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Intersectionality…and Other Jargon in the Philanthropy Sector – Updated

March 29th, 2017

Richard Marker

We recently spoke with an NFP executive who was becoming skeptical about the value of doing a strategy process. He had been charged by a funder with updating his organization’s strategy. He had several models in front of him, had heard about strategic planning, strategic framing, and who knows what other formulations. Each one has a meaning, and different consultants have their own approaches. Many methodologies can be effective, but none are fully coherent without explanations, and not all are appropriate in every context. Developing strategies for foundations, philanthropists, non-profits, or private businesses can be a very useful exercise but the words “strategic planning” by themselves are jargon. No wonder this executive was a bit of a skeptic.

I suspect that most would agree that the winner of the jargon word of the decade is “impact.” Seven or eight years ago I taught the first of several advanced week-long courses for funders and foundation professionals on “impact philanthropy.” I invited a variety of experts in the field to co-present. I knew that they each had very different approaches from one another, but, at the time, each was quite sure that his or her own understanding was the definitive one. Investment models, outcomes, theories of change, PRI’s, policy advocacy – all used the term “impact”. No wonder there are so many conferences and webinars and courses and newsletters all telling about “Impact.” When you need that many conferences just to explain what you mean, that is jargon.

There are all sorts of words that we hear in our field: metrics, evidence based, disruption, catalytic, bandwidth, partnership, so many more…. Each can be misunderstood, and each can have connotations that only the cognoscenti can fully comprehend. When that is the case, why not try to speak in non jargonese? Why not try English [or whatever language you actually use where you live and work]?

Which brings us to “intersectionality”. It is the word of the year. I have heard it in complex and sophisticated syntax articulated by philanthropoids far and wide.

For some, it is a political statement defining the interwoven nature of how the powerful maintain control over the powerless. It posits that if one doesn’t address this inequity as a totality, one is a perpetrator of injustice. Not honoring any single part of that complex whole disrespects, the entirety.

For others, the word is more descriptive and less proscriptive. It suggests that to address and redress systemic issues, one must incorporate an understanding of how different sectors, and subsectors are integrated. No single sector, government, business, NGO/NFP, or philanthropist has the capability by itself to solve these issues, and no single topic within those systemic issues is sufficient.

The challenge of the word, of course, is that unless one explains what one means, it is not clear. Moreover, and even more significant for our field, it in no way makes clear what one actually does with either interpretation to make a difference.

By the way, “making a difference” is also jargon. It is appealing for funders but by itself is not very descriptive even though we hear it all the time.

As a regular attendee at philanthropy conferences and wealth management briefings, I see how easy it is for practitioners to slip into facile shorthand often incomprehensible to those not well traveled in these fields. And as a quondam professor of philanthropy, I see how easy it is for academics to slip into that special brand of polysyllabic and grandiloquent discourse only used in the Ivory Tower. [I hope you got that last sentence was self-mocking.]

I have been guilty of both and have been called on them. I have learned the hard way.

That is why we work hard to make ourselves understood, our ideas coherent and our approach pragmatic. There is no reason that one needs to indulge in jargon to communicate complex ideas. And there is every reason to affirm that clear communication helps our grantees, our clients, our colleagues, and ultimately our field as a whole.


After this was first published, some of the feedback showed that some readers thought that I was suggesting that “jargon” means the absence of substantive meaning. Quite the contrary: jargon emerges because it becomes a shorthand for ideas that matter. To take but two examples:

My own professional work is as a strategist for philanthropists and foundations: surely I believe that it has substance. I do, though, urge that people explain what we/they mean by that, what methodologies we and others use, and how it applies in a particular context.

Similarly, “impact” has acquired a series of useful meanings. The High Impact methodology that the Penn CHIP program has developed can be a very productive tool for funders who want to choose an optimal way to bring about change in a particular field. On the hand, foundations use impact investment strategies as a tool to make financial resources more effectively align with their mission and raison d’etre. Here too there are a number of applied approaches that are changing the way philanthropic dollars are invested.

The point of the piece is that the words that become jargon assume that the meanings are obvious. All too often they aren’t and the use of the jargon can obfuscate. Thus the plea for less jargon and more clarity.

When is Righteous Indignation Right?

March 25th, 2017

Richard Marker

Most of us know the aphorism by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In an international interreligious meeting I co-chaired several years ago, leaders of 6 religions – 3 Abrahamic and 3 Eastern unpacked the concepts of Justice and Forgiveness for 3 days. For almost 2 of the 3 days, we continued to reach a roadblock. The leaders from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh traditions could not understand the Abraham insistence that evil must be repudiated with justice as a precondition for peace. Their traditions emphasize that the individual must learn to make peace with her/his lot as the precondition for personal peace.

