Posts Tagged ‘impact’

#FailEpic, continued

Friday, August 7th, 2015

I appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it’s so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened – when do you know to throw in the towel? – and that it’s not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

I would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success – that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it – masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who’s doing the telling, and when.

I see two strands of conversation worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

One is to explore what it looks like to have candid conversations between funders and nonprofits about real issues of execution and responsibility (on all sides!) in a context beyond the one-on-one grant relationship. I come to this with an instinct that a more public version of such conversations would be salutary, but also deep wariness about doing it in a way that’s constructive instead of harmful.

  • Are there stages by which such conversations evolve? Do you need to start with self-reflection, then within your own organization, then within a trusted network of peers, then more publicly? That’s an awful lot of steps.
  • Perhaps the best starting place is not talking about failure within a particular grant relationship, but in the context of a topic of shared interest in which the participants don’t have a direct stake. One can imagine a study group dedicated to reviewing examples of initiatives that have failed, and seeking to generate and apply insight from them – with an audience of funders and nonprofits who aren’t part of that field. Might that be a less threatening way to get started?
  • Because trying to have a conversation within a field about what worked and what didn’t is incredibly difficult. I think about the “four pillars” strategy in the immigration reform movement, which national funders and nonprofits developed together after a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006-07. They analyzed why they lost and how they could overcome those disadvantages, and then moved resources and effort toward filling those gaps. What makes cases like that possible? Where else does this happen?

The other strand of conversation worth pursuing is to ask what it looks like within an organization, and specifically a foundation, to be open to acknowledging, learning from, and acting on failure. What values and motivations need to be in place? Who are the change agents and culture bearers? How do incentives need to change? Are there particular structures or systems that make it easier to learn from and act on failure? What do a higher risk tolerance and a culture of inquiry look like in practice? I feel like we know a lot about this in the field, but the threads of conversation aren’t necessarily organized.

  • Part of the challenge is, who owns failure within the institution? In other words, who’s responsible for identifying it, naming it, lifting it up, creating a safe space in which to discuss it, making sure meaning is derived, and then following through on application of that insight? Those responsibilities fall across a number of function – evaluation, HR, programs, senior leadership, board. What role should be the steward or the shepherd ensuring that those functions are integrated in pursuit of mining improvement from failure, and what resources or tools does that person or team need?

Thanks again to all have engaged on this topic, and to the organizations that have begun hosting conversations among funders about being more open about failure. Do the strands of conversation I suggest above seem relevant, and worth pursuing? What kinds of spaces could we create for more authentic funder-nonprofit dialogue? And how can we get clearer about the organizational culture needed to support openness about failure?


The Long and Winding Road

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Coming off a great, dizzying six weeks on the speaking and conference circuit, some of which I’ve tracked here. Philanthropy New York, Philanthropy Ohio, the community foundations conference, Minnesota Council on Foundations, and more – for this ambivert, lots of socializing, plus downtime in Cleveland, Minnesota, Austin, and Maryland to recharge. Thanks to everyone who hosted me and came out for sessions.

Here’s what I’m taking away from my time on the road:

