Posts Tagged ‘my two questions’

Say Say Say

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Busy month on the speaking and conference circuit. This Friday, I’m at Philanthropy Ohio talking about “Making Strategic Philanthropy Stick.”

On October 31, in what is hopefully not a trick for the audience, I’m speaking at the Minnesota Council on Foundations annual conference on “Scaling Our Work for Greater Impact.” In that talk, I’m going to focus on tools that funders can use to play responsible roles in supporting collective action, not just from the outside, but from within such efforts. It’s a TED-style talk, short and to the point. Should be fun.

One of the topics I won’t get to cover that’s long been a passion of mine is how philanthropy can be more accessible to underserved communities. Luckily, I was honored to appear on MCF’s Fast Forward podcast series with the always thoughtful Alfonso Wenker to address just this topic. Again, so much to say! Definitely listen to the podcast, but here are a few other talking points on the topic of foundations and diversity, equity, and inclusion that I didn’t get the chance to cover.

  • Question your own assumptions – it’s well-known but bears repeating, foundations live in a bubble with little accountability. So you want to unearth your assumptions about how change happens and who needs to be at the table when decisions are made. This can extend to seemingly little things like language (“grantee partners” vs. “grantees,” for example). Who really has the power in your relationship, you who have the money or they who actually have the direct impact?
    • Now, there’s a difference between questioning your assumptions and questioning yourself. The first is about growth; the second is frankly kind of self-indulgent. It can happen when you take the philanthropy too personally, that other perennial problem of identifying the money as if it were yours. Questioning your assumptions is more like a zen practice, like mindfulness, rather than drama. How do I actually think change is going to happen? If I’m funding work in diverse communities to which I’ve never given before, how will people get to know me? Can I present myself in the same way, assuming the same level of familiarity, as I do in other environments? Does it make sense for me to go in there on my own, or with a partner who’s embedded in the community and respected there?
  • Check in with your gut, why are you doing this? Avoid “ay bendito.” My family’s from Colombia, so this isn’t a saying I grew up with, but in Puerto Rican Spanish, “ay bendito” – “oh, blessed one” – is what you say with a combination of empathy and pity. “oh, you poor thing.” Too many times, I’ve seen diversity approached from an “ay bendito” perspective. “Oh, those poor people.” This goes to questioning your own assumptions. There’s something insidious about observing that when you serve low-income communities, you’re serving “mostly” black and Latino people. The categories we use consciously, start to inform how we think unconsciously; you make that association that black and Latino people are all poor. The numbers about wealth disparity don’t lie, but then we start to make assumptions about whole groups of people that inform how we respond to an individual or an organization that we encounter, and then we get into trouble.
  • Democratize it. I’ve been thrilled to follow from afar the work of the Community Investment Network, which has been fostering African-American giving circles and has just celebrated ten years. But the thing about democracy is that it’s an ideal AND a process: “One person, one vote” AND a whole cadre of volunteer poll workers and neighborhood venues that host voting sites (mine’s in an elementary school). So democratizing philanthropy has at least two dimensions. One is communicating a democratic spirit: anyone can be a giver. The other is diffusing democratic processes of decision-making, so there are polling stations in every neighborhood, school, and church, or analogously, diffusing the mechanisms of thoughtful, effective grantmaking, whether it’s with a few hundred dollars in a giving circle or a $100 million grantmaking budget around a foundation board table. Democracy is about collective public deliberation, but even within philanthropy, which is about collective private deliberation, setting the criteria for allocating philanthropic dollars, and the process of values alignment and consensus building that are involved, are essentially democratic skills, even if they happen away from public scrutiny. That’s the paradox of this field, its simultaneous anti-democratic and democratic tendencies.

Not exactly podcast-friendly soundbites, but there you go. How do you see funders embracing – or not – diversity, equity, and inclusion in your world? What works and what doesn’t about that?


He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

The always thoughtful Starita Boyce had an update on LinkedIn that got me thinking:

Not everyone can give a five-figure cash gift to the endowment fund. But, everyone can gift a life insurance policy.

I put this alongside the fact that Latino and African-American average household wealth is shockingly, shockingly, shockingly low compared to white and Asian average household wealth. Under $7,500 vs. ~$70,000 and up. I mean, what??

I think of Chris Rock’s line, “Shaq is rich. The guy who owns the Lakers is wealthy!”

