Skip to content

#297 Equality Matters: Equity Matters More

January 1st, 2018

Richard Marker

Long time readers will find resonance with this post. This was written a while ago but not published; it is being posted as we begin 2018. At a time when a new tax law has exacerbated the divide between the very few super-haves and the rest, when upward mobility has come to a virtual standstill in America, and when some political forces clearly reject equity as a value, it seems obligatory to reaffirm our philanthropic and public policy commitments.

….

It was quite by chance that I learned the functional difference between equality and equity. It was sometime in the mid-70’s and I was Associate Chaplain at Brown. Brown’s unionized workers were on strike, and through a series of incidents, I got to know the leaders of the union and also happened to be friendly with the university president.

The strike began in the summer but, as it continued into the school year, it began to have more visibility and was proving to be a divisive presence on campus. As often happens, that led to a hardening of positions. The positions were very clear: The union wanted to give everyone a raise, and wanted that raise to lift the lowest paid workers to a defined minimum. The university was offering a percentage across the board, but was not willing to give a high enough percentage to accomplish one of the key bottom line goals of the union.

One day, I learned that the next negotiating session was to be at noon that day. I asked the union if they would be open to considering a split solution: giving everyone an across the board percentage increase, but having a one-time supplement to the lowest paid to bring their base salary up to an agreed base minimum. They said yes. I called the university president before the negotiations and suggested this solution. I wasn’t in the room, but that afternoon the strike was settled.

I learned that day that “equality” [in this case of “across the board percentage increases”] was not the same as “equity” [in this case, achieving the goal that no employee should be paid less than a living wage.] It is a distinction that subsequently has served me well as an executive/ceo, a consultant, and a philanthropy funder, educator and advisor.

For many years, in my speaking and teaching about best grantmaking practices and relations with their grantees, I have urged funders to not confuse the two. To ask an established university or museum or hospital for quarterly financial and program reports should be a no-brainer; to ask a 3-person non-profit start-up for detailed quarterly reports may be needlessly disruptive. On the surface, it seems fair: after all, a funder is treating all grantees equally. But functionally it is way off balance. If every funder expects detailed quarterly reports, and, typically, they are all different, it can take hours upon hours of adminstrativia away from the service or program the funder is actually funding. The bottom line is inequitable even if equal.

The same is true for proposal submissions, evaluations, site visits, and more. I have long urged funders to be aware of their impact on their current or potential grantees in all of their procedural practice. [For more on the topic of funder-grantee practices, see my numerous articles on philanthro-ethics.]

One way of understanding the difference is that equality [of access] should characterize the entry point; equity should define the desired outcome.

Which brings us to why this distinction is so crucial in our field at this time in history.

We, as funders, haven’t always been so great on the equality of access area, although thanks to the current momentum in our field in articles, conferences, self-studies, etc., we are getting better at it. But we are only beginning to scratch the surface of “equity as impact” as one key measure of our success as funders.

This has always mattered, but given the profound erosion of commitment to public support for education, health care, housing, child support [to say nothing of civil liberties, the press, access to the ballot box], as funders this should matter a lot. Our advocacy and our direct funding need to address cataclysmic challenges to populations at risk, and redress losses. The recent tax sham/scam should only reinforce the centrality of equity as a driving force for all funders.

The lesson I would urge upon us all as many of us re-think how we do business in this new and problematic era is to be careful to build equality of access into all of our work, and to work toward a commitment to equity as an essential impact of our grantmaking.

These times demand no less.

#293 Some Further Thoughts on Place-Based Funding

December 27th, 2017

Richard Marker

Some years ago, when Mirele and I began to help other funders and foundations develop their strategies, we realized that we needed to “walk the walk” and develop our own. We did, and I am happy to say that our strategy has served us well for quite a while. It has done what it is supposed to: given us a framework for considering where our philanthropic dollars should go, and, as important, when to say “no.” The process works.

Our own priorities are definitely not “place based” but are completely “values based.” That doesn’t mean that there are never locally based recipients; of course, there are. But the reason they receive our funds is not because they are where we live but because they are consistent with our values and involvements.

Some recent personal experiences have made me wonder if we have been too absolute in our funding approach.

1. We moved

As many readers know, we have recently relocated our residence from New York to DC. [Needless to say, we will continue to be regularly engaged in philanthropy related work in New York and elsewhere in the world.] After 20 years, such a move is not without emotion. What has been striking to me, and in retrospect not so surprising, is that the most touching reactions to our relocation were by those with whom we had a “place based” relationship. Many of those were personal friends with whom we will continue to connect, but many of the most meaningful reactions and notes were from individuals active in organizations with a local focus. Perhaps also not surprising: Our move mattered much less to those whom we know in more national and international contexts even if they happen to live in New York and our meetings are typically n NY – their focus and our fellow board members are from all over so our move was not that significant to our relationship. I daresay that all of this should hardly have been a surprise, but I hadn’t realized how striking the difference would be. And, more important, it made me aware that our personal place-based involvements really had made a bit of a difference.

