Posts from the ‘Role of Philanthropy’ Category
January 18th, 2021
It is rare that we experience a moment of moral clarity. 6 January 2021 was one of those rare times.
Shockingly, though, there were those whose moral compass was so askew that they immediately reverted to “what about….?” Most often they tried to ascribe equivalency to BLM protests or some mythical Antifa or … as a way to deflect from the horrendous nature of what we saw, know, and felt. But as so many commentators have said [and to which I alluded in #399], it is a morally corrupt equivalency. Legitimate protest, even if on a very few occasions when a small number destroyed property, is not the same as sedition and insurrection.
Any reader who still doesn’t understand that isn’t going to be persuaded by any words I would add. If you are one of those, I am not sure what moral compass directs you, but as an ethicist, I am concerned that it needs to be reset to due north.
As it happens, though, most choices in life, and certainly in philanthropy, are not so clear. There usually are tradeoffs, considerations, more than one honest and legitimate perspective. The options may not all be equal, morally or functionally, but they usually deserve a hearing. At minimum, understanding another perspective can help clarify tradeoffs.
Every funder uses “what about” all the time when making a funding decision. It is part of our due diligence. Indeed, if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing our job. Since there is never enough money to fund everything, we have to make hard decisions knowing that some are going to be happy and some disappointed. More to the point, every grant has risks – by definition – since we are always funding the future and, as 2020 taught us in spades, there are no certainties in the future.
Due diligence should have limits – of two kinds:
1. Utility: In an exercise I use when teaching funders, we list approximately 30 criteria that a funder might consider but may only use 10 of them to make the funding decision. The exercise is more robust than this, but it quickly becomes clear that most criteria are either irrelevant or ignored when actually making a decision. Other considerations are certainly legitimate, but if a funder isn’t going to use them, why impose them on a potential grantee when submitting a proposal? Both sides have better things to do with their time than to simply have information that ends up as clutter. “What about….” should apply to real decision making.
2. Appropriate: Sometimes “What about…” can veer into side issues. I was recently interviewed by a very prominent newspaper about a philanthro-ethics issue. The situation: a significant funder/board member of a prestigious cultural institution was revealed to have had a long-term friendship with someone who had been found guilty of major criminal activity. The journalist asked if the cultural institution should expel the funder from its board because of that friendship or should funders stop supporting this institution because of this association. When I asked if there was any suggestion of wrongdoing by the funder, the journalist responded that there was none as far as he knew. My response was that guilt by association is itself unethical. While the institution may want to address some potential PR questions, there was nothing in the facts as presented that should in any way impact a funder’s decision.
“What about…” is not a static question. In 2021, a question about the racial or demographic composition of staff and board is hardly irrelevant. How one weighs the answer is not so straightforward, but the question itself reflects a sensitivity toward philanthropy’s long overdue responsibility to address systemic inequity. When I first started teaching funders 2 decades ago, the standard response of funders regarding this question was that it was none of our business; today, the majority of those in our courses feel that it is.
When does “what about…” cross over into “Whataboutism?”
a. “What about..” is a question used to inform; “Whataboutism” is used to deflect.
b. “What about” is to elucidate; ‘Whataboutism” is to obfuscate.
c. “What about” is to arrive at a judgement, however difficult; “Whataboutism” is to avoid judgment, however straightforward.
Let’s look at examples that are relevant to our philanthropy sector:
• Food insecurity: “What about…” are the questions we should ask about how to make sure that SNAP funding and the equivalent get to as many people as possible. If food insecurity has been an embarrassing – and avoidable – reality in the USA before, COVID19 has exponentially increased the tragedy. Funders can ask real questions about how to leverage our resources and advocacy most effectively. Whataboutism finds the infinitesimal number of those who misuse SNAP access as an excuse to deprive funding.
• Voting Rights: Given the history of voter suppression in this country, and the sense of disenfranchisement felt by too many, especially POC, “what about..” questions of increased registration, protection of records, and more are appropriate and felt needs that funders can address on a local, state, and national level.. “Whataboutism” is using largely fictitious or extraordinarily rare examples of voter fraud to suppress votes, disenfranchise swaths of the population. Such thinking has no place in the philanthropy world.
• Government Financial Support for Citizens: There may well be legitimate questions about the best way to redress the unconscionable growing financial divide in the USA. The philanthropy sector, on the whole the beneficiaries of this divide, should have a mandate to advocate for systemic solutions. There is certainly space for “what about” thinking as we weigh various interventions; after all, if it were easy it would have been solved a long time ago. “Whataboutism” is trying to block any funding for the unemployed, the undereducated, the underpaid, and the vulnerable on the basis that some recipients might not really need it.
Health care, housing, education are some other areas where similar thinking applies. If we have learned anything from this extended pandemic, and the belated [for too many] recognition of endemic inequality, it is that there are right “what about” questions – the ones that genuinely try to speak to the hard questions of societal amelioration.
We have also learned that some questions are destructive and counterproductive – and we call those “Whataboutism.”
January 8th, 2021
It cannot be said enough: what we witnessed was White Supremacism in all of its ugly manifestations
“Everything that can be said has been said, but not everyone has said it.” This has been attributed to Winston Churchill, Abba Eban, and, for all I know, a longer list.
I wrote the first version of this post as I was sitting transfixed before my television on Wednesday. As others began to post what I was thinking and writing, I thought to hold back wondering if there is a need to reiterate those thoughts
Surely, there is nothing more I can add to the thoughts about this nadir of national leadership represented by a sick and destructive POTUS and his shameful enablers these past four years. History, and hopefully the voters and the legal system, will hold them fully accountable. Besides, long time readers are well aware of my unequivocal opinions on that.
