July 5th, 2018
What, you ask? Haven’t you recently been writing about the need for the philanthropy world to address equity, ethics, systemic changes, existential challenges…. you know, the big picture stuff. Is it really ok to think small with your philanthropy?
There are lots of reasons for this pause:
Too many people I have met recently, especially those early in their decision to become self-reflective philanthropists, are finding themselves paralyzed by the scope of what needs to be done. “The needs are so great – we don’t want to waste a penny.” Or, “I keep hearing about making an ‘impact’; we are working so hard to make sure our money makes a difference that we are afraid that we might make a mistake.”.
Let me put you at ease. No one starts out knowing how to be an expert in anything. Just because one has some money, even a lot of money, the process of learning how to give it away thoughtfully, ethically, strategically, wisely, takes time. The vast majority of those with assets to give away took some time to accumulate those assets. And most made plenty of mistakes along the way. Why should we think that the giving gene will just happen?
I typically advise newer funders and philanthropists to take three years of learning. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Don’t worry that your money is being wasted. Don’t assume that you have to know what your mission is, your priorities are, your giving style should be, what kinds of relationship with grantees you need, what are appropriate expectations for outcomes…. Just start.
I also recommend: Don’t make any long-term commitments that create obligation or precedent or expectation. Don’t join any new boards unless you have had a long-time relationship with that group.
Also take that time to learn: learn how to read a 990. Get to know your peers in the funding world. See whether the presentations you receive are sales pitches or genuine and honest articulation of need. [Hint: if a proposal or presentation says “we are the first…” or “we are the only…” or “this project is a guaranteed life changer….”, tread very carefully and slowly.] Learn that NFP/NGO financial statements need to be read differently than for-profit ones. Learn about the decision process of the organization. Get a sense of its culture – toward all of its stakeholders. Learn when a “site visit” gives you information you really need to make a decision, and when it is just because you want to.
One thing you will learn without trying – and it is a lesson every funder learns very quickly. You suddenly become a walking dollar sign, even to long time friends. You already know that you have never been funnier, better looking, wiser, better company. A 24-year-old 3rd Gen of a prominent and very wealthy family once came to me distressed. As soon as she became formally involved with her family foundation, all of her long time personal relationships changed. She wasn’t just wealthy any longer; she was now the source of funds for all sorts of things. She discovered, as we all do, that every time you walk into a room, someone has a project to pitch.
During this learning period, learn how not to become cynical. Or to indulge in your newfound power. After all, by definition, there are more requests than anyone can fund, so we say “no” much more than can ever say “yes.” And most of those needs are genuine. It isn’t easy – either socially or philanthropically.
To return to our starting point: one learns how to fail and how to succeed. If only we could always be right… but after all, by definition, we are funding the future and that is never guaranteed. We learn that even “evidence based” data might be based on insufficient longitudinal questions. This has nothing to do with how much money you have. Simply look at the 9 figure “errors” by the Gates Foundation or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to take only some famous recent ones – and I assure you they had the best minds and experts available to them. If you are unwilling to fail, your successes will rarely do more than sustain the status quo.
It is also important to look carefully at the successes as well. Would they be applicable in other settings? Was it all based on a wonderful charismatic leader whose attention span is limited? Are there underlying issues that were overlooked or ignored or even hidden?
Looking at the long term, which experiences were gratifying? At the end of those three years of learning, it is the time to step back to look at all of your philanthropic experiences over that time. Now is the time to see what worked – for you. Which experiences disappointed.? Please note, this process is not about the successes and failures of your giving, but about how you felt about what you did. This is the time to revisit your risk tolerance, your decision making, your preferred relationship with grantees and colleagues, your focus and your priorities.
Which brings us back to the beginning. The overwhelming majority of us are not in the financial league of a Gates or Ford or Rockefeller or the Giving Pledge folks. Yet we can make a difference with whatever resources we have. And that includes even those of us who want to address the systemic issues of which I have been writing about recently.
After all, big picture challenges still must be solved on the local level. If one wants to eradicate malaria, someone must provide netting on the ground. If one wants to eliminate homelessness, someone has to work with many, many individuals to help them establish some stability. If one wants to improve literacy, there are millions of young, and not so young who must be taught – one person at a time.
