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#269 Philanthropy’s Role When Facts Don’t Matter

May 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

You may think that this will be another politically motivated post, but it isn’t, although some extrapolation to that arena will not be hard to find.

It is motivated by a recent conversation with a well-educated and successful person that left me a bit aghast. To protect the identity, and frankly to avoid an extraneous discussion, I will provide no additional info on the person or the topic. Suffice it to say that it was a subject about which I have a good deal of knowledge and the other person had only opinion. While there is room for some interpretation about this subject, the essential facts were and are clear. But the person with whom I was speaking dismissed those facts as wrong, for no other reason than his/her opinion differed. There were no alternative facts offered, simply that I am wrong.

I confess that I was on the verge of losing my cool but another person present intervened and insisted we change the subject. I have lost a good deal of respect for this other person but concur that there is little to be gained by re-opening the subject – ever.

In the case of that discussion, there isn’t that much at stake for the world at large. But over the last year, we have seen and many of us have participated in conversations like that where much is at stake. For example, whether or not you like HRC or supported her candidacy, the overt and outrageous lies spread about her were unconscionable. And as in the previous case, when presented with demonstrable facts to the contrary, often dismissed as “well, that is your opinion.”

A more frightening and far reaching issue has to do with environmental concerns of climate change and human responsibility to address them. Every individual has the right to choose his or her own truths, and, within limits, can choose to live within them. But not when those “truths” are counter to facts, and those personal “truths” are a danger to us all. For whatever the motivations, there are those who not only dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus as “opinion” but actively lobby for public policies that are harmful to us and to the world at large. That is not hyperbole and it should not be political.

This little sampling is reflective of a genuine dilemma of these early decades of this century. How one educates, how one legislates, and how one governs, and how one adjudicates are all at stake. Deep seated cynicism about whether institutions, any institutions, really care about people; skepticism about what is said by anyone in a time when self-selected media choices reinforce the anarchy of available information; an unmistakable erosion of civil discourse, and respect for the other reflecting a destructive dystopian world view, and more.

Sadly, I am sure that every reader is more than able to add an ample litany of real life examples. The question is what to do about it.

The stakes are high. The stakes are political to be sure, but not only political. They reflect very deep seated challenges to the state of knowledge, and civility.

It is not a matter of simple education about facts. Whatever one thinks of the current president, his supporters voted for him and many continue to support him despite facts that historically would have rendered political leaders in the USA unfit.

Should we yield and say that we are in a post-fact era, that all truth is relative, and admit to parallel universes within which we find our own support if not comfort? While that approach would work in my personal example above, it hardly suffices when policies and decisions need be made that impact all of us.

One of philanthropy’s privileges is advocacy. Without getting into the nuanced legal differences between advocacy and lobbying, there is no dispute that advocacy for ideas is legal and legitimate. How does one do that, though, when the classic ways of doing so have been to emphasize facts: facts about health care, education, racism, food insecurity, equal access, and much more that used to make clear which policies are more credible and actionable. But what do we do when those very facts are dismissed as opinion, not convenient to an alternative truth?

It seems that there are several mutually inclusive roles for philanthropy in the face of a cynical universe- all of which emerge authentically from our historic and ascribed roles, though none is a panacea in our current reality:

1. We must continue to be society’s risk capital. Only by doing so do we create viable and demonstrable facts on the ground so that when political ethos allows, there will be evidence-based solutions.
2. We must continue to advocate. We must learn to do so in less than friendly media, in modes that are not easy for us. To speak to our friends and fellow travelers can be restorative, but not transformative. If we are to change minds and save lives, we must learn how to communicate with our foes. Philanthropy can provide some of the resources and settings to do that.
3. We must support pedagogy that teaches how to mediate among the anarchy of information. It is shocking how few are taught how to identify “fake news”, to sift through the name calling on social media, to know that one’s personal truth may be ok for you but they don’t become actionable facts, that a civil society must have parameters of acceptable discourse, behavior, and accountability, to know that civil liberties are not the whim of a given political moment but guarantees to all – including to those with views unpopular to the party in charge. And more.
4. We must align our investment strategies with our funding priorities so that all of our resources are directed to public good.
5. We must find partners to provide support to fragile organizations and vulnerable people during a time when continuing removal of such support seems to be politically expedient.
6. We must be the independent beacons of hope in a time of dystopian darkness.

Philanthropy alone cannot restore reason or civility, but we can be the constant and consistent presence that sustains its possibility for the time when it again will define us. And such a time will surely come again.

#268 Can One be a Truly Independent Advisor/Consultant and an Outspoken Advocate at the Same Time?

