Posts Tagged ‘context’

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….

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.

Back 2 Life

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Philanthropy creates a bubble for those who work in it. We all know this. But on the inside, it’s so easy to forget. The surface of the bubble is so shiny, as it refracts the light coming from the outside. It’s a curved surface, so things on either side look distorted. But your eyes adjust. The brain is so skilled at adapting to new realities. With time, the funhouse image feels like a mirror, or a window.

But outside the bubble, reality goes on. Surface tension, surprisingly strong, keeps the bubble aloft on gentle breezes. But it can always be popped.

What does reality-based grantmaking look like? It begins with a clear understanding of what funders can and cannot do.

  • You can fund advocacy.
  • You can do more than make grants.
  • You can include grantees and community members in your decision-making.
  • You cannot solve long-standing social problems with a three-year initiative based on project funding.
  • You cannot compare to the monetary impact of the public sector or individual giving. The budget of Hennepin County, Minnesota, is more than $1 billion. Only a couple dozen foundations exceed even that amount, and except for the Gates Foundation, their grantmaking budgets are much much smaller.
  • You cannot flit from topic to topic every few years and expect to make a difference (or get much respect).

The funders who make a difference are the ones who invest for the long term, or who partner strategically, or who accept that small victories are big in the right context. Project Streamline a few years ago advanced the notion of “right-sizing” grants – they mean grant requirements. But it’s time to right-size grants, and our ambitions along with them, to the extent of the problems we’re addressing.

Funders can do more than they allow themselves, and they can achieve less than they think they can. And that’s OK. Life in the bubble is stifling; no air circulates. Step on out. See your surroundings clearly. Touch the ground. It’ll all be fine. We could all use the knowledge you’ve gained and benefit from the independent you should be allowed to keep. But please – see what you are. Know thyself.

Back 2 Reality.

In news from the reality-based side of philanthropy, happy 10th anniversary to the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity! Lori Villarosa and her PRE colleagues have been tireless, fearless advocates for a topic that’s essential for renegotiating the 21st-century social contract. Thank you Lori and company for moving that conversation forward.

Right Down the Line

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Tonight I went to a panel, “In Search of the Unexpected Future of Media,” hosted by The New Republic. TNR was recently bought by Chris Hughes of Facebook fame and Jumo infamy. He seems soft-spoken, thoughtful, and enamored of old-fashioned Serious Journalism. Bully for him, bring on more like him.

The panel itself was moderately interesting, the speakers were Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, and Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO. It was mostly about the business of new media, which, fine. “You can monetize smart” from Plepler – encouraging!

But what struck me is that both entities are thinking of themselves as 21st-century digital content generators but are shackled to 19th-century physical infrastructure: the newspaper printing press, and the cable/phone lines. In answering a question from a 20-something audience member who wants to watch Girls but doesn’t have a cable box, Plepler answered elaborately and at length. What it boils down to is that there aren’t enough “cord-cutters” yet to allow HBO to circumvent their cable and phone partners. Their business model is tied up with the physical infrastructure of cable and phone lines.

But here’s the rub: even as one might wish for the decoupling of the NYT and HBO from the physical infrastructure that seems to drag them down financially, I bet that a lot of those jobs, especially in the printing press, are good union jobs that support middle-class communities. (Cable companies probably less so.)

Makes me think of the latest episode of Downton Abbey, where (spoiler alert!) Matthew has invested in the estate to save Lord Grantham’s (and by extension his wife’s) bacon, but now is seeing that the estate is “mismanaged,” in his words. Lady Mary hints that what looks like inefficiency is a form of largesse that’s necessary for the local economy. Economic welfare at the level of the manor is sacrificed for economic welfare at the level of the village. I dunno, sounds kinda enlightened to me. I wonder to what extent old, infrastructure-dependent industries like newspapers and telephone companies function in a similar way.

In other words, when is inefficiency at the level of the firm effectiveness at the level of the community or town? Where’s the economics that helps makes sense of that? That would be genuine political economy.

