Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Inside Looking Out

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

This week a bipartisan congressional group announced a framework for immigration reform. That means this will be going on the legislative agenda, and we’ll be hearing about it all year, as it works its way through both houses of Congress.

On the one hand, this is a tremendous achievement of the immigrant rights movement. On the other, the work has just begun – in two senses. One is that who gets included in reform is up for grabs. How that plays out – whether domestic workers are included, whether DREAMers are included, whether same-sex couples are included – it’s all going to be negotiated. The central compromise that seems to have allowed the framework to come together is the idea that the undocumented go to the “back of the line.” Part of the need for comprehensive immigration reform is that the system is broken – those who are in line have been there too long, and the line doesn’t make sense or work well. So being sent to the back of the line could mean years and years in a twilight state. (Contrast this with how quickly some people got their deferred action under DACA this past year.) How much of an improvement that is over life in the shadows remains to be seen.

The other way in which the work is just beginning is that it’s not clear who’s going to get 11 million undocumented people registered and along the pathway to citizenship. DACA was a test case. How well did it work? How easy was it for people to find above-board, affordable assistance with the process. There are a lot of shysters in the immigration-law world. Will the supply meet the demand? What’s the role of nonprofit legal-assistance groups, and do they have the resources and support to get the job done? Lot to be figured out.

Place-based funders: have you shown your local legal-services organization some love lately? Now is the time!

This is the nitty-gritty work of social change. After years of pushing at the national and local levels, a real transformation may be imminent. But in two important senses, the work has just begun. Stay tuned. And keep an eye out for who’s on the table, and who’s lined up to help people along a potential pathway to citizenship. This election helped put comprehensive immigration reform back on the table, and sustained public pressure and awareness will help keep these important issues – who gets included, and who gets people registered – in the light where they belong. #philant

Share/Save/Email/Bookmark

Upside Down

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Happy New Year! My two questions in this blog are about philanthropy and democracy: What does it mean to democratize philanthropy? Is philanthropy a democratizing force?*

Every once in a while, I come back to these and unpack them from a different angle. Today it’s about the nature of the power relationship in each. Democracy is about collective deliberation, creating a new mode of decision-making. Schattschneider said when you increase the number of people in an argument, you change the power dynamic. To democratize is to change the power dynamic by giving more people access to decision-making.

Democracy has a verb. Is there a verb for philanthropy? What does it mean to philanthropize? (Well, I talked about expressive and directional modes of philanthropy, so that’s one set of meanings.) It means to give money. I think we usually conceive of it as reinscribing (a college word I always liked the sound of, but don’t think I had the opportunity to use correctly until this sentence) an existing power relationship: the rich give to the poor. Or for their benefit. (Mostly “for their benefit” – not directly to them. If anything, we have elaborate social structures so that we can avoid having to make that transaction, that gift, directly.)

So maybe what it means to democratize philanthropy is to upend that traditional understanding and image in two ways: by making giving more an act of solidarity, rather than noblesse oblige, and by remembering and highlighting that giving has always been multidirectional. Mutual aid, tithing, zakat, alumni giving – there’s a lot of “horizontal” giving, among poor and rich.

But in addition to (I almost said “beyond,” but thought better of it) image and perception, there’s a power relationship at the heart of philanthropy. It creates a power dynamic where none existed before: one who gives voluntarily, one who receives…voluntarily? Gratefully? Grudgingly? While democratizing multiplies horizontal ties, “philanthropizing” – in some of its key forms – multiplies vertical ties. So in that sense, it’s NOT a democratizing force – just the opposite.

I’ll leave for another time whether that’s a good or a bad thing. But it’s a thing.

* After completing this post, I went back to embed the links, and saw that I originally framed the first of my two questions as, “what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?”, and not “is philanthropy a democratizing force?” After nearly three years, I’ll allow myself to expand a little!

You’re (Not) the One that I Want

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

It’s all Sandy all the time here on The Blog Briefly Known as “Democratizing Philanthropy?”, so the most famous cinematic Sandy had to get a shout-out in my song-title-as-blog-title shtick. This whole thing – by which I mean the Sandy relief and recovery effort – goes right to the heart of my two questions on this blog: what does it mean to democratize philanthropy, and is philanthropy as a democratizing force? This whole thing is putting those two questions into sharp relief?

