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#393 Why Transparency and Conflict of Interest Matter so much in Philanthropy

October 6th, 2020

Richard Marker

Yes, I will get to the philanthropy part in a bit, but first….

On Friday morning, I awakened to the news that the POTUS and his wife both had tested positive for the Coronavirus. As many of you know, I am not among the great sleepers, so I learned this information at 4 am. At the time, in response to some social networking posts, I predicted that by noon on Friday, there would be a slew of conspiracy theories surrounding this announcement.

I was wrong. It didn’t take that long. In fact, by breakfast time, I had already begun to see skeptics on both sides. Some of the theories were so far-fetched that they could only come from truly skewered perceptions of the world – or perhaps Russia. But others were unlikely but almost credible. Was this a staged event? If so, what was the intended scenario?

The President’s own physician, as we all saw, didn’t help matters since his Saturday update was itself not credible, or lacking in enough detail to be considered so. What was not being said? The reported timeline was, on its surface, impossible. The answers to questions were evasive and filled with lacunae. And when it was made clear to the public that the POTUS had to approve all public statements about his own medical condition, those missing pieces and inconsistencies took on even greater weight. Why should these reports be any more true or reliable than the hundreds upon hundreds of distortions of fact and outright dishonesty that have characterized the entire period of this presidency?

Is it any wonder that skeptics and conspiracy theorists and cultists all believe that we don’t yet know the full story – or that they do know the full story but the rest of us don’t? [For the moment, assuming that he does have “the Virus”, we cannot yet know the full story since the disease needs time to play out – even in the most normal of courses.] When the absence of transparency is the norm, when obfuscation is the practice of choice, and when information becomes weaponized, even those who might start with a sympathetic benefit of the doubt find themselves “just wondering.” Even if one grants that what and how to share personal information in an unfolding medical situation is not always easy, especially in a politically charged moment, the history of the absence of transparency makes everyone a bit dubious.

Well, as I said above, this piece is about philanthropy, not politics. So…

Those of us on the giving side of philanthropy are challenged with similar decisions in our own work. Rarely are those decisions as internationally momentous or as existentially portentous as the information on the medical status of the POTUS, but they do matter. Our choices can sometimes mark the life or death of organizations; more often they do have a direct impact on their health and sustainability. Those funding decisions can shape the social, ethnic, artistic, or educational landscape in profound and defining ways. And while philanthropic dollars alone cannot [and should not] sustain the entire not-for-profit and public-benefit sector or any subset of it, our dollars do define it and influence it. A lot depends on us.

Credibility, therefore, matters. Our credibility matters a lot. Grant seekers want to know what the rules are. Is the process fair or rigged? Do you have to know someone? Can they tell the whole truth about their organization or must a rosier-than-thou picture be presented? They know that somehow a decision will be made that has an impact, and rarely do they know how.

Yes, the funding world is more than a bit inscrutable. Competitive grantmaking is filled with uncertainty for those who seek funds. Unless a grant is defined by entitlement [i.e., if you meet certain criteria, you are guaranteed funds], a very rare condition indeed, every submission is being measure against a series of criteria, some of which are pre-defined, others of which are subjective.

Having been inside lots of those funding rooms, I can attest to the subjective nature of many decisions. But not for the reasons you may think. Most funders and foundations really do want to make good decisions, informed decisions, constructive decisions. We are human so there is no denying that we bring some of our attitudes and assumptions to any decision, but even allowing for that there is a subjective uncertainty. The reason, of course, is that we fund the future. Even with the most evidence-based choice, the best one can do is acknowledge the odds and the risks. As a proof-text: How many funders who made decisions about what to fund at their December 2019 board meetings got it right about what would happen to their grantees in March 2020?

What we owe the not-for-profit/public benefit field is that they can trust the process and that the decisions aren’t phony. Grantees may be disappointed and wish that they knew why they weren’t chosen. It isn’t always easy to say – any of us who have been faced with large dockets know that sometimes there isn’t a good reason. A whole bunch of proposals may have equal merit, but one has to be selected. That doesn’t mean the ones not selected were less worthy or tragically flawed. Try to tell a disappointed almost grantee that there really wasn’t anything to learn, it was just someone else’s day. Even if true, it won’t make them sleep any better.

In order for the system to work, non-profits have a legitimate expectation to know what our process is, and to be able to look at our decisions and feel that we, the funders, have been true to that process.

But for that process to work, we as funders also need to rely on genuine information from nonprofits. It is not only that insufficient information or inappropriate hyperbole may distort our decisions, but it will make it that much harder to really understand what interventions and solutions will accomplish what we both want. Transparency must go both ways. As one who has been in the philanthropy field for a very long time I can certainly give examples of willful dishonesty by those who have received or desired to receive grants, but those examples represent a very small percentage of the field. For most, if there is an insufficiency of information, or a far too optimistic articulation of capacity, it is well-intended and based on an uncertainty how to tell their story.

The burden to make openness possible is on us as funders. We need to create the environment of trust and honesty. We need to make clear that we really do need to learn from those who actually do the work we think needs to be done, and we really do need to understand what challenges, financial and otherwise, might keep that from happening.

That is why transparency of our process is indispensable.

Which brings me to conflict of interest. This is one of the most misunderstood areas on the not-for-profit landscape. Conflict of interest is not the same as self-dealing or self-inurement. Those are illegal so that is that. But in this sector, conflict of interest is an ethical question. It acknowledges that in the real-world people have competing claims of loyalty. Some of those competing loyalties may be de minimus; others may be substantial. We must reveal those competing claims, and then our boards must make an a priori judgement about what circumstances would be problematic. Sitting on a board of a foundation and also of an organization that has applied for funds in a competitive process pretty much demands recusal, at least. Sitting on the board of a foundation and also a local agency that has received funding every year for 25 years may be ok. As funders we need to take the appropriate action so that there is no possible misperception about how those competing loyalties play out when the funding docket is on the table. Organizations asking for funds have a right to know that we are aware of and addressing those conflicts – before any funding decisions are made. That is how trust is built.

For those of us in the funding world, the months since March have been a wake-up call to us about how much of what we “normally” have done has been to meet our own interests, needs, and priorities as much about those who are asked to deliver on those priorities. The vast majority of us have always been well intentioned and thoughtful but we learned that too often we hadn’t been listening to the real vulnerabilities of our grantees and their communities. All too often our processes have been needlessly opaque and byzantine – far from transparent. All too often those who make the decisions are inadvertently myopic, having an unintended conflict of interest. There may be legitimate disagreements about who should sit on what boards and who should make which decisions, but transparency and directness in acknowledging them will go a long way to sustain the viability and efficacy of our sector… especially at a time when the world needs to have confidence in us.

