Posts Tagged ‘scrutiny’

#FailEpic, continued

Friday, August 7th, 2015

I appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it’s so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened – when do you know to throw in the towel? – and that it’s not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

I would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success – that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it – masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who’s doing the telling, and when.

I see two strands of conversation worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

One is to explore what it looks like to have candid conversations between funders and nonprofits about real issues of execution and responsibility (on all sides!) in a context beyond the one-on-one grant relationship. I come to this with an instinct that a more public version of such conversations would be salutary, but also deep wariness about doing it in a way that’s constructive instead of harmful.

  • Are there stages by which such conversations evolve? Do you need to start with self-reflection, then within your own organization, then within a trusted network of peers, then more publicly? That’s an awful lot of steps.
  • Perhaps the best starting place is not talking about failure within a particular grant relationship, but in the context of a topic of shared interest in which the participants don’t have a direct stake. One can imagine a study group dedicated to reviewing examples of initiatives that have failed, and seeking to generate and apply insight from them – with an audience of funders and nonprofits who aren’t part of that field. Might that be a less threatening way to get started?
  • Because trying to have a conversation within a field about what worked and what didn’t is incredibly difficult. I think about the “four pillars” strategy in the immigration reform movement, which national funders and nonprofits developed together after a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006-07. They analyzed why they lost and how they could overcome those disadvantages, and then moved resources and effort toward filling those gaps. What makes cases like that possible? Where else does this happen?

The other strand of conversation worth pursuing is to ask what it looks like within an organization, and specifically a foundation, to be open to acknowledging, learning from, and acting on failure. What values and motivations need to be in place? Who are the change agents and culture bearers? How do incentives need to change? Are there particular structures or systems that make it easier to learn from and act on failure? What do a higher risk tolerance and a culture of inquiry look like in practice? I feel like we know a lot about this in the field, but the threads of conversation aren’t necessarily organized.

  • Part of the challenge is, who owns failure within the institution? In other words, who’s responsible for identifying it, naming it, lifting it up, creating a safe space in which to discuss it, making sure meaning is derived, and then following through on application of that insight? Those responsibilities fall across a number of function – evaluation, HR, programs, senior leadership, board. What role should be the steward or the shepherd ensuring that those functions are integrated in pursuit of mining improvement from failure, and what resources or tools does that person or team need?

Thanks again to all have engaged on this topic, and to the organizations that have begun hosting conversations among funders about being more open about failure. Do the strands of conversation I suggest above seem relevant, and worth pursuing? What kinds of spaces could we create for more authentic funder-nonprofit dialogue? And how can we get clearer about the organizational culture needed to support openness about failure?


The Manhattan Transfer

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Over the past three years, I’ve become a big fan of European football, aka soccer, following the major leagues in England, Spain, and elsewhere, especially my beloved FC Barcelona. As a newcomer to this kind of fandom, I’m continually bemused by the sheer volume and breathless tenor of commentary around “the transfer window”, i.e., the two times of the year when teams can buy and trade players. Things can get very complicated because you’re trading across international lines, and often until the very last minute of “Deadline Day,” which was this past Monday. The big news of Deadline Day was Mesut Ozil, a German of Turkish extraction, moving from Real Madrid in Spain to Arsenal in London. My passport hurts just thinking about that! Not to mention my wallet: pounds, euros, dollars – the figures are reported multiple and confusing ways.

What’s interesting is how the hype machine processes trades, and how the “right” or “wrong” decisions can shape how teams are perceived in the local and international media, and how much leeway managers, particularly new ones, have to find their way. This has been a season of unusually high managerial turnover at the major clubs, the biggest of which was David Moyes succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson after 26 years at Manchester United. That’s right, one manager led that club for twenty-six years. Imagine the expectations for the new guy! The succession was scrutinized all summer, more so because there weren’t games to talk about. Since the league only starts up in late August, the media and fans judge managers early on in the season through their team’s activity in the transfer window. Never mind that there’s usually a general manager-type figure who makes personnel decisions, it’s the coach/manager who takes the blame for transfer activity perceived to be subpar.

