Posts from the ‘Public Policy’ Category
November 15th, 2019
“Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant”. Justice Louis Brandeis is credited with this affirmation of the legitimacy of unrestricted, even hate, speech. His argument is that exposing hate and dishonesty for what they are will rebut them more effectively than outlawing any speech, and on the whole, that approach has defined the American ethos and approach to speech in the public domain. In the US, behavior should have limitations, speech needn’t.
Such sentiments are not intuitively obvious, nor universally endorsed. Germany, for example, outlaws Holocaust Denial and Nazism since it wants to make it absolutely clear that the facts related to the nadir of human history, and their role in that, are not negotiable. Their Post-War leaders saw that the popular will can be manipulated too easily with horrendous results, so rebuilding and sustaining a democratic society requires no less than an absolute commitment to the truth. Truth and accountability matter; the risks, they felt and still do, are too great to compromise.
This very argument underscores the current debate about whether there should be limits on what social networks may or may not publish with impunity. In the world and age in which we now live, so very different from the times of Brandeis, hate and falsehood are the all too frequent currency of willful manipulators with nefarious intent who use social media to shape the world to their own interests.
The reason this is so difficult is that, unlike the times of Brandeis, there is now an anarchization of knowledge. Too many assume that if they see it on the internet it must be true – or true-ish, or, conversely, they disbelieve all information assuming that whatever they hear or read is no more than opinion. A sobering example of this is Climate Change. If one looks hard enough, one can find someone online who sounds authoritative who disagrees with 99% of the scientists and the overwhelming evidence. If one wants support for “denial” one can find it. It is all too easy, in this early stage of on-line epistemology, to believe and espouse falsehood. Other examples abound.
The headline examples that have demanded our recent attention are the decisions of Facebook [and others, but FB is the prime example] to allow posts that are clearly dishonest, purposely politically malignant, and spew destructive hatred, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of hatred. Their response to date is aligned with the Brandeis proposition that an informed reader can make an educated judgment. They are simply allowing open speech. [For this discussion I am discounting the profit motive issue since this debate would apply even if that weren’t a factor.]
Sadly, those arguments are neither persuasive nor morally acceptable in this era. The manipulation of the US election system – and others – has been unequivocally demonstrated. The destructive power of “believers” and those easily manipulated by disinformation and outright lies has shown itself to have lethal implications. If FB is the source of mediated or, more accurately, unmediated information for billions, they have a responsibility to understand the implications of what they choose to allow.
Having said all of this, perhaps the only responsible action on my part would be to close my Facebook account. After all, as some argue, only if they see that they have crossed a line that their customers cannot abide will they re-think their stance on what may be published or purchased.
But before making that decision, I want to take a step back: Facebook and other social networks have been transformative in creating virtual but authentic connections that otherwise would be lost. Some years ago, I wrote about how virtual communities have recreated communal connections after years of increased atomization. Suburbanization, for example, has served to isolate people from one another except in limited structured contexts. Gone are the incidental interactions that characterize organic community. All too often in the modern era, we don’t hear about the events in people’s lives, albeit most of them are transient and even trivial, that fill in the gaps between life’s chapter headings. And very often we don’t hear about the lives and deaths of people who are in your life but not central to it.
At least until Facebook entered the scene. Suddenly we see the trivial and the transient and the indulgent from an ever growing “neighborhood” of our choosing. We also keep up with events in the lives of people who may be around the corner or around the world many of whom may not be in our inner circle but about whom we care. How often have I learned about rites of passage or career changes or recognitions or even the passing of people who matter to me!
Some readers may recall an article I wrote 10 years ago after my mother’s death. I compared the responses at that time to those of the time when my father died a decade earlier. When my father died, I was still employed in a relatively well-known capacity and had a long list of related affiliations. Announcements were shared among the organizations with which I had a formal connection. Many expressed condolences and sympathy. When my mother died, I was self employed and had few ongoing professional affiliations, and the only announcement of her passing was on Facebook. Much to my surprise, the number of people who expressed condolences, even in person, far exceeded the earlier time. By a lot. [Others have shared similar experiences.]
