Posts Tagged ‘common good’

All of the Feels (#FailEpic, part 3)

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Why is it so hard to foundations to talk about failure? In the last two posts, and the lively comments therein, we’ve seen a few reasons: lack of incentives, presence of disincentives, lack of context, lack of clarity about when failure has actually happened and who owns it.

There’s a dimension of these reasons on which I want to dig in further, because it’s one we’re not that well set up to deal with in the sector. This became clear to me when I sat in on a local convening of funders talking about how to identify high-impact opportunities. (Another trusted network.) The concept of risk came up, and risk aversion. We dug in on, “risk of what?” What are we afraid will happen? Here are some of the things that came up:

  • Embarrassment: you got something wrong, you made a mistake, you messed up, you did damage
  • Ignorance: looking like you don’t know everything, or enough, about a particular topic or idea or community
  • Damage to relationships: you’ve wasted someone’s time, you’ve let down your colleagues, you’ve made others question your judgment.

These are not the concerns of technocrats! This is emotional stuff, what Jan Jaffe is calling philanthropy’s “second discipline,” the relational and interpersonal skills program officers need to do the work well.

I daresay we are spectacularly ill-prepared in the social sector to talk about and deal with this stuff in any kind of systematic way. There are any number of great program officers who move through these issues sensitively, effectively, and with nuance. CEP highlighted several a few years back. But that’s, as CEP put it, “luck of the draw,” not something that we hire or train for systematically.

I’m reminded of my former colleague Anne Sherman, who talked about change management as an inherently emotional process. It’s the CEO’s job, Anne wrote, “to help staff and board cope with the emotional aspects of change—the painful aspects of the process that involve letting go of something in order to make room for something new.”

What a discussion of risk helps us see is that it’s not just at times of change that emotional dynamics need to be managed; it’s in how we deal with uncertainty on a day-to-day basis. So, what might this look like?

  • Part of it is self-management, and self-awareness. GrantCraft has a great guide to leveraging your whole self in your grantmaking role. Hiring for that kind of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is part of equipping foundation staff to deal with risk, and failure.
  • But it’s also about the social dynamics within the organization. Individual self-awareness isn’t enough; the practices of how people generate ideas, talk about them, and decide whether or not to implement them deserves attention. Who gets to talk during your staff meetings? (How often do you have staff meetings in the first place?) Is there a de facto division between program staff and other staff? Are program staff the only ones looked to for program-related ideas, or suggestions about what’s working or what could work better?
  • One element of social dynamics that often doesn’t get discussed in philanthropy, because we’re oh-so-polite, is the role of education and social class. Look around at your next staff meeting. Are only the people with graduate degrees talking? Do we overly value the perspectives of those who’ve gone through the slog of post-secondary education? And do the cultures of those institutions sharpen our vulnerability to failure, because we’re so used to high achievement and reward?
  • Another element of social dynamics that does get discussed, all too often in a superficial way, is diversity, equity, and inclusion. As you’ll hear me say if you spend more than ten minutes with me, diversity is a checklist exercise about who’s at the table; inclusion is about how we treat each other at the table and who gets heard; and equity is about what results from our deliberations at the table. It’s time to get beyond diversity and engage inclusion and equity. And to do so in a way that allows for our vulnerable, fragile, human selves to work through unfamiliarity and difference toward understanding and comity. As the new Canadian premier said yesterday while announcing his new cabinet, when asked why it was 50% women: “because it’s 2015.”

All of this connects back to the relationship between internal openness and external openness. Do you need to be more internally open to enable you to be more externally open? Or you can be a structured, hierarchical, fear-driven place that delivers great customer service? This is an empirical question, but a moment’s reflection about how the corporate sector operates suggests that the two aren’t necessarily related. You can have places that are run very traditionally but are great at listening to customers. But how sustainable is this approach? And is greater harmony between the internal and the external conducive to better relationships? Again, this is an empirical matter.

