November 16th, 2018
This replaces a prior version of this post that was posted with errors. Apologies.
I didn’t plan it that way, but events have a way of happening. So, it was that I found myself in Berlin on 9 November 1989.
The trip changed my life [and, of course, much of the world.].
I was in Germany as a guest of what was then West Germany. A small group of young-ish [today, we would call us emergent] Jewish leaders was invited for 3 weeks to demonstrate how the nation had dealt with its shameful past and the underlying values that defined the new Germany.
The content of the trip was fascinating. Quite appropriately, it included powerful exploration of Holocaust places and remembrances. It introduced us to how education about the nadir of civilization was being taught to all school students, how there is now a policy of the military that enables, indeed mandates, resistance to immoral orders. And, perhaps most telling, it began to show how a nation was moving from memory to myth – how that terrible period will be understood long after those with direct memory are no more.
The trip, though, was not only about The Shoah. It reminded us that Jews lived in Germany for 2000 years. We saw the birthplace of what is known as Ashkenazic Jewry in the Rhine Valley. We visited the birthplaces of Modern Jewry – both Reform and Neo [Modern] Orthodoxy. And much more.
Jews were not suddenly transported to Germany in 1932 to experience the Holocaust; rather there was a long,, complex, and often thriving and robust diaspora there for a long time.
And lest we think that this was only a trip of parochial interest, I have a folio from the Gutenberg printing press in Mainz in our personal collection. We sat in the home of Beethoven’s birth. And more.
And we also saw the great Wall dividing the “free” West from the Soviet East. That divide meant almost certain death for any daring to cross it. Armed GDR troops on one side had their fingers on the triggers, and the armies of 3 other powers were on the alert on the other. That was visible and palpable all the way through the morning of 9 November.
It was coincidence that I remained for a few days after the conclusion of our program. So it was that I was in Berlin that day. Today, few remember that the militaries were all on full alert. The end of the GDR was clearly in the offing. But none were confident that it would be a peaceful end. Truth be told, that no sergeant lost his cool was the real miracle of that historic day.
My own life, as I said, was changed by that – both professionally and personally. As an American, never again could I revert to the provincialism of seeing my world as disconnected to that which was happening across the Pond. And, as a Jew, never again could I view our existence in simplistic terms. History, politics, identities are all interwoven – and that trip brought that complexity to the fore. It became a defining element of my own persona, and my professional work.
The world seemed very binary at that time. When the Wall fell, optimism for a new, different, and better era seemed inevitable. We were confident that the liberties and freedoms, and even the economic success we took for granted in the West would soon become universal. Prosperity and enfranchisement for all. It was just a matter of investment, planning… and learning.
Well, 3 decades have shown us how elusive and illusory that romantic optimism was. We have witnessed nationalist and ethnic backlashes. We have seen that greed, selfishness, and myopia have made sharing the wealth of the developed world with those still in need seem Sisyphean. And, we have learned that painful lesson that not all share our vision of a world with liberties and justice for all – regardless of race, gender, religion, or national origin.
I write this for publication the week of this auspicious anniversary. Looking back now, these days and in this week, as an American, as a Jew, as a student of history, I realize the fragility of civil society, the brevity of memory, and the destructive hubris of leaders motivated by xenophobic rage,
History teaches us to be vigilant. Germany wasn’t – and we weren’t – and it took millions of lives and a radical change in world order to recover from that silence. Today the stakes are even higher. The earth’s climate change is an existential challenge to all human beings. Technology doesn’t allow any but the fiction of isolationism. And the deepest-seated cynicism toward institutions means that too many are simply unwilling to invest any energies in preserving a democratic society – not just in the USA but in too many places.
Looking back, the Fall of the Wall did not usher in an era of guaranteed freedoms and prosperity for all. It did usher in a time of great challenges – and choices. I am trying hard not to be trite, but if there was ever a time to learn from the past, an historic moment with much to teach us, and with moral values that need to infuse our thinking, this is it.
November 8th, 2018
A friend and honored colleague in the National Speakers Association, Bruce Weinstein Ph.D., is known as The Ethics Guy.
He speaks and writes extensively about ethics and high character leadership and has a regular column for Forbes online.. Recently, he has been expanding his conversation about ethics to those beyond the business sphere. Thus, he has asked for my thoughts about my particular expertise in this discussion, philanthro-ethics and why they matter.
