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#313 Bottom Up or Top Down: Which is the Better Route to “Change”?

June 21st, 2018

Richard Marker

Readers of the previous post know that we recently spent a few days at an extraordinary Symposium in Greece addressing climate change and the resultant refugee crisis. It was remarkable for many reasons: for but one example, it was the only conference we have ever attended that included two islands plus the mainland. But much more important was the unique combination of participants. Some were world renowned environmentalists or economists or religious leaders or scientists or community leaders. Others have made their mark more locally.
This kind of combination had the intended result of a unique symbiosis of learning, methodologies, and world views. What I found most intriguing was a fascinating divide about what we must do about the profound existential [no exaggeration] crisis the world finds itself in. Among this group, as I reported in #312, there were no deniers, even if not everyone agreed about exactly how precipitous our situation. None, though, argued that it was anything less than urgent.
The scientists painted a universally sobering view of what seems already irreversible, and what may yet await the world if we don’t act immediately. None of the participants disagreed that all changes need to ignore borders, require domestic and international governmental cooperation at a mega scale, mandate systemic solutions, and anticipate radical implications to the social weal around the world.

The real divide, it emerged, was not about the analysis but how we effect change. There was one group whose approach [depending on the vocabulary of the various disciplines] is to start with the individual and extrapolate from there. On the assumption that if you don’t change yourself, you can never change anyone else, there were intense discussions about veganism, the ethics of commercial air travel, how to establish an ethos built on love and embrace of the other, and other micro-behaviors. Some of the participants publicly committed to, and even advocated, coming as close to fossil fuel and animal products free as they humanly could. They acknowledged the social and family implications as the price to pay for modeling a commitment to save the planet. [As people who don’t and won’t own a car by choice or live anywhere where we would have to have one, we are aware that some consider these kinds of personal choices to be quirky or even extreme.] There is certainly legitimate social science evidence that there is merit in focusing on the personal and individual. Rarely do people get involved in policy change if they cannot understand how it is manifest in their own daily lives. But to paraphrase a well-known aphorism, the attempt to be pure [perfect] can be the enemy of the good. It is almost impossible and not always the most ethical thing to do. For example, there are societies in parts of the world, such as above the arctic circle, where if one eliminated meat, people would simply starve. Moreover, one needs to be culturally sensitive to those in newly developed societies who wonder why they should be the ones expected to surrender their newly earned symbols of affluence.
By all means, social change cannot exist in the abstract. Change only happens when a critical mass of people adopts it. None disputed that individual behaviors writ large matter.
But, many others argued, persuasively in my view, that we no longer have time for a purely bottom up approach. Social movements and community organizing matter, but they take time, and we don’t have it. The only way to limit environmental degradation is by radical and transformative action on a global scale. And that cannot be accomplished one person at a time. Public policy, massive re-alignment of our infrastructure and transportation choices, an economic recognition of the indispensable nature of ESG measures of corporate behavior are the only ways in which the world has a marginal chance of limiting the extremes that are on the not distant horizon.
In our field, the philanthropy sector, it is clear that this latter message has gotten through. [No, the environment is not everyone’s priority, but almost all funders now acknowledge that our work mandates attention to public policy regardless of our funding priorities.] Rarely a day goes by without an email notice of another philanthropy affinity group or association or law firm announcing a webinar or course about advocacy. Some of these focus on legal limitations or the elasticity of advocacy approaches, some on how one can effectively use non-financial resources to influence change, some on addressing the inevitable question of how to evaluate successful advocacy projects. And the centrality of advocacy and lobbying are a decisive important advantage of the newly popular LLC model over classic philanthropy ones.
Make no mistake: as a long term philanthropoid, the new attention to advocacy is not the norm. In fact, not long ago, we used to have to persuade our students, clients, colleagues that they should consider expanding our footprint by funding advocacy, or endorsing our convening role to do so if we are serious about effecting the kinds of changes we believe in. [In my teaching of American funders, I try to show that our very system of voluntarism is in response to a certain type of public policy toward our citizens, and when I speak to international groups I show that their own systems reflect a system of government policies that have a very different understanding of who has what responsibility. In both cases, it is often a wake-up call to their own silo-ed thinking about their own philanthropic behavior.]

The question, though, for our sector is our own sustaining commitment to profound change. We are notoriously time limited in our funding; we have a tendency to shrink from a perceived political spotlight; we talk a better game than we walk in collaborations and partnerships; and we certainly have never fully resolved what level of accountability we should have in our decision making. Yet as we have written about in prior opinion pieces on the pursuit of “equity”, this is not a normal time for the political world, for the earth, and for addressing systemic challenges. If there is even the shred of truth to the implications of the conference we attended, we have no choice if we are to be true to why we exist as a sector.

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