American candidate couldn’t carry the black vote. In the space of two months, Bill de Blasio, the public advocate (a largely symbolic post), came from nowhere to the cusp of a runoff-avoiding plurality.

So how did he do it? And why did Thompson and especially Quinn implode? Here’s where the dum-dums step to the mic.

Let’s get a couple of things straight. It’s insulting to think that representation trumps reality: Liu lost the Chinese vote because people could see him implode, and De Blasio convinced them that he couldn’t win and they should get on board with someone who could. And Thompson lost the black vote because he didn’t come out against stop-and-frisk, while De Blasio did, strongly. There’s pride in seeing one of your own come to power, but they have to deliver. It’s as simple as that. People can see what’s in front of them. So stop being surprised that people didn’t automatically line up behind “their” candidate.

You’ll note that the common factor in the above two examples is De Blasio’s cunning. Another element of it is the ad that featured his family, his African-American wife and their Afro’d teenage son. As the NYT points out in a fascinating piece about his campaign strategy, the ad made clear that De Blasio’s opposition to stop and frisk wasn’t just a progressive checklist item, but grounded in a real fear about his son’s well being. Bloomberg called this tactic “racist.” I mean, honestly. This is like Chief Justice Roberts saying “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” No, sorry, it’s by educating people about the fictitious (as in, socially constructed) nature of race and emphasizing that part of people’s common humanity is their ability to draw on many different identities – and not be defined or determined by any one of them. Again, why is this so hard to grasp?

Don’t even get me started on how these fallacies play out in philanthropy. Suffice it to say that we need to make room for people to say the wrong thing so that real, sensible conversations can happen about how to acknowledge, respect, and balance differences of background and identity. If NYC voters can see past convenient labels to the reality of a candidate’s life and convictions, then funders have to be able to talk constructively about how and why they may or may not target particular racial or ethnic populations – without being called racist or automatically being thought of as progressive. What’s the thought process? We could all stand to do more unpacking of mental-emotional models via that kind of question.

The Manhattan Transfer

September 5th, 2013

Over the past three years, I’ve become a big fan of European football, aka soccer, following the major leagues in England, Spain, and elsewhere, especially my beloved FC Barcelona. As a newcomer to this kind of fandom, I’m continually bemused by the sheer volume and breathless tenor of commentary around “the transfer window”, i.e., the two times of the year when teams can buy and trade players. Things can get very complicated because you’re trading across international lines, and often until the very last minute of “Deadline Day,” which was this past Monday. The big news of Deadline Day was Mesut Ozil, a German of Turkish extraction, moving from Real Madrid in Spain to Arsenal in London. My passport hurts just thinking about that! Not to mention my wallet: pounds, euros, dollars – the figures are reported multiple and confusing ways.

What’s interesting is how the hype machine processes trades, and how the “right” or “wrong” decisions can shape how teams are perceived in the local and international media, and how much leeway managers, particularly new ones, have to find their way. This has been a season of unusually high managerial turnover at the major clubs, the biggest of which was David Moyes succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson after 26 years at Manchester United. That’s right, one manager led that club for twenty-six years. Imagine the expectations for the new guy! The succession was scrutinized all summer, more so because there weren’t games to talk about. Since the league only starts up in late August, the media and fans judge managers early on in the season through their team’s activity in the transfer window. Never mind that there’s usually a general manager-type figure who makes personnel decisions, it’s the coach/manager who takes the blame for transfer activity perceived to be subpar.

For the last several years, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, an impossibly urbane and dignified Frenchman who favors tailored grey suits and an Arsenal-red tie, has been pilloried for his lack of boldness in the transfer window. Arsenal, one of the richest clubs in the Premier League, based in North London, as recently as ten years ago had an undefeated season. But the “Invincibles” of 2004-05 were the last Arsenal side to bring home a trophy, and the pressure on Wenger has grown with each passing year. Missing out on a big signing during successive transfer windows has eaten away at his reputation. Unlike other major clubs that rack up the debt in pursuit of trophies, Arsenal’s management – including Wenger – have been fiscally prudent, content with being a consistently playoff-caliber club with a clean balance sheet. But its fans expect more, they remember the Invincibles.

Finally, this year, Wenger and Arsenal made that longed-after big signing. On Deadline Day, they swooped in for Ozil, one of the stars of the 2010 World Cup and still only 24, his best years ahead of him. The reaction on social media and in the football press was sudden and raucous. Momentum was Arsenal’s at last. And this was the day after they beat their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur on the road. From also-rans to top of the class in the course of a long weekend.

What I’m getting at is the power of talent to shape expectations, and the importance of managing the narrative – particularly when the story you have to tell goes beyond what gets reported in the press or discussed on social media. We’re really not good at this in philanthropy. A while back, I wondered what the “political arts” might be, and how foundations can learn from them. Shaping the narrative has to be one of those arts. The infrastructure of comment in philanthropy is nowhere near as developed as the football press, but word still travels fast. I’ll be watching Wenger this season as Ozil integrates into the side, and thinking about talent, narrative, and momentum.