For the last several years, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, an impossibly urbane and dignified Frenchman who favors tailored grey suits and an Arsenal-red tie, has been pilloried for his lack of boldness in the transfer window. Arsenal, one of the richest clubs in the Premier League, based in North London, as recently as ten years ago had an undefeated season. But the “Invincibles” of 2004-05 were the last Arsenal side to bring home a trophy, and the pressure on Wenger has grown with each passing year. Missing out on a big signing during successive transfer windows has eaten away at his reputation. Unlike other major clubs that rack up the debt in pursuit of trophies, Arsenal’s management – including Wenger – have been fiscally prudent, content with being a consistently playoff-caliber club with a clean balance sheet. But its fans expect more, they remember the Invincibles.

Finally, this year, Wenger and Arsenal made that longed-after big signing. On Deadline Day, they swooped in for Ozil, one of the stars of the 2010 World Cup and still only 24, his best years ahead of him. The reaction on social media and in the football press was sudden and raucous. Momentum was Arsenal’s at last. And this was the day after they beat their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur on the road. From also-rans to top of the class in the course of a long weekend.

What I’m getting at is the power of talent to shape expectations, and the importance of managing the narrative – particularly when the story you have to tell goes beyond what gets reported in the press or discussed on social media. We’re really not good at this in philanthropy. A while back, I wondered what the “political arts” might be, and how foundations can learn from them. Shaping the narrative has to be one of those arts. The infrastructure of comment in philanthropy is nowhere near as developed as the football press, but word still travels fast. I’ll be watching Wenger this season as Ozil integrates into the side, and thinking about talent, narrative, and momentum.

Back 2 Life

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Philanthropy creates a bubble for those who work in it. We all know this. But on the inside, it’s so easy to forget. The surface of the bubble is so shiny, as it refracts the light coming from the outside. It’s a curved surface, so things on either side look distorted. But your eyes adjust. The brain is so skilled at adapting to new realities. With time, the funhouse image feels like a mirror, or a window.

But outside the bubble, reality goes on. Surface tension, surprisingly strong, keeps the bubble aloft on gentle breezes. But it can always be popped.

What does reality-based grantmaking look like? It begins with a clear understanding of what funders can and cannot do.

  • You can fund advocacy.
  • You can do more than make grants.
  • You can include grantees and community members in your decision-making.
  • You cannot solve long-standing social problems with a three-year initiative based on project funding.
  • You cannot compare to the monetary impact of the public sector or individual giving. The budget of Hennepin County, Minnesota, is more than $1 billion. Only a couple dozen foundations exceed even that amount, and except for the Gates Foundation, their grantmaking budgets are much much smaller.
  • You cannot flit from topic to topic every few years and expect to make a difference (or get much respect).

The funders who make a difference are the ones who invest for the long term, or who partner strategically, or who accept that small victories are big in the right context. Project Streamline a few years ago advanced the notion of “right-sizing” grants – they mean grant requirements. But it’s time to right-size grants, and our ambitions along with them, to the extent of the problems we’re addressing.

Funders can do more than they allow themselves, and they can achieve less than they think they can. And that’s OK. Life in the bubble is stifling; no air circulates. Step on out. See your surroundings clearly. Touch the ground. It’ll all be fine. We could all use the knowledge you’ve gained and benefit from the independent you should be allowed to keep. But please – see what you are. Know thyself.

Back 2 Reality.

In news from the reality-based side of philanthropy, happy 10th anniversary to the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity! Lori Villarosa and her PRE colleagues have been tireless, fearless advocates for a topic that’s essential for renegotiating the 21st-century social contract. Thank you Lori and company for moving that conversation forward.

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.

On My Own

Thursday, May 24th, 2012




As I started talking about last time, these are the tenets of the archetypal charitable foundation in the U.S.

Autonomy means that no one other than their own board of trustees tells them what to do. They’re not beholden to shareholders, the government, the public – they have the ability to make up their own minds.

At modest asset sizes, this doesn’t seem too problematic at first glance – you want to have your own idiosyncratic agenda, hey, more power to you.