But I would suggest, based on a discussion with some colleagues brought together by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO – another trusted network), that there are multiple points of entry for engaging with openness. These can include strategy, branding, technology, processes, leadership succession, and even physical space. This morning, I visited the Foundation Center’s beautiful new location in the financial district of Manhattan, which has open-plan architecture – no one has offices. It seems like it sends an important signal to have Brad Smith, the president, sitting at a workstation among everyone else. Making a change to the space is fostering a discussion about how the organizational culture shifts to incorporate open-plan. For us at Ford, a major strategy shift is spurring us to think about organizational culture. For others, it’s about branding, or technology.

These multiple paths are a gift: they give us different ways to engage with internal openness, including a willingness to talk about failure. And I think that means that we don’t have to wait to feel like we’re entirely internally open before being willing to be externally open. Rather, we can identify what point of entry to greater openness is most available, whether internal or external, and follow the thread that it provides us. What lies ahead is sure to be a labyrinth, but in the tale of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur, in the end, the heroes emerge from the maze. That’s a feeling worth working towards.



#FailEpic, continued

Friday, August 7th, 2015

I appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it’s so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened – when do you know to throw in the towel? – and that it’s not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

I would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success – that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it – masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who’s doing the telling, and when.

I see two strands of conversation worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

One is to explore what it looks like to have candid conversations between funders and nonprofits about real issues of execution and responsibility (on all sides!) in a context beyond the one-on-one grant relationship. I come to this with an instinct that a more public version of such conversations would be salutary, but also deep wariness about doing it in a way that’s constructive instead of harmful.

  • Are there stages by which such conversations evolve? Do you need to start with self-reflection, then within your own organization, then within a trusted network of peers, then more publicly? That’s an awful lot of steps.
  • Perhaps the best starting place is not talking about failure within a particular grant relationship, but in the context of a topic of shared interest in which the participants don’t have a direct stake. One can imagine a study group dedicated to reviewing examples of initiatives that have failed, and seeking to generate and apply insight from them – with an audience of funders and nonprofits who aren’t part of that field. Might that be a less threatening way to get started?
  • Because trying to have a conversation within a field about what worked and what didn’t is incredibly difficult. I think about the “four pillars” strategy in the immigration reform movement, which national funders and nonprofits developed together after a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006-07. They analyzed why they lost and how they could overcome those disadvantages, and then moved resources and effort toward filling those gaps. What makes cases like that possible? Where else does this happen?

The other strand of conversation worth pursuing is to ask what it looks like within an organization, and specifically a foundation, to be open to acknowledging, learning from, and acting on failure. What values and motivations need to be in place? Who are the change agents and culture bearers? How do incentives need to change? Are there particular structures or systems that make it easier to learn from and act on failure? What do a higher risk tolerance and a culture of inquiry look like in practice? I feel like we know a lot about this in the field, but the threads of conversation aren’t necessarily organized.

  • Part of the challenge is, who owns failure within the institution? In other words, who’s responsible for identifying it, naming it, lifting it up, creating a safe space in which to discuss it, making sure meaning is derived, and then following through on application of that insight? Those responsibilities fall across a number of function – evaluation, HR, programs, senior leadership, board. What role should be the steward or the shepherd ensuring that those functions are integrated in pursuit of mining improvement from failure, and what resources or tools does that person or team need?

Thanks again to all have engaged on this topic, and to the organizations that have begun hosting conversations among funders about being more open about failure. Do the strands of conversation I suggest above seem relevant, and worth pursuing? What kinds of spaces could we create for more authentic funder-nonprofit dialogue? And how can we get clearer about the organizational culture needed to support openness about failure?

Eternal Recurrence

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Why does organized philanthropy need infrastructure organizations?

For me, the simplest explanation is structural. There are upwards of 100,000 foundations in the U.S. The vast majority of these are small and unstaffed. One of the largest infrastructure organizations by membership is Exponent Philanthropy, what used to be called the Association of Small Foundations. I only bring up their former name to indicate their membership base – it has a median staff size of two. That’s likely an executive director and an admin person.