Once upon a time, most people followed the progression of philanthropy from “compassion” to “strategy” – the traditional “give a fish” vs “teach to fish” metaphor. Only in recent years have many philanthropists learned that the next stage is to address the “systemic”. But In recent years, there are also many who want to start with the “systemic” wanting to use vast resources to address the big picture problems. What they learn, often in a way that can surprise them, is that making sure that those people have that food – fish or otherwise – is the true measure of their success. They learn the importance of the “compassion” stage. Only by thinking “small” can they truly implement the systemic changes they want to make, and that we all need.
Those of us with fewer resources at our disposal can teach a thing or two.
June 26th, 2018
Philanthropy education matters to me – a lot. So, not surprisingly, when WINGS-Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaking Support, an international organization of which we are members, undertook a careful look at what is universal or generic vs what is culturally specific, I recommended that one of the ways to get at this is to develop international philanthropy education standards.
Over 16 years ago, when I was invited by NYU to develop a university based professional certificate program, I consulted with the organizations that defined the philanthropy field at that time. There was a remarkable consensus on what a funder, any funder, should know. And thus, with their participation, we developed a set of core competencies as a basis for the certificate credential. [In retrospect, I recognize that my evangelism for the importance of philanthropy education and certification did not have the same priority for those original partners, some of whom expressed exasperation with my impatience. On the chance that some are reading this, my apologies. It has taught me about the mistakes one can make in making assumptions about a sustaining partnership.]
Those concepts, regularly adapted and updated, have been the underpinning of the part of my career as a philanthropy educator. While only a part of my involvement in this field, that educational role has led me to speak and teach in 39 countries, taught funders from 26 countries at NYU and Penn, and has included funders of all types and inclinations.
The core concepts the field developed in 2002 and updated regularly since still make sense. But, make no mistake, they need to be contextualized for every situation. Scandinavia is not Latin America, and neither is Spain like China. Moreover, family funders are all different even as they are all the same. If one appears to be only US-centric, or oblivious to local laws, history, and culture, it will be hard to get to the underlying universal aspects that define decision making.
A recent exchange with the Ben Bellegy, executive director of WINGS, emphasized the complexity of nomenclature. [Our educational arm, Wise Philanthropy Institute, is a member of WINGS.] Our conversation was about the centrality and necessity of educational competencies and credentialing as an integral component to an international infrastructure supporting philanthropy. He responded that, in his view, US philanthropy is qualitatively different than in the rest of the world. He argued that in the USA, our primary emphasis is on grantmaking, while in the rest of the world that is often only an incidental component.
As I have thought about his observation, I have been struck by how much of his observation is not philanthropy behavior per se but about nomenclature. For example, the word “foundation” can have very different legal meanings and therefore radically different ground rules. “Non-profits” and “Non-governmental” organizations are not necessarily synonymous. Not only are they often different kinds of legal entities, depending where one is, but imply very different concepts of what is “normal” and what is “non-…” normal.
Mr. Bellegy’s concern was that using grantmaking competencies as a basis for internationally endorsed credentials is far too American centric. As I thought about it, I realized that I myself had not been using the “grantmaking” label for several years but not because of its American-centrism. I found it too constricting to describe what we do and what we teach. Philanthropy is about a vision of society, an understanding of the totality of ways in which voluntarism can influence the public weal and public policy and engage civil society toward its betterment. Some of that is through traditional grantmaking, but that hardly describes the totality. Different funders will choose a different balance of how they use their own resources, of course, but most use a robust combination. Moreover, the role of how that manifests is very dependent on local culture, history, ethos, and law. In highly taxed, socially supportive societies like most of Scandinavia, the role of philanthropy will be very different that in the USA which only begrudgingly provides educational and human service support to its citizens.
In truth, while much of what we teach might be called grantmaking, at bottom it is about making choices. If we are competent at teaching competencies, those whom we and others teach are better able to make wiser, informed, and ethical decisions about the abundance of challenges and choices before us. Much of that has to do with allocating funds, but it also has to do with advocacy, creativity, influence, convening, leadership, values, and empowerment. Those are universal characteristics of the field of philanthropy, and not restricted to any one nation, region, or religion.
Having said that, cultures do differ. Laws differ. Histories differ. Politics differ. Families differ. To say that there are universal categories that define all philanthropy is too facile. Unless one honors the differences and the contexts in which those differences play out, one can never comfortably or credibly get to the generic range of choices.
