Posts Tagged ‘hard problems’

What’s Strategy Got to Do With It? On the Social Sciences and Philanthropy

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

My first post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog:


Clever Animals

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Peter Singer’s recent NYT op-ed, “Good Charity, Bad Charity,” mounts a significant challenge to business as usual in organized philanthropy. He has no problem saying that certain forms of philanthropic endeavor are just not as important, and deserve less investment, than others.

Singer proposes a thought experiment comparing giving to treat river blindness in developing countries and giving to build the new wing of a museum, calculating (literally) that the former creates 10 times as much value as the former.

“Given this choice, where would $100,000 do the most good?,” Singer asks. “Which expenditure is likely to lead to the bigger improvement in the lives of those affected by it?”

There’s something forbidding about pursuing Singer’s line of reasoning. Where do you stop? How much of your income is enough to give to proven solutions that improve life outcomes for other people? If those exist and you know about them, aren’t you obligated by that knowledge to give as much as possible?

There’s an element of Singer’s thought that I hesitate to mention, because the debate he surfaces is a useful one. It has to do with the relative merit of people and animals. This element surfaces in what he frames as a more difficult question in philanthropy, as opposed to the “easy” one of deciding that preventing trachoma for 1,000 people is 10 times more valuable than building a new wing of a museum that 100,000 people will visit.

“The choice between, say, helping the global poor directly, and helping them, and all future generations, by trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is more difficult,” Singer writes. Okay, climate deniers aside, so far so good.

“So, too, is the choice between helping humans and reducing the vast amount of suffering we inflict on nonhuman animals.” Really? That’s a difficult choice? “Nonhuman animals.” There’s perspective, and then there’s perspective.

In his provocative op-ed on“The Charitable-Industrial Complex,” Peter Buffett says, “I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.” There’s an element of Singer’s thought that might label humanism as “speciesism.” Like I said, here’s something forbidding about following his line of reasoning.

I’ll have more to say about Singer’s challenge to philanthropy, but this facet of it seemed worth mentioning.

Never Let Her Slip Away

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Been obsessed with this 70s song that I heard Dave Grohl talk about on Marc Maron’s WTF? podcast. The melody is crazy, it’s really challenging and fun to learn how to sing – especially since I need to transpose it to another key. Usually I think of the song for the title of a post after I’ve written the post, but I was just working on that song, so it’s on my mind.

So – Darren Walker is the new head of the Ford Foundation. Interesting that they chose someone in-house. As a colleague was saying earlier today, nice to have it be recognized that philanthropy is a real profession, and that having past experience in it is valuable for a foundation head. Often, foundation boards look outside the sector for expertise. Darren’s been embedded in big foundations like Ford and Rockefeller for more than 10 years. Will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

Part of the challenge for a foundation leader is understanding the parameters of what you can and can’t do – and bringing your board along with you. This is the challenge for a philanthropic insider – we have shared assumptions and jargon and a shared theory of change. But as I’ve been thinking about more and more lately (inspired by Patti Patrizi’s work on this topic), assessing strategy is about understanding how well it reacts to and builds upon the context in which it’s formulated.

There are two respects in which realism is needed: one is about the complexity of the context you’re trying to change. And another is about the full range of tools at your disposal. My refrain lately is that foundations do less than they can (they don’t take enough advantage of convening, advocacy, communications, field building, etc.) but that they reach for more than they can grasp (their theories of change aren’t grounded enough in reality). Boards can unfortunately be a source of both of these shortcomings. It falls to the chief executive, the board chair, and the senior staff to engage the board in a frank discussion of what can realistically be expected of these interesting and peculiar entities that get most of their work done by proxy.

These are some of the challenges Darren and his colleagues who run foundations face. Now…how to tie in that song title? Who’s the “her”? Um….how about Athena, the goddess of wisdom? Yeah, that’s the ticket. Keep her owl on your shoulder. Mazel tov.

Fountain and Fairfax

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

One of my favorite parts of working at Hispanics in Philanthropy back in the day was serving as the HIP representative to the Joint Affinity Groups – the associations of grantmakers organized by population, generally personal identity. Them what experienced oppression, basically. We each had our own agenda, but we had a joint agenda. The promise of JAG was that we would own each other’s agenda – when Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues advocated with the Council on Foundations that their demographic surveys should include sexual orientation, the rest of us would have their back. Your issues are my issues.

