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Posts from the ‘Advocacy’ Category

#354 – Trust-An Elusive Attribute, Even in Philanthropy

October 22nd, 2019

Richard Marker

Reader Alert: This post and the next have a pretty clear political point of view.

In June, the regional association of grantmakers, of which we are members, sponsored a conference on Census2020. The challenge of every census has been to produce as accurate a census count as possible so that allocation of federal dollars and Congress can reflect real needs and proportional representation. The Census Bureau readily acknowledges that certain at-risk communities are consistently undercounted, meaning, of course, that certain wealthier – and, not surprisingly, whiter – communities are over-weighted.

Next year’s census is even more challenging and is the first where an Administration has overtly tried to politicize it. Fortunately, the Supreme Court called them on it and didn’t allow a rogue question on citizenship to be a last-minute question on citizenship. Nevertheless, the damage was done and those who have developed a distrust of the government’s actions and intentions appear likely to be reluctant to participate regardless of the status of that single question.

There are many subsets of America to which this applies. Persons of color, immigrants, Hispanic and Latino populations, Muslims, those who don’t own their own homes, non-English speakers from anywhere are only some of those identified. Recognizing how crucial these numbers are for accuracy and equity, the philanthropy community throughout the United States has mobilized to help get as close as possible to full participation. June’s conference tried hard to avoid research abstractions and to focus explicitly on “interventions that work.”

Here is the kicker, though. The conference invited panelists on whom the success of these interventions depends. They are trusted intermediaries such as clergy, community leaders, social service workers, immigrant aid attorneys, and more. What we heard was that many of them were, themselves, reluctant to push their constituents to fill out the census forms. Given this administration’s abuses of personal rights, the outrageous tactics of ICE, and the assumption that there is no such thing as confidentiality as far as the government is concerned, these influencers were not prepared to put their own credibility on the line. And while they acknowledged that there has always been some of this sentiment, there was absolute agreement that the current administration breeds a level of fear and distrust among the populations who are most in need of the resources the census will yield beyond that ever seen before. People are in hiding, if not literally certainly in their willingness to comply with anything that might identify them to the government. [A reminder that the next 10 years of government allocations will rely on these numbers!]

This level of distrust is profoundly unsettling. Many of those of us who are funders sitting in those sessions were deeply troubled. The philanthropy world can assist, enable, and support local entities but very few of us are known by or are credible to the folks in the at-risk communities so if our efforts are to succeed, we need those trusted community leaders. If they are hesitant, how can or should we use our resources to address authentic issues of equity that really matter?

This post is not to provide an answer to that question but rather to show that the “trust” issue even includes us.

Which brings me to a consultation I attended yesterday, sponsored by the same regional association of grantmakers, addressing issues facing immigrant communities and an attempt to articulate ways in which the philanthropy world can make a difference Many of the issues were re-articulation of the Census2020 conference, and migrant issues will not soon go away as we have yet to address climate enforced migration that will only grow. Only an ostrich like administration can pretend otherwise.

The last question the panelists were asked was how we funders can help. There were a number of focused financial proposals, but then their answers switched to how we should or should not behave. For example, they argued, even if and when we sponsor convenings, we should absent ourselves. These groups felt that they would be too vulnerable to expose their authentic challenges, to reveal their failures, and to admit to the implications of the consistent pattern of underfunding they face.

Put simply, they don’t trust us. No, not in the way they distrust government misbehaviors but, rather, for our inability to keep our privilege in check, our power under control, or our attempts to enforce our perceptions of what they should do. These were not unsophisticated panelists who never deal with funders all the time; in some cases, they do so with real success. Yet their sentiments were unanimous.

Many readers, I know, are scratching your heads. Hasn’t our sector bent over backwards in recent years – for example, to understand how we are perceived or to engage grantee stakeholders in our decision making? These attempts were not mentioned by any of them. Whatever we have been talking about in our conferences, in our periodicals, in our classes don’t seem to have made their way into the perceptions or real-life experience of grantees.

We are paying a price, some of our own doing, to be sure, but even more by a generation or two of dissing the efficiency/efficacy/ethics of all institutions. Like it or not, whether we are on the left or right side of the political spectrum, philanthropy is part of the power landscape and our motives are perceived to be as suspect as the rest.