2. There are differences between NY and DC

We also discovered a real difference in the way the Washington area philanthropy world is organized. In many of the places where I have spoken or consulted or lived, there is no divide between locally place-based funders and those whose funding priorities transcend those boundaries. But in DC there is a very clear divide. One is either a local funder or part of the other Washington – the one of outsiders and transients. [We have noticed that the same seems to apply in social and organizational contexts as well.] One is forced, almost, to declare if one is a local. [By the way, DC comes by that concern honestly – for decades, it has been under-supported by the national government that limits its electoral enfranchisement. And it is true that many residents are in fact passing through with no real commitment to the place. Many organizations with headquarters here are focused on their national agenda and ignore a local one.]

3. There are limits to systemic level philanthropy

Another development in our field has, independent of our move, precipitated my own re-thinking. Many big-picture funders are interested in solving the big systemic challenges. They make “big bets”, take on massive “challenges” and think beyond the limits of predefined sectors. They want impact, and they want it now, measureable, and sustainable. I, for one, am all for that, and identify myself with those ambitious goals.

What many have been slow to realize, though, is that change takes place on the ground. One can attempt to eradicate illiteracy and food insecurity and poverty and malaria by major policy initiatives of multi-sector collaborations. But at the end of the day, those initiatives only make sense if individuals can actually read, and individuals have adequate nutrition, and individuals have enough resources to function, and individuals are no longer ill. Systems don’t feed them or cure them – they are fed and taught and cured by someone on the ground, in local communities.

Implementation is key. There is no systems change, no matter how persuasive and innovative, unless someone on the ground can implement those systems. Therefore, many funders have come to understand that a commitment to systems change can only work with a concomitant commitment to understanding [and funding] place-based institutions that can make it stick.

While our pockets are much, much shallower than the mega funders who have pushed systems change as step one, our priorities and funding practices have been aligned with them. Maybe it is time for a re-think. Perhaps we don’t have to renegotiate our “values approach” to our giving, only where our dollars will have the greatest impact. In other words, it is a false trade-off between “place-based” and “values-based.” One can support the values inherent in systems thinking and recognize that without a commitment to implement them in real places, they are simply abstractions.

In the meantime, we are spending our early months in our new locale getting to know our local DC colleagues, and about their funding practices. Let’s see where all of this goes.

Stay tuned.

#296 After the Tax Overhaul: Grading our Sector

December 21st, 2017

Richard Marker

Most Americans know in their hearts that Congress passed a scam under the guise of tax overhaul. Since the bill was written behind closed doors up until the moment it was passed, with no hearings or public review, all any of us could do was express our concern about what should or shouldn’t be in it. I suspect that very few of us will be thrilled when the details come out. But what we know so far is that very few of us should take much pleasure even if taxes for some go down for a bit.

Why do I say that?

The entire assumption that tax reduction is a cherished goal in any society is bizarre. Taxes are what pay for public services that we want or need, and in almost every case are better provided by a responsible government. Most of us who are not science deniers want to breathe clean air, drink healthy water, eat food that we can trust. Most of us want to travel in safe cars, buses, planes, and trains. Most of us want Congress to respect our decades long contract to respect our defined benefit plan called social security, and would like to be assured that dealing with health needs won’t bankrupt us even in our old age. Most of us want an education system that educates us effectively and fairly regardless of our zip code and ethnic or racial background. Most of us want to know that we have a just judiciary, a trained foreign service, treaties that others can trust, and a military that can protect us with a clear moral standard.

Most of us, I suspect, even want a Legislative Branch and an Executive Branch that understands and endorses all of these things, although I guess I should not expect miracles on that one.

The tax overhaul does none of these things. In fact, it is predicated on two things: that cutting taxes as a goal supersedes all other goals [especially of course for the very wealthy who shouldn’t have to shoulder a tax burden they can easily afford]. And that in order to do so, we can reduce or eliminate public commitment to achieve any of the above goals that define every other modern nation.

Most of the analyses of the sham vision for America only look at the tax burden. And most independent analyses reveal that even the taxes for most people, even if they drop modestly for now, will rise no later than 8 years from now – sooner for others and immediately for some. But that is only part of the story. If health insurance costs rise, it effects our personal bottom line even if it is not through a tax. If people die or get ill because of removal of government guaranteed protections, who will pay for the additional burdens on families? If there are no assurances of fairness in the workplace or schools or on our streets, what resources will remain to correct inequity and those lost communal resources? And much, much more.

Our taxes may go down a little; our net standard of living will deteriorate a lot.

Now – none of this rant is new info, but it needed to be said to get to the next part of this post. Whom do they think will pick up the slack? Economists have almost unanimously said that the trickle-down theory is bogus. And besides, there is no incentive for the private sector to be better employers or even feel the need to hire more people at a time of increased automation and on-line commerce.

That leaves the voluntary sector, otherwise known as the non-profit or non-government or public interest sector. And voluntary is the key word. Americans have a history of generosity, and our tax system has historically rewarded that generosity. History has also shown that tax changes have only a short-term impact on that generosity – short term up or short term down, but over the long haul, giving reverts to a mean.