First, some definitions: Ethics involve choices. Unlike morality where there is a “right” and “wrong”, ethics means that there are competing claims – each of which has some legitimacy even if they may not be equal. Ethics is also not a synonym of “legal”. There are many times when what is legal falls far short of recognized ethical standards. [Would that it were otherwise!] The law is too often nothing more than enacted self-interests and not reflective of true public interest. I am confident that no reader needs examples.
Why is this so important in the philanthropy world?
Underpinning philanthropy, and thus philanthro-ethics, is the extraordinary disparity of power that is endemic to the financial divide between those who want/need and those who have/give. Anyone who has heard me speak or teach for the last 18 years is well aware of my concern with this power imbalance, and the particular challenge that funders have. It mandates that funders develop a sensitivity to the “conscious use of self” in settings where grantees and potential grantees are present. It is incumbent on funders to make it safe for those who need our funds to tell us the truth. It is obligatory that our funding enables the greatest likelihood of success in whatever we choose to fund – and allows for the inevitable failure of some of those projects. It is a profound imperative that our decisions be informed by those who will be most impacted by our decisions.
[For the record, I am delighted that both NCRP and SSIR have recently also entered this discussion in a big way. Their combined reach is far greater than mine and therefore should have more influence on our sector’s behavior than my writings and speaking over the years have had.]
Best practices in philanthro-ethics extend from the board and board room, to how we define our relationships with external entities through our conflict of interest and spending policies, to what we value in our grant decisions, to the character of the relationships we maintain with our grantees.. We are constantly faced with choices that reflect the values we affirm, the affect we demonstrate, and our awareness of the roles we play in our sector, in the non-profit world at large, and in the larger public policy space.
Indeed philanthro-ethics is, at its core, simply a manifestation of the best practices that define our unique and privileged role in the world. And that role must never be taken lightly.
October 6th, 2018
The Wise Philanthropy Institute reminds fellow funders that the its most recently updated edition of “Should You Go It Alone? – A guide to collaborations, partnerships and mergers” is available by request. This practicum has been WPI‘s most requested piece for last 10 years.
Now, for the first time, the WPI guide on exit strategies “When the Buck Stops Here” is also available as well. This practical guide has been privately requested frequently, but this is the first time it is being made publicly available.
Both of these are available gratis by direct request – only to funders. For a copy or further information, info@WisePhilanthropy.com
October 1st, 2018
This piece was written a while ago. Because of some technical issues, it didn’t actually get published. But recent events and a professional conference have both persuaded me that it Is important to add my voice and urging to our field to maintain our voice and courage to exercise our leadership at this crucial time.
It is no exaggeration, nor much of a surprise, to say that these are not normal times. Thoughtful people may disagree on particular policies, or the role of government, or the best ways of helping people at risk, or even [maybe] about how to preserve the radically degraded environment and climate.
But what makes these times so unsettling is the overt challenge to the basic assumptions of the American system: the profound erosion of civility, the loss of belief in the separation of powers, the cynical assumption that truth is only a political articulation of a point of view and that science is no more than a partisan political perspective, the barely masked attempts at voter suppression, the sanctioned intimidation of even legal immigrants, the unconscionable tax policy that cynically rewards the affluent and penalizes the rest, the normalization of public expressions of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism… Need we add more?
In principle, none of these issues is partisan. In principle, every elected official should be able to endorse and be identified with the condemnation of every single one of these. In principle, it should be a no brainer that there should be a natural coalition between political leaders, regardless of party, with the philanthropy world to affirm that civility matters, that the separation of powers is basic Civics 101, that we can and do know facts, that every adult American has an inherent right to vote and that right should be made accessible and reliable, that a citizen is a citizen regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender, or language, that public expressions of hatred are simply beyond the pale…
All of this should be a given and should be the starting point of civil society in the USA. Should be…
But in the last weeks alone:
I have heard the father of a Parkland victim scratch his head saying that he views his cause as non-partisan, and he himself is an independent. But, he said, one party has consistently chosen to consider any attempt to legislate anything that might effectively limit access to arms, ammo, or access to be non-negotiable. He may not be partisan, but one party has made it so.