I confess, I have had to learn a lot about what, when, and if to post. As time has passed, I have learned to be more disciplined about how I use social media. No one really needs to know every restaurant I visit, how often I am on Amtrak to NY, and all sorts of other trivia that once upon a time characterized my all too frequent postings. But many do appreciate when I have participated in significant meetings somewhere in the world, or been together with friends and colleagues who are also “friends” with lots of others, and even my Starbucks C.O.L. index has its followers. And I appreciate those kinds of postings from others. These may not be life changing events or life chapter headings, but they matter. They matter because they give a vibrancy and vitality to the everyday context of life: to my life and the lives of many who are part of the totality of what it means to live in communities, even when virtual.
That kind of incidental knowledge was what people used to take for granted in their daily lives, and we forgot about for a while. The reason FB is so popular is that it has allowed people to restore this natural kind of incidental knowledge and relationship. It works because it is real. And I am not sure how I would replace those kinds of interactions if I were to drop this most social of social networks. I have learned that many people matter to me, that I am glad to learn about some part of their daily lives, that it matters that I hear about their major life events even if at a distance of time and space.
So, indeed, it is a dilemma. Facebook as a company needs to be held accountable for major self-serving decisions that impact all of us in dangerous ways. Facebook as a system is necessary to help maintain social connections and virtual communities that impact so many of us in productive ways.
For now, with ambivalence, I have decided to stay the course [as some readers now see for themselves.] But it doesn’t exempt us from insisting that FB publicly calls out lies, rumors, and rejects all on-line presence from those who would distort and destroy.
No doubt that is very hard – for them; losing our democracy would be much harder – for all of us.
November 11th, 2019
Reader alert: This piece, as #354 and #355, has a clear public policy point of view that many will find political.
One cannot be in the philanthropy world, the financial management industry, or the demographic field very long without hearing about the massive multi-trillion-dollar transfer of wealth. The amounts to be transferred from generation to generation boggle the mind. Surely it is so great to be transformative.
While I am neither an economist nor a wealth manager, I have no doubt that those numbers are derived from real data. I also have no doubt that wealth managers are hyperventilating over the fees that will accrue when these monies are invested, and fundraisers for both nonprofit and for-profit funds are salivating in anticipation. [I am only slightly exaggerating but in conference after conference, I see their evident enthusiasm.]
More relevant is that I am absolutely sure that some heirs and their families will be well cared for, as they used to say a century or more ago, “beyond the dreams of avarice.” But only some, and that’s the point.
If the transfer were in anyway broad-based and really likely to raise the living standards of everyone, the demographic projections wouldn’t be as bleak as they seem. Why is it that whole swaths of millennials assume that they will not achieve the financial security that their parents had, that they see home ownership as elusive, that they wonder how health care and social security and college loans will be paid for? And what about all those McMansions that were supposed to be guaranteed nest eggs that are now waiting and waiting for buyers?
Even after one of the longest economic expansions in history, middle class incomes are barely covering what they did a generation ago and certainly don’t reflect this great run-up in stocks or provide cushions against emergencies.
Now, let’s turn to the philanthropy piece of this: Initiatives like The Giving Pledge [full disclosure, I have a very peripheral connection] are intended to give some of those billions a place to do some good. And some of the signers are being very proactive with their funds to expand their giving to non-profits or at-risk populations or systemic social issues. But many who have committed at least 50% of their net worth to philanthropy have chosen to fulfill their pledge by funding their foundations upon their death. Far be it for me to malign that decision, but let’s be honest, that means that in many cases only 5% of that money will be distributed on an annual basis and only at some uncertain time in the future. That counts and that money is certainly important but hardly a game changing transfer of wealth to the non-profit sector. To date, sad to say, under 300 billionaires have signed on. There are many others who have yet to announce their intentions.
When looking closely at this massive “transfer of wealth”, it becomes ever more evident that it is a boon to the already wealthy, and a smidgeon to the vast majority of the rest of the population. If there has been an inordinate, and morally dubious, concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever-shrinking percentage of the population over the last years, this transfer is destined to intensify and solidify that oligarchy.