If that history proves correct, we are in even bigger trouble. Because the burden of a large complex society will fall to those voluntarily funded [professionally directed] organizations. Who will compensate for a reduction in educational funding? Who will provide sustenance to the newly homeless and unemployed and uninsured?

Does anyone really believe that, as good and broad as that sector is, it can pick up the massive slack of government reduction? Does anyone really believe that voluntary giving will increase 3 or 4-fold to even begin to make a dent in that new donut hole of financial vulnerability created by the tax cut scam? The demands on this sector will make those of recent recessions pale.

And this, finally, is where I grade our sector in the run-up to the vote.

I don’t think we did so well. [I am in this sector – mostly on the funding side – so I have to include myself in this accountability.

There were some on the funder side [e.g., NCRP and the Forum to mention only a couple of which I am aware] who spoke eloquently about the impact on people and not the impact on taxation of potential changes in the law. In my mind, they got it – and spoke to the underlying issues. To be fair, I am sure that many other groups also did but I simply didn’t see their public advocacy statements.

However, the overriding attention of the philanthropy support world focused on two things: keeping the Johnson Amendment [a topic for another time] and holding on to tax deductibility for charitable donations. Both of these are worthy goals that I support, but they missed an essential point.]

When the foundation world takes a lead role in advocating for tax deductibility – without a clear articulated vision of other societal needs, it sounds like any other industry group’s self-promotion. We, I hope, are different from the NRA and the Fossil Fuel lobbyists whose lobbying effort are not related to a larger vision for society but for their own self-serving agenda regardless of the negative consequences on society as a whole. I would hope that those of us in the philanthropy world are better than that. We don’t do philanthropy and support wonderful and striving nonprofits just because it is in our interest, we do it because what we support can make a difference to millions of people. At the end of the day, our sector should care about our impact more than our institutions.

But most of the statements that I saw, and received in my in-box, were for advocacy efforts for continuing tax deductibility, with little about the totality of the impact on society as a whole. The sound-bites sounded like another bennie for rich people who wanted to make sure they kept another one of their deductions. Not the best optics for a sector that really does care.

Now, I know that many will take umbrage at this characterization, that the organizations did provide research that shows the financial impact on fundraising. But I have been concerned about these optics for a long time because our sector is not an independent one. We are constantly in a dynamic, if virtual, dialogue with public policy, not independent of it.

Advocacy for charitable deductibility should be tied in with a larger vision of why this sector exists at all, of the pervasive inequity in the social weal and our national policies that reinforce that inequity, of what taxes should in fact support, and how, bottom line, to assure that all citizens are treated fairly and have the necessary means to live respectively and with dignity.

I have devoted most of my professional life to this sector. I believe that it is necessary and reflects something good about every society that supports a thriving voluntary sector. But I don’t believe that our sector should replace public support for basic human needs, and that is what this tax bill implies. I know that most in the philanthropy world agree – I only wish we had said that as loudly as we advocated for deductibility of our contributions.

Our National Shame – A Sobering Thought During Thanksgiving Week

November 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

Those who read these posts exclusively for observations about the philanthropy field may want to stop reading now. This post has a very clear political point of view.

Let me be clear. I find Fake Judge Roy Moore to be despicable. Only some of that enmity emerges from his evident/purported child molestation history although by itself it would justify that judgement. [I personally have little doubt of his guilt but, in anticipation of my next sentences, will acknowledge that he has not yet been found guilty of these crimes – as opposed to others of which he has]. What bothers me at least as much is his disdain for our legal system, the US Constitution, his xenophobia and racism. Found guilty [and exonerated by a president whose own moral compass points due south], he relentlessly pursues an elected office where he can further his unconscionable world view and advances the destructive voices of his rabid supporters. He and his fellow travelers bring shame on our country, his party, his State, and all that decency requires. He and his advocate in the White House have brought dishonor to our international reputation and our political system. Shame.

I guess there isn’t any subtlety in that paragraph!

That alone would warrant a loud plaint. This next item emerged by chance and, by now, is, sadly, less in the public eye, but no less shameful.

Last week, I had the honor to be a speaker/presenter at a philanthropy conference in Orlando. When I travel, I try to speak with as many of the staff at the hotels and the behind the scenes conference enablers as possible. One learns a lot. It seems that many of those who provide those services in Orlando are from Puerto Rico. I had extended conversations with 4 of them. One of the questions I asked was what impact the hurricane had on their families. Shockingly, all 4 of these people, each of whom I met randomly, had lost relatives during or caused by the storm! How many more there must be? My goodness, we on the mainland have no concept of the depth of abandonment our government has wrought. Is it racism? Their disenfranchisement? Their relative poverty? I will leave the analysis to those with more in-depth knowledge of Puerto Rico – all I know is that this is a continuing and profound blemish on our national character. Shame.