Finally, a Hindu Swami, a University President from India, realized the dilemma. When the Westerners talked about “justice”, the Easterners heard “retribution.” For Western religion, evil and injustice represent flaws in behavior, and by extension, the human universe, that must be corrected. The human condition is too interwoven for injustice to prevail. But for the Easterners, for whom there is already an essential one-ness to the universe even if inscrutable, acceptance is the only legitimate starting path forward. Retribution, as they heard it, was not built on ultimate acceptance but ultimate inflict of pain on another – repeating a destructive cycle.

That insight of how our very language can create barriers to understanding opened up real avenues of communication: for example, such statements as “who is wealthy? One who is happy with her/his lot” from the rabbinic literature had counterparts in the Christian and Muslim literature as well. The sentiment that emotional well-being is best achieved when we learn to control our tendency for envy and jealousy was a shared response. Once we defined justice to include emotional well-being, it wasn’t a huge leap to find common ground with our Eastern counterparts.

Much more interesting was our challenge to acceptance of life’s lot seen in the Eastern Traditions. After all, were they really suggesting that we should accept slavery, human trafficking, child and spousal abuse, and more? Aren’t there limits? Isn’t there a time when righteous indignation, repudiation, and even activism for social justice take precedence?

Indeed, they concurred and unpacked elements in their traditions that too demand equity and humane behavior, and indeed repudiation.

So, we found common ground, and the rest, as they say, is commentary.

All of this resounds these days when I hear some people try to justify proposed public policies the effect of which punish the poor, the ill, the infirm, the elderly, the at-risk, the unemployed, the under-educated, those who live near contaminated water, and those of minority status, legal or otherwise. In fact, pretty much everyone except the rich.

The implicit philosophy of these public policies, couched in the rhetoric of individual choice, is that you, we, are on our own. Too bad. Get over it. Make your peace with it because that is your lot in life now.

But I come from a tradition that says it need not be, as do most religious traditions. It is not simply an option, but a mandate to see that the hungry are fed and the at risk are cared for. The underlying theologies may differ, but every world religious tradition affirms that responsibility. Societies are commanded to build institutions to guarantee that compassion is not simply the whim of the moment but a guarantee.

Now let it be clear, I am not suggesting that we institutionalize any religious tradition in American society. Nor that every insight from every religion aligns with the needs of pluralistic post-Modern societies. But I am suggesting that there is much to learn from world religions in alleviating human suffering and risk.

In this era of cynicism and facile dehumanization, I read Niebuhr’s aphorism as a challenge to be courageous, especially now. Most certainly this is the time for righteous indignation in the face of injustice, inequity, cruelty, mean-ness, dishonesty, and the absence of integrity. Our many religious traditions and American constitutional values and ethics subscribe to a culture of justice or fairness.

This is not the time for serenity; it is not a serene time. it is the time to change that which MUST be changed; it is the time for courage.

When is a Disaster a Disaster? Philanthropic Priorities in Our New Reality

March 20th, 2017

Richard Marker

It is always gratifying when the press is interested in my opinions, and this has been one of those times. The question from several well-known, and some not so well known, periodicals has been whether the huge amount of financial support for organizations such as Planned Parenthood and ACLU and other organizations under attack by the current administration represents a long-term change.

It is a reasonable question. There has indeed been a surge in support for these organizations as challenges to civil liberties for all, including the press, the courts, reproductive rights, religious minorities, and immigrants have come fast, furious, and frontally. These unprecedented attacks have led to unprecedented support to well respected organizations committed to support for and sustaining the values under attack. The questions the journalists have asked me and others is if this represents a major and sustainable change in giving behaviors and priorities.

I suspect that you will find my response a bit of a hedge. If one looks at historic trends, one sees that there are predictable times when giving to particular causes surges: around floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, terror events, and other major news makers where human suffering is visible and manifest. In most cases, that surge subsides quickly and people return to their prior giving practices . The impulse is compassionate, humane, and heartfelt but, as the news cycle moves on to a new headline, the giving does as well. [This is not to say that the needs don’t continue; many in the philanthropy world have learned to “keep our powder dry” for 1 or 2 years to see what needs continue after the public compassion phase ebbs.]

Is the current fierce and angry reaction to the shocking and negatively disruptive public policies of this administration equivalent to a natural disaster response? Or will people tire of being angry and outraged and choose to hibernate until this chilling winter of discontent is over in 2 or 4 years? Will those who responded immediately with substantial new financial support trust that others are able to advocate and fund the organizations that support civil society – without them?