There are some public policy strategies that can help that transfer be more widely enjoyed. Most of these do indeed have an impact on the highest net worth among us; none of these will have the slightest impact on their lifestyle. I am sure that these 7 are not an exhaustive list, but I do feel that together they may begin to redress some of this accumulated equity imbalance:
1. Eliminate the cap on taxable earnings subject to social security tax. That is the single most regressive tax – with a much greater burden on lower- and middle-income earners, and an exemption to the highest.
2. Tax capital gains at the same rate as other taxable income.
3. Support some sort of guaranteed medical care for everyone. I doubt such a national insurance policy will ever come close to what congress grants itself or what top executives in the corporate sector receive, but it is an inequity widely written about. [I am purposely not applying terms such as “Medicare for all” or “Obama Care” etc. They have become so loaded and weaponized that it is impossible to discuss the true underlying issue.]
4. Support policies that restore SNAP funding to levels that make the measurable difference in reducing food insecurity for children, the working poor, etc. Studies show the impact in the workplace, in school performance, and in public health when the population receives adequate nutrition – or doesn’t. The financial return to the society as a whole will more than outweigh the short-term public expenditures.
5. Support a minimum wage that doesn’t guarantee continued poverty. Assuming that the working poor can actually live on $15/hour in almost any municipality in the USA is willful neglect. The deteriorating impact on society of the growing homeless population, even of people working full time, is measurable. We can argue about employment statistics, but it is unconscionable that those numbers are on the backs of full-time workers who can barely afford housing.
6. Support the development of reliable, regular, and widespread public transportation. Those without access to public transportation are fully reliant on private automobiles. For many, that is the second largest annual expenditure after housing. And, needless to say, that impacts lower income folks the most. If one can provide the kind of public transportation taken for granted in many parts of the world, it would immediately provide an increase in net spendable income, reduce the palpable tension in the workplace caused by driving to and from work [according to several studies], and help to sustain engaged community involvement [that has dropped precipitously over the last 2 generations].
7. Restore Pell Grants and the equivalent to the levels they were originally intended. When developed, they were the second most significant source of higher education tuition funding [after the GI Bill]. Millions of lower middle-class people earned college degrees through those grants without incurring back-breaking debt. As those grants have been eroded over time, they have moved from being the “leg-up” to just another bureaucratic burden with minimal return. Simply restoring those funds to the level they were originally intended [inflation adjusted] would make a huge difference in reducing the $trillions of debt too many college graduates carry.
Now, of course, while some of this will require increases in taxes, let’s be clear -that is why we have taxes. “Tax” is not a dirty word – taxes are how we express our individual commitments to having a functioning society. An equitable tax system, without undue breaks for those who need it the least, is the truest form of a “trickle down” economy.
Now I know that some lobbyists will argue with every one of the 7 points, and I am not so naïve to think that whoever gets elected will find it simple to enact public policy that easily. But I do call upon those who will be the primary beneficiaries of the much-celebrated massive wealth transfer to lead the way. For most, it will be painless.
Several years ago, I was meeting with a very wealthy family in another country. The scion, the oldest of Gen-2, told me that he and his peers felt very bad that so many people in their community could not afford the kinds of wedding celebrations that they had. Did I have any thoughts on how they could address that social stigma and provide the less wealthy with the kinds of weddings the wealthy took for granted? I asked this fellow if he and his fellow wealthy had ever considered toning down their own over the top ostentation that only reinforced the wealth divide and played into that very stigma. It would reduce the social pressure and the need to create an entire funding enterprise. It had never occurred to him or his peers. It caught him off guard to suggest that their behavior sets the standard that leads to that perception of inadequacy and that they might have a role to play in reducing that divide.
Perhaps it is time for those whose wealth exceeds any possibility of human consumption to ask themselves that question. It might make a modest increase in taxes more palatable, and it might lead to a level of empathy that would change the social discourse in less judgmental and patronizing ways.
And ultimately make that transfer of wealth something all can celebrate.
November 4th, 2019
Reader alert: This post, as in #354, has a very clear political point of view, at least at the beginning. You may wish to read #354 prior to this one.