These are not easy matters to address as those who have undergone reviews by CEP or NCRP or participated in Trust Based Philanthropy programs or in our classes in philanthro-ethics can attest. But meaningful transparency is a sine qua non for long term success in our field.

And, let’s be honest, it would go a long way in the larger political world as well.

The Institute for Wise Philanthropy has been teaching and advising funders, foundations, and families throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world since 2002. We welcome your inquiries.

Interview with Beth Granger –

September 25th, 2020

Richard Marker

#392 When You Stop Learning, You Stop Knowing

August 17th, 2020

Richard Marker

It has happened in the past; it happened three times in the last 2 weeks: I had registered for a number of on-line networking and educational seminars. When a couple of the other participants, and in one case, a presenter, saw that I was participating, they asked me [in “chat” as we do these things these days]: “Why are you on this? Shouldn’t you be speaking/teaching this?”

A decade or more ago, after I had been an educator and speaker about philanthropy for a few years, I started hearing these questions when I would attend conferences where I wasn’t a speaker, or regional association and affinity group meetings as a member and not as a presenter. It is not up to me to decide if I am or was a thought leader in our field, but it was evident that many others thought of me that way.

This is flattering, to be sure, and I daresay, perhaps immodestly, that they were correct – I could easily have been a presenter in the recent sessions alluded to above, and quite often in comparable settings a decade ago. But just because I could have doesn’t mean that I was wasting my time – or theirs. I learned a long time ago that the minute you think you know everything is the minute you start to become irrelevant.

Different people have different learning styles. Speakers and educators have different presentation styles. Vocabulary [and jargon] change over time. Context matters. Underlying agendas are fluid. Just because one knows something doesn’t mean that one knows all there is to know. Even if I could easily have been a presenter in all of the sessions alluded to above, that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from each. I could pay attention to what other presenters emphasized, how they said what they did, what questions were posed in the “chat”. They made me consider whether their approach was more on target than mine would have been – or less. They made me consider whether some of my business model choices were on target, or seriously flawed.

Even more crucial than affect or style is the recognition that our field, any field, is constantly evolving. Sometimes those evolutions are simply “old wine in new bottles”, but other times there truly are transformative ideas that can profoundly impact one’s thinking. If one rests on one’s “expertise” laurels, it doesn’t take long for that expertise to become dated.

A good example that transcends the philanthropy world is social media. Many organizations originally thought that they would become au courante if they simply developed a website or had a Facebook page but made no other changes in the way they communicated or operated. The proverbial “old wine….” Others, though, recognized that social media is not simply a new marketing tool but a transformative mode of epistemology and human experience. We know now that some of that transformation has been very welcome and some of it quite destructive, but there is no doubt that our world is as different now as print media was to the masses 3 centuries ago.

Expertise, even when legitimately earned, can still be very limited. This is often true of those in the academic world. [I used to be one, so I am not exempt.] One example: Some of you may remember the short-lived L3C fad of some years ago. For those who don’t – it was a pre-B-Corps experiment, heralded as the solution to solving social challenges through a private sector structure. At the time, as part of the curriculum for a course I was teaching for “Advanced Funders”, I invited someone who was considered to have done the cutting-edge legal work on L3C’s to present. No doubt the presenter knew more about L3C’s than anyone – until the funders began to ask questions. What became clear was that this “expert” had NO contact or discussions with anyone who might implement them or include them in their philanthropic problem-solving strategy. I scratched my head wondering how this person could have written what was considered the definitive document without talking to anyone.

Expertise can also be deceptively insular. Examples of this abound in our world of funders. Those who have done very interesting work or developed suggestive new models are often asked to present at conferences and courses. Often [not always, of course] there is no doubt that the work is worth learning about, but the presenter has done so at only one foundation or organization. When asked to extrapolate how to apply it to other situations, perhaps where the resources were more limited or the intended scope was different, the presenter could only report what had been done in the single place. [You can tell, I hope, that I am being as general as possible to avoid naming names or giving identifiable examples. Suffice it to say that it is not a unique phenomenon.] This does not mean that the presenter did not have genuine expertise but the breadth to know how to apply it to other settings was lacking.

Let me be clear that it was not my inherent wisdom that has convinced me of the need to be a lifetime learner. Rather, I learned this being an educator of literally thousands of fellow funders in many countries for two decades – through our own Institute for Wise Philanthropy since 2002, at the now defunct NYU Academy for Funder Education, and at the prestigious high end UPenn Center for High Impact Philanthropy Funder Education program, has taught me that breadth without depth can be too shallow and depth without breadth can be too limiting. Parochialism is an easy trap and recognized unique expertise can be intoxicating. Both have their place in our ecosystem, and I fully respect those who make those choices. But, I have learned, not my choices.

So, the next time you see me on a Zoom seminar, or someday in the future sitting next to you in real physical space as a fellow attendee at a conference, know this: when you suggest that I could have been the chosen presenter, it will always flatter me, and you may well be correct. But that doesn’t mean that you and I are wasting our time. There is always more for us to learn, and I truly hope that I will never cease being a learner.

After all, the day one stops learning is the day one stops knowing.

#391 The Elusiveness of Excellence – We Funders are not Exempt

August 10th, 2020

Richard Marker

A couple of years ago, my accumulated professional careers crossed the half-century mark. Knowing of my untypical journey, a number of people asked if I was planning to write an autobiography. While I don’t believe a full autobiography is warranted, I have written a pamphlet-size retrospective built around lessons learned. It will be published sometime this Autumn.

While writing, I was reminded of a number of influential episodes, some of which are applicable to current developments in the philanthropy world. This is the second such article; you may find it helpful to read #390 prior to this. Others will be posted periodically.

In this article, the applicability to those of us in the philanthropy world comes toward the end.

It was not that many years ago when Jim Collins “Good to Great” and its follow up “Good to Great in the Social Sector” were on everyone’s canon of required reading. It may still be but if so, I am not hearing it spoken about. Primarily built on retrospective examinations of what seemed to characterize those companies [and, subsequently, nonprofits] that have excelled over time, Collins challenged some B-school orthodoxies, and reminded everyone that it takes disciplined work over time to achieve that greatness.

I suspect that the book is less celebrated today because the dozen or more years since its publication have not been particularly kind to all the winners of which he wrote. Now, it is quite true that it was published before the recession of 2008-2010, and certainly before the current upheavals in the economic and social sectors, but many of his lessons are still valid, and worth the read.

When I look at his books from the retrospective of my own career, I see a divergence between what I accomplished as an executive, and how those related to my own personal accomplishments. They are overlapping, but not the same.