I have attended a gathering of philanthropists and foundation professionals discussing Census 2020. This should not be a partisan issue at all – This process is Constitutionally mandated, and our efforts should be to guarantee that the numbers are complete and untainted. But even an official of the government census bureau acknowledged that political pressures have been brought to bear that will almost certainly distort the results of the 2020 Census, and that historic undercounting of certain minority groups will almost certainly be more extreme this go-round..
I have heard, as have you, attempts to restrict access to polling places, limit times and dates for voting, and require onerous identification evidence. This should not be a partisan issue at all. Any elected official should be committed to an open process [not being naïve here, but one would hope for at least a modicum of a commitment to what being elected is about. Yet, too often, under one artificial guise or another, these restrictions are imposed in a partisan way.
Should we tolerate abuse of search and seizure laws now being executed by at least one branch of the government? Every elected official should be demanding an accounting! Yet the silence and acquiesnce by some have made this a partisan issue.
Why do I enumerate this sad list, even knowing how incomplete it is? Because we are in a season when the electorate has the obligation to choose our future. And the philanthropy world has an obligation to weigh in on many of these matters. We have everything at stake in re-asserting a stable and civil society, eliminating poverty, rejecting racism and xenophobia, and urging systemic equity. The challenge for us is to not be intimidated by those who would limit our outspokenness under the guise of accusing us of partisanship. Of course, there are legal limitations to what we can lobby for and what lobbying we can support. But our rights, I would say even our obligations as funders, to advocate for constitutional rights, civil society, and equity for all are virtually unlimited.
None of these points is new – but they cannot be repeated often enough. The philanthropy world needs to model outspokenness for justice, courage in the face of intimidation, and articulation of ideals that should not be abrogated. This is not partisanship it is simply fulfilling our proper role as advocates for that which enables us, motivates us, and – when we do it right, legitimates us.
September 15th, 2018
This has been one of the most challenging pieces I’ve chosen to write. It emerges from hearing the same question too often recently and not having an easy answer.
What is the question? How can we persuade someone to be philanthropic if they don’t choose to be?
First, the context: For well over 20 years, most of my talks and writings have been about philanthropy. Depending on the audience, they might address emerging trends, or philanthro-ethics, or best practices, or decision-making in families and foundations, or any of a myriad of other related matters.
On the whole, my peer group and my audiences are funders. As funders, we are already committed to giving money, but not always sure about how or what will be the most impactful, or what will engage successor generations. That is where I come in – helping to make good, informed, and appropriate decisions. Until recently, I don’t recall ever being asked the question: how do we persuade someone to give?
Let me be clear. In the past, fundraisers have often asked me a related, but ultimately a different question: how do we influence or persuade funders? They are sure that my understanding of the thinking process of philanthropists and foundations will give them the magic code to unlock untold riches for their projects. [By coincidence, as I am writing this, I see that Guidestar has just published some advice for fundraisers from funders and SSIR has published an extended piece on altruism.] However, questions the fundraisers raise are built on the same starting assumption as my own – they want to appeal to those committed to being funders, not to those who don’t or won’t..
However, over the last few years, I have been asked to speak to more and more groups of investment and wealth managers, family office directors, and others whose field and expertise is more specifically on the money-making side and not the philanthropy spending side. It is an interesting contrast with my peer group where philanthropy is about giving money away. Put simplistically, money managers pay their bills based on money under management; philanthropy is money out the door. Their starting point and their bottom lines are different than the questions funders ask me. [Yes, I know that to give money, you must have it and I am not dismissing the importance of good investment decisions – but, except for impact and values-based investments, they are essentially a different set of questions.]
As I have become more visible in these settings, a number of wealth mangers have sought opportunities to speak to me privately about their clients. Most of the issues they raise are not surprising; family conflicts, succession uncertainties, determining how much is enough…. But some quite explicitly ask me how they can convince their few miserly clients to be philanthropic.
If the studies are correct, I suspect that many of these people are not hearing the full story from their clients. After all, even though the data shows some improvement, it appears that investors don’t think highly of the philanthropy advice they get from their wealth advisors. Some, as said above, are concerned that the wealth advisor is simply looking for another vehicle under management, but more likely they don’t think that their wealth advisors are very attuned to the practice of being a funder.