This piece is difficult to write since I have so much disregard and antipathy for the current administration. An article advocating a crucial role for government, as this one will, must therefore take a leap of faith that some sense of normalcy and affirmation of civil society will return to the United States in due course. So, onward….
Since the Reagan years, politicians have been running on the concept that taxes are bad, and that government shouldn’t be expected to provide for its citizens. [except of course for their own very generous benefits!] Many others, especially in the private, for-profit sector, argue that the profit motive will almost always prove a more reliable incentive than altruism and will do so far more efficiently than the government can.
Well, it is not hyperbole that we as a society are paying a huge price for these years of cutbacks. Students haven’t been taught about the Constitution and rank well below the top 10 countries in tested learning; frighteningly large segments of the society believe that science, including on climate change, is merely political opinion; homelessness is on the rise throughout the country; the US healthcare system – yes that famous private system – is the most expensive in the world with far too many inadequately insured, and there are still those who believe it should be exclusively a private responsibility…. And it isn’t getting better.
As a quondam educator about the history of American philanthropy, I would be the first to acknowledge that the issue of who should have responsibility for what is as old as the US, and people can have legitimately differing opinions about which sector should be accountable for which parts. And there is a long and legitimate tradition of those in our philanthropy sector who will affirm that private philanthropy’s value added is that it need not be bureaucratically handcuffed, that it can respond to needs without political interference or a plebiscite, and it can take risks that government cannot and should not take. The idea of private philanthropy as society’s risk capital is a continuing and honorable theme.
There is certainly validity to those arguments – as far as they go. They fail, in my opinion, when they make two derivative arguments: that in the absence of government funding, private philanthropy should fill in the gaps, and that private philanthropy has the capacity to do so.
It is hard to overstate how the latter arguments are flawed. There are many “proof texts”: The largest private foundation in the world has an endowment of about $50B with a grantmaking budget of about $5-6B; compare that with the budget of the NIH – itself having suffered cutbacks over the years: as of this year, its annual budget is over $30B.
Or to put it another way, if those in the congress who wish to cut SNAP funding – the most important public initiative to reduce food insecurity – were to have their way, the amount of cutbacks alone would be greater than the sum of the endowments of all US foundations. Examples abound.
Or to put it another way, a private sector company worth $50B would be so far down the list that it would only be the 110th largest company in terms of value. And very few of the other top foundations would crack the Fortune 500 list. Imagine the naivete in thinking that this sector can have the resources to solve society’s systemic challenges alone or replace government funding.
It is true that foundation funding trails individual giving, so the true capacity of private philanthropy may be greater than this. But, even so, nowhere near the need.
But even if it could, the real question is: should it? After all, the very nature of private philanthropy is that it is not accountable to a plebiscite and that it has no obligation to respond to all of society’s needs even when not popular. There is nothing, other than good will, that would guarantee that the highest risk populations are not forgotten, or that there would be socially responsible standards for health, education, and more. If history is any indication, many of the wealthiest are perfectly happy to give their largest gifts to the most secure and prestigious organizations, universities, museums, and hospitals – and to underfund others. [Yes, I know these are gross generalizations and this giving is under severe attack in some circles, but the long-term numbers bear out the generalizations.]
Do we really want a society where retirement funds are fully subject to our own private investment acumen? That our health care depends on how much we can manage to pay and too bad for us if we cannot? That educational institutions only offer art or athletics or specialized attention if they are in wealthy neighborhoods?… In a country with 350 million residents, such a financially driven system of human services and health care and education is morally suspect and of dubious efficacy.
What about our role, then? We do have an obligation to fund that which government is not yet willing to do such as take risks, advocate for systemic solutions, utilize our unique vantage of not being subject to quarterly reports or biennial election to fund over time and with limited political overhang. We have the ability to bridge sectors, to develop new models, to leverage our resources even if they are more limited than many assume, and to be a moral voice of values.
Not all of us will agree on how to use our resources, for what we should advocate, who should be allowed to decide, and what the ultimate role of government will be in all of this. But we, more than any other sector, should be able to model those dialectics in ways that ennoble our society, despite or because of our disagreements – quite the opposite of the denigrating cesspool that surrounds the current administration.
