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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.

The Impending Frightening “Right to Choose” Debate

January 6th, 2017

Richard Marker

Caveat Reader: This is another in a series of posts speaking to current political issues of import to funders. It is being published on the day after Congress has threatened to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.

My very first position after earning my first graduate degree was a part time chaplaincy role at Rutgers University. The year was 1968-69 – a year when political activism and cultural change converged and transformed much of the Western world. I was hardly exempt but nothing had prepared me for one incident that had a very real impact on my understanding of how public policy, private choice, and religious freedom are so intertwined. Years of advocacy for women’s reproductive rights followed.

Three undergraduate women whom I hadn’t met before came to see me. They were distraught because an acquaintance of theirs had died in a back-alley abortion. They came to me because I was a young new-style campus religious leader – I had and openly expressed political views, I spent most of my time in student gathering places and not in an office, and was developing an early [but curable] case of guru-itis. Yet other than being empathetic, I was ill equipped to know what to say, or even to have a well-articulated sense of the politics or of the relevant religious literature.

I was a quick study, and soon learned that the pressing issue for most women who found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, and who did not want to keep it to term, was where to terminate the pregnancy safely and confidentially. None of them were interested in theological niceties.

Remember that this was before Roe v Wade, and even before states such as New York had passed liberalized laws. I learned that there was a Clergy Consultation Service and I became trained by them to provide authentic and reliable information on choices, including for safe terminations for those who made that choice.

I also learned that early termination of pregnancies was not an issue that emerged because someone invented birth control in the sexual revolution of the 60’s. Religious responsa had been dealing with this question for centuries and that literature was far from uniform in how religious authorities responded. What was clear, though, for Judaism and Christianity these were always considered to be private decisions weighing at least two competing unwanted outcomes. Pastoral Theology in the Roman Catholic tradition would often allow that which doctrine wouldn’t, and Practical “halachah” in the Jewish Tradition tried to balance the recognition that a fetus matters even if the definition of full human life begins only at birth. The rich literature goes back over 2000 years and provides ample support for a variety of legal positions, including the right to choose. [I am happy to engage in further discussion about the religious traditions, but that isn’t the purpose of this post.]

What was clear was that American law, as it then stood, blocked the exercise of those religiously defined choices. These were supposed to be private situational choices, not public policies, and until the law allowed for them, full exercise of those choices was needlessly restricted. So, the basis for religious advocacy for changing the law was not because of a wanton leftist disregard of long religious tradition but an endorsement of it. [I hope that those who are so bent on reestablishing restrictions on reproductive rights in 2017 remember that fact.]

Eventually, the law did change – women had the rights to choose and have access to safe and relatively affordable full medical access. Much to the surprise of many, but less so for those of us who had been doing this counseling, as good contraceptive information became accessible and terminations safer, the numbers actually began to drop. More to the point, conversations switched from panicked “how do I do this and come out alive?” to “I really need some help knowing what is right for me.”

All of that, though, is getting to be a long time ago – in fact, 2 full generations ago for today’s teens and young adults. They don’t know the fear of not having safe choices. They don’t know contemporaries who have put their lives at risk when the choice to terminate is the only one a woman may elect. They do know, I hope, that there is always a lot of bluster from men who seem to think that they should be the ones to regulate personal behavior and restrict reproductive rights for women – even for contraception! I hope that they know that there are those working for a new Supreme Court that will find a basis for overturning Roe v Wade. And they must see that we are about to have national leadership who have advocated the most punitive and extreme anti-choice positions one can imagine.

Some of us remember an earlier era that saw real suffering and pain and loss. It would be unconscionable, immoral, and anti-religious freedom to go backwards.

There are many challenges facing us in the philanthropy world as we look at the new political leadership in the USA. We certainly don’t have unanimity about how to respond to those challenges. But I would hope that, no matter what your political leanings, you accept that the implications of withholding reproductive rights is in fact putting the lives of our daughters and granddaughters and sisters and spouses at risk. And don’t be naïve: it will impact every social group no matter the race, religion, national origin, economic status, and gender. And we in the philanthropy world would be naïve to ignore that much of the resulting societal burden will land directly in our laps.