So what you have are a relatively small cluster of foundations with staffs, and then a somewhat larger cluster of foundations with minimal staffs, and then a long tail of foundations with no staffs at all.

Focusing on the first two clusters, I’m going to hazard an educated guess that there are between 12,000 and 15,000 foundation staff in the U.S. I looked into this trying to find a more solid number, and the best estimate I could track down is in the Council on Foundations’ Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report. The 2014 version ($) includes data on 9,476 full-time foundation employees from 964 foundations whose annual giving totaled $13 billion in 2013. This amount represents roughly a quarter of all foundation giving that year, so I assume that these foundations represent a significant part of the first cluster and a decent-sized part of the second cluster. The median staff size of the sample is 5 full-time staff. If Exponent’s membership of around 2,200, which has a median staff size of 2, represents a good chunk of the second cluster, then I think it’s fair to say that somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 foundation staff is the right number. The number of program staff, folks responsible for doing the bulk of grantmaking, is much smaller. In the CoF sample, there were 1,069 reported full-time program officers within the sample of 964 foundations (not all of whom reported having program officers or specified the number of them – and program officers aren’t the only position that make grants). So the effective number of grantmakers is almost surely less than 10,000.

Where do those people learn how to do their jobs? Philanthropy is not a profession like the law or medicine – there’s not a standard curriculum, specialized schools (apart from a small handful at this point, but they’re not designed to function like a law school does), certification processes, or industry standards (with specialized exceptions like the National Standards for Community Foundations). We have one peer-reviewed journal (The Foundation Review, which, full disclosure, I had a piece published in it earlier this year), and several professional conferences.

What we don’t have is a standard path for entering the field, or a standard procedure by which to learn how to be good at it. There are resources like Essential Skills & Strategies for New Grantmakers (in which I’ve taught in the past) and the Grantmaking School, but these are voluntary and not at scale. I’m not opining what we should or should not have at this point, just observing the structure of our field.

So, take these two realities – a not-that-large population of grantmakers spread across many different institutions without a lot of concentration in any one institution (apart from a relatively small set of exceptions); and a field that is not set up as a profession with a standardized mode of learning – and what do you get? A field of people hungry for connection who can’t get what they need inside their own institutions. That’s why there are infrastructure organizations – because where else are grantmakers going to learn from their peers, identify and learn to apply best practices, get advice and mentorship, find a career path, hone their leadership skills, collaborate for greater impact, get in touch with trends and issues, and cultivate a collective voice on issues of the day? Our field is not set up to afford most grantmakers the resources to do that within their own organizations. So they have to look outside, and that’s where infrastructure groups come in.

There’s a whole separate set of questions about the ecosystem of infrastructure organizations – number, function, balance, health, etc. But to engage that conversation, I think it’s useful to start with an understanding of why there’s a need for them in the first place. And from what I can tell, that need is, at a minimum, structural.

What do you think? I’m essentially saying that there will always need to be infrastructure organizations as long as the field is structured this way, but is that a fair assumption? Are there other ways to provide the connection, learning, and networks that infrastructure groups offer? Do we need to think differently about the highly decentralized nature of foundations? Do we need to think differently about establishing a more structured pipeline? What am I not taking into account?

Thanks, and Happy July 4th!

Fix the Police

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

My shtick is usually to do song titles as blog post titles, but tonight, I have to change it up a bit. But just a bit.

Ugh, Ferguson. So, my dissertation was about the military, the police, and politicians – particularly state and local politicians. Governor Jay Nixon, meet the police chief of Ferguson. There, we have the militarization of the police that has gotten out of the control of politicians. I looked at the inverse, when the politicization of the police gets out of the control of the military, which is the structure that most folks assume about Latin America, the region on which I focused.