Some years ago, I was honored to be invited to conduct an all-day workshop for 100 philanthropists from around the world. No Americans were invited except for me as the facilitator. The subject matter was trends in family philanthropy, and best practices in succession – what some call “next-gen”. At the end of the day, the chair who was from South Africa stated that before we started, he was skeptical that there was anything to learn. However, as the day progressed, he said, he realized that everything I and others talked about described his own family. He had never realized that their own challenges were generic and universal. He was somewhat liberated to know that his family was not the only one facing certain challenges, but that he also realized that his own community challenges required that he approach those challenges with both a general perspective and local sensiTIvIty. He got the message.
I still believe in the indispensability of philanthropy education as a core component of our sector’s credibility and potential. But as this exchange suggests, just agreeing on terms and nomenclature is itself a challenge, and that is even before we agree on the content of the education. The challenge for WINGS, and for all of us who work and act in this sphere is to learn how to articulate and distinguish what is exclusively local, and what is in fact generic. Some of that has to do with nomenclature, some of it has to do with knowledge. Most of all, it has to do with finding ways to help our sector so that we accomplish the impact and the good that we all stand for.
June 21st, 2018
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.
June 19th, 2018
“How can you say that?” he asked. “We are living in the very best of times. Just look at the data.”
This tweet was in response to my own tweeted handwringing at the precarious existential reality that was so apparent at an international symposium on the environment and refugees. Environmentalists, economists, civic leaders, religious leaders, to mention only a few, gathered in Greece to learn from one another. We were the guests of the Green Patriarch, His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has been leading this conversation for almost three decades. This Symposium, entitled “A Greener Attika”, focused on the Aegean and the Mediterranean, but included data relevant to the entire planet.
Unless one willfully chooses to deny the overwhelming evidence [and we know that some in the USA choose to do exactly that!], we must acknowledge that the world as we know it is at great risk. There is a bit of disagreement about how far along that degradation is and what might be done to salvage as much as possible, but there is no disagreement about the bottom line of the crisis. The data from every possible vantage is incontrovertible, and it is big!
And, lest one miss the social implications of this environmental degradation, we will soon be faced with a refugee challenge that makes our current tragic numbers seem tame. Yes, I was distressed, angered, and energized all at the same time, and my brief tweet conveyed exactly that.
The above-mentioned retweeter cited a bit of datum that does in fact show that in one area the world has moved forward. He referred to the numbers of human beings who have risen above extreme poverty and are merely poor. The Gates’ have previously published this info and it is certainly a positive development. [Whether it reflects, as my respondent claims, the superiority of pure capitalism is a matter about which I am more than dubious.]
However, that is far from the whole story. The really big data shows that the number of countries where democracy is at risk is growing. The really big data shows that there are too many countries where the divide between the rich and the poor has reached treacherous levels. The really big data shows that civil society, as reflected by a free press, individual liberties, the rights to voluntarily gather, is under attack in too many places. And the really big data demonstrates that the prospects for emerging from poverty for the hundreds of millions who are in that situation is slim indeed.
And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the really big data about climate change, the melting of the polar caps, the desertification of many historically productive farming regions, the competition for potable water, and our stubborn insistence to live unsustainable life-styles.
I suspect that none of this is news to most of you although perhaps the interconnectedness of it all may be. In a future post, I will report on some of the responses and approaches, but all of them start from a sense of urgency. This may or may not be “big data”, but it most assuredly is “big equity.”
I would hope that none of us in the philanthropy world underestimate the important role we can play in keeping these systemic issues n our minds as we deal with the huge challenges to our field and the world we enable. And not to be misled by true but insufficient data that try to get us to avert our eyes from the true “equity” challenges.
June 1st, 2018
This post is a continuation of a series of considerations of the role of philanthropy in these times of challenge to civic decency, honesty, government reliability, and persistent systemic crises. This one will focus on the role of an advisor/consultant. While, as many of you know, the issues raised in this piece have been on my mind for a while, it is being written in the context of an intriguing webinar sponsored by NCRP this past week on matters of power re-balancing within the funder space.
I spend all of my professional time in the philanthropy space wearing many hats. A small part of that is as an advisor to funders, primarily in the strategy realm. One of the distinguishing features of my work in this area is that, unlike most of my philanthropy advisor colleagues, I won’t take any retainer contracts and don’t help manage anyone’s giving. The value of that to a funder, a family, or a foundation is that I have no stake in the outcome of any strategy approach I help develop with them. Many funders are surprised and delighted to learn that there are those of us who can give independent counsel with no financial stake in the outcome. [We readily refer those who want or need another kind of relationship with an advisor to those whose business model aligns with those needs.]
