Posts Tagged ‘motivations for giving’

Upside Down

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Happy New Year! My two questions in this blog are about philanthropy and democracy: What does it mean to democratize philanthropy? Is philanthropy a democratizing force?*

Every once in a while, I come back to these and unpack them from a different angle. Today it’s about the nature of the power relationship in each. Democracy is about collective deliberation, creating a new mode of decision-making. Schattschneider said when you increase the number of people in an argument, you change the power dynamic. To democratize is to change the power dynamic by giving more people access to decision-making.

Democracy has a verb. Is there a verb for philanthropy? What does it mean to philanthropize? (Well, I talked about expressive and directional modes of philanthropy, so that’s one set of meanings.) It means to give money. I think we usually conceive of it as reinscribing (a college word I always liked the sound of, but don’t think I had the opportunity to use correctly until this sentence) an existing power relationship: the rich give to the poor. Or for their benefit. (Mostly “for their benefit” – not directly to them. If anything, we have elaborate social structures so that we can avoid having to make that transaction, that gift, directly.)

So maybe what it means to democratize philanthropy is to upend that traditional understanding and image in two ways: by making giving more an act of solidarity, rather than noblesse oblige, and by remembering and highlighting that giving has always been multidirectional. Mutual aid, tithing, zakat, alumni giving – there’s a lot of “horizontal” giving, among poor and rich.

But in addition to (I almost said “beyond,” but thought better of it) image and perception, there’s a power relationship at the heart of philanthropy. It creates a power dynamic where none existed before: one who gives voluntarily, one who receives…voluntarily? Gratefully? Grudgingly? While democratizing multiplies horizontal ties, “philanthropizing” – in some of its key forms – multiplies vertical ties. So in that sense, it’s NOT a democratizing force – just the opposite.

I’ll leave for another time whether that’s a good or a bad thing. But it’s a thing.

* After completing this post, I went back to embed the links, and saw that I originally framed the first of my two questions as, “what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?”, and not “is philanthropy a democratizing force?” After nearly three years, I’ll allow myself to expand a little!

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Give a Little Bit

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer for that person in your life who asks you for advice about giving during the holidays, since you work in the nonprofit or foundation sector? Want to give a thank-you note to your foundation program officer for helping you keep the lights on? Hoping to fend off that cranky uncle who scoffs that you work in philanthropy because it’s not a real business, and giving money away is easy?

I’ve got a book for you. Giving with Confidence: A Guide to Savvy Philanthropy, by Colburn Wilbur with Fred Setterberg. (You can find it cheaper on Amazon, but come on, make an expressive choice and buy it from Powell’s, or better yet, ask your local bookstore to order it. I was given a free copy to review, and am honored to have been asked.) Cole is the former executive director of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and one of the grand wise men of philanthropy. (He’s been a senior fellow at the Council on Foundations and is quite active years after his putative retirement.) He was on the board of an organization I used to work for, Hispanics in Philanthropy, but I don’t believe we ever met other than in passing. But I remember hearing a story of how all the men on the HIP board wore Hawaiian shirts to a board meeting held in Hawaii when the Council on Foundations conference back in the day. The image of him – tall, thin, fair, soft-spoken – decked out in a bright shirt with everyone else warmed my heart.

And that unpretentiousness limns every page of this calmly voiced yet passionately argued book. There’s no grandstanding, no real name-dropping, just sage advice delivered in an even and friendly tone, even as he moves the reader gently, gradually, toward considering the advice of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which stakes out positions that make a lot of foundation folks uncomfortable (and good for them for doing so).

What’s great is that the book is pitched to a general audience, but it has nuggets of wisdom for those of us in the philanthropic sector, from someone who’s long labored in those air-conditioned trenches. Such common sense and plain talk.

To individual donors: “On a more mundane level, consult your checkbook and tax records to find out where your donations have actually gone in the past year or two. Fill a page with the amount of each gift and the name of the corresponding organization. Ask yourself: Given what I have, have I given enough? Do my donations jibe with my ambitions? Are there glaring holes in my giving patterns–or are there opportunities shining through?”