Everyone should feel free to prefer that those dear to us make choices consistent with our own values. But safe, accessible, and affordable choices should remain legal for all. I am old enough to have seen the deadly results when those choices didn’t exist. Let us all hope that none of us ever see those days again.

New Year’s Eve Procrastinators and New Year’s Strategists

January 2nd, 2017

Richard Marker

Whew! The end of the year solicitation onslaught is over. It is safe to look at your email again – and even to open some of your snail mail. If an end of the year contribution was on your agenda, you have made sure it was paypal-ed or stamped by Saturday evening. Time to return to more contemplative and plan-ful philanthropy.

I am not an expert in fundraising at all but I have to assume that all of those solicitations work – at least for some. Do they persuade people who otherwise wouldn’t give or just provide that last-minute oomph to procrastinators? I am not sure.

What I do know is that around this time of year, because of what I do professionally, people often ask me why people give. If I listen to the question carefully, I usually see that there is an underlying bias by the person who asks: some are absolutely sure that a “tax deduction” is the driver. Others are convinced that guilt is a prime motivator. Fewer want to credit pure altruism. This year, a lot of folks believe that political fears are yielding more advocacy funding than ever. Social pressure to “give back” is often suggested, raising the question whether those funders would give at all if their peers weren’t giving as well. Among younger funders, “making a difference” surely is a major motivator. And, let’s not forget the insights from our friend and colleague, Jenny Santi, whose research demonstrated that giving can be a source of happiness.

Fortunately, our role is never to persuade someone to give; everyone with whom we work is already a “giver.” Our role is only to help them make good, ethical, and wise decisions. However, what we do know about giving motivation is that reductionism – that is looking for a single motivator – is wrong. No one’s philanthropic behavior can be reduced to a single cause. We are all complex beings, all of us, and it belittles the significance of philanthropy to try to reduce any individual’s giving to only one rationale.

However, when we work with funders and foundations, all of these reasons do come into play – not in whether to give but in making decisions where and how to give. When giving itself is no longer the question, knowing what will prove gratifying is. Sometimes that will determine recipients; more often it will determine how a grant or gift or contract is structured, what intended outcomes are to be, and what relationship a funder or foundation wishes to have with recipients of their funds.

In this context, self-awareness matters a lot, especially if there are family or board decisions. Knowing why one is drawn to or is averse to a particular request may have nothing to do with the legitimacy of the request or even how compelling it is, but everything to do with whether that proposal will align with our giving culture or style. And that culture or style is very much influenced by underlying values and attitudes toward the proper role of philanthropy or government, what we think is the essential nature of human beings, one’s relationship to peer groups, and more. None of these is necessarily more legitimate than another, but knowing what comprises our own drivers, and understanding the complex motivations of those around our giving table may make all the difference in how we end up feeling about the funding decisions we make.

And, as clients and students of ours can attest, that applies whether our giving reflects New Year’s Eve procrastination or New Year strategies.

Some Thoughts on Work in the NFP/NGO Sector- A Funder Perspective

December 29th, 2016

Richard Marker

This post is longer than most. It was precipitated by the convergence of two related recent events: The rebranding of “Talent Philanthropy” into “Fund the People” and a conversation with a highly respected professional who works as an executive in the not-for-profit sector. This affords me an opportunity to compile a series of thoughts and an overview of an issue that matters to the philanthropy sector. [Some of the content has appeared over the years in previous posts; much hasn’t.]

As many of you know, for a good chunk of my career, I was an employee of not-for-profit organizations. Admittedly, I was fortunate – my own roles were always at the professional and executive level and, while I was certainly paid substantially less than most of my peers, I never saw myself as a “communal servant.” Indeed, just the opposite – I was working in a professional capacity for the kinds of organizations that allowed me to do work I wanted to do in settings in which I wanted to be.