I don’t want to be simplistic about any of this. There are deep systemic injustices and inequity. Many of us have, directly or indirectly, been the beneficiaries. Our roles going forward are not simple [see my subsequent post expanding on this question.] And I certainly want to acknowledge the work of so many colleagues who have tried hard to make honesty and trust possible, who have listened hard to the often sobering feedback about our affect and procedures, and who have made genuine attempts to redesign funding strategies to be more authentically responsive and participatory.

But yesterday’s session underscored how far we have to go. And I don’t just mean in our grantmaking.

A healthy civil society can only exist when there is trust. It shouldn’t be blind trust, but it does require trust earned by some institutions, some people, some sectors. We in the funding world have a particular responsibility since our funding, our advocacy, and our affirmative sustaining of institutions are indispensable. No, we cannot and must not pretend that we can do it all, that we alone can correct years of sewn cynicism, or that we can easily break down the inherent power imbalance that defines us.

We must, though, learn how to make the difference at a time when there are deep breaches in belief that any institutions have the best interests of their stakeholders at heart. We need to earn their confidence that we mean it.

No, we cannot do it alone, but it cannot and will not happen without us.

#345 Accountability Begins… Our National Shame

July 8th, 2019

Richard Marker

An alert to those who only read my posts for their thoughts on philanthropy. This is another one that deals with politics. If others in the philanthropy world may feel that it leads to increased advocacy, so be it.

Many of you know that one of my life changing experiences was having been in Berlin on 9 November 1989, known widely as the day the Wall came down. I have written about my thoughts on that day in the past; this piece is inspired by the larger context of my visit to Germany that ended on that date.

1989 was the second generation after WWII. Sadly there are deniers today who choose to not believe the facts of the German depravity and culpability that led to the Holocaust of 6 million Jews, and 5 million others, but the Germans knew then [and still do!] that it was not hyperbole, and represented national shame, embarrassment, and an ineradicable blot on their place in history.

My visit was one of many that the then West German government sponsored to demonstrate that they did not ignore this shame and were trying, in the most institutional ways that they could, to internalize their own commitment to “never again.” Our small group were young-ish leaders in the Jewish world of North America. The 3 weeks were exhausting and powerful.

There was no attempt to sugarcoat German history or to claim that it was unrelated to their present. Thus we saw remnants of the Holocaust institutions, the earliest concentration camps and preliminary gas chambers, the memorials, the archives of the shocking official propaganda developed to shape German opinion. And much more.

Because 1989 was just beyond the 50-year anniversary of the Kristallnacht Pogroms, there were exhibits in libraries, schools, town centers, and elsewhere. We saw how grandchildren confronted their grandparents, how people outed themselves as having Jewish relatives that they denied or rejected to protect themselves. Two generations were enough time for people with memory to come clean, and for those who had not yet been born to learn what their unchosen legacy was all about.

The trip, though, was not only about the Holocaust and German culpability. It was very much about how a nation was re-thinking itself, rebuilding itself, contemplating a new world order, and trying to achieve the delicate balance between a history of German excellence in arts, science, literature, education, music, and more – with this abysmal period. [We also visited places that are chapter headings in Jewish thought over a thousand-year period, but that is for another article.]

We learned that German education mandates Holocaust education and even site visits to “camps.” In those days, there were still enough survivors to have presentations in every school by those who could relate their painful and horrific memories.

We also learned, and we are now getting to the essential point of this essay, that soldiers were taught that they must resist immoral, inhumane orders. Just because something is ordered doesn’t mean one should obey, and just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. The military system taught every single soldier of these distinctions. After all, they knew, it wasn’t only a depraved despotic leader that caused these deaths and the suffering of the Shoah, but it could only happen because of those who decided to follow those orders. I am not an expert on military training or how this is or isn’t taught elsewhere in the world, but I confess that I was profoundly moved by a nation that taught its own civil disobedience as the highest form of civic duty.

It is unnecessary to point out the immoral, dishonest, questionably legal actions of the person occupying the seat of the presidency of the United States today. He is certainly not the first despot in history – and sadly he won’t be the last. But we do need to take stock of what allows so many of our fellow citizens to feel that this immorality and dishonesty doesn’t matter. And we do need to take stock of what allows people, wearing uniforms and acting in the name of this country, to do despicable things that we hope they know are wrong.