Concomitant to the independence of the recommendations has been a commitment to neutrality. That is, this part of my work has always been value neutral. My work as an advisor to and educator of funders, I have always felt, should be to help every funder, foundation, or family discover their own core values and needs, and then help them determine how to implement them going forward. My own preferences or biases should be irrelevant.
Recently, though, the above-mentioned webinar and their identification of a group of philanthropy advisors to help guide the field have made me wonder whether that neutrality has been too limiting. The three speakers, 2 of whom I didn’t know but are clearly successful advisors, were all explicitly committed to a values lens in their work. It is a dilemma, for me, at least – one needs to help guide the field and provide thought-leadership during this time of transformation, and at the same time, be cautious not to impose one’s own values and priorities on others. Yet these colleagues seem to have managed to do so quite successfully.
In the past, I have not felt any problem with having strongly held positions in our own giving, in the foundation I used to head, on the boards of which I have been a trustee, in my writings, and in my public speaking. [Some readers may recall one of my proud moments when, in a conference evaluation, one attendee commented on my talk: “I don’t agree with anything he said, but I could listen to him all day long.”]
The question, though, is whether the environment in which philanthropy must function today has changed so profoundly that we no longer have the luxury of neutrality in our advising. In another article, to be published soon after this one, I will address this question regarding philanthropy’s role vis a vis government and public policy. Suffice it to say that every single grant or contribution or investment we make reflects a value. To repeat a thought from above, these are “times of challenge to civic decency, honesty, government reliability, and persistent systemic crises.” These are not normal times, and the stakes have rarely been higher. At the risk of being melodramatic, is it still responsible philanthropy or is it an indulgence to fund projects without addressing the “equity” implications?” And, if one decides that “equity” is an indispensable component of contemporary philanthropy, can one be a responsible advisor if one doesn’t proactively put that on the table?
Ethical philanthropy advising requires deep expertise in the field. That should be a non-negotiable given. But to do philanthropy advising well is an art, relying on that expertise, an understanding of family or group dynamics, uncovering unstated and often unclarified aspirations, and the ability to leave the client empowered to do the good which their resources allow.
The question this post asks: how much of the artist should be in the picture? Or, perhaps we always are even if we think we aren’t.
May 22nd, 2018
The philanthropy field has not been exempt from ethical lapses – some at a headline grabbing level. And these scandals have been seen on both sides of the table: funders and leaders of non-profits have been caught in all too embarrassing behaviors. In many of these cases, the violators were receiving very generous pay packages – greed may have been a driver, but need was not. Many have asked me: how did such a thing happen?
Over my own career, I have supervised hundreds of individuals, overseen dozens of organizations, and been on the board of or funded many others. Sad to say, I have seen, and had to act on, too many instances of theft, abuse, and other ethical lapses. In each case, people have asked me: how did this happen?
My response is the same to both inquiries: in every case of which I am aware, the violations began as very small over-reaches. Penny-ante stuff. Nothing that added up to much, “what is the big deal if I use petty cash for private purposes or receive a small ‘gift’ in exchange for a legitimate contract we would sign anyway?”
What I saw in every case of which I had direct knowledge and seems to have been true in the big picture ones as well, is that the violations began small. Then, incrementally grew. Before they knew it, they became so normal that they stopped thinking about it. After all, no one said anything, so maybe no one cared.
By the time the violators were exposed, the violations added up – to real money, to real embarrassment to all, and to real challenge to the confidence in the ability of our sector or out boards to self-monitor. [Now, before anyone retorts with a “what about… the banking industry or the person who currently occupies the president’s seat or Enron or Weinstein or….” let me say unequivocally that this is not a competition to the bottom. I function in the philanthropy sector, write and speak about philanthro-ethics, and care deeply about the good we can do. So, this is what I feel is appropriate for me to address.
I was reminded of this early this morning: leaving the gym, I happened upon a phone charger on the ground. It was in a public place and was a high-quality model compatible with my own phone. I picked it up, put it in my pocket, and had an internal debate about what to do. There was no way to trace it – it wasn’t the phone, only the charger. People lose these things all the time. At the same time, it certainly wasn’t mine even though I found it in a public place.
