Posts Tagged ‘let’s do the time warp again’

Brand New Key(s)

Friday, September 19th, 2014

At my day job, we just put out a paper that I was involved in, “Ten Keys, Ten Years Later: Successful Strategic Planning for Foundation Leaders.” As much as strategy has and continues to evolve, we find that the fundamentals of strategic planning remain relevant for a wide variety of funders. One sign of this is that one of our most enduringly popular briefing papers is “Ten Keys to Successful Strategic Planning for Nonprofit and Foundation Leaders.” We just had a potential client say that’s how they found us – and it came out more than ten years ago.

So we thought it would be useful to revisit the Ten Keys and see what was the same and what changed. We also decided to focus specifically on funders this time around.

It was pleasantly surprising to see that most of the keys held up. We framed them a bit differently this time around, but the fundamentals remain sound, and easily overlooked.

There are two that receive different emphasis this time around, and they’re topics that are near and dear to my heart. One is about how non-grantmaking tools are no longer just an afterthought, but an integral part of the strategy discussion. And the other is that it’s more important than ever to frame strategy relationally – in terms of the ecosystem in which you’re embedded. If you’re an education funder, your strategy needs to address its relation to the strategy of the school district, the charter school network, other education funders – your strategy is not just yours alone, in other words. Those who get that do better in strategic planning.

What do you think about the updated Ten Keys? Do they ring true with your experience of strategic planning? How relevant do you find strategic planning in today’s environment?


One is the number divided by two

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Wrapping up the Year 3 look back at my blog topics. Here are the questions I raised and concepts I developed in Year 1 (April 2010-April 2011).

I got a lot done the first year! Lot of material to mine here for future posts.

Here are my favorite posts from that year:

Next week, back to the future!

Three Times One Minus One

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Back again in retro mode. Here are the concepts I developed and/or the and questions that I grappled with in the second year of this blog (April 2011-April 2012):

  • The “powerless presidential bully pulpit” and philanthropy’s advocacy work
  • The “white savior industrial complex” and philanthropy
  • #KONY2012 and the cycle of backlash
  • Foundation governance and decision-making have a long way to go to catch up with new ambitions for belovedness (cf. Komen)
  • What is a progressive theory of human frailty that is not about fallenness but about compassion and empathy?
  • What is a progressive theory of wealth accumulation?
  • Ecosystems of funding: What happens when too many funders are chasing too few opportunities for impact? Or when everyone tries to promote “innovation” and no one focuses on the meat-and-potatoes work that provides the basic infrastructure of social services?
  • Steve Jobs vs. Occupy Wall Street as models of rebellion
  • The counter-majoritarian tendencies of philanthropy
  • The Help and “the gift of voice” in philanthropy
  • Would you wish the U.S. system of philanthropy on a country that was setting up its tax code?
  • So many of our theories of human behavior are just so dumb and literal-minded
  • Is there a nostalgic mode of philanthropy?
  • What kind of industry is philanthropy?
  • What is a more integrated perspective on government action?

My favorite posts:

Next week, all the way back to Year One.

3 Years in the Hole

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Not quite “30 Days in the Hole,” but there you go. Happy third blog-o-versary to me!

I’m frankly kind of amazed at all the ideas I generate on here; time to start reckoning with them in a more systematic way.

These are the questions or concepts I framed or developed on the blog in the past year, along with my three favorite posts of the  past year. Next week, I’ll do year two.

  • An app that lets you choose a good to donate (clothing, a teddy bear) to someone in a disaster zone that turns the value of that donation into cash, gives that to the person in the disaster zone, and gives the good to someone in your town, like at a homeless shelter
  • Personal leverage factor: the resources you can mobilize through your very existence
  • The Downton Abbey example: When is inefficiency at the level of the firm effectiveness at the level of the community or town?
  • Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die
  • Vertical ties and horizontal ties in giving
  • Democracy has a verb. Is there a verb for philanthropy? What does it mean to philanthropize?
  • Expressive and directional modes of consumer-citizenship
  • What are the political arts, and how can philanthropy use them?
  • Privacy, autonomy, and perpetuity as the tenets of the archetypal charitable foundation, and transparency, interdependency, and finitude as the (opposing) forces that shape contemporary life

My favorite posts:

Thanks to those who have followed along!

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die (#2)

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Moving away for a minute from my usual shtick of having a song title as the title of the post, I want to resurrect (ha, ha) an old thread from quite a while back: zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die. The series (well, now it’s a series ’cause I’m posting a second one) was inspired by an article called “five zombie economic ideas that won’t die.” So I’m doing a version for philanthropy.

