Posts Tagged ‘influence’

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?

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Behind the Curtain

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Lots to talk about from the community foundations conference earlier this week; I’ll get into that next week. The questions that interest me at work of internal foundation capacity, non-grantmaking roles, and funder strategy in an ecosystem context were all weaved through the discussions.

In the meantime, here’s my new post on Philanthropy New York about a session I recently did on “So You Want to be a Philanthropic Advisor?” with Caroline Woodruff of Bessemer Trust.

“Off the Menu”

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Thanks to the EPIP-NY chapter and TCC Group for co-hosting a workshop I facilitated yesterday, “Off the Menu: Choosing the Right Non-Grantmaking Roles.” The Mertz-Gilmore Foundation were fabulous hosts.

The focus of the workshop was to help foundation program staff identify non-grantmaking roles that are a good fit for them and their foundation. Such roles include research, advocacy, communications, convening, field building, and capacity building, among others. As the workshop description put it:

As a program staffer at a foundation, it can seem like there is an endless menu of conferences, convenings, site visits, affinity groups, blogs, and publications – not to mention all of the invitations from your grantees. It’s easy to say yes when you’re excited about learning and contributing to the field.  But you also have all the other work you’re expected to do, so how do you determine what’s really important—for your grantees, your program strategy, your foundation’s mission, and your own personal development?  And how do you navigate a supervisor or organizational culture that pushes you to get out there as much as possible—or one that would prefer you to stay chained to your desk?

While you have criteria for making grants, there are few rules when it comes to choosing non-grantmaking activities. How do you prioritize and make the case for those activities that are critical to your job, your foundation, and your personal development? How do you navigate generational differences within your organization to explain what kinds of non-grantmaking roles are worthwhile?

A few things struck me about the discussion at the workshop itself:

  • The range of actors involved in non-grantmaking roles is very broad. While the session was targeted to grantmakers, the diversity of the audience, which included nonprofit leaders and consultants made for lively discussion about what kinds of non-grantmaking activities are genuinely useful. If grantmakers get more into strategic communications, how aware are they of their audiences and what kind of language and terminology resonate with those audiences?
  • Non-grantmaking roles put funders on more of an equal footing with grantees. Without the grant relationship directly mediating the connection, nonprofits and funders have the potential to engage in a more open way. This is far from automatic, however! It requires some intentional discussions, and some recognition among funders that they’re learners in this space.
  • It’s important to balance your ambitions for non-grantmaking roles with the resources at your disposal. One area that several participants gravitated to was making the information funders receive from grantees and their own research more broadly available to the field. But what is the quality of that data? It may sound good to take a more data-driven approach to decision-making, but how reliable and accessible are the data with which you’re working? That doesn’t mean such efforts aren’t worth pursuing, but a measure of realism is needed.
  • There’s a desire for more of this discussion. The internal capacity of foundations is something for which we don’t have a lot of good frameworks or explicit ways of talking about, so it’s easy to make decisions in an ad hoc fashion. By naming the types of capacity that foundations, in particular their program staff, need to play their roles effectively, and how those capacities connect to mission achievement, we can shed light on this underappreciated area.

In upcoming posts, I’ll have more to say about the content of the workshop, in particular the idea that non-grantmaking roles can be understood in terms of how foundations Influence, Include, Inform, and Invest. For now, thanks again to those who participated!

The Manhattan Transfer

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Over the past three years, I’ve become a big fan of European football, aka soccer, following the major leagues in England, Spain, and elsewhere, especially my beloved FC Barcelona. As a newcomer to this kind of fandom, I’m continually bemused by the sheer volume and breathless tenor of commentary around “the transfer window”, i.e., the two times of the year when teams can buy and trade players. Things can get very complicated because you’re trading across international lines, and often until the very last minute of “Deadline Day,” which was this past Monday. The big news of Deadline Day was Mesut Ozil, a German of Turkish extraction, moving from Real Madrid in Spain to Arsenal in London. My passport hurts just thinking about that! Not to mention my wallet: pounds, euros, dollars – the figures are reported multiple and confusing ways.

What’s interesting is how the hype machine processes trades, and how the “right” or “wrong” decisions can shape how teams are perceived in the local and international media, and how much leeway managers, particularly new ones, have to find their way. This has been a season of unusually high managerial turnover at the major clubs, the biggest of which was David Moyes succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson after 26 years at Manchester United. That’s right, one manager led that club for twenty-six years. Imagine the expectations for the new guy! The succession was scrutinized all summer, more so because there weren’t games to talk about. Since the league only starts up in late August, the media and fans judge managers early on in the season through their team’s activity in the transfer window. Never mind that there’s usually a general manager-type figure who makes personnel decisions, it’s the coach/manager who takes the blame for transfer activity perceived to be subpar.

For the last several years, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, an impossibly urbane and dignified Frenchman who favors tailored grey suits and an Arsenal-red tie, has been pilloried for his lack of boldness in the transfer window. Arsenal, one of the richest clubs in the Premier League, based in North London, as recently as ten years ago had an undefeated season. But the “Invincibles” of 2004-05 were the last Arsenal side to bring home a trophy, and the pressure on Wenger has grown with each passing year. Missing out on a big signing during successive transfer windows has eaten away at his reputation. Unlike other major clubs that rack up the debt in pursuit of trophies, Arsenal’s management – including Wenger – have been fiscally prudent, content with being a consistently playoff-caliber club with a clean balance sheet. But its fans expect more, they remember the Invincibles.

