Posts Tagged ‘zombie ideas’

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #4

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Returning to an ongoing series.

#1 is “Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.”

#2 is “There are too many nonprofits.”

#3 is “We can move the needle.”

And #4 is….

We’re going from being responsive to being strategic.”

Just as the zombie was once alive, and retains something of life’s essence, zombie ideas contain kernels of truth. But their expression in the world has become…something other.

The kernel of truth in a dichotomy of responsive and strategic grantmaking is the difference between funding whatever ideas come over the transom and naming specific outcomes you as a funder want to see achieved, and asking grantees to pursue those specific outcomes.

The problem comes when we view strategic as an honorific, and set up a dichotomy where responsive by implication becomes a pejorative. We’re “moving beyond” responsive grantmaking, doing something “more” strategic.

But as the California Wellness Foundation argued ten years ago, “Responsive Grantmaking Is Strategic.” There are several ways this can be the case:

  • Responsive grantmaking can complement the goals of “strategic” (or directed) grantmaking, providing an opportunity to learn about a particular field, or gauge responsiveness to a new idea or approach.
  • If we ask the question “whose strategy is it?” (and for this I’m grateful to Judy Patrick of the Women’s Foundation of California for framing it), then a different perspective emerges. If the answer is “the foundation’s,” then perhaps the strategic-responsive dichotomy holds. But if the answer is that the strategy belong to the grantee, or the community, or the field, or the movement – then responsive grantmaking appears in a different light. If you as a funder are bought in to a strategy larger than your individual organization’s, then perhaps the most strategic way to intentionally pursue your strategy is to sign on to the strategies that grantees and other partners develop on their own or in concert with you. Responding to others’ strategies that you endorse is the strategic choice.
  • Responsive grantmaking can be strategic if what you value as a funder is not your ability to define a problem and name a solution, but your ability to “pick winners,” to identify strong organizations with effective leaders and solid plans, and support them in executing on those plans. Often, the difference between these values is framed in dichotomous terms – but a picking-winners approach can be used in concert with a defining-problems approach. You just have to be willing to see what actors in the field you’ve chosen are up to and ask how you can help, rather than coming in with a defined solution.

Responsive grantmaking is undervalued because its benefits for learning, field-building, place-building, and reputation management aren’t well articulated or robustly defended. And strategic grantmaking is overvalued because its roots in ecosystem thinking, learning, and value judgements is similarly less understood than its intentionality or proactiveness. Viewing them dichotomously and assuming that strategic funding is better misses a lot of opportunities for impact.

How do you think about responsive and strategic grantmaking in your own work? How does this particular zombie idea, of a dichotomy between the two, play out in your world?


Standard Time

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

At the Independent Sector conference last week, we had the privilege of seeing Wynton Marsalis speak and perform. I was excited for the latter, but came away floored by the former. His manner of speech and thought were so distinctive and insightful, it felt like an implicit reproach to the generalities in which big-tent conferences traffic.

All of Marsalis’ statements were grounded in a place and a time. To understand the origins of jazz, he explained how in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, English, French, Spanish, Creole, and African cultures converged in New Orleans to create the conditions for a new form of music. When introducing his talented backing band (piano and upright bass), he referred to them by name, age, and place. It matters that the pianist is 31 and from Milwaukee, and that the bassist is 19 and from Jamaica. Their generational and place-based experiences shape the music to which they’re exposed, the musicians with whom they can collaborate, and therefore how they play.

Marsalis went on to describe jazz as a metaphor for democracy: players learn to collaborate around a common theme, improvising within a structure. Mastery comes not just from technical skill but from deep knowledge of history and diverse modes of expression that have come before and exist now.

What would it mean for foundations to operate as part of a jazz trio, in the Marsalis mode, with nonprofits and government? (All right, it should be a quartet that involves business.) Above all, good jazz players are skilled listeners. They know the qualities of their instrument, and how it blends with the other instruments. The drums don’t carry the melody. The trumpet doesn’t play rhythm. But everyone gets a solo – for a certain amount of time. The players look at each other and listen to each other to understand when it’s time for the solo to end and the song to continue.

Funders need to learn how to listen better to the other players in the social change quartet, and how to ground themselves in the strengths and limitations of their “instrument” – grantmaking, convening, advocacy, research, field-building, etc. The more they understand what their instrument is and isn’t good for, the more collaboratively, fluently, and beautifully they can play.

Innovation comes through a thorough grounding in tradition, so that when you repeat themes that have been heard many times before – the “standards” – you can bring a new flavor to them while recognizing the work that’s gone before. So when funders indulge in what I call “zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die“, they should remember Wynton Marsalis and ask themselves – and their fellow players – “where have I heard that one before?” And a new song can be born….

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #3

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

(Part of a continuing series)

#3: “We can move the needle.”

I help foundations develop theories of change – being clear about how what they do makes a difference in the world. What I try to remind them of, and I need to get better at doing this, is what can you really do as a funder with a $6 million – or even $60 million annual grantmaking budget?