In addition, not everyone does or wants to do philanthropy in the American institutional style. Around the world, millions of people are generous, altruistic, and philanthropic, but they don’t express those behaviors in the vocabulary or structures the way the American philanthropic sector does. Some people do nothing, I am sure, but my experience tells me that that is very rare.
Nevertheless, I am sure that some percentage of their clients really are averse to being philanthropic by any definition, and the questions do come from a genuine belief that they should.. How then should one answer?
Let me quickly point out, as I have in the past, that avoiding taxes is a very inappropriate bottom line reason for someone to give. If lower taxes is one result of a healthy thought out philanthropy strategy, no problem, but to eliminate taxes as a goal is unlikely to be persuasive and, as I have written previously, morally wrong. Further, every study of which I am aware reinforces this perspective. When funders are asked about why they give, tax deductibility is usually # 4 or 5 on the list. [It may play an important role in how one structures a philanthropic gift but not whether to make one.] But none of these studies talk about a more basic underlying issue of why one should give in the first place.
As I mentioned above, research shows that being altruistic, the very act of giving, makes one happier. [viz., Jenny Santi’s “The Giving Way to Happiness.”] Philanthropic generosity is present in every society. Giving helps one go beyond oneself and serves to make us players in making the world, or at least someone’s world, a little better. This may begin to give us a clue to an answer, but this work shows how people feel when they are altruistic, not whether they can be persuaded to become so. They don’t answer the question these wealth advisors ask: How can they persuade their hoarders to share?
Some wealth advisors ask me to do what they haven’t been able to do – to talk to their clients directly about philanthropy. When that happens, unexpected things often come up. Many wealthy folks welcome the opportunity to talk to someone who doesn’t have hands in their pockets. Over the years, I have learned about ultra-high net worth families that are really angry at the advice that their famous private bank was giving; in other cases, I have been told of much deeper pockets than revealed even to their long-term wealth advisors. I have met with art collectors who have more difficulty deciding about the ultimate distribution of their art collection than how to endow their offspring; and many more. However, none has ever asked me to convince them to be a giver – only how to be.
Perhaps, though, the impact investment developments of these last few years may give us a clue to a possible answer I have been asked for my independent analysis of whether values based/impact investments are a fad or a movement. [I should underscore that I have no expertise as an investment advisor – only in helping people understand in non-jargon-y or self-interested ways what it all might mean to them.]
It is this last point that may lead to a possible answer to the question of why be philanthropic. How? Every investment has some implicit set of values: What we spend our money on is rarely neutral: we choose what we eat, what we wear, where we live, with whom we socialize, and so much more, based on some underlying value system. Not everyone makes those choices with self-awareness, but many of us do. Why not unpack our personal financial values system? Lots of folks aren’t so thrilled when they realize that their personal investments endorse environmental degradation, or underage child exploitation, or self-aggrandizing and excessive executive pay. Even choosing to say that financial returns matter more than where those returns come from is itself a decision.
Modern investment theory calls for some sort of balance in our portfolios – a.k.a. the prudent investment approach. Thus, by definition, something is going to earn less or more than another part of the portfolio. So, if that is true, there is nothing wrong with making values-based decisions on one’s investments. [Sure, some ESG [Environment/Social/Governance] or Socially Responsible Funds underperform, but many more outperform their benchmarks. It is no secret that some of the largest investment companies are seeing ESG standards as preconditions for long term results.]
Money itself may be value free, but where and how we use it and keep it isn’t. If so, why not consider having at least some of it reflect values one cares about? Asking the question this way may or may not lead to philanthropic giving, but it is likely to lead to more self-awareness of the underlying values of what one does with one’s money.
The final possible answer is that not everyone is ready to think about matters of mortality, the disposition of their estate or resources, or the needs of others at the time we decide to discuss it with them. Sometimes we simply must be there when that moment does come and to be open to understanding what people share at that time. We may well discover that our friends, family, and clients have been more self-reflective and philanthropically open than we ever imagined.
August 27th, 2018
We recently had occasion to discover our inner toddler. You know, the gleeful pleasure in knocking things down… blocks, books, and pretty much anything else that gets in the way.
In our case, it was more voyeuristic. Directly across the street from our apartment is the site of what will be the new world headquarters of a major hotel company and one of their hotels. When completed it is to be one of the largest buildings in the area. It remains to be seen – literally and figuratively – whether it will be the aesthetic asset the developers promise.