The list goes on: The widespread loss of respect for the judiciary and the press reflect a frightening erosion of understanding and belief in our constitutional system… The unconscionable denial of a commitment to saving our planet – under the guise that climate change is only a politically motivated opinion… The perverse and counterproductive belief that the primary responsibility of elected officials is to cut taxes rather than support our citizens… The willingness to consider privatizing Social Security and Medicare thereby abrogating a decades old contract with each and every taxpayer… The cynical erosion of the Affordable Care Act under the proven false claim that they have a better way to provide health care to more citizens more cheaply… The frightening acceptance that racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, xenophobia, and nativism have a place, any place, in a civil society.

Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.

We must never ever accept that any of this is normal or acceptable. Ever. And especially on Thanksgiving week, a time for an honest consideration of the current state of our national character, these should give us all pause.

#295 Institutional Memory Does Matter

November 15th, 2017

Richard Marker

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a very respected colleague in our philanthropy field. He and I are contemporaries, but I daresay he is better known than I, a detail of some relevance to this post.

Our conversation veered into observations about developments in and the state of our field. For many reasons it is growing, there is both consolidation and expansion at the same time, there are those pushing philanthropic giving into more assertive spaces, there is a recognition of both the expansive capacity and the severe limits of what philanthropy can accomplish, and, for both of us, a sense that not everything that is purported to be new really is.

About that last point: Both of us have been in the field long enough to find others “discovering” things that we had, ourselves, done or written about a long time ago. We are both bemused that the eureka discoveries are simply rediscovering what so many have said before. There is an admitted ambivalence in seeing these things: we could constantly post corrective references to our own writings and accomplishments – to remind folks of our contributions to the field of philanthropy learning, or, alternatively we can accept that everyone needs to learn philanthropy practice in his or her own way, at her or his own pace, and it is ok for them to claim discovery.

As a quondam university educator, I learned very early on, that, for students, if they didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. It mattered not that a year or 5 or 10 or 20 years earlier, other students had planned the same activity, studied the same text, written the same insights. The very process of learning those same things is indispensable to education. Otherwise, I came to understand, one would have a hard time justifying teaching Aristotle very year! So as tempting as it was to tell the students what their predecessors did wrong or right, and it would have been so much more efficient to have done so, it would have been a counter-productive disempowerment. It took more of my time and patience, but the long-time result was far superior.

So, as I said, my better-known colleague and I have learned to smile knowingly, hold our tongues, and keep silent as others take bows for their “innovations” and “insights.” Probably as it should be.

But perhaps not always. It is one thing for individuals to learn anew what comprise best practices, how not to abuse the power imbalance, and the challenge of saying “no” to so many. But it is something quite different to find a shocking absence of institutional memory among the many organizations and affinity groups in our field. One of the costs of the absence of institutional memory is forgetting that our field matters, and always has. We are responsible, collectively, for billions of dollars, an entire sector, and a great deal of public policy. We are not the sole supporters, the sole influences, and the sole determiners of public policy. But we do matter.

Institutional memory should be in play when challenges to the public weal are prevalent; when civility has become a rare and precious commodity in public discourse; when public policy is set by the highest bidder. Only our field has the independence to call it out. We have the independence – and I would say the responsibility – to advocate for decency, support for the most vulnerable, the interconnectedness of our policies with our funding priorities. This is not a new role for philanthropy: most of the patriarchs [yes, most but certainly not all were men] in our field understood this. Whatever their motivations and personal histories, they came to understand that polity requires civility, that civility requires equity, and that equity is only possible with the financial resources to make it so.

Institutional memory would have saved the time and money needed to hold summits to address what many have said before, what many have said long before my colleague and I said these things. Our advocacy and involvement in public policy are not new, and not only brought about by the current fragile state of our democracy, but have always been there. And we have paid a price as many have been reluctant or slow to speak, advocate, connect the dots, and recognize our unique mandate.

As funders, we engage in our own strategies, struggle with our own decisions, look for tools to enhance the impact of our philanthropic dollars. Maybe not easy, exactly, but absorbing and demanding. Sufficiently so that we may lose sight that we are always, by definition, playing in a larger sphere. Our decisions don’t only decide what worthy group or organization or city gets funded, but also what doesn’t. And writ large, our decisions say something important about what our public policies should look like, and which sector should have which responsibilities.

Advocacy matters. Why? Because, while philanthropy does matter, a lot, it never has and never will have the resources to solve systemic problems alone. Indeed, there is no systemic challenge that does not require a public policy commitment. It is wrong to allow politicians to deflect responsibility to the voluntary sector to solve such problems, and it is equally wrong for our sector to choose to ignore our mandate to keep educating political forces of their responsibility to the citizenry.

As one who has been educating philanthropists and foundation folk for almost 2 decades, I am never surprised that those in our field have to learn and re-learn basics of the laws [they differ depending where in the world one lives], ethics, and best practices that make us thoughtful and responsible funders. That is why we teach what we do, and it helps guarantee that our field continues to develop standards of excellence, and behaviors built on humility and an understanding of our power imbalance.

But best practices are not the same as understanding the uniqueness of our potential in shaping a larger society based on values. For that, we need to understand our roles at a more basic and profound level. We matter because we are advocating by our decisions, whether we intend to or not. We owe it to ourselves, our field, and our communities to do so with greater intention.