What it means to democratize philanthropy is that people are streaming to the Rockaways and Staten Island and just Getting. It. Done. Check out Sandy Sucks; I had the dumb luck and great honor of getting assigned (thank you Occupy Sandy) to car in which maestra Katie Bennett and two of her friends were getting out to the Rockaways last Saturday. Her site is an invaluable resource for keeping up to speed on what’s happening on the ground in some of the hardest-hit areas.

As someone who’s dedicated their career to working in and/or building the nonprofit sector, it pains me to see brilliant, dedicated people like Katie and her friends so turned off by the way the nonprofits that are meant to be at the frontlines in disaster relief are operating, or failing to.

Let’s be real here. The more New Yorkers see up close the ridiculous, bureaucratic, political, infuriating ways in which various elements of the nonprofit infrastructure responsible for disaster response fail to coalesce, the more pressure there’s going to be on Obama’s freshly reminted coalition. You’re less inclined to argue for the role of government when you see up close the abject failure of the government to provide one of its most basic functions. Just you wait and see…. The young people who make up a big and growing part of Obama’s coalition have ZERO patience for doing things the way they’ve been done just because we need to protect the institutions that have protected us for so long. It’s hard enough to defend teachers’ unions when they’re the object of systematized propaganda campaigns (cough, Rahm-Emanuel-tip-of-the-iceberg, cough). But to defend the role of FEMA when you see with you’re own eyes that FEMA’s just not there, or not there nearly fast enough – well, that’s a yard too far.

I’ve long been of the opinion (see here) that progressives ignore at their peril the incredibly mediocre everyday experience of government “service” that’s no farther than the local DMV or Post Office. You can’t defend government’s role without looking squarely at the inefficiencies of government. Now let’s be clear, these get exaggerated, and/or there are reasons, political or otherwise, for these inefficiencies. (That’s a post for another time; I am a political scientist after all, this is what I was trained to analyze.) But Sandy is a clear case of the rubber hitting the road. The people meant to help aren’t there to help.

There’s another side to this, and frankly, I don’t know how to reconcile it. Check out this list from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy about how nonprofits are responding to Sandy. This sounds like a lot! Maybe the way to reconcile it with the Sandy Sucks experience is that these are local organizations that were already there (like Red Hook Initiative), and the problem is the national ones that need to come from outside. But I don’t know. I see a disconnect, and it troubles me. The government-charitable disaster-relief infrastructure is taking a HUGE credibility hit in the wake of Sandy, in the heart of an area that should be a bastion of its support. I worry about the long-term impact on nonprofits…but I’m hopeful that it’ll lead to greater efficiencies, greater accountability, and ultimately, faster response to the hardest-hit.

Is philanthropy a democratizing force? Sometimes, when it’s done in the spirit of self-provisioning and mutual aid, maybe it can be.

I Would Like a Place I Could Call My Own

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Not actually a song title, but a line from a New Order song called “Regret.” Which hopefully is not apposite.

When we got back home to the Upper West Side on Friday night, it was like nothing had happened. We went to dinner, and the bistro offered a “Limited Post-Sandy Wine List.” As in, they didn’t have quite the usual selection of French wines because of the hurricane, for some reason. (Distributor ran out of gas?) We walked around on Saturday, and it was like nothing had happened. After a week of anxiously watching the news and social media from California where we were delayed four days getting home, we got back, and it was like nothing had happened where we live.

What. The. Eff.

Sunday, I couldn’t take it anymore. Even though subway service was only partly back and it took me two and a half hours on public transport to get there, I went to Red Hook to volunteer, because Jesus, how could I not.

I’ve done a lot of volunteer stuff, but it’s almost always been related to the industry in which I work, nonprofits and philanthropy. I did a summer at ConnPIRG in college, where I was the world’s worst canvasser. In a week of knocking on doors, I got one donation – of stamps. I tried hard and clearly cared, so they took pity on me and let me work in the office the rest of the summer. I mean, what else did I have to do.

So yesterday was really one of my first experiences going door-to-door in a looong time.

When I was in grad school, I was involved in a study of associational strategies in Latin America in the post-labor politics era, which eventually turned into this book. I was involved the first couple of years (out of 10) and helped out with getting the surveys done in Chile. The gist was that in most of the 20th century, working-class folks in Latin America had two main venues for getting problems taken care of: labor unions and leftist parties, which were closely allied. There was an associational structure that ran through labor-based parties that helped people in times of need. (Like after a disaster – you see where this is going.) With neoliberal economic reform (Reaganomics in Latin America, crudely) in the 80s, and for other reasons, that associational structure was swept away. People thought NGOs would fill the gap, would create a new “interest regime.” This project tried to figure out whether that actually happened.