Government funding alone won’t solve the morass we are in but honoring the legitimacy of taxes is a start. And, let’s be honest, if our sector doesn’t acknowledge our ability to help influence those policies, policies that reinforce why we exist and what we can do, then we are only playing into the hands of those who would either trivialize our role, or worse, magnify it beyond comprehension or credibility. Either way, we, and society as a whole, will be much the worse for it.
June 20th, 2019
The Giving USA report confirms what everyone thought it would – giving is down, about 1.7% That is indeed real money and affirms what the non-profit advocates and philanthropy sector warned would happen with the tax changes that went into effect last year.
There are plenty of articles analyzing those numbers, and they are real. And the dollars are real. And they matter a lot to many non-profit organizations, especially smaller ones that are typically undercapitalized from the get-go. They truly need every penny.
Why, then, is the reduction in charitable giving not my [major] concern?
There have been blips in charitable giving every single time there has been any change in the tax code or tax rates. Sometimes those changes have boosted charitable giving and sometimes they have depressed it. But, over time, charitable giving seems to revert to a mean. In other words, tax changes have served to influence when something is given more than if. If one looks at a long-term giving pattern, it is far too early to know how significant the non- itemization will be for givers of modest amounts. My own prediction is that there will be a gradual return to the mean since Americans seem to have internalized giving as a normal thing to do.
But, that doesn’t mean that there are no red flags, and I believe that those red flags are far more significant than the short-term drop in giving:
1. Despite the claim of a healthy economy, middle and lower middle-class incomes have not yet come close to replacing the buying power those earners had a generation ago. Fewer have reliable health insurance, employer sponsored retirement plans, job security, and can afford college tuitions. Even incremental and long overdue wage increases don’t come close to closing that gap. The amazing thing is that voluntary charitable giving is keeping pace at all [other than by the very wealthy whose proportional wealth has skyrocketed and should be ashamed of themselves if they haven’t increased their giving as disproportionately.]
2. The deep-seated distrust of institutions is cataclysmic. Nonprofits may fare better than some other institutions, but they are not exempt from this distrust. One still hears too many people believing that non-profit people are either lazy and inefficient or that they are secretly making a profit off others’ largesse – or both. All of this distrust has profound and frightening implications for civil society as a whole. Of course, it impacts charitable giving but more so, it erodes the fragile network that allows civic engagement and community organizations to provide such an important role.
3. Even if charitable giving were to rise, it may lead us to a false sense that all would be well. It wouldn’t be. The charitable sector cannot be expected to replace public funding for health care, education, retirement, food safety, children’s nutrition – and so much more. Under the horrendous rhetoric that taxes are bad so cutting them is good, we are paying the price of taxpayers no longer paying for what we should be paying for. Until we reverse that terrible governing [or, more accurately, anti-governing] principle, and develop a more rational, fair, and responsible system of taxes that people feel are appropriate, reliance on the voluntary sector will be a fool’s mission. That is not to suggest that there will not always be a role for the voluntary sector but that this increasing reliance on voluntarism to do what an underfunded government doesn’t won’t get us out of this mess.
Taxes are a reflection of where we think public funding should be. Most of us care about more than roads and bridges [would that they were properly maintained]. And we care about more than police and fire and EMT folks [even when they sometimes need some serious equity training]. I believe that the vast majority of us care about the health of our food and our children and our air and our water and our old age…..
When we recognize that being a responsible member of any society requires that we pay our fair share for those things, and we pay for those through a fair and reasonable tax system, we can begin to return to our question of charitable deductibility and voluntary contributions. When that happens, I will be first in line.
Until then, count me among those who are advocating, as loudly and persuasively as I know how, to build a society and government that honors the needs of all with integrity and dignity.
I will continue to be an active volunteer and to put my charitable money there as well, but the shortfall in that as reported by Giving USA isn’t the grievance that anguishes me. Irresponsible, shortsighted, dystopian public policy is.
June 19th, 2019
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.
November 16th, 2018
[This is a slightly revised version of a post from one year ago. Today, on the 30th anniversary of this moment in history, and the 81st anniversary of the Kristallnacht Pogrom, it seems even more relevant.]