And there is little more to say about the judgement of the seditious terrorists who commandeered the US Capitol for several hours. If there are any in the world who still don’t get it, my words are not going to convince them.
But what I finally did feel was important to comment on was the all too evident racism in the security breakdown and, as I will repeat later on, it must be said by all of us.
As one who has now entered the “elder” stage of my professional life, I can attest to having attended countless rallies, protests, marches, demonstrations, and more – going back to the mid-sixties. Over the years, I have seen various levels of security, attitudes by the police, and preparedness. So, the limited preparedness of that on Wednesday was glaring since it defied logic or historic precedence. On occasion, the security is too prepared – and become themselves guilty of disrupting peaceful expressions of free speech [we are all too familiar with recent examples in the BLM marches], but in fairness, more typically they are just a visible symbol of power. Never have I seen what we all witnessed on Wednesday – a shocking absence of security for the Congress or even a presence along the announced route from the White House to the Congress.
None of this was secret or a surprise. The claims to the contrary are disingenuous as so many in the press have already articulated and demonstrated. White supremacist terrorists got a pass – and were allowed to walk out at their own pace and without immediate arrest. Pretty clear to any viewer.
Why then do I feel the mandate to add my own voice now when so many have already done so? Because it seems that too many of those who have publicly called out the unconscionable difference between the response to BLM or immigrant rights marches and this one are themselves POC. And that must not be, for that makes their observations seem self serving and tokenistic.
As an “old white guy”, my voice must be no more quiet than those of POC. My outrage must be no more muted than those whose legitimate outrage has been reinforced by painful real-life experiences. My own commitment to holding those responsible for tolerating xenophobes, racists, nativists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists must be no more subdued than those who have been victimized directly both by police and by these terrorist thugs.
Now, l don’t say all of this simply as an “ally.” The concept of “ally” is problematic because it seems to suggest that what happens is only to “them.” I do this because it affects us as well. A society that tolerates racism, that averts its eyes before restrictions of authentic civil liberties, that abets public policies that foment lies and discord, that perpetuates unequal treatment before the law, the police, housing, and employment, is one that diminishes all of us.
So, as one who has been in the philanthropy world for a long time, I implore our sector and my colleagues to not be silent, not to fear public advocacy, not to shirk our responsibilities to foster and fund a more just social fabric.
We too will be judged by how we respond to moments of challenge to the social weal. I add my voice to others in our field who have spoken and acted. I hope those of you who have not yet done so will join me in these commitments.
July 8th, 2020
A fellow member of the National Speakers Association publicly posed a sincere question? An Ausssie expat now living in the USA, he asked how it was that so many of us had no difficulty at all dialoguing with adherents of other religions than our own but seemingly had no ability or interest in dialogue with political adherents with whom we disagree. After all, he suggested, even if we have no intention or expectation of proselytization, our religious worldviews and beliefs are surely quite divergent. Why is that different than political discourse?
As one who has devoted a very substantial amount of volunteer time over several decades to inter-religious dialogue on local, national, and international levels, this question is not a trivial one. I am probably as guilty of my colleague’s characterization as anyone so let me respond – first to the easy part and then in a bit more depth.
The easy answer is that interreligious dialogue has become well developed. Not everyone in any religion believes in it which means that, almost all the time, our dialogue is with those who, on some level, accept “the other”. None of us is so naïve to think that we can fully change hearts, minds, beliefs, and experiences of all of our own co-religionists, even if we have learned to model a different approach and accept that there are “Truths” in every Tradition, while not compromising on the “Truth” of our own. And it is successful because enough religious leaders around the world now affirm the legitimacy of dialogue so that no one needs to apologize for participating in such settings.
The easy answer in the political arena of 2020 is that the divide is so large that vast swaths of those on either side of the political divide deeply reject the “Truths” that others believe. This divide has been underscored by the Pew Research Center that has demonstrated that the vocabulary, the world view, and the perceived role of government are more divided than at any time since they began their work. Until there is leadership that models that the work of inter-political dialogue can and should happen, there is little public space for or acceptance of the kind of successful dialogue that has characterized the interreligious space for several decades.
That was the easy answer, but hardly sufficient. About the challenge of interreligious discourse: Those of us with a long history of this never take for granted that new participants know the ground rules. Dialogue is not disputation. It is not a debating society. It is not a competition for whose history is more credible, or more worthy of sympathy or condemnation. It is not a quick fix. And it is not for those whose knowledge of their own tradition is inadequate for an informed exchange.
The purpose of dialogue is to advance a common agenda, when it might exist; to make sure that participants have a keen empathy for their counterparts and their religion; to understand their respective vulnerabilities; to understand normative behaviors and authoritative positions even as they may have evolved over time; and to create a level of mutual trust so that when inevitable challenges emerge, there is a context for deciding what to do about them.
None of this is easy; not every interreligious dialogue survives those periodic challenges or the inclusion of new participants with no institutional memory. Differing adjudicatory and authority systems often lead to limits of how far a conversation can proceed. But many dialogues do thrive. [I am happy to share real transformative experiences with leaders of many religions to any of you who ask – but those stories are not the subject of this piece.]
The reason I articulate both the challenges and ground rules is precisely because almost none of those ground rules is present in the current political climate. It is not that such dialogue is impossible in theory – only that the deterioration of civility and trust has made it fully elusive.
It is also important to state again what was implied earlier: one cannot or should not dialogue with everyone. Dialogue means that we assume the best intentions of the other, the integrity of the other, and the conviction that something better can come of it. Under the current national leadership by one who behaves in a treasonous manner, who violates the oath of office to uphold the Constitution, who behaves as a race baiter, and whose personal animus to any opposing view can only be understood as beneath contempt, one cannot assume that there is much opportunity for dialogue at that level prior to the November election.
