Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die (#2)

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Moving away for a minute from my usual shtick of having a song title as the title of the post, I want to resurrect (ha, ha) an old thread from quite a while back: zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die. The series (well, now it’s a series ’cause I’m posting a second one) was inspired by an article called “five zombie economic ideas that won’t die.” So I’m doing a version for philanthropy.

# 1 was: Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.

#2 is: There are too many nonprofits.

I can’t tell you how often I hear this in my work with nonprofits and the people who support them. It’s usually in reference to a particular topic area (like addressing a particular disease) or geography (X city or state). What’s behind this?

  • If there are a lot of organizations with the same mission, something must be wrong.
  • More nonprofits should just merge.
  • Someone (a funder) should go in and fix that.

Do we ask this about for-profit businesses? (I did once hear a nonprofit board member who worked in the banking sector say, “there are too many banks,” at a time of a lot of mergers in that field.) If there are too many for-profits, not all of them survive. Just ask anyone trying to open a restaurant in New York City.

What’s different in the nonprofit sector? One might say there aren’t the same market pressures; donors keep nonprofits going even when they’re not relevant, or because they’re a pet cause.

But what kind of survival are we really talking about? A lot of these organizations don’t necessarily grow, they chug along at a certain size (maybe a $500,000 annual budget) with a couple of handfuls of staff, providing services in the community. Now, we might question how effectively they provide those services, but why shouldn’t they exist?

What we’re talking about are the mom and pop shops of the nonprofit sector. (My TCC Group colleague Pete York is starting to write and talk about this.) I’ve written about the idea of a funding ecosystem, where you need small shrubs and bushes alongside big trees, or the big trees won’t survive. “There are too many nonprofits” may – may – be the equivalent of “there are too many bushes.”

In our rush to scale, and replicate, and leverage, it’s worth pausing to consider the value of the type of organization that makes up the vast majority of the nonprofit sector. And to really look at them, what they do well, and where they could improve. But not dismiss them with, “there are too many nonprofits.” (And hey, sometimes there no doubt are.) Get to know the forest in which you’re walking, and how the rain filters through the trees, and the shrubs, and the roots. Watch a season cycle or two, and see how the forest grows and contracts naturally.

Just be careful in some of the mossy patches, for the hand that reaches up from the ground to the strains of a violin stab…another zombie philanthropic idea. To be continued….


Don’t Want to Work on Maggie’s Farm No More

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I’ve written previously on agriculture as a metaphor for social change, and the idea of funding ecosystems.

Lately I’ve been thinking in terms of ecosystems out of balance. What happens when too many funders are chasing too few opportunities for impact? Or when everyone tries to promote “innovation” and no one focuses on the meat-and-potatoes work that provides the basic infrastructure of social services?

Private foundations need to be particularly aware of this problem as individual donors become more persnickety and less willing to provide organizations with discretion in how to spend funds. Discretionary funds at community foundations have been on the wane for a while; everyone wants their direct say in how the money gets spent. Maybe some funding ecosystems need like an index fund – a standard “basket” of investments that you choose precisely because it’s safe and predictable.

I want to explore this further – what are different types of ecosystems, and what are different ways that they can go out of balance based on how the actors (foundations, nonprofits, individual donors) interact within them.

Time After Time

Friday, April 29th, 2011

So it’s been a year since I started blogging. I read over my posts from that past year last night, and thought about threads I’d like to continue in the coming year, and those that I’d like to summarize and try to say something more definitive on.

To continue:

To summarize:

To possibly begin exploring:

  • The role of philanthropy in a democratic society based on prior international experiences like Eastern Europe and Latin America, amid the lessons they hold for the Middle East.

And there’ll be more in the last category, for sure….

Sounds like a plan!

(Lost in) A Forest

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Continuing from yesterday on the theme of agriculture vs. engineering as a metaphor for social change, and the role of innovation in philanthropy.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (which should be required reading for anyone in philanthropy) opens with a metaphor about forestry (which I know isn’t the same as agriculture, but anyway). A set of loggers looked at a forest, with all of its messy complexity – trees of different sizes, ferns, moss, shrubs, bushes, underbrush, fungi, rotting fallen logs, etc., etc. – and thought, how can we most rationally extract as much timber as possible? Well, we need to clear away all the underbrush, and turn the forest into as close an approximation as possible of evenly spaced, easily cut-down-able logs that just happen to be vertical until we can cut them down. To rationalize the extraction of timber.

That’s a plan, as far as it goes. But the problem is, without the underbrush, and the bushes, and the shrubs, and the other trees of varying sizes – the timber trees couldn’t survive. They needed the whole complex ecosystem of the forest for sustenance. So in the end, the loggers got less lumber than if they had worked within the “constraints” of the existing ecosystem.

How often are we like those loggers in philanthropy? How often do we not see the forest (of sustainability) for the trees (of impact or innovation)?