After WWII we learned that “just following orders” is not a sufficient alibi when ordered to do immoral and inhumane acts. International law has been enacted to insist on that. But what have we not done in the US education system – of the military or of ICE or the police or even of too many everyday citizens – that they feel free to act in such ways or feel supportive of them? It is beneath contempt and brings a blot on the identity of all of us who call ourselves American who believe in the rule of moral law and justice.

And let’s be clear: the issue isn’t whether the correct descriptions of the places where this insanity is carried out are “concentration camps” or “detention camps” or any other nomenclature. That argument is merely a political obfuscation of the terrible and unacceptable actions taking place.

I have no doubt that one day our country, too, will be held accountable in very real ways. I suspect we too will learn, far too late, what West Germany needed to learn in the 50’s, that we prevent immoral behavior by teaching its unacceptability at every level of society. That doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be despotic leaders, but it diminishes the likelihood that their minions will feel empowered to follow inhumane orders for political purposes.

Let us hope.

#341 Foundations Must Not Fall Into the “Partisan” Trap

June 19th, 2019

Richard Marker

As with so many of my colleagues in the philanthropy world, I have been involved in the “complete count” effort regarding next year’s USA national census. This involvement was a national attempt for our sector to help correct for historic under-counts of lower income and other marginal populations. Since those numbers have a 10-year implication for allocation of federal funding, representative apportionment, and more, this has been seen as a commitment by the philanthropy world and the organizations we support to equity and equitability. Our involvement was never understood as a partisan or political involvement, but rather a sector-wide role to do something that should have been politically neutral to support a constitutionally mandated action.

Why then did a foundation program officer demur about taking a public position on the census after a profoundly moving day bringing hundreds of local stakeholders together. Her argument: her board won’t take “partisan” positions.

The 10-year census is constitutionally mandated. It was never intended to be “political” but rather an objective tool for democracy to function at the most equitable level. And while certain populations have notoriously been undercounted, that has never been because of purposeful interventions by politicians. [I acknowledge that those undercounts may have been unintended consequences of inequitable public policy but not purposeful.] Yet in this go-round, we now know unequivocally, there has been a systematic attempt to co-opt the census process for overtly partisan purposes. As of this writing, there is still the faint hope that the Supreme Court will honor the intent and history surrounding the census and disallow the last-minute citizenship question imposed by the current administration. But the damage is done and far too many fear the government and don’t trust the data gathering. And the fact that this foundation staff person felt an implicit restriction is only one of the signs. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Some months ago, a parent of one of the victims of one of the all too many school shootings [for which the USA should be ashamed and angry] bemoaned that talking about rational gun policy has become “partisan”. He himself was a lifelong Republican, but the very fact that he tried to discuss his concerns with Republican politicians about this branded him as not one of them. He thought he was discussing policy but the party with which he had always identified has defined the very discussion as a partisan issue, and he was on the wrong side. He was furious and frustrated.

Since their inception, there has been a debate about how porous our social safety net of Social Security and Medicare should be. But let’s be clear: Social security and Medicare are mandated contracts with all American workers. Everyone has money withheld and contributed throughout their working career with the assumption that the government will honor its contract and provide what they [we] have every right to expect. Yet many in a single party now try to argue that it is not a contractual obligation at all but simply an annual gift that can be discontinued or privatized or reduced at their will. These politicians have made this a partisan matter and not a discussion of genuine ethical public policy.

Any reader, I am sure, can add to this list during this dismal era in American politics.

What are we as funders to do? Most foundations have a history of choosing to be overtly and explicitly non-partisan, often restraining from legal and legitimate advocacy since they don’t want to appear “partisan.” The danger, of course, is that as certain political forces try to make every matter of the social weal and public policy to be no more than a partisan divide, it can serve to intimidate and limit much needed public discourse on policy and civil behavior, and to silence some of the most educated and thoughtful independent voices [including but not limited to us].

Those of us in the philanthropy sphere must resist this willful usurpation strenuously. All of our work is in dialectic with public policy, and we have an obligation to help formulate public policy with a vision of an engaged and enfranchised populace. Just because one party chooses to make policy discussions “partisan” does not mean that we must yield to that. It is demagogic and violates the intent of the Constitutional system under which we operate. Sadly, it incurs a like reaction by the other major political party. When every issue is “us vs. them”, with only political winners or losers, public policy, civil society, and the very nature of what America stands for is radically harmed. The American ethos is the inevitable loser – even if a few, a very few, will win.

