July 21st, 2016
[Those of you who read my posts for my thoughts on philanthropy may choose to take a pass on this one; it reflects continuing personal thoughts on our responsibilities in the current destructive political atmosphere.]
As this is published, many of my colleagues in the professional speaking profession are meeting at the annual conference of the National Speakers Association. I am otherwise committed these days, so I will have to rely on contemporaneous social media and retrospective reportage to get a flavor of the days. [One thing I know for sure: a meeting in Phoenix in July virtually guarantees that few will play hooky in the Arizona sun]
After last year’s conference, I chose to speak up – in writing – in response to some negative scuttlebutt about a presenter who had a clear [but non-partisan] political perspective. I thought it was great but others felt that such political positioning was an intrusion on the plenum.
My own view, as long time readers know, is that those of us who earn our livelihood by words have a special responsibility to use words carefully and also to serve as models of how one can articulate particular and challenging points of view respectfully and constructively. Not so easy, I can attest, since I have had conflicting reactions to some of my own public presentations: while some challenged me for espousing my views so readily, my favorite response was from someone who reported in his/her review: “I don’t agree with his politics, but I could listen to him all day long.”
The posts I wrote after last year’s NSA conference and in a subsequent post expanding on the topic were considered too political for NSA Facebook pages and I was asked not to post them there. They are still available on this blog.
It raises the question, though, about when should one, anyone, choose to speak up and when must one speak out.
For almost 4 decades, racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist speech was eschewed in polite company. None of us is so naïve to imagine that no one harbored those thoughts, but American society had a standard of public right and wrong whatever may be harbored in the deepest private recesses of ones heart or mind. Knowing that racism is wrong didn’t eradicate it, we certainly know all too well; nor, sadly, has it eradicated anti-Semitism or misogyny, or nativism, or xenophobia – as we have learned all too vividly during this frightening election cycle, but most knew better than to indulge those private thoughts in public or social settings.
In some ways, though, because people behaved properly in polite company, for a long time, few were challenged with the dilemma I mentioned above, of deciding to or not to speak up. That choice is far more present today. To take an example:
A couple of years ago, when sitting in a hot tub while on vacation in Florida, two others in the large spa began bad-mouthing President Obama. While I completely disagreed with their politics, and was prepared to dispute the putative facts of their rants, I only chose to speak up when their rants deteriorated into overt racism. I chose to call them on it. After realizing I wouldn’t back down in my rebuke, they chose to leave. Others in the hot-tub were uncomfortable. Some agreed with their politics and some with mine but all had heard the overt racism and felt it was wrong. None of them was prepared to confront the two aforementioned gentlemen. [I never saw either of the two again; it is possible that they saw me and chose to go another direction.]
The question here: was this a correct place to speak up or did I violate social norms and etiquette that should take precedence?
Obama’s election seemed to mark a change. Strange, sick, dishonest sentiments continue to arise in social media daily. The birthers, the anti-Islamists, the overt racists, the conspiricists, haters all, think nothing of saying the most outrageous things – in public. Any semblance of restraint in polite company is long gone. And they think nothing of viciously attacking the motives, sincerity, intelligence, or legitimacy of those who disagree.
Frankly, for most, including me until recently, it has been safer and easier to just dismiss them as perverse kooks. We turn them off, disconnect them, un-follow them, un-friend them. But that doesn’t make them go away and it doesn’t dissuade them. They are reinforced by their fellow extremists and bigots, not repudiated by those who ignore them.
A newspaper publisher recently wrote an op-ed with which I agreed. He challenged single-issue voters to think more broadly about the implications of ignoring all the other parts of a candidate’s and party’s agenda. I thought two and three times before writing a supportive letter to the editor since I have seen the vitriol that is regularly cast his way when he opines in ways that some consider too moderate [my word, not theirs]. Did I want to subject myself to that same vitriol and character assassination?
I chose to write it since I now feel this is not the time for reasonable people to remain silent. Allowing hate speech legitimates it. Ignoring bigotry gives it sanction. Silence in the face of extremism empowers it. If I, who can pen an opinion piece with little risk, do not express my support, then who can? If not I, then who else should?
A long, long time ago, when I was a lot younger, a lot more charismatic, and actually had groupies, I was asked to consider running for elected office. It wasn’t what I wanted to do then, but it did flatter me and it held the promise of being a change agent from the inside.
Today, sadly and tragically, it is hard to imagine wanting to do that. The public square is polluted by self-interest, and political means tests. Even if I thought I could do better, the trade-offs are simply unacceptable.
If I don’t or won’t have power or authority by an ascribed or elected role, many of us do have the possibility of earned power. The one asset that I do have is words. Words in text and words in speech.
If I am correct that the time, this moment in time, requires strength of conviction, I am left with no choice, to accept a self-imposed mandate to speak out, to call out extremism and hatred for what it is, to challenge those who would destroy values that most of us hold dear, and to actively advocate for the triumph of reason and acceptance over nativistic rejectionism.
I am quite sure that I will lose some speaking engagements and some advisory contracts, alienate some who may have illusions about my views, and put me squarely in the crosshairs of those who attack disagreement. If enough of us choose to do this, it will begin to re-create a civil society that honors responsible speech and respects all others. If enough of us choose to do this, this will indeed be a country worthy of the values we espouse and of a citizenry who aspire to the ideals we admire. This call is not restricted to my fellow professional speakers, NSA members. It is to us all.
To my mind, the times, these times, require no less.
July 6th, 2016
My recent post “From Overhead to Infrastructure to Structure” has elicited a very flattering amount of attention, but also some questions and challenges. To all, thanks.
The questions and challenges fit into two categories:
One set was from those on the non-profit side of the table who wondered how they could convince their funders of the indispensability of infrastructure support as a superior funding strategy. They felt that, even though I intimated that it is now widely accepted among funders, their own experience differs and they are still finding it difficult to persuade their funders of its wisdom.
My response to them is that all I can do is write, teach, and espouse what I consider to be good practice and strategy. Hopefully, as the consensus grows, their funders will fund accordingly. Unless they choose to be clients or take courses for funders that I teach, I am not sure I can do more to make the case.
The other set of responses was from fellow funders who asked me to expand on the concluding part of the post, the need to address the structural systems that underlie the work that all of us do. They asked, in essence “Ok, how does that really work?”
The answer is the remainder of this post.