May 19th, 2017

Richard Marker

#268 Can one be a truly independent advisor/consultant and an outspoken advocate at the same time?

Someone asked me that question this week. They noted that I am far from reluctant to express my political positions on Facebook, Twitter, and even here, and at the same time, as a philanthropy advisor, pride myself on my independence. S/he went to on to ask the derivative question? If I can comfortably advise funders without imposing my own politics, why couldn’t I do fundraising for one organization while I am advising a funder of another? If I insist on the perception of independence in one, why not the other?

Two fair questions: Let me respond to them in reverse order.

Why I won’t do fundraising?

The easy answer is that I don’t know how. Fundraising isn’t my expertise and I don’t take any professional contracts in areas I consider beyond my expertise.

The less easy answer: I consider that it crosses a philanthro-ethics line. For me, [but, I recognize, not for everyone in our field] I don’t see how one can be paid to advise funders and at the same time be paid to raise money for organizations that want their money. Funders wants to be confident that my responses to their priorities, questions and decision-making are never self-serving. The minute I am paid to raise money, that question is inevitable. And even recusal is a problem because it means that the funder is getting less of me than he/she has a right to expect. Since I don’t raise money, I cannot speak from experience but I suspect an organization paying a development consultant would want to know that the consultant is prepared to open doors to any funder with potential interest.

That answer might not be persuasive to everyone, and as I acknowledge above, there are many honest and trustworthy consultants who feel no professional ethical conflict in having clients on both sides of the table.

Of course, then, how do I answer the presenting question of this post – how do I articulate political convictions and at the same time serve as an independent advisor to clients?

First, my political positions are unequivocally my own. I am not paid to say them and I don’t work for any organization. Anyone who pretends not to have a political position is either fooling him or herself, or trying to fool others, well-meaning though they may be. In the present environment, I feel that there is a mandate to articulate and advocate for things one believes in.

Secondly, I have had a good deal of experience differentiating what is opinion with what isn’t. Two of my proudest moments as a public speaker on philanthropy underscored that: in one case, the ED of an organization that invited me to give a major talk told me that an attendee said, “I don’t agree with his politics but I could listen to him all day long.” In another similar situation several years later, an attendee said, “I could do without his political positions, but when is he speaking again? – I would love to sign up!” It is awfully difficult to be a speaker on the topic of the intersection of public policy and private philanthropy without some personal perspective seeping in.

Thirdly, when I work with funders, especially families, it is inevitable that diverse opinions emerge, sometimes about politics, sometimes about succession, sometimes about the direction of how to run the foundation, and more. I agree with some more than others. But I wouldn’t be very successful for very long if I led the discussion with an articulation of my own personal points of view rather than helping the family or foundation come to conclusions that will work for them long after I walk out the door.

I suspect that not everyone is persuaded by my answers to either of the questions. More to the point, as I said above, many first-rate professionals find no ethical challenge following different practices. Even though I adhere to a policy of an impenetrable wall between those who want money and those who give it, many firms feel that their own self-discipline, and disclosure to clients obviates the challenge.

As for the other question: It is gratifying that many have applauded my outspoken stances these past months. Some have commented that, even knowing me for many years, they never realized I felt so strongly. At the same time, some have criticized me for that very outspokenness. If they have said that to me, I am quite sure that, for others, I have rendered myself out of the running for some valuable speaking invitations or advisory contracts. So be it; it is the literal price to pay. The times and the challenges facing our nation and the world do not allow for silence. I do hope that my voice is raised responsibly, and words used for good, and that they add to a constructive public discourse.

After all, what is philanthropy for if not to make our world safer and saner – even if doing so doesn’t please everyone?

#267 Airline Travesty, Health Care Tragedy, Philanthropy Advocacy

May 15th, 2017

Richard Marker

You will notice that this post has a number before the title. In order to make it easier to find them, all posts will now have an identifying number reflecting the order in which they have been published. This is the 267th in the Wise Philanthropy blog series.

Rarely has it been so difficult for those of us who comment on philanthropy matters to catch our breath. After all, public policy issues that impact philanthropy, public trust and public well-being are unfolding at a whiplash pace. And, at the same time, philanthropy practice, grantmaking decisions, and support for those who deliver services need to go on regardless of the whirlwind. In this post, I will comment on the larger mandate that drives our field; I will return to our “practice” in subsequent posts.

The mounting numbers of incidents on airlines are, in many ways, a metaphor for our current state of national mental health. Riding on an airplane requires a lot of people to behave in predictable ways. Cooped up in a cabin, often for many hours, we are a transient community fully dependent on civility and mutual acceptance. There are rules and roles – and they have an impact on all of us. We all know that we must suspend our autonomy and some range of choices for the duration. Our very lives depend on it.