To be sure, there are legal limits to our role in the political process – certain lobbying is not permitted for private foundations, but much more is permitted for public charities. As a rule, though, advocacy for policy that is not related to a candidate or pending legislation is not lobbying and is permitted by all. It is not partisan to have an opinion and point of view, and the philanthropy world should be a clarion and courageous voice in the face of the purposeful “partisan” divide in this country. We must never allow our voices or those of our colleagues to be stifled. Those of us who have important leadership roles in public discourse must never feel intimidated by others’ partisanship for us to exercise our forceful, thoughtful role in the public sphere.

It is not only our right; in this misanthropic era, it is the only right thing to do.

#336 Varsity Blues, Legacy, and Equity: the Challenge to the Philanthropy Sector

April 1st, 2019

Richard Marker

This was first posted on 21 March. Apparently a tech error prevented it from being disseminated to all subscribers.

I was a third generation “legacy” attendee of an Ivy League school. Growing up, I don’t recall too much uncertainty about whether I could go there – only if. We attended football games, my family made annual gifts [although, admittedly, there are no buildings or chairs bearing the family name], and I knew all of the school songs [do they still do that?]

My subsequent career has, I am proud to say, justified their acceptance, but I daresay, looking back, I would have been a marginal applicant today. It is my suspicion that the admissions committee did not have a heart to heart about my capabilities; rather, I was a “legacy; next application…”

In those days, that kind of legacy was sort of assumed. It rarely required an affirmative or expensive buy-in. It was the privilege that accompanied privilege.

We didn’t think about that too much in those by-gone days. I became more aware of it during the 11 years I subsequently spent teaching/working at a different Ivy League school as the world began to change and last names more readily attracted attention. But so did proactive “diversity”. There was the sense that whatever favors names or money or national origin or color brought, they were capable students who just happened to have a leg up in the ever more perverse and competitive admission process. [Along the way, I learned that there was a lot more inscrutability to the process than how much money someone had.] [My son and my nephew chose not to attend the family legacy school, so it is left to our 3-year-old grandson and his cousins to, perhaps, resurrect the chain. But that is a long way off – a good thing given the current financial realities. And only incidental to the remainder of this post.]

In any case, over the past days, there have been millions of words written about the admissions scandals – legal and illegal – in American higher education. What concerns me in reading them is that too many of the op-eds and government responses focus on too narrow a question. Here are some of my responses:

• Let’s be cautious about passing new laws regarding endowments and tax deductability. Bad cases make bad law and too quick a “fix” may saddle us with even bigger problems for both philanthropy and education. Both need fixes – but not headline-driven patches.

• I am struggling with the all too thin line between illegal bribery and legal influence buying. Of course, there is a difference, but they reflect deeper systemic issues that encompass both.

• Underlying the bribery is the reality that that not all favored admission is to the wealthy; it is, though, to the wealth of the school Athletes bring a different financial value to a school. All one has to do is look at how much a university nets from a bowl game or a March Madness slot.

• There is a real issue of what the true meaning of education has become. Here is a case where a very dated marketing device to encourage higher education has come back to bite us: Starting in the 50’s, students were encouraged to attend higher education to enhance their earning ability; true and fair enough. But when earning ability supersedes critical thinking and education as a deep-seated societal value, it loses something. [I needn’t belabor this point: We are paying the price today in the character of public discourse, the absence of critical thinking, and the horrendous lacunae of basic knowledge by too many in the USA.]

• This leads us to the challenge to and of education. We have an ethically abysmal system. Even moderately upper middle-class families cannot afford most elite higher education, and lower middle class are even priced out of State schools. And if one takes a look at the shocking attempts to defund and privatize El-Hi education as well, we have a profoundly cynical approach to the concept of civic obligation toward an educated and literate populace. [I am reminded that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin created the first free library out of a belief that a democracy can only function if the demos is literate! How far have we fallen from those ideals?!]]

There are few public policies more transcendent than that of education. With the erosion of the commitment to a thoughtful and thinking population, combined with the sense that, at least at the higher education level, it must be bought, we have a much greater problem than a few wealthy people securing their place in a social caste system.