  • Everything old is new again. The talk of the community foundations conference was a panel in which a speaker showed the agenda from the same conference…in 1925 (!)…and it was…wait for it…practically the same agenda as 2014. It’s one thing to have perennial problems in philanthropy. It’s another to willfully or blithely ignore history. I had cause recently to revisit Joel Orosz’s classic “The Insider’s Guide to Grantmaking” from 2000 – it’s great! Full of humane thinking and practical insight. Should be required reading. Not to mentions perennials from GrantCraft, Center for Effective Philanthropy, and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. My boss keeps telling me to read “The Golden Foundations” by Waldemar Nielsen. What’s on your philanthropy required-reading list? In grad school, back in the early 2000s before you could just store these on Google Docs, in my polisci doctoral program we had a CD-ROM (later a thumb drive) of summaries and outlines of classic texts prepared by students in years past that got passed down to the next class when it was time to study for qualifying exams. We could use something like that in philanthropy, open-sourced. Anyone up for jumping in with me? If it already exists, all the better – let’s build on it.
  • Going it alone is for suckers. At work, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of an ecosystem approach to strategy and capacity building. That message is really resonating with all kinds of audiences. Increasingly, anyone’s point of departure in the social-impact space has to be, what is my strategy in relation to the strategies of other actors in my space? This forces you to think about who those actors are. What capacity do I as a funder need to be a good partner with nonprofits, companies, government, intermediaries, etc.? I’m very conscious that my first point applies very well to my second, i.e., that this is not a new problem, and would welcome good sources on this.
  • Go small to go big. My talk at Minnesota Council on Foundations was about “Scaling Our Work for Greater Impact.” I argued that funders should focus on playing their roles in the social ecosystem responsibly, meaning that they’re reliable, sensible, and accountable. By getting hold of those basics, “going small,” they’re better positioned to “go big” by leveraging their impact through collaboration. Again, this is the point of departure, not just an add-on or something it’d be nice to have.
  • What’s in your utility belt? Oh, Alec Baldwin. Ostracized from TV and print, and now heckled off the agenda of the Independent Sector conference. I mean, it’s not like he didn’t bring it on himself. He’s also been replaced as the pitchman for Capital One credit cards – for a few years, it was his gravelly voice that intoned, “What’s in your wallet?” A version of that question is relevant for funders – what tools are in your utility belt, and what are you using beyond the grant to achieve impact. This one’s definitely not a new question! But I see lots of interest on it out there, and it’s tied to the capacity question – what tools should you choose, and how do you prioritize those based on the ability you have on staff and can either build or buy? Research, advocacy, convening, advancing difficult dialogues, mission investing – the list goes on. So much opportunity, so little understanding of how to prioritize based on mission, need, and capacity.

For funders, how do you think about your nongrantmaking roles? Are you clear on what roles are a best fit for your in your ecosystem? What perennial questions do you find yourself revisiting?

Double Vision

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Short and sweet this time: I heard a great description of what I think is an essential skill in philanthropy, the ability to have focus but not be rigid about it.

The firm for which I work is bidding on a project with a group of community foundations, and one of the people involved was on a podcast about philanthropy, so I took a listen. He reflected on his experience as a community foundation leader, saying “you have to be single-minded, but also open-minded,” or words to that effect.

That strikes me as just right: I think the art of “strategic philanthropy” is to take your time figuring out a problem that is at the intersection of what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and where the need is, and where a focused intervention can really make a difference. I keep thinking about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work on juvenile justice, from hearing CEO Patrick McCarthy speak about it at a conference. They saw that it really makes a difference in the juvenile justice system where kids end up on their first sentencing: if they go right to prison, their outcomes are much worse than if they’re put in a community-based setting. But the more extreme response is more common than it should be. So the foundation has focused on helping to create conditions where that sentencing decision goes the other way. They’re single-minded about making that change, because they believe in the potential upside.

But then, once you’ve found that focus, you should be open to good ideas, wherever they might come from. And such good ideas include having those directly impacted play a leading role, including in decision-making, on how resources should be allocated in pursuit of that goal. Work across sectors, empower nonprofit leaders and those directly affected to speak and lead, look for insight from throughout your own organization, draw on the experiences of your funders – once you’ve figured out what to be single-minded about, you can be gloriously open-minded about everything else.

It’s not easy to get there, because not that many problems may fit those criteria of mission, need, capacity, and ripeness, but when you find them, go all in.

Baby Come Back

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

It’s been a while, but I’m back at it with the blogging.

It’s interesting to see the backlash against “strategic philanthropy” continuing to gain force. Bill Schambra’s latest continues a theme he’s hammered for a while, but when the likes of FSG (disclosure: a competitor of the firm for which I work) begin to moderate their approach, you know something is up.