# 1 was: Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.

#2 is: There are too many nonprofits.

I can’t tell you how often I hear this in my work with nonprofits and the people who support them. It’s usually in reference to a particular topic area (like addressing a particular disease) or geography (X city or state). What’s behind this?

  • If there are a lot of organizations with the same mission, something must be wrong.
  • More nonprofits should just merge.
  • Someone (a funder) should go in and fix that.

Do we ask this about for-profit businesses? (I did once hear a nonprofit board member who worked in the banking sector say, “there are too many banks,” at a time of a lot of mergers in that field.) If there are too many for-profits, not all of them survive. Just ask anyone trying to open a restaurant in New York City.

What’s different in the nonprofit sector? One might say there aren’t the same market pressures; donors keep nonprofits going even when they’re not relevant, or because they’re a pet cause.

But what kind of survival are we really talking about? A lot of these organizations don’t necessarily grow, they chug along at a certain size (maybe a $500,000 annual budget) with a couple of handfuls of staff, providing services in the community. Now, we might question how effectively they provide those services, but why shouldn’t they exist?

What we’re talking about are the mom and pop shops of the nonprofit sector. (My TCC Group colleague Pete York is starting to write and talk about this.) I’ve written about the idea of a funding ecosystem, where you need small shrubs and bushes alongside big trees, or the big trees won’t survive. “There are too many nonprofits” may – may – be the equivalent of “there are too many bushes.”

In our rush to scale, and replicate, and leverage, it’s worth pausing to consider the value of the type of organization that makes up the vast majority of the nonprofit sector. And to really look at them, what they do well, and where they could improve. But not dismiss them with, “there are too many nonprofits.” (And hey, sometimes there no doubt are.) Get to know the forest in which you’re walking, and how the rain filters through the trees, and the shrubs, and the roots. Watch a season cycle or two, and see how the forest grows and contracts naturally.

Just be careful in some of the mossy patches, for the hand that reaches up from the ground to the strains of a violin stab…another zombie philanthropic idea. To be continued….

Who Wants to Live Forever

Thursday, May 31st, 2012




As I’ve talked about the last two times, these are the tenets of the archetypal charitable foundation in the U.S. How does perpetuity interact with autonomy and privacy?

Of the three tenets, perpetuity is the one experiencing the greatest change. A growing number of funders are seeking to spend down during their lifetimes. There are examples big and small. Warren Buffett’s gift to the Gates Foundation is in $1 billion tranches, with the disbursement of each tranche contingent on entirely spending down the previous one. I don’t want to say that’s literally unprecedented, but that’s kind of unprecedented. Atlantic Philanthropies is another well-known large spend-downer. (Spender-down?) On the medium to smaller side, the Beldon Fund chose to spend down entirely and even wrote a case study about it. The Center for Philanthropy & Civil Society at Duke even has an online library of studies of spend-down.

What’s the big deal? Current tax law, which dates from the ’60s, mandates that private foundations have to pay out at least 5% of assets in exchange for those assets being exempt from tax for the donor. Turns out that over the past forty-odd years, if you stuck to that level and managed your investments wisely, you could make grants out of the interest on the endowment and not have to touch the principal – in fact, the principal could grow. And many did. The law – and the stock market – therefore, if not encouraged perpetuity, at least made it relatively straightforward to achieve. No surprise then that many private foundation boards spend much of their time focusing on their investment performance and policies.

The argument for perpetuity is that it allows the foundation to be a community resource over time, something reliable. In a world of ever-shorter time horizons – elected officials are thinking about the next election, corporate leaders are thinking about the next quarter’s earnings report, nonprofits are thinking about next year’s sources of revenue – foundations that exist in perpetuity can afford to take the long view. Along with universities, religious denominations, and the Federal Reserve, they’re among the few entities in American life that can. And if political science taught me anything, it’s that it’s remarkably hard to build a coalition for social change without someone having an incentive to take the long view, and sacrifice current gain for longer-term welfare.

The argument against perpetuity is that current needs are urgent and require more than 5% payout. This argument comes up especially strongly during recessions. And indeed, as the Foundation Center was admirably quick to document, during the last (current?) recession, many private foundations increased their payout levels to meet their existing grant commitments, even as their endowments took a big hit.The other side of this argument is about donor intent – “giving while living,” to quote the title of the aforementioned Beldon Fund report, ensures greater control for the donor. Lawsuits over alleged trustee mismanagement of donor intent crop up periodically in the philanthropic and even mainstream press. The Philanthropy Roundtable has an online library of resources on donor intent.