Philanthropy does not have clean hands in this. After all, the largest gifts typically go to the already wealthy institutions. And while a few outliers like Michael Bloomberg may have committed a 10-figure gift toward scholarships at his own elite alma mater, one has to look very long and hard to find equivalent 7, 8, or 9 figure gifts to the institutions a bit lower on the class scale, but perhaps no lower on the teaching one. Our field talks a lot about equity, power, and the challenge of privilege, but it is rare indeed that our largest investments go to the kinds of investments and grantmaking that redress those societal needs.

More than anything, education needs a major adjustment in public policy – more resources, more affordability, and more genuine commitment to critical thinking. No question that philanthropy can never and should never be expected to do that alone. What we do have is an obligation to make sure that we are using our position of suasion and our resources in ways that narrow the caste, wealth, and learning gap.

If not, we may be sure that Varsity Blues type scandals will continue to cast a harsh light on our privilege.

#322 – 27 October 2018 – Words Really Do Matter

December 28th, 2018

Richard Marker

[Be sure to read the last lines]

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This quote by Maya Angelou has become a mantra in the professional public speaking world of which I am a part. Far be it from me to disagree with such a distinguished personage, but I do. This article is about “what you said.”

In the last few weeks, I have had surprising and moving experiences of people actually remembering what I said or wrote – in one case all the way back to 1968, in another all the way back to 1980. And the week before then, 3 articles I had written for 3 different journals in three unrelated contexts were, coincidentally republished. This is not the first time these kinds of gratifying experiences have happened, but I daresay never in such close proximity to each other. Never let it be said that words don’t matter. Words did and do matter.

Such self-congratulatory comments would have been tempting to write about, but I would have resisted had events of the last few days not happened. For the last 3 years, 2 of which under the constancy of a president for whom veracity is elusive, his words of divisiveness and contributing to overt hatred have characterized his influence on the public square. This week we saw more manifestations that words indeed do matter as one fanatic booster sent bombs to those whose political views that president has demonized. Rarely has there been such a straight-line connection between speech and action. And no sooner was that person arrested, we find ourselves agonizing through a mass murder with explicit anti-Semitic motivations, also influenced by distortions of fact by the sitting president. I am working hard to make sure that my own rage is directed toward the profound changes we must make and not just verbally wringing my hands.

The current occupant of the seat of the US Presidency may be an outlier in his extreme use of derisive speech and abusive rhetoric. I can add my abhorrence of such words and affect, but I am not sure that I have any insights that will soothe the pain in the hearts of so many around the USA, nor suggest a way to change that behavior that have not already been proposed. History will surely judge him, and history will also judge whether our national ethos proves better than that.

This post, though, is not about him but about us. Since there is so little “hearing” across the current political divide, I realize that I am not exempt from doing my share to bring about change.

As long-time readers may recall, I have learned that a lifetime of professionally interesting positions have enabled the kinds of anecdotes with which I began this piece Many others have accomplished at least as much and are well-deserving recipients of public plaudits. But long-time readers should also recall that one should proceed with humility before taking too many bows. Yes, my words have been recalled with fondness and affirmation by some, but I have also learned that some recall my words and affect less positively. Some with hurt.

Typically, one doesn’t hear those negatives – or we deftly block them out. In fact, it takes courage to tell someone that they screwed up and even more that one’s words were hurtful or had a negative impact.. And it takes courage to even allow oneself to hear that kind of feedback when offered.

It doesn’t matter if our words were intended – I doubt that most of us are willful or malicious very often. Sometimes our words are simply imprecise or imperfect. Sometimes our own context isn’t fully perceptible to others. Sometimes we are simply misunderstood.

Sometimes, though, we make mistakes. We say the wrong things at the wrong time. We indulge our own needs without appropriate empathy for others. We say words without any sensitivity to how they will be heard.

The more visible or influential our position, the more this can happen. There are many more who hear or read our words whom we hardly know, or know only in passing, or whom we will never meet. This is true for all of us but the more public, the more responsibility we have.

My own pride in the affirming stories of recent weeks is tempered by knowing that some others surely have different recollections. It is humbling.

I only wish that certain political leaders would learn this lesson. Soon.

In the USA, 6 November 2018 would be a good time for that to happen!

PS: 28 December As the shutdown continues, it is still a lesson worth remembering.

#321 Advocacy Really Matters – A Mandate for the Philanthropy World

October 1st, 2018

Richard Marker

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.