I didn’t plan it that way, but events have a way of happening. So, it was that I found myself in Berlin on 9 November 1989.
The trip changed my life [and, of course, much of the world.].
I was in Germany as a guest of what was then West Germany. A small group of young-ish [today, we would call us emergent] Jewish leaders was invited for 3 weeks to demonstrate how the nation had dealt with its shameful past and the underlying values that defined the new Germany.
The content of the trip was fascinating. Quite appropriately, it included powerful exploration of Holocaust places and remembrances. It introduced us to how education about the nadir of civilization was being taught to all school students, how there is now a policy of the military that enables, indeed mandates, resistance to immoral orders. And, perhaps most telling, it began to show how a nation was moving from memory to myth – how that terrible period will be understood long after those with direct memory are no more.
The trip, though, was not only about The Shoah. It reminded us that Jews lived in Germany for 2000 years. We saw the birthplace of what is known as Ashkenazic Jewry in the Rhine Valley. We visited the birthplaces of Modern Jewry – both Reform and Neo [Modern] Orthodoxy. And much more.
Jews were not suddenly transported to Germany in 1932 to experience the Holocaust; rather there was a long,, complex, and often thriving and robust diaspora there for a long time.
And lest we think that this was only a trip of parochial interest, I have a folio from the Gutenberg printing press in Mainz in our personal collection. We sat in the home of Beethoven’s birth. And more.
And we also saw the great Wall dividing the “free” West from the Soviet East. That divide meant almost certain death for any daring to cross it. Armed GDR troops on one side had their fingers on the triggers, and the armies of 3 other powers were on the alert on the other. That was visible and palpable all the way through the morning of 9 November.
It was coincidence that I remained for a few days after the conclusion of our program. So it was that I was in Berlin that day. Today, few remember that the militaries were all on full alert. The end of the GDR was clearly in the offing. But none were confident that it would be a peaceful end. Truth be told, that no sergeant lost his cool was the real miracle of that historic day.
My own life, as I said, was changed by that – both professionally and personally. As an American, never again could I revert to the provincialism of seeing my world as disconnected to that which was happening across the Pond. And, as a Jew, never again could I view our existence in simplistic terms. History, politics, identities are all interwoven – and that trip brought that complexity to the fore. It became a defining element of my own persona, and my professional work.
The world seemed very binary at that time. When the Wall fell, optimism for a new, different, and better era seemed inevitable. We were confident that the liberties and freedoms, and even the economic success we took for granted in the West would soon become universal. Prosperity and enfranchisement for all. It was just a matter of investment, planning… and learning.
Well, 3 decades have shown us how elusive and illusory that romantic optimism was. We have witnessed nationalist and ethnic backlashes. We have seen that greed, selfishness, and myopia have made sharing the wealth of the developed world with those still in need seem Sisyphean. And, we have learned that painful lesson that not all share our vision of a world with liberties and justice for all – regardless of race, gender, religion, or national origin.
I write this for publication the week of this auspicious anniversary. Looking back now, these days and in this week, as an American, as a Jew, as a student of history, I realize the fragility of civil society, the brevity of memory, and the destructive hubris of leaders motivated by xenophobic rage,
History teaches us to be vigilant. Germany wasn’t – and we weren’t – and it took millions of lives and a radical change in world order to recover from that silence. Today the stakes are even higher. The earth’s climate change is an existential challenge to all human beings. Technology doesn’t allow any but the fiction of isolationism. And the deepest-seated cynicism toward institutions means that too many are simply unwilling to invest any energies in preserving a democratic society – not just in the USA but in too many places. And, let’s be soberingly honest, a resurgence of neo-Nazism, white supremacy and nativist movements in numerous countries, and populist xenophobic sentiments should give us all pause – and uneasy sleep.
Looking back, the Fall of the Wall did not usher in an era of guaranteed freedoms and prosperity for all. It did usher in a time of great challenges – and choices. I am trying hard not to be trite, but if there was ever a time to learn from the past, an historic moment with much to teach us, and with moral values that need to infuse our thinking, this is it.