Don’t misunderstand, the pay differential hurt. Financially, they were challenging years. But most of the time, I didn’t feel that I was a part of a class system that looked down on me. In retrospect, I am quite sure that there were two factors that let my self-image be at odds with my financial reality. One, I came from an elite type background, so even if the resources that defined my upbringing were not mine, my identity had been set. Two, very few people thought they could do what I did. It meant that board members never looked at my work and said “I can do it better.” It led to mostly healthy volunteer-professional partnerships during that part of my working life.

Having said that, I don’t want to dismiss or belittle the all too frequent under-respect and under-recognition toward many who are in this sector. Over the years, I myself have felt it. Was it an insult or a compliment when friends and acquaintances would say “You’re a smart guy; why are you working for a non-profit?” Or isn’t it patronizing when asked: “You work for a non-profit; why do you work so hard? [When I was in that sector, I regularly worked from 6 AM until after 7 PM every day]. And there were others.

Over the last 20+ years, when I have been on the funder side of the table, I have witnessed too many structural inequities that perpetuate an often unhealthy state of affairs that directly impacts one of the largest sectors in the US economy. So, despite the welcome attention that “Fund the People” has brought to the table, it still needs attention.

It would be unhelpful to deny that in much of the world, there remains an implicit caste or class system in the field – if not for all, certainly for too many. Some of this is the result of a culture that confuses non-profit work with a vow of poverty. Too often one still hears the counterproductive assumption that a choice to work in the NFP/NGO world by definition means that one has chosen to accept a marginal salary, perhaps okay for a summer internship or a first job, but certainly not a preferred career path. It is a destructive confusion that just because a non-profit depends on voluntarism, so the employees should see their salaries as an extension of voluntary good will and not as hard earned and well deserved professional compensation. [I will speak to “budget balancing” later.]

There are a number of interesting causes of these perceptions, about which much has been written elsewhere. One element rarely discussed is who is likely to be a volunteer leader in the sector. Let’s face it, volunteer leaders are often those at the top of the financial pyramid. Those who work in the sector, therefore, are not typically interfacing with their economic peers. Right or wrong, those with substantial means understand that their leadership has come with a price-tag, and those who work in the sector often see themselves or are even told to see themselves as working FOR those who are paying the organization’s bills [as opposed to working FOR a cause or organization]. It is far too easy to see the funder and volunteer leader as always right. [If you want to see a relatively benign example of the derivative “power” of a funder, be a fly on the wall when a funder is coming to visit a non-profit office. You may be sure that a notice will be sent around reminding staff to clean their desks, dress appropriately, and be on good behavior.]

In fairness, since I have advised and taught many hundreds of philanthropists and foundation professionals over the last 17 years, I can attest that most funders are not even fully aware of this informal exercise of their power and, when it is pointed out, are quite open to and even prefer a less power-laden relationship.

Before addressing some strategies and tactics to redress some of this, I want to emphasize how internalized this is for many who work in the sector. A couple of examples: in my last position on the non-profit side, I had executive roles in the USA and in other countries. It meant a lot of travel. While my expenses were not borne by the places I visited, I depended on those on the ground to make hotel reservations for me. In some few places, I was very pleasantly surprised, but in many more, I was shocked at the low level of accommodations provided. These were often either very low level hotels or student hostels. I quickly came to realize that those who were making the reservations were simply projecting what they might afford and assumed that it was the norm. Very telling.

Similarly, at one point, over 20+ years ago, I served as elected Vice President [volunteer] of an international association. The name was “…. Of Communal Service.” When I realized that for too many the words implied “communal servants”, I proposed changing the name to “…. Of Communal Professionals.” The change was rejected since it was far too great a leap for many who had spent their careers internalizing their “service” status. [There is much more to be said about this example than is possible in this post.]

The final example is one to which I alluded in the first paragraph. [Out of respect for the anonymity of this very respected and successful professional, I will purposely blur the details and simplify the case.] This professional sits on the board of an organization. That board has decided to honor the founder and chose to set up a one-time board appeal to help fund the event. There was no specified amount and there was, not surprisingly, a range of gifts. The only person who raised a question about participating was a professional in the non-profit world. The issue was not how much the person chose to give, as much as wanting to make it clear that this person should be viewed differently from other board members and perhaps shouldn’t have been solicited. As far as I can tell, this person has never been treated differently from every other board member, but his/her self-perception was otherwise.