P.S. My first post on this blog was April 21, 2010; happy blog-o-versary to me! I’m on the road for work next week, but I’ll do my best to celebrate with a look back at some of the topics I’ve covered, and begin thinking about what lies ahead…

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

I’ve written previously on agriculture vs. engineering as a metaphor for social change. I’m thinking that one way this applies to philanthropy is in the pursuit of innovation.

When too many funders in a given nonprofit ecosystem only want to fund innovation, and not enough fund what’s already working, the ecosystem gets out of whack. There’s a nobility and an inherent value in supporting community resources – soup kitchens, senior centers, arts groups – that make up the fabric of civil society. These groups aren’t necessarily trying to solve problems in a way that makes replication and scaling a kind of moral imperative – if you’re solving this problem and it works, aren’t you obligated to try to solve it more and more places for more and more people? Instead, they make everyday life a little better for broad groups of people.

Every garden, every ecosystem, needs these kinds of plants, these kinds of organizations. But what happens when all the funders want to focus on what’s innovative, on an exotic new hybrid or breed? Who watches out for the health of the ecosystem as a whole? Who guards the gardener?* Or makes sure that the gardener exists?

*A spin on the classic question of political science, “who guards the guardian?”

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture (part 3)

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday: what kind of “diversity” are we looking for in foundations: perspective, experience, background?

I go back to the idea of inoculation: low doses of a pathogen to help you build up immunity. And immunity doesn’t necessarily mean, if I understand it correctly, that whenever the pathogen appears it’s destroyed, but rather, that its presence can be managed without danger to the host. So I think about this in terms of ideas or memes: what’s to be avoided is groupthink, and introducing low doses of ideas that are controversial to the group is a healthy form of preventative medicine, a kind of intellectual inoculation.

So if my little formula from yesterday is that part of an individual’s experience (what happened to them in the past) is how their background (where their past fits into larger social, demographic, political trends) shapes their perspective (the way they view the world, which is more mutable than experience or background), then it sounds like you want people with different perspectives, and you chances seem better of getting that when you have people with different backgrounds AND different experiences.

This doesn’t just have to be within the walls of the foundation, it makes sense to include perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds of grantee organizations, constituents, and other stakeholders. If we’re looking to avoid the perils of monoculture, a foundation should think about its full battery of intellectual immunizations. How do you make sure those are up to date, given the cast of characters (and their perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds) you currently work with? Do others need to be brought in the mix to give a booster shot?

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture (part 2)

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

I wrote previously about the perils of monoculture in agriculture and institutions: it’s dangerous to have only one type of crop or perspective/experience/background because you’re more susceptible to infections that target that crop or groupthink/faddishness.

But let’s unpack the institutional component of this: I mashed together perspective, experience, and background. What kind of monoculture are we looking to avoid?

  • Perspective? This is very personal. Each person has their own perspective or worldview, but these are shaped by broader ideologies out there in the public sphere, and by the types of things one reads and hears. In these days of Fox News and the Daily Show (information monocultures?), people’s perspectives are formed, I would speculate, in more predictable and homogeneous ways. That’s another way of saying there’s polarization. Perspective is changeable, it’s not immutable – it’s not entirely about the past.
  • Experience? This is about the past. It’s about what’s come before. Some of it is a choice, what you’ve chosen to experience, and some of it is what happened to you (you don’t choose where you grow up). There’s your experience growing up, and your work experience. It’s very personal, even more so than perspective because it can’t change. You can interpret it differently, but it’s of a different category than perspective, which is how you view the world now vs. what has happened to you in the past.
  • Background? Ah, the joys of euphemism. This is about where you come from, where your parents come from, where your parents come from, “originally.” It’s personal, it’s about the past, it’s less changeable than perspective – but it’s more structural than experience. Experience is about what happened to you as a person, background is where your experience fits into larger social, demographic, and political trends. Part of your experience is how your background shaped…wait for it…your perspective.

So what kind of monoculture do you want to avoid in an institutional context like philanthropy? What kind of “diversity” are we looking for: of perspective, of experience, of background? To be continued….

Agriculture and…healthcare?

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

I’ve been making my way through a pile of back issues of the New Yorker, and came across this interesting piece from Atul Gawande, their great medical writer, from last winter about the analogies between health care reform and agricultural reform a century ago.

Part of the reason OMB couldn’t estimate cost savings in the healthcare bill was that so much of it was made up of pilot programs, the expected savings of which it was very difficult to calculate.

While this might seem like a problem given the crippling effect of healthcare costs on the economy, Gawande argues that a pilot-heavy approach is actually good, because that’s in essence how agriculture was reformed in the early 20th century, through piecemeal “agricultural extension” (educating farmers about more efficient practices) efforts that gradually helped bring food prices down.