I don’t know that I have a lot to say about how to reverse the militarization of the police, just that it’s likely to take a long time, as I’ve seen pointed out online today. It’s helpful to think in terms of organizational incentives. My Berkeley classmate Maiah Jaskoski looked at this in Peru and Ecuador, what else the military does when it doesn’t have external defense to focus on.

A brief anecdote to illustrate. I was in Colombia visiting family over Easter week. We were a few hours outside Bogota in a vacation area, driving between town and the house where we were staying. We passed a military checkpoint along the way, where nothing much was happening other than keeping some uniformed dudes busy in the sweltering heat. I asked my cousin’s husband, who’s a recently retired senior officer in the national police, why the military was running a highway checkpoint. “You see, they’re worried for their jobs. The peace process [with the guerrillas] looks like it might actually stick this time, and then what will they do?” The military has been fighting the internal terrorist threat for many years, and since the late 1950s, the national police have been the “fourth force” within the armed forces. But what does the army do when its decades-long internal enemy surrenders? My cousin was suggesting that the army needed something besides fighting to justify their continued elevated budget after the conflict would in principle be over.

With the militarization of local police departments, we see something analogous, where military-grade SWAT gear get passed on to units in towns and cities like Ferguson. One of the most impressive social-media responses has been Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tweeting that the pictures show police in a small city having better gear than the U.S. military invading Iraq eleven years go. As we’re seeing, and has been emerging under the radar until it came chillingly to light this week, the militarization of the police is a very dangerous development.

Here’s why, beyond the obvious. You have to pay attention to the professionalization of the security forces. How is their mission defined, and what are the principles on which their training is based? In early- and mid-20th-century Colombia, you had a situation where the army had professionalized, but didn’t have overwhelming force relative to the police. And you had a highly unprofessional police yoked to the whims of local and state politicians – but that wouldn’t automatically get whupped in a fight with the army. So when partisan politics turned deadly in the 40s and 50s, what you saw was police defecting unpredictably to join the rebels, and the army not able to simply quash them. So you got recurrent local-level insurrection that didn’t aggregate up into revolution, as it did in Mexico. Politicians and their enemies had local tools to fight local problems, and that’s why the conflict stayed local.

In Ferguson, we see local conflict that’s extremely, EXTREMELY one-sided, and that is not rebels vs. the government, but the government vs. unarmed people living their lives. But there’s a terrible combination of unprofessional (I don’t mean that they’re not trained, I mean that they’re not clear that their mission is to protect and serve, rather than search and destroy – H/T Talking Points Memo, I believe) and wildly over-resourced police. This is a recipe for disaster. Here, we’re not talking about the police vs. the army, but the police vs. a part of the population. And the disconnect in power, as well as a willingness to respond disproportionately, is just stunning.

So here’s what I come back to, because this is a blog about philanthropy and democracy. Community foundations have a role to play here. They are civic leaders, or they should be, and these are civic issues about how public resources are used to actually promote public safety and community welfare, which can’t happen when a significant proportion of the population is systematically profiled and demonized. I really like the approach that Perry & Mazany and Albert Ruesga take in Here for Good, talking about community foundations as “borderlands institutions” that have to embody “agonistic pluralism.” This basically means that the typical tension between the more conservative proclivities of many donors and the more progressive inclinations of grantees and staff is not a problem but actually a strength. Because as Congress demonstrates, there are precious few places where people can disagree civilly these days across partisan lines. And community foundations can and should hold that tension productively.

I think of that holding as “advancing difficult dialogues in the community,” and at work, I talk about it as one of the non-grantmaking roles that funders can play. Well, here’s a chance. “How does our community promote public safety in a just and real way – not based on uninformed, unexamined prejudices, and in a way that keeps us all safe, and does not sacrifice the public lives of some for the perceived comfort of others?” Civilian oversight of the military is one of the key innovations that has finally let Latin America emerge from a long shadow of military dictatorships. It’s sad that we have to think in terms of increasing civilian oversight of the police, but that’s what it’s come to.

