Posts Tagged ‘local knowledge’

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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A Matter of Trust

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Brad Smith hits it out of the park again with “The Brave New World of Good,” a very useful synthesis, reflection on, and pertinent critique of major trends in philanthropy and nonprofits such as open data, transparency, innovation, and markets. One phrase in particular stood out for me:

“Collection of data by government has a business model; it’s called tax dollars.”

It’s ironic that this timely piece came out during the latest government shutdown, because I would say that the business model is actually tax dollars and legitimacy – and the latter is in short supply these days.

Sadly, foundations have had a fair amount to do with the creation of the partisan echo chamber in which we find ourselves. It’s well-documented how a number of conservative private foundations funded the intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and policy experts that over time have moved the center of political discourse ever rightward. We’re at the point that a model of healthcare reform championed by the Heritage Foundation and implemented by a Republican governor is excoriated as a progressive overreach.

A further irony is that progressive funders are practically envious of the success that conservative foundations have had in shaping the policy discourse, not least because the tactics used are ones that progressive critics of foundation practices have championed for years: long-term, general-operating support of organizations explicitly working on policy and advocacy issues.

The success of one side has prompted a kind of intellectual arms race, with mirrored (but asymmetrical) infrastructures touting conservative and progressive ideas through relatively closed systems of think tanks, policy shops, and in the case of the conservative movement, talk radio and TV news.

Can funders instead support the emergence of a vibrant, active center that draws energy and attention away from the partisan battle consuming Washington and threatening the national and global economy? As Phil Buchanan helpfully points out, the National Purpose Initiative seeks to do just that. I applaud this effort and particularly its spirit.

One friendly suggestion: take a page from the success of progressive movements like LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights and embrace cultural-change strategies. Putting a human face on a cause, and making the “other” relatable on a personal level, is more important than ever. Our intellectual infrastructures – which again, I’m not pretending are anywhere near evenly matched – move us toward ever more bloodless forms of analysis and abstraction. And the filter bubbles in which most of us are enclosed, providing only information that shares views we already hold, reinforce this exclusion from each other. As Sally Kohn helpfully described at a recent TedNYC talk, “Absent unquestioned evidence to do otherwise, I would like to start to see a country where we all assume that we want what’s best for each other.” And this starts to happen through honest, authentic engagement with those who share views unlike our own.

This can happen usefully at a local level. An overwhelming number of foundations are local entities. Here is an opportunity to leverage the strengths of the sector in service of a less polarized political discourse. Remember that business model of collection of data by government: taxes and legitimacy. Where foundations can help build up the store of legitimacy of our political system by fostering an alternative civic culture, they should consider doing so.

How have you seen foundations play this role? What are models worth sharing?

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

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

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

http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/whats_strategy_got_to_do_with_it

Stone Soup

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Whether or not comprehensive immigration reform passes this year – and after this week’s initial reaction by the House Republicans, things are looking less certain – the need for immigrant civic integration is a reality.

Here’s a modest proposal: philanthropy can help by creating and supporting spaces where communities can celebrate traditions of giving across cultures. Mutual aid societies, hometown associations, tithing, potlatch – most if not all cultures have established practices of individual collective giving.

“Everyone is a philanthropist” – and in being so, they draw on a wide variety of traditions. Let’s name those, lift them up, and learn from each other.

I was involved in a giving circle for a number of years that wasn’t culturally based, but I found it worked best as an “onramp” for people new to New York who wanted to learn more about philanthropy and nonprofits.

Community Investment Network is doing really interesting work bringing together leaders from giving circles across the country rooted in communities of color. A number of community foundations have ethnically- or racially-focused giving circles, and certainly women’s funds are popular, as the strength of the Women’s Funding Network attests.

Where I’d like to see this go is as a vehicle for immigrant civic integration at a local level. Philanthropy, community foundations, and other grantmaking public charities can be a venue for communities – both recent immigrants and immigrants from 100, 200, or 400 years ago (not necessarily voluntary…) – to learn about and from each other’s traditions are giving.

A lot of this will be based around faith traditions. As nervous as this may make some progressives, I think it’s a great place to start. Religious traditions can be  a source of social-justice righteousness or daunting fundamentalism. But they’re large and accommodate many points of view. Not saying there won’t be disagreements, but faith just has to be part of the equation. That’s what drives a huge percentage of individual giving, right, isn’t that what we always read about in Giving USA?

