Posts Tagged ‘my two questions’

Local knowledge (part 3, flipping the script)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

What if communities could design their own foundation? So often, foundations come to a community and try to learn what its issues are that fit with the foundation’s interest, and develop a program to meet them. There’s always a negotiation, and the foundation always holds the trump card of independence, and to a lesser degree, donor intent.

But what if the process were reversed? What if instead of nonprofits in a community bidding to foundations to be the ones to receive funds, what if communities came together, identified their needs, and then put out an RFP to foundations to find philanthropic capital that would meet those needs? Evaluation would be driven by community priorities and needs. Foundations would have to change their operations to meet the needs of the community?

What if a foundation voluntarily gave up its autonomy and put itself at the service of a particular community, with all the resources it could gather from other places?

They say you can tell what you should do with your life based on your answer to the question, “what would you do with a million dollars?” I guess I’m in the right line of work, because that sounds to me like something that would be fun to try and make happen. (And make it a billion.)

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Is the answer “taxes”? (part 2)

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Previously, I wondered in the wake of objections to the Giving Pledge if the answer to my question, “what does it mean to democratize philanthropy?” is simply “taxes.” The idea, voiced here and here, is that billionaires setting aside the majority of their wealth for philanthropic activity circumvents the democratic process; that if those funds were taxed, the government revenue would be allocated by democratically elected representatives.

But why not circumvent the representatives, and the appointed civil service that would allocate the funds in practice, and go straight to the people? What if Gates, Buffett, et al. opened their philanthropic giving directly to democratic decision-making? Or made it available in a similar fashion to supplement state budgets, which have been devastated by the recession and are resulting in huge cuts to local services? Now, as is well known, philanthropy can’t make up for shortfalls in government revenue, and it’s unfair and wrong to ask it to try. (Projected shortfall in state budgets this year: $120 billion; annual increase in philanthropy if all billionaires sign the Giving Pledge: $30 billion.) But a few billion sure would help safety-net programs, not to mention arts and cultural programs, at the state level.

(knock knock) Housekeeping

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

All right, it’s been a month or two that I’ve been blogging steadily, so it’s time to take stock. At the beginning here, I’ve been exploring the space opened up by my two questions, and setting up some fenceposts to mark where I’d ultimately like to divide things up and work on specific topics in specific areas. So as not to lose track of them all, here’s what that looks like so far:

First question: What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?

  • Are there varieties of philanthropy to go along with the varieties of capitalism?
  • What does philanthropy look like in the CIVETS, up-and-coming economies in the developing world (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa)
  • Voting systems and philanthropy: How are nonprofit fundraising and political campaigning related? How are nonprofit donors like voters? What do nonprofit donors want? In what ways are grant decisions and voting related? What are the implications of applying social-media forms of indicating approval (rating, sharing, liking) to grant decision processes?
  • Is philanthropy a corrective or an accomplice to the fundamental tension between markets and democracy?

Second question: What would it mean to democratize philanthropy?

  • The meaning of “diversity”
  • What are the implications of the “Foundations and the Common Good” project?
  • How do we achieve the laudable and completely reasonable goals of Project Streamline without more regulation of the field?

General musings:

  • Agriculture and engineering as metaphors for social change
  • How privileging “local knowledge” might cut across left-right ideological lines
  • Periodic musings about data and methodology

What immediately stands out is that I’ve focused more on my first question rather than my second. So maybe I’ll work on mapping some of that territory out too.

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The second of my two questions is, “what would it mean to democratize philanthropy?” One of the topics this allows me to touch on is what’s usually labeled diversity. A few thoughts to start sketching out a path to explore on here:

Monocultures in agriculture and (?) epidemiology are bad: you want a diversity of plant species so if you have a blight in one of your crops, not everything is wiped out; and you want to be exposed to different kinds of germs so you build up a broad base of immunity and are less likely to be felled by the newest strain of cold or flu.

Monoculture of perspective or experience is similarly perilous. Groupthink, prejudice, tokenism, discrimination: all these can result in an ecosystem-of-people (whether an organization or a nation) where only one type of perspective or experience is present or validated.