But when we’re talking billions of dollars, that’s when people start getting suspicious. Arundhati Roy’s recent piece about the pernicious role of US foundations abroad (which, interestingly enough, is an argument being echoed, in a different key, at the Hudson Institute next week) targets certain large and familiar names like Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates. To a degree, these folks are setting themselves up for such scrutiny by promoting their own brands more aggressively (see Alison Bernstein’s reflections on how Ford’s branding has changed over the years). (H/T GiftHub for these three links.)

But let’s not forget, even with all their billions, these groups are a drop in the bucket of the economies of social problems. As Sandy Vargas of the Minneapolis Foundation pointed out at the EPIP conference last year, her budget when she ran a county administration in the Twin Cities metro area was $2 billion. One county, in one state! OK, a big county, but still – in government terms, foundations are a drop in the bucket. Always healthy to remember that.

But I think the real issue arises when autonomy is exercised by big fishes in small ponds. This goes back to the idea of funding ecosystems – funders need to be aware of how they’re situated in their individual fields, and what are the impacts of the choices they make on the health of the ecosystem. When everyone gets too focused and no one supports the broad-based, bread-and-butter groups…the ecosystem suffers.

Autonomy becomes a challenge when funders operate in fields with few other actors, where their decisions have outsize consequences. Even if in the aggregate, foundation dollars are a drop in the bucket, at the micro level, or even field level, they can have an outsize influence. All the more important then to adopt the Spider-man model as a default: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

When you combine this kind of autonomy with privacy, it can be difficult for actors in the field to figure out how to relate to “their” funders. If the default setting is for funders to keep things internally oriented, then information may not flow freely enough to enable the ongoing health of the ecosystem. If water plays a critical role in biological ecosystems, then information is the water of funding ecosystems. Privacy and autonomy throw up dams that need to be acknowledged, understood, and managed. And sometimes replaced….

Next, I’ll look at how the goal of perpetuity interacts with privacy and autonomy.

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!

Save Me?

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Teju Cole has a great piece on the Atlantic website about “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” inspired by KONY 2012 and other international do-gooder efforts. (He’s also in tomorrow’s final of the 2012 Tournament of Books.) It’s an evocative phrase, let’s break it down.

That the saviors are white matters because of the white man’s burden, the legacy of colonialism, and unexamined white privilege.

That they frame themselves as saviors (if that’s what they’re doing) matters because that denies agency to the people who are being nominally saved.

That it’s an industrial complex matters…why? Because do-gooding should be an artisanal craft? Because it should be a monastic calling? Because it should be divine inspiration? Because…. Hmm. The original term “military-industrial complex” pointed out that two apparently unrelated areas were related that shouldn’t be related, because they concentrated too much material and political power. What power do would-be white saviors wield? And why should their professionalization be worth calling out as a danger?

Could it be because the power to call attention to an issue or problem, particularly one as previously obscure as the Lord’s Resistance Army, turns out to matter after all? And that the innocence and disintermediation that were the public face of KONY 2012 supporters somehow confirm our prejudices about what do-gooding should look like – non-industrialized, organic, idealistic?

The truth is, white saviors have a pittance of the Pentagon’s budget. Not much of an industrial complex – more like a set of competing and fractious medieval guilds. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they try to leverage the hell out of soft power.

There are many kinds of complex that white saviors could be ascribed: superiority, inferiority, Cassandra – but industrial? Nah. They wish.

Belly of the Beast

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

The Komen/Planned Parenthood thing is an omen of further struggles to come within philanthropy. Private foundation decision-making is notoriously opaque; a frequent complaint of grantseekers is that it’s not clear why they’re denied, and they don’t usually get feedback about why. (All too often, they don’t even ask.) This was somewhat tenable when private foundations stayed safely on the margins of social and political discourse.

Now, more and more private foundations are seeking attention, publicity, interaction. But their practices around decision-making are not well-suited for this new reality. As Phil Cubeta at GiftHub points out, Karen Handel from Komen, the exec at the heart of the Planned Parenthood controversy, used all the “right” technocratic phrases. But the baldly political nature of the decision-making created an uproar precisely because Komen has been so successful at branding. Foundation governance and decision-making have a long way to go, in other words, to catch up with new ambitions for, I guess you could call it, belovedness.

