Posts from the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
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.
August 22nd, 2017
Two recent WisePhilanthropy.com posts have led a number of readers to raise a question about the examples I gave. These readers are quite sure they know exactly to whom I am referring in each of them. [When you read B below you will see that they might be partially correct, but, even then, only partially.]
Why don’t I publicly identify my clients or the foundations and philanthropists to whom I refer? After all, it is quite customary for many bloggers and philanthropy advisory firms to name their clients, sometimes in a descriptive way and sometimes in a self-congratulatory way but always proudly. And some business advisors tell me that I am leaving money on the table by not showing that the foundation and philanthropy field takes us seriously and uses our advising, speaking, and teaching expertise.
Why am I so strict about this?
There is a simple answer, a more nuanced one, and a very practical one:
A. The simple answer is that I want to respect the confidentiality of all of my clients and students. Many of the matters discussed during my advisory work, or even in classes for philanthropists, are deeply personal, reflect very sensitive family or foundation issues, and are confided to me on the assumption that it goes no further. And that can apply both to those well-known and those not so well known.
If I were to publicly identify those clients who would have no problem being identified, it might make future clients or students reluctant to share, fearing that I would identify them as well. By being so absolute about it, it obviates the possibility of their wondering. [Obviously, if a potential client needs a reference, we are happy to connect them privately.]
B. The more nuanced answer is that I try hard not to give any clearly identifying information in any example I use or any case that I teach. In fact, almost every example I give is an amalgam of real people and real cases but rarely is so unique to a particular individual that there is only one possible reference. If one names names, it is far too easy for cases to be dismissed as listeners or readers try to unpack distinctive personality characteristics. I want the underlying philanthropy message to come across, not the quirks or voyeuristic enticements of bold face names. [This actually works: I once had to take a deep breath when I saw that a family I was largely using as an unnamed example in my presentation was sitting in the audience. Afterwards they approached me to tell me that they could really relate to that example and had a lot to learn from it. Go figure.]
C. The final reason I am so restrictive in naming names is a very practical one. In my line of work, almost everyone I meet assumes that I can help them get funding for a favorite project, or at least introduce them to “my clients” who would be thrilled to learn of their causes. Most of them are very valid and worthy, no doubt, but that isn’t my role and it isn’t why we are hired. Were we to become random advocates, we would lose our ability to advise and the confidence that we function fully independently. Just imagine how many more requests would be coming our way if we listed the funders and foundations around the world with which we have had a connection.[Full disclosure, there are a very, very limited number of times I make direct reference to individuals or foundations in my teaching. When that happens, it is because the philanthropist or foundation has already gone public with that case and my role in it. Even then, that name will never appear in our website or anything I write.]
As stated above, many if not most of my colleagues in the field are less absolutist in the way they apply discretion and confidentiality. My view of the demands of philanthro-ethics is that I don’t name names. However, I do not want any reader to assume that I am suggesting that anyone who has a different standard is unethical, indiscreet, unprofessional, or otherwise compromising their roles with clients. They simply have a different “best practice” understanding.
For those of you who asked directly, and those who may have been wondering, I hope this clarification helps.
December 13th, 2016
Caveat Reader: This is #4 in a series about what our philanthropy field might offer in the current political context.
Every reader of this blog is well aware that the word “philanthropy” comes from the Greek meaning “love of humankind.” While many use the word as a synonym for charity, it really implies something much larger and deeper.
Charity shows that we care for our fellow human beings, especially those who are in need. And to be sure, need comes in many forms: health, welfare, hunger, physical safety to mention some basics. Every society, every society, has a form of charity since it is unthinkable for the vast majority of us that we willfully allow those in our midst to suffer. Indeed, the first stage of philanthropy is typically compassion. We see a homeless person, we volunteer at a soup kitchen, we know family who have a life-threatening disease. It touches us deeply and we choose to volunteer or give money or advocate for better services. That is charity.
Philanthropy, though, is a step beyond. It takes that empathy and personal commitment and builds upon it. We quickly realize that there must be a better way, a more just distribution of the goods of the world, a larger vision that eliminates the need for instantaneous compassion, a strategy that helps us make decisions, a recognition that our love of humankind requires more than the charitable handout.
The basis of civil society, for many, is that very love of humankind. We organize hospitals, and schools, social services and safety nets, and even cultural institutions because of a vision of both sustaining of life and the quality of life. Philanthropy is the commitment to use resources, all resources, to make the world a better place for all.
“Misanthropy” is the opposite. It thinks poorly of human kind, and only invests in distributing the goods of the world to the degree it prevents anarchy. It is built on a deep-seated cynicism about human nature, and does not envision a world made better for all based on the good we can and must do through our central institutions.