#294 An Adventure in Homelessness: A Lesson for our Sector

October 24th, 2017

Richard Marker

Many of you know that we have recently relocated our primary residence. After 20 years in New York City, we are now official residents of the Washington, DC area. There are many lessons for philanthropy to contemplate that emerge from such a move, most notably about the significance of “place”. I will share those thoughts in due course.

This substance of this post, though, was a surprise. First a bit of background:

Our tale of selling our coop apartment in New York is worthy of a New Yorker article, but since it is a tale told so often before by other New York buyers and sellers, not worth your time for the re-telling. Except for one part….

Because of how long the process was taking, we decided not to sign a lease on a rental apartment in the DC area until it was certain that we were actually moving. When, after about 5 months of waiting, the co-op board finally approved the buyer of our shares, we arranged for our move. But, an apartment in our chosen building would not be ready for several more weeks. We and our belongings were out of New York, but they and we were not yet ready to be somewhere else.

So, because of very accommodating in-laws, we moved into the guest room we had used for the last 20 years when visiting the 3 and now 4 generations of the family in the area. When people would ask about our circumstances, I would jokingly answer “we are homeless- but at a very high level.” Little did I know that it wasn’t a joke, or rather the joke was on us and we are still trying to get it cleared up.

This was not to be our legal or long-term residence so we rented a post office box so that we wouldn’t have to change addresses multiple times.

The first clue that there was a problem was when I received a note that my Medicare Part D was cancelled. I received the notice 5 days after the fact – the notice had been sent only 2 days prior to the cancellation.

No, the cancellation was not because, somehow, I had missed paying a bill that might have gotten waylaid during the move – I pre-pay for the full year. It was because we had moved out of state and I was no longer eligible for the plan I was on. With 2 days’ notice!

Of course, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that we were not yet legal residents anywhere else so I could not enroll in a replacement plan immediately. Many hours on the phone eventually got me enrolled but not without a gap in coverage. Any prescription medications I needed would have to be bought at full price. [Fortunately, and reassuringly, the same was not true for Medicare or our supplementary plan. The address change was seamless and there was no gap in service. Think about that as evidence of the merit of a single payer system.] Yes, we can afford the extra cost, but what if we couldn’t? If it took me several hours just to change Part D prescription plans, just imagine the impact on someone with fewer resources, less education, and less ability to sit on the phone being transferred from person to person to person to person. I assume all will be well, but we are still waiting for the new card.

Back to our story, part 2:

We have used the same bank for many years. We have had checking, savings, credit cards, mortgages, cd’s etc. with this bank and, for most of the time, at the same branch.

Imagine our surprise when I received a letter saying that the accounts were going to be frozen since the bank does not allow a post office box as our official address. We would have to show up in person to a bank branch to keep our accounts active. You recall that we rented a post office box so that we would have a place to receive mail.

[Aside: The correspondence was addressed only to me even though ALL of our accounts are joint accounts. Hard to imagine that such sexism still exists in 2017.]

Remember, this arrived when we did not have a legal residence. This next part of this story shows the great irony of our circumstances. When I did immediately go to the local branch office, and I explained the situation and showed the letter, I was ushered into the branch manager’s office. When I asked what we should do, she checked our accounts. Immediately she became a sales person, trying to upsell us to a more exclusive service of the bank. When I said that that wasn’t the reason for the visit and I wanted to make sure that our accounts were active, she said we could use our temporary residence instead of the post office. That is a real house, with a real address, and we were really living there, and she promised that it was now taken care of. But she insisted that I not leave before meeting the bankers responsible for the higher level of service.

I said I would shake the hands of the other bankers on the way out. Done… or so I thought.

Sure enough, we soon got another letter telling us that our account was about to be frozen. [also addressed only to me!] It was sent to the address in New York from which we had moved several weeks earlier, so it too arrived after the relevant date. Fortunately, someone in the branch in NY where we had banked for almost 20 years noticed that something was awry and had the courtesy to call us – 2 hours before the account was to be frozen. The banker in NY said that there was no record of my visit to the bank office where we had moved and no record of the temporary residence. In other words, the above-mentioned branch manager was so concerned about up-selling that she didn’t even process the main reason for the visit. [There is still detritus from this but I’ll spare you.] We were 2 hours from having no access to our money.

Let’s be clear. We don’t need anyone’s sympathy or support. We now do have a legal residence and we have the resources to get this all taken care of. But suppose we didn’t. If we, with hugely positive credit ratings, a chunk of money in the bank, and at least a 2-decade relationship with a single bank, were at risk of having no access to our accounts, what about those who really are homeless? Or who don’t have the luxury of a banker calling them to figure out why something seems wrong so that bills can actually get paid?

Homelessness is no joke. We were not really homeless, but we discovered how easy it is to quickly lose important services most of us take for granted when we didn’t have a legal residence in our name. Imagine finding the time and the resources to function when that is your daily reality and plenty of additional “take for granted” services are not available. And imagine how hard it would be to ever get beyond homelessness once truly homeless. It isn’t pretty.

