Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Say Say Say

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Busy month on the speaking and conference circuit. This Friday, I’m at Philanthropy Ohio talking about “Making Strategic Philanthropy Stick.”

On October 31, in what is hopefully not a trick for the audience, I’m speaking at the Minnesota Council on Foundations annual conference on “Scaling Our Work for Greater Impact.” In that talk, I’m going to focus on tools that funders can use to play responsible roles in supporting collective action, not just from the outside, but from within such efforts. It’s a TED-style talk, short and to the point. Should be fun.

One of the topics I won’t get to cover that’s long been a passion of mine is how philanthropy can be more accessible to underserved communities. Luckily, I was honored to appear on MCF’s Fast Forward podcast series with the always thoughtful Alfonso Wenker to address just this topic. Again, so much to say! Definitely listen to the podcast, but here are a few other talking points on the topic of foundations and diversity, equity, and inclusion that I didn’t get the chance to cover.

  • Question your own assumptions – it’s well-known but bears repeating, foundations live in a bubble with little accountability. So you want to unearth your assumptions about how change happens and who needs to be at the table when decisions are made. This can extend to seemingly little things like language (“grantee partners” vs. “grantees,” for example). Who really has the power in your relationship, you who have the money or they who actually have the direct impact?
    • Now, there’s a difference between questioning your assumptions and questioning yourself. The first is about growth; the second is frankly kind of self-indulgent. It can happen when you take the philanthropy too personally, that other perennial problem of identifying the money as if it were yours. Questioning your assumptions is more like a zen practice, like mindfulness, rather than drama. How do I actually think change is going to happen? If I’m funding work in diverse communities to which I’ve never given before, how will people get to know me? Can I present myself in the same way, assuming the same level of familiarity, as I do in other environments? Does it make sense for me to go in there on my own, or with a partner who’s embedded in the community and respected there?
  • Check in with your gut, why are you doing this? Avoid “ay bendito.” My family’s from Colombia, so this isn’t a saying I grew up with, but in Puerto Rican Spanish, “ay bendito” – “oh, blessed one” – is what you say with a combination of empathy and pity. “oh, you poor thing.” Too many times, I’ve seen diversity approached from an “ay bendito” perspective. “Oh, those poor people.” This goes to questioning your own assumptions. There’s something insidious about observing that when you serve low-income communities, you’re serving “mostly” black and Latino people. The categories we use consciously, start to inform how we think unconsciously; you make that association that black and Latino people are all poor. The numbers about wealth disparity don’t lie, but then we start to make assumptions about whole groups of people that inform how we respond to an individual or an organization that we encounter, and then we get into trouble.
  • Democratize it. I’ve been thrilled to follow from afar the work of the Community Investment Network, which has been fostering African-American giving circles and has just celebrated ten years. But the thing about democracy is that it’s an ideal AND a process: “One person, one vote” AND a whole cadre of volunteer poll workers and neighborhood venues that host voting sites (mine’s in an elementary school). So democratizing philanthropy has at least two dimensions. One is communicating a democratic spirit: anyone can be a giver. The other is diffusing democratic processes of decision-making, so there are polling stations in every neighborhood, school, and church, or analogously, diffusing the mechanisms of thoughtful, effective grantmaking, whether it’s with a few hundred dollars in a giving circle or a $100 million grantmaking budget around a foundation board table. Democracy is about collective public deliberation, but even within philanthropy, which is about collective private deliberation, setting the criteria for allocating philanthropic dollars, and the process of values alignment and consensus building that are involved, are essentially democratic skills, even if they happen away from public scrutiny. That’s the paradox of this field, its simultaneous anti-democratic and democratic tendencies.

Not exactly podcast-friendly soundbites, but there you go. How do you see funders embracing – or not – diversity, equity, and inclusion in your world? What works and what doesn’t about that?

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Fix the Police, Part 2

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

All right. Ferguson. Ferguson Ferguson Ferguson.