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

June 21st, 2018

Richard Marker

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

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

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

#305 – Lessons from the March – This Time We Must Not Rest Until…

April 2nd, 2018

Richard Marker

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.

#301 Necessary But Insufficient: the Response of the Philanthropy World

February 20th, 2018

Richard Marker

In the almost 16 years since I have become self-employed, I have learned that there are both professional advantages and disadvantages. One of the double-edged swords is the ability to say or write whatever one wishes without clearing it with anyone. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences to that freedom. For example, not everything I say in my public presentations or in my writings endears me to all of my fellow philanthropoids, and I am aware that such outspokenness has cost me some contracts. I sometimes say things that challenge common orthodoxies in the field. This post is another example of that.

Before my Jeremiad, let me be very clear: I am a big believer in the indispensability of voluntarism in giving of time, money, and leadership. This is true everywhere in the world and has been for as long as there have been structured societies. I also believe that it is advantageous [but not mandatory] that there be some incentives to do so, such as tax deductions, although this is far less universal. In a very high percentage of the nations and peoples of the world, education, healthcare, social welfare, and much more would simply not exist if it were not for that voluntarism, whether organized by faith based or secular institutions’.

Moreover, full disclosure, for a good part, but not all, of my career, I was a beneficiary of that voluntarism. I was employed by universities, non-profits, and foundations all of which exist because of voluntary giving. [I have also been employed by for-profit companies and am now mostly an independent contractor – a profit making venture most of the time.]

Having stated my bona fides, and affirming the necessity of our sector, what is my beef?

It is that our sector continues to advocate for the wrong things, or more correctly, inadequately advocates for what will truly make a difference.

The recent tax law, which I consider to be an embarrassment and an abomination for its shameless pandering to the super-wealthy and its concomitant disregard for those in need, has probable real implications for charitable giving. I say probable because it is by no means certain that the tax changes will in fact yield lower giving.

I agree with the pundits that it will probably depress giving by mid-level donors in the short run, but history doesn’t support that that depression will continue over time. In fact, if one looks at the implications of tax changes on charitable giving over the long run, one sees short term gains and short-term losses concomitant with tax changes, but that over time giving reverts to a mean and has remained there for a very long time. [There have been many pleas and attempts to increase that percentage, but with only marginal success.]

Moreover, most studies show that charitability is only marginally influenced by taxes, and when it is, it mostly has to do with how – not whether – one gives.

Having said that, it is true that this is a time when we need every incentive possible because of the vastness of the needs, and the tax sham certainly doesn’t do that.

But even were charitable giving to double, it would only make an incremental difference in the moral hole the USA has dug for itself in its recent policies. Maybe the tax scam will save the average person in the USA a few hundred dollars as they promise, but it comes at the same time when congress is radically reducing support for health care, education, food insecurity, and – if they have their way, social security and Medicare! The probable financial net loss to most people far exceeds the incremental tax savings.

And this is all accompanied by a reduction in consumer protection and in abetting climate degradation.

[If I wanted to get “political”, I would add to this shameful litany the incessant attacks on the judiciary, the press, science, and the truth, but let’s leave that discussion to another time.]

Not only do these changes portend economic hardships for many, but underneath, a veritable meanness of spirit, a culture of misanthropy, the very opposite of what our field is supposed to stand for.

To be fair, many in our field have been actively and assertively leading the good fight. But for too many institutions in the fields of philanthropy, the advocacy begins and ends with charitable deductibility and similar self-authenticating issues. Yes, it is worthy to encourage charitable giving, but hardly sufficient to redress these wrongs. As a field committed to improving our world, making it more sustainable and equitable for all, our voices should not be heard as defending our own needs, but rather demanding that what we stand for matters. These are public policy matters; they are a reflection of our tax priorities; they are statements about our national character, our ethics, and our values. Optics matter.

Most of us are in the field of philanthropy because of our visions for what our limited [even if generous] resources can help bring about. Let’s not let those visions be reduced to transactions on a tax return.

What then is the proper role of philanthropy in these times? There are numerous approaches.

a. Risk Capital: A recently widely disseminated piece out of the venerable Ford Foundation reaffirmed philanthropy’s role as society’s risk capital. Most of us in this field come to that same conclusion at an early point of our ventures in this field, and it is always worth re-discovering and re-affirming our uniqueness. After all, who besides our field is exempt from plebiscites, or is accountable to stakeholders beyond our own boards. We can, should, and must take risks that other sectors might legitimately shy away from. [That doesn’t exempt us from appropriate humility that our guesses or investments may be wrong, but when we are right, our investments can be transformative.]