But one cannot build a new building until one removes those already on the site – and that removal has proven more than a little captivating.
At first, we assumed that we would see a straightforward demolition – the kind that a toddler would do – an enthusiastic knockdown, let the Legos fall where they may. We sat captivated as the large equipment began to destroy what people had carefully built a couple of generations ago. Huge equipment with jaws and shovels and who knows what else. At the pace they were going, we were sure it would all be done in a day or two. Clear it all away and start the next phase.
However, what we realized was that we were not watching a demolition but a deconstruction. That huge equipment might have been able to demolish those buildings in a day, but the highly skilled operators were doing something else. They were taking the buildings apart in such a way that the elements were being separated, – metal beams here, metal rods over there, and in another building, bricks here, windows there… and ultimately some piles of remaining detritus just piled up waiting to be removed.
Deconstruction, we realized, is a recognition that not everything that is demolished is to be discarded. Within these long vacant and no longer viable spaces remained much that still has value, that should be reused somewhere. Change was/is inevitable, and often desired, but it need not require that everything that needs to be changed is to be discarded. The toddler stage passed quickly as we became ever more fascinated watching the care that is used in this dismantling and deconstruction. We grew ever more respectful of the planning and the incredible skill that these hard-hatted craftsmen used in delicately making distinctions among materials.
This is an all too obvious cautionary metaphor for the work of innovation and reinvention – disruption- that characterizes our era. It is one thing to take down the structures of the past, but making distinctions among the detritus and that which still has value, and ultimately what should be constructed its place… ah, there is the rub.
Which brings me back to the word of the last decade – disruption.
Disruption writ small describes every intervention in a business or organization. Over the last decade, almost every one of my speaking or consulting assignments has included the expectation that my role was to “disrupt” their audience, foundation, organization. Looking back on it, many didn’t really mean it. They wanted to wake up their group, not challenge anything essential about what they were doing. Yet “disruption”, even writ small and even with limited expectations, has implications.
To take but one example: Some readers may recall an article I wrote about site visits as a way for funders to gather information about potential grantees. In the article I cautioned that a site visit is a disruptive intervention for non-profits. Cleaning up, setting regular work aside, prepping for the funder means that hard pressed smaller non-profits are doing something other than their primary work. If we as funders really need that site visit to help us know what we need to know to make our decisions, it is a justifiable disruption, but if we are doing it just because we can [or read somewhere that we should], it is of questionable ethics and value.
A strategic plan, an evaluation, a development plan, a leadership change – each is a normal and justifiable disruption. They all lead to some sorts of change even if that change is more self-reflective decision making or conscious affirmation of the prior ways of doing things or reinforcing the organization culture. As normal as they may be, every one of these interventions disrupts the time, the approach, the articulation, the aspirations – and because of that should be entered into with full awareness. If done well, every one of these disruptions can be helpful, but no one should ever underestimate the implicit cost of time, energy, and even money that they incur. When done really well, [and/if the circumstances warrant], these disruptions can prove fully transformative. And if not….
Writ large, disruption has come to mean something much more transformative. Our ways of life get disrupted in profound ways sometimes: the invention of the printing press, the concept of individual rights and the nation state, modes of transportation are just a few examples of prior transformative disruptions that changed the way we know things, get places, see ourselves, and set expectations.
In recent years, several disruptions have transformed key elements of our lives, and are continuing to do so. To take just two: On-line shopping has led to the change in the way many people spend money; the internet has changed the way most of us communicate and know things.
These macro disruptions have led to the demolitions of brick and mortar shopping, the virtual disappearance of bookshops, radical changes in how we know/learn things, how we relate to others, even our attention spans.
Some of this disruption has been informed by genuine attempts at deconstruction: making choices more abundant and efficient, making information more readily available to anyone with a smart phone and not be dependent on an intermediary. But they also have led to consequences not fully understood prior to the disruptions: what do you do with all those empty store spaces and those left underemployed because of that, how do you account for the anarchization of knowledge – with truth becoming more elusive by the moment and its concomitant political dangers. Not fully endorsing responsibility for the consequences of disruption can yield destructive demolition and not authentic deconstruction of past institutions, mores, and systems.
In macro disruption, the implications are great. It isn’t just transient interruption of an organization’s daily game plan but the dislocation of whole populations and economic stability.