Before proceeding with the extrapolations to our philanthropy world, let me share a very significant personal story that made a difference to my own career and to my understanding of what “Good to Great” can really mean.

Many of you know that over the last couple of decades, my skills as a speaker and educator have been celebrated and nicely compensated. Verbally communicating to audiences small or large in 40 countries around the world became a key source of my compensation. I am a proud Legacy member of the National Speakers Association/Global Speakers Federation – membership in which is only open to those who can demonstrate that we are actually paid to speak.

Those who have known me only for the past 23 years may not know that I wasn’t always so excellent at this. My professional life had always required me to speak in public. I was always comfortable doing so, and always thought that I was good at it. Indeed, I had overflowing files of letters thanking me, and I had my share of standing ovations and plaudits. If you had asked me before 1997, I would have said I did it well.

Yet, I often wondered why I wasn’t being invited to give certain speeches that I felt I was as least as appropriate to give as those who were chosen. It was Mirele, to whom I have been joyfully married since 1995 and who knew me in professional contexts even before we became a couple, who set me straight. After we were married, she began to see that I was more frustrated by this than she had realized. Finally, she told me the truth: “If you really want to know, you are not consistently so good. You have great mastery of the content, and wonderful rapport with audiences, but your talks are, well, not consistently great.” [Admittedly this is a paraphrase, but a fair one.]

She said that if I was serious, I should work on my speaking skills. Now this may seem strange, but until that time, I had never had a course in public speaking, and, more important, no one had ever given me negative feedback.

And now we are getting to the crux of the message:

It appears that I was never so bad that it was worth it to anyone to tell me how I could have been better. I was sometimes only “fair”, maybe sometimes “excellent” but mostly “good.” No one had anything at stake in telling me that I could or should have done better. Until Mirele did.

I signed up for a mentoring program at the National Speakers Association and discovered something very quickly – I was undisciplined. I had all of the skills and knowledge and presence and I thought that was enough. But then I learned the discipline of how one organizes a presentation. I discovered that I still talked like an academic even though I had mostly left academia over a decade earlier. People did not want to know how many syllables I could have in every word; they did want to hear stories that illustrated what I was talking about. They didn’t want to be impressed with how much I knew; they did want to know how that knowledge could make a difference to them. [You know the old mantra: “nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.”]

Within 6 months I began to have evidence of the transformation. I started getting invited to more places, but more to the point, invited back! The character of the thank you’ s was markedly different.

I look back on so many squandered opportunities over the years and wince. I asked myself “why didn’t anyone tell me?” If I could go from just “good” to “excellent” in only 6 months, think about what I might have been able to do had someone held a mirror to me, or had the courage to tell me.

And now the message: the only person [other than a loving spouse] who really cares if you go from “good to great” is yourself. If you want to excel, you have to make it clear to others – and safe for others – to tell you! For most others, “good” is good enough. As I said above, what stake do they have in pushing you to excellence? Most of the time, your personal aspiration is at best only incidental to them or their work.

It also made me rethink prior parts of my career: I am pretty confident that I pushed organizations that I headed or was a trustee of to become high quality performers; I am less confident that I helped colleagues and supervisees reach that level in all they ways they could. Or maybe should have.

Having learned that skills and knowledge are insufficient without the discipline to apply them means that one has to work hard to not become complacent. One of my favorite, if embarrassing, cases about my own complacency goes back to a time when we were invited to Buenos Aires to give some lectures. One of the talks was to university students at 10 pm on a Saturday night. Shockingly, it drew a very large crowd – I learned that I was the entertainment before a night of dinner and dancing. Before speaking, I did my homework, and learned the names of all the hot spots that young adults frequented. I peppered my talk with those references, and I was a star! Two years later, we were invited back, but I was complacent and didn’t bother to update those references. They were all passé. And, while the talk was more or less well received, my star quality was seriously diminished. I have been back since for other audiences but not for the young adult crowd. Serves me right.

At the present time, the foundation and philanthropy sector are doing a lot of soul searching about our decision making, about our governance, about our priorities, and about our role in society. Groups such as CEP, NCRP and others are pushing us to go beyond our long-term self-satisfied [and often self-congratulatory] complacency to respond to systemic issues of racism and economic inequity. Impressively, many in our sector are taking these challenges seriously. Good enough is simply not good enough anymore.

The challenge, though, is if we can sustain this attention, momentum, and operational change over time. In the midst of a pandemic of public and of persuasive challenges to the social weal, it is evident that we must respond. But when there is a vaccine or a change in administration or a recognizable sense of normalcy, will we as funders find it all too easy to become complacent? Or will our commitment to endemic and systemic change propel us to internalize the discipline to sustain excellence?

That discipline will prove the harder challenge – one from which we must not back down.

#390 Listening vs. Hearing: The View from the Other Side

August 5th, 2020

Richard Marker

A couple of years ago, my accumulated professional careers crossed the half-century mark. Knowing that it has been an untypical journey, a number of people asked if I was planning to write an autobiography. While I don’t believe a full autobiography is warranted, I have written a pamphlet size retrospective built around lessons learned. It will be published sometime this Autumn.

While writing, I was reminded of a number of influential episodes, some of which are applicable to current developments in the philanthropy world. This piece emerges from one of them. Watch for additional posts that will address others.

“Strategy” is the constant among my five careers. Whether in the non-profit or for-profit sectors, or, in the last quarter century in the philanthropy arena, being a strategist has been the core competence that ties it all together. I learned very early on that the elegance of a strategy, the completeness of the data, and the rigor of the process are often for naught if there is not attention to implementation. There is much to say about this, and I have written and taught about this extensively. But a current discussion in our field has underscored, once again, how crucial the implementation stage is in achieving any effective strategy. In this case – the difference between listening and hearing.

The anecdote: I recently had occasion to be reminded of a project I did fairly early in my career. In my first full-time post-graduate school position, I was a young associate chaplain/faculty at Brown University. Toward the end of my first year [’71-72], a graduating senior came to meet with me. He told me he had a beef: He said that there were matters of identity that he and his friends had never discussed and, now, on the eve of graduation, realized that he wishes they had. He told me that he thought that the only person he knew who could have facilitated that much needed conversation was me.

Now, to be fair, while it was a nice compliment, there were undoubtedly lots of folks who could have facilitated that conversation; his was probably more a comment on the still existing divide between faculty folks and students even in the early 70’s. It did challenge me, though, and I subsequently began a practice that I continued for my remaining years there. [I left in 1982.]

