Posts Tagged ‘campaigns’

Chain Chain Chain

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

While on vacation last month (go to Colombia, it’s fabulous), I finished reading Teju Cole’s Open City. Well worth the read. I especially enjoyed it because the narrator lives near my neighborhood in northern Manhattan and spends much of his time walking around the city; I liked being able to picture his itinerary. I found Cole very thoughtful and attentive to the variety of immigrant experiences in the city. Like his protagonist, Cole was raised in Nigeria and came to the U.S. in the early 90s. So I was interested to see that he’s had some provocative things to say (yes, on Twitter) about the #bringourgirlsback campaign.

#BringBackOurGirls, but to where? In Gamboru Ngala, 3 1/2 hours away from Chibok, 336 people were killed last night.

Much as we might wish this to be a single issue with a clear solution, it isn’t, and it cannot be. It never was.

Boko Haram killed more human beings yesterday than the total number of girls they kidnapped three weeks ago. Horrifying, and unhashtagable.

For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.

Do good work, support good work, find whatever in the inferno is not infernal, but do it from a place of understanding, that is all.

Remember: #bringbackourgirls, a vital moment for Nigerian democracy, is not the same as #bringbackourgirls, a wave of global sentimentality.

This got me thinking about a favorite topic, the nature of causal thinking in philanthropy. A lot of what I do is help funders think through their assumptions about how the work they do (their strategies) is actually expected to result in the changes they hope to see in the world (their outcomes). How realistic are those assumptions? How grounded are they in an understanding of the environment in which you’re operating, and in your own capacity to do the work?

A favorite tool for doing this work is the “pathway to impact,” a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked logically. Marvelous word, that last one. It imparts objectivity, but as I think about it and I experience this work, it should probably be replaced with “empirically.” A pathway to impact is a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked empirically – that there’s some evidence that it’s reasonable to expect on thing to lead to another. Improving curricula for teacher education leads to better trained teachers leads to more effective classroom instruction leads to better educational outcomes for kids. Better understanding of the needs of low-wage workers leads to more tailored employment training programs leads to improved skills leads to greater ability to access jobs leads to greater likelihood of applying for a job leads to greater likelihood of getting one…to keeping one…to improving family income sustainably. And so on, for whatever issue you’re working on.

What I see Teju Cole saying is that our assumptions about how hashtagging “bringbackourgirls” will help, you know, bring them back, are fuzzy and based somewhat on wishful thinking. Other commentators go further and say that this social media campaigning is actually harming Nigeria in the long run, because the most direct thing it can lead to is justifying U.S. military intervention. This tweet is pretty eerie in that light:

@JohnKerry: On behalf of #POTUS spoke w/ #Nigeria’s Pres GJ earlier. US will send security team to help #BringBackOurGirls safely

So one thing to do in these cases is to ask, what are the most likely direct results of what I’m doing here? Whose cause will I help by doing this? There are likely to be multiple answers. But it’s useful to weigh them in the balance. Helps draw attention in the West to a part of the world experiencing issues that should get more attention. Cool. Builds North-South solidarity and causes people to identify with others very distant from themselves geographically, culturally, and economically. Awesomesauce. Helps justify intervention by US forces that can have negative side effects. Jeepers.

Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage in this way. But play out the chain, imagine the pathway(s)…which probably means learning more about circumstances on the ground. And that can never be a bad thing.

Is #bringbackourgirls the new #kony2012? Or does it represent a genuine advance over that experience? (I remember that one of the things I liked about the video was that they did a really good job of laying out a pathway to impact…but it turned out to be wrong, or incomplete, or misguided – perhaps. A topic for another time, maybe.) What do you think?

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We’ve Only Just Begun

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

I’ve been writing about collective action in philanthropy. But what happens when it ends?

Health Care for American Now (HCAN) is the entity set up to manage key elements of the campaign to pass the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Atlantic Philanthropies, among others, made heavy investments of time, talent, and treasure, in helping HCAN achieve its goals. And achieve them it did – against long odds, the ACA was passed. And then a couple of years passed while bureaucrats talked about what the rollout would look like.

Then came October 1, 2013. And all of a sudden, Obamacare was a mess. The initial rollout of healthcare.gov was a complete disaster, and even now, the site is plagued by myriad problems. As I’ve written before, it’s important to remember that part of the reason so many people hate the government so much is not primarily ideology or having the wool pooled over their eyes, but the low quality of their day-to-day interaction with government services, whether the IRS or the DMV. The fiasco of healthcare.gov was this grievance on an epic scale.

In the midst of the recovery from the bungled initial rollout, HCAN has, according to its plans, shut its doors, as of December 31, 2013. “It may seem a funny time,” writes former national campaign manager Richard Kirsch, :with the current fracas over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but that is the point. The organization’s campaign mission was to win passage of a law, a mission extended to include ‘win and secure’ the ACA.” But wait! What about implementation?

There’s a lesson here for philanthropy: It’s not enough to get the policy passed. It has to be implemented well for the change to truly stick. Where’s the coalition for effective implementation of healthcare reform? HCAN did its work superbly well, and is to be commended. But where was the planning for the implementation phase?

We have the opportunity to learn from this experience. If comprehensive immigration reform happens this year, it won’t be enough. There have to be plans in place for effective implementation. The 11 million people who could be on a path to citizenship, like the tens of millions potentially covered under the ACA, deserve no less. Lift your sights up higher, funders, and see the true horizon.

Partisan

Thursday, 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.

System of a Down

Thursday, 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”?

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?

