Posts Tagged ‘transparency’

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!


Voice in My Throat

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

The song from which the title of this post, by the adorable Pearl and the Beard, is really worth checking out.

Ezra Klein had a provocative piece in the New Yorker last month about “the powerless presidential bully pulpit.” We think of the President’s main power as that of persuasion. But political scientists have found that having a President speak out on an issue may actually make it less possible for them to get legislation across on that issue, because having a President, associated with one party, take a stand means that the opposition consolidates along party lines – a Republican can’t support Obama’s stated policy preference because that cedes ground to Democrats – even if the individual Republican happens to agree with Obama on that position.

[Political scientist George] Edwards’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion isn’t effective with the public. [Political scientist Frances] Lee’s work suggests that Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress. And, because our system of government usually requires at least some members of the opposition to work with the President if anything is to get done, that suggests that the President’s attempts at persuasion might have the perverse effect of making it harder for him to govern.

Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, takes Lee’s thesis even further. “The more high-profile the communication effort, the less likely it is to succeed,” he says. “In education reform, I think Obama has done brilliantly, largely because it’s out of the press. But on higher-profile things, like deficit reduction, he’s had a much tougher time.”

[I reversed the order of these paragraphs from the original article to make them make more sense out of context.]

The song from which the title of this post, by the adorable Pearl and the Beard, is really worth checking out. This is troubling enough on a political level. But what if this finding is more general? What if any use – or even most uses – of the bully pulpit actually makes it harder to persuade people?     

I of course wonder if this applies to philanthropy. There are two worries. One is that foundation attempts to influence public policy may have counter-productive effects, particularly among local or state officials. Does lack of transparency help get things done? The other is that nonprofit attempts to promote greater philathropy actually make people less likely to give. Does more face-to-face outreach make people more likely to give?    

Well, let’s think about the mechanism. This dynamic applies to presidential politics, per Klein’s interpretation of the literature, because a president is also a party leader, and the opposition is from another party. Those are competitive, zero-sum positions – one loses, the other wins.   

Are foundations ever in such a situation? Well, they can be when they start working in support of particular public policy issues. Laws place restrictions on the amount of lobbying nonprofits can do – generally the guideline is, raise awareness of issues, don’t support specific pieces of legislation or candidates. But there are generally policy aims – pass healthcare reform, abolish the death penalty, restrict gay marriage – and in those, someone wins, and someone loses.     

The mechanism in the Klein article seems to hinge on publicity and visibility. This suggests that funders may have a better chance advocating on local and state initiatives than national or federal ones. Sounds like a hypothesis worth checking out….

#Kony #Kony

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

There’s so much going on with #StopKony I barely know where to start.

I spoke with a funder once whose range of investments included support for private security forces seeking out a war criminal. Philanthropy is institutional but it’s strangely chained to the raging id. You have the money, you have the autonomy – let’s see what you can do. Most wouldn’t do go that far, but some small number do. In some cases, no one knows, you like it that way, you keep it that way. In the case of Invisible Children, an NGO that raises money, you decide after years toiling in the shadows (well, relatively speaking, they’re actually fairly known on the international NGO scene) that it’s time to go viral. The theory of change is that you need political will to keep U.S. military advisers in country to keep the hunt for Kony on, so you tap your skills in video/media production and create a video designed to go viral.

And the cycle of backlash is just so fast. One of the people on my blogroll, Chris Blattman, has come out against the campaign, as have others. (Nice compilation here.) Invisible Children seems to have done an exhaustive job of responding to critiques, worth a read. Any opportunity to give a wider audience more nuance about how to think about NGO effectiveness is a positive in my book. For example, IC talks about how they get a two-star rating from Charity Navigator on transparency because they don’t have at least five independent board members. They have four, and say they’re interviewing for a fifth. It’s like buying a car, people, do your homework. But look beyond the rating systems, dig into the assumptions, learn some of the lingo. If you can spend 29 minutes watching the video….

Then again, as the caption says on a slide on my corkboard at work, “There is no such thing as boring information; there is only boring presentation.” Maybe someday someone’ll find a way to sex up the nuance of NGO accountability ratings. Until that day, put on your green accountants’ visor and start clicking. And if you have questions, I’m always here; this is what I do for a living….

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….