Objectively, we all know this. Why then the surge of behaviors that have created chaos in the air, on the ground, among passengers and among crew? What is going on?

The answers tell us a lot about larger issues that we all need to be addressing today:

1. When the profit motive encourages airlines to cram as many people as possible into seats with too little space, it depersonalizes and antagonizes – among both passengers and crew.
2. The divide between the haves [i.e. first class] and the have-nots [everyone else] is very evident. Especially on transcontinental and on international flights, the haves have mini-suites with beds, champagne, real dishes, restricted restrooms and more. Some airlines provide pajamas. These luxuries are visible to all including those who are cramped in the rear. [I am not trying to be superior – I admit to having been a frequent beneficiary of these luxuries]. But, as in society as a whole, the divide is more stark and more striking than ever before.
3. The nickel and dime-ing business model only builds resentment. An advertised price is only a base price as change fees, wait list fees, seating fees, baggage fees, and who knows what other fees, can radically increase the costs of any flight. Late night humorists have mocked these practices, but, that cannot mask the sense of resentment many travelers feel.

How is this a metaphor? If citizens feel that their options are limited, that their relative worth is diminished, that their part of the contract is being discounted by new costs beyond their control, the fragile compact that holds us together becomes unraveled. Fellow travelers are competitors for limited space; crew become representative of a heartless power structure that dehumanizes; our financial standing sits in more and more uncomfortable spaces. And privatization means that entire communities are no longer served by any public transportation.

What if the airlines were to go back to a time when they were public utilities and not merely money machines? It would lead to all sorts of changes when they have a responsibility to treat all with dignity and not impecunity. And, let us remember, that was possible because we had a government that believed that access to travel should be as universal as possible and the conditions surrounding them needed to be sensitive to the human experience, and subject to serious oversight.

Which, in turn, brings us to the current disastrous and tragic congressional proposal for a health care system guaranteed to bring financial ruin to and challenge the health care of millions. What cynicism! What misanthropy!

This is not the place to unpack or reiterate the many words already devoted to that evidently flawed plan. It is clear, though, that the authors, and half of congress, have bought into the same mentality that privatized the airline industry, no matter what the cost is to the public. Sure there are some short term advantages for a very few, but long term disadvantages to the most vulnerable and many others.

Objective analysts have concluded that a single payer option would work best for almost everyone, would reduce costs for most, and need not mandate the public health system so feared and maligned. But that isn’t going to happen very quickly in the United States in 2017. Which means that there needs to be an alternative system that starts with human needs and relative affordability. [Yes, we know that was the goal of the Affordability Care Act and that helped many millions. And, yes, we know that there were still some gaps that needed to be closed.] Any alternative system that starts with the premise of asking how little to cover rather than how to provide a rational, just, and accessible system for all is simply putting us all in that metaphoric closed container in the sky. Those who can afford the champagne in the front won’t feel too much of the pressure. The rest will wonder why it is so crowded and unfriendly back there.

A society is measured by how it cares for its most vulnerable, not by how low its taxes can go. Our current public transportation systems and our health care systems are a reflection of our values and priorities.

Which brings us to philanthropy advocacy. Yes, this is our time. This is the time when our independence, our ability to take risks, our commitment to those without a voice, our manifest compassion, and our understanding of systemic fixes matter. A lot.

We know that a society that perpetuates economic inequity, that punishes the vulnerable, that perpetuates, even institutionalizes, disenfranchisement, is fragile. Very fragile. We know that the anger and resentment and anomie and hopelessness that such disempowerment bring about can only lead to the unraveling of behavior in the public square and in private space. We know that there will be prices to pay, and lives to be lost.

No, we in philanthropy cannot solve these matters alone; they are too systemic and require inter-sector responses. But we can take the lead.

These are not normal times and the body politic and the public weal are very fragile. Our voices, our advocacy, and our passions are required, now more than ever before.

#266 Intersectionality…and Other Jargon in the Philanthropy Sector – Updated

March 29th, 2017

Richard Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

When is Righteous Indignation Right?

March 25th, 2017

Richard Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 20th, 2017

Richard Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sobering Takeaway from the WINGS Forum, Mexico City

March 5th, 2017

Richard Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Philanthropy’s Role Now?

February 9th, 2017

Richard Marker

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

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

What follows are a few thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transparency and Tax Exemption for Religious Institutions in the USA

February 3rd, 2017

Richard Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facts, Truth, and Myth

January 22nd, 2017

Richard Marker

Yes, reader, another politically oriented post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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