This desire for greater control bespeaks a broader erosion of trust in institutions. The notion of the private foundation as a permanent community resource harkens back to a time when institutions were more reliable and relied upon. There’s a fascinating piece about George Romney’s failed 1968 presidential campaign in a recent New York magazine, the gist of which is that Papa Romney’s version of Republicanism flowed from his Mormon faith, which taught him that the institutions of civil society (rather than government) are the means to ensure social harmony. To the extent that Mitt inherited his father’s vision, he’s “an organization man without organizations” – our world continually erodes the institutions that undergirded the postwar consensus that made the mid-’40s to the mid-’70s a time of unprecedented economic growth and stability. That world, which created the conditions for the legislative components of the civil rights victories of the ’60s, is gone.

But the private foundation in perpetuity, one of its products, and in a way, one of its avatars, is still with us? For how much longer? The thing about the three tenets I’ve laid out in this series – privacy, autonomy, and perpetuity – is that they’re all under perpetual and sustained attack in contemporary life. Or rather, they’re all gradually eroding.




These are the forces that shape contemporary life. The archetypal private foundation is a throwback, is retro, is old-school. But there are lots of good reasons why retro sells, and not all of them have to do with nostalgia. I love my turntable because it acts as a time machine; I find physical artifacts of a bygone era – used records – and repeat an experience that my younger self – or a version of me now thirty years ago – had in the same way: spindle, needle, groove, crackle. It’s not perpetuity, or at least not entirely, because the record player is new – but the record is old. I wonder if there aren’t ways of preserving the longer time horizons that the archetypal model affords in different organizational forms. Those old records still play, and they still sound great – even if they’re on a brand-new turntable.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Of the vinyl I’m purchased since getting a turntable for my birthday last December (thanks dear!), the vast majority has been “vintage” – used records. In part that’s because I’ve long been in an older-music period (most of my records are either music from the 30s or albums recorded between the late 60s and early 80s), but in part it’s because I enjoy the idea of rescuing a physical artifact from the flotsam of history. I prefer to take an object already in circulation and gain value from it rather than call another object into being by purchasing something new. At least with records.

And I choose where to shop with care as well. There’s a cluster of record stores within a 10-block radius of Bleecker and 7th Avenue South (a quiet culinary mecca, with John’s Pizza, L’Arte del Gelato, Centro Vinoteca, Ottomanelli’s butcher shop, and a Five Guys all within sight of the same intersection). But my true vinyl source, the place that inspired me to ask for a turntable as a birthday present in the first place, is Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, MA, where I went to college (and met my wife). We went up for our annual summer visit (Porches Inn, MassMoCA, W’town Theater Festival), and I had my fingers crossed that the same dude who ran the place when I got there (gulp) 20 years ago hadn’t decided to pack it in since last October. He hadn’t. (Whew.) I spent at least an hour in there and staggered out with a boxful of vinyl. (As I write this, side 2 of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook is spinning and crackling its way along.)

I’ve written about a nostalgic mode of philanthropy. What I’m describing is a nostalgic mode of commerce. I’ve yet to read the new book Retromania on how pop music is eating itself by being obsessed with the past, but as far as music appreciation, retromania is fine with me – and extends not just to the music and artists, but the physical medium of receiving them. I like the idea of an artifact that was originally purchased and enjoyed 30 years ago providing pleasure again today. It’s a flat black time machine.

Sometimes vinyl is cheaper (8 bucks for this 2-record, 30-song Ella/Gershwin set is a pretty good deal compared to iTunes), and sometimes, especially with new vinyl, it’s quite a bit more expensive. One of my rare new vinyl purchases was the latest Belle and Sebastian. It came with a code for a download of the full record plus two bonus tracks, and the gatefold sleeve was sumptuous, a modest art object of its own. Totally worth the markup ($17 at Kim’s Video & Music in the East Village).

Alongside my recent infatuation with vinyl, my wife and I have been doing the locavore shopping and cooking thing for a few years now. (While it’s 95% her, tonight I perfected the recipe for farmer’s market ají casero). And I’ve often wondered – if locavores can create a market for local agriculture, why can’t there be a market for local manufacture? Hello, job creation!

