Posts Tagged ‘scrutiny’

Is the glass half cloudy?

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Happy New Year! My goal this year is to build an audience for the blog. I’ve been posting regularly for about six months, and have found a good rhythm, tone, and frequency. Now to get the word out there….

Last time, I made a passing reference to being ambivalent about transparency. The truth is, I’m ambivalent about a lot of good things, like democracy and free markets. That’s just how I’m built. But given how much in vogue transparency is, I guess I should elaborate.

  • WikiLeaks is a good example. I think I’m not off in saying that reasonable people can disagree in whether they’re a good thing. Take the latest release, of diplomatic cables. These embarrassed the U.S., particularly some of our allies. To the extent they made things more difficult for our diplomats abroad, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It might not be the end of the world, but it’s not unreservedly good.
  • Think of politicians as the canaries in the coal mine. Who would want to run for office given how expensive, invasive, and demeaning the process can be and usually is? Who wants to have their live put up for scrutiny like that? In a world where all your business is available online, eventually only the Tracy Flicks will be willing to put up with the hassle. Then where will we be, governed by control freaks and goody-goodies. And that’s just the beginning, what happens as that level of availability and potential for scrutiny becomes more generalized. Will it make us paradoxically less likely to be our full selves with others? I heard an interesting line the other day: “Facebook is where we go to lie to friends and Twitter is where we go to tell the truth to strangers.” The refracted self: many surfaces, all polished to a sheen, but how much light gets through?
  • Aren’t there some decisions that are better made in private? I wonder about the nature of decision-making. Sure, some decisions are better made with more than one person, but are there kinds of decisions that deteriorate in quality the more people are involved. A classic of American politics is Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereigh People; one of its central concepts is the idea that by increasing the number of people involved in an argument, you change the nature of the argument. Extrapolating from that idea, I’d say with more people watching, the arguers start to get self-conscious and perform more. Something is lost. I’m not sure what and I’m not sure how important it is – or under what kind of circumstances. But I can’t shake the feeling that not all group decisions should always be opened up as much as possible.

I imagine this is a theme to which I’ll return, given how important transparency is to one of my two questions, about the role of philanthropy in a democratic society.

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Five zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die (#1)

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Inspired by a Foreign Policy article about “Five Zombie Economic Ideas that Won’t Die,” I’m thinking about the equivalent in philanthropy.

  1. Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.

The first one is easy: one of the most common concerns foundations, especially boards, express about doing policy advocacy is that foundations aren’t allowed to do it. The good people at Alliance for Justice have for years and years been combating this misperception. It’s an unfortunate case where a bit of nuance freaks people out. Perhaps it’s even just an excuse not to deal with the issue.

The main distinction is between what private foundations can do and what public charities, which include most 501(c)(3)s, community foundations, and other regranting entities that raise money from the public, like the North Star Fund or the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, can do. Public charities can lobby, but private foundations can’t – meaning only that they can’t take positions on specific pieces of legislation or specific candidates in an election. But both finds can fund lobbying and advocacy among their grantees.

Here’s AFJ:

Private Foundations May Advocate!

Private and Public Foundations May Fund Charities that Lobby

Public Charities Can Lobby: Guidelines for 501(c)(3) Public Charities (this includes public foundations like community foundations)

Public Foundation Representatives Can Safely Visit Legislators!

So the question really becomes, what else is behind a particular foundation’s reluctance to do advocacy? Is it about a certain level of public exposure, the risk of attacks from political actors or media sources? Moving past unfounded objections about foundations’ legal constraints with respect to advocacy opens up space for a conversation about these more fundamental questions – what Bill Ryan calls “generative” questions about who the organization is and what it wants to do.

Fundraising and campaigning (part 4)

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

In a previous post, I asked, “how are [nonprofit] fundraising and [political] campaigning related?”

A popular image is that members of the House, who have to run for re-election every two years, which is to say constantly, are judged by their constituencies for how much pork they bring back to their districts. This brings up an interesting parallel with nonprofits – if we think of donors as voters, how do they hold nonprofits accountable, or not?

The easy answer is that the information markets in the nonprofit world don’t function very well, because on some level, donors don’t hold nonprofits accountable – at least not in the sense of “throwing the bums out” when they don’t perform.

But it’s interesting that criteria for political anger and criteria for donor motivations to give can both be nebulous, in their own ways. What do voters want from politicians? That they bring home the pork? That they say the right things? That they have similar ideologies as voters? That you’d want to have a beer with them? The machinery of governing is so opaque, and how it’s actually connected with an individual politician’s performance (I’m thinking of legislators rather than the President here) is so unclear, that the mechanism of accountability, though stark (you win an election or you lose it), is also strangely arbitrary. Sounds a bit like concerns about most nonprofits not being able to show their impact to donors.

And yet people vote, and give to charity (I use that word intentionally). So clearly something else is going on besides holding politicians and nonprofits accountable on the basis of causal relations between individual efforts and impact.

Is it a proximity or halo effect (we work on this issue, so we must have something to do with it, even if no one can say exactly what or now)?

What about the role of parties in politics? Does the halo effect in politics come from that? Parties create a group identity or team affiliation that politicians can use as a proxy for their own impact. Nonprofits don’t have that, do they? What would it look like if they did?

Fundraising and campaigning (part 3)

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

In a previous post, I asked, “how are [nonprofit] fundraising and [political] campaigning related?”

What would it be like if there were campaign finance reform for nonprofits? Nonprofits often choose to publicize their donors, and savvy ones understand these as recognition opportunities and use them to leverage more donations. For political campaigns, their donors are both a source of secrecy and of pride. Stories about the prowess of the Bush and Obama campaigns in mobilizing tremendous constituencies of grasstops fundraisers (how else to describe cadres of semi-rich folk shaking down their friends?) are legion, but institutional donors are often hidden, either at the donor’s request or the recipient’s.

What if nonprofits were required to disclose where their funding came from, down to the $200 level or below? Would it incentivize them to think about ways to recognize their donors more, and about how their donors align or not with their mission?

Related question: what if foundations were required to disclose the companies in their investment portfolios – not the specific positions per se, but just the companies in which they’re invested, as a check on what kind of mission alignment there would be. Is that the campaign finance reform the nonprofit/philanthropic sector needs? Or would it be followed by another Citizens United? What if foundations wanted to advertise where they invested, they way many want to advertise their grantees? Are potential branding benefits another, maybe less explored side of mission-related investing?

Here comes the Wall Street

Friday, April 30th, 2010

I haven’t gotten to the blog coverage of this week’s Council on Foundations conference on Philanthropy411 yet, but the article from today’s Wall Street Journal (or as my inlaws call it, “the Wall Street”) sounds what is sure to be a discordant note. It’s a perfect example of the misperceptions and mischaracterizations that are only going to multiply as philanthropy continues to elevate its public profile. If only the reporter realized that the “brave new age” of strategic philanthropy has been in the making for years if not decades, and that the voices represented on the panels he cites are very much the minority within the field, as grassroots organizations can attest. But of course, in this artificially polarized political climate, such nuance is purposely ignored.

But I can’t help but think that our field isn’t ready for the scrutiny that’s coming. A lot of our assumptions about what makes social change are unexamined, and the reality of unintended consequences is one that we would do well to take heed of. As much as Bill Schambra’s parroting of standard conservative think-tank bromides irks me, there are some important insights that he carries forward and applies in a way that doesn’t have to be counterproductive. (And I gather he’s a perfectly nice guy.) A subject for a future post…