April 2nd, 2018
While this post is a personal reflection, it is implicitly a call to action by those of us in the philanthropy world as well. It joins the growing chorus of those who argue that our sector no longer has the luxury of reticence in the face of the most profound challenges to the institutions of democratic stability since the McCarthy era.
The year was 1967. A friend and I were sitting on a Broadway bus in New York City. Sitting in front of us, apparently each minding his own business, were a hirsute college student and an older man. [Now that a lot of years have gone by, I realize that I have no idea how “old” that older man was at the time.]
The bus came to a stop, the older person stood up to leave, but before doing so struck the younger one in his face with a fist. He then got off the bus and ran away. The young man was not seriously hurt, but he was shocked and surprised. All the rest of us on the bus could only surmise that the older gentleman was so threatened by this long-haired college student that he literally lashed out. [Thank goodness the destructive belief in the unrestrained and extreme interpretation of the 2nd amendment was still in the future. I shudder to think if this blind rage had been accompanied by a gun. A point to remember toward the end of this essay.]
By 1967, most of us who had not rushed off to careers on Wall Street looked very much as this young man did. Indeed, between 1965 and 1968, the preferred attire for most had switched from buttoned down to denim-ed up. On university campuses, and in most of the trans-Atlantic big cities, the confluence of the counter culture and political activism [two very different motivating dynamics that converged in time] meant that what was normal then was profoundly different than it had been a scant 5 years earlier.
This is not the place to rehearse all of the changes, some fleeting, others more lasting, of those years, but one thing is certain. By 1968, it didn’t take much courage to protest. I don’t want to diminish the killings at Jackson State and Kent State, nor the “occupying” police presence on many university campuses and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But they were, it appeared to many, the last gasps of a political enterprise that resisted the changing rules, the challenge to the mandatory draft, the protests against a despised war, the legal and moral insistence of racial and gender equity, and the transforming personal mores.
It was a movement, or in retrospect, several interlocking movements, that were young-person led. Some in the political power structures tried to ignore or squelch things at the time, but changes prevailed, even if radical Change may not have.
Over the next decades, many of us rested on our activist laurels. I know I did. We assumed, wrongly it now appears, that while there were still significant skirmishes to be fought in the areas of women’s rights over their own bodies, or fairness in hiring and education of minorities, or the degradation of the environment – to take but three, the big battles of a society that could hold its elected officials and big business accountable for misconduct were won. And there were governmental entities in place that would enforce these principles.
I cannot speak for everyone else, but I know that I never changed my political leanings even as my attire became more bespoke, and my hair – well, let’s just say that is long gone. However, what I discovered on numerous occasions over the years was that very few knew that I had those views. There were even occasions when I would speak up or write something or attend an event that incurred surprised reactions by other attendees or readers. But on the whole, I let others, too few others, take the lead in these and other important battles.
I don’t want to impugn others, although I don’t think these behaviors were mine alone. Activism, even when safe, is never easy and requires great tolerance for failure and disappointment. And it requires a lot of time, and even more social risk. How ironic, I now realize, that my passivity was during the very time when I, in fact, did have leadership positions -some ascribed, others earned. I had the opportunities to influence others, to articulate larger visions, to be more politically active, but didn’t.
Activism became less and less appealing as the political ethos deteriorated into money and partisanship and ugly personal nastiness. In 1967, the risk was a fist in the face; in 2018, there are opponents trolling our sites and toting guns. Even when it is socially safe, it is not without real risk.
Voting or sending an occasional letter or making an even more occasional phone call to an elected official is not that hard or risky. But getting in the trenches requires a different level of commitment, and that wasn’t what I did.
And if it is true that I am not alone, we are all a bit guilty of negligence. We have tolerated, mostly by our silence, this abysmal state of affairs, the erosion of confidence in our democracy, and the willful self-indulgent atomized existence of far too many.
The Parkland kids shook me out of my facile passivity. Yes, I did participate in recent marches – to respond to climate change, for women, for immigrants, and more – but there was something different this time. It resonated with the dormant part of my activist soul. And challenged me and hopefully us.
It may well be that my own personal opportunities to influence others are largely over, but that doesn’t exempt me from raising my voice, being a visible advocate, and choosing involvements that demand a restoration of a commitment to ethics and justice as bedrock principles of empowerment.