The idea that sticks with me in the wake of Sandy is “self-provisioning.” In the field research, we were trying to understand how working-class people solved problems in contemporary Latin American cities (we looked at Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima, and Caracas). If they didn’t have labor-based parties to help them get connections to networks and get things done, were they using NGOs, or were they organizing things themselves (“self-provisioning”)?

Occupy Wall Street is self-provisioning. Or rather, Occupy-organized Sandy relief is self-provisioning, built on a structure of particular kinds of NGOs. In the research project, we distinguished between grassroots, community-based groups and professional NGOs. There was a world of difference, at least in Chile. It pretty much applies in the US as well, which I see from working with professional NGOs in my day job. What Occupy Sandy has done, from what I understand and observed in Red Hook, is to layer an Occupy infrastructure, particularly an online platform for attracting young professionals and hipsters, with grassroots, community-based groups. I signed up through a recovers.org site dedicated to Red Hook, which was labeled as having been put up in part by folks from Occupy Wall Street. Through that, I connected with Red Hook Recovery, which was operating out of Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. Later in the day, I went over to Red Hook Initiative. The two groups were coordinating and seemed to be dividing up labor between them pretty well.

There were so. goddamn many. white people lined up to volunteer. Well, that’s not entirely true, there was racial/ethnic diversity in the group, but I don’t know how much economic diversity there was. It was a ton of people from outside the neighborhood coming in to help, because like me, they couldn’t not. And I mean literally lined up to volunteer; by the time I switched over to Red Hook Initiative, there was a line around the block at Red Hook Recovery of people waiting for volunteer assignments.

Over at Red Hook Initiative, everything was well-organized, but in an accessible, friendly, kind of chill way. Getting it done, but without any airs. (Type A-minus?) They’re in what looked to me like a former firehouse or garage – I picture a big roll-up door that was now closed. It’s on a corner, and there are two entrances, one to receive meals and get your volunteer assignments, and another to drop off donations and for residents to pick them up. I learned about RHI during my canvassing rounds in the morning with Red Hook Recovery, where we went door to door and asked people what their needs were. (One building had no electricity or hot water, and no one had come by the whole time.) Our team walked by it and it was thronged with people picking up donations. This seemed to be where a different kind of action was.

I asked about volunteering there, and had been told to come back at 4pm, that we would begin delivering meals. I got there around 3:45, and a group of people started gathering. By around 4:20 we were on our way. They said they needed around 50 to 60 volunteers, and they made that easily. We were briefed about what we needed to do, we broke ourselves up into teams, and each got a canvassing sheet. We were delivering dinner to homebound seniors, most of them in public housing. The sheet listed their name, address, how many meals they needed, and had space for us to note the answers to some questions we were to ask, like whether they needed their next dinner delivered (some didn’t), whether they needed medical attention (thankfully no one did), and whether they needed supplies (several did). A charming Irish dude briefed us on the task and how to do it, and off we went.

I’d only ever been to Red Hook a number of years back when the Red Hook Ball Fields food-truck spot was in its early-ish incarnation. They used to just be able to set up in stands around a soccer field, but eventually the city made them set up in more formal trucks/carts for sanitation reasons. We haven’t been back.

This is Red Hook, in the southwestern part of Brooklyn, not far from schmancy Park Slope and basically schmancy Carroll Gardens. It’s an industrial, waterfront/port area, and incongruously, the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal is there.

maps.gif

As you can see, it’s right on the water, so it got hit HARD by Sandy. On some blocks of single family houses, half a dozen of them had the waterlogged contents of their basements out on the sidewalk. Families and their friends were going through their possessions methodically, salvaging what could be salvaged and organizing the rest for disposal. We passed by one open basement door, and looking down, the water looked to still be at waist level.

Red Hook is home to the Red Hook Houses, what someone on site claimed are the largest public-housing projects in NYC. Looks like they may be the largest at least in Brooklyn – 30 buildings with around 8,000 residents, the majority of Red Hook’s population. More than half of the buildings were without power on Sunday evening. Thank heaven for the Flashlight app on the iPhone; I sure needed it as our team trooped up and down the stairs. Most deliveries were on low floors, but the first one was on the 12th floor. Good thing I took up jogging again recently! I won’t soon forget the trek up and down the darkened stairway – nor the man who held a door for us, or another heading downstairs who stepped out of the way as we were headed upstairs.