So: community foundations, grantmaking charities, and other place-based funders – think about building shared traditions of giving as a means to promote immigrant civic integration. Because whatever happens in Congress, communities across the country are transforming as a result of migration. It’s another moment in a cycle that has repeated throughout the history of this country. Let’s use philanthropy as a way to make this one smoother.

~~~

P.S. Congratulations to New American Leaders Project on three years of trailblazing and important work. Missed out by one on being their 1000th “like” on Facebook.

Does Anybody Really Know what Time it Is?

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Which is the title of a classic song from the band Chicago. I’m just back from there, having spent several days at the Council on Foundations conference. I tweeted up a storm, met some great people, and wrote a couple of posts for the conference blog:

Welcome to the (Global) Accountability Class
About self-motivated accountability in philanthropy

Learning: The “Third Heat” of Impact Investing—and All Grantmaking?
About the idea of a “learning return” in impact investing, and how it may apply to all of grantmaking

How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

I met up with the brilliant, genuine, and always engaging Trista Harris on a trip to Minneapolis earlier this week. I love our conversations because she’s so smart about philanthropy and so savvy about how to make it more responsive to communities.

We talked about authentic engagement with stakeholders, the astonishing racial achievement gaps in the Twin Cities, “Minnesota nice,” how to leverage modest grantmaking budgets through targeted advocacy, and many other topics. I walked away inspired. One idea we cooked up is that foundations should be like app makers: put a lot of behind-the-scene effort into creating a “technology” (literal or metaphorical) that enables connections between actors and information, or actors and each other, that the actors can control themselves and that make their lives better. And then get the hell out of the way, and let the magic happen. Sometimes this is as simple as a convening in which groups that don’t talk to each other but should get a chance to connect.

Sometimes it can be more literal. We talked about disaster grantmaking, and how it shapes people’s perceptions of the nonprofit sector. She shared an experience working on response to the highway bridge collapse in the Twin Cities a few years back, and how people’s wonderful generosity in donating goods and toys was at a complete disconnect with people’s actual needs. And the thing is, it’s cash that people need most in a situation like that. But people often want to make it most personal.

So our idea for an app was, you’re a ninth grader in Iowa who reads about the bridge collapse (or Sandy, or Katrina, or what have you) and you want to help. The app lets you choose a good to donate – a teddy bear, some clothes, canned goods – that you can personalize as much as possible; that good gets donated to a local shelter; and the equivalent amount of cash gets donated to people directly in the disaster situation of your choosing. You get the feel-good; the local person gets the good; and the far-away person gets the cash they can use most.

All right, someone go make that happen! Mazel tov and God bless.

Inside Looking Out

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

This week a bipartisan congressional group announced a framework for immigration reform. That means this will be going on the legislative agenda, and we’ll be hearing about it all year, as it works its way through both houses of Congress.

On the one hand, this is a tremendous achievement of the immigrant rights movement. On the other, the work has just begun – in two senses. One is that who gets included in reform is up for grabs. How that plays out – whether domestic workers are included, whether DREAMers are included, whether same-sex couples are included – it’s all going to be negotiated. The central compromise that seems to have allowed the framework to come together is the idea that the undocumented go to the “back of the line.” Part of the need for comprehensive immigration reform is that the system is broken – those who are in line have been there too long, and the line doesn’t make sense or work well. So being sent to the back of the line could mean years and years in a twilight state. (Contrast this with how quickly some people got their deferred action under DACA this past year.) How much of an improvement that is over life in the shadows remains to be seen.

The other way in which the work is just beginning is that it’s not clear who’s going to get 11 million undocumented people registered and along the pathway to citizenship. DACA was a test case. How well did it work? How easy was it for people to find above-board, affordable assistance with the process. There are a lot of shysters in the immigration-law world. Will the supply meet the demand? What’s the role of nonprofit legal-assistance groups, and do they have the resources and support to get the job done? Lot to be figured out.

Place-based funders: have you shown your local legal-services organization some love lately? Now is the time!

This is the nitty-gritty work of social change. After years of pushing at the national and local levels, a real transformation may be imminent. But in two important senses, the work has just begun. Stay tuned. And keep an eye out for who’s on the table, and who’s lined up to help people along a potential pathway to citizenship. This election helped put comprehensive immigration reform back on the table, and sustained public pressure and awareness will help keep these important issues – who gets included, and who gets people registered – in the light where they belong. #philant

Right Down the Line

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Tonight I went to a panel, “In Search of the Unexpected Future of Media,” hosted by The New Republic. TNR was recently bought by Chris Hughes of Facebook fame and Jumo infamy. He seems soft-spoken, thoughtful, and enamored of old-fashioned Serious Journalism. Bully for him, bring on more like him.