To individual donors: “Your contribution, however important, doesn’t make you a member of the starting team. You’re a fan and a booster. Your donation will require staff time to record and manage. Don’t add more than a couple of hours to the burden…. Instead of vocalizing about programs and policies, try asking the organization’s leaders what kind of assistance they need.”

To institutional donors: “Of course, ‘change’ is practically a sacred term in the parlance of grantmaking. (Who brags about their efforts to thwart it?) Yet, the inevitable handmaidens of change–controversy and opposition–are the last things most donors want to inspire.”

To all donors: “Sometimes addressing root causes is crucial. Other times, the symptoms prove so severe that they require immediate attention.”

Blessed common sense, and elegant, limpid prose. Wilbur and Setterberg have given us a gift, and one that’s especially useful this holiday season, when so many people (myself included) make an important number of our personal philanthropic choices. This year, I chose to allocate a significant portion of my giving budget to political giving (fully aware of the non-deductibility of those contributions). I tried to mix expressive and directional gifts. Time to take stock, write down that one page Wilbur and Setterberg recommend, and take stock. I hope you’ll do the same.

Warmest wishes for the holiday season. I’m grateful for another year of professional success and personal growth, and thankful to all who have followed along on this blog.

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.

#Kony #Kony the remix

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Can’t stop thinking about #Kony2012, I’m surprised not to see more about it in the philanthropy blogosphere. Anyway, a few pieces have cleared things up for me. Somewhat.

Communicopia educated me about the work that Invisible Children has been doing over the past eight years to build their constituency that made the video go so viral. Though they appear to have come out of nowhere, IC have actually been slogging in the trenches for years. This article is pure gold, the insight-to-length ratio is off the charts. Go read it.

You’re back? Good. Now, this puts it all into perspective. Girls 13-24 are the ones sending around the video because they’re the ones that IC has been targeting and seeking to empower.

Ethan Zuckerman brought me up to speed on the most thoughtful critiques of IC’s strategy, and they are many and persuasive. Go read that one, too, but wait a minute, because it’ll take a while, and you should especially read the comments, which are bubbling with vitriol. Drama!

Which brings us to Dan Pallotta, who in typical pugnacious style, comes out swinging. A friend pointed out that Jason Russell of IC was going to be on Lawrence O’Donnell, so I DVR’d it. OMG – So. Smarmy. I had a viscerally negative stylistic reaction. I do it myself sometimes, but male upspeak is not a great look for anyone. Again, maybe he’s speaking the language, literally, of the people he works with, but it grated with me. But Pallotta takes it to another level, accusing – particularly in the comments on his post – critics of being jealous of IC’s success. “The criticism is largely based in envy at Invisible Children’s success.” Yeah, that’s gotta be there, but “largely based in envy”? Come on now.

And this gets to one of the things I found troubling in both sets of comments section (Ethan’s and Pallotta’s): the *extreme* thin-skinnedness of IC supporters. Any critique is to be not only repudiated but denounced as mean-spirited, unfair, or futile. “Go fix things in Uganda if you’re so smart” is the essence of one refrain in the comments. Really? The message is that delicate that it needs to be protected from any negativity? It’s one thing to pulsate with the energy of youth, it’s another to quaver with its fragility and, well, insecurity.

But then I watched the actual Kony2012 video. (Except the parts where he explains Kony to his 5-year-old. I find that nauseatingly manipulative, and skipped over those few minutes.) The first several minutes aren’t even about Uganda, or Kony. They’re about this moment in time, about what can be achieved by the many coming together on Facebook. He explicitly talks about this being an experiment, to see if something huge can be achieved. God love ’em, there’s even a visual depiction of a theory of change that’s as clear and simple as I’ve ever seen. (That’s the kind of thing I do all day at work, and I have to say, pace Dan Pallotta, that my emotion on watching it was excitement – there’s a way to do what I do better! Awesome! Let me learn how!)