Two Become One

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Did I just use a Spice Girls song title for the title of this blog post?! Saints preserve us…

I was talking with a colleague who mentioned the complicated nature of a particular government form, where documentation had to be obtained in triplicate. In wondering about why people hate the government so much, it occurs to me that we need a more integrated perspective on government action. One part is something I’ve mentioned previously, the need for non-anti-governmentalists (in other words, people who see government as something other than an automatic force for bad, maybe even potentially a force for good) to recognize and work on the very real experience in people’s lives of government incompetence and waste. You can’t look credible defending government action in principle without addressing government inefficiencies in practice.

Another part of a more integrated perspective on government action has to do with the economic function of government action. The root of one form of anti-governmentalism lies in economics, a discipline conditioned to see government action as inherently less efficient than private action. The concept of “rent-seeking” is a way of talking about corruption – a “rent” is some economic gain, whether a sweetheart deal for a relative or a straight-up bribe. Government contracts offer rents, and politicians, in the economic model, are seen primarily as rent-seekers. (Political science differs in also seeing politicians as motivated by maintaining office, not just to preserve access to rents, but as an end in itself – because people love power.)

On the other hand, sociologically there’s something interesting about government as a potential guarantor of equal opportunity. Transparency in public proceedings is meant to make decision-making more fair. Many public funding agencies have to have some of their meetings open to the public. (Good luck proposing that at your typical private foundation!)

So, two visions of government action: rent-seeking and fairness through transparency. What if it’s both? What if the application form is in triplicate both to give someone a job or an economic rent and to be more fair/accountable? This is what I mean by a more integrated perspective on government action. I don’t think we have it, and it would be helpful in talking about the role of government in society.

Let the River Run

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Hi – back after a couple of weeks under the radar. Per my last post, I was at the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) and Council on Foundations (CoF) conferences back-to-back in Philadelphia. My guest post on the CoF website on one of the panels I moderated is here.

Welcome to new readers who began following me on Twitter in Philly. My mission statement for this blog is here, and my shtick is to use song titles for blog-post titles.

One of my biggest takeaways from the confluence of the “next-generation” (or really, “now-generation”) EPIP conference and the “mainstream” CoF conference is how distinct they are – like the black Amazon and the brown (sandy) Amazon:

Meeting of the Waters - "Black" Amazon and "Sandy" Amazon

Meeting of the Waters - "Black" Amazon and "Sandy" Amazon

The two conferences were alongside each other and many people, me included, traversed both, but our experiences were very different. I won’t say which one is sandy and which one is clear!

But the main difference had to do with how much the personal level – our individual narratives of class, leadership, social interaction, race, ethnicity – were not the background but the foreground and content of discussions at the EPIP conference. See here for a series of blog posts that break down different elements of the conference content. We heard from foundation CEOs who talked about their personal leadership journeys, trainers who helped us understand and break down narratives of class, social-justice advocates who talked about their organizing victories that sprang from marrying personal transformation with structural change. The personal is the professional, we kept hearing.

And on the other side of the river…nothing. It was all about roles, but not about the people who inhabit the roles. (Well, that’s not entirely true. Panels on “Why Aren’t Foundation Boards More Diverse?” and “Speaking of Race” brought in questions of identity.) I’m reminded of GrantCraft’s work on bringing your “whole self” to your role as a grantmaker. But that narrative, that approach, was absent during the CoF conference.

I came away from the Meeting of the Waters wondering if the EPIP mode is the way of the future. Will Generations X and Y expect the personal to be discussed alongside, as part of the professional, as they move forward in the field and become the “mainstream” audience of the CoF conference? What will this confluence of conferences look like in 10 or 20 years? (Assuming there is still a field of the type we recognize today, which, honestly, who knows….)

Dancing in the Dark

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Hopefully it’s not too disrespectful to begin back up with song-title-as-blog-post-title when writing about Japan. My friend Scott Kuhagen points out a fascinating NYT article about the challenges of post-disaster communication in a conflict-averse culture:

But as is often the case with cultural explanations (of which I have in the past been a fan, or at least not an automatic opponent), there are institutional factors close at hand. In this case, it’s a “leadership vacuum” created by a recent change in the ruling party after 50 years of LDP rule. The Times article is worth quoting at length, as there’s a lot of substance in the analysis:

“The close links between politicians and business executives have further complicated the management of the nuclear crisis. Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as “amakudari.”…Postwar Japan flourished under a system in which political leaders left much of the nation’s foreign policy to the United States and domestic affairs to powerful bureaucrats…. But over the past decade or so, the bureaucrats’ authority has been greatly reduced…. Yet no strong political class has emerged to take their place. Four prime ministers have come and gone in less than four years; most political analysts had already written off the fifth, Mr. Kan, even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Two years ago, Mr. Kan’s Japan Democratic Party swept out the virtual one-party rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had dominated Japanese political life for 50 years. But the lack of continuity and inexperience in governing have hobbled Mr. Kan’s party. The only long-serving group within the government is the bureaucracy, which has been, at a minimum, mistrustful of the party. “It’s not in their DNA to work with anybody other than the Liberal Democrats,” said Noriko Hama, an economist at Doshisha University.”