At the beginning of every Spring semester, I would invite graduating seniors to my home for small group teas. Over the years, I learned a lot. The most sustaining lesson was this: whatever perceptions I may have had about students’ commitments and involvements based on what I observed proved to be only coincidentally aligned with what students said about themselves. I might see a student doing some particular program or activity almost every day, yet those very students would describe themselves as only very marginally connected; other students might talk about how important a project was to their undergraduate life, even though he or she might be totally invisible to others involved.

In other words, self-perception is not always aligned with how others see us. The data alone was misleading – or at least insufficient. It was a lesson that has served me well in every subsequent career, but none more so than in my journey in the philanthropy sector over the last quarter century.

Our field is fraught with opportunities for misperception. It historically has been built on a power imbalance – one side wants, the other side has. Those who want financial resources need to convince those who give that they should give to them. Built in is a challenge of perceptions. Organizations that want resources from funders try to determine what the funder really wants to hear, what will give them a tactical advantage, what is legitimate hyperbole vs dubious exaggeration, and what will give a funder the confidence that their articulated missions will best be fulfilled in supporting your organizations. Funders have our own set of desiderata: yes we want to assess all of the items presented by those seeking our funds, but we also have our own independent considerations: where does this request fit within our own priority system, how does supporting this organization or project align with our own risk tolerance, how does this request compare to other similar requests on our docket, what is the internal push and pull among family or trustees or staff, and more.

Those requesting funds rarely know all of these internal considerations – meaning that there is an endemic disconnect. They are limited by their perceptions – extrapolating from the knowable [grantmaking history, articulated missions] to the “best guess.” Proposals, whether written or oral, all reflect a best guess of what the funder really wants, but since there are so many subjective factors, there is always, by definition, the unknowable.

Some funders have made our own mistakes – that of assuming that we can take the guess work out of our decision making. It is a little less true today than it was a few years ago, but for a while, funders thought that we could apply a rigorous due diligence and metric system to make the “right” decisions. That too is wrong – and also for an important endemic reality: we fund the future, and the future is never guaranteed. We may choose to reduce the risk by supporting only well-established organizations, or well-developed programs, or sector leading executives, but…. COVID-19 only proves that nothing is assured. Moreover, the lower the risk, the lower the likelihood that creative change can occur. If, as many funders claim, we want our money “to make a difference”, it is important to remember that “difference” has to mean something will be different.

If that is true, we too have an obligation to learn how to extrapolate beyond that which is presented. But how?

This is where our field is moving in a healthy direction. There have always been some in our sector who have made it safe for potential or existing grantees to tell the whole story in honest ways, but not most of us. There have always been some in our field who know that those on the ground are more likely to understand real needs, especially in the realm of direct service/at risk populations than we. There have always been funders who have an understanding that funding the future means that some things we fund will [and should] fail, but too many still don’t have the tolerance for failure or the importance to endorse its legitimacy.

Many of the most welcome changes in the current climate in our field are attempts to address exactly these things. Initiatives such as “Trust Based Philanthropy” or “Listen4Good” or “Nothing about us without us” or the ongoing work of CEP are all very welcome attempts to rebalance. How do we as funders make it safe for grantees to tell us honestly what they need? How do we make sure that the direct stakeholders are the real beneficiaries of our intended largesse? How do we allow grantees to take enough risks toward much needed change that some will assuredly fail? These, and numerous other initiatives are pushing us as funders toward redressing gaps in our own practice and affect. The primary responsibility in making these adjustments is ours.

It is also true that not every nonprofit is guiltless. All of us on the funder side have seen organizations that have chosen to hide essential information, to reject thoughtful support as inappropriate intrusion, to be blind to their own failures, and to view us funders as inscrutably “different than us.” We as funders may have the primary responsibility to readjust our behaviors but we are not alone in this. Non-profits too need to learn how to listen – to words that may appear patronizing or distanced or judgmental or overly jargon-y, often presented in settings that are intimidating but are usually well-meaning and more often than not intended to be constructive.

All of us, yes every single one of us, has filters that align what we are told with “our own” reality. The real challenge, then, is not only listening but also knowing how to hear. Since affect and tone and setting and implicit biases [on both sides] can so easily distort, knowing how and what to absorb from feedback and shared information is a constant challenge.

As we know from so many other contexts, collecting data may be hard; interpreting that data is much harder. Creating strategies may be daunting; implementing them is much more so. And, listening may be hard; hearing is much harder. For all of our benefit, it is a skill worth learning.

#389 – The Trust Factor Continued: Conditions for Change

July 21st, 2020

Richard Marker

This was written but not published before Rep. John Lewis’ sad passing. He was an inspiration to so many of us – and a model of how an authentic change agent can be both inside and outside the system. His convictions were transparent; his courage exemplary; his influence will be felt for a very long time.

It may be helpful to read #388 prior to reading this piece.

Wow. Two consecutive zoom meetings yesterday left me a bit shaken. There was no overlap of participants or of stated agenda. But, unintentionally, they affirmed very troubling and consistent world views.

As readers know, I do whatever I can to keep references as anonymous as possible. Suffice it to say that both groups had participants from throughout the United States. The make-up of the two groups was very different, and that difference is relevant to the remainder of this article. In one, about half of the participants were people of color; in the other, all were Jewish. This piece, though, is not specifically or primarily about Black-Jewish relations in the USA but about some surprising and unsettling things I heard from both discussions.

First some notes on “change”. My own view is that the precondition to any meaningful systemic change in the USA is having a different person sitting in the Oval Office after this year. No reader should be shocked to read that since I haven’t been very subtle about my feelings. But here I want to expand on that as a backdrop to my response to the comments at the two meetings:

It is not only that I think that we have to restore a commitment to Constitutional roles, responsibilities, and expectations, or that we have to come closer to a commitment to a government of, by, and FOR those who live in this country, or that we have to reestablish that there is such a thing as knowledge [and that includes knowing what is a gray area from what is simply true or false], or that we have to recognize that we are a part of the world [neither “above” it or exempt from it], or….

No, it is not only these things, but it is also about a baseline of respect, dignity, humanity, integrity, honesty – to put in a word, “culture”. In other words, reestablishing all of the things mentioned in the prior paragraph alone won’t eliminate racism or economic inequities or unacceptable growing class divides or xenophobia. Without a cultural shift, none of the endemic and systemic issues can effectively be addressed. And until we remove a mean, mendacious misanthrope from his dangerous seat of power, such a national culture shift will be virtually impossible.

For me, these two paragraphs represent the sine qua non of change, but not the sufficiency to bring about change. I have seen this in every organization or business with which I have had experience or knowledge. There may be many strategies for change, but none, absolutely none, work without a commitment that emanates from the top.