My own place along the political spectrum is thus clearly not very hidden, but I am old enough to know that American political history has a long tradition of talking across the aisle, of political leaders who disagreed but didn’t demonize, of genuine struggles with endemic challenges even if informed by different conceptual perspectives. This is not to romanticize or idealize the past as much as to say that there is a basis for affirming that authentic political dialogue has existed – and can again.
One of the key challenges in dialogue that transforms is that it must find resonance among leaders at the top and also a sufficient number of adherents on the grass roots level. There can be very meaningful and sincere dialogues at either level, but unless both exist, the impact will end when the door of discourse opens to the outside. I imagine that somewhere in America, in safe and secluded places, some people are talking to each other with a modicum of calm and reason even though their political stances are diametrically opposed. I am not sure where these places are even though we regularly hear pleas for that to happen. Most – not all – of those pleas, I regret to say, seem to be from people who have chosen to act and say “a plague on both your houses” rather than willingness to genuinely engage. Nevertheless, I would like to think that somewhere those discussions are happening by some people who are the right ones to be in the room.
The reason we don’t hear about them, if they exist, is because it is not safe to go public. No one has created a safe, mediated space – and few adherents are willing to publicly honor those with opposing views with credibility. It is surely not happening on the overt political level. I may have strong opinions about whose fault that is, but, no matter, it isn’t happening on the leadership level – and without that it will never happen on the ground.
Is there hope or have we become a nation on the brink? History gives mixed messages. We should never forget what George Mitchell always would remind naysayers as he mediated an end to the hostilities in Ireland. “Everyday is a failure until the day that it isn’t.” And one day he succeeded. On the other hand, sadly, there are a lot of failed empires strewn along the highway of history, those who believed in their own uniqueness or invincibility or even divine selection.
Perhaps my colleague is correct in looking to the interreligious realm to provide a key. Can there be a more powerful statement of transcendent transformation than Vatican II’s famous Nostra Aetate? Written and affirmed in the mid-60’s, it reversed 1800 years of Church teaching toward and about “the other.” One day other religions were to be condemned, vilified, and proselytized; the next day they were authentic, legitimated, and respected. Sure, 50+ years later there are still too many who are unaware or skeptical, but acceptance of “the other” is Catholic Doctrine, and that has been affirmed vocally and forcefully by every Pope since. I have personally been present at three of those. [The influences that led to that statement have been the subject of many books and analyses, and there are significant nuances to how the Church got there and what it means for Roman Catholics. This is not the place to rehearse them; rather I refer to it as an example of how presumably irreconcilable ideologies can be bridged – even against all odds.]
This modest hopefulness should also lead to a mandate to our philanthropy world. Our work depends on the viability of civil society. Voluntarism, in any of the 3 W’s – work, wealth, or wisdom – requires that there are safe spaces for improving and influencing society. It means that there can be a decision to act for immediacy, or with a long-time perspective. It means that the organizations we fund can be free to implement the missions we support. It means that continued learning, genuine empowerment, and respect for equity, in all of its connotations, are allowed, possible, and encouraged. And it, therefore, means that we have a great deal at stake in becoming active advocates for the health and security of that sector and of civil society writ large.
It also means that our own behaviors matter. There is now an active discussion about whether there is legitimacy to our work since it is, no matter how one slices it, based on privilege and power. One can mediate and moderate them. One can share them. One can learn from them. But as long as private philanthropy exists one must acknowledge the endemic nature of privilege and power. And if that is the case, we must model how civil society can work even with that imbalance. It does not mean that we have to be perfect. As we know, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” If we hold out for the absolute or pure, we will become paralyzed by the disputes about what that must mean.
But model we must.
What many have learned in the last 4 months is that we as funders had typically been very slow to implement what it means to encourage and permit the trust that allows us to do what we want to do with our voluntary resources. If our systems, our affect, our expectations, and our decision making are, at the end of the day, patronizing, judgmental, restrictive, and self-serving, no matter how much lip service we give to respecting our grantee “partners”, they always know who has control.
Many [it isn’t yet clear what percentage of] funders have made modifications to significant elements of our funding processes in response to the Pandemic and to racial inequities. Many have eased reporting requirements, dropped project conditions, extended the length of grants, and more. Many have involved grantees and the directly impacted communities in decision making. It remains to be seen how many of these process changes will be lasting and how many funders will find it easy to revert to old ways of doing things whenever this period ends.
Some funders have chosen to give more and/or spend more of their endowments in the belief that, as some have said “this is the rainy day we have been saving for.” Here, too, it remains to be seen how sustained these spending and investment changes will be.
What does seem to be the most impenetrable barrier to change will be in the issue of governance. [I have written about this previously – please see #359, 26 Nov 2019] How many families will dilute their control of the family funded foundation with other stakeholders to the degree that it is no longer controlled by the family? How many will choose to surrender their multigenerational legacy to the existential problems of today? How many will admit that power can distort both one’s own perceptions and how others relate to us?
This last stage is hard, and as I said, perhaps impenetrable. But if our experience is to be a paradigm it is where we need to be model for a divided society. Being wealthy is not a divine right anymore than being part of the underclass should be a permanent destiny. Our sector is not singlehandedly able to erase systemic inequity and racism, but we must model how to redress and acknowledge them – even at some cost to our own extensive power and wealth.
Trust is what allowed centuries of interreligious disputation to become interreligious amity. Trust is what can allow decades of funders and grantees seeing one another as “the other” to be transformed into a trust based mutual commitment to change. And without trust, that only those with the wealth and power can foster, it will never be possible to rebuild our broken society, correct our rigged system, and redress our deep inequities.