How can community foundations and other place-based funders advance difficult dialogues about the proper role of the police and other law enforcement officers in promoting peace with justice?

Double Vision

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Short and sweet this time: I heard a great description of what I think is an essential skill in philanthropy, the ability to have focus but not be rigid about it.

The firm for which I work is bidding on a project with a group of community foundations, and one of the people involved was on a podcast about philanthropy, so I took a listen. He reflected on his experience as a community foundation leader, saying “you have to be single-minded, but also open-minded,” or words to that effect.

That strikes me as just right: I think the art of “strategic philanthropy” is to take your time figuring out a problem that is at the intersection of what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and where the need is, and where a focused intervention can really make a difference. I keep thinking about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work on juvenile justice, from hearing CEO Patrick McCarthy speak about it at a conference. They saw that it really makes a difference in the juvenile justice system where kids end up on their first sentencing: if they go right to prison, their outcomes are much worse than if they’re put in a community-based setting. But the more extreme response is more common than it should be. So the foundation has focused on helping to create conditions where that sentencing decision goes the other way. They’re single-minded about making that change, because they believe in the potential upside.

But then, once you’ve found that focus, you should be open to good ideas, wherever they might come from. And such good ideas include having those directly impacted play a leading role, including in decision-making, on how resources should be allocated in pursuit of that goal. Work across sectors, empower nonprofit leaders and those directly affected to speak and lead, look for insight from throughout your own organization, draw on the experiences of your funders – once you’ve figured out what to be single-minded about, you can be gloriously open-minded about everything else.

It’s not easy to get there, because not that many problems may fit those criteria of mission, need, capacity, and ripeness, but when you find them, go all in.

Baby Come Back

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

It’s been a while, but I’m back at it with the blogging.

It’s interesting to see the backlash against “strategic philanthropy” continuing to gain force. Bill Schambra’s latest continues a theme he’s hammered for a while, but when the likes of FSG (disclosure: a competitor of the firm for which I work) begin to moderate their approach, you know something is up.

Part of this has to do with an absolutism about data, which cuts both ways. Either you have to be driven entirely by metrics, or they’re the devil. If metrics don’t work, throw ’em overboard.

But what’s most interesting, and difficult, is decision-making in conditions of uncertainty. Which is, you know, the human condition.

This is particularly important when you put data in their proper social context. As I’ve continually railed, the concept of “moving the needle” in philanthropy is inherently problematic. The scale of changes philanthropy can foster, particularly in a social-service context, just aren’t big enough – there aren’t enough people affected – to actually change social indicators. The scale is off. Maybe I’m just being too literal, but it seems like the phrase should actually mean something….

To that point, economist Justin Wolfers has a fascinating account of how difficult it is to draw meaningful conclusions even under the best quasi-experimental conditions, allegedly the gold standard of social analysis.

To wit, North Carolina stopped extending unemployment benefits as of this past January, while surrounding states with broadly similar economies and cultural backgrounds continued them. Conservatives argued that stopping benefits would incentivize the unemployed to try harder to find a job, lowering unemployment rates. Progressives argued that those denied benefits would spend less money, exerting a negative influence on the economy.

When Wolfers crunches the numbers, thoughtfully and in accord with good standards, the answer is…we can’t tell. There are changes in both expected directions, but they’re not significantly different than changes in neighboring states. We can’t tell what difference the reform made, and who’s right.

If we’re hoping data will give us greater certainty, there’s a good chance they won’t. And we’ll need to go back to good old values to decide whether or not to do certain things. Now, there are values that are out of touch with lived reality on the ground. For my money, those aren’t worth much cottoning to. So I’m not saying we abandon evidence. But let’s be clear that the data aren’t necessarily going to give us the anchor we thought they could. A degree of faith may be required that longer-term outcomes will ultimately result. Or we may want to value process outcomes more, like improving people’s dignity or promoting learning among relevant actors.