Will these challenges to values we hold dear continue to mobilize and motivate? Will those new funders feel these attacks so personally or empathetically that they will continue to support civil liberties, women’s rights, environmental sustainability, immigrant rights, economic equity, racial justice, electoral fairness?

Or, to muddy the water even more, with the recent release of the preliminary budget by the administration, will funders now argue that even long time funding must be viewed as disaster funding? If core safety net, basic science, arts and humanities, early childhood, social security and Medicare are all being eliminated or radically reduced, some may argue that the most responsible choice is to make sure that educational and cultural and disaster management and early childhood and food for the elderly are sustained, through direct funding, even at the cost of vital advocacy.

One wonders: Have we entered a late 60’s style activism that ultimately will save our nation- mobilizing masses for a long enough time to create palpable change but not necessarily smoothly? Many may have political and philanthropic preferences, but, to return to the question the journalists have asked, in truth, no one knows for sure.

A Sobering Takeaway from the WINGS Forum, Mexico City

March 5th, 2017

Richard Marker

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 gathering of the WINGS Forum. It is held in a different part of the world every three years, providing an opportunity for national and international philanthropy support organizations. For all of my international speaking, teaching, and advising, our advisory firm Wise Philanthropy only joined WINGS this past year, and this was the first Forum I have attended.

The conference was peopled by thoughtful and caring philanthropoids from many countries, continents, and organizations. The energy was genuine and the engagement with the unfolding nature of the field was impressive. Most of the issues that confront the philanthropy sector are generic, but the cultural and legal diversity are what provide the differentiating nuances throughout the world.

Philanthropy did not emerge in the United States despite the views of many who think otherwise; nor does the USA have a monopoly on good and highly sophisticated philanthropic giving. However, for a variety of historic and legal reasons, the institutions of philanthropy have reached a more developed flowering in the USA than many other places. As a result, there are more affinity organizations and professionals than elsewhere. Sitting in these sessions, I was reminded of the many ways in which there is much to share – and to learn – with and from our international colleagues. As one who has taught and worked with funders from so many places, I cherished the dynamic exchanges.

Yet, there was one theme that emerged throughout that, for me, was the single most significant takeaway from the days in Mexico City: the shrinking of the civil society space. In too many places, there are new laws that limit who can register, what they can do, and what are the related risks for operating. If the volunteer/nfp/ngo sector is the most independent, too many governments find that independence to be threatening. If civil society thrives because of our sector, intolerant governments are increasingly looking for ways to restrict and limit what we do and how we do it.

For much of the world, this is not new or news. It is news that the closing of civil society has been spreading even as quickly as democracy has been challenged in so many places. That alone would be sobering enough. But there was an underlying discomfort that transcended even that, the fragility of the sector in the United States.

The strength of American civil society and our philanthropy ecosystem have given derivative, and sometimes financial, support to those elsewhere in the world. American advocacy for civil liberties around the world, its history of civil society’s resilience, and the mandated independence of voluntarism have served it well – and provided a benchmark against which other societies have measured themselves.

But recent political trends in the United States have raised questions whether the sector is fragile even here. Threatened challenges to voting rights, civil liberties, immigrant protections, reproductive rights, and unrestricted religious rights have sent a chill both here and elsewhere.

In fairness, there is a profound difference: those nations where civil liberties have already eroded to the threat of life, or the space has already closed to a narrow corridor are in a very different place from the USA where the threats are hanging in the air, or in suggested legislation. For a couple of generations, Constitutional liberties were sacrosanct and the role of civil society was deeply respected. Neither is assured today. The resilience of the sector in the United States may yet prevail, but pain has already been inflicted, and there are already cracks in the foundational confidence.

The WINGS Forum was primarily concerned with the large world beyond the shores of the USA. Strengthening the extraordinary national associations, developing strategies to reinforce the effectiveness of civil society in those places, even where the space has already closed, providing peer learning and encouraging courageous and impactful philanthropy all, quite properly, took precedence over a preoccupation with the American dilemma. But I couldn’t help come away from those fruitful days with a sense that we not only have much to share, but also we have much to protect. All of us know, and must work to guarantee, that no society can thrive without a vibrant and secure civil society.

Everywhere in the world. Yes, even in the United States.

What is Philanthropy’s Role Now?

February 9th, 2017

Richard Marker

This post is NOT a political statement. Regular readers should be pretty clear where I stand on unfolding events so I feel it is important to begin with that clarification about the content of this essay.

As an advisor and educator about philanthropy, many have been asking me “what now for philanthropy?” I am aware that many of us whose opinions are taken seriously are being asked the same and some have already weighed in. Let me confess at the outset that those who are looking for the definitive articulation of how foundations and philanthropists should exercise our influence, spend our money, and respond to policies will be a bit disappointed. Frankly, even though much is already unfolding in twitter speed, there are still a lot of unknowns about the new administration policies and practices. We are, though, already getting some good sense of intentions.