Foundations and other funders who address poverty already know all of this. We know all about the systemic and derivative issues of what homeless means to individuals and to communities. I have always understood that conceptually, but for the first time, I can feel just a little bit of it personally.

Hurricane Harvey Funding: A Reminder of Best Practices

August 26th, 2017

Richard Marker

There are many very fine and helpful postings from other organizations regarding appropriate philanthropic and charitable responses to Hurricane Harvey, our most recent natural disaster. This brief post is to underscore a very few key points:

1. Fund established organizations: This is NOT the time to be creative. There are many nationally and locally recognized and vetted organizations with credibility on the ground. If you would like to provide immediate support, please support those organizations. If you are not sure, please check with BBB, your local United Way or Red Cross, or your local community foundation to verify the legitimacy of those organizations.

2. Do NOT give to phone or on-line solicitations unless you know the people and organizations personally. While disasters often bring out the very best in some people, it also can bring out the worst. Scammers thrive on the heartfelt compassion we all feel.

3. Foundations that are not already funding on the ground programs in the impacted region would be advised to KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY and wait to see what the ongoing needs will be. We have learned in the past that many needs emerge in the months and even years after any disaster. Individuals are usually on to the next issue but foundations have the ability to have a longer-term perspective.

#292 Naming Names: A Philanthro-ethics Decision

August 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

Two recent WisePhilanthropy.com posts have led a number of readers to raise a question about the examples I gave. These readers are quite sure they know exactly to whom I am referring in each of them. [When you read B below you will see that they might be partially correct, but, even then, only partially.]

Why don’t I publicly identify my clients or the foundations and philanthropists to whom I refer? After all, it is quite customary for many bloggers and philanthropy advisory firms to name their clients, sometimes in a descriptive way and sometimes in a self-congratulatory way but always proudly. And some business advisors tell me that I am leaving money on the table by not showing that the foundation and philanthropy field takes us seriously and uses our advising, speaking, and teaching expertise.

Why am I so strict about this?

There is a simple answer, a more nuanced one, and a very practical one:

A. The simple answer is that I want to respect the confidentiality of all of my clients and students. Many of the matters discussed during my advisory work, or even in classes for philanthropists, are deeply personal, reflect very sensitive family or foundation issues, and are confided to me on the assumption that it goes no further. And that can apply both to those well-known and those not so well known.

If I were to publicly identify those clients who would have no problem being identified, it might make future clients or students reluctant to share, fearing that I would identify them as well. By being so absolute about it, it obviates the possibility of their wondering. [Obviously, if a potential client needs a reference, we are happy to connect them privately.]

B. The more nuanced answer is that I try hard not to give any clearly identifying information in any example I use or any case that I teach. In fact, almost every example I give is an amalgam of real people and real cases but rarely is so unique to a particular individual that there is only one possible reference. If one names names, it is far too easy for cases to be dismissed as listeners or readers try to unpack distinctive personality characteristics. I want the underlying philanthropy message to come across, not the quirks or voyeuristic enticements of bold face names. [This actually works: I once had to take a deep breath when I saw that a family I was largely using as an unnamed example in my presentation was sitting in the audience. Afterwards they approached me to tell me that they could really relate to that example and had a lot to learn from it. Go figure.]

C. The final reason I am so restrictive in naming names is a very practical one. In my line of work, almost everyone I meet assumes that I can help them get funding for a favorite project, or at least introduce them to “my clients” who would be thrilled to learn of their causes. Most of them are very valid and worthy, no doubt, but that isn’t my role and it isn’t why we are hired. Were we to become random advocates, we would lose our ability to advise and the confidence that we function fully independently. Just imagine how many more requests would be coming our way if we listed the funders and foundations around the world with which we have had a connection.

[Full disclosure, there are a very, very limited number of times I make direct reference to individuals or foundations in my teaching. When that happens, it is because the philanthropist or foundation has already gone public with that case and my role in it. Even then, that name will never appear in our website or anything I write.]

As stated above, many if not most of my colleagues in the field are less absolutist in the way they apply discretion and confidentiality. My view of the demands of philanthro-ethics is that I don’t name names. However, I do not want any reader to assume that I am suggesting that anyone who has a different standard is unethical, indiscreet, unprofessional, or otherwise compromising their roles with clients. They simply have a different “best practice” understanding.

For those of you who asked directly, and those who may have been wondering, I hope this clarification helps.

#291 The Risks of Non-Neutrality

August 19th, 2017

Richard Marker

If there is a time to be outspoken, it is now. For those of you who are not old enough to remember the 60’s, this is your historical moment to not sit on the sidelines. Most of us who do remember are with you and many of us are already out there. One cannot, must not, sit silently as human rights and guarantees are being challenged and eroded. And one must not sit silently as voices of hate – such as the neo-Nazis, the KKK, the Alt-Right, and frighteningly, their heretofore hidden fellow travelers, feel emboldened enough by the one who holds the presidency of the USA – fill our streets and dominate our public consciousness.

My political views are not new or surprising, and I am not sure that I have much to add to the millions of words currently being written and shouted.