To understand how the funding pieces fit together, let us recall that there are three levels to funding: Compassion: addressing immediate human needs; strategy: providing these services efficiently and effectively; systemic/structure: addressing underlying issues to eliminate or reduce the cause of the needs in the first place.
Perhaps the following 3 illustrations will help. The first is an example almost any organization can emulate or apply to its own situation. The structural changes are internal to the workings of an organization. The subsequent two require not only systemic thinking but also mobilization of sectors working in sync. They are macro challenges that no one funder can solve alone, but require funder involvement at every level.
1. Talent management:
Perhaps it would be helpful to start with a paradigm where structural change can readily make a real difference within lots of organizations, can be implemented by a single organization, and very quickly at that.
Let us take the example of “talent management” to use the currently popular nomenclature. Though much of the recent public literature on this has focused on “millenials”, these thoughts apply to any and all work places.
The most typical case of dysfunction is when a corporate culture gives mixed and mutually competing messages: “we have empowered you to make decisions but, as your supervisor, of course I can overrule those decisions”; “we have told you how much we value your commitment to our organization, but, don’t forget, you can be fired at will”; “we brag about the expertise all of you bring to our system, but we think an outsider will be a better choice” in every c-suite search. All too often corporate culture is un-addressed in a strategic plan, and even when it is, the difficult challenge of implementing a more coherent environment is often undervalued. As Jim Collins has said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”
Let’s see how this can be applied to the matter of training and succession. There has been a lot of hand wringing recently about the dearth of a succession talent pool in the non-profit sector. That is, about the apparent lack of an adequate critical mass of those able to fill the vacancies that the imminent surge of ceo retirements will yield. Groups such as Talent Philanthropy have set an admirable goal of encouraging the non-profit and funding sectors to invest heavily in professional training, articulate more perceptible career paths, and eliciting external targeted funding to allow that to happen.
But, even so, all too often staff training is no more than a distinct budget line – easily cut or reduced as budget pressures take hold. Or, in those unusual circumstances where restricted funding comes from a foundation for the purpose of staff capacity building, this entire area is too often viewed as just another soft-money project, disposable as the grant expires.
We have all heard the arguments of why this is a low priority: Junior staff don’t have long-term commitments; why should we pay for their next employer’s benefit? Training and conference attendance should be an earned perk, not an automatic benefit. There are so many pressures on our budget; it is hard to justify to our funders/board all of this staff travel and time away from the office.
But none of those are credible excuses if an organization truly believes that investing in staff makes both short and long-term sense, and an awful lot of research says that it does. There is, in fact, a simple structural way to address this: instead of having staff training as a vulnerable budget line that has to be defended each year, and which then can set up an uncomfortable tension and competition among staff, why not simply consider staff training as one of the essential personnel expenses and include that in the personnel package and personnel line for every employee? If an organization does so, it affirms that staff excellence, growth, stability, and respect are a core cost of doing business.
This approach may be less sexy than emulating the tech sector by offering free snacks all day. Moreover, staff training will never make an employee more loyal to an organization that doesn’t demonstrate respect for his or her work the rest of the time. But everything else being equal, an organization that makes this simple structural budgeting change is much more likely to convey to all staff, yes, even millenials, that they really do matter. And, as every study of organizational effectiveness has shown, they really do.
2. Food insecurity:
One example mentioned in the previous post had to do with hunger and food insecurity. Hunger, malnutrition, and all of the derivative maladies are present in all too many societies around the world, including, sad to say, in the United States. Churches, synagogues, community centers, even some businesses try to do their part to reflect their compassion by collecting cans and volunteering at soup kitchens and pantries. In many communities, this goes one step further by encouraging restaurants, shops, catering establishments, even grocery stores, to make all appropriate leftovers available to those pantries every day.
Yet most know that, while this does address immediate pangs – of both hunger and guilt – it is a very inefficient way to address food insecurity. It does little to guarantee that the food is where it is needed and when it is needed; it is very reactive – depending totally on the good will of people to bring that food and to volunteer their time; and it is predictably unpredictable: will that restaurant be open that day or have leftovers? Will volunteers brave a thunderstorm? Will the church gather enough cans to feed those who arrive at the shelter?
Of course, experienced funders and pantries adjust for all of this through a more strategic and planful approach to their support. Send food and money where the needs are most predictable and where the providers are most reliable. It feeds more people more consistently. But it does not eliminate the reactive nature of this kind of voluntaristic approach. And it clearly is not addressing any underlying issues or even providing a broad-based strategic overlay to the problem.
A more broad-based strategic response is to expand the scope of societally sponsored food programs: SNAP, school based meals, etc. These programs address the issues of distribution, dignity, and predictability. In order to do that requires advocacy at every level of government. Even a decimal point adjustment in federal, state, and local support can far exceed the monies raised by private donations, and certainly is a far more efficient method than dozens and dozens of small non-profit struggles. One would hope that every funding body concerned with hunger and food insecurity has an assertive approach to advocacy.
Yet we know that there will still be those who fall between the cracks, where public funding doesn’t quite reach everyone in the family or to the end of the month, or their homelessness makes them elusive to public support, and more. Sadly there will still be needs for the neighborhood-based pantries
But, all of this only models the strategic. Many will be fed consistently, efficiently, and humanely. However, none of this addresses the true underlying causes of food insecurity: inequitable access to education and social mobility, economic instability and racism, inadequate healthcare and employment.
The dilemma for a funder is how to divide one’s resources. To only support the local pantry is compassionate but not strategic. Supporting advocacy for better public support and policies is strategic and longer term, but requires patience and political acumen, and in the meantime, lots of folks are still hungry. And even healthy and consistent public support is only a necessary but insufficient palliative for underlying causes that are hard, elusive, complex, and resistant to simple solutions. But unless one is prepared to address those underlying systemic causes, all of the best and proven strategy will simply be a Sisyphean struggle of which we are all too aware.
3. Human Trafficking:
This case is different than the first two. It starts with a systemic/structural approach and then tries to calculate what would be necessary to implement on the grass roots and strategy levels.
A few years ago, a very wealthy philanthropist from a non-US part of the world attended one of our advanced funder education courses. All of the participants were expected to present a challenging case study from their own funding portfolio. This philanthropist presented a case about a $20B effort to combat human trafficking in which he was taking a lead role.