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

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

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

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

#2 is: There are too many nonprofits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help! I Need Somebody, Not Just Anybody

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

I haven’t read The Help, but I’m interested in the discussion surrounding the film’s release. I think of Colorlines as my go-to place for acute, well-informed critique on the politics of race and racial equity. So it’s intriguing to see a take there by Akiba Solomon, timed to the film’s release, that quotes as “the best review…I’ve read so far” a piece that appeared in…Entertainment Weekly. That’s remarkable! Colorlines seal of approval on a piece of critique that appeared in as mainstream a publication as you can get.

That’s no knock on Solomon. As a longtime loyal EW subscriber, I had been pleasantly surprised to Martha Southgate’s on-point rebuttal of the film’s presumption to tell the story of a key element of the civil-rights struggle from the perspective of those who were ultimately on the sidelines. Money line from Southgate: “the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.” The point that needed to be made gets made in a place where a sizable part of the film’s audience is likely to see it. Nice.

Now, there are several layers going on here, obviously. (And I promise one of them has to do with philanthropy.)

  • Who’s the dummy now? Or, the politics of literary and cinematic ventriloquism. I should probably dig up my college texts and re-read Gayatri Spivak’s, “Who Speaks for the Subaltern?” But the question of well-meaning members of an elite who sympathize with the downtrodden seeking to help them by “speaking for” them is a vexed and long-standing one. (Although really, any of the parody 60s protest songs in Walk Hard put it to rest.) Who has the right to represent another’s experience – no matter what the intention? One of the most controversial elements of the book of The Help is that Aibileen and Minnie’s voices are written in dialect. Are there any circumstances in which this is OK? Is it ventriloquism or empathy? Apparently while in the book, there are three voices including Skeeter’s, in the movie the voice-over is only Aibileen’s. That’s at least a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I buy the idea that it makes it easier to hear subaltern voices if someone from the elite channels them first. In such an unmediated (and yet entirely mediated) world, why not just hear from people directly – why does someone need to bring us the voice of the unheard, make it more palatable? Ultimately, I think the value of the book – and of its ventriloquism – is that it gives readers the feeling that they’re being exposed to the inner life of people they would probably never think about otherwise. So I imagine it feels like a deep and moving experience, even humbling. On some level, that can’t be a bad thing. To be humbled – and then chastened by the realization that even the story that was enlightening you needs enlightening of its own: that feels like a meaningful, and socially useful experience.
  • The “women’s picture.” What I haven’t seen anyone talk about yet in this summer of successful female-led comedies like Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher is that here we have a movie that’s all about women where men are the help in getting the story on the screen – the male director was handpicked by the female author of the book, a true rarity in Hollywood. (J.K. Rowling surely had some input on who directed the first Harry Potter movie, but it’s not like she said, “it has to be this person who grew up with me and gets the very English world I tried to portray in the books,” as happened with director Kathryn Stockett and director Tate Taylor.)
  • Voice, the gift that keeps on giving. There are texts and performances that explode their boundaries. I get the feeling that Octavia Spencer and especially the divine, regal Viola Davis have done such a good job with their characters that no matter who presents their story, it’ll be their voices and their experiences that remain in the viewer’s minds.

And it’s that last point that resonates with the concept of philanthropy. Sometimes the gift of voice is the gift that keeps on giving, well beyond the giver’s intentions or frames of reference. Ultimately, giving voice to the disenfranchised and then stepping the hell to the side, may be the best thing a philanthropist – whether an individual like the Skeeter character in The Help or a foundation making grants – can do in some situations. Once again, the Beatles get it right – “help! I need somebody, not just anybody” – there are good ways and better ways that donors can be…wait for it…The Help.

Meeting Across the River

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

(About the title: One of my recent vinyl purchases was “Born to Run.” The title song is of course a timeless classic that’s also musically about a couple of time periods (50s and 60s rock and R&B), but this track on the second side is a keeper too. Not one of Clarence Clemons’ (RIP), but enhanced by soulful horn playing.)