Crop rotation and exposure to different kinds of germs are strategies for avoiding monocultures. Maybe there’s something to be learned from these practices in promoting diversity in institutional contexts, like philanthropy. Term limits on foundation boards and/or program officers may help ensure rotation of perspectives in the bodies that govern the organization and interact most directly with constituents. And substitute “memes” for “germs” in the first sentence in this paragraph, and the idea would be to provide regular, low-dose exposures to all different kinds of perspectives and experiences to inoculate the organization against the peril of falling for the newest fad (a constant danger in philanthropy).

But what might “perspective” and “experience” mean in this context? Are we talking about diversity of background? Identity? To be continued….

CIVETS (part 2)

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Previously, as a way of exploring the first of my two questions, “What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?”, I wondered what philanthropy looks like in the CIVETS, the developing economies recently labeled by a financial analyst at HSBC as ones to watch in the years ahead: Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa.

My family’s from Colombia originally, so I’ll do the C last. That means starting with I, for Indonesia. As I embark on this series, here are some of the questions that will guide me:

  • Basic facts for context: population, size of the economy, principal industries, political system, ethnic and religious makeup. Where would the country fall on the liberal market economy-coordinated market economy spectrum?
  • Democratic status: Freedom House score, Transparency International score, number of political parties, current party in power. Has there been a transition to democracy in the recent past? What kind of regime was there before?
  • State of philanthropy: What is the presence of local NGOs? What is the presence of international NGOs? Are there provisions in the tax law for charitable deductions, or efforts to develop those? Is the level of individual giving? Is there corporate giving? Are there private foundations? Which are the leading funders? Is there research, domestic or international, on the state of philanthropy? What is the role of religion in individual or institutional giving?
  • Philanthropy and politics: How closely are philanthropy and giving regulated? Are there connections between philanthropy and electoral campaigns? Do the political parties have philanthropic arms? Are NGOs an independent political voice? Are foundations an independent political voice? If the country has experienced a democratic transition in the recent past, what was the role of NGOs and/or foundations in that process? Are NGOs or foundations seen as contributing to democratic consolidation?

Voting systems and philanthropy

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Interesting article in the New Yorker about different voting systems. The way we elect presidents in the US, with “winner takes all” in a majority system, is not the only way to do things: there’s proportional representation, where parties get seats in accordance with their vote share, preference voting, where you rank candidates and can express more than one preference, etc. This is one of the central topics in political science, and the literature gets dense quickly. I thought there was a missed opportunity in the article to talk more about examples from other countries, and about the differences between presidential and legislative elections.

This seems like a good excuse to flesh out some of the potential topics for this blog based on my two questions, particularly the second one, “What would it mean to democratize philanthropy?” There are a lot of market-based metaphors floating around to describe how philanthropy does its work (I almost said, “does its business”). Part of the reason for my musings about influence and impact is to explore non-market-based metaphors for our work. The idea of voting and voting systems gives some room for this.

A few initial questions:

  • In what ways are grant decisions and voting related? Letters of inquiry, internal rating systems, discretionary grants, Board approval, consent agenda – what would it look like if we overlaid the structure of political elections on these?
  • How are fundraising and campaigning related? Are individual donors like Presidential voters, requiring broad majoritarian appeals, and institutional donors like legislative voters, requiring targeted narrowcasting based on the quirks of locality? (It was a Congressman who said “all politics are local,” after all.) What if campaigning for institutional grants had to occur in public like campaigning for votes?
  • Social media give people the opportunity to express preferences in a variety of ways – sharing, liking, rating. What are the implications of applying such systems to grant decision processes? How would a political scientist view the Chase Challenge?

Those sound worth exploring. How else are philanthropy and voting/electoral systems potentially related?

My two questions and why they matter

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

All right. So there are two questions that animate this soon-to-be-renamed blog.

  1. What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?
  2. What does it mean to democratize philanthropy?

Why do these questions matter now?

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between individual, major-donor, and institutional philanthropy. Individual philanthropy is what you or I do – give to organizations that we know, because we’re asked by people we know, or because we care about the cause and happened to come across them. Major-donor philanthropy is what people who can give upwards of (say) $25,000 do. Most of the time, they give for the same reasons you or I do; but there’s a growing movement for such folks to give in a different way (whether that’s more strategic, more tactical, more informed, more engaged, whatever). Institutional philanthropy is when a major donor sets up a free-standing organization that more or less takes over decision-making for grants. These three are along some kind of a continuum with lots of things in between, but those are the major points along the continuum.