Even that cultural commitment alone is insufficient. Most real work is done on the local level, both politically and metaphorically. Implementation is rarely effective if it is only top down; it must be bottom up. Enfranchisement matters. Empowerment cannot be token. Inclusion must not be rigged. This is the hard, day-in day-out work. It is what makes the difference in the sustainability of a business; it is what makes a difference in the sustainability in a non-profit organization; it is what makes the difference in the character of a foundation; and it is what makes the difference in the social compact that underlies any and every governance system.

These perspectives were challenged on both of the calls.

On the first, several very successful and articulate African-Americans largely dismissed my focus on voting and government change as the sine qua non as an indulgence of a [well-intentioned] white liberal. If there is voter suppression, what is the point of getting out the vote? If people of color are gerrymandered to guarantee less representation, why bother? If systemic racism continues no matter which party is in control, why waste one’s energies choosing between flawed choices even if one is less flawed than the other?

They argued, passionately, that the only change they can buy into, and are willing to take risks for, are where one has some control – of oneself, of one’s own business, of one’s own chosen friends and colleagues. As far as I could tell, none was a supporter of or advocate for the current administration; and I suspect all will choose to cast their vote for a President Biden. However, they were not willing to say that this is where any of their energies should take the highest priority.

This didn’t totally surprise me because of my direct experience with Census2020 advocacy. In addition to being involved in a regional task force, I attended three different conferences which included leaders of various at-risk and historically undercounted communities. Depending on which conference, some of those leaders were local, some national. The concern, to remind you, is that for every undercounted person, there will be underfunding and under-representation for the next 10 years. The Census is supposed to be anonymous and complete. However, the current administration tried to politicize it in a move that was rejected by the Supreme Court – to require a citizenship question. Given the history of this administration toward immigrants of all sorts, it should not surprise you to know that that request made many unwilling to fill out the census form at all.

The Census Bureau and many other advocates for a complete count turned to trusted intermediaries, leaders in those communities, to persuade their constituents to complete the census. What I heard in all three of those conferences was deep-seated skepticism about whether they could trust the government to honor the constitutionally mandated anonymity. How could they go to the line to advise their followers when they themselves were dubious? The system is so broken that, even at the risk of long-term financial and government representational losses to their communities, the risks to individuals within those communities was existentially greater.

If I understand the issues raised in the first zoom call, spending all of one’s energies devoted to simply improving a system so clearly broken is a fool’s errand. Sure, the current president is flawed [to put it more generously than he deserves], but voter suppression didn’t start with him, nor did gerrymandering nor redlining nor police violence nor racial profiling. Will Biden’s victory simply allow the majority of well-meaning liberal Whites to relax their [our] political advocacy? Will token policy modifications toward policing silent the currently loud voices for change? Will people accept the important but ultimately only symbolic removal of statues of traitors or sports teams’ names representing racist stereotypes rather than do the harder work of rooting out the endemic inequities?

I wish I could say that the cynicism is misplaced, but I share it. Where we disagree is whether out country can withstand another four year of autocratic, anti-scientific, isolationist, and antinomian leadership and whether we have the luxury of dismissing both candidates as flawed, even if unevenly so.

The second call was also quite a bit sobering. While my own professional life once placed me squarely within the American Jewish establishment, for the last 18 years, I have been almost fully an outsider, other than my own personal behaviors and a couple of boards on which I sit. If you are my age, you remember the bond between most of the leadership of the Jewish community and that of the Black community. It is often symbolized by the now iconic photograph of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching alongside my own revered teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. That bond has been tested over the years, for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons, but it is very striking to realize that, for most young people, that is ancient history and says nothing about real lived experiences. Jewish self-concern appears insular to [many] one-time allies. Relative silence [by many] to the tremendous spike in overt anti-Semitism in the USA in the last few years appears ominously isolating to many Jews. To most African Americans, Jews are simply one other privileged White subgroup; to White Supremacists, Jews are a despised race no different than those of Black or Brown or Red skins. [It is true that there are Jews from many racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds, but that is beside the point to Supremacists and perhaps to many African Americans as well.]

The conversation with the Jews painted a dismal affect, and there was a more palpable divide about their preferred presidential candidate. Just as the first call emphasized the need for localism over some vague national culture change, so did this one. For many, it built on a concern that both sympathy and empathy toward Jewish concerns are in shrinking supply on the local level. For some of the Jews, the only issue that mattered was policy toward Israel; since this country is so fragile, they postulate, it is the only metric that counts. For others, [and I put myself in this second camp], a weak and isolated USA that provides no leadership or moral voice to the world is hardly in a position to be a meaningful long-term ally to Israel. Moreover, many of us reject the concept of “single issue” concerns in the Jewish world. Many, probably most, of us, care deeply about the destruction of the environment, the erosion of civil liberties, the absence of health care for all, the existence of a permanent under-class, the prevalence of racism, the hostility of xenophobia. And, indeed, many Jews have marched, petitioned, written, contributed, and in other ways expressed these values. Yet, I fear, far too many non-Jews, especially in government, assume that the Jewish community is “single issue” with perhaps a few outliers or holdovers who associate themselves with the “justice” causes. Even though that perception is statistically wrong, perception, in this case, becomes reality.

Has our American reality become so atomized and clannish that too many of us who have a huge amount at stake in the outcome of the November elections dismiss that it will really matter? Have too many of us decided to hunker down, as if the public weal is as contagious as COVID-19? Has trust – in institutions, public space, or even the future – so eroded that what history will surely view as the most important election in this era has become a second-rung priority for massive segments of our society?

History has not looked kindly upon any nation that makes the choice of hopeless surrender. I hope and pray it will not be ours.

#388 Is Dialgoue Possible? The Next Challenge for the Philanthropy Sector

July 8th, 2020

Richard Marker

A fellow member of the National Speakers Association publicly posed a sincere question? An Ausssie expat now living in the USA, he asked how it was that so many of us had no difficulty at all dialoguing with adherents of other religions than our own but seemingly had no ability or interest in dialogue with political adherents with whom we disagree. After all, he suggested, even if we have no intention or expectation of proselytization, our religious worldviews and beliefs are surely quite divergent. Why is that different than political discourse?

As one who has devoted a very substantial amount of volunteer time over several decades to inter-religious dialogue on local, national, and international levels, this question is not a trivial one. I am probably as guilty of my colleague’s characterization as anyone so let me respond – first to the easy part and then in a bit more depth.