It’s frustrating to me that so many of our theories of human behavior are just so dumb and literal-minded. Take this piece in yesterday’s NYT about the return of genetic explanations in criminology:

A rash of new research has focused on self-control as well as callousness and a lack of empathy, traits regularly implicated in the decision to commit a crime. Like other personality traits, these are believed to have environmental and genetic components, although the degree of heritability is debated.

Why not just say, “we have no idea how these things are connected, so we’re going to make some stuff up based on our immediate cultural milieu and take the unspoken assumptions that govern our own behavior as the default for human nature”?

It’s like there’s no imagination about the complexity of human motivation. Get some Jonathan Franzen in there.

I get that you need to simplify to make predictive models work, but does the simplification have to be to models that are so boring and pedestrian? The model of simplicity you’re looking for here is Emily Dickinson, not Jack and Jill.

It’s one thing when this happens around the dinner table and your uncle sounds off in a cringe-inducing way. It’s another when these just-so stories are hidden in the assumptions of analyses that end up shaping policy. From the same NYT piece:

One gene that has been linked to violence regulates the production of the monoamine oxidase A enzyme, which controls the amount of serotonin in the brain. People with a version of the gene that produces less of the enzyme tend to be significantly more impulsive and aggressive, but, as Ms. Moffitt and her colleague (and husband) Avshalom Caspi discovered, the effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences.

“The effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences”? Come on now, we have to be able to do better than that. What’s the mechanism here – is stress about a certain kind of intensity of emotion – but that can be good or bad? Intense experience? Intensely negative experience? Or can euphoric experiences generate a stress-like spike in emotion, like when people bust up a downtown after their team wins a championship? (Ah, Vancouver, I so enjoyed my trip to you last month, why do you have to go and be a counterexample to the point I’m trying to make?)

I think we need to keep pushing to put some more imagination and ethnographic detail into our assumptions about the dynamics of human motivation. They’re called “microfoundations” in economics, but they don’t have to be small-minded.

All of which leads to a recurring topic on this blog, people’s motivations for giving. To be continued….

The Song Remains the Same (again)

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Yes, I realize I’m repeating a song-title-as-blog-post-title, but the alternative coming to mind was “I Write the Songs,” and after last time’s fiasco with a Spice Girls song, I couldn’t incur a second strike with Barry Manilow….

I saw a musical performance tonight that involved a kids’ chorus singing an-all vocal arrangement. Because I’m a huge philanthropy nerd, it got me thinking about the nature of replication.

I’ve been learning to play “Let’s Get Lost” by Chet Baker a few different ways: on guitar; then on ukulele; then the past couple of weeks while on the road without either of those two instruments, slowly and laboriously on a piano app on my iPad. I don’t play a lot of jazz, so the chord changes are tricky for me, but I enjoy the intellectual and musical process of figuring out how to make the chord voicings work on different instruments.

A voicing is which specific combination of notes you play to form a chord. A Cmaj7 chord, which starts off “Let’s Get Lost,” is C-E-G-B. But depending where on the guitar neck you play it, the voicing can be C-E-G-B-E (the most common) or C-G-B-E-G on the third fret (probably the next most common). They’re both Cmaj7, but they sound very different. The first voicing has three open strings, so it’s very chimey and ringing. The second voicing has no open strings, so it sounds tighter and more muted – jazzier, in a way. It also has a higher highest note, so it’s genuinely different sounding – the G is emphasized at a one-octave interval, whereas the E is emphasized more in the first version.

I don’t have the vaguest understanding of how this all works when you’re doing vocal arrangements, as the musical group I saw tonight did. There, you’re interpreting a song by emphasizing certain elements over others, building the harmonies in certain ways that may be similar or different from the “original” version.

Which is where replication comes in. When you hear a cover version of a familiar song, it can be disconcerting. Sometimes it’s even an improvement. But often it just seems strange and unfamiliar. The same lyrics, the same melody, the same chord progressions, can be interpreted in so many different ways, based on the artist’s, band’s, or producer’s predilections and tastes. Often covers deconstruct an elaborately produced original, like on those old “MTV Unplugged” shows. Sometimes they do the opposite, gussying up something that was originally very simple, like (shudder) 3-Tenors versions of popular songs.