The case was wonderfully illustrative of how no one sector alone can solve a systemic problem such as this. As the layers of challenge and potential solutions were peeled away, it was evident that, of course, human trafficking cannot be solved without international inter-governmental cooperation. Public policy and commitment to those policies is the sine qua non for beginning the conversation.
But even with those, admittedly challenging, agreements, that would only be the beginning of a solution. After all, private sector employers are often the ones who provide the cover for the entrapment of trafficked workers or who turn a blind eye to what they know to be true. We are well aware of trafficking in unlawful areas such as prostitution, or grey areas such as textile factory workers, but it might be overlooked in food service or mall workers.
And even if that were resolved, there is a need for a robust social service network for re-education, re-integration, and safe havens. Without the ngo/nfp sector, those services could rarely be offered in a consistent, professional, and non-judgmental way.
The philanthropy world is a crucial player at every layer: advocates for policy change, moral suasion to the for-profit industries, funding for the nfp/ngo worlds.
Addressing human trafficking is a paradigmatic case of the need for inter-sector collaboration, and the impossibility of making any lasting systemic difference at all without deep-seated structural change.
These examples each illustrate that structural thinking has a place at every level. And at every level, there is a role for funders with varying scope of interest, focus, and resources. Some challenges call for stretching our influence, resources, and political will to the limit. Others are no further than the non-profit we fund every year. Thinking about structural and systemic change can be a helpful tool for aligning our resources, and keeping our eyes on the impact we truly desire.
June 29th, 2016
What does Brexit have to do with Place Based Philanthropy?
Let me state right up front, I have nothing new to say about Brexit itself on top of the millions of words already written and said. I may have my opinion, but I suspect we will all have to wait until this plays out over the next few months or years.
But Brexit does bring to the fore lurking issues in the philanthropy world that are reflective of major challenges we all need to face up to. After all, the underlying issue for most UK voters was: “to what ‘place’ do we belong?”
For the vast majority of us, from a philanthropy perspective, “place” has a lot to do with the first claims on our resources. But what do we mean by “place?”
Once upon a time, “place” was self-evident. One lived in a particular physical community, with a particular subset of people who shared a religion or national origin or ethnic background. And when one thought more broadly about place, it was likely the place from where one came or, perhaps, a more expansive vision of the community where one lived. There was no question what and where had primary claim on ones charitable giving.
On a micro level, things begin to change as families spread out. When 3rd and 4th and 5th generations live in many locales, what is the “place” that has a claim on those families? And do they feel any sense of nostalgia or loyalty to the communities and the institutions of their onetime roots?
The plot thickens when we acknowledge the increasingly transient nature of what we mean by community. We are all part of multiple communities, including countless virtual and temporary ones. Today, for most younger people and for many of us not so young, we simply assume that transiency. We are parts of political groups before elections but not after, we are parts of social groups convening for someone’s birthday, we are alumni/ae of universities, schools, companies, employers, apartments, and who knows what else. We have religious connections, family connections, neighborhood connections… Yet, even when these connections are long term, they frequently only come together for limited purposes and for limited times. When making philanthropy choices, which ones count? As any of us who have worked with multi-generational families on their philanthropic decision-making can attest, this is the stuff of energized board meetings.
But it doesn’t end there, and now we are inching toward the Brexit question, or at least some of the underlying issues it represents.
Once upon a time, that is in the 18th and 19th centuries and even much of the 20tth, the nation-state was the model of modernity and the organizing principle that bridged ethnicities, regionalisms, dialects, creeds, and economies. It provided identity and protection. It gave financial stability and a sense of empowerment. It also led to the apotheosis of the nation as idolatry, massacres of many millions in the name of national sovereignty or some evil manifestation thereof.
The nation state proved illusory, or, at best, short term. We now know that there really is no such thing as a self contained national economy or the guarantee that a nation-state has any better values and behaviors than any other. Further, there is no such thing as a major challenge that stops at a national border or is contained within a municipality. [e.g., climate change; migrations; infectious diseases; even transportation; etc.] And if one adds cyberspace and cyber-speed, these issues are as present as one’s smartphone and as vivid as one’s twitter feed.
Where does “here” begin and end? If “nation” doesn’t suffice, what does?
“International” is a reality. For some it is an ideology, an ideal, an enemy, a threat. Or, perhaps, a market, an adventure, a vision.
“Localism” is appealing to some. We should eat locavore, shop locally, vote our local interests. But it is also limiting when it is the wrong growing season; it can restrict life style options; reduce our access to diversity in people and ideas.
“Ethnicity” has appeal for others: After all, if we don’t take care of our own who will? And isn’t our rich history and culture worth celebrating? But that can be limiting when doors close for marriage rites, and the other becomes suspect simply by being “other.”
“Religion” can be a secure space for many. It provides nurture, meaning, community, ritual. But for some that can mean exclusivity of truth, the demonization of the non- or other-believer, or a literalness of texts written in times and places long gone.
It would be nice if “families” were a safe space. And, gladly, it is for many. But, as we know, for too many it is just the opposite – either physically or psychologically.
Or, perhaps, none of these are as real as the transiency of “virtual communities” – the only commonality is the temporary nature of relationships.
What is clear is that this is a time of anomie and dislocation for all too many throughout the world. There are few commonly held truths or visions of what civil society means or what organizations or institutions or governing bodies can accomplish. And on top of that, there is a worldwide diminution of the value of human life – and I don’t simply mean by terrorists. For example, when nations and political and religious leaders deny the existential threat of climate change to vast swaths of the world, that is a diminution of the value of human life. When the world is paralyzed by the massacres of citizens and the migration of millions, admittedly an incredibly daunting challenge, it is a diminution of the value of human life. When some in the US feel that gun-toting anarchy, based on a feeble and specious interpretation of constitutional rights, takes precedence over the safety of us all, that is a diminution of the value of life.
Now, I am sure that many of you are now saying – even if all of this is correct, and it surely is sobering, what does all of this have to do with philanthropy?
It underscores the unique privileged role that private philanthropy can play, and the profound responsibility that goes with it. Private philanthropy, at least in the United States, remains largely unfettered and agnostic. We can fund whatever we want based on our own subjective preferences. It must be for the public good but that is a very broad category indeed.