Social networking is an important example: I believe that Facebook et al allow a reestablishment of more normal set of relationships, albeit in an entirely new format. In the past, we always knew lots of incidental things about people in our circles or neighborhoods. Most of those things were trivial but gave a vibrant character to the wide range of daily relationships. In late modernity, however, suburbia and high-rise apartments reinforced the atomization of our experiences, leaving people more disconnected and lonelier. FB gives us lots of incidental information about our extended circles that reminds us that our worlds and personal histories are more robust than the episodicity of highly orchestrated and planned get togethers. It restores the incidental and serendipitous.
But – and this is a very big but – all of this comes with an all too brief history of how to control mis-information or attempts at willful and malicious disruption of the political ethos. We are struggling with the benefits of massive democratization this medium fosters vs those who are malignant abusers – and, ultimately, who should be empowered to make decision. If we don’t get it right, we will have demolished established ways of relating to people, however limited, without the careful deconstruction that allows us to save the value imbedded within.
A goal of our era is to transform our world through creative disruption. But, unless done in a way that the essence of how we learn, how we share public spaces, how we account for economic dislocation, how we respect the other, the replacements will never achieve the transformative values that they are supposed to represent. Those of us who are disrupters need to tread delicately – since the future, our future, profoundly depends on that.
Yes, one can learn a lot from a destruction site.
July 31st, 2018
Some years ago, when I was heading a large foundation that funded projects of all sorts domestically and internationally, it was not uncommon to get a certain kind of call from a group that did not get funded. The plaint: “we met all of your criteria; why did we not get the grant?”
I suspect that any reader of this piece knows that their surprised disappointment reflected a genuine naiveté. In the USA and in many other places, in the philanthropy world, eligibility simply opens the door for consideration. It means that a proposal passes certain pre-defined criteria that open the gate to the consideration stage. It is a very constructive tool for both sides: it should tell petitioners when not to waste their time and saves funders’ energies for the hard work of making choices among the eligible proposals.
Many on-line grant systems do that screening work for us. If a proposal doesn’t fit the formal criteria, the proposal cannot be submitted. Pretty clear and efficient. It may be true that some gems of ideas get lost along the way, we know, but it is also true that this process forces us as funders to pre-think what our priorities are and therefore makes the decision-making more focused.
In fairness, I should point out that because of the vagaries of many cultures and legal systems around the world, this distinction between eligibility and entitlement is often a puzzle to international grant seekers. Their response is not naïve, just culturally bound. In their cultures or countries, there is no distinction. – if you qualify, you get funded.
Now that doesn’t mean that funders are exempt from recognizing entitlements, just at a different stage of the process. For example, if we have chosen to fund an organization, and have told them so and we have both agreed to the conditions, the grantee is entitled to get their funds when promised, entitled to any support or feedback or technical assistance offered, and entitled to have a complete understanding of what kind of relationship and deliverable we as the funders expect. In other words, once we have committed, they are entitled – legally and ethically. [I hope that I am hearing a collective gasp that some of our colleague funders don’t pay when they promise and put the onus on their grantees to guess what will make them satisfied!] In other words, a contract is a contract.
Which brings me to a role that we as funders have in a profound equity issue in the USA about honoring entitlements. American workers have contracts with the government for retirement and health care coverage. Sadly, though, it seems that some politicians act as if they are running a private foundation – where they get to decide who among the eligible gets some money. But they are wrong: We as citizens have put money into government coffers in a legal expectation that when we are eligible we are entitled to that coverage. It was never intended to be considered a “good will” offering of a beneficent ruling power but a binding contract. The word itself is not trivial. We are “entitled” because we have a contract that guarantees it.
Those eligible for social security and Medicare, to take just 2 very real examples, are not grant seekers hoping that they will be among the few fortunate grant recipients. They/we are in the category of already being legally promised the funds – let me say that again – funds that the recipients ourselves have already put into the pot. It is a contract, and just as we funders must honor our contracted obligation to our grantees, so must our government honor the commitment to those who are entitled. It should not be retroactively negotiable with only one side having the power. [See how ‘equity” comes into the picture?].
Entitlement is not a dirty word, nor should it be allowed to be a politically loaded one.