I decided to return to where I found it, a few steps from an apartment building, to turn it in. The concierge and I agreed: if no one claimed it within 2 days, it would be legitimate to claim it. Probably a fair solution to an ethical dilemma.
This is not a great hero story. There have been many more noble things I [and most of us] have done. Indeed, I have written about some of these in the past. But it came at a time when we are, collectively, thinking a lot about equity. And it reminded me that, in life, in communities, in organizations, and in personal relationships, the true measure of our values is the collection of the little things.
Yes, it is true that we have real systemic challenges that require big thinking. The environment, public discourse, poverty, racism and xenophobia of all sorts – to mention just a few. These require big actions within our funding sector [see the most recent manual by NCRP for how we might begin to do so], in our advocacy for transformative change in our public policy toward more just and equitable allocation of resources, toward enabling those who have been penalized purely because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background, or their creed or their physical make-up to be treated as full and deserving members of society, to a radical embrace of our fragile environment.
These are all big, systemic, and urgent challenges that cannot and must not be deferred. At the same time, it is important to remember that we show how seriously we take these larger commitments as much by our daily small behaviors as by our ambitious aspirations. In fact, we have learned from social science studies that we are more likely to take the big matters seriously, and be less paralyzed by them, when we see that there are actions and practices we can take as individuals. If we behave properly in our daily interactions, we are more likely to be empathetic to the larger changes the world needs to make.
When our daily ethical behavior has eroded, so has the underlying belief that we are in this together. When we behave only in self-interest, we challenge the delicate fabric which binds us, the connections upon which all of us rely.
But when our inner compass of ethics pushes us toward making good and responsible and ethical and honest decisions daily, even if they are not by themselves heroic, we are much more likely to be heroic and courageous in our efforts to bring about the changes that we, and the world, require.
I sure hope so.
May 15th, 2018
For several days, I have been trying to figure out why this incident bothered me so much.
Some out of town visitors wanted to be tourists for a few hours. Before doing so, they decided, wisely, that they needed protection from the harsh sun and stopped at a street vendor selling caps. They were committed to buying two, and spent some time deciding which “statement” they wanted their new caps to make.
Once they decided, they asked what the price was. The response “$10 each”. They replied, “can’t you give us a discount since we are buying two?” The street vendor hesitated, and then reluctantly agreed to reduce the price by $2. Our friends were very proud of themselves for a successful negotiation.
The episode has made me uncomfortable since then, and I finally understood why. It reflected a deep power imbalance that reminds me of a pattern too often played out between funders and grantees.
I have no clue about the financial situation of those working in that kiosk. It is fair to assume that no one sits out there all day in the rain or shine, heat or cold, if they have substantial financial reserves. Whatever they may charge per hat, I am sure they don’t make very much. Every sale matters.
I am also sure that our friends, wonderful and caring people, didn’t think anything about that when they haggled. The $2 made no difference to their financial well-being whatsoever. For them it was a bit of sport. And in this instance, a small victory made them momentarily happy. And, let me fair, one sees this all the time, and typically we don’t think much about it; our visitors were certainly no different than many others.
Nevertheless, I felt, why begrudge that street vendor the $2 that most probably meant much more to him?
In many parts of the world, that kind of haggling is de rigueur. The initial “ask” is set with the clear understanding that the “buy” will be lower. Both sides start from the same premise. [Ethicists affirm that even that kind of bargaining is unethical if you never have any intention of buying in the first place.] But that isn’t the way most people do things in the USA, and the financial power imbalance is reinforced every time someone with adequate resources tries to do so. One who lives by very limited incremental profit on each sale must weigh the chance of losing a sale altogether. In this example, the original price was not set based on selling to a haggler
I don’t want to make too much of this, but we do see this played out in small ways all the time: in taxis, in restaurants, in hotels… anyplace where workers are paid minimal wages and depend on the good will of patrons to help them along. There may be an occasional story of one of those workers getting rich, but the percentages are hugely against them.
We still see this, sad to say, in the ways many funders treat their grantees. Yes, things are improved and the field is getting much better at it than we were even a decade ago. But too many funders still assume that a grant amount is something to be bargained over, that there is a sense of victory if they can persuade a grantee to accept a lower amount, or have someone else pay for the infrastructure or even part of the project – Why? Just in principle.
