Posts Tagged ‘housekeeping’

Time for a Reboot

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

It’s a tremendous honor to have joined the Ford Foundation in April as the Program Officer for Philanthropy. I’ve long been an admirer of the foundation’s reach and approach, and when I first moved to New York, I lived a block from its headquarters – so this building has long loomed large for me, both figuratively and literally.

And it’s a very exciting time to be here, as so many things are changing. Our fearless president Darren Walker recently announced how our focus is shifting to disrupting the drivers of inequality, and that we’ll be doubling our commitment to unrestricted support. These are big shifts for a nearly 80-year-old organization, and it feels like the place will look very different by this time next year. These types of major change initiatives are never easy, and the hardest part lies ahead, when we translate the new strategies into a new way of operating. But this place is full of brilliant, dedicated people who are fun to work with, and I’m hopeful.

My job is to “program” the Philanthropy portfolio, a term we use around here that I hadn’t heard before. It means articulating a point of view and developing a strategy in collaboration with my boss Hilary Pennington, the VP for Education, Creativity, and Free Expression, and then deciding what grants to make, and what beyond-the-grant activities to carry out – convening, research, advocacy, public education, technical assistance, etc. We’re tremendously lucky here at Ford to be able to play an active role in the fields we support. But that also means a lot of responsibility! In talks at the JAG Unity Summit and the Minnesota Council on Foundations last year, I described a responsible funder role as meaning that you’re sensible, reliable, and accountable. Time to walk the talk.

The tagline I inherited, based on strategy work done before I arrived, is “more resources, better deployed, in service of the social justice causes Ford champions.” Having written my fair share of such taglines from my days as a strategy consultant, I can say this is quite a good one – it gives both direction and latitude. So my immediate task is to flesh out that tagline into a strategy, start making grants, and doing beyond-the-grant work.

The exciting part of this job is that the field of philanthropy is evolving VERY quickly, so there are a lot of opportunities to support really interesting stuff. The daunting part is that the field of philanthropy is evolving very quickly, so there are a LOT of opportunities to support really interesting stuff – and we’ll have to make choices. As my friend and former TCC Group colleague Jared Raynor likes to say, “it’s not a strategic decision if you don’t leave a good option on the table.”

I’m reading the book “Creativity, Inc.,” by the head of Pixar Animation, Ed Catmull. It’s his description of the process by which Pixar has sought to create a sustainable culture of creativity and excellence. Given that their latest movie, “Inside Out,” just had the biggest opening ever for an original property, I’d say they’re making a pretty good go of it, especially after a rough few years (“Cars 2,” anyone?). One of Catmull’s mantras within Pixar is, “all our movies suck at first.” They have a process by which those efforts, which are driven by their creators rather than sourced externally, are continually made better through structured, focused, regular feedback.

That sounds like fun. So, let’s try it. I’m going to repurpose this blog, which for the past five years I used as a personal opinion platform about the relationship between philanthropy and democracy, to be a scratch pad and platform for feedback on my emerging thinking about Ford’s Philanthropy program. I encourage you to ask questions, make comments, interrogate my assumptions, offer alternatives, or even just say, “yeah, okay, that wouldn’t be entirely un-useful to the field.” Together, we can go, as Catmull puts it, “from suck to not-suck.”

In the two and a half months since I started this position, I’ve had 105 meetings, 71 of them external to the foundation; attended more than a dozen convenings, conferences, workshops, or webinars; done three speaking engagements; been featured in an article ($) about careers in philanthropy; and had a post published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog about partnerships between individual and institutional donors. I’m grateful to everyone involved in those conversations, which have been enormously helpful as I’ve identified some initial directions to explore. In future posts, I’ll share some of the ideas that have been emerging and ask for your feedback. The topics may include:

  • Broadening the scope of donors interested in social justice
  • The expressive dimensions of philanthropy, or, the ways people use money to build the world they want to see
  • What “integrative leadership” in philanthropy might look like
  • A fundamental issue at the nexus of philanthropy and impact investing
  • Philanthropy and cultural narratives that promote exclusion (one of Ford’s five drivers of inequality)
  • What it means to build and share power through philanthropy

When I was writing my dissertation long-distance in 2007-08, I had a blog called “It Takes a Village to Write a Dissertation,” on which friends would volunteer to monitor a week’s worth of daily posts on my progress. That, and having a writing space 12 minutes from my apartment, were the only way I got the dissertation done. I’m hoping a similar magic can work here. So, you know, no pressure or anything, but I’m counting on you all, okay?