No. Philanthropy cannot do it alone, but we can surely model how to begin.
April 27th, 2020
Please see sections #3 and #6 for comments related to COVID-19. You may wish to read a number of our other posts for thoughts on philanthropy’s unique role at this time. I want to thank Lewis Flax, an expert on board performance and an NSA-DC colleague, for his constructive suggestions for this revision.
I recently accepted an invitation to join a board. That is hardly newsworthy or even report-worthy, except perhaps in a Chronicle of Philanthropy trivia page. After all, it is my 61st. [I only know that number because a couple of years ago, I was asked about my board experience over the years, so I reached back and did the arithmetic. I also calculated that I have chaired 12 of them. These boards have ranged from local to national to international, and included a wide variety of topics, styles, and roles.]
Clearly at this stage of my life and career, I don’t join boards for the purpose of résumé padding. In fact, I more often politely say no to such invitations than say yes. For example, I say yes to foundation and grantmaking boards [my field and expertise] and say no to those that are primarily looking for help in fundraising [which is most assuredly not my field or expertise]. I am more open to boards where it is clear that board members play appropriate governance roles and less open to those where one is expected to be a sycophant. And, unless I can see that my participation will actually be utilized and I’ll find it gratifying, there is no reason to say yes at all.
Boards are indispensable to the entire voluntary sector. Indeed, I considered that role so essential that, when I was the CEO of a large and multi-faceted non-profit, I strongly urged every professional of that organization to sit on a board of their choosing. My feeling was that there was a double benefit for that: not only did it help those many non-profits have their expertise, but it also made them better professionals. The experience honed their understand of how board members should best be treated, utilized, and empowered. [All of us, I know, have seen too many examples when board members don’t really know their roles, and professionals don’t either.] Underlying these expectations was the affirmation that we were all beneficiaries of the voluntary sector, and we should, therefore, model our commitment to it.
There has been no shortage of excellent material about the roles of board members and the indicators of successful boards. One very valuable source for that is BoardSource, and there are many more. So, I will take a pass at simply redacting or repeating what is otherwise available.
I do though want to comment on some of my learnings from my own experience, and to share a couple of very preliminary observations about the implications of our current reality.
1. Hard Questions: Board governance requires board members to be willing to ask hard questions, even at the risk of seeming unpopular. Permit a real-life example: In one of my own board experiences, something seemed wrong to me about the way the Conflict of Interest statement was written and being applied. I raised the issue in a board meeting when we were asked to fill out our COI forms. The CEO was adamant that I was wrong in my concern, and the rest of the board supported him. A year or so later, the CEO was dismissed for cause, and afterwards it was discovered why the CEO was so insistent: he had abused his role and never reported certain funding practices that would clearly have been prohibited had the COI been applied appropriately. It doesn’t give me pleasure to say “I told you so” but it does reinforce the importance of good governance. [We all can only imagine how much money nonprofits would have saved had board members asked harder and timely, though uncomfortable, questions about Madoff type investments?]
2. Appropriate Behaviors: Having said that, there is a difference between asking good governance questions and being “a pain in the butt” [not exactly a technical term]. Good board membership is not about micro-managing or assuming supervisory roles of various staff members. Staff of non-profits are not board servants, nor are they there to do board members’ private bidding. In my role as a funder and foundation trustee, and also as an educator of funders, I see how easy it is for power imbalance to creep into role misalignment. Most of the time it is not willful, but it is always unhelpful and counterproductive.
3. Meeting Attendance and Role: Historically, there has been a real difference between the activity of boards overseeing locally based organizations and of boards overseeing national or international organizations. A local board can have more functioning committees, meet more regularly, depend more on board voluntarism, and have a more direct relationship to the work. A board of a national or international body certainly cannot meet be expected to meet as regularly, nor to have the same level of direct connection with the daily work.
Another example from my experience: A member of a somewhat famous and even wealthier family had been encouraged to join one of the most prestigious boards in the world. By the time they came to me, they were frustrated and annoyed: this was an international board that gave only the broadest policy questions to the board; this family member would have much preferred, and would have been more gratified to sit on a less prestigious board where their involvement could have been both more robust and more textured. The board probably was acting consistently and coherently given the kind of organization; this particular board member simply should not have been on that kind of board.
Having said that, I wonder if the zoomification of meetings might begin to radically change the character of all organizational interactions, including board meetings. Currently, we are communicating with colleagues and fellow board members around the city, the country, and the world more easily than scheduling board meetings ever was in the past. Indeed, when the quarantine is over, most folks will have mastered the medium and may be reluctant to allocate the time or money to have as many in-person gatherings. It certainly has made attendance at the boards on which I sit, none of which is here in Washington, much easier and efficient. Not sure about all of this, but it seems quite likely that this is one of the changes that will become part of the next normal.
4. Term Limits: I have become a big believer in term limits. You might be surprised how many organizations don’t have them. Those organizations that don’t have them have a tendency for board members to age in place and become all too stuck in dated thinking. In one example I have written about some years ago, I was asked to keynote the annual gathering of the international board of a very prominent and respected non-profit. At the meeting, their top “young leadership” was honored. One of those honorees was a 50-year-old retiree; another was a 48-year-old mayor. I guess they weren’t old enough to sit at the grown-ups table, but more to the point, there was no space for them since there were no term limits.