I for one am really excited to see the first Kony2012 copycats that actually have success. Because that’ll be one of the true measures of impact, is if this does prove a successful experiment, and shows a different way of doing things.

A final note: I also learned from a website I hadn’t heard of before called Talk2Action that Invisible Children is funded by a number of evangelical Christian organizations. Knowing this, seeing the part of the Kony2012 video where the student activists are chanting IC slogans in unison made perfect sense, and also sent a little shiver up my spine. Perhaps it also explains the fervor of some IC defenders in the comments section? (Yes, that was upspeak.) I don’t really know how to parse the intersection of evangelical Christian missionary impulses, social-media wizardry, youthquake mobilization, and working on the front lines of international human rights work. Yet another reason this is fascinating and worth watching as it evolves.

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.

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.

Meeting Across the River

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

(About the title: One of my recent vinyl purchases was “Born to Run.” The title song is of course a timeless classic that’s also musically about a couple of time periods (50s and 60s rock and R&B), but this track on the second side is a keeper too. Not one of Clarence Clemons’ (RIP), but enhanced by soulful horn playing.)

It’s frustrating to me that so many of our theories of human behavior are just so dumb and literal-minded. Take this piece in yesterday’s NYT about the return of genetic explanations in criminology:

A rash of new research has focused on self-control as well as callousness and a lack of empathy, traits regularly implicated in the decision to commit a crime. Like other personality traits, these are believed to have environmental and genetic components, although the degree of heritability is debated.

Why not just say, “we have no idea how these things are connected, so we’re going to make some stuff up based on our immediate cultural milieu and take the unspoken assumptions that govern our own behavior as the default for human nature”?

It’s like there’s no imagination about the complexity of human motivation. Get some Jonathan Franzen in there.

I get that you need to simplify to make predictive models work, but does the simplification have to be to models that are so boring and pedestrian? The model of simplicity you’re looking for here is Emily Dickinson, not Jack and Jill.

It’s one thing when this happens around the dinner table and your uncle sounds off in a cringe-inducing way. It’s another when these just-so stories are hidden in the assumptions of analyses that end up shaping policy. From the same NYT piece:

One gene that has been linked to violence regulates the production of the monoamine oxidase A enzyme, which controls the amount of serotonin in the brain. People with a version of the gene that produces less of the enzyme tend to be significantly more impulsive and aggressive, but, as Ms. Moffitt and her colleague (and husband) Avshalom Caspi discovered, the effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences.

“The effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences”? Come on now, we have to be able to do better than that. What’s the mechanism here – is stress about a certain kind of intensity of emotion – but that can be good or bad? Intense experience? Intensely negative experience? Or can euphoric experiences generate a stress-like spike in emotion, like when people bust up a downtown after their team wins a championship? (Ah, Vancouver, I so enjoyed my trip to you last month, why do you have to go and be a counterexample to the point I’m trying to make?)

I think we need to keep pushing to put some more imagination and ethnographic detail into our assumptions about the dynamics of human motivation. They’re called “microfoundations” in economics, but they don’t have to be small-minded.

All of which leads to a recurring topic on this blog, people’s motivations for giving. To be continued….

Streets (or Meeting Rooms) of Philadelphia

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

From the Department of Self-Promotion: Don’t usually like to toot my own horn like this, but if you’re in Philadelphia for the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy and/or Council on Foundations conference the next few days, come check me out on these two panels. Have to say, having been involved in organizing these, we were able to get some pretty excellent speakers, I’m looking forward to two great sessions!