The easy answer is that interreligious dialogue has become well developed. Not everyone in any religion believes in it which means that, almost all the time, our dialogue is with those who, on some level, accept “the other”. None of us is so naïve to think that we can fully change hearts, minds, beliefs, and experiences of all of our own co-religionists, even if we have learned to model a different approach and accept that there are “Truths” in every Tradition, while not compromising on the “Truth” of our own. And it is successful because enough religious leaders around the world now affirm the legitimacy of dialogue so that no one needs to apologize for participating in such settings.

The easy answer in the political arena of 2020 is that the divide is so large that vast swaths of those on either side of the political divide deeply reject the “Truths” that others believe. This divide has been underscored by the Pew Research Center that has demonstrated that the vocabulary, the world view, and the perceived role of government are more divided than at any time since they began their work. Until there is leadership that models that the work of inter-political dialogue can and should happen, there is little public space for or acceptance of the kind of successful dialogue that has characterized the interreligious space for several decades.

That was the easy answer, but hardly sufficient. About the challenge of interreligious discourse: Those of us with a long history of this never take for granted that new participants know the ground rules. Dialogue is not disputation. It is not a debating society. It is not a competition for whose history is more credible, or more worthy of sympathy or condemnation. It is not a quick fix. And it is not for those whose knowledge of their own tradition is inadequate for an informed exchange.

The purpose of dialogue is to advance a common agenda, when it might exist; to make sure that participants have a keen empathy for their counterparts and their religion; to understand their respective vulnerabilities; to understand normative behaviors and authoritative positions even as they may have evolved over time; and to create a level of mutual trust so that when inevitable challenges emerge, there is a context for deciding what to do about them.

None of this is easy; not every interreligious dialogue survives those periodic challenges or the inclusion of new participants with no institutional memory. Differing adjudicatory and authority systems often lead to limits of how far a conversation can proceed. But many dialogues do thrive. [I am happy to share real transformative experiences with leaders of many religions to any of you who ask – but those stories are not the subject of this piece.]

The reason I articulate both the challenges and ground rules is precisely because almost none of those ground rules is present in the current political climate. It is not that such dialogue is impossible in theory – only that the deterioration of civility and trust has made it fully elusive.

It is also important to state again what was implied earlier: one cannot or should not dialogue with everyone. Dialogue means that we assume the best intentions of the other, the integrity of the other, and the conviction that something better can come of it. Under the current national leadership by one who behaves in a treasonous manner, who violates the oath of office to uphold the Constitution, who behaves as a race baiter, and whose personal animus to any opposing view can only be understood as beneath contempt, one cannot assume that there is much opportunity for dialogue at that level prior to the November election.

My own place along the political spectrum is thus clearly not very hidden, but I am old enough to know that American political history has a long tradition of talking across the aisle, of political leaders who disagreed but didn’t demonize, of genuine struggles with endemic challenges even if informed by different conceptual perspectives. This is not to romanticize or idealize the past as much as to say that there is a basis for affirming that authentic political dialogue has existed – and can again.

One of the key challenges in dialogue that transforms is that it must find resonance among leaders at the top and also a sufficient number of adherents on the grass roots level. There can be very meaningful and sincere dialogues at either level, but unless both exist, the impact will end when the door of discourse opens to the outside. I imagine that somewhere in America, in safe and secluded places, some people are talking to each other with a modicum of calm and reason even though their political stances are diametrically opposed. I am not sure where these places are even though we regularly hear pleas for that to happen. Most – not all – of those pleas, I regret to say, seem to be from people who have chosen to act and say “a plague on both your houses” rather than willingness to genuinely engage. Nevertheless, I would like to think that somewhere those discussions are happening by some people who are the right ones to be in the room.

The reason we don’t hear about them, if they exist, is because it is not safe to go public. No one has created a safe, mediated space – and few adherents are willing to publicly honor those with opposing views with credibility. It is surely not happening on the overt political level. I may have strong opinions about whose fault that is, but, no matter, it isn’t happening on the leadership level – and without that it will never happen on the ground.

Is there hope or have we become a nation on the brink? History gives mixed messages. We should never forget what George Mitchell always would remind naysayers as he mediated an end to the hostilities in Ireland. “Everyday is a failure until the day that it isn’t.” And one day he succeeded. On the other hand, sadly, there are a lot of failed empires strewn along the highway of history, those who believed in their own uniqueness or invincibility or even divine selection.

Perhaps my colleague is correct in looking to the interreligious realm to provide a key. Can there be a more powerful statement of transcendent transformation than Vatican II’s famous Nostra Aetate? Written and affirmed in the mid-60’s, it reversed 1800 years of Church teaching toward and about “the other.” One day other religions were to be condemned, vilified, and proselytized; the next day they were authentic, legitimated, and respected. Sure, 50+ years later there are still too many who are unaware or skeptical, but acceptance of “the other” is Catholic Doctrine, and that has been affirmed vocally and forcefully by every Pope since. I have personally been present at three of those. [The influences that led to that statement have been the subject of many books and analyses, and there are significant nuances to how the Church got there and what it means for Roman Catholics. This is not the place to rehearse them; rather I refer to it as an example of how presumably irreconcilable ideologies can be bridged – even against all odds.]

This modest hopefulness should also lead to a mandate to our philanthropy world. Our work depends on the viability of civil society. Voluntarism, in any of the 3 W’s – work, wealth, or wisdom – requires that there are safe spaces for improving and influencing society. It means that there can be a decision to act for immediacy, or with a long-time perspective. It means that the organizations we fund can be free to implement the missions we support. It means that continued learning, genuine empowerment, and respect for equity, in all of its connotations, are allowed, possible, and encouraged. And it, therefore, means that we have a great deal at stake in becoming active advocates for the health and security of that sector and of civil society writ large.

It also means that our own behaviors matter. There is now an active discussion about whether there is legitimacy to our work since it is, no matter how one slices it, based on privilege and power. One can mediate and moderate them. One can share them. One can learn from them. But as long as private philanthropy exists one must acknowledge the endemic nature of privilege and power. And if that is the case, we must model how civil society can work even with that imbalance. It does not mean that we have to be perfect. As we know, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” If we hold out for the absolute or pure, we will become paralyzed by the disputes about what that must mean.

But model we must.

What many have learned in the last 4 months is that we as funders had typically been very slow to implement what it means to encourage and permit the trust that allows us to do what we want to do with our voluntary resources. If our systems, our affect, our expectations, and our decision making are, at the end of the day, patronizing, judgmental, restrictive, and self-serving, no matter how much lip service we give to respecting our grantee “partners”, they always know who has control.