To be sure, that can mean that we can be self indulgent in our choices. But it also means that we can take initiatives and risks to address deep systemic issues in way that no other sector can. We may not always be right – failure is ok – but we can always remember that we have the unique privilege of redressing wrongs, reaffirming rights, restoring social weal, and reassessing the social compact in ways that can make the difference, do make a difference. At a time of such radical social upheaval, and political disarray in far too many parts of the globe, our courageous investment of philanthropic capital has never been more essential.
We may and must continue to fund locally, however we may choose to define “local”, but, in our thinking and planning, we must, we must, we must think of the entire world as our “place.” It is.
June 28th, 2016
One of the great pleasures of being in the philanthropy space for a long time is watching ideas you helped postulate become mainstream. One of those is the welcome adoption of the concept of “infrastructure” as the way in which we refer to non-direct service support, previously known as “overhead”.
By now, most funders are well aware of the debate about “overhead.” There were numerous parties who can share the blame for that preoccupation: some funders’ insistence on only funding direct costs and refusing to fund any support costs; some rating agencies imposing strict percentage rules for judging organizational efficiency; some non-profits, either because of naiveté or desperation, willing to accept funds with conditions that ended up costing them far more than the grant brought in, and in all cases, a reluctance to admit to the need to sustain a healthy and quality organization without which no program could long succeed.
Almost a decade ago, a number of us felt that the very vocabulary most used for non-direct support was not very helpful. “Overhead” implies that it is other than the project itself… as if the accountant who pays bills is irrelevant; or the air-conditioning doesn’t really matter; or the supervisor who does the hiring is only going through certain human resource [now called “talent acquisition”] procedures. I don’t know which of us first started using the term, but around the same time a lot of us started urging that we get away from “overhead” in favor of “infrastructure.”
“Infrastructure” implies the indispensability of that which holds things together. No non-profit, not matter how big or small, exists without it. And as too many have learned the hard way, the absence of it is a pretty reliable predictor of unsustainability. Support of infrastructure is not simply a generous add-on by an unusually well intentioned funder, but rather an essential investment in the intended project itself. Even if a funder is only interested in a small part of a multi-service organization’s work, that small part can only happen if the institution itself is well equipped to deliver that service.
Our voices were enhanced when others began to vocally challenge “The Overhead Myth” and when the major non-profit rating organizations themselves issued a very public mea culpa. They admitted that their [absolutely valid and praiseworthy] goal to develop better transparency and accountability in the public good sector led to arbitrary percentages and perceived “objective” measures that funders should use in their decision-making. In wanting to help funders identify red flags for extreme disparities in salaries or exaggerated external fundraising expenses, they had led too many funders to assume that crossing an “overhead” threshold should be an automatic eliminator. Their mea culpa statement urging funders to dig for deeper clarity, to understand what numbers may mean, and to recognize that we all must use judgment in how we look at any numbers began to swing the prevailing opinion among funders to more nuanced decision-making.
Also helpful to this change is the very healthy development over the last 20 years of the recognition that too many non-profits are fragile and have too little capacity or resilience. Our funding field accepted that we ourselves bore significant responsibility for that. If we don’t invest in capacity of staff or resources, or if we always insist that it is someone else’s responsibility to fund infrastructure, we reinforce that very fragility we complain about.
As we funders looked deeper into the very ways in which the sector is organized, we realized that once one gets beyond universities, big museums and hospitals, a very, very high percentage of social service and non profit organizations are undercapitalized, have incomplete board composition, have too littlie investment in staff training or retention, and little built in resilience when faced with any major challenge. Our part of the sector began to acknowledge that we were not only under-funding, but also not even using many other resources and tools that we can bring to the table- influence, leadership, advocacy, convening, to name just a few.
The convergence of these factors has made the adoption of the “infrastructure” metaphor both obvious and persuasive. There is far less resistance today to fund appropriate non-direct support costs than was the case even 5-10 years ago.
Now, though, it is time for us to go to the next level, from “infrastructure” to “structure.”
For a moment, let’s stick with our metaphor. One can construct a well-built and well-designed building – but place it in the middle of a flood plain. Or an earthquake zone. Or in a place with inadequate power sources. You understand.
Ideally, of course, there would be zoning rules that preempted that construction. But there are many-fold examples of there being none, or not enforced, or shortcuts being tolerated. Whatever one’s politics on all of this, we all pay the price when the structural underpinnings to construction are shortsighted or inadequate. And repairs and patches rarely can substitute for adequate prior planning and discipline from the beginning.
In many ways, our social good system functions on just such a flood plain. Even the best sit on the moving sands of public policy, and political whim. Whether we are addressing issues such as homelessness, or food insecurity, or literacy, or poverty, or employment, or public health, to name just a few, when the public policies are insensitive, or outdated, or purely politically self-motivated, no non-profit can adequately fulfill its mission.
Many funders already have figured this out. And it is not just the Gates family, or the Chan Zuckerbergs, or the Omidyars or the Living Cities partners who are addressing systemic alignment and reconfiguration as the precondition to eradicating certain diseases or human trafficking or economic dislocation or educational inequity. There are many others, some quite rich, most not so at all, who recognize that food insecurity is not solved by even the most successful soup kitchen unless there is public support for SNAP and school lunches. There may be political debate about specifics of Medicare and the Affordable Care Act, but there can be no credible debate about the millions whose access to health care exists only because of these programs.
This argument for addressing structural inequity does not at all diminish the need for strategic decision-making on the local level. Someone has to implement the infrastructure of the social good, human service, educational and health care sectors.
But it does remind all of us who are funders that we are always functioning as part of larger systems, and the questions we ask, every question we ask, implies some judgment about or commitment to some way of understanding our roles within those systems. By addressing the very structural basis on which our sector stands will surely enhance the impact of our funding wherever and whatever we may choose to fund. If we truly want long-term impactful change, it is time for us to go beyond “infrastructure” and proactively address “structure.”
May 12th, 2016
This post was written at the request of Exponent Philanthropy as a “teaser” for my presentation at their forthcoming annual conference in Chicago in September. It is reposted here with their permission. This is also a precis of one session of courses for funders at both NYU’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and at Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy.
Some years ago, when Jacques Chirac was still President of France, the US State Department asked me to meet with Chirac’s advisor on domestic affairs. She had completed a national tour of institutions of American voluntarism. I was the last stop on her tour, her opportunity to debrief.
Her leading question to me was “How can we develop a system of philanthropy and voluntarism in France like you have in the USA?”