I think of the story a couple of years ago of entrepreneurs offering a share of their future life income in exchange for an investment in their business.

And of course, there’s the fact that as a percentage of income, those lower on the income ladder give the most.

And it gets me thinking about what I’d call a “personal leverage factor.” What resources can you mobilize through your very existence, your very person?

What Starita is calling on people to recognize is that their personal leverage factor extends beyond income. A middle-class family saving to send two kids to college without much discretionary income for annual gifts to nonprofits (seems like a low personal leverage factor in terms of philanthropy) can have a decent-sized life insurance policy that can be part of a bequest (higher personal leverage factor). It’s a way of saying, how does society value your life? Depressing to think that one can be reduced to a number – or to that number among several others, but what Starita points us to is understanding the full extent of our personal leverage factor.

The great thing about philanthropy and volunteerism is that they extend, or even multiply, your personal leverage factor. (By the way, this is part of why social media are so appealing.) Perhaps this is another measure of wealth.

(This doesn’t even get into interpersonal leverage factor. And I’m sure personal leverage factor has something to do with the relationship between philanthropy and democracy, my two questions. Material for future posts….)

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!

Express Yourself

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Does anyone even know what the word “fiscal” literally means? The ironic thing about this time of year is that even though it’s nominally about giving, thoughts of money are everywhere – spending, saving, giving, hoping it’s all enough in our own lives, and then this year, worrying if those fools in Washington will get it together and figure out the “fiscal cliff.”

It’s beyond cliche to point out that we’re more consumers than citizens. But one of the consequences is that we compartmentalize our financial lives and separate them from our civic lives. Even within our financial lives, we compartmentalize. Money spent on goods is different from money spent on charity.

Allow me to suggest two different ways to think about the nexus of money and citizenship, which is ultimately what my two questions in this blog are about.

One mode of consumer-citizenship is expressive. We use money to reveal something about ourselves. I give to museums because I believe the arts should be available to all. I give to my alma mater because I want others to have the opportunities I had. I buy certain movies because I want to relive a certain experience, and maybe share it with others – I want to feel a certain way. I buy a certain brand of car because I want people to see me a certain way.

The other mode is directional. We use money to make something come about in the world. I give to a political campaign because I want certain policies enacted and others not. I give to a soup kitchen because I want hungry people to eat. I save for my children’s education because I want them to have certain opportunities. I buy a house in a certain neighborhood because I want to contribute to the rebuilding of a city.

And so, I think there are expressive and directional modes of individual philanthropy. I don’t yet know if I think that applies in an institutional context. But in each of our own lives, I’d say it’s healthy, this holiday season, to think about how we balance the directional and expressive elements of our giving.

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.

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.

Private Eyes

Thursday, April 26th, 2012




These are the tenets that underlie the classic model of the charitable foundation in the U.S. Our field is structured so that the combination of these three factors is the default. Different kinds of funders have different “scores” on each of these “variables” – community foundations are less autonomous because they’re driven by the interests of many different donors, public foundations choose to sacrifice privacy in favor of transparency, and a number of private and family foundations are choosing to spend down rather than exist in perpetuity.

But an institution that is private, autonomous, and designed to exist in perpetuity is the archetype of a charitable foundation.

So where does this leave one of my two questions – namely, is philanthropy a democratizing force? Let’s take each of the factors in turn. In today’s post, I’ll tackle privacy.

Privacy has a complicated relationship to democracy. The right to individual privacy is critical to democracy, but the right to organizational privacy is not necessarily as central. Sunshine laws, reporting requirements, transparency laws – these suggest that in a democracy, public institutions have a limited sphere of organizational privacy.

So while the right to individual privacy is enhanced by having foundations able to keep their affairs private, the desire for organizational transparency, the sunshine that’s integral to democracy, is…compromised? Countervailed? Complemented?

So the privacy of the archetypal foundation model is democratizing at an individual level, but not at an organizational level. How does that related to the autonomy also central to the model? For next time….

P.S. Happy belated second blog-o-versary to me! I started two years ago on April 21st. Looking back over old posts, I’ve covered a lot of ground. On to the next one!

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.

Best of Both Worlds?

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

One of my two questions behind this blog is “What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?” I struggle with the idea that philanthropy, with its privileging of the perspective of a particular donor and her/his trustees, has a fundamentally undemocratic element.

At the same time, I’m sure that, against the tendency of the day to conflate the two, that democracy and the market are not automatically compatible – that in some respects they are in fundamental contradiction.