Many [it isn’t yet clear what percentage of] funders have made modifications to significant elements of our funding processes in response to the Pandemic and to racial inequities. Many have eased reporting requirements, dropped project conditions, extended the length of grants, and more. Many have involved grantees and the directly impacted communities in decision making. It remains to be seen how many of these process changes will be lasting and how many funders will find it easy to revert to old ways of doing things whenever this period ends.

Some funders have chosen to give more and/or spend more of their endowments in the belief that, as some have said “this is the rainy day we have been saving for.” Here, too, it remains to be seen how sustained these spending and investment changes will be.

What does seem to be the most impenetrable barrier to change will be in the issue of governance. [I have written about this previously – please see #359, 26 Nov 2019] How many families will dilute their control of the family funded foundation with other stakeholders to the degree that it is no longer controlled by the family? How many will choose to surrender their multigenerational legacy to the existential problems of today? How many will admit that power can distort both one’s own perceptions and how others relate to us?

This last stage is hard, and as I said, perhaps impenetrable. But if our experience is to be a paradigm it is where we need to be model for a divided society. Being wealthy is not a divine right anymore than being part of the underclass should be a permanent destiny. Our sector is not singlehandedly able to erase systemic inequity and racism, but we must model how to redress and acknowledge them – even at some cost to our own extensive power and wealth.

Trust is what allowed centuries of interreligious disputation to become interreligious amity. Trust is what can allow decades of funders and grantees seeing one another as “the other” to be transformed into a trust based mutual commitment to change. And without trust, that only those with the wealth and power can foster, it will never be possible to rebuild our broken society, correct our rigged system, and redress our deep inequities.

No. Philanthropy cannot do it alone, but we can surely model how to begin.

Funder Education Offerings

June 28th, 2020

Richard Marker

Here are several funder education offerings with which we are directly involved at this time. Please note that, for the first time, we are offering our own workshops. They are intended to be small seminar experiences.

The University of Pennsylvania Center for High Impact Philanthropy annual funder education course will be held fully online this year. This high-end course is exclusively for Principals, Trustees, and/or chief professional decision makers and attracts funders from around the world. IF a consultant is playing the role equivalent to chief professional officer, s/he is eligible.

For more info:

Contact: [email protected]

The Institute for Wise Philanthropy has been educating funders since 2002, either under the auspices of NYU and UPenn, or under contract by foundations, financial service firms, and associations. Thousands of staff, principals, and trustees from foundations large and small from 40 countries have participated in these courses. Now, for the first time, the Institute will be offering seminars under our own label. The first offerings are listed below:

Each of these workshops will be limited to 6 funders from anywhere in the world. The times will be set in consultation with the registrants.

Philanthro-ethics and Equity: Racial, gender, class, and financial justice are the driving questions in our field at this time. This highly interactive workshop, which has been a key offering of our curricula for many years, offers a series of regularly updated proprietary scenarios and case studies that address these and other related issues. They help funders clarify the differences between law, ethics, and best practices, and enables an informed conscious use of self as funders deal with best practices for their own funding practices and their relationship with grantees.

2 half-day sessions: $600/registrant. $500 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.

Collaborations, Partnerships, Mergers: Collaborations as a funding approach are hot, and can provide a much-needed method to address both local and systemic challenges. Too often, though, that they don’t always work as intended, and some funders become disillusioned. This workshop will describe different types of collaborations and partnerships, and will provide information on what should be decided before entering into any such arrangements, what the differences are between types of collaborations, who or which foundations are not suited to be a partner, what kinds of governance arrangements apply when, and what are the most viable exit strategies. Over the last 15 years, the material in this workshop have been the most requested in our entire repertoire of funder education documents.

1 3-hour session: $350/registrant. $300 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.

Strategy Process vs Strategic Plans: Why do so many strategic plans gather dust on a shelf or are out of date the moment they are completed? We think it is because they start in the wrong place, and don’t adequately address implementation. This distinct model developed exclusively for funders turns the standard strategy process upside down – beginning with a “deep-dive” into individual and organizational culture and ending with an articulation of “mission/vision.” The approach is now utilized by many consultants, firms, and foundations. Invariably this unit is rated the most mind-changing take-away of our multi-day training programs.

1 3-hour session: $350/registrant. $300 for members of WRAG, Exponent Philanthropy, WINGS, and NNCG.

Among the future offerings will include sessions on Whose Money Is it? Do laws and ethics diverge?; Evaluation Methods; Policy Setting; Exit Strategies; Changing Roles for Philanthropy – How should funders respond.

#387 The Right Side of History – A Juneteenth Posting

June 19th, 2020

Richard Marker

Please read #383 “I Have Failed…” and #386 “Black Lives Certainly Matter…” prior to reading this.

In the previous post [#386], I referenced my time in Chicago. It reminded me of a lesson I learned in a totally unrelated context, but one which is very relevant at this time in US history.

First the context: During the 13 years I lived in Chicago, I had a number of executive roles. Because of the peculiar nature of the governance and funding systems, one might understand those roles as a series of concentric circles. The details don’t matter for this piece but suffice it to say that one of those roles was CEO of a local system with a primary funding entity, and others were regional, national, and international.

The funding agency was [and I assume still is] considered one of the major influential ones in the country. No national initiative would ever be adopted without their endorsement. Because of my roles outside of Chicago, I was frequently involved in those national initiatives, and I was often called upon to run it up the flagpole in Chicago.

The CEO of the Chicago entity didn’t suffer fools gladly and had little patience for ideas that were a waste of his time and communal money. [For some reason, he never considered me one of the fools, so he was willing to suffer me even when we didn’t agree. Go figure.] The path to communal endorsement and funding always went directly through his corner office.

As I recall, there was not a single national initiative about which he didn’t have reservations, some major and some less so. Many of his concerns were directly on point and led to modifications. But in every case where it mattered, even when he demurred on details, at the end of the day he would tell me that they would be supportive: “we have to be on the right side of history” he would say.

This is such a moment in America. The choices we must make every day – up until and after the November election are not simply for the soul of America, but for its very legitimacy. There is a person in the seat of the POTUS who considers himself above the law, considers that the Constitution is, at best, a document to be ignored, endorses racism overtly, and considers that anyone who opposes him to be a traitor. And there are those, particularly in the Senate, who act as if they fully agree.

I suspect that there are very few readers of my articles who disagree with this assessment, but I am not so naïve to think that everyone else does. However, I am most concerned about those who express reservations about their options even if they don’t disagree with my assessment of the POTUS.

• There are those who are disappointed that Biden will be the Democratic nominee since their preferred candidates have not been chosen or their positions seem not as central to his candidacy.

• There are those who say that there are some visible advocates of BLM who have said things they disagree with so they can’t really support the movement.