What follows are a few thoughts:

1. Private philanthropy will matter more than ever. Unless the rules change radically, and that is always a possibility, private philanthropy will continue to have the opportunity that no other sector has: to voluntarily use our resources toward what we wish. The laws are agnostic about the values of our giving as long as it meets certain legal qualifications.

2. There is already a healthy difference of opinion in our field. Some look at society’s inequities, then look at the positions of this administration and believe that there is a growing moral mandate to give our resources to support those who are in greatest need. That group will grow if even a few of the proposals already being floated regarding health care, Medicare, social security, safety net, food insecurity, and education are implemented. Huge segments of American society will move from “making do” to “at risk” status. If our tax dollars won’t ameliorate these issues, people will turn to voluntary organizations. Some advocates feel that, whatever the law allows, there should be no question of philanthropic priorities. Relieving human hurt takes precedence; – objective need takes precedence over subjective preference.

3. For many, the emergent challenge to equity and social justice, though, has now risen for reasons that go beyond economic inequity. The rise of antinomianism and the surge of xenophobia [as manifest in overt acts of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, misogyny] not seen in decades has raised the mandate to fund for social stability and civic decency to a new level. Many funders are now repositioning their funding priorities to support organizations and initiatives to restore civility to the public square and in educational emphases. Those funders sense a level of urgency to these matters that even transcend the long term pervasive and destabilizing issue of economic imbalance.

4. Many argue [and I am among them] that the philanthropy world under-utilizes its advocacy rights. We know that voluntary giving can never replace what a government can and should provide and therefore believe that the wisest long-term use of philanthropy influence is to block cuts where possible, restore them soon if necessary, and work to reduce the need for safety nets wherever possible. The impact of maintaining or even expanding government funding for at-risk populations can never be overstated. The very nature of the voluntary giving system makes it simply impossible for voluntarism, no matter how generous, to replace it. [Here is the place to make sure that everyone understands that government funding is not the same as government provided services. The non-profit sector provides the majority of those services though many receive some percentage of financial reimbursables from city or state coffers. Medicare or the ACA are not government health care; they are government sponsored insurance programs to enable medical care by non-government providers.]

5. The plot thickens when the discussion expands to “quality of life” institutions such as museums. Whose responsibility are they? In most industrialized nations, the government is the primary funder of the quality of human experience of its citizens. In the USA, for many years, agencies such as NEA and NEH on the federal level, and their counterparts on the state and local level, have played an important but not exclusive role. Individuals and foundations have always played crucial roles in funding universities, museums, symphonies, ballets… but core funding would often come from government support.

However, we are now facing de-funding of these agencies. The current administration sees quality of life matters as the responsibility of voluntarism and not the government. Some funders argue that, while there are strong advocates even in congress for government social safety net funding, in the USA there is less of a consensus on who should fund cultural institutions. Therefore, they argue that philanthropy’s autonomy must make this a very high priority indeed. What kind of society doesn’t have art, music, dance? And what would be the long-term cost to society if the institutions that provide them were to be radically diminished or closed especially in a nation that claims to be the wealthiest in the world?

6. All of these reflect longtime and ongoing debates within the philanthropy sector. They are not new but there is an urgency to them not seen in 8 decades. There is, though, another area where much of the sector has already been outspoken; advocacy for the tax deductibility of gifts for charitable purposes. Indeed, some organizations in our sector have restricted their advocacy to this single issue.

It certainly seems reasonable: if the nation is to have increasing dependence on the voluntary sector, why not provide incentives for support of that sector? However, there are many within our sector who feel that such a single-issue position weakens us. After all, tax deductibility is a subset of a complex and ultimately inequitable tax system. Is it correct for the wealthy, the ones most likely to use this deduction, to support this particular tax benefit above all others? Even if one believes in maintaining this deduction, wouldn’t it be far more equitable for that to be built into tax reforms that are coherent and non-regressive?

7. Transparency and spending rates: Private foundations are required to have all grants identified and available to the public. Private foundations also have a minimum required distribution each year. Those rules don’t now apply to public charities, including the Donor Advised Funds, many of which have huge endowments. [In fairness, most do spend at least the 5% equivalent to private foundations, but they are not required to, nor is there any required transparency.] No one knows which proposals will ultimately make it to the floor of congress or be adopted by our current political morass, but it is fair to assume that both of these issues will not be far from the surface when voluntarism and charitable giving are discussed.