Part of this has to do with an absolutism about data, which cuts both ways. Either you have to be driven entirely by metrics, or they’re the devil. If metrics don’t work, throw ’em overboard.

But what’s most interesting, and difficult, is decision-making in conditions of uncertainty. Which is, you know, the human condition.

This is particularly important when you put data in their proper social context. As I’ve continually railed, the concept of “moving the needle” in philanthropy is inherently problematic. The scale of changes philanthropy can foster, particularly in a social-service context, just aren’t big enough – there aren’t enough people affected – to actually change social indicators. The scale is off. Maybe I’m just being too literal, but it seems like the phrase should actually mean something….

To that point, economist Justin Wolfers has a fascinating account of how difficult it is to draw meaningful conclusions even under the best quasi-experimental conditions, allegedly the gold standard of social analysis.

To wit, North Carolina stopped extending unemployment benefits as of this past January, while surrounding states with broadly similar economies and cultural backgrounds continued them. Conservatives argued that stopping benefits would incentivize the unemployed to try harder to find a job, lowering unemployment rates. Progressives argued that those denied benefits would spend less money, exerting a negative influence on the economy.

When Wolfers crunches the numbers, thoughtfully and in accord with good standards, the answer is…we can’t tell. There are changes in both expected directions, but they’re not significantly different than changes in neighboring states. We can’t tell what difference the reform made, and who’s right.

If we’re hoping data will give us greater certainty, there’s a good chance they won’t. And we’ll need to go back to good old values to decide whether or not to do certain things. Now, there are values that are out of touch with lived reality on the ground. For my money, those aren’t worth much cottoning to. So I’m not saying we abandon evidence. But let’s be clear that the data aren’t necessarily going to give us the anchor we thought they could. A degree of faith may be required that longer-term outcomes will ultimately result. Or we may want to value process outcomes more, like improving people’s dignity or promoting learning among relevant actors.

Intentionality in philanthropy is critical, but let’s be honest about what we can and can’t be certain about, and be all right with less certainty than an overly predictive view of metrics might suggest….

Chain Chain Chain

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

While on vacation last month (go to Colombia, it’s fabulous), I finished reading Teju Cole’s Open City. Well worth the read. I especially enjoyed it because the narrator lives near my neighborhood in northern Manhattan and spends much of his time walking around the city; I liked being able to picture his itinerary. I found Cole very thoughtful and attentive to the variety of immigrant experiences in the city. Like his protagonist, Cole was raised in Nigeria and came to the U.S. in the early 90s. So I was interested to see that he’s had some provocative things to say (yes, on Twitter) about the #bringourgirlsback campaign.

#BringBackOurGirls, but to where? In Gamboru Ngala, 3 1/2 hours away from Chibok, 336 people were killed last night.

Much as we might wish this to be a single issue with a clear solution, it isn’t, and it cannot be. It never was.

Boko Haram killed more human beings yesterday than the total number of girls they kidnapped three weeks ago. Horrifying, and unhashtagable.

For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.

Do good work, support good work, find whatever in the inferno is not infernal, but do it from a place of understanding, that is all.

Remember: #bringbackourgirls, a vital moment for Nigerian democracy, is not the same as #bringbackourgirls, a wave of global sentimentality.

This got me thinking about a favorite topic, the nature of causal thinking in philanthropy. A lot of what I do is help funders think through their assumptions about how the work they do (their strategies) is actually expected to result in the changes they hope to see in the world (their outcomes). How realistic are those assumptions? How grounded are they in an understanding of the environment in which you’re operating, and in your own capacity to do the work?