Let’s talk about the professionalization of the security forces (those are the police plus the armed forces). In my dissertation, I posit the idea of a “security-force configuration,” which is the set of institutional relationships among the army, police, and politicians. In Latin America, there have historically been two kinds:

  • Militarized security-force configuration: The army controls the police, in part because it has vastly superior resources, but also because it has the power of appointment and oversight. Both entities are professionalized, meaning that merit rather than connections are the primary means of getting ahead. There’s a unified military command, which means the police are in essence an extension of the army.
    • Locus of Control: Soldiers
    • Balance of Resources: Army > Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army = Police
  • Politicized security-force configuration: Politicians have the power to appoint and fire police officials. The police and army have roughly equivalent resources, and the army is much more professionalized than the police. The police have their own command, and their loyalty to the national regime is unpredictable.
    • Locus of Control: Politicians
    • Balance of Resources: Army = Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army > Police

Neither of these is a picnic. They each create a distinctive kind of vulnerability in the political system: militarized ones are susceptible to national coup (think Argentina and Paraguay), because the unified military command can turn against the government, and politicized ones are subject to local insurrection (think Colombia and Mexico), because local party actors use local forces to fight local battles.

What’s striking about Ferguson is that it reveals how much the U.S. actually has a politicized security-force configuration, even as we’re talking about how (undeniably) militarized the police have become. There’s a transfer of materiel from the army to the police, which makes the balance of resources more equal (though far from equal), but more importantly, the level of professionalization doesn’t change. If anything, the contrast gets more stark: police don’t know how to use their new tools (toys). Merit is devalued: those who know how to use these tools better don’t get ahead, because no one knows how to use them. For example, it’s been pointed out that soldiers are trained never to hold their weapons above a 45-degree angle unless they’re being attacked; police in Ferguson aren’t respecting those norms.

But what’s different about the U.S. system is that we have inherited the tradition of the sheriff from England, and that’s often an elected position. In the Colombian politicized security-force configuration of the first half of the twentieth century, the president appointed governors, who appointed state police chiefs as well as mayors, who appointed local police chiefs. There were no elected police officials, they were an extension of the party system. The sheriff is different; he or she has a direct accountability to voters.

And here’s where foundations, particularly community foundations, can play a role in depoliticizing our country’s security-force configuration – by placing greater pressure on the elected office of sheriff to be more accountable to community norms and professional practices, particularly with regard to military hardware, and funding advocates who seek to increase citizen oversight of the police.

Because there’s a third security-force configuration that we should be striving toward: a democratized one.

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?

Do the Evolution

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Incredibly rich article on “Redefining Capitalism” in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. I’ll be unpacking this one for a while. Let’s get started.

The authors’ entry point is coming up with a better measure for prosperity than GDP, of which there have been several attempts, but their end point is, as the title implies, far beyond that question of measurement. They redefine capitalism as an “evolutionary, problem-solving system”:

A capitalist economy is best understood as an evolutionary system, constantly creating and trying out new solutions to problems in a similar way to how evolution works in nature. […]

[T]he entrepreneur’s principal contribution to the prosperity of a society is an idea that solves a problem. These ideas are then turned into the products and services that we consume, and the sum of those solutions ultimately represents the prosperity of that society. […]

Capitalism’s great power in creating prosperity comes from the evolutionary way in which it encourages individuals to explore the almost infinite space of potential solutions to human problems, and then scale up and propagate ideas that work, and scale down or discard those that don’t. Understanding prosperity as solutions, and capitalism as an evolutionary problem-solving system, clarifies why it is the most effective social technology ever devised for creating rising standards of living.

The orthodox economic view holds that capitalism works because it isefficient. But viewing the economy as an evolving complex system shows that capitalism works because it is effective. In fact, capitalism’s great strength is its creativity, and interestingly, it is this creativity that by necessity makes it a hugely inefficient and wasteful evolutionary process. Near one of our houses is a site where each year, someone would open a restaurant only to see it fail a few months later. Each time, builders would come in, strip out the old furniture and decor, and put in something new. Then finally an entrepreneur discovered the right formula and the restaurant became a big hit, which it is to this day. Finding the solution to the problem of what the local residents wanted to eat wasn’t easy and took several tries. Capitalism is highly effective at finding and implementing solutions but it inevitably involves trial and error that is rarely efficient.

