Posts Tagged ‘conflict/dispute resolution’

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….

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?

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.

A Matter of Trust

Thursday, 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

Thursday, 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….

Jealous Guy

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

“I didn’t mean to hurt you / I’m sorry that I made you cry / I didn’t want to hurt you / I’m just a jealous guy”

I wonder if implicit bias is the progressive version of unintended consequences.

A truly powerful idea that’s associated with conservative thought but has become widely accepted is “unintended consequences.” You try to alleviate poverty by providing a village with a better paved road, and the town becomes attractive as a route for drug smugglers to use in transportation, bringing violence to the town. You create certification processes for businesses so that consumers are protected, and business is disincentivized because the red tape becomes unmanageable.

For foundations, you provide grants in your focus area, and nonprofits that are desperate or don’t know any better modify their missions to go along with what you fund. You try to be clearer in your grant guidelines, and nonprofits hew ever more closely to what you say.

Unintended consequences are usually marshaled as an argument against government intervention, which makes them a popular resource of conservatives. But the reality of their existence means progressives are aware of and care about them as well, even if they don’t like some of the thinking behind them. They’re a hard-to-deny reality that undermines a central tenet of progressive thought, the value of intentional collective/government action in pursuit of greater social welfare.

I wonder if implicit bias is the progressive version of unintended consequences – a hard-to-deny reality that undermines a central tenet of conservative thought, that, as Chief Justice Roberts put it in a recent decision on affirmative action, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of by race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” If despite our conscious efforts, our unconscious minds betray us, Roberts’ notion is not enough.

Implicit bias is the idea that even if you don’t consciously hold racist beliefs, even if you would reject them with your conscious mind, you have still learned patterns of thought and behavior that encode biased and racially invidious beliefs.

Studies have been done looking at the way recruiters handle job applications differently based on something as superficial as people’s names (example, see page 4).

For foundations, implicit bias can affect the way that leaders of nonprofits are seen as legitimate or not, authoritative or not, trustworthy or not. There’s a gender dimension as well, as the study linked to previously points out as well.

My question is whether the moment for implicit bias to emerge as the counterpoint to unintended consequences has come. The beliefs that George Zimmerman had about Trayvon Martin based on the limited visual information he initially received – some were explicit (“they always get away”) and some were no doubt implicit. “Suspicious-looking” – so much is encoded in this slippery phrase.

We live in the era of the algorithm – they calculate what to recommend on Amazon or Netflix, what ads we see on Facebook, what search results we get on Google. We all walk around with implicit algorithms about race and propriety and danger. George Zimmerman’s came to light, tragically, fatally. How long before it becomes abundantly clear to all that implicit bias is real?

In the meantime, foundation folks who review and approve grant applications would do well to ask themselves about potential sources of implicit bias, and investigate means to mitigate them. Because it would be a tragic unintended consequence to allow implicit bias to undermine the laudable goals of philanthropy.

Does Anybody Really Know what Time it Is?

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Which is the title of a classic song from the band Chicago. I’m just back from there, having spent several days at the Council on Foundations conference. I tweeted up a storm, met some great people, and wrote a couple of posts for the conference blog:

Welcome to the (Global) Accountability Class
About self-motivated accountability in philanthropy

Learning: The “Third Heat” of Impact Investing—and All Grantmaking?
About the idea of a “learning return” in impact investing, and how it may apply to all of grantmaking

Voice in My Throat

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

The song from which the title of this post, by the adorable Pearl and the Beard, is really worth checking out.

Ezra Klein had a provocative piece in the New Yorker last month about “the powerless presidential bully pulpit.” We think of the President’s main power as that of persuasion. But political scientists have found that having a President speak out on an issue may actually make it less possible for them to get legislation across on that issue, because having a President, associated with one party, take a stand means that the opposition consolidates along party lines – a Republican can’t support Obama’s stated policy preference because that cedes ground to Democrats – even if the individual Republican happens to agree with Obama on that position.

[Political scientist George] Edwards’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion isn’t effective with the public. [Political scientist Frances] Lee’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress. And, because our system of government usually requires at least some members of the opposition to work with the President if anything is to get done, that suggests that the President’s attempts at persuasion might have the perverse effect of making it harder for him to govern.

Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, takes Lee’s thesis even further. “The more high-profile the communication effort, the less likely it is to succeed,” he says. “In education reform, I think Obama has done brilliantly, largely because it’s out of the press. But on higher-profile things, like deficit reduction, he’s had a much tougher time.”

[I reversed the order of these paragraphs from the original article to make them make more sense out of context.]

The song from which the title of this post, by the adorable Pearl and the Beard, is really worth checking out. This is troubling enough on a political level. But what if this finding is more general? What if any use – or even most uses – of the bully pulpit actually makes it harder to persuade people?     