Be careful what you wish for, because loyalty cuts both ways. In our strangely entitled consumer economy (Louis C.K. has a good bit about this, H/T, where we expect gratification that’s not just instant but predictive (it knows what you want before you do), those brands that do pass the loyalty bar inspire such devotion that when they “wrong” us, we lash out at them. Just ask Netflix.

Decision-making and governance are the soft underbelly of the foundation world, and as the Komen thing demonstrates, when you poke it, the results aren’t pretty. Time for some sit-ups….

Stuck in the Middle with You

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

(With apologies to whatever band played that song in Reservoir Dogs for the title. There’s a TV show where all the episode titles are the titles of songs. I might try that for a while with blog post titles, this makes two in a row….)

Continuing this week’s theme on decision-making and transparency:

Congressional appropriations are a kind of grant. What if foundations had to go through a Congressional-style process while making grants? What kind of theater would ensue? Would you see foundation staff whispering in the ears of trustees, who would be seated behind nameplates and microphones, asking questions of the grant applicant, who’s shifting uncomfortably in the hotseat, reading prepared testimony?

The giving circle I’m involved with, the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund, has a version of this, come to think of it. We do a “pitch night,” where our three finalists for one annual grant come to present to the membership, who afterwards get to deliberate together and vote online about which organization receives the grant that year. There’s definitely an element of theater there, of performance. And it’s interesting how it’s semi-public, for an audience that has ante’d up for the privilege of making that decision together. We have a lot of criteria we use to make the decision, and the deliberation is genuinely enjoyable. Feels like crowdsourcing at its best.

And see, there’s one of the challenges with transparency and decision-making. Whatever the experience of being in that deliberating group is like, I can’t think of a way to describe it without raising the potential, however remote, that someone might call into question the nature of the process. As much as I know internally that we do a careful job, from the outside looking in, it’s always going to have the potential to be mysterious or even suspicious. Even when there’s nothing going on. The very nature of the situation has the potential to breed mistrust. And that potential is amplified when you have – wait for it – more people involved in the conversation. Which is why observing Congress drives people crazy, because so many people are watching and the stakes are so high. (And, well, because there actually is a lot of venality going on.) So what would my giving circle’s pitch night look like with a lot more people watching?

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, I guess I’m trying to abide honestly in the place of ambivalence that drove me to this series of posts and to which I return in the end. I’m open to ways more transparency can improve decision-making, but I continue to have my doubts, or at least my questions….

The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

(With apologies to Morrissey for lifting the title of this post from one of his songs)

Continuing from yesterday, I’m wondering about transparency and decision-making. One of the ultimate decision-making bodies, the U.S. Congress, reconvened today with the first class of Tea Party “freshmen.” Right out of the gate, the theater starts. (Remember how I pointed out yesterday, via Schattschneider, that when you increase the number of people in the argument, the incentive to showboat also increases?)  A friend on Facebook pointed out an article about one bit of performance art – Eric Cantor pushing to get rid of the (frankly kinda silly) resolutions the House does periodically to commemorate National Asparagus Week, or whatever. This is the kind of thing that happens when decisions are made visible – the Congressfolk sponsoring want them to be seen, they make a theater of decision-making, turning the very ability to make a decision into a spectacle. This is the power of certification, an authority changing the significance of something just by pointing its finger. What an abstract and strange power, when you think about it. But it’s real, given how long traditions like these House resolutions persist.

Do we expect such forms of theater to increase or decrease as decision-making becomes more public? Hannah Arendt has some truly beautiful writing in The Human Condition about the importance of the public sphere, and the meaningfulness of political participation – a lot of it based on the example of the Greek polis and the origins of democracy. But as some critics have pointed out, the gap in her thinking is, why do people (well, men in the Greek case) jump into the public sphere? And it turns out simple vanity may be the answer. They want to look good, they want to be seen as virtuous. We tend to think of corruption as the acts of venal people, and “sunshine” or transparency as a way of mitigating corruption. But what if the most venal people of all don’t mind – or even prefer – to do their dirty deeds in the full glare of the spotlight?