There’s so much here with regard to philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, I hardly know where to begin. An initial map of the terrain might be:

  • Social entrepreneurs: How does the second paragraph quoted about change if you put the word “social” in front of “entrepreneur”? Does this redefinition of capitalism mean that all entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs? This would certainly fit with the idea that the way companies have social impact is by doing a really good job at delivering on their bottom line. Or perhaps instead, does it mean that there are certain kinds of problems that “social” entrepreneurs are particularly likely or able to take on?
  • The role of foundations as labs for innovation: One of the most frequently cited raisons d’être for foundations is that they have the ability to foster small-scale innovation, that they can be risk capital in areas the market won’t go and the public sector is too slow to find. 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.
  • The “overhead myth”: A recent, laudable campaign seeks to disabuse funders – and especially individual donors – of the notion that overhead (the ratio of administrative and fundraising expenses to total expenses) is the single most important metric for gauging a nonprofit’s performance. The campaign makes the (valid) argument that investment in a nonprofit’s administration often helps performance, and that organizations with overhead ratios that are too low will actually do worse. This is in essence an argument about the balance of efficiency and effectiveness. The redefining-capitalism lens takes that analysis to the level of the overall economy. And the unit of analysis is not the individual organization, but the problem (or solution). High levels of surface inefficiency (it took several tries to find the right restaurant for that location) mask an ultimate focus on effectiveness – a good solution to that particular problem was ultimately found. This is the overhead myth at the level of the sector or local economy, rather than at the level of the organization. Does the analysis still hold? And what does it mean for place-based funders, who have the longer time-horizon that multiple attempts at starting a business would require?
  • The connection between small business and place-based economic development: Relatedly, the restaurant example puts me in mind of the role of foundations as investors in place-based economic development that I highlighted in a prior post. Defining a problem in a very specific geographic space and deploying a range of tools over a long period of time seems like a meaningful way for a foundation to make a difference.
  • The value of long-term general operating support: Another way in which foundations express long time horizons is by making long-term grants. The redefining-capitalism suggests that it is critical for the effectiveness of economic activity for economic actors to be allowed to try, fail, and try again until a solution is reached. Translated to the funding world, this argues for long-term general operating support to give organizations the space to experiment, innovate, and iterate.
  • Strategic “vs.” responsive approaches: The language of problems and solutions is native to “strategic philanthropy” as framed by the Hewlett Foundation and others. In a reflection on a decade of practice, former Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest identifies “problem-solving philanthropy” as one of the two principal modes of strategic philanthropy. This would suggest a close connection with the redefining-capitalism approach. However, those authors identify as one of capitalism’s key strength its ability to foster a wide variety of potential solutions, arguing that “it is not how hard we try to solve a problem that is critical, but rather […] it is the diversity of ideas and approaches that matters most in problem-solving effectiveness.” This suggests a link with responsive approaches to philanthropy, which are about letting a thousand flowers bloom. So perhaps the redefining-capitalism lens shows strategic vs. responsive to be a false dichotomy.
  • The concept of “social impact solutions”: The redefining-capitalism lens views prosperity as a volume and pace of solutions to social problems. This suggests that the greatest value the nonprofit sector can provide to society is to generate “social impact solutions” – products or services that address a social need not being addressed by market actors. From this lens, nonprofits should be explicitly solutions-oriented, and funders should seek opportunities to foster the iterative, long-term development of viable solutions. Stated like that, this sounds like what should be business as usual, but as we know, it’s not. Does “social impact solutions” provide an organizing principle for understanding the work of companies, foundations, nonprofits, and government?
  • Potential filters for impact investing: The authors recommend measuring prosperity in terms of access to solutions, and judging the social worth of business activity by the extent to which it creates meaningful solutions or simply generates more problems. It seems easy to imagine translating such an approach to impact investing. How does this lens relate to existing socially-responsible screens for investment portfolios?