It actually reminded me of working on the survey in Santiago all those years ago. We did two surveys, one of individuals, for which we hired a local firm, and one of associations, for which we organized a team of undergrads to administer them. My colleague and I did the test surveys ourselves. We chose specific neighborhoods in the city, got to know them a little bit, and went out to grassroots organizations to do interviews. Some of them were in current or former “shantytowns”, places where people had self-provisioned and…wait for it…occupied land and just started living there. They pirated electricity and water at first, and some eventually got it installed officially. The feel of the streets around Red Hook Initiative and at the place itself reminded me a bit of the feel of some of the more well-established community groups in the more lower-middle-class (as opposed to working class, though notions of class are different in Latin America) neighborhoods in which we did the surveys. (Lest it be weird that I compare Brooklyn to a “third world” county, when I was in Chile again this spring, I heard on the news that next year Chile’s median income will officially reach that of a “developed country”. The news was reported as no big deal.)

So, we got our meals delivered (to those who were home) in a couple of hours, and went back to RHI to report in. We kept running across other teams on the way in. Lots of activity at RHI as folks who were ambulatory had come in for their evening meal. When we handed in our filled-out canvas sheet, we were sent to talk to a data person before leaving. (This warmed the evaluator cockles of my heart.) We deciphered the hieroglyphics for the nice lady at the computer, and were done. I walked back through Red Hook Houses, which by that point I had crisscrossed possibly a dozen times over the course of the day, and caught the bus to the subway station. A decent number of buildings had lights, and I heard the whirr of generators in a couple of places. One stretch of buildings a member of our team had noticed had white discoloration on the brick walls about a foot or so above ground level. We realized it was probably from salt water, where the level of the floodwater had gotten. And there was always one door where the water could get in to the basement. I thought about a woman we’d visited who had the place like a sauna, because she had been boiling water for a long time to heat the apartment, which smelled strongly of gas. She had said she was about to turn the gas off. I sure hope so. I zipped my coat up against the chill and hopped on the bus.

What I like about this form of self-provisioning is that it built on existing infrastructure. In the middle part of the day, I wandered around kind of aimlessly, looking for something to do between canvassing and food delivery shifts. I had come all that way, I was going to stick it out. In a park between the two organizations, there was a staging area for a FEMA delivery truck. Volunteers (I kept missing the chance to do this part) most likely drawn there through social media by Occupy-connected groups, coordinated by people from the Mayor’s office in orange caps, offloaded water and blankets and staffed tables to distribute them to residents, who lined up under the direction of NYPD and dudes in combat fatigues (National Guard? Army Reserve?) who went with the two camo humvees parked nearby. I also saw one guy in a Red Cross T-shirt. I did some research on disaster relief for a client a few years ago, and this sounds like what it should look like. Coordination, different groups knowing their roles and playing them and getting stuff out to people quickly. I kept missing the chance to help out because the trucks had been offloaded, the lines had moved through, and people had gotten their water and blankets.

Occupy was only a small part of the story at that park, from what I saw, but they clearly helped to get a lot of people out to Red Hook Recovery and Red Hook Initiative to help out. And those folks did stuff that FEMA wasn’t going to do, and that the Red Cross didn’t need to do (they focus on sheltering, generally, anyway).

So NGOs in Latin America may be a different sort of interest regime, emerged in the wake of labor-based parties. Occupy Sandy seems to be a different sort of…kindness regime? Do-gooding regime? Community engagement regime? Whatever the label, I saw it working – not on its own, but tapping a clear audience and turning it out in large numbers to an area that needed the help. I was honored to have done my part.

Now go vote. Electoral politics still matter, whatever the merits of self-provisioning.

Little Lies

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

One of my more recent vinyl acquisitions is Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits. That is two quality sides of music, I tell you what. “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies….”

I’m reminded of that line as I barrel through the homestretch of the fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. He’s just assumed the Presidency in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, and is consolidating power. Caro talks about how he used the cultivation of an image and “all the political arts” to secure his new position at a time of great uncertainty.

That got me thinking – what are the political arts, and which of them can and should foundations use (more)?

  • Cultivating an image
  • Building consensus
  • Building a coalition
  • Articulating a message
  • Counting and securing votes
  • Winning passage of a policy
  • Winning an election

Seems like a lot of these foundations are free to do, the restriction on lobbying aside. Why use the political arts? To wield power. To secure it, and to wield it in pursuit of…well….