We didn’t quite accomplish what we hoped to in our last youth-led movement, when I was still young-ish. Now that I am 2 generations older, it is time to follow the young once again. And this time, we cannot leave it to them alone to finish the hard part of the work.
They and we and the nation as a whole deserve no less.
March 5th, 2018
Recently the NY Times published an extended piece on what has happened in the years since November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. The Wall has now been gone for longer than it stood. It has been gone long enough for decidedly revisionist theoreticians to bemoan its loss, xenophobes to blame its loss for precipitating an influx of “foreigners”, for Europe to have gone through celebratory post-nationalism and reactionary tribalism. It was a metaphor for a world with clear binary choices made more complicated without it.
On a personal level, its fall marked a life-changing experience for me, one that shaped a good deal of my professional involvements and interests since. As some of you know, I was in Berlin that day. For a short while after that, I would, in an attempt at humor, take credit, but after it became clear that re-unification was more complex and nuanced than originally imagined, that made little sense and wasn’t very funny. [I had been a guest of the West German government for several weeks prior to that famous day and stayed on briefly afterwards. My presence was pure coincidence.]
The Fall of the Wall is remembered as a peaceful symbol of the end of the Cold War. Only days before, if one stood at the Reichstag and looked into the space between the walls, one saw a killing field. Few recall that tensions were very high in the days leading up to 9 November. All of the armies occupying Berlin were on full alert, we were warned to stay away from Checkpoint Charlie, and there was on overriding sense that something could happen any second. The history that must be told is the miracle that no solider on either side, in a moment of panic, lost his [yes, his] cool and started shooting. It could easily have happened.
The result, ultimately, would have been the same but it would have been remembered very differently. The Cold War didn’t end with a whimper exactly, but it certainly was not the Bang it might have been. Thankfully.
As I said, it changed me. It wasn’t that I had been parochial exactly, but I had never been very focused on international issues, the dynamics of the many diasporas of many peoples, and the implications of an implicit post-nationalism that characterized that era.
After that experience I invested heavily in recrafting my own career, developing programs with several governments, speaking in many other countries, and cultivating some modest expertise as a frequent observer of a rapidly changing world. [Initially, most of this focused on Europe but subsequently I have had the privilege of speaking and meeting on 5 Continents – Australia being the only remaining outlier.]
There are many things I learned during those years – most notably a very profound respect for how history shapes one’s worldview. Watching the Republikaner march in Munich, or observing how Jews in the evolving Europe would lie low even 2 full generations after the Holocaust – then celebrate that they are more than survivors only to witness a resurgence of vitriolic anti-Semitism, or how Germany’s view of a post-nationalist Europe resonated with so few outside of Germany, or how the Czech and Slovak republics could become Czechoslovakia for only one year, only to divide again, or Brexit, or how long submerged ethnic identities exploded – in both wonderful and terrible ways, or how difficult it has been, even to this day, for some countries to come to grips with their own uncomfortable pasts, and more, has been extraordinary… and instructive by providing perspectives on today.
Given the frightening challenges to democratic ideals in the USA, and also in many other countries, it is clear that too many forget or deny that history is filled with destructive mis-steps. The USA is not the first nation or people that celebrated its exceptionalism, only to become an also-ran in subsequent centuries. Unconscionable divides between the haves and the have-nots have led to outright revolutions and decades of instability. Pluralistic societies cannot take for granted that tolerance and integration will be foregone conclusions in the future. Isolationism, in the form of national “superiority”, becomes a cancer on the body politic.
The Berlin Wall, with all of its metaphor and symbol, represented a binary understanding of the world. When that facile and simplistic overlay was removed, we learned that the world had not anticipated how complicated it would be nor was it adequately equipped to deal with the tribulations and challenges that have followed. My hope is that history will look back at our currently tumultuous time and see it as the last gasps of failed visions of totalitarian and xenophobic aspirations. If there are any abiding lessons to be learned, it is that we cannot rely on “history” to make sure that we survive these times intact, and we certainly cannot count on the self-discipline of trigger happy leaders.
February 20th, 2018
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.
December 21st, 2017
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.