I’ve written about agriculture vs. engineering as metaphors for social change, so this analogy is fascinating to me. Here’s Gawande:

The history of American agriculture suggests that you can have transformation without a master plan, without knowing all the answers up front. Government has a crucial role to play here–not running the system but guiding it, by looking for the best strategies and practices and finding ways to get them adopted, county by county. Transforming health care everywhere starts with transforming it somewhere.

This is where local knowledge becomes important. Gawande has a nice vignette about the agricultural extension agent in his hometown of Athens, Ohio, and his quiet, patient efforts to help farmers by providing access to technical knowledge that can mean the difference between survival and insolvency. That person knows the terroir of Athens, in the sense of its folkways, climate, and culture, so he can adapt technical knowledge to local needs, and find a practical, short-term solution.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about “Connectors” within a network in The Tipping Point (HT Fast Company for the term). I wonder if people like Gawande’s agricultural extension agent aren’t another kind of node, an informational one that allow for the localization of general knowledge. (I think of the Spanish verb aterrizar, to come down to earth or to land.) Rather than propagating a trend virally, they stay in one place and bring the rest of the world to that place.

I’m reminded of what my charming, mustachioed Austrian poli sci professor Kurt Tauber once told me about Marx: his conception of a “rich man” is someone who has access to and can enjoy all forms of human creativity. (This tells me I’m not completely misremembering that idea.) What he didn’t say is, “while staying in one place,” but agricultural extension is kind of about that, bringing the world to your door and helping you get the most out of your local context.

So if agriculture is a metaphor for social change, agricultural extension may be a metaphor for the kind of learning that needs to happen to make social change possible. Agriculture suggests that you have to start by understanding the land on which you stand, as well as the seasons (which go beyond the moment you happen to be in) and what kinds of crops grow well under those conditions. Agricultural extension is about bringing scientific and technical knowledge to bear in a bottom-up fashion – to solve a specific problem you have (why aren’t my crops growing) rather than to answer a general question that you may or may not have (what makes X crops grow fastest?). The thing to notice is the role of the extension agent, the person whose job it is to know the climate and the people, and to have access to the right kinds of knowledge.

“I just try to help make farming better in Athens County,” says Gawande’s extension agent. Such a simple goal, so easy to state – and that involves so much….

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The second of my two questions is, “what would it mean to democratize philanthropy?” One of the topics this allows me to touch on is what’s usually labeled diversity. A few thoughts to start sketching out a path to explore on here:

Monocultures in agriculture and (?) epidemiology are bad: you want a diversity of plant species so if you have a blight in one of your crops, not everything is wiped out; and you want to be exposed to different kinds of germs so you build up a broad base of immunity and are less likely to be felled by the newest strain of cold or flu.

Monoculture of perspective or experience is similarly perilous. Groupthink, prejudice, tokenism, discrimination: all these can result in an ecosystem-of-people (whether an organization or a nation) where only one type of perspective or experience is present or validated.

Crop rotation and exposure to different kinds of germs are strategies for avoiding monocultures. Maybe there’s something to be learned from these practices in promoting diversity in institutional contexts, like philanthropy. Term limits on foundation boards and/or program officers may help ensure rotation of perspectives in the bodies that govern the organization and interact most directly with constituents. And substitute “memes” for “germs” in the first sentence in this paragraph, and the idea would be to provide regular, low-dose exposures to all different kinds of perspectives and experiences to inoculate the organization against the peril of falling for the newest fad (a constant danger in philanthropy).

But what might “perspective” and “experience” mean in this context? Are we talking about diversity of background? Identity? To be continued….

Agriculture as a metaphor for social change (part 2)

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

In a previous post, I wondered if agriculture might be a better metaphor for social change than engineering.

Amy Sample Ward has a nice piece in SSIR about gardening vs. landscaping as metaphors for building communities online. That’s an interesting alternative. The way she describes landscaping sounds akin to what I’m getting at with engineering, the idea that there’s a pre-determined schema that’s being implemented. And of course the term “social engineering” is one that’s used to express skepticism about trying to intentionally shape social outcomes (like, through government).

So, gardening, landscaping, and agriculture. Agriculture is gardening writ large, tied to a purpose beyond an individual family or community. It’s also a livelihood: people are professional landscapers or farmers, but gardening is usually a hobby. (Right?) Agriculture requires inputs and technology, and it’s connected to a supply chain. Hmm, starting to sound more like engineering. But there’s something inherently unpredictable that, while it’s present in engineering because complex systems have their own dynamics that we can’t always understand, sets agriculture apart. Also, the cyclical nature of the growing cycle and the idea of crop rotation and soil management I think are powerful metaphors for what it takes to cultivate (hey, guess where that word comes from) social change.

It’s funny, because agriculture isn’t really about change, it’s about constancy and regular renewal. Cyclical, not linear. Is agriculture an inherently conservative metaphor – not progressive because it goes around in a cycle rather than moving forward? Is agriculture a better metaphor for social continuity than social change?

And of course, there’s always the possibility that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But I suspect not.