Let me be clear that I am not saying that experience is irrelevant or that there is no wisdom that comes with longevity. I am, though, saying that a board that doesn’t structure its own rejuvenation is more likely to become stuck than one that has to include new thinking, has to explain itself anew, and integrate new members with experienced ones. 6 to 9 years in a board capacity is quite sufficient to make one’s thoughtful and meaningful contribution, and if one is that indispensable, it is always possible to start anew with a year’s sabbatical. To take another personal example: I was chairing an organization without term limits. After 6 years, I insisted that the organization find a successor. They tried to persuade me to stay until they found the “right” person – open ended.. My response was that they had a maximum of 6 months to do so. Sure enough, it motivated the leadership to identify both a successor and a succession plan. It has proven healthier for the organization and has made my continued involvement more viable.
5. Hard Decisions: Participation on foundations boards is quite different than serving on public charity boards. In the latter, in public charities, the fiscal stability and sustainability of the organization is a constant agendum. Even if one is on the board primarily because of one’s knowledge [Wisdom] and commitment [Work] and not one’s personal Wealth, underlying most decisions is a recognition of board responsibility for financial support.
Private foundation boards have a quite different starting point. Most private foundations are already funded, or the source of their funds is determined, so the primary board challenges are to choose how to use those funds responsibly, ethically, and wisely. [In prior essays, I have written about the issues of serving on a board if the family funder/founder is still in the room vs when it is a successor or independent board, a topic to which we can return on another occasion if readers wish. For this post, it is an ancillary question.]
Having sat on numerous boards of both types, I can attest that the character and balance of the board agenda are quite different. What is true of both, though, is that responsible board participation requires a willingness to make hard decisions. Pushing the hard questions down the road, an all too frequent tendency of reticent boards, ultimately is counterproductive and weakens the impact of the foundation or the NGO/NFP
6. Strategy and Implementation: Another essential role of board members is to set the strategic direction for an organization, and then endorse how that strategy can be implemented. Strategy without an implementation plan is simply abstract desiderata and implementation independent of a strategic overview is simply programs.
These distinctions are crucial to bear in mind at this COVID-19 moment in history since all bets are off for implementation plans for almost all non-profits and most foundations. For many non-profits, this is a time of existential challenge, so all that pre-planned programming is difficult at best. Human service organizations have more business than they can handle; arts and culture organizations have less. What we have seen in this past month is that the organizations with the greatest clarity of their strategic thinking have been able to pivot and adjust better than those that don’t. For better or worse, now that so much is happening virtually, the differences are pretty striking. We can observe organizations all over the world and we can see which have applied their thinking in coherent ways quickly and which ones haven’t. I am not commenting here on the relative quality of those responses – after all, there is a great disparity in accessible resources, but rather the evident quality of the underlying thinking.
Some have argued that foundations need to make immediate changes in their strategies in order to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t agree – what I do believe is that if they have to change their basic strategy it means that they didn’t have adequate strategy thinking built into how they operate. Implementation can be agile and if there ever was a time for agile implementation, it is now. But hopefully they are making those decisions consistent with their understanding of their role, their distinct positioning, and a grasp of their capacities. It is in this realm that a board earns its keep. Agility and long-term thoughtfulness must go hand in hand, and that requires both courage and stability in times of disaster or crisis.
The voluntary sector is essential and crucial in every country and every society around the world. The roles and expectations may vary from place to place given governments, cultural histories, and local practice. But each of the 6 board categories above make the difference between a well-run and sustainable nfp/ngo and a more vulnerable one. At this time in history when this sector is asked to play an outsized role with shrinking resources, effective boards and effective board members can and will make the difference to what our multi-faceted sector will look like at the other end of quarantine.
April 24th, 2020
Over the years, there have been both great advantages and great disadvantages to being an independent voice in the philanthro-eco-system.
After the foundation of which I was CEO closed in 2002, I made the choice to play an independent role as an educator, advisor, speaker, writer, and thinker about philanthropy. Having been an employee – albeit at a fairly high level – for the entirety of my professional life until that point, I decided to see what it would be like to be my own boss and to take full responsibility for my own words, involvements, and my own professional destiny. [for those readers who want to discuss the risks/rewards of that choice as they may apply to you, please be in touch directly – we can set up a time to chat.]
On the whole, that choice was a good one. I discovered that there were real opportunities to say and do things on both a professional and volunteer leadership level that might have required approval – or disapproval – in prior contexts. There were invitations to speak and teach in many places around the world that may not have been possible with executive or organizational obligations. And, perhaps most telling, I discovered that people were suddenly hearing my “voice” that, in the past, seems to have been hidden beneath a subconscious political sensitivity to the institutions in whose employ I was – even if I was the CEO.
There are also some significant disadvantages, though. In much of the philanthropy world, the question is “whom do you represent” determines which boards you sit on, which committees you are invited to, which task forces include you. While I surely have sat on many boards, committees and task forces, there were many more on which I might have wished to be a part that were addressing matters close to my heart and my expertise. And while I am not complaining about the depth of our own pockets, they are not deep enough to warrant others automatically making space as an independent player.
In the current COVID 19 context, this reality means that there are many statements, conversations, webinars, and conceptual considerations to which I am an outsider. When I – or our Institute for Wise Philanthropy – is invited, we eagerly participate, or sign on, or endorse, but rarely are we at the drafting table. I wish it were otherwise, but it does provide an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to take a broader view of what is happening now, what probably will happen, and what must not be allowed to happen to our field, and our nation as a whole.
I don’t know any more than any reader does about the sane and reasonable timeline for our current quarantine. I do know that it has exposed and underscored deep and abiding issues for all of us, philanthropists and philanthropoids included.