My response: “Before sharing some ideas, I have some questions for you: Can you imagine France without a system of healthcare for all citizens? Can you imagine a French higher education system where students pay $30k or $40k or $50k per annum to attend? And so on….”
Her response “Impossible!” [The discussion ensued.]
This brief anecdote captures several important realities:
• The American philanthropy/not for profit system emerged from a very different set of political assumptions than most of the rest of the post-emancipation world. In the United States, voluntary institutions arose to meet real needs that the political system chose not to provide. Even today there are huge splits in assumptions and beliefs about whose role is what.
• Public policy and private philanthropy are inextricably interwoven. Sometimes these interconnections are unintended and sometimes quite purposeful.
• Neither a government centered system nor a voluntary system has the capacity, on its own, to provide for all needs and interests of growing, aging and diverse populations.
• The history of the institutions of the voluntary sector themselves reflect a social history fully connected to the political realities in place when they were created.
For many, the history of philanthropy is conflated with the biographies of famous philanthropists. And to be sure there are many fascinating narratives of the superrich and the lives they lived – some of them tales of atonement, others of beneficence, all ultimately of generosity. But that is neither new nor unique to any one nation or culture or era.
What is distinctive if not unique about American philanthropy is not the magnanimity of the mega-rich, but the commitment to give among those of lesser means. This tradition started with the recognition that there really was no option: orphans, widows, the infirm, the aged, the unemployed had no place to turn other than caring individuals many of whom they knew from their own neighborhood or social group.
Thus begat institutions. There are needs such as education and health care and policing and fire fighting that simply cannot be done by individuals. Organized around ethnic, religious, or national origin backgrounds, many of these institutions, or their successors, continue to be the backbone of the non-profit service delivery systems around the country to this day.
But the world changed and the intimacy between those of means and those with needs changed as well.
Industrialization required concentration of large numbers of workers at the same time in the same place. It changed the demographics of cities throughout the world. Those who could afford to do so moved away – to places with cleaner air and more space. The implications for the philanthropy field were profound. Those who moved away did not leave behind their communal commitments. But how?
Intermediaries emerged to solve the problem of how to match means with needs. United Ways, Catholic Charities, Jewish Federations, Protestant Welfare Funds, Community Foundations all developed in the late 19th and early 20th Century to facilitate this process. These intermediaries guaranteed to cover the annual deficits of their designated agencies that continued to provide vital human services. As the 20th Century progressed, these re-granting intermediaries became the central players in community planning, organizational methodologies, and allocation of resources, a role they maintained until the century’s final decade.
Another development profoundly impacting philanthropy behavior was the emergence of a government safety net. Before the national social security system, funders knew that were it not for their support, those with needs would have no place to turn. Gradually, though, societal commitment that none should fall between the web, no matter how porous it may have remained, allowed individual funders to look at their philanthropy differently. For the first time, philanthropists could respond to subjective interest rather than objective need.
And if funders are going to make subjective decisions, then the non-profit world will make emotive pleas for support. Thus began the competition we all recognize – every organization makes its best case using professional fundraisers, all accessible media, and carefully honed appeals.
And, indeed, Exponent Philanthropy readers will hardly be surprised that a parallel sub-sector for funders arose during the 20th century: organizations that evaluate the legitimacy of these organizations, affinity groups of funders to provide mutual reinforcement, and education centers to provide the methodologies for making informed decisions.
Who would have imagined that all of these developments would emerge as unintended consequences of the New Deal?
And now, the 21st Century, has given us new realities, new policies, new technologies, and new philanthropic methodologies. But we will wait until the conference to discuss those.
April 17th, 2016
In retrospect, I wonder why no one ever asked me before. The question – in the context of a course on grantmaking strategies – was: what would be so terrible if a funder overfunded a non-profit?
In my advisory work and in my teaching, I spend a lot of time helping funders “right-size” their grantmaking. To take just a few examples:
1. A NFP/NGO requested $x. The funder’s immediate assumption is all grant requests are bloated and funds half the requested amount.
2. A NFP/NGO sends a project request: The funder suggests that they should do it for less – with little regard to what it might actually cost to create a successful project.
3. The funder requires that the grantee do an evaluation of their program/project. The grantee [as too often happens] plugs in a percentage figure to satisfy the grant requirement, with neither side understanding that a reasonable evaluation simply cannot be done for that amount.
4. A funder is committed to a particular field of service and funds a program at a multi-service organization. The funder refuses to provide any infrastructure support [often mislabeled as “overhead”].
5. A funder has an [often unstated] expectation of publishing the results or that the new project continue beyond the length of the grants, but doesn’t fund capacity expansion that this nfp needs to keep this data or to raise the sustainability funds.
6. A start-up or early stage project submits a proposal for a wonderfully exciting project, but naively understates the real financial needs for the project to have even a reasonable chance of success. The funder funds the request, fully aware that it is an underfunded project.
Recognize any? While not every funder is guilty of these, enough are that it warrants significant discussion in a best practices workshop.
Some best practice rebuttals, seriatim:
1. Only funders can establish an atmosphere allowing openness and honesty about real numbers and expectations. If we as funders have the reputation of always reducing a request by a certain amount, it doesn’t encourage the openness to determine what the real numbers are. [Note to grantseekers: even if the onus is on the funder to set the tone, you are not exempt. There is a radical difference between legitimate rounding up and exaggerated hyperbole in telling your story.]
2. Organizations are often so hungry for funds that they will say yes even to grants that are clearly inadequate to achieve success. Often the nfp/ngo’s are well aware that, in accepting this money, they are almost certainly guaranteeing mediocrity, but they feel, they dare not say no to a funder. Indeed, underfunding does no one a favor: as funders, don’t we want what we fund to bring us credit and to be known for excellence, not mediocrity? Of course, not every project succeeds even when it has adequate funding, but a failure shouldn’t be because our funding approach has made that inevitable.
3. Evaluation, impact measures, outcome metrics are all the rage. Not a bad thing. Sadly, though, in too many cases, neither the funder nor the nfp really understands what program evaluation means, what useful results would be, and what kind of financial and human resources are necessary to get there. I have sat in far too many foundation proposal review meetings where the evaluation requirement is clearly a plugged number. If we want reasonable evaluations, we need to learn what they are, and what they cost – and then fund them.