There’s so much going on here that as a political scientist I don’t know where to start: the parallels to 70 years of PRI one-party rule in Mexico and it’s relationship with the civil service, the analogies to the revolving door between Congress and K Street in the US – and above all (and I think that’s where I’ll start), the question of Japan’s political economy and the idea of “varieties of capitalism” that I’ve written on extensively on this blog.

Coordinated market economies are good at generating high-quality, well-engineered products through a system that features close coordination between labor, capital, and education. In the Japanese version, they feature cozy relationships between companies, particularly in finance, with lots of overlapping board seats and other forms of governance that would look odd in the context of the US, a liberal market economy.

And here we see a dark side of that coordination – a lack of willingness to point the finger of blame, to name a problem and respond nimbly in the moment. And this has to do with the flow of information.

So when we’re thinking about “varieties of philanthropy” analogous to varieties of capitalism, an important piece to look at is the flow of information, and how different institutional arrangements incentivize different information flows. Given what problems philanthropy has with good public information flow, this question seems particularly relevant.

One Thing Leads to Another – or Not

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Thanks to my pal Jason Nelson-Seawright for sharing this interesting article in the Boston Review about the intellectual history of the term “culture of poverty.” I’m not entirely convinced by the intellectual history part, but that’s much less important than the substance of the arguments at play – pushing back against the idea that behaviors displayed by poor folk are the reason for their poverty. Effects of poverty (dysfunctional forms of behavior) are mistaken for causes.

As Sally Kohn has perceptively noted, disagreements on this point are one of the main things that distinguish conservatives and progressives (the whole piece is worth a read):

Recently, during an appearance on Fox News, I was asked to defend my belief that rich people are not rich simply because they are inherently more talented than nor work harder than everyone else. This belief is the essence of the progressive worldview — the notion that, yes, each of us is different and uniquely talented, but our situations in life are as much defined by our individual effort as by the structures and social conditions of the world around us.

“As much by our individual effort as by social conditions” – that balance is appealing to me. Because it’s one thing to look at macro trends, it’s another to consider individual cases, and even as you’re working to reverse harmful policies that make climbing the ladder of social mobility harder, you want to send a message that it’s still worth trying even if the deck is stacked against you. People need the hopey-changey thing along with their dose of reality.

But the thing I really want to talk about is some of the perspectives that show up in the comments section of the Boston Review article. A steady stream of commenters, a surprising number of them behaving in a civilized fashion, point out that they observe in their daily or even professional lives poor people behaving in ways that contradict their economic or long-term self-interest. “If behavior isn’t culture, then what is?”

I have a few things to say about that, but what strikes me initially is the abstractness of these types of conversations. People seem so ready to opine about the lives and choices of people they’ve never met, and in whose shoes they’ve never walked. Or if they have walked in those shoes, to be even more punitive in mindset (“if I did it, why can’t they?”). The commenters talk about observing individual examples in their daily lives – but systems work in ways that are hard to discern at the individual level. You have to look at patterns over time to see structures at work. But that takes sustained effort, patience, empathy, and imagination, which are in short supply in the public discourse these days.

And what I’m wondering is whether social media paradoxically don’t make such structures harder for the average person to detect. On the one hand, data visualization tools make all kinds of patterns more evident. But the mechanisms behind those patterns, the linkages between individual micro action and aggregate macro trends, are not often elucidated. Part of the genius of Adam Smith, even as troubling as I find market fundamentalism in its various extreme and unfortunately popular forms, is that he laid out the mechanisms.

But I worry that social media are training us to favor the outliers even more than we already do – the driver of virality is the exceptional, the uniquely individual. Or with the “It Gets Better” project, it’s the overwhelming mass of individual expression suddenly aggregated. But where’s that in-between space, where we see the linkages between the individual and the aggregate? I worry that it’s getting crowded out by the modes of viewing, thinking, and perceiving that social media are training us in. Again, not to reverse cause and effect, but there’s a reinforcing dynamic going on here that I find troubling.

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?