It has underscored that the human need for connection encourages creative uses of existing technology in ways that will surely change the way we do workplace and the way we do family – even when our in-person lives return. It has underscored that we do have control over our climate if we behave in ways that reduce pollution and the waste of natural resources, that public behavior matters – and that public policy matters more. [While I am sure deniers will continue to deny, the overwhelming evidence of cleaner skies over cities around the world is only one proof-text among many.] It has proven that the absence of a reasonable and equitable national health system is a death sentence for too many, and an injustice for all. It has proven, as if such proof were still necessary, that underlying and systemic racism – and other forms of xenophobic hatred such as anti-Asian-bias, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia are too close to the surface and too present in attitude, behavior, and impact. And it has proven that American claim of equal access and equal rights are all too hollow in the face of overwhelming evidence of a permanent underclass. [I am sure others can add to this list.]
This moment in time has also shown the vulnerability of organizations and institutions in stark and ominous ways. A society that chooses to rely on the voluntary sector to provide for essential human services, to address food insecurity, to enable much of our education system, and to care for our infirm and elderly suddenly finds that a voluntary sector can only do so much to provide palliatives to a deeply fragile system.
Lesson #1 What Must Change: We must not return to a normal which maintains systemic injustice. There are structural inequities, there are conceptual injustices, and there are entrenched bigotries that are destructive and simply wrong. There may be room for discussion about how to redress these systemic matters, but not whether they must be redressed. Without doing so, I am afraid that our nation will implode from within.
It is true that our sector, i.e., the funder community, has responded with alacrity and impressively to our current disruptions. Many foundations have made new funds available, many have made – at least temporary – changes in the way we do business, many have recognized anew that our missions cannot be fulfilled without profound trust in the nonprofits that implement our funding, and many have joined together in unprecedented collaborations and joint efforts. The scope of what needs to be done to respond and rebuild is massive and far beyond the capacity of our sector, but it is certainly true that we can stand tall in our response.
A larger and more long-term question has to do with sustainability: of the nonprofit world, of our altered tactics, and of the world as a whole. No serious person imagines that we will return to an unchanged world – but that doesn’t mean that our practices will or should change. Or if they should, in which ways? And who should decide?
For example, I would hope that no funder ignores the evident and demonstrable class and race chasm in the USA. But even if one recognizes that consideration of “DEI” needs to inform our grantmaking, there are various credible ways to do so: advocating public policy change, supporting intermediary organizations, funding local direct service entities, etc. I personally endorse certain practices and associate myself with the joint statement of 700 US foundations about utilization of our funds at this extraordinary time. Yet I continue to feel that, in the rush to provide resources where they are desperately needed – a flexibility that is indeed a crucial value-added of our field, we don’t surrender our other value-added asset – the ability to have strategies that take a thoughtful long view independent of contemporaneous political pressures. After all, as we look back to lesson #1, it is certain that the systemic societal inequities will outlast the pandemic and will demand every bit as much of our attention and funding. To do our work well, we need to combine both of those values – flexibility and perspective. [I will be offering a recorded webinar on this subject to be available for public viewing on Monday, 27 April.]
Lesson #2 – What Shouldn’t Change: The philanthropy field must continue to play its crucial role as a funder and thought leader. There may be exigencies that require short term funding adjustments, but our strategies should reflect longer term endorsement of our distinctive role. Hopefully, all of us have a strategy that allow both.
If it is true that our strategies should not be cavalierly disregarded as events unfold, it is also clear that it is time to underscore many of the best practices that have developed in our field. For many of us, as my clients and students know, these practices are well established; for many others, the emergence of the work of CEP, GEO, NCRP, and TBP are welcome correctives to deeply entrenched and often out of date practices.
To take just a few examples:
a. There needs to be an open and honest relationship with grantees and potential grantees. . We want to know what a grantee really needs to be successful, what is in the way of that happening, and what measures will truly show those things. And only funders can make that a safe place to be. Many funders are clueless about how the power imbalance, even when unintended, distorts that openness and gets in the way of an honest dialogue.
b. There needs to be a simplifying of what we ask of applicants for our funds. In teaching this over the years, I have learned that most funders want to ask as much as possible but only use a small portion of that information to make a decision. Why impose that extra work on the applicants, and ourselves, if it doesn’t really inform our decision?
c. Most grantees would benefit from unrestricted grants and most projects need more than one year to implement. There are important exceptions to both, to be sure, but our norm should be that, if we trust a grantee sufficiently to invest our money, we should give them the greatest chance to utilize their expertise.
d. We need to assure that our grantmaking enhances the professionalization of any program or organization we fund and not inadvertently reinforce the shameful pattern of undercapitalizing the sector we presumably believe in.
e. There needs to be proportionality of what we ask and require of our grantees, reflecting the size of our grants, and the capacity of the grantee. It may seem equal to ask every grantee for a quarterly report, but not equitable if one of those grantees is a 3-person neighborhood-based startup and another a well-established research university.
Lesson #3 – What Should Change: Best practices in the funder world have made major progress toward more open, honest, streamlined, and constructive relationships between funders and grantees. This doesn’t render strategy irrelevant, only that this way of thinking and behaving is likely to achieve a funder’s desire strategy in a more effective and less burdensome manner.
As we are now thinking through what will emerge, it is crucial for our field to take the lessons of these weeks and apply them to what will become normal and normative. Our work won’t end when the doors are open again but will call for us to play even more crucial roles during the forthcoming weeks and months – to do what we can and should do best.
#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
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.
March 31st, 2020
Addendum: Not so surprisingly, just hours after this was first published, I began reading of webinars addressing the particular challenges facing arts and culture institutions. More to the point, I also saw certain politicians staking out the position that it is inappropriate for bail-out government funds to be available to this sub-sector. Hopefully this post will help articulate some of the dialectic regarding this realm.
In this post, I return to philanthropy-practitioner questions and practices – this time for those who fund in the Arts and Culture realm. As of this writing, I have not yet seen any larger discussion of this issue, although I anticipate that we will in the coming days and weeks. I welcome thoughts and reactions.