Fountain and Fairfax

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

One of my favorite parts of working at Hispanics in Philanthropy back in the day was serving as the HIP representative to the Joint Affinity Groups – the associations of grantmakers organized by population, generally personal identity. Them what experienced oppression, basically. We each had our own agenda, but we had a joint agenda. The promise of JAG was that we would own each other’s agenda – when Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues advocated with the Council on Foundations that their demographic surveys should include sexual orientation, the rest of us would have their back. Your issues are my issues.

This made so much intuitive sense to me – we’re stronger together, and I have people speaking out on my behalf when I’m not even there to speak for myself. What could be better?

Years later, I learned to call this “intersectionality.” I guess it technically means the intersections among multiple forms of oppression, but I’ve always thought of it as the intersection of multiple identities and the power and possibility that brings. And I’ve always enjoyed the thought that intersectionality is a way of life for younger generations – young undocuqueer activists like my cousin Juan and his husband Felipe live intersectionality every day, and use it as a base from which to fight.

Which means this week, of all weeks, I’m particularly attentive to who acts on intersectionality when some folks have had huge wins this week and others have had huge setbacks. The affirmative action non-decision, the Voting Rights Act defeat, the DOMA and Prop 8 victories, the Wendy Davis filibuster, and today, comprehensive immigration reform gathering 68 votes in the Senate – whew, as a politics junkie, I’m overwhelmed.

This week, of all weeks, is the time to live intersectionality, and to celebrate wistfully, to mourn with some joy in your heart, and above all, to resolve to keep fighting for justice and equality.

Kudos to Black Girl Dangerous for holding our feet to the fire. Check out her post on “DOMA, the VRA and The Perfect Opportunity“. Couldn’t say it any better. This is the chance to show your values, to show that you mean intersectionality.

And philanthropy? You’ve got no excuse not to be intersectional. Ask it of yourself, ask it of your grantees, ask it of your partners? How are you seeing the intersections of the issues you support, who’s living at the intersection of the issues you care about, and what can you learn from each other? I say “learn from each other”, not “learn from them”, keeping in mind a great quotation I saw on Facebook today, originally from aboriginal activist Lilla Watson:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Indeed. My schtick on this blog is to have the post titles be song titles. “Fountain and Fairfax” is by the Afghan Whigs, one of my favorite bands from the early 90s. It’s shambolic indie rock sung by a white guy with a sandpaper throat who thinks he’s a soul singer from the 60s. Like many of their songs, “F and F” is about a drunk/junkie trying to make good. “Angel, I’m sober / I got off that stuff / Just like you asked me to.” The addict makes promises, over and over, and keeps breaking them. Time and again, he has a chance to start again and misses it. But not this time.

“I’ll be waiting for you / At Fountain and Fairfax”

Time to show up.

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #3

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

(Part of a continuing series)

#3: “We can move the needle.”

I help foundations develop theories of change – being clear about how what they do makes a difference in the world. What I try to remind them of, and I need to get better at doing this, is what can you really do as a funder with a $6 million – or even $60 million annual grantmaking budget?

  • You work in education? The annual budget of the Fargo, North Dakota school district was $124 million in 2011-12.
  • You work in health? The Biloxi Regional Medical Center paid more than $48 million in wages and benefits in 2011.
  • You work on the environment? ExxonMobil spent $12.9 million on lobbying in 2013.

So what are we talking about here?

Let’s say you want to improve the unemployment rate in the Cincinnati metro area. To move it even one-tenth of a percent, you’d have to help 1,000 people find jobs in a month, which is how often the “needle” is measured.

What is this needle, how are we moving it, and how do we know it stays moved? You have to adjust unemployment statistics for seasonal trends – a lot of people get temporary retail jobs around the holidays, more farmhands are hired at harvest time, kids in school get summer jobs. The change you achieve may get swamped.

So unless you’re changing the rules by which a system operates – which takes gaining political power, mobilizing a base to demand for change, or developing an alternative philosophy and doing the hard, generation-long work of making it the new status go – your signal is likely to get drowned out by a lot of noise.

Or you can go really specific and really small. A neighborhood? That you might be able to change? A city? Come on now.

Our theories of change need to be about movements, about narratives, about systems, if we’re going to live up to the ambition that so many foundation staffs and boards rightly entertain.

Why would you want to move a needle anyway? Better to move the whole haystack.

Dream a Little DREAM

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

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.

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!

Fundraising and campaigning (part 5)

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

I’ve been looking at the analogies between nonprofit fundraising and political campaigning, and asked previously if nonprofits are the House of Representatives of the social sector while foundations are the Senate – patrician, not proportionally representative, lots of tradition, have to be rich to get in.

One of the reasons I made this distinction is that Congresspeople have to campaign all the time because they’re elected every two years vs. six in the Senate. Shows you what I know: Senators are constantly dialing for dollars too. This George Packer article in the New Yorker is worth the read, a behind-the-scenes look at the dysfunction of the Senate. As much as the rules of filibuster and cloture and other made-up-sounding words drive people up a tree, Packer concludes that it’s not the rules and procedures that screw up the Senate, “it’s the human beings” in it. Food for thought in looking at the foundation sector, with its payout levels and admin ratios and other made-up-sounding phrases.

Apparently a few visionary Senators in the sixties and seventies were able to band together and actually get things done: Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, etc. Then a new crop of hardliners dragged the institution back down again. In the current political climate, it’s hard to recall what a big deal the two legislative achievements of the year, health-care reform and financial reform, really are. But Packer sees them as a brief interregnum: “Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.”

A few thoughts:

  • I wonder to what extent the Senate’s period of productivity corresponds with mainstream philanthropy’s (Green Revolution, etc.).
  • To what extent did the Establishments in both places overlap and move back and forth?
  • Is there an analog to this more recent spate of Senatorial productivity in philanthropy? Is there a crop of reformers in foundations who can help the sector achieve some big wins?