These examples are certainly not intended to “blame the victim” as much as to show how far we have to go to re-align things. Below are several ways that have had a positive impact over the years. Some speak to sector wide opportunities; others address the distinctive roles that we funders have. The list is far from fully comprehensive, but might stimulate additional thinking among all who are entrusted with leadership of the NFP/NGO sector around the world. Readers are encouraged to add to this list.

1. Budgeting: Non-profits adapt their budgets and priorities to the questions funders ask. All too often, funders ask a legitimate but ultimately insufficient question. Looking at the budget of an organization we fund, we may ask if there are ways in which the budget can be balanced at a lower level. Since personnel is almost always the largest budget line by far, there is really only one place to hold the line or make cuts. So, benefits, or conferences or salaries may be curtailed. But that isn’t the only way we funders can ask the questions about the budget: since personnel is the essence of what most nfp’s, why not first ask about personnel policies or staff training or retention or career opportunities? If organizations perceive that this matters to funders, it won’t take very long for those same organizations to organize their budgets and staffing to show that they take these issues seriously. Surely, discussion of retention, recruitment, training, advancement opportunity are all relevant to the strength of an organization, and are best addressed when not hidden behind a “balance the budget” starting point.

2. Compensation: Similarly, in the USA, the 990 non-profit tax return asks for compensation information but only about the highest paid employees. All well and good and potentially a source for some constructive conversation. But what if we were to have information about the lowest paid employees as well? Just think about what the conversation would be if a non-profit were expected to address the imbalance or, perhaps, a pattern of abysmally low salaries at the bottom. Most funders, I suspect, would want to work closely with our grantees to redress this imbalance.

3. Roles: The NFP/NGO sector is large and diverse. When I was a CEO, I would encourage all professional staff to seek a board position in a different non-profit from ours. While their first response was to say that they couldn’t afford it, it didn’t take long for them to discover that there are many smaller local non-profits that are thrilled to have someone with the experience or expertise of a seasoned professional on their boards. In many cases, financial board contributions are manageable or negotiable. The results were consistently positive: the professionals became much better partners with their own volunteers, they learned how respected their knowledge was in the field, they developed more constructive approaches to development and fundraising, and learned how to present their work more persuasively – understanding what it means to those whose role it is to govern and advocate.

4. Transiency within and between sectors: Since I began my professional work, I have had 5 careers; for those my age that is a lot but I have read that younger people anticipate having 7. When I was an executive, I always assumed that everyone was, in some way, thinking about what was next on his or her own career journey. I know that I was. The idea that anyone looking for her/his next job or professional challenge is disloyal seemed both ridiculous and counter-productive. Therefore, I would help every professional who reported to me to update his or her resume every year. You may ask – aren’t you giving the wrong message? My response was that I would rather work with my professional colleagues on their career planning than have them do so in secret. Moreover, more often than you may think, as the CEO, I was in a position to address their evolving interests or their boredom with a part of their job descriptions. Many would choose to remain longer than they might have otherwise.

And what if they chose to leave? The next place they landed would have a satisfied, empowered employee who would be enhancing that organization, the field and the sector. And presumably, we earned a positive reputation so that people would want to work for us and we would have great choices when it came time to replace them. Not a bad dynamic.

It is also important, and I think a positive, development, that not only do people change jobs in their working life, but shift between sectors. If we work hard to structure learning, respect what various sectors offer, including the non-profit sector, the entire workplace benefits. I don’t want to idealize this transiency or the transportability of skills, but I do believe that if we view these as opportunities there is much to be gained by both individuals in their own careers and by employers who now have workers with overlapping skill sets but very different perspectives on how it all fits together. Seems like a recipe for a culture of innovation.

5. Funding: Funders need to remember that grantmaking is a problem-solving exercise, not a negotiation. We need to make it safe for those who seek or receive our funds to feel free to tell us the truth. And those who do receive or hope to receive funds need to learn how to say “no” if the funds offered are insufficient to do the desired work or would take their organization down a donor-driven cul-de-sac.

