Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Advocacy’ Category

#389 – The Trust Factor Continued: Conditions for Change

July 21st, 2020

Richard Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These perspectives were challenged on both of the calls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#387 The Right Side of History – A Juneteenth Posting

June 19th, 2020

Richard Marker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#370 – A Plea to Fellow Funders: Let’s keep our faces masked, but we must not seal our lips nor hold our tongues. – 10 April 2020

April 16th, 2020

Richard Marker

This was to have been posted on 10 April. For technical reasons, it appears that it wasn’t distributed. I am pleased that I have subsequently seen posts by numerous others in our field taking very similar positions. Readers may also wish to look at previous posts on various responses to COVID-19.

“With Passover beginning this evening, Easter this Sunday, and Ramadan not far away, this is a Holy time for those of us in the Abrahamic traditions. What is there to say that doesn’t sound trite or obvious? None of these thoughts is unique or mine alone, but they are what I am thinking about at this time:

“We know that virtually the entire world is experiencing a transforming moment – and in front of our eyes. Religious Traditions teach us that, at the most perilous times, hope must counterbalance fear. It must inform what we become when this is over.

“I have real fear that some will learn the wrong lessons and look to place blame on ethnic or racial or religious groupings. I have real fear that civil liberties and civil society, constitutional rights are being snatched away. I have real fear that basic human trust in essential human institutions will take a long time to rebuild.

“But I am also hopeful that ALL will see that we can influence climate by our behaviors, that we are all interconnected and that artificial borders and boundaries cannot protect us and must not isolate us politically, that health care systems that favor the affluent not only don’t work but are inherently unjust, that a society that eschews a guaranteed nonporous safety net will spend untold trillions to create what should always have been there in the first place, that an educational system that mocks science abets needless death, that the fragile strands of human connection can never be taken for granted. Much of that is in our hands, and, at some point we will venture forth from our hibernation to create a new normal. Let’s hope it is a normal built on the best of who we can be…. Happy Holidays.” [Posted on my Facebook page on 8 April 2020]

As COVID-19 continues to dominate all of our lives, the philanthropy/foundation community has stepped up, adjusted our practices, increased our funding, and, on the whole, responded with a speed and agility that we are not known for. I applaud the well-conceived statement by 9 leading national Philanthropy Service Organizations that was issued last week, putting a sector-stake in the ground affirming that these changes must be our current “normal” and must be viewed as mainstream.

The Institute for Wise Philanthropy, which I co-founded 18 years ago, is a different kind of PSO. Our exclusive role is to teach and advise those in the funding community – and we are proud that we have done so for so many funders both in the USA and in many other countries. While we, personally, have very strong commitments and clear funding priorities, as educators our job is to help other funders make wise, informed, ethical, and appropriate decisions – for themselves. Our strategies and our curricula are content agnostic. [I suspect that many who have participated in our sponsored seminars and workshops, or took the courses for funders at NYU and Penn over the last 20 years don’t find it hard to infer my political leanings, but the underlying messages and methodology are applicable across the political spectrum.]

We have always urged funders to take our advocacy role seriously. Especially as funders begin to understand the systemic causes of many of the conditions we attempt to ameliorate or address, the indispensability of government becomes clear. Political inclinations may lead to differing opinions about what or how extensive that role should be, it is inconceivable to resolve large systemic issues without a multi-sector approach. Policy – and funding – always matter. And the sheer scope of funding that can come from public funding will always dwarf that of private philanthropy.

[There are still some funders who shy away from public policy advocacy on the incorrect assumption that it isn’t allowed by US law. This is not the place to go into detail on this question but suffice it to say that there is a difference between advocacy and lobbying. The latter is indeed problematic for private foundations, but less so for public charities. Advocacy, in broad strokes, is always allowed.]

This post is to push our field to raise a voice not just for how we develop appropriate funding roles with our grantees – as crucial as that is. And it is not just to advocate for the continuation of tax deductibility within our tax system – as valid as that is. And it certainly not to downplay the importance our advocacy to include the nonprofit sector in any and all bail-out packages. Those voices are essential, and effective, and affirm that we can and must play crucial roles in guaranteeing the stability and accomplishments of this large sector.

But this post is to plead with my colleagues to begin a more systematic and concerted push for a broader advocacy – and that is to make sure that our constitutional democracy prevails at a time when it is under attack. There are challenges to rights to vote. There are challenges to the rights of habeas corpus. There are challenges to an independent judiciary. There are challenges to the role and rights of a free press. There are challenges to equitable representation. There are challenges to ensure clean water and a reliable food supply. There are challenges to provide education – real education – to all. There are challenges to guarantee safety, security, and opportunity for all regardless of race, religion, ethnic origin, gender identification, or age.

There are NOT partisan issues even if some would make them so. They are what defines a constitutional democracy. There may be room for how one implements them but none who take our constitution seriously would or should argue that they are essential.

The problem is that they are all under attack. And not in small ways. Others have written in great detail about every one of the above listed challenges, many with great sophistication. Writ large, they represent the greatest challenge to the continuity of the American system than we have seen since the McCarthy era.

This is not a challenge for philanthropy alone. These issues should be outspoken and forceful concerns for all. But this is a time when philanthropy’s independence and unique role provide a mandate for us to take the lead. Fortunately, the philanthropy world developed a paradigm for how to approach a large national issue of justice and equity in a coordinated way – Census2020. [I have been a bit player in the local WRAG committee] It is one of the first times when our field chose to coordinate a major public policy initiative on a matter that does not directly impact our own interests – although, of course, it impacts us and all Americans in long term and crucial ways.

Even in Census2020, when all we chose to do was to try to guarantee a complete and fair count of our population in accord with a Constitutional mandate, there were those who did whatever they could to present this advocacy as partisan. Fortunately, our field refused to take the bait and shrink from our responsibilities. So too, in this realm of sustaining civil liberties, assuring the right to vote, and much more, all guaranteed as essential elements of what it means to live in a Constitutional democracy, we must resist the challenges that some would make to philanthropy’s voices – accusing our interests as “partisan.” Affirming loudly, persistently, forcefully that there are rights that enable us to function, that guarantee a separation of powers, and that enable us to begin to redress systemic inequities [which have been so evident during this pandemic but hardly unique to it] must become our mandate during this time. We must resist those who, hiding behind the abnormality of the pandemic, attempt to seize unauthorized powers, and deny rights.

It has become a cliché to say that the world is being changed and challenged as never before. And that what will emerge will be a different world.

We all of us, but especially those of us in the funder world, must do all in our power to assure that the world that emerges is one that assures that the rights that should apply to all are assured. It will require that our eyes to be watchful of those who would deny those rights, and for our voices for freedom never to be muffled by the masks on our faces.

We must!

#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.