All in all, that is bad practice for many reasons:
1. It reinforces the issue raised above – the endemic power imbalance between those who have and those who need.
2. It doesn’t address that the grantee actually needs a certain amount to do the work the funder wants accomplished. It puts the discussion about grant amounts in terms of deal making, not problem solving.
3. It creates an implicitly adversarial relationship between funder and grantee when they and we need it to be collaborative.
4. It leads to grantees feeling that they must oversell their potential success instead of sharing more iterative learning.
5. It assumes that the proper role for the nonprofit sector is to be treated like supplicants rather than professionals with requisite expertise to address social ills.
To be sure, every funder should feel comfortable that an amount being given is the right amount, not too much, sometimes – and, much more typically, not too little. Due diligence is perfectly appropriate. But once that is done, once a funder has decided that this grantee is worth the investment, the rest should be a matter of agreeing on realistic expectations and costs, authentic risk assessment, outcome measures, and more.
Haggling for the best deal shouldn’t be on this list.
May 7th, 2018
Quite frequently, when I speak at an investment related conference, I am asked about what a philanthropy advisor does, and how one chooses among us. Not so surprising that I am asked since, after all, philanthropy is why I am invited to speak. What is surprising is how many don’t realize that there are those of us with this expertise.
In choosing, there are many subjective factors, of course, such as compatibility, but there are also substantial differences in what one does, how one does it, and what the business models are. Periodically, it is useful to give some perspective to new readers, and remind older ones, to help you make appropriate choices.
Some of what I do professionally is to advise funders, philanthropists, families, and philanthropists in their philanthropy decision-making priorities and style. It is a growing field and can include those from a variety of other professions: wealth management, trust and estates, family systems, content expertise, family offices, non-profit management, and more, as well as those of us with extensive background in the philanthropy sector on the funder side. Since there are no barriers to entry, it is very much “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware. Does the advisor know about and have experience in philanthropy, or about the finances of philanthropy, or about family issues, or about the fields that are a funder’s priorities?
Even among those of us with extensive and relevant professional background, there are a wide variety of business models: Some charge straight fees, some a percentage of assets or giving, some prefer retainer arrangements, some a smorgasbord of services – pay as you go. And more, I am sure. Each business model has its legitimacy, but it is important for any funder to fully understand what they are, how they compare, and ultimately, what is best for the funder. [To take our firm as one illustration: we only provide advisory services on strategy, evaluation, and inter-generation matters; we charge on a project-fee basis, determined by how long a project is estimated to take; and we do not accept any management or retainer contracts. Our model is perfect for funders who want an independent advisor who has no longer-term agenda beyond what we offer, but it is not very appropriate for someone looking for “full service,” or ongoing management of their philanthropy or a part time program officer or an impact investment guru.]
Having determined the relevant expertise, it is also useful to learn something about our methodologies. Most good advisors will probably get you where you need to be, but we may not all get you there the same way. We should be able to articulate why we do it the way we do and show you how our method can be implemented in your situation both during the “process” and after. Not so good advisors give you advice that gathers dust.
My final point is a bit of a nit-pick. Some use the term “philanthropic advisor” and others “philanthropy advisor.” I have a strong preference for the latter. After all, I would hope that any and all of us in this field, and many other fields, are philanthropic. We should all be philanthropic, generous with our time and money, as are many with totally unrelated expertise. But to be a “Philanthropy” Advisor should mean that we bring expertise, experience, and perspective to the services we provide.
Our field is responsible for granting and investing billions of dollars, sustaining an entire sector, influencing public policy, and visioning more equitable societies. I certainly hope we are philanthropic, but even more that we are experts in the humbling and even sacred work of philanthropy. Any client deserves no less.
May 2nd, 2018
Equity is the philanthropy word of the year. And last. And next.
And well it should be. After all, what are we about if we don’t have societal outcomes that redress systemic injustice, inequality, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, age-ism, misogyny, nativism….? And to be sure, any of us who are philanthropoids know that it is a topic, or THE topic, at virtually every major philanthropy gathering. That doesn’t mean that answers are easy, that funding decisions are obvious, that evidence of solutions is persuasive, or that the destructive current political ethos will be responsive, but it does mean that we are consistent in naming our goals.
However, just because we insiders in the field think we know what we mean when we use the “equity” shorthand, I can attest that this is far from true among those just outside our convo zone, and even among partisans within.