There is still a lot of remediation necessary on both sides to accomplish this. Seekers of funds have had a long experience of feeling the need to sugar coat the real challenges before them, or to create padded budgets in anticipation of automatic discounting of their requests. And, despite several years of urging funders to welcome failure, if we as funders are honest with ourselves, it is still a challenge for our grantees to do so safely and with impunity.

Part of this remediation requires that both funders and recipient organizations acknowledge the full range of professional competencies necessary to succeed. That may involve recognizing credentials, salary levels, accessibility – or not – of those with specialized knowledge. Often a project or program can only succeed with such a staff person, and to downplay the necessary training and support to get there may well ensure avoidable mediocrity. Under any circumstances, though, if a staff person of a NFP/NGO sees that her/his employer has the institutional ego-strength to be willing to say “no” to a funder, it makes it easier to behave as a professional partner with volunteer leaders.

In recent years, many of us have written about the need to provide adequate infrastructure support for any organization to succeed over time. More recently, in the funding world, there has been a welcome recognition that time-restricted or short-term funding has a related limitation. To be sure, there are occasional special programs that require single time funding. But most efforts to address real stakeholder needs or societal problems are not “quick and dirty.” They are complex, involve moving targets, and need ramp up time to work and adjust, and even longer to measure what is and isn’t working. [To take but one real case of what not to do, a foundation funded a volunteer afterschool program for teenagers. After only 6 months, deciding whether to renew the grant, they wanted “evidence” how this program had changed the teens’ lives. Sadly, while a bit extreme, this is not as unique as one would hope. Funder colleagues, take note.]

Shaping a funding package should be a collaborative effort. Once a funder has decided that something is to be funded is when the work should begin in earnest. Of course we funders have agendas, but without collaboration our agendas may not be real or realizable. If we want a project to outlive our funding, the structure of our funding should enable the non-profit to address that from the very beginning. If we will want an independent evaluation at the end of a project, bringing in an evaluator at the beginning will ensure that appropriate and relevant data is being collected and that the staff who are implementing the project help articulate what and how that can work, and what information is most useful.

6. Staff-Board-Funder Collaboration: All too often, organizations assume that information is gathered by only one of the players. Most often a staff person is asked to prepare a report that is presented to a committee and then to the board and then subsequently submitted to a funder. Or, on occasion, the process may begin with a board member who has heard of new approaches or of a successful new initiative by a competitor. At each stage, there are assumptions and biases that inform not only what is said but, more importantly, what is heard. When there are “teams” representing all of the key decision makers who do site visits together, or jointly review information, more complete and thoughtful information is gathered. For example, if one wants to understand the “competition,” a joint staff-board-funder team is likely to return with a far more nuanced understanding that addresses needed adaptations and changes. This is particularly true if an organization has been doing things a certain way for a long time and there are entrenched opinions that need to be challenged. Or when an organization is going through a periodic strategic review, the more stakeholders who review the same information and data together, the better. Or when a field of service is evolving, team attendance at a conference is more likely to yield an understanding of the newer concepts and their implications.

This team approach reinforces a constructive partnership between staff and board, reduces defensiveness, and will usually lead to better decision making.

7. Mainstreaming support for staff development. It is great to see the recognition that “Fund the People” has been receiving. It has brought much needed attention to lacunae in the NFP/NGO sector. I do, though, have a concern. The solutions cannot be perceived to be one time corrective grants or special project funds for conferences and staff training. If the issues are systemic, the fix must be as well. When staff training is a “soft money” benefit, it will disappear when the grant does, or when the next fad hits. To guarantee that we eliminate the caste system, that we recognize professionalism, and that we see all of this as essential to a thriving sector, budgets must build this support in as essential and core; board leaders need to learn to adjust their thinking to what it means to have professional partners in the organizations they lead; and we funders must make sure that our decisions and behaviors reinforce the kinds of policies and behaviors that strengthen our hands, and the hands of our grantees, in addressing the systemic challenges of our times. These times require no less.