This made so much intuitive sense to me – we’re stronger together, and I have people speaking out on my behalf when I’m not even there to speak for myself. What could be better?

Years later, I learned to call this “intersectionality.” I guess it technically means the intersections among multiple forms of oppression, but I’ve always thought of it as the intersection of multiple identities and the power and possibility that brings. And I’ve always enjoyed the thought that intersectionality is a way of life for younger generations – young undocuqueer activists like my cousin Juan and his husband Felipe live intersectionality every day, and use it as a base from which to fight.

Which means this week, of all weeks, I’m particularly attentive to who acts on intersectionality when some folks have had huge wins this week and others have had huge setbacks. The affirmative action non-decision, the Voting Rights Act defeat, the DOMA and Prop 8 victories, the Wendy Davis filibuster, and today, comprehensive immigration reform gathering 68 votes in the Senate – whew, as a politics junkie, I’m overwhelmed.

This week, of all weeks, is the time to live intersectionality, and to celebrate wistfully, to mourn with some joy in your heart, and above all, to resolve to keep fighting for justice and equality.

Kudos to Black Girl Dangerous for holding our feet to the fire. Check out her post on “DOMA, the VRA and The Perfect Opportunity“. Couldn’t say it any better. This is the chance to show your values, to show that you mean intersectionality.

And philanthropy? You’ve got no excuse not to be intersectional. Ask it of yourself, ask it of your grantees, ask it of your partners? How are you seeing the intersections of the issues you support, who’s living at the intersection of the issues you care about, and what can you learn from each other? I say “learn from each other”, not “learn from them”, keeping in mind a great quotation I saw on Facebook today, originally from aboriginal activist Lilla Watson:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Indeed. My schtick on this blog is to have the post titles be song titles. “Fountain and Fairfax” is by the Afghan Whigs, one of my favorite bands from the early 90s. It’s shambolic indie rock sung by a white guy with a sandpaper throat who thinks he’s a soul singer from the 60s. Like many of their songs, “F and F” is about a drunk/junkie trying to make good. “Angel, I’m sober / I got off that stuff / Just like you asked me to.” The addict makes promises, over and over, and keeps breaking them. Time and again, he has a chance to start again and misses it. But not this time.

“I’ll be waiting for you / At Fountain and Fairfax”

Time to show up.

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #3

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

(Part of a continuing series)

#3: “We can move the needle.”

I help foundations develop theories of change – being clear about how what they do makes a difference in the world. What I try to remind them of, and I need to get better at doing this, is what can you really do as a funder with a $6 million – or even $60 million annual grantmaking budget?

  • You work in education? The annual budget of the Fargo, North Dakota school district was $124 million in 2011-12.
  • You work in health? The Biloxi Regional Medical Center paid more than $48 million in wages and benefits in 2011.
  • You work on the environment? ExxonMobil spent $12.9 million on lobbying in 2013.

So what are we talking about here?

Let’s say you want to improve the unemployment rate in the Cincinnati metro area. To move it even one-tenth of a percent, you’d have to help 1,000 people find jobs in a month, which is how often the “needle” is measured.

What is this needle, how are we moving it, and how do we know it stays moved? You have to adjust unemployment statistics for seasonal trends – a lot of people get temporary retail jobs around the holidays, more farmhands are hired at harvest time, kids in school get summer jobs. The change you achieve may get swamped.

So unless you’re changing the rules by which a system operates – which takes gaining political power, mobilizing a base to demand for change, or developing an alternative philosophy and doing the hard, generation-long work of making it the new status go – your signal is likely to get drowned out by a lot of noise.

Or you can go really specific and really small. A neighborhood? That you might be able to change? A city? Come on now.

Our theories of change need to be about movements, about narratives, about systems, if we’re going to live up to the ambition that so many foundation staffs and boards rightly entertain.

Why would you want to move a needle anyway? Better to move the whole haystack.

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.