A favorite tool for doing this work is the “pathway to impact,” a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked logically. Marvelous word, that last one. It imparts objectivity, but as I think about it and I experience this work, it should probably be replaced with “empirically.” A pathway to impact is a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked empirically – that there’s some evidence that it’s reasonable to expect on thing to lead to another. Improving curricula for teacher education leads to better trained teachers leads to more effective classroom instruction leads to better educational outcomes for kids. Better understanding of the needs of low-wage workers leads to more tailored employment training programs leads to improved skills leads to greater ability to access jobs leads to greater likelihood of applying for a job leads to greater likelihood of getting one…to keeping one…to improving family income sustainably. And so on, for whatever issue you’re working on.

What I see Teju Cole saying is that our assumptions about how hashtagging “bringbackourgirls” will help, you know, bring them back, are fuzzy and based somewhat on wishful thinking. Other commentators go further and say that this social media campaigning is actually harming Nigeria in the long run, because the most direct thing it can lead to is justifying U.S. military intervention. This tweet is pretty eerie in that light:

@JohnKerry: On behalf of #POTUS spoke w/ #Nigeria’s Pres GJ earlier. US will send security team to help #BringBackOurGirls safely

So one thing to do in these cases is to ask, what are the most likely direct results of what I’m doing here? Whose cause will I help by doing this? There are likely to be multiple answers. But it’s useful to weigh them in the balance. Helps draw attention in the West to a part of the world experiencing issues that should get more attention. Cool. Builds North-South solidarity and causes people to identify with others very distant from themselves geographically, culturally, and economically. Awesomesauce. Helps justify intervention by US forces that can have negative side effects. Jeepers.

Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage in this way. But play out the chain, imagine the pathway(s)…which probably means learning more about circumstances on the ground. And that can never be a bad thing.

Is #bringbackourgirls the new #kony2012? Or does it represent a genuine advance over that experience? (I remember that one of the things I liked about the video was that they did a really good job of laying out a pathway to impact…but it turned out to be wrong, or incomplete, or misguided – perhaps. A topic for another time, maybe.) What do you think?

99 Problems

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

…but foreign aid ain’t one?

I’m wondering whether we’re too problem-oriented in philanthropy. Are we so focused on figuring out things that need to be fixed about the world that we have a hard time seeing the way that things have improved?

Bill Gates published his annual letter about the Gates Foundation’s work this week, and it focused on countering “3 myths about foreign aid.” The crux of his argument is that within his lifetime (he was born in 1955), billions of people worldwide have been elevated from extreme poverty, and that in a bit more than 20 years (2035), he expects that there will be “almost no poor countries” in the world – meaning, almost no country will be as poor as the 35 countries classified as low-income today, after adjusting for inflation.

Put this alongside the recent news that India has all but eradicated polio, and it’s important to remember – things are actually getting better for huge numbers of people across the world. Gates also cites the rise of middle-income countries like China, India, and Brazil, which contain huge portions of the global population. Their economic development, while unequally distributed, has led to a notable decrease in human misery. There are still more than a billion people in extreme poverty, “so it’s not time to celebrate.” But it is time to recognize, Gates argues, that a lot of aid has worked.

The value and effectiveness of foreign aid is a whole other topic of discussion. But I’m struck by the notion that problem-oriented philanthropy may at least partly blind us to the progress that has been made in addressing problems. It’s like we get so focused on our particular problem, our theory of change, that we forget to look up and see that some pretty major collective problems have actually gotten better. No one needs to give up on problem solving anytime soon (though I’ll be glad when there are no longer any Indian doctors who have a memory of treating a polio case), but a virtual high-five to those who’ve made real progress, even if not in our field, is a good idea.

What sign of progress NOT in your own area of focus are you most excited about? Bonus points if it affects people nothing like you and whom you’ll never meet.

We’ve Only Just Begun

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

I’ve been writing about collective action in philanthropy. But what happens when it ends?

Health Care for American Now (HCAN) is the entity set up to manage key elements of the campaign to pass the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Atlantic Philanthropies, among others, made heavy investments of time, talent, and treasure, in helping HCAN achieve its goals. And achieve them it did – against long odds, the ACA was passed. And then a couple of years passed while bureaucrats talked about what the rollout would look like.