Intentionality in philanthropy is critical, but let’s be honest about what we can and can’t be certain about, and be all right with less certainty than an overly predictive view of metrics might suggest….

Discount Double Check

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

One of the central issues in philanthropy is time horizons. Do you exist in perpetuity? Are you spending down within the donor’s lifetime? Are you looking to bring the next generation into governance? When can you expect to see impact?

Private funders have a tremendous luxury in the ability to set their own time horizons. If they want to exist in perpertuity, the law allows them to pay out 5% of assets per year, and with sound investment policy, they can keep ahead of inflation for a long, long time, and not have to touch the principal. If they want to spend down within the founding donor’s lifetime, as Chuck Feeney of the Atlantic Philanthropies has elected to do, or within fifty years of the death of the last founding trustee, as the Gates Foundation will do, there’s nothing stopping them.

Compare their reality to that of other endeavors:

  • Publicly traded companies: Quarterly earnings reports drive the stock prize and the value of compensation. Analysts will punish you for failing to make predictions. (Almost makes you not want to publish your theory of change if you’re a foundation – why be seen as making a prediction?)
  • Elected officials: Members of the House of Representatives are elected for two-year terms. As soon as they’re elected, they have to start campaigning again. Maybe this was designed to keep you accountable to the people, but nowadays, it means you’re accountable to donors and fundraising events.
  • Pop stars: One album doesn’t sell – hmm, have they lost it? Two albums don’t sell – bye-bye record deal, enjoy the nostalgia circuit.
  • Sports coaches: The Monday after the final regular-season NFL game, the coaching carousel begins to turn. The Cleveland Browns have had three head coaches in three seasons.

It’s really only tenured college professors who have at all comparable time horizons to private funders.

So how should private funders handle this power?

There are worse places to start than gauging δ.

What’s that, you say?

I said, δ.

Is that a backwards six?

No, it’s a lowercase delta, the Greek character. You may recognize its upper-case sibling, Δ, the symbol for change.

Lower-case delta, δ, is the symbol for the discount rate, your personal algorithm or set of assumptions for how you value future payoffs relative to present ones. “This ice cream tastes good. If I have another few spoonfuls, I’ll enjoy them, but man, my stomach will hurt in 20 minutes. So I can have yummy ice cream now, or sleep better later.” If I have a low discount rate, the value of future payoffs goes up, and I get a good night’s sleep. If I have a high discount rate…well, at least I can blog at 1:15 in the morning.

So, low δ = high patience.

High δ = politicians, public-company CEOs, sports coaches, pop stars: give me success now, whatever the cost.

Now, what happens when you have high δ people running a low δ institution? This is one of the problems with governance in philanthropy. We look to experts who thrive in high δ environments and ask them to downshift to a low δ mindset, without necessarily the tools for making that shift and checking their own instincts.

The good news is that in economics at least, δ boils down to preferences. And preferences can change. The art of governance in philanthropy may be tapping into the power of low δ thinking. I’m curious how much being a family board affects this. The presence of children is a classic way to lower δ – “think of what they’ll inherit.”

How do you see δ play out in the foundations with which you work? How do they value future payoffs relative to present results, particularly with regard to funding decisions?

Phantom of the Paradise

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Picking back up on the “Redefining Capitalism” article from the latest issue of Democracy. In a prior post, I wrote:

The role of foundations as labs for innovation…The redefining-capitalism lens suggests that this function is essential to philanthropy’s role in the capitalist system. By focusing on specific problems and promoting creative solutions to them, foundations play their part in helping capitalism function more effectively. Which depending on your point of view, may not necessarily be a good thing. But this redefining perspective certainly makes it sound more palatable.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about phantom needs that fuel the economy. Go into any Duane Reade drugstore (that’s what Walgreens is called here in NYC), and all along the aisles and in front of every checkout counter are little products someone came up with to entice people to part with their money: USB dongles that go in a car’s cigarette lighter, another kind of candy bar, light vanilla soy milk. What if you walked into a Duane Reade, or a grocery store, and the only things on the shelves were things you actually buy or have ever bought? How bare would those shelves be? Now layer on the version of that image for each person who walks in on a given day. How empty would the shelves be? What proportion of products never get bought by more than two or three people in a given week, or month? Yeah, you’d think those products would disappear from the shelves, and I’m sure the data analytics at Duane Reade are pretty decent to enable them to do so – but maybe some items are a package deal from manufacturers: want to sell Doritos, which you know people want? You gotta stock Funyuns, which no one wants, but we’re going to try to push anyway.