4. So much has been written about the overhead myth that I will simply emphasize what should now be obvious. No organization can support a quality project or program without a strong organizational infrastructure. These dollars are critical, not irrelevant. It is reasonable to discuss what infrastructure costs are applicable to a particular funded project, but not to consider any and all such costs as simply padding.
5. You are beginning to see a theme: We as funders need to clarify what our expectations are and fund accordingly and appropriately. For many very strapped organizations with limited tech support, publishable data is elusive, or beyond the capacity of an overworked staff. For a project to outlive our funding, we need to structure our grant in careful collaboration from the very beginning.
6. This situation applies across the board, but is particularly acute among early stage nfp’s. The idea is terrific [or you wouldn’t be considering funding in the first place] but you are well aware that the submitted budget is far below what is really needed. If this were a venture capital project with comparable appeal, the funder would be all-in, with insistence on involvement, and provide funds needed to get to the next stage. Unfortunately, that same perspective seems to dissipate when it is an nfp. The founder of this great idea may very well be intimidated by the fundraising and underprices his proposal simply because of naiveté. There are times like these that a funder may choose to give more than requested, with an accompanying offer to provide welcome advice on organizational growth.
The underlying principle in all of this is that philanthropic grantmaking is not a negotiation but an investment in the success of an idea, a project, a program, or an organization. There is no doubt that, given the power imbalance, most nfp/ngo’s will take whatever we offer, but that doesn’t make that a winning negotiation. Indeed if we underfund or under support, no one wins. Our role in most cases is to “right-size” our funding, to give these projects the greatest chance to succeed. [See #2 above.]
It was in the context of this discussion that a participant asked an intriguing question. Now comfortably on the funder side, she began her post PhD career in the human service sector. She recalled movingly how stressed the organization and its staff were on a daily basis with barely enough funds to keep the doors open. Would it really have been “wasted” money if a funder didn’t simply “right-size” but chose to give more? Would that be bad philanthropy? Does it reveal sloppiness on the part of the funder? Would it spoil the non-profit? Would it erode the carefully honed discipline urging genuine information sharing between funders and grantees?
Or, perhaps, it is a sign that a funder recognizes how stretched so many nfp’s/ngo’s really are and this bit of unanticipated generosity makes a huge statement about the importance of their work.
Something to think about.
March 28th, 2016
“Everything that can be said has been said, but not everyone has said it” has been attributed to so many historical figures that I dare not choose which one. Properly self- chastened, I am nevertheless returning to the urgent and imperative need to plea for a restoration of civility in public discourse, civic values, and communal behavior, and, in this post, our role in that.
As America and much of the world descends into a frightening and self-destructive path, none of us is exempt from doing what we can to restore some modicum of equilibrium and humanity to the national and international weal. Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me be clear about my own political commitments: nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, demonization of Islam, misogyny, xenophobia, demagoguery, and mean spirited personal attacks are abhorrent, and have no place at all in this year’s or any other campaign, or indeed in any credible and responsible public discourse. That they have any standing at all in the public space at this time is a sign of a cancer in the body politic.
Alas, my two earlier attempts to address these matters last summer didn’t have any more impact than those of many more influential and widely recognized leaders. And since I am not so naïve to believe that this post will touch the magic button among millions who need to hear it and heed it, I am restricting my audience to three groups of which I am a part where I can speak not “to” as an outsider, but “with” as an insider. Each one of these constituencies has something distinctive to contribute to the importance and value of words. Should others find these thoughts of value, that would be a bonus.
I discovered that “speaker” was a professional designation relatively late in my career. I only learned of the National Speakers Association/Global Speakers Federation about 19 years ago – and became a professional member a year or so later. Few of my fellow NSA members around the world share an expertise in philanthropy, to be sure, but the vast majority of us take our craft and responsibility quite seriously. After all, we are paid to use our voices and our words to influence change. Most of us, I believe, accept our charge with great humility, even if our public persona is one that projects confidence and assuredness.
Some have argued that politics is not our business. And while I concur that we may not be politicians, we are people who make our living through our words and speech. And thus our responsibility in this role has never been greater. We must model how to use words, public space, and roles of influence in ways that inform and shape both the possibilities and limits of how one uses those words and speech. As so many political aspirants have abused, badly abused, this unique space – with horrendous consequences, our modeling of a different and more responsible way is a veritable mandate.
I rarely write about this but many of you are aware that I have had the unique privilege and honor of chairing two international interreligious bodies and have had leadership roles in several others. Insofar as much political discourse and behavior has revolved about interpretations and misinterpretations of the role of religion and faith, it is striking how different the international religious leaders I know behave and believe. They model, through words and actions, how one can honor the Truth of one’s own religious faith, and respect the True in that of others.
These religious leaders are not simply outsider modernists within their traditions. These have included many worldwide leaders of all three Abrahamic religions [to the skeptics, that includes many influential Imams from around the world] and of many of the Eastern Traditions. Many of the leaders’ names are widely familiar; very few would be called liberals by their co-religionists. None of these religious leaders feels threatened in his or her own profound commitment while acknowledging that others feel as deeply and profoundly about their own. All recognize the dialectic tension within every authentic religion between the particular and the universal, and use that as the basis for dialogue that transcends simple personal acceptance. [And, let it be said, all are embarrassed and angered by the usurpation by extremists in EVERY tradition who misrepresent authenticity in pursuit of narrow political aims.]
In America, it is so jarring to hear how religion is trivialized by politicians who, while espousing unshakeable faith commitments, make a mockery of those affirmations in how they disrespect others. Would that they could hear what I hear among the world religious leaders – and learn what authentic religious affirmation really is.
My call here is not to invite religious leaders to enter the political fray, but to publicly insist that their religions, our religions, not be besmirched by those whose words and actions cheapen what our religions really mean and espouse.
The Philanthropy Field:
In many ways, no group is better positioned to assertively address the erosion of decency in the public square than our field. Of course I am well aware of the limits on lobbying that US law imposes on private foundations, but I am also well aware that there is great elasticity in permitting assertive advocacy on matters of values and public consequence. Private philanthropy can do so with impunity. Its unique autonomy can allow us to be strong and unequivocal voices for sanity and respectability.