Which gets me thinking about the uses of replication. In music, it’s often not intended to get the same result as the original: Nirvana singing “The Man Who Sold the World” wanted a different reaction than David Bowie singing his original. The Nirvana version made interesting use of the limitations of the “MTV Unplugged” format, using a cello instead of a sustained electric guitar tone in a way that was quite lovely.

So when we look at the replication of social programs, and what it means to achieve scale, I think about musicians and cover versions. What is this replication, this cover version, trying to accomplish? Will a new arrangement get a new audience, like when Glee brings a Journey song to the top of the iTunes charts? Replication has to be relevant or it won’t work, and relevance is so dependent on context and non-rational cues (back to the Imp of the Perverse).

Whether it’s the idea of “stickiness” or how certain videos go viral, social programs have a lot to learn from how popular culture handles replication.

The Song Remains the Same

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

“If behavior isn’t culture, then what is?”

That’s a question from the comments section of the Boston Review article I cited yesterday on the “culture of poverty” argument. I used to think a lot about this. As an undergrad, theorizing “political culture” was one of my pet projects. One of my mentors, Jeff Weintraub, has written perceptively on this topic for a number of years, and my gut always told me there was something there – that people’s beliefs and worldviews aren’t just a manifestation of underlying structural dynamics, but that culture and structure have a complicated interplay that together defines social reality.

The challenge is to acknowledge this interplay while avoiding reductionist arguments like the “culture of poverty.” It’s frustrating to me that cultural arguments so often get hijacked for conservative or reactionary ends. Culture is used to explain continuity – or to justify the status quo. “The poor will always be with us.” But for me, the appeal of culture was always the hopey-changey thing: that people don’t need to be constrained or determined by their material circumstances, that political imagination and intentional collective action driven by belief and vision about a better world can lead to real change. I see culture as enabling, not constraining. It’s something we build, not just something we inhabit.

We have such a hard time dealing with reciprocal causation, those dynamics between culture and structure aren’t very amenable to technical analysis, so our tools for understanding them aren’t great. Which means there’s some theorizing to do, to try to clear the air. I’ll start taking a crack tomorrow.

(By the way, this does actually have something to do with philanthropy, because values are a critical part of the philanthropic equation, and our conceptual tools for understanding and talking about values are pretty underdeveloped.)

The unbelievable truth?

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Provocative piece in a recent New Yorker (hat tip to Tactical Philanthropy) about an emerging doubt among scientists about the validity of many published results. The “decline effect” is that many results that initially appear robust and statistically valid (X drug helps lessen symptoms of Y disease in Z percent of patients), when replicated over time, either can’t be replicated, or the effect lessens (Z gets smaller or disappears).

The upshot?

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

Interesting given how much weight is being given these days in philanthropy to randomized controlled trials and experimental design as the gold standard for evaluation, particularly in international development. Reminds us to be humble about our claims.

There are two ways this should happen: one is to be very explicit about our assumptions, and to make them publicly available. This was what I was taught in grad school: describe how you conceptualize, operationalize, and measure your variables, and talk about how you code them. And I studied one of the wanna-be sciences; I’m frankly shocked that such practices aren’t standard in medical research, if the article is to be believed.

The other way to be humble about our claims around evaluation is to triangulate: to put quantitative results in context. Another thing I learned in grad school was to specify mechanisms: in as much detail as you can, describe how you see the causal pathway working between the cause you posit and the effect you’re trying to explain. And harmonize the two: have quant and qual work with each other and reinforce each other.

As a new year approaches, always good to be reminded of the importance of humility. I’m often ambivalent about transparency, for a variety of complicated reasons. This kind of transparency, about methods and assumptions that back up claims of empirical “proof” – this I can get behind.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2011 for one and all. I’ll resume my regular Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday schedule next week.