Now here’s what I’m getting at – and where philanthropy might have a role to play. Can we tap into the nostalgic mode of commerce – and other emotional-commercial narratives – to foster a locavorism for manufactured goods? (Locamechanism?) This is beyond my beloved records, which are made wherever. But can we tap into that kind of nostalgia to get people to buy local goods, even if they’re more expensive, so as to generate good local jobs, particularly blue-collar ones?

The L3C, a low-profit limited liability corporation, is an intriguing idea for helping to do this – and private foundations can have a role by making program-related investments. Bob Lang of Americans for Community Development, whom I met at a conference earlier this year, has been tirelessly working on this new vehicle for years. The intriguing case is using it to foster North Carolina’s flagging furniture industry by providing a way for charitably inclined investors like private foundations, who could be willing to forgo short-term financial returns in the interest of long-term community benefit, to jumpstart that industry by providing “patient capital” that helps them to recreate a market for locally manufactured goods. I haven’t been able to find articles online about how that effort in North Carolina is actually going since the law authorizing L3Cs was passed last year, but I’ll be intrigued to follow it.

‘Cause we need all the ideas we can get (HT to Marginal Revolution) about job creation these days, and if philanthropy can play a role, well even better.

Start Me Up

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

I asked the other day whether there’s a nostalgic mode of philanthropy, and I’m beginning to think that there is (well, there are likely several). I participated in one recently when I gave to the Kickstarter campaign to revive the Parkway Theater in Oakland. The Parkway was a second-run theater near Lake Merritt that served pizza and beer. You could order a pizza at the counter, get a pitcher of beer, take it up to your seat (which was an old couch), and they’d bring you the pizza. Heaven. On. Earth. They showed playoff football games too, and one of my top 5 sports experiences is watching the thrilling, heartbreaking, down-to-the-last-play Titans-Rams Super Bowl in 2001 or whenever it was, on the big screen from one of the couches with pizza and beer. Such a classic neighborhood institution.

The thing is, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for seven years. It’s been three or four since I last went to the Parkway. But I want to live in a world where the Parkway exists, and others can enjoy the great times I did. (And so I can pop in on a future trip to the Bay Area.) So when I saw the Kickstarter link on someone’s Facebook wall, I clicked and gave my 50 bucks just under the wire.

I haven’t looked what other kinds of projects are on Kickstarter, so I don’t know how many are like “Bring Back the Parkway,” but I wonder if Kickstarter’s success and promise aren’t at least in part because it enables a nostalgic mode of philanthropy.

I’m reminded of campaigns to save TV shows like Jericho or Roswell. Fans get very creative, and once in a great while, they win, and the show gets another chance. Then a mechanism problem kicks in. How to attract enough fans to keep the show going? I wonder if Kickstarter doesn’t answer that question in an indirect way. Like a Groupon for attention – if enough people commit to doing X, the provider will see that it’s worth it. But what would a Groupon for attention look like, how could you commit credibly?

Better minds than mine are working on this in the halls of marketing-landia, I’m sure. But the upshot for funding, particularly of the arts, is that there’s now at least one way to make a nostalgic mode of philanthropy possible. As a hopeful future Parkway patron, I have to believe that’s a good thing.

Seems Like Old Times

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Philanthropy is often about solving problems. Which sounds future-oriented: make a better tomorrow.

But sometimes the problem is loss: a way of life, a community, is falling apart, and needs preservation.

Is there a nostalgic mode of philanthropy?

Historic preservation, cultural continuity – is this inherently conservative? Or is there something progressive in fighting the worst tendencies of the day? We’ve become accustomed, in the current political discourse, to think of fighting the future (demographic change, diversification, growing immigration) as hearkening back to a distant past (the 50s). But what if there’s a way of fighting the future, of seeking to conserve, that’s about preserving elements of the current social contract that deserve to endure? (Like, I dunno, Medicare.)

Everything old is new again, but some things that were new deserve to become old – and constant.

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s well-reviewed new movie, is about a struggling author whose first novel is about a man who runs a nostalgia shop. The arc is that the writer has to learn to live in the present – by understanding that every age has a time about which it’s nostalgic, so there’s no point living in the past. But is that the lesson? Or is it that there are elements of the past that are worth preserving, even against the tide of the constantly new.

What’s different about the current moment is we have more power to preserve than ever. Our Facebook accounts, our cameraphones – this blog – capture moments, feelings, thoughts, that were once ephemeral. I wonder if the artists of this new medium will be the nostalgists, the ones who find a way to extract the solid core from the swirl of data and hold on to it, even for a little while….