Such Great Heights

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Last time, I looked at how “philanthropizing” creates vertical ties where none may have existed before.

This may be due to a market failure. A necessary one. On some level, we need the insulation of institutionalized philanthropy because it’s intensely awkward to give to a stranger directly. (Giving to people you know has its own joys and complications.)

I experienced this in the Rockaways shortly after Sandy. I was volunteering at a church that was receiving and distributing donations of goods. In the late afternoon, folks started coming in to receive them. Folding tables were set up in a horseshoe in the church gymnasium. Behind them were piles of clothes, blankets, toys, canned goods, and cleaning supplies. Between the tables and the goods were volunteers.

I was on canned goods for a while. Easy enough. I noticed that it made a difference whether I offered something or asked what they wanted. I was being given the micro power to shape expectations, and I didn’t want it. But at first, fairly harmless. When a woman said, “I just want something that reminds me of Thanksgiving,” I delighted in fishing out a can of yams I had just carefully sorted into a section with other starches (yes, there’s such a thing as canned potatoes, alas).

Things got weird when I moved I over to the paper goods. How many rolls of toilet paper are enough? How many rolls of paper towels? Who the eff am I to say? We had some vague guidelines, but it was incongruous to be parroting those to people when a stream of volunteers was piling twelve-packs of paper towels atop each other behind me. I get that the guidelines were there for a reason, but it all felt so arbitrary in the moment.

Here was a vertical tie emerging, unbidden, unwanted on either end. It’s easy to think the alternative would have been a free-for-all; some structure is needed to distribute scarce goods. But I would have been glad, in that moment, for more intermediation. I had chosen this type of volunteering because I wanted to do something direct. But that particular setup and structure left a sour taste. (Delivering hot meals to homebound seniors in the Red Hook Houses felt simpler and “cleaner.”)

Market relations are corrosive when they invade every corner of life. (I’m looking forward to reading The Moral Limits of Markets, which I have waiting on my Kindle app.) Their impersonal nature erodes solidarity. But sometimes, a little distance may be helpful.

This leads me to wonder whether contemporary philanthropy needs a market framework to operate, a certain amount of structure and impersonality. That feels counter-intuitive or wrong – giving is from the heart – but that church gymnasium, with its scoreboard blankly tallying HOME and AWAY, keeps coming back to my mind’s eye.

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.

City of New Orleans

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

I’ve been busy blogging on RE: Philanthropy, the Council on Foundations’ website. Here’s a recap of my posts from the community foundations conference last week:

Non-Superstitious Use of Data: The Missing Link between Your Business Model and Your Revenue Model”

Another Kind of Grantee? Entrepreneurs and Journalists as Change Agents”

How Two Community Foundations Balance Head and Heart while Navigating the Path to Impact”

Tomorrow Never Knows

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Does anyone in charge of a major institution know what they’re doing?

Obama misunderestimated the Republican Congress’ willingness to go all the way with monolithic obstructionism

The Solicitor General (i.e., the government’s attorney) flubbed both the health-care and Arizona arguments

Jamie Dimon looked the other way while $2 billion flew out the door

Seems like only John Roberts seems to have a clue anymore how to get things done. (And what a cost!)

Phil Buchanan is making a valuable set of arguments on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog against blind importing of “business thinking” into philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, which Albert Ruesga has picked up and elaborated on in his inimitable way.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time working with foundation CEOs, and even aspire to join their ranks one day. It’s sobering to contemplate the challenges of leadership in a globalized, politicized, post-recession world. What’s that William Goldman famously said about Hollywood?

“Nobody knows anything.”

I was in a work-related conflict once that centered on control and who had it. A mentor advised me, “you should feel for that person, because the truth is, nobody’s in control.”

And this may be the most important reason the superstitious application of business thinking is dangerous: because business ethics are…what, an oxymoron? I’m with Albert and Phil Cubeta, our work has to have a grounding in some sort of moral tradition. There has to be a way to do that without falling into the trap of moralizing, of wanting to impose one’s vision of the good life on others.

And maybe that’s the challenge of leadership in a world where nobody knows anything and nobody’s in control. To find a clear patch of ground and stand on it, even as the winds buffet you. Let it blow.