• There are those who say that “defunding the police” is a step too far and they cannot fully support that movement – in most cases rejecting the slogan more than the substance which they, conveniently, never examine.

• There are those whose disillusionment about the possibility of change is so great that they view all politics as more of the same no matter who is running or who is in power.

Yes, there are all sorts of excuses why one might be a cynic or a skeptic, most of which are quite legitimate. Some of these folks plan to sit it out. To every one of them I say, whatever reservations you may have, if you allow that to get you to sit this election season out, you are on the wrong side of history.

I have another concern as well: right now, there is a lot of very healthy energy, real policy discussions, and the emergence of functioning coalitions. The convergence of COVID-19 and the long overdue attention to the impact of endemic racism in America has fostered this. However, November is still 5 months away and it is very hard to sustain popular political activism for that long a time. I worry that there will be burnout; there will be political disappointments; there will be foreign interference via social media; there will be attempts to turn emerging allies into competitors. There might be rain – or crowds. But we must resist every one of these excuses.

At a minimum, vote. A few contributions to key competitive elections and activist organizations wouldn’t hurt. Canvassing [whatever that might look like this year] would certainly help. Volunteering on the local, county, and state level would make a big difference. Convincing your reticent friends, family, neighbors, colleagues to vote will go a long way.

It is not an overstatement that this year’s elections are the most important in any of our lifetimes. Nothing less than the continued legitimacy of the United States as a viable Constitutional Democracy is at stake.

We must keep up the momentum. We must remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We must remember that our votes and our involvement matter. History will judge the American experiment by how we respond this November, and every day before and after. This is the right time to be on the right side of history.

#386 Black Lives Certainly Matter: Why, then, did these 2 people give me pause?

June 16th, 2020

Richard Marker

A few years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement first arose, it was not uncommon to hear a rebuttal – “but don’t all lives matter?”

Most of those who responded that way were simply being dismissive [that is the most generous way to put it.]. However, some folks I respected really needed an explanation. They had been on the right side of activism and associations, and the last thing they could imagine about themselves is that they were participating in or affirming racism. Their genuine views were built on the concept that a society needs to be built around a vision that all are equal, have equal access, and equal opportunity. Their well-meaning but naïve response was neither malicious nor mal-intended.

Most of these folks got it after it was explained to them why the phrase mattered and, regrettably, needed affirmation from all of us.

It is now several years later, and the BLM movement has expanded – for terrible reasons. There are lots of articles and analyses about why now but suffice it to say that it isn’t hard to understand why we who are White once again need to affirm the message. Nowadays, when we hear the same rebuttal about “all lives matter” it might mean that one is genuinely clueless and doesn’t accept the truth of endemic racism in America. Worse, some don’t really believe that all lives do matter – that only White ones should. I have very little patience for either of those perspectives.

I was, though, caught short in hearing two people comment about how it made them feel. One was a First Nation/Native American and one was the child of Holocaust survivors. In each case, they wondered why their historic anguish wasn’t being recognized or, they felt, was being implicitly dismissed. Neither in any way tried to belittle the legitimacy of the BLM Movement, nor deny that it was way overdue. Their point was that they looked at their own history of delegitimization, of legal and illegal discrimination, of the death sentence that too often accompanied their ancestors, even their own personal experiences, and how easy it still seems for much of the US to not take their histories as seriously as they now seem to be taking the travails of Blacks. Their concern, separately articulated, was that as America confronts its shocking and shameful history of anti-Black racism and racist behavior, that their own narratives will be lost, and America’s empathy quotient will be used up.

Now – so that no one, absolutely no one, misreads what I am writing here – let me be explicit: this is the time for the message of BLM – it should not be diluted, delayed, or discounted. American accountability is long overdue and practices and policies that have allowed racism should be changed – yesterday. No one needs to make excuses for the profoundly effective and moving protests seen around the world, and no one needs to apologize for saying that this is the time.

If one looks at history, though, the concerns of these two are not misplaced. America’s shameful past toward First Nation/Native Americans must never be allowed to be ignored. And the resurgence of anti-Semitic acts in the USA accompanied by a frightening skepticism that there were really 6 million Jewish victims of Nazism demonstrates that the work is far from done. How does one honor those very legitimate concerns – especially as we look to what we want in the future?

When I lived in Chicago in the 80’s and early 90’s, I had the honor of being involved in a Foundation funded by the Chicago Community Trust charged with addressing intergroup understanding. One of my volunteer/leadership roles was to co-facilitate these interactions among young adults from many different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. The experiences were instructive: when groups first got together, their first instinct was to view their own group’s histories in competitive terms: How many were enslaved? How many were displaced? How many were massacred? How prevalent is bigotry toward…?

That approach proved untenable as a way forward. Is there really a hierarchy of bigotry and suffering? Is that a viable or even an ethical way to have an intergroup conversation?

After a while, we developed an alternative approach: what experiences made each group and each individual feel vulnerable, fearful, or misunderstood? No one was dismissive of those feelings since they were so clearly genuine. They weren’t quantifiable. Sharing why they felt those fears led to both empathy and understanding.

However, something happened during those conversations that anticipated today in remarkably and sadly prescient ways. In every conversation, by the end, the sense was that the most vulnerable group was young adult black men. In group after group, we heard black males tell of walking down the street and watching people quickly cross the street to avoid them; we heard of being stopped by police for no reason, or being tailed by clerks in stores, or seeing people clutch their purses or briefcases on busses – or choose less desirable seats to avoid sitting next to them. Every single person who was not a young black male nodded in recognition – in every single session.

I confess I have no recollection whatsoever if we then had the data to confirm what we all now know to be statistically true: the inordinate number of deaths and incarcerations among this population. The real-life experience of being a young black male, of any young black male, is only confirmed by that data, but it was evident even then.

Those sessions led to profoundly greater mutual understanding and empathy. Once we shifted the conversation from “my pain is greater than your pain” to “let’s acknowledge that we all have reason to feel vulnerable” both the character of the sessions changed, and the mutuality of respect grew palpably.

However, what didn’t change was the facts. All of those legitimate vulnerabilities continue today, and given the current ethos and political environment fostered by the Administration, other groups can easily be added to those who met in Chicago 30+ years ago, and make a case for their own victimization and vulnerability. But young black males are still being targeted, victimized, incarcerated, brutalized, and murdered.

We learned in those gathering that one can transfer fear of the other to empathy. As we [hopefully] construct a more just society going forward, that message must prevail. And of course, it must apply to all who feel vulnerable. But even then the message was loud, clear, and poignant even if we didn’t yet have these words to tell us: Black Lives Matter.