The panel itself was moderately interesting, the speakers were Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, and Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO. It was mostly about the business of new media, which, fine. “You can monetize smart” from Plepler – encouraging!

But what struck me is that both entities are thinking of themselves as 21st-century digital content generators but are shackled to 19th-century physical infrastructure: the newspaper printing press, and the cable/phone lines. In answering a question from a 20-something audience member who wants to watch Girls but doesn’t have a cable box, Plepler answered elaborately and at length. What it boils down to is that there aren’t enough “cord-cutters” yet to allow HBO to circumvent their cable and phone partners. Their business model is tied up with the physical infrastructure of cable and phone lines.

But here’s the rub: even as one might wish for the decoupling of the NYT and HBO from the physical infrastructure that seems to drag them down financially, I bet that a lot of those jobs, especially in the printing press, are good union jobs that support middle-class communities. (Cable companies probably less so.)

Makes me think of the latest episode of Downton Abbey, where (spoiler alert!) Matthew has invested in the estate to save Lord Grantham’s (and by extension his wife’s) bacon, but now is seeing that the estate is “mismanaged,” in his words. Lady Mary hints that what looks like inefficiency is a form of largesse that’s necessary for the local economy. Economic welfare at the level of the manor is sacrificed for economic welfare at the level of the village. I dunno, sounds kinda enlightened to me. I wonder to what extent old, infrastructure-dependent industries like newspapers and telephone companies function in a similar way.

In other words, when is inefficiency at the level of the firm effectiveness at the level of the community or town? Where’s the economics that helps makes sense of that? That would be genuine political economy.

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….

You’re (Not) the One that I Want

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

It’s all Sandy all the time here on The Blog Briefly Known as “Democratizing Philanthropy?”, so the most famous cinematic Sandy had to get a shout-out in my song-title-as-blog-title shtick. This whole thing – by which I mean the Sandy relief and recovery effort – goes right to the heart of my two questions on this blog: what does it mean to democratize philanthropy, and is philanthropy as a democratizing force? This whole thing is putting those two questions into sharp relief?

What it means to democratize philanthropy is that people are streaming to the Rockaways and Staten Island and just Getting. It. Done. Check out Sandy Sucks; I had the dumb luck and great honor of getting assigned (thank you Occupy Sandy) to car in which maestra Katie Bennett and two of her friends were getting out to the Rockaways last Saturday. Her site is an invaluable resource for keeping up to speed on what’s happening on the ground in some of the hardest-hit areas.

As someone who’s dedicated their career to working in and/or building the nonprofit sector, it pains me to see brilliant, dedicated people like Katie and her friends so turned off by the way the nonprofits that are meant to be at the frontlines in disaster relief are operating, or failing to.

Let’s be real here. The more New Yorkers see up close the ridiculous, bureaucratic, political, infuriating ways in which various elements of the nonprofit infrastructure responsible for disaster response fail to coalesce, the more pressure there’s going to be on Obama’s freshly reminted coalition. You’re less inclined to argue for the role of government when you see up close the abject failure of the government to provide one of its most basic functions. Just you wait and see…. The young people who make up a big and growing part of Obama’s coalition have ZERO patience for doing things the way they’ve been done just because we need to protect the institutions that have protected us for so long. It’s hard enough to defend teachers’ unions when they’re the object of systematized propaganda campaigns (cough, Rahm-Emanuel-tip-of-the-iceberg, cough). But to defend the role of FEMA when you see with you’re own eyes that FEMA’s just not there, or not there nearly fast enough – well, that’s a yard too far.

I’ve long been of the opinion (see here) that progressives ignore at their peril the incredibly mediocre everyday experience of government “service” that’s no farther than the local DMV or Post Office. You can’t defend government’s role without looking squarely at the inefficiencies of government. Now let’s be clear, these get exaggerated, and/or there are reasons, political or otherwise, for these inefficiencies. (That’s a post for another time; I am a political scientist after all, this is what I was trained to analyze.) But Sandy is a clear case of the rubber hitting the road. The people meant to help aren’t there to help.

There’s another side to this, and frankly, I don’t know how to reconcile it. Check out this list from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy about how nonprofits are responding to Sandy. This sounds like a lot! Maybe the way to reconcile it with the Sandy Sucks experience is that these are local organizations that were already there (like Red Hook Initiative), and the problem is the national ones that need to come from outside. But I don’t know. I see a disconnect, and it troubles me. The government-charitable disaster-relief infrastructure is taking a HUGE credibility hit in the wake of Sandy, in the heart of an area that should be a bastion of its support. I worry about the long-term impact on nonprofits…but I’m hopeful that it’ll lead to greater efficiencies, greater accountability, and ultimately, faster response to the hardest-hit.

Is philanthropy a democratizing force? Sometimes, when it’s done in the spirit of self-provisioning and mutual aid, maybe it can be.