This argument for a clarion call for better behavior goes beyond a partisan political stance. I would hope that philanthropists on the left, right, or center would agree that no long-term good comes from a country or world rent asunder by hatred and fear. I would hope that all of us are sufficient students of history to see what has happened when nations and empires became poisoned by demagogic leadership. And I would hope that all of us remember that our legal legitimacy is to enhance “public good.”
None of us on the philanthropy side need change our missions or even our grantmaking strategies to join in a demand for the restoration of a civil society based on civility.
These are dark and ominous times – not only in our United States body politic, but also around the world. My pleas to colleagues, even if heeded, will not be sufficient to cure this ill. But we, those of us in our privileged roles, are certainly not exempt from recognizing our ethical and moral responsibility to act now, while we can. While we can.
February 26th, 2016
This post was written a while ago for and in ancticipation of the forthcoming GMN conference in New Orleans. Given the extnsive on-line conversation this week about “power imbalance”, it seems timely to publish it now, a couple of weeks earlier than intended.
Last year, I coined the term “philanthro-ethics” to describe a particular set of questions of importance to funders. The term derives from the title of the book Philanthro-Capitalism by Matthew Bishop, published a few years ago. It has been quite gratifying to see that others have begun referring to “philanthro-ethics”. There was even an on line conversation about whether people like or disapprove of the term.
This perspective evolved after many years of teaching, speaking to, and advising funders on funder ethics. I learned early in my own career as a foundation executive that I was not fully up to speed on the unique legal conditions all foundations face, nor fully cognizant of the unique ethical challenges that should inform all funders. Indeed, even knowing what is a legal matter, what is an ethical matter, and what is a best/preferred practice matter is often not such a simple distinction and rarely taught.
Over many years of presenting scenarios helping funders get at all of this, I learned that many, many funders, even very experienced ones, had naively transgressed some of these boundaries. No reader in this space will be surprised to learn that I will sometimes hear rebuttals like this one: “that can’t be against the law since that is the way our foundation has been doing it for years.” Foundations, especially family foundations, need to be reminded that our name may be on the door, but it is no longer our money. We have huge amounts of autonomy in how to spend the money for public good, or who can be on the board or who can be employed or what investment policies we choose, but the impenetrable demarcation is when we confuse our autonomy and control with the right to use that money for our own purposes.
Simply abiding by the laws of self-dealing and salary setting is only the beginning. The reason I decided to coin the distinctive term “philanthro-ethicism” was the need to underscore that so many of the laws and the ethics surrounding funders have everything to do with power, the distinct and widely acknowledged power imbalance between funders and grantees, or within the confines of the family/foundation board room. Since that power imbalance imbues relationships in so many ways, and it represents an identifiable subset of ethics and philanthropy, it seemed important to have funders understand our part. Philanthro-ethics covers everything from conflict of interest policies, board composition, site visits, how one responds to requests, the timeliness of sending grant money, how we act among those who seek or have received funds, and much more. It is my belief that when funders behave well, ethically, and with “conscious use of self”, more honest and open relations with grantees ensue, and, presumably, better-informed decisions can be made.
It was only in the last couple of years that I began to fully make the connection between philanthro-ethics and social justice. But not in the way social justice funding is often perceived and defined by the funding community. I do care deeply about issues of systemic inequities, and funding efforts to address and redress them are what social justice funding is all about. But that is not what I mean in this context. I have long felt that funders, inadvertently, permit and even encourage some deep-seated inequities in the non-profit sector. For example, when we review a budget, do we ask about worker benefits? Do we ask about the lowest paid employees or only the highest paid? When we learn about these salaries, do we ask why there are employees who are paid below the poverty line – as happens all too often in social service agencies? Do we ask about staff training and career development? How often do we look at personnel as a key single budget line and wonder why a non-profit cannot hold the line or even reduce it – as opposed to seeing it as its key investment in quality performance? Have we bought into the misperception that non-profit is a synonym for charity – assuming that those who choose to work in this sector should be expected to demonstrate personal sacrifice as the price for being in the sector?
What about expectations? Do we express dismay or disappointment or disillusionment when a non-profit is not run more like a business [we will leave that discussion to another time] while not addressing the undercapitalization that characterizes most small non-profits? Do we deplore the absence of data when we ask overworked caseworkers with inadequate hardware and software support to give what we think they should provide us? Do we act as if we are “owners” of organizations we fund, asking, nay, demanding information on our own time line or site visiting when we want to.
You get it. Is this overstated? Are most funders better behaved than this? Do most already ask the right questions?
The purpose of putting philanthro-ethics and social justice behavior on the communal agenda is that it is a discussion our funder sector must have. And continue to have. To put our grantees on the defensive by asking them to question our questions is often counterproductive for them, and, as we said above, quite problematic given the ongoing and ever present reality of the power imbalance.
The session at GMN will look at scenarios getting at these questions. Your participation will help refine best practices for the field way beyond those who attend the conference.
February 25th, 2016
Starbuck’s created a category: the universal coffee shop… with all sorts of things going for it: the offerings were predictable anywhere in the world and on the higher end of a quality continuum; they really mean it when they say that will re-do your drink if it isn’t right; they have enlightened personnel practices; it endorses and practices environmentally responsible sourcing – certainly better than any other large chain; they had an engaging and easy loyalty program; and they offer free bathrooms. In the world of impersonal and off-putting fast food places, Starbuck’s was several cuts above. Probably more.
In fact, while there were those who hate its imperialistic aspirations and decry its occasionally over roasted beans, let’s face it: in the world of solo entrepreneurs, Starbucks has become the de facto default office for a huge number of people all over the world. It is quite common to see folks with their computers sit at the same seat for hours on end every day. It is even common to overhear job interviews at the very next table [I don’t quite get that, but it happens enough that I guess it shows how spurious claims of confidentiality must be by employers!]
Long term twitter and facebook followers know that I post my Starbucks COL index wherever I travel. Since [unlike MacD’s which used to be the index of record] Starbucks has an international standardization, the only difference in my doppio macchiato from place to place is price. Whether in Beijing or Taiwan, or London or Paris, or San Francisco or Salt Lake City, I make it a point to compare prices as an indicator of whether these places are as expensive as my hometown of New York City. Quick answer: none in the USA, but many more expensive elsewhere.
As a creature of habit, I go to the same Starbucks every morning after the gym. In fact, when I walk in the door, I don’t even need to order since my standard order is known by virtually all baristas. They start the expresso even before I get to the register. Some say that New York is impersonal. No, it is just a series of micro-neighborhoods.