“The 3 I’s of Foundation Effectiveness: Information, Inclusion, and Influence”

Friday, April 8, 11:30am-1:30pm

EPIP National Conference

“Diesel” Room, Cira City CenterFunders have very different notions of what effectiveness means for foundations. Yet common definitions are possible. This session identifies how foundation effectiveness emerges from the confluence of three factors: information, inclusion, and influence. When foundations leverage the information they already have about their program areas and grantees and share it with a broader audience, they extend their reach.  When they practice inclusion in how decisions are made, how initiatives are designed, and who serves on their staffs and boards, they improve the quality of their work. And when they intentionally harness the influence they are already having in their communities, they strengthen their ability to make a difference. Come learn from funders who have leveraged information, inclusion, and influence to build their effectiveness, and get concrete advice on how to do the same in your own foundation.

Speakers/Moderators:

Chris Cardona, Associate Director of Philanthropic Services, TCC Group

Bonnie Mazza, Consultant, TCC Group

Speakers:

Leo Canty, Former Board Chair, Connecticut Health Foundation

Vic De Luca, President, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation

Peter Goodwin, Chief Operating Officer & Treasurer, Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation

“Philanthropic Strategy: Too Much of a Good Thing?”

Sunday, April 10, 2:00-3:30pm

Council on Foundations Annual Conference

Liberty Salon B, Level 3, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown

Traditionally, philanthropists trusted nonprofit organizations to know the issues and implement programs to address problems. Today, foundations are much more sophisticated in guiding their giving. They have expert staff and often devise the “solutions” they want to see implemented by grantees. But has the pendulum swung too far? Do foundations assume they know how to address problems better than those “on the ground”? Or are they being responsible fiduciaries in addressing complex problems?

Presenter(s): Denise McGregor Armbrister, Executive Director, Wachovia Regional Foundation; Jacob Harold, Program Officer for Philanthropy and Regional Grants, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Gary L. Yates, President and CEO, The California Wellness Foundation
Moderator(s): Chris Cardona, Associate Director of Philanthropy, TCC Group
Session Designer(s): Ashley Blanchard, Associate Director of Philanthropy, TCC Group

Helping Japan, continued

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

As my Argentine friend Sebastian would say, “FahseeNAting.” Felix Salmon over at Reuters titles a post, “Don’t donate money to Japan,” and the comments absolutely explode at him (hat tip to Tactical Philanthropy). Yet he’s making much the same point as the folks at GiveWell, whom I cited last time. What gives?

Part of it is that you’d expect an economist to have a better handle at the importance of signaling. Many of the comments take umbrage primarily at the title, finding it offensive in the extreme, poorly chosen, and poorly timed. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution observes that it’s important to signal solidarity with one of the U.S.’s closest allies.

Which gets me thinking about giving as an expression of personal values – as opposed to giving as an effort to solve a particular social problem. The beauty of “small” philanthropy is that it’s a way for all of us to signal our allegiance with certain causes, whether our not our $10 makes a difference “at the margin,” as economists say.

The difference happens when hundreds of thousands of people make that choice at the margin to give. And what generates that – the aggregate of those hundreds of thousands of decisions – I feel is poorly understood. And yet, a valuable natural resource – not infinitely renewable, but pretty reliable in disaster situations.

There is much to be understood about motivations for giving and how to channel them. People are capable of such generosity and yet also such indifference. The furor over Salmon’s piece puts these issues into sharp relief for me.

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Continuing from yesterday, I laid out different ways you could invest $1,000 of discretionary funds:

  • Contribute to a political campaign
  • Invest in a big business (through the stock market)
  • Invest in a small business (through Kickstarter)
  • Give to a nonprofit organization
  • Pool your money to give with others

What determines what’s right for you?

  • How much control you want: do you want to be able to have a say in how the funds are used? To what extent – one time (ask a favor of a politician one day), over time (direct a gift to a specific program at a nonprofit)?
  • How much proximity you want: do you want to be able to see the results of your investment directly, or are you OK with endorsing an interesting idea that happens somewhere other than you live?
  • How much visibility you want: do you want your name on a donor roll or an annual report? Do you want to be seen by other people as having given, like in a giving circle, and hang out with people who’ve done the same thing?

I’m trying to think of different ways to say “impact” without saying “how much impact you want.” Because of research is showing, maybe donors to nonprofits don’t want that.

What else?