On another level, it would serve our sector well to take our own initiatives for demonstrable standards of transparency, accountability, and ethics. Our most treasured commodity, even beyond money, is our independence. It is built on confidence in the integrity of our sector – at least compared to almost every other institution. If the time comes that sentiment grows too cynical, that independence may be jeopardized. We should not wait for an imposed set of standards, but should model that, whatever deleterious changes are being made to banking or environmental rules, we take our public responsibility seriously enough that we choose to strengthen the best practice expectations of our own sector.

8. In recent years, the debate about foundation perpetuity has grown. It is not new; there are those who take the position that no private foundation should be allowed to exist in perpetuity or at least question the wisdom of doing so. The matter has risen for two reasons: a number of very prominent and influential foundations and philanthropists have committed themselves to spend-out, and the growing pressure on private support as discussed above.

In my role as a philanthropy advisor, I help funders choose whether or not to establish funds intended for perpetuity, I can attest that there are very valid reasons for either choice. However, given the potential for limiting the life span of endowments, a suggestion already floated by this administration, I currently suggest, even those who have chosen perpetuity should think through what they would do if the law does change and they need to make “end of fund” decisions.

9. A final caveat: we have been through disruptive events before. We learned from 9/11 or Katrina or Sandy or Haiti that funders need to balance the urgency of the moment with longer term perspectives. Even if one chooses to respond to disasters or human disruptions by redirecting funds immediately, one needs to remember that there are longer term needs that cannot always be anticipated. Moreover, we also learned that we must be cautious about sacrificing those organizations about which we have cared for a long time. There are responsible and ethical ways to switch priorities, but remember that those priorities emerged after real thought. We owe it to ourselves to honor our own processes even as we amend our priorities. [I have a document on “exit strategies” that I can share with those who request it.]

Our philanthropy world is being challenged no less than American society as a whole. It is up to us to set standards of responsible, ethical, thoughtful, forceful, and constructive ways to respond. We are the only sector with the independence to do so. Let’s model how.

Transparency and Tax Exemption for Religious Institutions in the USA

February 3rd, 2017

Richard Marker

Despite the opening paragraph, this post is not about politics; it is of relevance to philanthropy.

This week, at the annual national Prayer Breakfast, the current president issued a strong statement advocating the repeal of a limitation on political lobbying from the pulpit. That particular issue is not one I feel super strongly about, but it does, en passant, elicit thoughts about a philanthropy matter about which I do.

The facts: #1. Non-profit organizations in the USA are exempt from paying taxes on their income. #2. Some non-profits, typically referred to by their tax category as 501 c3 organizations, have an additional advantage: their donors can deduct their contributions to those organizations in their own tax filing.

All of these organizations are required to file tax returns that are available to the public – nowadays mostly through Guidestar. You and I can look at the tax returns to decide if the money is being well spent, and tax authorities can determine if the money is being raised and spent legally. Indeed, a few years ago, the 990 form itself was revised to allow more clarity and transparency on matters of interest to both funders and tax authorities. Transparency matters – as it should. Each of us can choose to study those returns, and each of us can decide if any of the information contained in those public forms should inform our funding decisions.

There is one exception to the accountability rules. Religious Institutions have a third benefit not available to any other organization: #1. they need not pay taxes on income, #2. they can offer tax deduction to donors, AND #3, they need not file any tax return at all. In other words, churches and synagogues and temples and mosques and any other self-defined religious institution can do business however they wish with no regular accountability for audits or tax returns or affirmation of its financial activities.

The ostensible reason for this exemption is the separation of faith and state. I am a firm believer in this separation and affirm that it is a core Constitutional guarantee, and an American value since 1776. And, full disclosure, for part of my career I worked for an organization that had that benefit. Yet I have come to believe that this specific application of the Church-State separation is no longer appropriate.

Religious institutions continue to be a huge financial sector in the USA, and funders/members/adherents should have the same access to information about how their money is spent that donors to any other tax exempt organization should have. However, many religious institutions do not want the onus of preparing taxes, nor do they want to be interwoven into a public tax system; they therefore do not file any public record of their finances. [BTW, currently they are permitted to do so, just not required to do so.]

Therefore, I would propose a modification of the law to allow a choice: Religious institutions can choose to opt in to the rules applicable to transparency and accountability relevant to all 501c3 such as filing an annual 990, or they may choose to remain outside the system as at present.

Organizations that choose to opt in will be permitted to offer donors the tax deductibility, benefit #2 mentioned above. If a religious organization chooses not to, that will continue to be their right, and they would retain their tax-exempt status as at present, but they would no longer be able to offer tax deductibility to their donors and contributors.