Funyuns are a phantom need. If they didn’t exist…meh. Would the world be any different? Would anyone’s well-being really be diminished? (Don’t touch my Munchies mix, though, those are vital to national security and the general welfare.)

And yet we’re told that what the economy needs is more businesses, more ideas, more people making…stuff. Like USB dongles and Funyuns. Those are invented needs. Which are EVERYWHERE. They fuel our economy: stuff we don’t need, and just barely want. But you know, just seem, maybe useful, once. I’m thinking ahead to spring cleaning, and looking at how many clothes I haven’t worn even once in the past year. Closet full of phantom needs.

This may ultimately be the value of the social sector: we focus on real needs, not phantom needs. The problems we focus on are hopefully ones that are genuinely worth solving. If that’s helping capitalism function more effectively (doing the right things) as opposed to just more efficiently (doing things right), then maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Until you stop to think about the problems that capitalism creates, especially in the pursuit of phantom needs.

There are some problems that are just problems of resource extraction – fuel pollutes. Those are real needs, however bogus the solutions (“clean coal”). Those negative externalities should be internalized, and taken into account when making planning decisions.

But problems caused by the fulfillment of phantom needs, like the giant plastic island in the Pacific from plastic shopping bags? (Which, it turns out, isn’t an island, but is still bad news.) As the guys on ESPN would say, “c’mon, man!”

So, new rule: to judge the value of a solution, you have to weigh both the problems its solves as well as the problems it creates. And if the needs the solution solves are phantom needs, well, that’s just a problem in itself.

How good are nonprofits at defining and solving real needs and not phantom needs? How good are foundations?

99 Problems

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

…but foreign aid ain’t one?

I’m wondering whether we’re too problem-oriented in philanthropy. Are we so focused on figuring out things that need to be fixed about the world that we have a hard time seeing the way that things have improved?

Bill Gates published his annual letter about the Gates Foundation’s work this week, and it focused on countering “3 myths about foreign aid.” The crux of his argument is that within his lifetime (he was born in 1955), billions of people worldwide have been elevated from extreme poverty, and that in a bit more than 20 years (2035), he expects that there will be “almost no poor countries” in the world – meaning, almost no country will be as poor as the 35 countries classified as low-income today, after adjusting for inflation.

Put this alongside the recent news that India has all but eradicated polio, and it’s important to remember – things are actually getting better for huge numbers of people across the world. Gates also cites the rise of middle-income countries like China, India, and Brazil, which contain huge portions of the global population. Their economic development, while unequally distributed, has led to a notable decrease in human misery. There are still more than a billion people in extreme poverty, “so it’s not time to celebrate.” But it is time to recognize, Gates argues, that a lot of aid has worked.

The value and effectiveness of foreign aid is a whole other topic of discussion. But I’m struck by the notion that problem-oriented philanthropy may at least partly blind us to the progress that has been made in addressing problems. It’s like we get so focused on our particular problem, our theory of change, that we forget to look up and see that some pretty major collective problems have actually gotten better. No one needs to give up on problem solving anytime soon (though I’ll be glad when there are no longer any Indian doctors who have a memory of treating a polio case), but a virtual high-five to those who’ve made real progress, even if not in our field, is a good idea.

What sign of progress NOT in your own area of focus are you most excited about? Bonus points if it affects people nothing like you and whom you’ll never meet.

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 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 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.