I do, though, want to share some thoughts about the professional implications of non-neutrality.

It is gratifying that CEO’s are becoming outspoken on behalf of justice, or more accurately, in rejection of a certain kind of evil. But, if you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, your personal risks are minimal and your golden parachute is always close at hand if necessary.

My very worthy and visionary colleague, Aaron Dorfman the CEO of NCRP, has challenged foundations to not hide behind neutrality at this time. The lines have been drawn and for many there is no viable middle. I agree with him but here too there is little real risk for foundations to take positions. The independence foundations cherish provides a protective moat for risk and reputational challenges.

But if you are an employee or a self-employed professional, you must weigh the very real risks of being outspoken. It takes more thought and courage to do so if you are dependent on the next paycheck or contract to pay your rent or exorbitant medical insurance bill.

A few years ago, following an annual meeting of the National Speakers Association [of which I am a proud, long-time member], there was criticism of one plenary speaker whose views were considered too “political.” [He told his own life story, part of which is of a Japanese American sent to an internment camp during WWII.] I took great exception to their objections, saying that those of us who earn our living with words have an obligation to show how words can help shape learning and public discourse. The NSA told me that they wouldn’t publish my comments on the internal blog of the association since they don’t want to encourage political statements. I am still at a loss of what I said then that was political, but there you go.

In talking to NSA colleagues, many agreed with me, but many more agreed with the NSA, projecting that if they were outspoken in their social and political views, they might lose business.

And it can be true. Indeed, this very summer an invitation to speak was withdrawn when I asked the sponsors about the parameters of what they wanted addressed. Since the talk was to be about the intersection of public policy and private philanthropy, it seemed an apt question. I learned that they were very enthusiastic about addressing this question retrospectively, but it would be too political for their group to speak of that topic in the present. It was easier for them to “rearrange their schedule” than to risk the fallout.

Speaking openly doesn’t always have negative consequences. As a professional speaker, there have certainly been times when my political positions have been positively received, and even commented upon by attendees. I have previously reported on the time when a funder, after listening to my talk at a philanthropy conference, told the CEO of that organization that he didn’t agree with my politics but he could listen to me all day long.

Let it be clear that these choices have been mine, and reflect only personal risks I have been willing to take… at least at this stage of my career when I am self-employed and represent no one but myself.

However, it wasn’t always so. I had never been conscious of any self-censorship in my public presentations, but I must have done so for many years without any self-awareness. When my career evolved from senior executive roles of organizations and a foundation to being self-employed, many who had known me for a very long time told me that they never knew that I felt as strongly as I do. They had assumed that my politics and views were far more mainstream and conventional. [I know that some of that has to do with how I dress, but still…]

If I am comfortable taking professional or financial risks today, it is quite obvious I was risk averse before. In retrospect I wonder: was that necessary to do/keep my job or had I internalized an excessive risk aversion? The relevance of this question is because we are at a moment when there is a screaming need for strong and courageous voices. These voices are needed not only when joining with thousands of others in rallies; there is a kind of safety in that. But in more private settings or in writings, when hearing racism, Islam-hatred, anti-Semitism, should we make our displeasure known even at the risk of social disruption? And what about public endorsements or speaking out in writing?

If one is an employee or leader of a non-profit organization, one risks the wrath of a boss or key funders whose views may be different. If one chooses to keep silent in order to keep a job, is that excessive risk aversion or sane self-preservation? What ethics or best practices should inform work place policies of protecting opinionated speech? And should there be limits – such as insisting that “hate speech” is never welcome?

This is a tumultuous time and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The challenges to our national equilibrium are profound and pervasive. There may have been a time, a time now long gone, when one could restrict one’s views to our news channel choices and our social networking peer group. No more.

There are two places where the spill over takes place: in the public square and in the workplace. The public square is now a potentially dangerous place. Not always, not everywhere, but enough. Most, I think, would still choose to rally and protest, but without any naïve assumption that it will always be safe.

But what about the literal and figurative workplace? Traditionally, political discourse was considered off limits. Debate was discouraged, socially proscribed, and a trespass on the environment where many spend more time than any other place in their lives. Should those limits still apply? Are there new best practices? Are there new guidelines that acknowledge that if the CEO can speak publicly, why shouldn’t line employee?

It is one thing for me, as I am ensconced in the latter stages of my professional life with all the autonomy I could want, to choose to risk losing a speaking gig or a philanthropy advisory contract. Shame on me if I am not willing to take those kinds of risks to speak against hatred and for a just society.

Not everyone is at that stage of life or career. We must find ways to make it safe for others, in this time where everyone is judged and expressing one’s views is not with impunity, to do so safely. Our nation has been put at great risk; it is not the time to withdraw into a protective cocoon. But we need to find ways to make it safe to fly free.