Let me reiterate: In no way does this proposal allow or encourage state intervention or encroachment in the religious matters of any organizations beyond that required today. It is an historic quirk that provided this unique transparency exemption. That time, I believe, has passed.

I am sure that there are objections I don’t fathom [I am equally sure that respondents will make sure I learn of them.]. I have no idea what percentage of religious institutions would choose which option. But at a time when we demand transparency, ethics, and accountability in the non-profit sector as a whole, there is no real reason to exempt this huge sub-sector from the financial ground rules governing the rest.

Facts, Truth, and Myth

January 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

Yes, reader, another politically oriented post.

I don’t remember very much from what is now called Middle School, nee Junior High School. Except….

If memory serves, it was a time when we studied Greek Mythology for the first time. And in the Quaker school, I attended, we also studied the Bible as literature. One of the lessons that I remember from middle school is that we learned the important difference between Truth and Fact. It is, one would hope, one of the abiding lessons of school and of life… and maybe, as we are now learning, even politics.

Few today would argue that the stories of Olympus are factually true, but few would dismiss that they contribute to our understanding of the human condition, human interrelationships, and even the mysteries of life that can only be understood in metaphoric or mythic language. We learned that they are True even if they are not facts.

Similarly, in my religious tradition, we point to an event at Sinai as a defining moment in the creation of the religion we now call Judaism. We don’t know exactly what happened there, end even the Bible itself leaves us in a cloud about that transformative moment. That mystery underwrites our understanding of the human condition, of our relationship to the physical world, to fellow human beings, and much more. The facts of that event matter little but its Truth is abiding for those in our Tradition. This distinction is not restricted to moderns; it was anticipated by theologians a full millennium ago.

In the case of these two religious traditions, the defining myths are built on truths that don’t depend on the facts. We cannot know what the facts are or were, but indeed they matter less than our understanding behind them. They have provided transcendent meanings to centuries of readers in diverse cultures.

But what if we do know the facts and despite that demonstrable reality, refuse to accept them? Or aver just the opposite? That seems to be the case with our newly inaugurated president and his spokespeople regarding the attendance numbers at his inauguration. How can it be that every single independent photo of the event shows one reality, and he insists on another? Or the unequivocal recordings of persistent maligning of the intelligence communities… and yet when holding a sham presentation to them, he alleges that he has always been their greatest advocate – and any misperception is purely the manipulation of the press? Or insisting that millions of illegals voted and therefore the real numbers who voted for HRC were not what everyone else says they are – with not a shred of evidence even from within his own political circles? There are too many more examples, as we know, since they have been accumulating over the last year.

Is he simply Lyin’ Donald? Sure. That is an easy answer and the “facts” would be hard to refute. He is.

Yet, I suspect that the answer is more complex. I suspect that the newly inaugurated president must have slept through middle school and never learned the difference between fact and truth. It appears that when facts, easily demonstrable facts, don’t align with what he wants them to be, or when they don’t align with his own Truth, he simply denies the facts.

As we saw above, in studying religious texts or Greek mythology, it doesn’t matter much to the rest of the world when we derive truths that are independent of the facts. Most of us have learned to distinguish between them. But what if we don’t understand the difference and the demonstrable facts simply are at odds with our own version of the truth? Not the healthiest way to live life but not such a big deal if it is only our own life experience. But when we accuse others of not telling the truth when they don’t share our own version of the Truth, that creates a problem. And it is inexcusable, and profoundly immoral, when we try to impose our Truth on others, especially when that Truth is based on denial of demonstrable facts.

So here we are: with an administration that confuses its own preferred and self-authenticated mythic Truth with facts. We, citizens, press, observers all, have an obligation to remember our middle school education and to remember the difference. And we, citizens, press, observers all, have an obligation to the constitution and our own civic well-being to continue to be vigilant in making sure that we all insist on the difference.

In the USA, we have a separation of faith and state. Truth without facts is faith. Let the president and his press spokespeople believe whatever they wish – in the confines of their private spaces. But the rest of us deserve to have a society where observable facts define our well-being. The public square, our public square, is not where our leaders should work out and act out their private beliefs and mmyths.

Equity, Equality, and Equitability

January 18th, 2017

Richard Marker

For very good reasons, “equity” is a hot word in the philanthropy world. The last few years, and in particular the recent bizarre political process, have illustrated how much need there is for addressing fairness and equitable justice in the American political system, and in our society as a whole.

After all, we will soon inaugurate a president who received almost 3 million fewer votes than his opponent yet he and his followers claim a landslide endorsement.

We have a tax system that rewards the top 1 percent of the US under the guise, and disproven theory, that it will create jobs – while in the meantime we have the wealth divide of a barely developing nation.