Back to our point:
Starbuck’s announced a change in its loyalty plan which has gotten no end of press. Before weighing in, I wanted to let my own feelings settle. In the end, I believe that Starbuck’s has made a major misstep that calls its culture into question.
Any company has a right to rethink its loyalty program to reflect its own needs and the interests of customers. But when a loyalty program makes it much more difficult to be loyal, why bother? [Some companies learned this the hard way.]
There are many business experts in marketing and branding whose insights on loyalty programs are far better informed than mine. It does seem to me that Starbucks could easily have grandfathered [sorry about the gender…] its gold members even after the change. They could have made the new price point for a reward more incremental and less draconian – much closer to the existing one, even using a new metric. They could have been less specious in their justification – that a majority of loyalty users were requesting the change. More to the point, they could have spent much more time considering what loyalty really means to their coffee drinking public.
Which, in turn, brings me to a larger issue of interest to our readers. In the philanthropy and non-profit world, the erosion of loyalty to organizations is cataclysmic. Among the many reasons is the sense that organizations care more about financial support than individuals. Or the perception that organizations convey an assumption of your obligation to them rather than a commitment to your meaningful engagement.
The non-profit world itself too is a victim. The workplace itself has changed – at-will employment with 24-7 expectations. Reward for reduction in labor force rather than expansion. Reducing fringes as if they are simply perks to be disbursed as a favor. And even our government, sad to say, has become hardhearted and heavy handed. Dismissing entitlements as if they are simply unearned handouts [as some advocate] is disingenuous and would be grounds for breach of contract if it were the private sector. People have paid into social security and Medicare for years and should trust that they have earned their benefits. Yet these benefits are derided as too expensive. Why trust that anyone cares?
So… when one of the few private companies that has celebrated its values, its customer service, and its genuine commitment to its employees – and deserves respect for them – suddenly changes its plan in a way that the majority of loyalty users find dissatisfying, it is particularly disappointing and infuriating. As a private business, Starbucks doesn’t owe us anything. But, it would be a nice breath of fresh air if Starbucks were as true to its culture of customer responsiveness as it claims. That would truly be worthy of loyalty.
February 4th, 2016
Site visits? How is that an ethical issue?
Every “how-to” manual on grantmaking due diligence talks about how useful a site visit can be. After all, 990’s, annual reports, and proposal narratives can tell us only so much – a lot, but sometimes we really want to get the full flavor of a potential grantee. Meeting with the development officer or even the executive director in our office can help elaborate on the submitted narrative, and, depending on the proposal, may give enough information for a funder to make a decision.
But sometimes we very much want to see the program or organization in situ. Is the new space really a cutting edge environment for preschoolers? Are the secondary school participants really more engaged than we have seen in comparable programs? Is the atmosphere for at-risk homeless really more conducive to more effective re-integration into the community? Are the senior citizens visibly more alert than at other drop-in centers? Is the proposed site for the relocation really going to serve their demographic better?
In these situations, and others like them, seeing is convincing – or not. Our decision probably does hinge on what we see, how we feel about it, and how the questions are answered. Our meetings with those providing the service will give us a more dynamic sense of what is actually happening, what is still aspirational, and what may be, at best, well-intentioned hype.
But what if the site visit isn’t relevant to our decision? We have already made up our mind about whether or not to fund the proposal but figure no harm in taking a look-see. Or our guidelines are very clear – this organization or project or facility will never get funded, but it looks like an interesting organization, so why not? Is that legitimate? Is there anything wrong with that?
Let’s look at this from the other side… For a non-profit organization, a visit from a potential funder gets it salivating. A dollar sign is about to walk in the door. And would they be there if they weren’t committed? That visit, though, comes at a cost. An announced site visit is an intervention. There is a good chance that someone, most likely the CEO in a smaller organization, has passed along a message to “clean your desk”, “dress up”, be on good behavior because a funder is coming! A funder is coming! That interruption may merely be a bit of a nuisance for those in offices, but can be outright disruptive for a direct service provider. Talking to the aforementioned early childhood teacher can be extraordinarily interesting, but it also means taking her [usually it is a “her”] away from her charges. If our potential decision will hinge on this visit, and if the amount of our potential grant justifies it, then that kind of interruption will be worth it for all. But if we are just there as a visitor or voyeur – for our general edification, we may want to think twice about whether it is the right time or place.
What about an unannounced visit? There are places and times where such make a lot of sense. Do we want to decide whether to support a theatre company? Buy a ticket and sit unobtrusively in the audience first. Do we want to decide if we are interested in supporting a program of a multi-service center? Stop in, as any other potential constituent might, and see how we are welcomed and what information is easily available.
In these cases, if we are positively inclined, it will make sense to follow up to schedule the “announced” site visit. But it is a bit unfair to simply show up somewhere and assume that the staff will drop everything to show us around, unless, of course, there is someone whose job it is to do exactly that for all visitors.
Some of you will say: But what if I want to consider a revised funding focus or priority? or we want to consider expanding our funding to a new community? One of the ways of helping to decide that would be to visit places even though we are nowhere near ready to consider funding any of them.
The key phrase in the question is “helping to decide.” There is indeed a decision to be made and there could be a strong case that a series of site visits can bring us up to speed. To be completely fair to the sites, though, articulate in writing why we are coming, that we are not currently – and may never be – open to a proposal, but that they represent a field of service or expertise of importance to us, the funder. Discuss ahead of time who should be visited, and ask when is the least disruptive time. And perhaps it would be useful to send along a series of bullet point questions so it is clear what we want to discuss. [My experience is that, if we don’t do that, an organization assumes that we are interested in them as an entire organization and they will be prepared with their best sales pitches; if we only care about their after school activities, our advance questions will make it clear that their senior citizen center is not on our agenda.]
Why is this discussion a philanthro-ethical one? A site visit is an example where the power imbalance can come into play too easily. How many organizations will have the courage to say to funders, potential or existing, that it is really a bad time? Or that we are abusing our assumed access for no value to the organization when we expect them to mobilize all staff to be available to talk to us? Any time that the power imbalance can influence behavior, it is a philanthro-ethical issue, and all funders need to be sensitive to whether that particular fact finding process is the correct one.
In the case of a site visit, when a decision genuinely depends on it, it can add great value. Other times, think about it carefully.