#289 The “Fund for Success” Series 2: When Not Enough is Too Much

August 16th, 2017

Richard Marker

Why the “Fund for Success” Series:

To “fund success” is not the same as to “fund for success.” Many funders are very risk averse, and are only are willing to fund the most proven, evidence based projects, or the most prestigious institutions. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with that approach, that is not what is intended by “fund for success.” It means that funders should assess what would be necessary for the highest likelihood of a program or project or organization to succeed. One should look at financial and non-financial requirements, fund what is realistically adequate and not simply fits a funding formula, and create an atmosphere of openness with grantees that guarantees that realistic information is shared in a timely fashion. The purpose is not to avoid failure; that inevitably happens sometimes. But it shouldn’t happen because a funder’s funding practice makes success impossible.

In a previous post [#288], we discussed a case where a seemingly overly generous and undisciplined funder gave so much without concomitant planning that the project ultimately failed. Admittedly, that is not the typical case.

More typical is the case of funders who give too little.

There are lots of reasons for that:

1. A funder or a foundation may assume that all proposal requests are padded so giving less than what is asked for is simply “part of the game.” Regrettably it is often true. In the process of automatically discounting every request, many projects end up getting less than they realistically need to have a fighting chance to succeed. In other words, being punished for playing it straight. We have written elsewhere about this vicious cycle and that only funders can make it safe to break this counterproductive practice.

2. A funder and the foundation he/she endowed exhibit a business mindset and not a philanthropic one In business, a successful negotiation is when you can pay less than the original asking price and still get everything you want. While negotiations are sometimes called for in the philanthropy sector, that approach overlooks the tremendous power imbalance and the reticence of hard pressed non-profits to ever say “no” to a funder. To do so requires courage and conviction, and an awareness that a funder can always walk. Therefore, even when an organization is very aware that a funder is giving less than a project genuinely needs, the organization accepts it anyway. It should not be surprising when the project does not meet its potential, and the grant is money down the drain.

I know that some might take issue with my characterization of the difference between the business and the non-profit sectors. In our field, there are many who would like the non-profit sector to be more business-like in many ways. Perhaps. But here I am speaking of the power imbalance that often presents an uneven playing field and leads otherwise well-run non-profits to accept grants that may not be in their best financial interest.

3. Many funders believe that they should never be on the hook for more than a certain percentage of the cost of a program or project. There is surely some implicit prudence and wisdom in this approach. But too often they leave the grantee high and dry by not providing introductions to other funders, or without the professional capacity to do so, or by requiring restrictive conditions that make fellow funders reluctant to partner. It is one thing to impose a strategic funding model; it is quite another to impose that expectation without providing the human or financial resources to do so. Alas, too often the results are less than stellar.

4. Many experienced funders look at a proposed budget and know up front that it is not realistic. This is particularly true with young organizations or untested programs. Too often a funder will say “that is their problem; maybe they’ll figure it out.” Indeed, they know that the money requested is far too little for the project to reach its potential but since it is what was requested, it is easy to just give that amount. A funder is not doing that organization much of a favor by funding that way. Why not give more than is asked? Or at least provide a supplementary consulting grant to help the organization do more realistic budgeting and planning in the future?

5. Some funders have locked themselves into providing fixed amounts to many organizations. If it is a grant toward unrestricted support and is one of many such grants a recipient organization receives, there is nothing wrong with a fixed dollar grant that is not connected to any specific program. But a fixed grant for a specific project, without careful analysis, may guarantee its mediocrity or even failure. Funders sometimes need to be reminded to have the grantmaking discipline to distinguish between the two kinds of grants. [I am sympathetic; oft-times there are too many requests and not enough time to do due diligence on every request every year, especially among long time grantees. A seemingly good idea from a known entity can make the cut even when careful analysis might have yielded a different funding recommendation.]

6. Money can be stretched only so far. It is really hard to stop funding long time grantees so it is much easier for many funders to keep doing so even at a reduced level when the more constructive response would be to discontinue the grant. Money can be stretched only so far. Funders have a tendency to stretch their funding priorities over time, especially during flush years. But, as we saw in 2008-2009, that doesn’t always continue. Suddenly there are harder decisions. It is really emotionally hard to stop funding long time grantees so it is much easier for many funders to keep doing so even at a reduced level when a healthier response might be to discontinue the grant. [For a “how-to” on exit strategies, please be in touch directly.]

7. NPO’s/NGO’s also have priorities. They are not always the same as those of their funders. Creating a new program focus that doesn’t align with the core competencies or strengths or priorities of the NPO/NGO may satisfy the current [sometimes faddish] interest of a funder, but may be a distraction, or worse. Yes, there are indeed times when funder knows best [sorry about the pun], but insisting on funding something outside the priorities of a grantee should only happen after a serious and mutually respectful discussion. Substantial money may be provided to the new area, but, too often too little is provided for the core operating or infrastructure needs of the implementing organization. Without that infrastructure support, the money given for any new project will almost always be inadequate.

What is common about all of these is that a funder may give too little for a program to have a chance to succeed. In such a case, whatever you give may be too much – that is, insufficiently unhelpful to an organization. In such circumstances, giving too little may actually be too much.

Funding for Success is largely a matter of right-sizing our giving, a challenge for all of us on the funding side. We need to learn not to waste our well-intended and thoughtful grant funding by giving too little to accomplish what we, and our grantees, hope to do.