The interesting thing about the Johnson biography so far is how Caro deals with the motivation behind Johnson’s leadership on civil rights. When he was “Master of the Senate,” as the previous volume (which I haven’t read) is titled, Johnson in 1957 secured passage of the first civil-rights legislation since Reconstruction – nearly 100 years later. It took someone from the South, skilled in all of the political arts, to make that happen. What were his motives? Why risk that much? Because he genuinely believed it, or for the ego boost of doing the impossible?

It’s sort of both. But what it took was someone that looked and talked and acted like those he was trying to persuade to make it happen. And yes, protests on the outside. But that inside player is key.

And that’s where foundations can play more of a role in applying the “softer” political arts, the ones not tied to specific policies or elections. The invaluable Albert Ruesga is getting at this in a recent post about doing cultural work, beyond policy papers.

Because foundations are not generally seen as actors on the public stage, when they emerge, they can do so in a nonpartisan way (if they choose), and have the potential to help persuade those, like Harry Byrd, the head of the Congressional committee who was blocking (in effect) Johnson’s 1964 civil rights bill, who need someone that looks and talks and acts like them to apply all of the political arts to get them to see the light.

When the definitive account of how Obama secured the Affordable Care Act eventually gets written (and it’ll need to be once it’s implemented), I’ll be interested to lay it alongside Caro’s account of how Johnson secured civil-rights acts in 1957 and 1964. And yes, he didn’t do it alone, but there’s a piece that he did uniquely, applying his genius in the political arts.

Foundation CEOs don’t all need to be Lyndon Johnson (and given what’s bound to happen in the eventual fifth volume of the biography, where it all goes to hell with Vietnam, we wouldn’t want them to be), but they could learn something from that garrulous Texan about the full range of tools potentially at their disposal.

Dream a Little DREAM

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

I’ve been learning to play that song on the ukulele, the version I know is from the Mamas and the Papas – great stuff.

So, anything much happen in politics since last week? Wow! Quite an announcement Obama made last week. I’m doing a few immigration-related projects at work, so I’ve heard a few different perspectives. One person pointed out that it’s a decision to not enforce certain rules – the absence of enforcement viewed as a victory. Hey, I have DREAMers in my life, I’m not gonna complain.

It makes me think about philanthropy, winning, and perpetuity. When a campaign wins, on some level it faces an existential crisis – we got what we wanted, what next? One answer is always, ensuring effective implementation. Fine. But is there a larger narrative that readily justifies continued action – in that particular organizational form?

I once heard someone from a workers’ rights organization make the claim that a human rights framework provides that narrative. It gives you a list of things that are linked that you can choose to achieve in a certain order, with the next item on the list waiting after you’ve checked one off. Paid time off, check. Health benefits, check. Right to organize, check. Living wage, check. And so on. Sad to say, I don’t know that the idea has caught on.

So my question, as always, is what role philanthropy plays in all this. If, as I’ve argued, the archetypal model of a foundation is about privacy, autonomy, and perpetuity, then this is where perpetuity comes into play. A foundation supports a winning campaign, it doesn’t experience an existential crisis; it can move on to the next thing. Particularly when it has multiple programs. It can emphasize other programs. Or simply choose a new topic.

Single-issue nonprofits face a deeper challenge – they have to consider whether it’s worth going on, and if so, in pursuit of what goals? This may be an argument in favor of working on multiple issues; but can you be as effective? Focus on one thing, win, and face a crisis; or focus on several things, maybe never win, and continue in the fight?

One wonders if finitude, a self-imposed deadline, might put some more urgency in foundation consideration of these questions.

The thing is, programs at foundations that exist in perpetuity are almost always finite – but in unpredictable ways. If foundations imposed a deadline on a program ahead of time, would that make a difference? “We will be in this field for 10 years. We will try to accomplish A, B, and C, and we’ll do whatever we need to in service of that goal.”

All that’s a long way from the sweet victory of the DREAMers. But as we look to foster more such victories, it’s worth thinking about how this one part of the equation can play its role more effectively.

Private Eyes

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Privacy

Autonomy

Perpetuity

These are the tenets that underlie the classic model of the charitable foundation in the U.S. Our field is structured so that the combination of these three factors is the default. Different kinds of funders have different “scores” on each of these “variables” – community foundations are less autonomous because they’re driven by the interests of many different donors, public foundations choose to sacrifice privacy in favor of transparency, and a number of private and family foundations are choosing to spend down rather than exist in perpetuity.

But an institution that is private, autonomous, and designed to exist in perpetuity is the archetype of a charitable foundation.