In normal times, I would applaud this recent reaffirmation of our unique role, but these are not ordinary times. Our risks work best in times of stability and a common commitment to basic societal institutions. Our risks are more suspect if the education, social service, health care, and even cultural institutions are not adequately supported. Are we supporting risks to get us back to an authentic baseline – or avoiding our responsibility?

b. Funding what government won’t. Some segments of our sector celebrate examples where voluntarism of money and time have successfully replaced programs that taxpayer supported institutions no longer can afford. Those successes or noble experiments most typically are present in the education sphere, but not restricted to them.

However, leaving aside the moral challenge of having human needs dependent on the good will of voluntarism, or whether this reflects public policies that are sustainable over time, on a practical level it is simply impossible to privatize all of the basic needs of an industrialized, or post-industrial society. The scale, the alignment of need with available resources, and the accountability to the public make it all but impossible.

c. Continuing to support what we always have This approach has served society well in the past. The need for cultural or local institutions will always be there even after a particular disaster or financial crisis passes. Many argue that those continuing investments save many millions of dollars over time and give a much-needed social stability especially in times of turmoil.

The logic of such support is unassailable, but today there are radical changes in the funding landscape. When Ultra High Net Worth funders can give 9 and 10 figure gifts to museums and orchestras and universities, what real difference does the average person’s – even the average wealthy person’s – annual gift make? At this time when our disruption is not primarily financial but ethical and existential, does keeping to the well-trodden best express our best philanthropic interests?

d. Becoming real change agents. Over the years, I would often challenge funders [clients and students] when they would say that they want their funding to “make a difference.” I point out that “making a difference” means that something is different than it would be without your funding, and that often means taking chances. [see a. above]. Some would acknowledge that they mean something much more modest than being a change agent, rather that they want to focus on institutions that will be sustained or enhanced by their gift. Others took the message to heart and thought long and hard about what difference they really did want to make and if they were prepared to be disrupters.

At this time in history, the disruptions are being caused by public policy challenges that go deep and wide. To be change agents requires going beyond an “industry” or “priority interest” in our funding. To be change agents even requires going beyond our own sector. It means leveraging our resources, all of our resources – financial, influential, and knowledge – to address potential cataclysmic disruptions. [In the case of the environment, these are clearly not exaggerations; in the case of the character of our nation, they are also existential.]

I think you can gather where I stand. That doesn’t’ mean that funders who choose a, b, or c. are bad funders, but they should be conscious of where those decisions sit in the context of current needs. For those who share my alarm at the fragile state of our union and planet, it is hard to shy away from a commitment to d.

Advocacy matters more than ever before. As funders, let’s make sure we are advocating for that which can indeed make the difference.

#296 After the Tax Overhaul: Grading our Sector

December 21st, 2017

Richard Marker

Most Americans know in their hearts that Congress passed a scam under the guise of tax overhaul. Since the bill was written behind closed doors up until the moment it was passed, with no hearings or public review, all any of us could do was express our concern about what should or shouldn’t be in it. I suspect that very few of us will be thrilled when the details come out. But what we know so far is that very few of us should take much pleasure even if taxes for some go down for a bit.

Why do I say that?

The entire assumption that tax reduction is a cherished goal in any society is bizarre. Taxes are what pay for public services that we want or need, and in almost every case are better provided by a responsible government. Most of us who are not science deniers want to breathe clean air, drink healthy water, eat food that we can trust. Most of us want to travel in safe cars, buses, planes, and trains. Most of us want Congress to respect our decades long contract to respect our defined benefit plan called social security, and would like to be assured that dealing with health needs won’t bankrupt us even in our old age. Most of us want an education system that educates us effectively and fairly regardless of our zip code and ethnic or racial background. Most of us want to know that we have a just judiciary, a trained foreign service, treaties that others can trust, and a military that can protect us with a clear moral standard.

Most of us, I suspect, even want a Legislative Branch and an Executive Branch that understands and endorses all of these things, although I guess I should not expect miracles on that one.