But, the plot thickens: as we look more closely, we see that an even more pernicious trend is afloat both in the USA and elsewhere: to decrease the number of eligible. It starts with excluding “undocumented” immigrants, then those seeking legal refugee status, their families, and then considering adding new means tests or other “objective” limitations to exercise the rights to vote or gather or express ourselves.
In other words, if those in power cannot get around the “entitlement” obligation, some choose to reduce the number of those eligible. It is a slippery slope and plays too easily into nativist tendencies visible in too many countries. Far too many and much too close to home.
Why is this a philanthropy issue?
For ethical reasons, we as a sector believe that commitments matter. If we are committed to sustaining the social good, we know that it is only possible if commitments matter. By us and to us. And for all.
It is also a practical issue for us: there is always an implicit compact between what the public sector should and can do and what the voluntary sector can and might do. Philanthropy doesn’t function in a vacuum. Our capacity, our priorities, and our choices can only make sense if they are understood in the larger context of social good. If, perish the thought, the current governing group in the USA chooses to renege on its contract with the American people, who will be expected to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the uninsured ill, and enable a dignified dying? In Europe and the middle East, and here in the USA if there are many thousands of those seeking refugee status – seeking safe harbor from certain death and starvation, who is responsible for the landless and powerless?
One would hope that the first answer is a government that respects its people, preserves their rights and hard-earned privileges, but when that respect becomes tenuous, there is only one sector whose primary mission is the social weal and good, and that is, philanthropy. It is far too great a task for our capacity – financial or otherwise – to meet those human needs in this century. We already have an unconscionable divide between the haves and have-nots; those who have unfettered access to their rights of citizenship and those who must fight for their rights at too many turns. If we don’t stand firm, those divides can become cataclysmic.
Our sector has recently reemphasized and articulated our key role in addressing systemic issues of equity of all sorts. One of the ways in which we must be outspoken, and adamant is to not allow the meaning of words and the obligations of governments to become distorted beyond recognition.
Entitlement is one of those words. Eligibility is another.
July 30th, 2018
Collaborations among funders and between funders and those delivering services are not new. On a professional level, I have been involved with them for over a quarter of a century, and they existed long before I got involved. Now, though, they are very much in fashion, and for good reason. The more we try to address and redress systemic issues, the more it is clear that no one funder or NFP/NGO can ever reasonably expect to solve them alone. Often the challenge is limited financial capacity, but just as frequently, there are needs for complementary expertise, or combined influence for advocacy, and more.
There are many wonderful examples of successful collaborations and partnerships, some of which I have been involved with, and dozens more that I only know about. But there are also many examples of those that failed [including some to which I was a party.]. Some failed nobly – and should be lauded. Their attempts gave us much to learn even if their initial expectations were not met and their assumptions proved not quite right. Others, though, failed because they didn’t do their own self due-diligence before signing on. That failure can and should be avoided. Thus, this post and offer.
In order to help funders, give ourselves the greatest likelihood for success, or to determine if we are well suited to be in a funder collaborative at all, several years ago, I developed a guide for the field. This piece shows that much of the hard work of a successful collaborations must take place before beginning. It also itemizes what “management” needs to be in place and articulates the additional challenges when a collaboration is inter-sector.
While I have produced many “how-to”s, this one, updated regularly, has been the most requested.
Once again, I offer this PowerPoint to fellow funders who request it. The document stands on its own, but needless to say, it is always most effective if presented with commentary. If, though, you are a funder [individual philanthropist or foundation or other funder organization] and would like to receive a courtesy copy, please contact me directly. Your feedback on its utility to your work and in your situation will guarantee that the next edition will be even more useful to our field.
#316 Do [Philanthropic] Ends Justify [Philanthropic] Means? Two Examples of Philanthro-ethics and Equity
July 24th, 2018
A short few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a major media company regarding the New York Attorney General’s suit against the Trump Foundation. While my content was included in their reporting, other pressing international and national news pre-empted my on-screen version.
The NY AG case against the Trump Foundation is pretty solid. Not every illegal behavior identified in that suit would typically warrant shutting down a private foundation, but there were so many other egregious and publicly ascertainable examples of self-dealing, political interference, and more that their case is pretty convincing. I would hope that even those who choose to support Mr. Trump’s political point of view – and choose to overlook his disregard for our democratic and constitutional systems – would acknowledge that illegality is illegality, and this example of [purported] overt abuse is worthy of the AG’s actions.