Lots more there, but this is a first pass. What grabs you about this article or the ideas I’ve shared?

Partisan

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Larry Kramer, the head of the Hewlett Foundation, has written a provocative post in the SSIR opinion blog about the Foundation’s newly announced initiative to tackle political polarization in the U.S. Kramer has three pieces of advice for funders pursuing similar goals: make multiple, small bets; build bridges; and dig in for the long run.

All laudable. But I want to dig in on the implicit conception of the actors in this space. Some of Kramer’s strongest language is reserved for political parties and “myopic partisans anxious to preserve or enlarge their party’s current prospects.” Of funder strategies aimed at reducing political polarization, Kramer notes:

“Further complicating matters is the very real risk that grantmaking intended to reduce polarization will itself become polarizing. This is certainly the case when democratic reforms are a proxy for underlying substantive agendas by a particular group.”

The language is studiously neutral, but it’s hard to imagine a world where particular groups aren’t pursuing underlying – or overt – substantive agendas. What else is politics?

“Partisans” is similarly vague. It literally means supporters of a particular party, and so is appropriate in the way Kramer uses it. But what I can’t help but wondering is where social movements fit into this picture. They’re particular groups pursuing overt substantive agendas – and often through democratic reforms: the civil rights movement sought among other things to make the 14th Amendment real. Hard to be much more of a democratic reform than the Voting Rights Act.

One of the most difficult challenges social movements face is defining their relationships with political parties. In Latin America in the mid-20th century, the place and time I studied as a doctoral student in political science, the relationship used to be straightforward: citizen demands were channeled through labor unions allied with labor-based political parties. There was a structure of interest representation and intermediation. That’s basically gone now, and it’s not clear what has taken its place or how representative that structure really is.

And despite the continued strong relationship between labor unions and the Democratic Party, the situation is not all that different in the United States. It’s hard to think of the Democrats as a labor-based party: just look at what a strong hand insurers had in the most recent signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act. What’s different is that social movements organizing different elements of the Democratic coalition have emerged and have complicated relationships with the party.

So I’m skeptical of conflating group-based mobilization around substantive agendas with partisanship. Social movements can and should have a degree of independence and critique with regard to political parties. But when they advance substantive agendas that include the historic securing or protection of rights through democratic reforms, this is a different world than the one Kramer paints.

I look forward to learning more about Hewlett’s agenda as it plays out, and the Foundation begins to make its “multiple, small bets” addressing political polarization. I’ll be particularly interested to see how social movements are viewed and participate in its efforts.

What do you think: How independent are social movements in the U.S. of political parties? Are movement mobilizations inherently polarizing?

 

Disclosure: the firm for which I work, TCC Group, has had the Hewlett Foundation as a client within the past few years. As with all posts on this blog, the opinions expressed are my own.

System of a Down

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

So, the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) “Supporting Movements” conference this week was as good as advertised. Great mix of speakers, lots and lots of practical tools and applications, an appealing variety of formats and topics. Kudos all around.

Substantively, I came away with a lot of questions about the term “movement,” and how it was used to describe different forms of collective action. If I understand GEO’s take correctly, what we’re talking about under the rubric of collective action are:

  • Networks
  • Coalitions
  • Campaigns
  • Movements
  • Collective impact

These are related, but have important distinctions. Campaigns are generally time-bound and issue-based; they’re probably the least permanent of the five types. There are electoral campaigns, which have a definite end date and a very specific aim. There are issue campaigns, which can last a very long time: the campaign to reduce tobacco use has evolved over decades and taken many forms.

Networks and coalitions are especially closely related. It’s not always clear which is an instance of which. Is a network a type of coalition or vice versa? I tend to think of a coalition as a type of network, one that is specifically goal-oriented. It has a target. Therefore, an issue campaign is a strategy a coalition might undertake. A coalition to advance the passage of health-care reform might run a campaign in favor of the public option.