Many of us have tried for years to distinguish between equality of access or process vs equity or equitability of results, but not everyone buys in. There are many who resist the idea of systemic and endemic injustice, and assume, just as justice is supposed to be blind, so should philanthropy. Or that educational standards should apply across the board, even if the resources and support systems don’t make those standards fair. Or that passing laws against discrimination guarantees that deeply engrained attitudes and behaviors will simply dissipate.
Fortunately, much of the philanthropy world has largely bought into the concept that outcomes and desired changes matter more than best intentions. It is incumbent on us, then, to find a way to explain to others what we mean. And, since public policy, behavior, and the public square depend on us getting this right, I have struggled with ways to communicate what we mean. How is this one as a metaphor? Pedestrian-Friendly vs. Pedestrian-Normal.
But first the background:
Many readers know that some short months ago, we relocated from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Washington, DC. As folks fully committed to not owning a car, we were only willing to live in places where one wouldn’t be needed. And we do.
We live in downtown Bethesda, in an apartment building on a major street, 2 blocks from the Metro, easy walking distance from markets, restaurants, and most other accoutrements of urban living. There are sidewalks, traffic lights, crosswalks… the only thing missing are actual pedestrians.
Coming from New York, of course, we are used to pedestrians. Cars wait for us to cross at intersections, the sidewalks are bustling with us – everywhere. We couldn’t understand why we don’t see them in our new downtown.
It seems we have a case of a pedestrian -friendly area devoid of pedestrians. And since there are so few, cars are not as careful in turning, stopping at crosswalks, and otherwise knowing that intersections need to be shared. And when we called a couple of problematic intersections to the attention of the county, they responded that not enough pedestrians cross there to warrant a marked crosswalk!
Having a “pedestrian-friendly” community is a first step, a veritable indispensable input. But while the intention is to make things “pedestrian friendly”, it is not [yet?] “pedestrian-normal.” In other words, the actual outcome does not fulfill the goal. And thus, pedestrians are still needlessly at risk. Something about the system still needs to be addressed. [this is a metaphor, folks; I am not addressing all of America’s systemic car-centric dependency or other causes, or even solutions. Only trying to illustrate the difference between funding for a result and getting the result.] This is a case where the desired systemic change has not happened. When pedestrians become normal, cars will slow down, or stop, or otherwise exhibit different behaviors. Probably not until.
Sometimes the dilemma goes the other way: I have been sufficiently sensitized to speaking on all-male panels that I make it a point not to do so. Yet not long ago, I found myself in such a situation – but with a difference. This is an organization that rarely has a gender imbalance, and in the past, I have been the only male on some of their panels. Under the circumstances of their proven record, would it be right or appropriate to make a stand in this case? I consulted with others – women – who are also regulars and who would normally be outspoken, and they all encouraged me to speak since this organization’s record is beyond reproach. The result of the organization’s consistent demonstration of gender sensitivity meant that any single exception was neither a symbol nor a case. Where the desired change is internalized and normal, an exception is not an aberration, and does not require disruption.
In our world, the challenge has become greatest in convening or collaborating for system change. There are too many who espouse a “you’re with me or a’gin me.” There is no middle ground. That means that if I have a political stance, or even a preferred solution that you don’t fully endorse, I am not welcome. It can be political correctness run amok – ore more specifically, to an unproductive level.
The issue is real: we all know that true systemic change requires an understanding and appreciation of the interconnectedness of many things. And it also requires an appreciation of how that interconnectedness impacts others. But, since no one can do everything, fund everything, or endorse everything, if we happen to disagree on priorities or approaches, that need not be an absolute red-line that prohibits collaboration.
While readers are well aware of my personal political leanings, and perhaps our funding priorities, this is one area where, if there is fault, it is on all sides of the political divide.
Absolutism can be a stumbling block on the way to equity. If we need to communicate that equity is a measure of outcomes and impact, we also must communicate that the pursuit of equity need not be so rigid that it prevents us from achieving the very impact we desire.
I wish that we lived in a pedestrian-normal community. But we will still continue to walk even though it isn’t.
April 2nd, 2018
While this post is a personal reflection, it is implicitly a call to action by those of us in the philanthropy world as well. It joins the growing chorus of those who argue that our sector no longer has the luxury of reticence in the face of the most profound challenges to the institutions of democratic stability since the McCarthy era.