  • You work in education? The annual budget of the Fargo, North Dakota school district was $124 million in 2011-12.
  • You work in health? The Biloxi Regional Medical Center paid more than $48 million in wages and benefits in 2011.
  • You work on the environment? ExxonMobil spent $12.9 million on lobbying in 2013.

So what are we talking about here?

Let’s say you want to improve the unemployment rate in the Cincinnati metro area. To move it even one-tenth of a percent, you’d have to help 1,000 people find jobs in a month, which is how often the “needle” is measured.

What is this needle, how are we moving it, and how do we know it stays moved? You have to adjust unemployment statistics for seasonal trends – a lot of people get temporary retail jobs around the holidays, more farmhands are hired at harvest time, kids in school get summer jobs. The change you achieve may get swamped.

So unless you’re changing the rules by which a system operates – which takes gaining political power, mobilizing a base to demand for change, or developing an alternative philosophy and doing the hard, generation-long work of making it the new status go – your signal is likely to get drowned out by a lot of noise.

Or you can go really specific and really small. A neighborhood? That you might be able to change? A city? Come on now.

Our theories of change need to be about movements, about narratives, about systems, if we’re going to live up to the ambition that so many foundation staffs and boards rightly entertain.

Why would you want to move a needle anyway? Better to move the whole haystack.

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die (#2)

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Moving away for a minute from my usual shtick of having a song title as the title of the post, I want to resurrect (ha, ha) an old thread from quite a while back: zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die. The series (well, now it’s a series ’cause I’m posting a second one) was inspired by an article called “five zombie economic ideas that won’t die.” So I’m doing a version for philanthropy.

# 1 was: Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.

#2 is: There are too many nonprofits.

I can’t tell you how often I hear this in my work with nonprofits and the people who support them. It’s usually in reference to a particular topic area (like addressing a particular disease) or geography (X city or state). What’s behind this?

  • If there are a lot of organizations with the same mission, something must be wrong.
  • More nonprofits should just merge.
  • Someone (a funder) should go in and fix that.

Do we ask this about for-profit businesses? (I did once hear a nonprofit board member who worked in the banking sector say, “there are too many banks,” at a time of a lot of mergers in that field.) If there are too many for-profits, not all of them survive. Just ask anyone trying to open a restaurant in New York City.

What’s different in the nonprofit sector? One might say there aren’t the same market pressures; donors keep nonprofits going even when they’re not relevant, or because they’re a pet cause.

But what kind of survival are we really talking about? A lot of these organizations don’t necessarily grow, they chug along at a certain size (maybe a $500,000 annual budget) with a couple of handfuls of staff, providing services in the community. Now, we might question how effectively they provide those services, but why shouldn’t they exist?

What we’re talking about are the mom and pop shops of the nonprofit sector. (My TCC Group colleague Pete York is starting to write and talk about this.) I’ve written about the idea of a funding ecosystem, where you need small shrubs and bushes alongside big trees, or the big trees won’t survive. “There are too many nonprofits” may – may – be the equivalent of “there are too many bushes.”

In our rush to scale, and replicate, and leverage, it’s worth pausing to consider the value of the type of organization that makes up the vast majority of the nonprofit sector. And to really look at them, what they do well, and where they could improve. But not dismiss them with, “there are too many nonprofits.” (And hey, sometimes there no doubt are.) Get to know the forest in which you’re walking, and how the rain filters through the trees, and the shrubs, and the roots. Watch a season cycle or two, and see how the forest grows and contracts naturally.

Just be careful in some of the mossy patches, for the hand that reaches up from the ground to the strains of a violin stab…another zombie philanthropic idea. To be continued….

Time After Time

Friday, April 29th, 2011

So it’s been a year since I started blogging. I read over my posts from that past year last night, and thought about threads I’d like to continue in the coming year, and those that I’d like to summarize and try to say something more definitive on.

To continue:

To summarize:

To possibly begin exploring:

  • The role of philanthropy in a democratic society based on prior international experiences like Eastern Europe and Latin America, amid the lessons they hold for the Middle East.

And there’ll be more in the last category, for sure….

Sounds like a plan!

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.

Yes, but *why* do people hate the government so?

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I went to the post office this morning and had a perfectly pleasant experience: the staff were friendly and helpful, the products seemed reasonably priced. It got me thinking: Where does the pathological dislike and distrust of government that characterizes today’s political climate come from?

  • Tax time: Yes, it’s a hit, but it’s once a year – do people really look at every single paycheck and resent the bite anew, when it’s the same each pay period?
  • The DMV: frustrating, but at most, once every year.
  • The post office: can be up and down, but these days, do most people use it all that much, and besides, aren’t the automated postal centers relatively convenient?
  • Regulation/permits: I can imagine getting a zoning permit, or a building permit, or an event permit, could easily get frustrating. But again, how often does that happen?

I just don’t get it. How much contact does your average Tea Partier have with the government? It seems like people have been whipped up into a frenzy over something that’s not necessarily all that present in their lives – having been convinced that government is bad on principle. This is very dangerous.

I remain unconvinced about where this anti-government strain of thinking comes from. Something else is going on here….

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.