We imprison and murder a radically higher percentage of our population than any other western nation. A disproportionate number of those are young black males, yet many people resent a movement that calls attention to it by claiming that all lives should matter, not just Black ones.

I don’t think I need go on. Those who are sympathetic with my underlying point of view will readily add to the list. Those who don’t will look to dispute any and all examples.

What I hope no one would dispute is that there are inequities in our country. And until they are rectified, or at least that there is confidence that we are moving in that direction, we will be a country rent asunder.

As in past writings, I look to our philanthropy world to see if there are insights that might inform how to move forward. In order to get there, let’s step back a bit:

Some years ago, as funders began to want more accountability for how and where our dollars were spent, we began to increase our own accountability systems. We want reports, we want evaluations, we want impact, we want metrics, we want evidence. What is the point of giving money to solve a problem if the problem isn’t solved?

Quite legitimately, many funders began implementing formal expectations of what each grantee needed to provide to monitor progress and expenditures, and ultimately to justify the money given. Since this discipline was new for many funders, many developed expectations that were to be applied to very single grantee: the same reporting forms, deadlines, accessibility, etc. If we ask the same from everyone, we can hold everyone equally accountable. Isn’t that fair?


What we soon learned is that equal is not always equitable. Of course, a major health care system or university has teams of people to track expenditures, prepare reports, and deal with funders directly. Shame on them if they cannot produce reasonable requests for information. [This is not the post to discuss reasonable vs unreasonable. Suffice it to say that not all funders are reasonable, but most try to be.]

But to expect that same report from a small start-up or an understaffed human service agency is not the same to expect that a report from a large health care system. It may put undue pressure on them to respond to the identical request. You may say: we didn’t ask them for any more than we asked of anyone else, but, in fact if not intent, our “equal” request is not equitable. It disrupts and it may assume access to systems they can neither afford nor manage. And so, under the guise of equality, we have created inequitability.

The difference is where in the continuum we start our look: at the end or the beginning? If we want equity as a result, our starting point must be to look at what actually is happening by our requirements and interventions, not what we hope will happen. What are the effects – and then work back to impactful interventions?

Once we look at end results, we realize that there are needs for different practices, resources, supports, and approaches for organizations of different sizes or maturity or fields of service? And as funders who care about getting use-able data and actionable choices, we are much better served by asking what happens, not what we want to happen.

As I listen to the political discourse now continuing unabated, I hear far too many conversations of public policy focused on ideological input and not functional output. Health coverage is a good example: every independent study shows that a single payer system would be fiscally more responsible, provide more equitable access, and would be financially more manageable for more people. And let us be very clear: that isn’t the Canadian system or the English system or any other public health system. Single payer says nothing about choice of doctor, hospital, and type of health care, only about how the insurance is provided.

I hope that this is not misunderstood: at a time when too many groups have been maligned for the simple reason of being different: racially, religiously, gender, national origin, this argument for equitability should never be read as the legitimization of patronizing difference. But that acceptance doesn’t exempt us recognizing that groups may need attention because of years of prejudice, bigotry, classism, and structural inequity. We in the philanthropy world need redress those inequities.

If equity means anything, it means that the results of our actions yield a fair, just, and caring society for all. And if that means we need to get there by multiple and dis-equal methods, so be it. Equality matters, but as an end, not a process.

Philanthro-ethics, Transparency, and the Political Process

January 17th, 2017

Richard Marker

Caveat Reader: Once again, this post speaks to a contemporaneous issue in the political realm. I am publishing it, although, alas, I fear that the moment for the message has passed.

For fifteen years, I have been advocating credentialing in our field. Those of us on the giving side of the philanthropy table are responsible for allocations of billions of dollars, the state on an entire sector, and, directly or indirectly, public policy in a range of areas. Unlike almost any other field, there are no formal barriers to entry – except for having one’s own money. One can hang a “philanthropy advisor” shingle at will, with no evidence of competence or training. One can be hired by a foundation to make grantmaking decisions without any credentials or commitment to get them. To put it bluntly, I consider this unconscionable.

When I entered the field, one still heard the bon mot: “You’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation.” Uttered with a chuckle or smirk, it reflected the autonomy most funders felt. It also implied a level of arrogance: no one can tell us what to do or how to do it.

I came to see that perspective as simply wrong. Of course, no one can or should tell any funder what to fund or even how to make decisions. But for someone to have a career in our field should require that there is evidence that one knows the laws, the ethics, the best practices, and the policies that define a responsible field of service. Many in our field are beyond reproach and have made it their business to be well informed and educated, behave ethically and responsibly, and care deeply about good decisions that reflect equity and equitability. Some have taken courses and others have accreted this knowledge by experience and other initiatives. While they don’t now have a formal and recognized credential, they easily could – and should.