So where does this leave one of my two questions – namely, is philanthropy a democratizing force? Let’s take each of the factors in turn. In today’s post, I’ll tackle privacy.

Privacy has a complicated relationship to democracy. The right to individual privacy is critical to democracy, but the right to organizational privacy is not necessarily as central. Sunshine laws, reporting requirements, transparency laws – these suggest that in a democracy, public institutions have a limited sphere of organizational privacy.

So while the right to individual privacy is enhanced by having foundations able to keep their affairs private, the desire for organizational transparency, the sunshine that’s integral to democracy, is…compromised? Countervailed? Complemented?

So the privacy of the archetypal foundation model is democratizing at an individual level, but not at an organizational level. How does that related to the autonomy also central to the model? For next time….

P.S. Happy belated second blog-o-versary to me! I started two years ago on April 21st. Looking back over old posts, I’ve covered a lot of ground. On to the next one!

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….

Miss Independent?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Interesting post from Rich Tafel on the SSIR Opinion blog about the Komen/Planned Parenthood clusterfrak. His argument is that the social sector is becoming as polarized as politics. “Until social change leaders really understand the depth of ideological diversity and the hold it has on our culture, our causes will rise and fall on the political wins or losses of those with whom we agree.” Hmmm.

Makes me think about the old idea of civil society as an “independent sector”. I usually tend to think of it in terms of independent from government or business. But there’s something to the notion that it’s about independent from politics. This is countercyclical to the trend of philanthropy being an extension of rich people’s social-change portfolios – a foundation alongside a c4 alongside contributions to candidates alongside impact investing. Perhaps a truly independent sector can’t be about efforts that are subsidiary to someone’s overall agenda. Rather it should be about mass movements, and not always organized through professional nonprofit organization.

Reminds of the meme going around this week on Facebook about X job – what I think I do, what my mom thinks I do, what I really do. The “Occupy Wall Street” has what I do, what the right thinks I do, what the left thinks I do, what liberals think I do, and what I really do – the last of which is an image of the earth with hands and arms linked together around it. I honestly have no idea what that means, but it seems like an image that resonates broadly. And the way the author think of OWS in opposition to right, left, and liberals – talk about independent!

I’ve written previously about locavorism as a potentially bipartisan issue. There’s something exciting about the possibility of brand-new political cleavages (the polisci term for issues around which people organize and argue). And to Albert Ruesga’s point about the “meaning of a nonprofit,” there may be something to the idea of the nonprofit sector as independent from politics.

To be continued….

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

I’m back. The past few months have been a blender work-wise, but I’m back to blogging.

And thank you Albert Ruesga for inspiring my return. Your most recent post on White Courtesy Telephone, “Steve Jobs, the Meaning of a Nonprofit, and Moral Imagination,” crystallized a lot of the things that have been troubling me about sector agnosticism. As arbitrary as the tax code is on some level, the designation “not-for-profit” captures something essential about certain forms of collective action.

As much as the lines between sectors are blurring, I predict that non-profits won’t go away entirely. There’ll always be a sphere of action that is fundamentally opposed to commercial motives – as much as contemporary life in These United States is geared to make us think of “democratic capitalism” as the state of nature, unearthed and made real.

I mused last time about a progressive theory of wealth accumulation. I’ve also complained about the paucity of our theories of human behavior. At the Venn-diagram intersection of these two is a progressive theory of human frailty, of fallibility. Novelists get at this, screenwriters too – but in the political sphere, conservatives have staked out this territory as their own. In one prominent right-wing worldview, progressives believe in the perfectibility of man, that the application of reason can lift humanity out of the benightedness of religion and into a land of rational justice – while conservatives, grounded in Judeo-Christian teachings, see man as fallen, as having original sin, and therefore never being perfectible. On this view, social engineering, attempts to order society to perfect man, are not only doomed to fail but fundamentally misguided due to the fallen nature of humankind. Better to preserve traditions that have emerged organically. (Hello, antebellum South.)

But I believe there has to be a progressive theory of human frailty that is not about fallenness but about compassion and empathy. Such a theory doesn’t have to have the particular elective affinity I’m about to describe, but for me it dovetails with atheism: this is all there is, so dammit if we hadn’t better treat each other right. ‘Cause we’re all we’ve got.

Anyway. To me this is the soil from which a democratic philanthropy grows. Visions of wealth accumulation and human frailty, reclaimed from partisan clutches, put in service of human flourishing in the here and now.

So thank you, Albert, for stirring my (slumbering?) moral imagination.