So the first question matters because for all three of these types of donors, their role in a democratic society is becoming more important. Individual donors, as we saw after Haiti, have more tools at their disposal to give, and may – may – be incentivized to give more as a result. You vote with your feet, you vote with your pocketbook, your voice is your vote. When your pocketbook, your voice, and your (virtual) feet are connected through social media, and you see the results in Haiti getting millions or, heck, Obama getting elected, you may – may – think about your own power, and your own role in shaping the conditions of your own life, in a different way. So there’s something there.

Major donors don’t just vote with their pocketbooks on their philanthropic investments, they open them for political candidates and political causes. Major donors activated to be more strategic or tactical philanthropists may – may – think differently about how they engage in politics as donors. Particularly in the wake of Citizens United, when the threat of being overwhelmed by corporate donations is real.  So there’s something there.

And institutional philanthropy, the world of foundations and social investors (yes, I know that’s a problematic conflation, but bear with me), is paying much more attention to the real meaning of public-private partnerships, and what its relationships with government look like. The role of the Tactical Philanthropy community in helping shape criteria around the Social Innovation Fund it seems augurs things to come. So there’s something there.

The second question matters because institutional philanthropy is set up in this country within a legal framework of tax-exemption that was created by government and could be changed by government. In response to the potential for such changes, the classic move within institutional philanthropy has been to say, “don’t regulate us, let us come up with ways to regulate ourselves.” Fine. So what do those look like? Enter discussions of diversity, the 5% payout rule, etc. So are the changes needed to head off potential regulation about making philanthropy more democratic? And what would that mean? What would it look like? So there’s something there.

I’m learning the art of brevity for blog writing, so I’ll stop there for now. But I’ll keep coming back at the outset to my two questions and why they matter, as I start to map out the terrain I’ll cover on this blog.

And so it begins

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

In the story of the fox and the hedgehog – the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing – I’m definitely a hedgehog. Or as we say in political science, I’m a lumper rather than a splitter. The hedgehog-y lump that provides the title of this blog and the organizing framework for what may at times appear to be disconnected musings is this:

Democratizing     Philanthropy     Questionmark

All three parts are important. “Democratizing” because I’m trained as a political scientist, which means I’m interested in the distribution of power. “Philanthropy” because my career is foundation consulting and my passion is making philanthropy more accessible to communities. “Questionmark” because, well, I don’t know; my starting point is uncertainty. And I’ll write outward from that.

So the prevailing mode of this blog will be to raise questions. There are two of those implicit in the title that I plan to explore, and that I hope you, Dear Reader, will join me in exploring:

  1. What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?
  2. What does it mean to democratize philanthropy?

For a couple of years now, I’ve been burrowing away like a good hedgehog, reading tons of blogs, articles, and research about my twin interests of philanthropy and comparative politics, trying to find the glue that would cohere a lump sufficiently lump-y to serve as the kernel for a blog of my own, and if I’m lucky, the irritating grain of sand that will one day yield a pearl of wisdom. (As you’ll learn, I mix metaphors with gusto.) And I think these two questions are that kernel, that lump, that grain of sand.

The first question gets into what we mean by  a democratic society, what the quality of that democracy looks like, and how philanthropy contributes to or detracts from that democratic ideal and reality. This gets into topics of accountability, transparency, and the relationship with government. For the most part, the type of philanthropy I plan to look at under this first question is institutional philanthropy: the world of foundations, public charities, donor-advised funds, etc. To a degree I’ll look at individual giving, particularly as it relates to the metaphor of a philanthropic market. The relationship among markets, communities, freedom, and democracy will occupy a fair amount of my attention in this area.

The second question as I’m seeing it is much more about the individual side. What does it mean to make giving more democratic – more grassroots, more accountable to communities? I’m involved in a giving circle, the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund, so these topics are near and dear to my heart. By necessity, exploring the second question will touch on what it means to make institutional philanthropy more democratic. Here the two questions start to bleed together. And here I get a chance to talk about topics like diversity, equity, and inclusion, which are ones I’ve worked on professionally in the past.

So the field is set, the game is afoot. I’ll start off in my next post by digging further into the two main questions behind this blog, and why I think they’re particularly important to be asking now.

Global disclaimer: The opinions on this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer, TCC Group.