The question has been raised if it is legitimate or even ethical to continue funding in this area in the face of the overwhelming human urgency of COVID-19. COVID-19 is about life and death; arts and culture are about quality of life. What is a funder to think given that stark a comparison?
Similar questions have been raised in the past – during recessions, natural disasters, human caused disasters. “Compassion funding” – the very human and humane responses that we all feel at these times seems to weigh heavily toward an argument for a suspension of “quality of life” causes when so many are struggling with basic needs. Let’s get these people healthy or back on their feet and then we can get back to these “extras”.
That argument, though, is rebuttable. Even if one believes that the urgency of the moment outweighs the long term, it may be a short-sighted decision to discontinue all funding to this sub-sector. At the end of this thing, whenever it will be, we will need to re-engage and rebuild those organizations that add to the nature of what it means to be human, or perhaps better said: art and culture are not “additions” but essential.. Are we better off with shuttered centers and bankrupt organizations that would need to be created anew?
If history is any indication, the answer is that we should do what we can to sustain this sector, in some way, since gearing back up is much easier than starting back up.
The next question is: which ones? Is it more important to guarantee that the largest, wealthiest, most prestigious ones are kept whole since they serve the largest portion of the population on a regular basis? Or conversely, can we assume that those are also the organizations that do and will receive money from the deepest pocketed donors, governments, and endowments, so we should focus on the smaller entities that perennially exist on a more fragile financial base?
Part of the answer has to do with one’s funding style and priorities. For a “place-based” funder – that is, a funder whose giving priorities are primarily connected to a particular city or region, sustaining local institutions with which they have had meaningful relationships over time may be the most appropriate and compelling approach. One’s funding at this time may not be sufficient to keep the organization whole, but it may be enough to keep it alive. That support should involve cash, of course, but it may also include contracting for expertise in helping all regional nonprofits during times of enforced transition. A singe consultant may well serve to advise an entire cadre of at-risk institutions.
We know from past crises that there will be both consolidations and fall out. And there will be time for that down the road. But forcing those kinds of hard and strategic choices in a time of crisis is exactly the wrong time to force existential decisions. That is especially true in this particular time of COVID-19 when no one can know what kinds of earned revenue will be possible or when physical spaces will be open again. And no one can fully know what kind of economic downturn has begun.
The issue is more complex for the larger legacy institutions. Most of us were aghast to read that the Washington based NSO laid off its entire orchestra the same day it received a guarantee of an infusion from bailout funds. It creates a conceptual dilemma for funders: If we believe that those legacy institutions are national treasures that deserve taxpayer support, then we might argue that private philanthropy should be reserved for those institutions that don’t receive that support. But here, even with taxpayer funding, the leadership acted in what appear to be self-destructive ways, or at least, with severe myopia. Whatever the correct longer-term answer, it is certainly true that modest pocketed funders will not be able to make up the difference for those large legacy institutions. Better to leave their philanthropy to places where their funding will make a/the difference.
It has become fairly much the norm in the last two weeks for funders to agree to remove restrictions from existing funding, simplify their application and decision processes, speed up their payment of grants, and dig deeper into reserves. All of this applies to arts and culture funding as well – but with one additional caveat: funding should be built around the commitment by the recipient boards to keep their organizations alive – even if not whole -until, as we suggest above, the time is right to take the hard look at what we need to do to keep a robust arts and culture community functioning well into the future.
There will be very, very hard decisions ahead about which groups and institutions survive, consolidate, merge, or, sadly, close. But the option should never be to surrender our commitment to the quality of human experience as provided by the “arts and culture” sector. History has taught us no less.
March 22nd, 2020
This is a follow up to #365 which reinforces the extraordinary work our philanthropy colleagues are enabling at this profoundly overwhelming moment in history. This post challenges our field, with the benefit of perspective afforded to few other sectors, to consider how we help rebuild our world going forward.
We are far from the end of this thing. We certainly don’t know how long our lives will be disrupted, how long we will be living in physical isolation and virtual connection, how high the mortality numbers will be, how deep and far reaching the inevitable recession will be, how permanently our lives will have been changed in every way.
We do know that there will be an end to the pandemic. And as happens at the end of every tragedy, crisis, disaster, things will never be quite the same. Thus, it is not too early to begin thinking about what those changes might be, can be and mustn’t be allowed to be.
Let’s start with the most sobering: we have begun to see the surge of problematic behaviors. In the USA, gun purchases and anti-Asian racist incidents have surged. Elsewhere in the world, domestic violence has begun to rise after an all too belated but welcome reduction in recent years. Nativism is a destructive political force in many countries. Limitations on civil society in many more.
Of particular concern in the USA is the growth of antinomianism and very deep cynicism toward any articulation of truth. Is it a surprise that teenage college students disregard alerts about COVID19 as irrelevant to them when they have come of age hearing that news and facts, even scientific ones, are “fake”? Is it a surprise that people selfishly hoard when they see that our government has dismantled the agencies charged with planning for crises such as this?
It didn’t take COVID 19 to see this deep-seated distrust. To take but one example: I have been a bit involved in the local funders’ Census2020 efforts. Let’s not forget that the census determines our representation and allocation of federal resources for the next 10 years. If any groups have a lot at stake it is the historically undercounted: immigrants, Latinos, African Americans, the poor, etc. Funders nationally have recognized the need to address these inequities by working toward a “complete count.” Yet in session after session, it was clear that those communities have no trust that their anonymity will be assured; that it isn’t simply another way for ICE to find ways to their front doors; that there won’t be manipulation of the results to further assure their long term disempowerment. Even when the head of the US Census Bureau tried to say that the Constitution guaranteed their anonymity, they didn’t trust that the current administration had any respect for those guarantees.