Finally, this year, Wenger and Arsenal made that longed-after big signing. On Deadline Day, they swooped in for Ozil, one of the stars of the 2010 World Cup and still only 24, his best years ahead of him. The reaction on social media and in the football press was sudden and raucous. Momentum was Arsenal’s at last. And this was the day after they beat their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur on the road. From also-rans to top of the class in the course of a long weekend.

What I’m getting at is the power of talent to shape expectations, and the importance of managing the narrative – particularly when the story you have to tell goes beyond what gets reported in the press or discussed on social media. We’re really not good at this in philanthropy. A while back, I wondered what the “political arts” might be, and how foundations can learn from them. Shaping the narrative has to be one of those arts. The infrastructure of comment in philanthropy is nowhere near as developed as the football press, but word still travels fast. I’ll be watching Wenger this season as Ozil integrates into the side, and thinking about talent, narrative, and momentum.

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.

Save Me?

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Teju Cole has a great piece on the Atlantic website about “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” inspired by KONY 2012 and other international do-gooder efforts. (He’s also in tomorrow’s final of the 2012 Tournament of Books.) It’s an evocative phrase, let’s break it down.

That the saviors are white matters because of the white man’s burden, the legacy of colonialism, and unexamined white privilege.

That they frame themselves as saviors (if that’s what they’re doing) matters because that denies agency to the people who are being nominally saved.

That it’s an industrial complex matters…why? Because do-gooding should be an artisanal craft? Because it should be a monastic calling? Because it should be divine inspiration? Because…. Hmm. The original term “military-industrial complex” pointed out that two apparently unrelated areas were related that shouldn’t be related, because they concentrated too much material and political power. What power do would-be white saviors wield? And why should their professionalization be worth calling out as a danger?

Could it be because the power to call attention to an issue or problem, particularly one as previously obscure as the Lord’s Resistance Army, turns out to matter after all? And that the innocence and disintermediation that were the public face of KONY 2012 supporters somehow confirm our prejudices about what do-gooding should look like – non-industrialized, organic, idealistic?

The truth is, white saviors have a pittance of the Pentagon’s budget. Not much of an industrial complex – more like a set of competing and fractious medieval guilds. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they try to leverage the hell out of soft power.

There are many kinds of complex that white saviors could be ascribed: superiority, inferiority, Cassandra – but industrial? Nah. They wish.

Influence and incentives

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Previously on TBBKA”DP?”, I wondered about the difference between having impact and having influence. Impact sounds like two independent bodies colliding; influence suggest two streams coming together. Another buzzword that’s a euphemism for power is “incentives.” The gradual invasion of economic thinking into every corner of life continues apace; the power of incentives is one of the signal contributions of the dismal science to popular discourse in the past several years (witness the success of “Freakonomics”).

If impact is hard power, and influence is soft power, what are incentives? They’re relational and structural. Incentives are a function of a situation: the importance of grades and test scores for admission into competitive colleges incentivize students to cram for tests. They’re relational both synchronically (at a given moment) and diachronically (over time). Someone or something incentivizes you at a given moment (study hard and you’ll get a good grade on the test) and/or over a period of time (keep studying hard over the years and you’ll eventually get into a good school). Because they’re structural or situational, incentives can be nested: study to get grades, get grades to get into school. In fact, incentives may be most powerful when they’re most embedded. Tocqueville said revolutions would be increasingly less likely in America because more and more people had a stake in the functioning of the system. If you own property, you have the obligation of a mortgage and need money to keep coming in; there are multiple sets of incentives that link up in straightforward ways.

The thing about all these incentives is that they’re visible and relatively easy to understand. Influence can be quieter, work behind the scenes. When two rivers converge, you can’t tell where one starts and the other ends. (Well, except for the black and sandy Amazon Rivers.) Incentives are visible and accessible to all; influence is either so dispersed as to be essentially invisible (What determines whether a movie ends up being popular? We see it happen, but no one can really explain why, so the mechanism of influence remains mysterious.) or hidden out of public sight (whatever happened to the climate bill?).

So maybe impact is hard power, incentives are visible soft power, and influence is invisible soft power. How might these concepts be useful for understanding the way nonprofits and philanthropy do or do not make a difference on the issues they care about?

Influence vs. impact

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

I’m wondering if another way of thinking about the impact that foundations and nonprofits can have is in terms of influence.

Impact sounds big, it suggests two solid bodies crashing into each other. What was that other asteroid-threatens-Earth movie that came out at the same time as “Armageddon?” “Deep Impact.” Lot of fallout from impact, a lot of debris kicked up. Both bodies, once solid and intact, are changed somehow, and not generally in a good way.

Influence sounds more sinuous, less mass-y. It suggests flow, fluidity, influx – two streams joining together to become something larger and different, with the differences between them no longer as visible. Maybe influence is soft power and impact is hard power?

Impact is inherently ambitious, it seeks visible change; influence is less flashy, it often operates behind the scenes. But with our Twitter feeds and Facebook news feeds scrolling down our screens, influence is becoming more visible, being broken down into its constituent bits – building a presence, an influence one “Like” at a time.

Our metaphors matter, so I find myself wondering about the difference between impact and influence, and how such alternative concepts might, um, shape our thinking about foundations and nonprofits.