I of course wonder if this applies to philanthropy. There are two worries. One is that foundation attempts to influence public policy may have counter-productive effects, particularly among local or state officials. Does lack of transparency help get things done? The other is that nonprofit attempts to promote greater philathropy actually make people less likely to give. Does more face-to-face outreach make people more likely to give?    

Well, let’s think about the mechanism. This dynamic applies to presidential politics, per Klein’s interpretation of the literature, because a president is also a party leader, and the opposition is from another party. Those are competitive, zero-sum positions – one loses, the other wins.   

Are foundations ever in such a situation? Well, they can be when they start working in support of particular public policy issues. Laws place restrictions on the amount of lobbying nonprofits can do – generally the guideline is, raise awareness of issues, don’t support specific pieces of legislation or candidates. But there are generally policy aims – pass healthcare reform, abolish the death penalty, restrict gay marriage – and in those, someone wins, and someone loses.     

The mechanism in the Klein article seems to hinge on publicity and visibility. This suggests that funders may have a better chance advocating on local and state initiatives than national or federal ones. Sounds like a hypothesis worth checking out….

This Blog is Just Six Words Long

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Trayvon. Trayvon. Trayvon Trayvon Trayvon. Trayvon.

What the hell, people. What the EFFING EFF.

In good news, Leah Hunt-Hendrix is awesome. I can’t wait to read her book on the “genealogy of solidarity.” And she’s stirring things up within philanthropy among individual and institutional donors. Go Leah!

#Kony #Kony the remix

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Can’t stop thinking about #Kony2012, I’m surprised not to see more about it in the philanthropy blogosphere. Anyway, a few pieces have cleared things up for me. Somewhat.

Communicopia educated me about the work that Invisible Children has been doing over the past eight years to build their constituency that made the video go so viral. Though they appear to have come out of nowhere, IC have actually been slogging in the trenches for years. This article is pure gold, the insight-to-length ratio is off the charts. Go read it.

You’re back? Good. Now, this puts it all into perspective. Girls 13-24 are the ones sending around the video because they’re the ones that IC has been targeting and seeking to empower.

Ethan Zuckerman brought me up to speed on the most thoughtful critiques of IC’s strategy, and they are many and persuasive. Go read that one, too, but wait a minute, because it’ll take a while, and you should especially read the comments, which are bubbling with vitriol. Drama!

Which brings us to Dan Pallotta, who in typical pugnacious style, comes out swinging. A friend pointed out that Jason Russell of IC was going to be on Lawrence O’Donnell, so I DVR’d it. OMG – So. Smarmy. I had a viscerally negative stylistic reaction. I do it myself sometimes, but male upspeak is not a great look for anyone. Again, maybe he’s speaking the language, literally, of the people he works with, but it grated with me. But Pallotta takes it to another level, accusing – particularly in the comments on his post – critics of being jealous of IC’s success. “The criticism is largely based in envy at Invisible Children’s success.” Yeah, that’s gotta be there, but “largely based in envy”? Come on now.

And this gets to one of the things I found troubling in both sets of comments section (Ethan’s and Pallotta’s): the *extreme* thin-skinnedness of IC supporters. Any critique is to be not only repudiated but denounced as mean-spirited, unfair, or futile. “Go fix things in Uganda if you’re so smart” is the essence of one refrain in the comments. Really? The message is that delicate that it needs to be protected from any negativity? It’s one thing to pulsate with the energy of youth, it’s another to quaver with its fragility and, well, insecurity.

But then I watched the actual Kony2012 video. (Except the parts where he explains Kony to his 5-year-old. I find that nauseatingly manipulative, and skipped over those few minutes.) The first several minutes aren’t even about Uganda, or Kony. They’re about this moment in time, about what can be achieved by the many coming together on Facebook. He explicitly talks about this being an experiment, to see if something huge can be achieved. God love ‘em, there’s even a visual depiction of a theory of change that’s as clear and simple as I’ve ever seen. (That’s the kind of thing I do all day at work, and I have to say, pace Dan Pallotta, that my emotion on watching it was excitement – there’s a way to do what I do better! Awesome! Let me learn how!)

I for one am really excited to see the first Kony2012 copycats that actually have success. Because that’ll be one of the true measures of impact, is if this does prove a successful experiment, and shows a different way of doing things.

A final note: I also learned from a website I hadn’t heard of before called Talk2Action that Invisible Children is funded by a number of evangelical Christian organizations. Knowing this, seeing the part of the Kony2012 video where the student activists are chanting IC slogans in unison made perfect sense, and also sent a little shiver up my spine. Perhaps it also explains the fervor of some IC defenders in the comments section? (Yes, that was upspeak.) I don’t really know how to parse the intersection of evangelical Christian missionary impulses, social-media wizardry, youthquake mobilization, and working on the front lines of international human rights work. Yet another reason this is fascinating and worth watching as it evolves.