The tax overhaul does none of these things. In fact, it is predicated on two things: that cutting taxes as a goal supersedes all other goals [especially of course for the very wealthy who shouldn’t have to shoulder a tax burden they can easily afford]. And that in order to do so, we can reduce or eliminate public commitment to achieve any of the above goals that define every other modern nation.

Most of the analyses of the sham vision for America only look at the tax burden. And most independent analyses reveal that even the taxes for most people, even if they drop modestly for now, will rise no later than 8 years from now – sooner for others and immediately for some. But that is only part of the story. If health insurance costs rise, it effects our personal bottom line even if it is not through a tax. If people die or get ill because of removal of government guaranteed protections, who will pay for the additional burdens on families? If there are no assurances of fairness in the workplace or schools or on our streets, what resources will remain to correct inequity and those lost communal resources? And much, much more.

Our taxes may go down a little; our net standard of living will deteriorate a lot.

Now – none of this rant is new info, but it needed to be said to get to the next part of this post. Whom do they think will pick up the slack? Economists have almost unanimously said that the trickle-down theory is bogus. And besides, there is no incentive for the private sector to be better employers or even feel the need to hire more people at a time of increased automation and on-line commerce.

That leaves the voluntary sector, otherwise known as the non-profit or non-government or public interest sector. And voluntary is the key word. Americans have a history of generosity, and our tax system has historically rewarded that generosity. History has also shown that tax changes have only a short-term impact on that generosity – short term up or short term down, but over the long haul, giving reverts to a mean.

If that history proves correct, we are in even bigger trouble. Because the burden of a large complex society will fall to those voluntarily funded [professionally directed] organizations. Who will compensate for a reduction in educational funding? Who will provide sustenance to the newly homeless and unemployed and uninsured?

Does anyone really believe that, as good and broad as that sector is, it can pick up the massive slack of government reduction? Does anyone really believe that voluntary giving will increase 3 or 4-fold to even begin to make a dent in that new donut hole of financial vulnerability created by the tax cut scam? The demands on this sector will make those of recent recessions pale.

And this, finally, is where I grade our sector in the run-up to the vote.

I don’t think we did so well. [I am in this sector – mostly on the funding side – so I have to include myself in this accountability.

There were some on the funder side [e.g., NCRP and the Forum to mention only a couple of which I am aware] who spoke eloquently about the impact on people and not the impact on taxation of potential changes in the law. In my mind, they got it – and spoke to the underlying issues. To be fair, I am sure that many other groups also did but I simply didn’t see their public advocacy statements.

However, the overriding attention of the philanthropy support world focused on two things: keeping the Johnson Amendment [a topic for another time] and holding on to tax deductibility for charitable donations. Both of these are worthy goals that I support, but they missed an essential point.]

When the foundation world takes a lead role in advocating for tax deductibility – without a clear articulated vision of other societal needs, it sounds like any other industry group’s self-promotion. We, I hope, are different from the NRA and the Fossil Fuel lobbyists whose lobbying effort are not related to a larger vision for society but for their own self-serving agenda regardless of the negative consequences on society as a whole. I would hope that those of us in the philanthropy world are better than that. We don’t do philanthropy and support wonderful and striving nonprofits just because it is in our interest, we do it because what we support can make a difference to millions of people. At the end of the day, our sector should care about our impact more than our institutions.

But most of the statements that I saw, and received in my in-box, were for advocacy efforts for continuing tax deductibility, with little about the totality of the impact on society as a whole. The sound-bites sounded like another bennie for rich people who wanted to make sure they kept another one of their deductions. Not the best optics for a sector that really does care.

Now, I know that many will take umbrage at this characterization, that the organizations did provide research that shows the financial impact on fundraising. But I have been concerned about these optics for a long time because our sector is not an independent one. We are constantly in a dynamic, if virtual, dialogue with public policy, not independent of it.

Advocacy for charitable deductibility should be tied in with a larger vision of why this sector exists at all, of the pervasive inequity in the social weal and our national policies that reinforce that inequity, of what taxes should in fact support, and how, bottom line, to assure that all citizens are treated fairly and have the necessary means to live respectively and with dignity.

I have devoted most of my professional life to this sector. I believe that it is necessary and reflects something good about every society that supports a thriving voluntary sector. But I don’t believe that our sector should replace public support for basic human needs, and that is what this tax bill implies. I know that most in the philanthropy world agree – I only wish we had said that as loudly as we advocated for deductibility of our contributions.