Then came October 1, 2013. And all of a sudden, Obamacare was a mess. The initial rollout of was a complete disaster, and even now, the site is plagued by myriad problems. As I’ve written before, it’s important to remember that part of the reason so many people hate the government so much is not primarily ideology or having the wool pooled over their eyes, but the low quality of their day-to-day interaction with government services, whether the IRS or the DMV. The fiasco of was this grievance on an epic scale.

In the midst of the recovery from the bungled initial rollout, HCAN has, according to its plans, shut its doors, as of December 31, 2013. “It may seem a funny time,” writes former national campaign manager Richard Kirsch, :with the current fracas over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but that is the point. The organization’s campaign mission was to win passage of a law, a mission extended to include ‘win and secure’ the ACA.” But wait! What about implementation?

There’s a lesson here for philanthropy: It’s not enough to get the policy passed. It has to be implemented well for the change to truly stick. Where’s the coalition for effective implementation of healthcare reform? HCAN did its work superbly well, and is to be commended. But where was the planning for the implementation phase?

We have the opportunity to learn from this experience. If comprehensive immigration reform happens this year, it won’t be enough. There have to be plans in place for effective implementation. The 11 million people who could be on a path to citizenship, like the tens of millions potentially covered under the ACA, deserve no less. Lift your sights up higher, funders, and see the true horizon.

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?

Windmills in My Mind

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

I saw a preview screening of the new Spike Jonze movie “Her” this week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. In a studiously bespoke near-future Los Angeles (all the men were comically high-waisted pants in a sly prediction of what 2020 Brooklyn will be like), Joaquin Phoenix, freshly divorced, falls in love with a uniquely intuitive operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The main romance, I guess you have to call it, is compelling enough, but it’s the throwaway details of the imagined world in which the characters live that feels so uncanny – almost too real. At a certain point, everyone is walking around talking to their OS in the same way Phoenix’s character – a thumbless version of the bubbles we all float around in on the subway in New York. All these people isolated but feeling cozily connected in a perfectly individualized way – pure, comfy atomization.

What the characters enjoy most about the OS is that it knows them intimately, based on their data (emails, contacts, browsing habits, conversation). To be understood and accepted is what everyone longs for.

Ironic then, that what is so readily achieved with one’s own device is so very hard to achieve with others. We find ourselves imagined so well and so thoroughly, our desires and needs catered to, and find it increasingly difficult to understand the experiences of others, to imagine what their lives must be like, or even to think to ask that question in the first place.

The semi-fake essay “Poverty Thoughts” blew up in my social media feed, before what now seems like the inevitable backlash of puncturing the hype balloon. The author wrote searingly of the thought processes that make “bad decisions” by poor people seem perfectly reasonable, even rational, given the circumstances. People reading and sharing it resonated with the (apparent) truth-telling, particularly at a time when the GOP was slashing food stamp benefits. Here was some real talk, insight into what it’s like and why apparently mystifying behavior (buying luxury goods when you have minimal income) can be reasonable in a frame of reference where saving for the future doesn’t accomplish anything and hope is the true luxury.

I take it as a sign that we’re so hungry to know the experiences of others that so many people, myself included, fell for this semi-hoax. The world of “Her” is not yet upon us if these kinds of stories resonate, even if they turn out not to be as cut and dry as originally presented. Our credulity is a sign of our humanity, our longing for insight and connection. So I’m glad that the Times’ series on homeless youth in New York is gaining traction.

So when it comes time to do your holiday giving, ask yourself, whose experience of everyday life do I want to improve? When I think of the “beneficiaries” of my giving, how well can I imagine them? How different are they from me, really? Giving is an act of solidarity, but it’s also an act of imagination. Dive into stories like the Times’ “Invisible Child” and make a connection with a reality outside your own. The Joaquin Phoenix “Her” future of coddled solipsism doesn’t have to be the one we create.

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?