However, this post is not about the current President. Enough words are already said and written that I need not add more. Rather it is about the last question asked of me in that interview: “At the end of the day, all of that money went to non-profits so isn’t that really the bottom line that matters?” Well, it may be true that the so-called foundation money went to non-profits, but both how it got there and what it was to be used for was certainly not what the law intended, and even more certainly does not justify all of the overt [purported] illegality. In this case, it appears that the means and the end were problematic from the start.
Even these weeks later, I continue to be bothered by the question. I am quite sure that the interviewer fully understood the answer before asking me but felt it important to be on the record to pre-empt a possible viewer rebuttal.
The idea that what we do and how we do it doesn’t really matter if in the end there is a good or responsible or favorable result is, at best problematic. It is problematic to society as a whole, it is problematic ethically, and profoundly problematic for a society based on democratic ideals ruled by an ethical system of laws.
And, given the current state of discourse in the philanthropy world, it is particularly problematic as a mandate for our behavior. To wit [a more promising example]:
In teaching philanthro-ethics to funders, I often use a series of case scenarios. A number of years ago, I added one to challenge us to address inequities in the way non-profit staff of a grantee or potential grantee are compensated. The case essentially asks us as funders if that inequity is our business and if it is, what is our role.
When I first added this case, at least half of the foundation staff participating in courses or at conferences admitted it was a problem but said it wasn’t our business. Their argument was that to get into that would be micro-managing, and we shouldn’t micromanage. Others disagreed and argued that it could very well be an indication of a problematic organizational culture, especially if the top management was very well paid.
As time has gone by, the number of funders who say that the issue is one of micromanagement has decreased, and the numbers who feel strongly that it should matter to us has increased. Indeed, in a university-based course for funders I taught two weeks ago, not one person felt that the issue was inappropriate for funders to address, although not all agreed about the optimal way to address it.
My own position on this is unequivocal. If we ask about the top 5 salaries [as mandated in tax 990’s in the USA], we should be interested in the lowest salaries as well. I am sure that there are some overpaid executives in our world, but I am even more sure that there are thousands of underpaid ones. If we care about equity, why should the important work of our grantees be done on the overburdened backs of underpaid professionals? We decry the challenges of recruitment and retention but overlook some clear fixes.
How one determines what a fair and reasonable professional wage and benefits should be is beyond the scope of this post. But making sure that we as funders ask the right questions is its scope. And, I am absolutely confident that, if we all asked question about staff compensation, training, retention, and career trajectories, after 2 or 3 years, we would find that non-profits’ proposals would consistently show that they are addressing it! [We all know that non-profits get used to answering or anticipating what they think our questions will be.]
Some of you will say that there isn’t money for those kinds of increases – the non-profits are already budget challenged. True – but whose responsibility is it that nfp’s and NGO’s are adequately funded? Yes – ours. A healthy budget is one that allows for success, not one that guarantees unconscionable personnel conditions. We don’t have to fund everything, but we should make sure that which we do fund has access to the funds they need to succeed. [In past lives, I was CEO of non-profits, and dealt with this question as long ago as the early 80’s. It was a challenge then, and still is. Any readers who would like some practical suggestions on how to address staff retention, training, and compensation, even in down times, should feel free to contact me directly.]
Just as the big-media interviewer asked me a question at the end so that it would pre-empt an objection, I would like to address one more matter. Working in the non-profit sector is not a decision to take a vow of poverty. Non-profit is a legal definition of who ultimately owns the assets and, hopefully, about its purpose. None choose to work in this sector to get rich, but nor should they be committed to be poor. It is a huge sector, responsible for education and health care, as well as religion and human services. And lots in between. Moreover, current public policy puts even more demand on this sector as government funding is reduced or eliminated.
For many years, we funders looked the other way so that our grantees could balance their budgets – and try to achieve goals of serving their populations. If it meant that their personnel – the “means” by which our grantees pursued their goals – were overlooked, that mattered less because the “ends”, the social good, mattered more. What we have learned, I hope, is that those means cannot in the long run be justified.
We all have too much at stake for our involvement in the health of public good and volunteer sector, and the well-being of its professionals, for our concern to be dismissed as micro-management. The ends and the means are always interconnected. This is indeed a case of equity – writ very large.
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.