Sadly, though, there are too many for whom this cannot be said. Their knowledge of laws and ethics is limited; their awareness of best practices in the field non-existent; their own experience limited to a single funder who may or may not be exemplary. Some, but thankfully very few, abuse this extreme autonomy and the absence of formal accountability.

The laws of private foundations do try to compensate for this through very strong restrictions on self-dealing, private inurement, transparency of grants and boards, and more. But there is nothing that guarantees that those working in those settings know the ethics and the laws – except, and here is a key point and our segue – by government insistence and enforcement. Abuses can be penalized severely.

Government appointees are subject to strict ethics standards, and, at least until this bizarre and problematic transition of power, were held accountable as a precondition for consideration. Or at least were formally reviewed prior to consideration.

It is disgraceful and shameful that the ethics standards that enforce the restrictions on self-dealing and private gain for government appointees, and yes, the president elect, have so easily been pushed to the side and dismissed by an administration that seems to believe that they don’t matter. Faith and confidence in our system and those who govern depends on those ethics rules. They matter a lot.

For 15 years, I have been arguing that there should be institutionalized standards for those in our field. Happily, there are many more taking formal courses designed exclusively for philanthropists and foundation professionals than there were when I began my teaching and advisory work. Nevertheless, it has been a personal disappointment that the advocacy for official credentials for professionals in the funding field has not yet struck a broadly responsive chord.

As big and important as we like to think our philanthropy field is, though, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to the government. And for there to be such a visible and cavalier retreat from widely accepted standards should give us all pause.

Ethics matter. As we see in our field, it is difficult to get to a point where we agree upon and then enforce ethical standards. For years, the federal government was way ahead of us, at least in the vetting process. There was no guarantee there could never be abuse, but it did guarantee that no one took appointed office without being subject to an ethics screening, and an awareness of what the rules are. At least until now.

Once ethical standards are lost, it is awfully hard to get them back. I hope it isn’t already too late.

Some MLK Jr. Day Thoughts

January 16th, 2017

Richard Marker

This weekend, we attended an interfaith service built around the words of Martin Luther King, Jr’s memory and words. It was by no means the first such service I attended but in some ways, it was the most poignant.

No, it wasn’t that the music or the biography or the “Mountain top” speech were all better than other years, although they were all high quality. Nor was it the particular location or group of people or service leaders, all fine, but not so unique that I would see the experience as more distinctive than other years.

But when the service ended with “We Shall Overcome” this year, I was overcome. Somehow I could not get the vivid memory of the day of Rev King’s assassination out of my mind. Remembering the tears, the open tears, the crushed dreams, the aspirations of multitudes who wondered if that mountain top wasn’t simply a distant illusion…

Most of all I remember an aging worker in the building where I lived bent over in a chair, his face in his hands, trembling. Yes, he was African American. He looked up at me and asked if all was lost. Would it ever be better?

Those were complicated times with equal parts fear and optimism in most of us. Politics had taken to the streets and not just to safe academic havens. There was that war to protest, racial inequity to combat, gender inequality to overturn… and at the same time, some reality altering chemicals to smoke or ingest, ties and bras to discard, musicians to celebrate, and more.

That day was a low point.

The years since have had their highs and lows, but on balance there has been progress. Racial inequity continues, in all too many ways, but not for all. Economic inequity is all too severe, but on a worldwide basis, the numbers climbing out of absolute and crushing poverty grow. Technology has made health and education available to many who 50 years ago could not have even imagined them – even, let it be said, in the USA. Gender and reproductive choice had become the norm, if not universal, in the Western World. It has not been a straight line but there was reason for hope most of the way.

Until now…

This is another low point. It is a time when an incoming president is surrounded by an aura of illegitimacy, with what appears to be a constitutional inability to respect others or tell the truth, and whose nominees for executive leadership are almost universally committed to dismantling the very safeguards for which their agencies exist. We are poised to rob millions of their health care, deny that climate change is the most existential threat the world has known, reject hard won workplace protections, reverse humane policies for gender and partner choice, marginalize religious and ethnic populations en masse, and empower hate filled voices not heard in decades.

Yes, until now.

No wonder that I, for one, sang “we shall overcome” in a bare whisper, with water eyes. I remember that terrible day when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I feel an even worse foreboding today.

Yet Martin Luther King Junior would reject that foreboding. It would not be true to the message we are asked to remember today. “We shall overcome” was never a dirge of loss; it must once again become a hymn of resolve.

We will not overcome today, but, if not today, then in 2018. And again in 2020. We shall; we must.