There are many more examples one can give about the erosion of civil society here in the USA, and many more that transcend political boundaries. Suffice it to say that, once we begin to see beyond the current pandemic [may that happen soon!], we will have a lot of rebuilding to do. Below are some systemic issues that we in the philanthropy world need to take seriously and in which we should assume leadership.
1. The fiction that any nation can be isolated from what is happening elsewhere in the world. One can close borders, erect artificial fences, but nature and economics seem to have a way of disrespecting any of those human-constructed boundaries. Therefore, first and foremost, let’s commit ourselves to insisting that public policy needs to take climate change seriously in any infusion of massive dollars into the economic system. The current pandemic should be a wake-up call to the impact on the world as our human-made destruction continues apace.
If one needs a proof text, all one needs to do is to see how quickly the air has cleared in Italy and China. Just imagine if we required that appropriate environmental policies were made permanent – using currently existing technology. We are beyond preserving everything, but such a massive environmental mobilization would go a long way to sustain much more of the world than predicted only a couple of months ago.
No, I am not advocating permanent social/physical isolation. I am advocating that, in the USA, we restore protections that have been removed in just the last 3 years, that we infuse as much of these newly approved billions into public transportation such as buses, trains, light rail – and not just for airlines. I trust that it need not be added that there is no need for our tax dollars to continue to subsidize fossil fuels. None.
2. Systemic Economic Adjustments: The divide between the rich and the not rich has become so severe that it has become as extreme as almost any society in history. And while it is true that the very rich have lost a lot of money over the last couple of weeks, let’s not pretend that they will be forced to sacrifice their lifestyles. Those same percentage drops in retirement funds will, though, make retirement a far more vulnerable reality for the vast majority.
If we do care about revitalizing the economy, let’s resist strongly 2 myths that have been consistently disproven except by extremist ideologues – both are implicitly immoral: that public support makes people lazy, and that trickle-down economics works. Enough has been written about this over the years by those more expert than me that I will simply refer readers to readily available documentation. But there are still those who believe it – or at least espouse it. There were Senators who refused to support the first bailout on the basis of creating dependence by the most at-risk members of our society. Shame on them!
3. Equity as the basis of public policy. Where to begin?
a. Minimum wage positions disproportionately are held by those of color, those from certain minority communities. Recent studies, long before COVID 19, have proven that, despite our national myth to the contrary, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps has become far more difficult in the USA than in many other countries. This is reinforced by…
b. Racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, nativism, misogyny, gender bias – long standing cancers on the national ethos that have surfaced in more pronounced and dangerous ways than in 2 generations.
c. The absence of a meaningful safety net. The USA has always had one of the most porous safety net systems in the developed world. Over the last few year, exacerbated by this administration, those gaps have become every larger.
d. The US Medical System – if one can call it that – has been exposed. Surely, those with the means have been able to access the highest level of medical care in the world. For many others, to access care is a major personal sacrifice -and there is no guarantee of its quality. And for far too many others, basic medical care is a luxury beyond their means. The Pandemic, though, has shown that the absence of any system, any planning, and any underlying societal commitment. The ACA, an all too modest attempt to address this reality has been substantially dismantled. [For those who still choose to believe that the US is anywhere near the top of the world’s heap in this only need look at comparative infant mortality rates, the dropping of longevity compared to other nations, and the numbers of health related bankruptcies – unheard of elsewhere.]
I have previously advocated, only a bit sarcastically, that our national standard should be whatever congress provides for itself, but beyond that I have no commitment to any of the catchphrases. It should be clear to everyone, I hope, that anything less than a guarantee of medical care for all would be unconscionable after this episode.
4. Underlying all of this is a challenge to what a commitment to civil society, based on constitutional rights, means.
a. Education: It is shocking how uneducated our population has become. Once upon a time, the USA’s education system was a model to the world; today it is an embarrassment of illiteracy. Once upon a time, civil education was a core competence of our educational system; today most high school graduates would be hard pressed to articulate the rights guaranteed by the first 10 Amendments to the US Constitution. Once upon a time, substantive educational accomplishment was considered a sine qua non to financial security; today…
It cannot be overstated that we need to undertake a massive commitment to the value to an educated populace. And, indeed, massive is the right word since only a literate and informed citizenry can make decisions faced with purposeful disinformation, the mockery of science, the disregard of the responsible institutions of government, and more. At a time when information has become anarchized through the web, an educational system that addresses these new challenges is a mandate as never before.
b. Civil Discourse: It would be easy, and certainly not incorrect, to place much of the blame for the erosion of civil discourse and safe public spaces in the lap of the current occupant of the POTUS. If we are honest, though, it didn’t start with him or even in the last election cycle. And even when there will be a change in the person who sits in that seat, that will not suffice to begin to fix this. What is now considered acceptable in public settings was considered an embarrassment only a few years ago; the empowerment of xenophobic voices and concomitant hate crimes pushes us to the edge of the elasticity of what it means to be a part of a shared national community.
I am far from the first, nor will I be the last, to make these observations. Much has already been written and spoken about the dilemma and proposed paths forward to repair these deep wounds. But if it is true that we now have a moment when we will be called upon to rebuild our world, our national understanding, a restoration of a concept of civility, civil discourse, and the public square are indispensable.
We are about to be in the unique position of being called upon to rebuild our world – in many ways. History has taught us that there is no guarantee that such moments do not always bring out the best in people or their polity. We in the philanthropy world need to consider how we build all of this into our advocacy and in our funding so that we provide leadership to a rebuilding world that emphasizes values, understanding, knowledge and civility as core competencies that infuse every aspect of the way we live our lives.
It is a daunting mandate. We should do no less.
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.