The year was 1967. A friend and I were sitting on a Broadway bus in New York City. Sitting in front of us, apparently each minding his own business, were a hirsute college student and an older man. [Now that a lot of years have gone by, I realize that I have no idea how “old” that older man was at the time.]
The bus came to a stop, the older person stood up to leave, but before doing so struck the younger one in his face with a fist. He then got off the bus and ran away. The young man was not seriously hurt, but he was shocked and surprised. All the rest of us on the bus could only surmise that the older gentleman was so threatened by this long-haired college student that he literally lashed out. [Thank goodness the destructive belief in the unrestrained and extreme interpretation of the 2nd amendment was still in the future. I shudder to think if this blind rage had been accompanied by a gun. A point to remember toward the end of this essay.]
By 1967, most of us who had not rushed off to careers on Wall Street looked very much as this young man did. Indeed, between 1965 and 1968, the preferred attire for most had switched from buttoned down to denim-ed up. On university campuses, and in most of the trans-Atlantic big cities, the confluence of the counter culture and political activism [two very different motivating dynamics that converged in time] meant that what was normal then was profoundly different than it had been a scant 5 years earlier.
This is not the place to rehearse all of the changes, some fleeting, others more lasting, of those years, but one thing is certain. By 1968, it didn’t take much courage to protest. I don’t want to diminish the killings at Jackson State and Kent State, nor the “occupying” police presence on many university campuses and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But they were, it appeared to many, the last gasps of a political enterprise that resisted the changing rules, the challenge to the mandatory draft, the protests against a despised war, the legal and moral insistence of racial and gender equity, and the transforming personal mores.
It was a movement, or in retrospect, several interlocking movements, that were young-person led. Some in the political power structures tried to ignore or squelch things at the time, but changes prevailed, even if radical Change may not have.
Over the next decades, many of us rested on our activist laurels. I know I did. We assumed, wrongly it now appears, that while there were still significant skirmishes to be fought in the areas of women’s rights over their own bodies, or fairness in hiring and education of minorities, or the degradation of the environment – to take but three, the big battles of a society that could hold its elected officials and big business accountable for misconduct were won. And there were governmental entities in place that would enforce these principles.
I cannot speak for everyone else, but I know that I never changed my political leanings even as my attire became more bespoke, and my hair – well, let’s just say that is long gone. However, what I discovered on numerous occasions over the years was that very few knew that I had those views. There were even occasions when I would speak up or write something or attend an event that incurred surprised reactions by other attendees or readers. But on the whole, I let others, too few others, take the lead in these and other important battles.
I don’t want to impugn others, although I don’t think these behaviors were mine alone. Activism, even when safe, is never easy and requires great tolerance for failure and disappointment. And it requires a lot of time, and even more social risk. How ironic, I now realize, that my passivity was during the very time when I, in fact, did have leadership positions -some ascribed, others earned. I had the opportunities to influence others, to articulate larger visions, to be more politically active, but didn’t.
Activism became less and less appealing as the political ethos deteriorated into money and partisanship and ugly personal nastiness. In 1967, the risk was a fist in the face; in 2018, there are opponents trolling our sites and toting guns. Even when it is socially safe, it is not without real risk.
Voting or sending an occasional letter or making an even more occasional phone call to an elected official is not that hard or risky. But getting in the trenches requires a different level of commitment, and that wasn’t what I did.
And if it is true that I am not alone, we are all a bit guilty of negligence. We have tolerated, mostly by our silence, this abysmal state of affairs, the erosion of confidence in our democracy, and the willful self-indulgent atomized existence of far too many.
The Parkland kids shook me out of my facile passivity. Yes, I did participate in recent marches – to respond to climate change, for women, for immigrants, and more – but there was something different this time. It resonated with the dormant part of my activist soul. And challenged me and hopefully us.
It may well be that my own personal opportunities to influence others are largely over, but that doesn’t exempt me from raising my voice, being a visible advocate, and choosing involvements that demand a restoration of a commitment to ethics and justice as bedrock principles of empowerment.
We didn’t quite accomplish what we hoped to in our last youth-led movement, when I was still young-ish. Now that I am 2 generations older, it is time to follow the young once again. And this time, we cannot leave it to them alone to finish the hard part of the work.
They and we and the nation as a whole deserve no less.