But I’m wondering, what if philanthropy, with its counter-majoritarian tendencies, is a corrective to both the market and democracy?

Let me explain. I think people want to say democracy and the market are compatible because both are about the will of the majority. Get more than 50% of the votes, you get to be President. This creates a “mandate.” Or something. In the market, if a product or service becomes popular, passes some kind of tipping point of adoption, it wins. I don’t know how well Google Plus is doing, but I know I haven’t been on it in at least a week, and I spend at least 20 minutes a day on Facebook. People go where the people are; winners keep winning; you have to have money to make money; etc. “Massification” is an important dynamic in market economies – we call it “scaling” in the nonprofit sector.

Philanthropy has counter-majoritarian tendencies, in two ways.

One of the main roles often ascribed to philanthropy is to be a “laboratory” for social programs. Private funders can take chances on risky new ventures, and when they prove their mettle, promote them to public funders and ask that they be adopted as part of public policy. So goes the theory.

There’s something counter-majoritarian about this. Nobody put it to a vote whether paying people to stay in school was a good idea before cities like New York City tried it. But it may turn out to be a good thing.

The other way philanthropy can be counter-majoritarian is in protecting the rights of minorities. Foundations like Gill and Arcus fund LGBT rights, and with a lot of actors and advocates pushing, pushing, pushing in municipalities and states over many years, as well as in popular culture, the needle starts to move on majority acceptance of gay marriage. The funders are far from the only actors promoting this, but they’re part of a movement and help fuel it. To protect the rights of a minority.

The first of these roles is about correcting market failures, the second is about correcting, I guess you could call them democratic failures.

So perhaps one of the roles of philanthropy in a democratic society is precisely to be counter-majoritarian. It’s undemocratic on one level, but on another, it’s about perfecting democracy. Hunh.

My Own Worst Enemy

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

I had lunch with a colleague in philanthropy today, and she posed an interesting question: Would you wish the U.S. system of philanthropy – specifically, the ability of individuals to shelter assets from taxes by setting up a private foundation that in exchange is required to pay out at least 5% annually to charitable causes – on a country that was setting up its tax code? Our system is fairly unique; would we wish to replicate it in other countries, or would we not wish it on our own worst enemy?

The easy thing to do would be to be flip: “Of course not!” And there’s a kernel of truth there; Lord knows there’s a lot of dysfunction in the sector: Underperformance as a natural state, data clamoring to be free, both too much strategy and not enough.

But as ever, I have more questions than answers.

With the dust settling (for the moment) on the debt ceiling debate, economic inequality is front of mind. I saw a headline today that Neiman Marcus’ profits rose even more than expected in the last quarter. Clearly someone’s making out fine in this not-really-a-recovery, and it’s not your average Josefina.

So I would say, look at the Gini coefficient – countries with our level of inequality probably aren’t candidates for our version of philanthropy, which doesn’t seem able to mitigate that inequality – and may in fact exacerbate it. (Of course, there’s a whole other realm of charitable giving that’s not tied to tax exemption and the the private foundation form, which is a whole ‘nother question to be considered in comparative context.) In somewhere more equal, like, I dunno, Scandinavia, letting some folks pull their otherwise-taxable dollars out of public purview to advance private conceptions of the public good might not be so problematic.

The other thing to look at is levels of tax compliance. Part of the problem with Greece is that no one pays their taxes. In places like that, perhaps a tax shelter that ties those funds to at least some expectation of advancing public welfare would bring some assets into the semi-public realm instead of having them practically all be in the private realm. In other words, if there’s no public realm to speak of, perhaps a US-style philanthropic tax exemption could help to create one.

Problem is, high levels of inequality and lack of tax compliance tend to go together. So a US-style philanthropic tax exemption could cut both ways, positive and negative. In that case, I think the thing that should break the tie is the presence of civil society. If not much of one exists, then a philanthropic tax shelter could – could! – be a tool to help bring one about. But learning from the US example, you’d want to think carefully about the kinds of accountability for public benefit you build into that system. If civil society is already strong, you may care more about ensuring that the public sector is strong and can provide safety net services, rather than promoting private philanthropic initiative.

This gets to the heart of one of my two questions – what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society? Which is the greater good – a robust public sector or the thousand points of light of private philanthropic impulse? Under what conditions do we favor one or the other? Would we wish the US philanthropic system on our own worst enemy?