Let’s start with a question. Given Ford’s focus on disrupting the drivers of inequality, and the Philanthropy program’s charge to help move “more resources, better deployed, in service of the social justice causes Ford champions,” where would you start? Who would you talk to, what would you read, where would you visit? I’ve done a lot of each of those things, but I’m looking for what I’ve missed.

Or, if you prefer, try this one: Where can Ford make the biggest contribution with our Philanthropy program given our focus? Keep in mind that grants will be made in the U.S. and will focus on philanthropy (as opposed to the broader nonprofit sector).

Thanks in advance for traveling this path together. Here’s to happy trails ahead!

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Time After Time

Friday, April 29th, 2011

So it’s been a year since I started blogging. I read over my posts from that past year last night, and thought about threads I’d like to continue in the coming year, and those that I’d like to summarize and try to say something more definitive on.

To continue:

To summarize:

To possibly begin exploring:

  • The role of philanthropy in a democratic society based on prior international experiences like Eastern Europe and Latin America, amid the lessons they hold for the Middle East.

And there’ll be more in the last category, for sure….

Sounds like a plan!

(Lost in) A Forest

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Continuing from yesterday on the theme of agriculture vs. engineering as a metaphor for social change, and the role of innovation in philanthropy.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (which should be required reading for anyone in philanthropy) opens with a metaphor about forestry (which I know isn’t the same as agriculture, but anyway). A set of loggers looked at a forest, with all of its messy complexity – trees of different sizes, ferns, moss, shrubs, bushes, underbrush, fungi, rotting fallen logs, etc., etc. – and thought, how can we most rationally extract as much timber as possible? Well, we need to clear away all the underbrush, and turn the forest into as close an approximation as possible of evenly spaced, easily cut-down-able logs that just happen to be vertical until we can cut them down. To rationalize the extraction of timber.

That’s a plan, as far as it goes. But the problem is, without the underbrush, and the bushes, and the shrubs, and the other trees of varying sizes – the timber trees couldn’t survive. They needed the whole complex ecosystem of the forest for sustenance. So in the end, the loggers got less lumber than if they had worked within the “constraints” of the existing ecosystem.

How often are we like those loggers in philanthropy? How often do we not see the forest (of sustainability) for the trees (of impact or innovation)?

P.S. My first post on this blog was April 21, 2010; happy blog-o-versary to me! I’m on the road for work next week, but I’ll do my best to celebrate with a look back at some of the topics I’ve covered, and begin thinking about what lies ahead…

(knock knock) Housekeeping

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

All right, it’s been a month or two that I’ve been blogging steadily, so it’s time to take stock. At the beginning here, I’ve been exploring the space opened up by my two questions, and setting up some fenceposts to mark where I’d ultimately like to divide things up and work on specific topics in specific areas. So as not to lose track of them all, here’s what that looks like so far:

First question: What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?

  • Are there varieties of philanthropy to go along with the varieties of capitalism?
  • What does philanthropy look like in the CIVETS, up-and-coming economies in the developing world (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa)
  • Voting systems and philanthropy: How are nonprofit fundraising and political campaigning related? How are nonprofit donors like voters? What do nonprofit donors want? In what ways are grant decisions and voting related? What are the implications of applying social-media forms of indicating approval (rating, sharing, liking) to grant decision processes?
  • Is philanthropy a corrective or an accomplice to the fundamental tension between markets and democracy?

Second question: What would it mean to democratize philanthropy?

  • The meaning of “diversity”
  • What are the implications of the “Foundations and the Common Good” project?
  • How do we achieve the laudable and completely reasonable goals of Project Streamline without more regulation of the field?

General musings:

  • Agriculture and engineering as metaphors for social change
  • How privileging “local knowledge” might cut across left-right ideological lines
  • Periodic musings about data and methodology

What immediately stands out is that I’ve focused more on my first question rather than my second. So maybe I’ll work on mapping some of that territory out too.