Collective impact, as it’s been used in recent years, tends to be place-based, which the previous forms aren’t necessarily. And it tends to be explicitly cross-sector, involving funders, nonprofits, and often business and government.

Movements I think of as the most ambitious and having the longest timeframe. They mobilize one or more constituencies that have a specific claim – rights, recognition, dignity, freedom – that requires a rearrangement of existing social norms, relations, or structures. They try to change a system. And that change usually takes generations, although dramatic gains can be made in compressed periods of time, such as advances on marriage equality in the last five years.

So what I think threw a number of people I spoke with at the conference was the way the opening plenary framed a “movement” around reducing childhood obesity. For a number of folks in attendance, myself included, movements are constituent-driven and seek the transformation of existing social systems and power relations. A coordinated effort to reduce childhood obesity has many merits, but in important respects it operates within the existing status quo. It’s a really good coalition – but a movement?

This gets at a central tension in the world of collective action: how much are we talking about changing the practices of systems, and how much are we talking about changing the behaviors of individuals? Childhood obesity is a widespread conditions that’s socially pernicious. I can see a campaign against that condition. But what is it a movement for? The civil rights movement has a positive aim, it seeks to obtain the expansion of civil rights to all. If the childhood obesity “movement” were a movement for healthy children – of which lower rates of obesity is one indicator – then maybe I could see it. But even so, it’s not the children themselves who are necessarily mobilizing. Adults are mobilizing on their behalf – a remove that seems contrary to the spirit of movements as I understand them.

So, all through the conference, I was working on this dichotomy in my head and in conversations. But my tablemate at the closing plenary gave me another bone to chew on. (Ew, not literally.) She described successful efforts to address homelessness that were explicitly not constituent-driven or funder-driven. It was funders and researchers who had the ability to generate data to show what programs actually impact homelessness that were able to galvanize collective action…(here’s that phrase again) on behalf of the homeless, who weren’t necessarily mobilizing themselves.

So maybe there are movements of (positive goal of claiming a right, constituent-driven) and movements for (goal of solving a problem, not necessarily constituent-driven) – and we need a better term for the latter.

Do you find this a tenable distinction? What’s the right term for “movements for” or “on behalf of”?

Move This

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

It’s funny, I woke up with that song in my head. I must be ready for for next week’s GEO conference on movement building.

And in fact, the conference paper’s focus on five roles for grantmakers in movement building maps pretty well to the way that I talked about non-grantmaking roles in my EPIP workshop last week. I organized them into four categories (building on the EPIP national conference panel I did a couple of years ago on the “3 I’s of Foundation Effectiveness”):

  • Influence: when a foundation uses its clout to advance an issue it cares about, by taking a public stance on an issue, envisioning and/or leading a coalition, campaign, field, or movement, or advancing difficult dialogues in its community
  • Include: when a foundation uses its convening power to bring actors around a table, such as grantees, funders, and policymakers, and practices inclusion of diverse groups in its staffing, governance, and decision-making
  • Inform: when a foundation leverages one of its key assets – the information it gathers about the grantees with which it works, the fields in which it operates, and the communities in which it works – and goes from a one-way flow of information inward to a two-way flow information both inward and outward
  • Invest: when a foundation leverages the full range of its financial and human capital, and that of its grantees, through mission-related investing, capacity building, and leadership development

The framing paper for the GEO conference, which I assume will be released next week, talks about grantmaker roles in supporting movements as investor, broker, connector, learner, and influencer. Two of the I’s are there, and you can map “learner” to “Inform,” and “broker” and “connector” are closely related to “Include.”

GEO’s talking about these roles with regard movement building, but the framework I used in my EPIP talk is about overall philanthropic effectiveness. So what this suggests is that movement building can offer a frame for understanding philanthropic effectiveness more generally. That’ll be worth talking about at the conference next week!

How do you see funders Influencing, Including, Informing, or Investing? What capacities are needed to play these roles effectively and responsibly?

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….

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