To be blunt, it is pretty obvious that we are about to have an entire government built on misanthropy. We will privatize the safety net and leave it to individuals – and charity – to make do. We will appoint a chief of education who does not believe in a social commitment to educate all citizens equally. We will appoint someone to protect the environment who does not believe that it needs protection – and let millions around the world be damned in the process. We will appoint someone to safeguard workers who doesn’t believe that they have rights. We will appoint international representatives who disregard treaties and agreements. We will see policies eliminating social choices of all sorts, despite all evidence that it will lead to deaths and not the protection of life. We will pass tax reforms that only exacerbate an unconscionable divide between the very rich and all others. We will permit conflicts of interest to allow the leaders of the US government to behave no differently than a disrespected third world demagogue.
No – these are no exaggerations – they are exactly what the incoming administration has stated as goals and what are the stated opinions of nominated cabinet officials, even when they are stated in language that makes it try to appear to empower individuals. They reflect a misanthropic view of the world, a cynical role of government, and a disregard for the rights of all residents and citizens. And, en passant, as the data around the United States has shown, allows an explosion of hate speech and action to flourish.
Those of us on the philanthropy side have a different and competing vision. We may not all agree on exactly what the best specific policies should be, but we start from an affirmation of the value of all, and not simply the power of a few. During this very difficult time in our country, that competing, more affirmative vision must not be lost and needs to constantly inform what we do and how we act. It may be that the privilege of private philanthropy, a controversial privilege in the past, may prove to be the last barrier to a tragic march to the 19th Century.
Some years ago, I heard a lecture stating that the most privatized society in history was France just before the Revolution. Its aristocracy controlled all, with few legal or parliamentary restrictions and virtually no rights enjoyed by the populace.
We know how that turned out.
December 7th, 2016
Transparency and Self-Dealing Matter[Caveat Reader #2: This post is another with both a philanthropy and political point of view.]
Being a funder is a power position. The more money one gives or can give, the more power. Whether that is the way it should be is beside the point.
The ngo/nfp sector is existentially dependent on the largesse and beneficence of those with money. The challenge of how to accept, mitigate, reject the power of those funders is real and all non-profits understand that. Hopefully, all funders understand that with power comes responsibility.
This power dynamic is the reason that foundations, and the principals and trustees, have certain legal obligations that attempt to bring some equilibrium and an element of fairness to this imbalance. For example, there are limitations on certain related parties in doing personal business with a foundation with which we are involved. Our insider status gives us an advantage. The law is concerned that we insiders might benefit from money we control but isn’t ours. And with more specificity than applies to any pubic charity, the law is adamant about real estate transactions, compensation, purchases, professional services, etc. After all, a foundation may have a funder’s name on the door, but the money is no longer the funder’s- it has been given for the public good and not for private benefit.
To control for that, there is a required transparency regarding where the money is spent: every single grant, no matter how large or small, must be listed on the publicly available tax return; each board member and key staff members must be listed on that same return with information about compensation; there are certain reporting requirements, investment guidelines, limits of control of for-profit businesses, and much more that apply only to private foundations. And, while it is called an excise tax, private foundations even pay a tax on earnings, unlike public charities.
The penalties for violating these rules can be severe, even draconian.
All of this is a way that the law attempts to control for the power of money and the unusual control that a funder has in using money that is no longer his or hers. To repeat, the law reminds us, over and over again, that the public good must trump private inurement. [hmmm, pun intended.]
It seems that no less should apply to a president and any other elected official. They have chosen to run to do public service. The public, therefore, should have access to transparent evidence that this so-called public service is not a way to enable private inurement. Public tax returns are one way to assure that. Surrendering control of private businesses to disinterested parties is another. Recognizing that relatives are interested parties with built in conflicts of interest is a third.
We, through the law, believe that there should be limitations on the exercise of power for every single private foundation. It seems to me that, at the very least, the same should apply to our elected officials, all elected officials, whose power far exceeds even the very largest private foundations, and the potential for abuse far exceeds that of those very same foundations.
Transparency and self-dealing matters. We should insist.
December 5th, 2016
When I teach philanthro-ethics to philanthropists and foundation professionals, one of the “best practices” I emphasize is the need to pay grants in a timely fashion, and no later than the dates specified in the grant agreement.
Funders need to understand that grantees rely on the good faith of their funders to do their business – they hire staff, publicize programs, plan their facilities, and much more based on the valid expectation that money granted to them will be there when promised and in the amount promised.
This may seem obvious and straightforward but, alas, one would be amazed how often this is observed in the breach. While I consider that commitment to be a contractual obligation, and therefore binding on the funder, many funders seem to think that this “commitment” is no more than an “intention.” If they get to it, of course they’ll send the check promptly, but perhaps it is not convenient, or maybe they didn’t plan their foundation’s cash flow carefully, or any of all sorts of reasons- so the money isn’t transferred. They forget that, once promised, they aren’t simply doing their grantee a favor but have made a contract with them.
The non-profit is now in an awkward position. They are relying on those funds but they are also respectful of [or perhaps frightened of] their funders and reluctant to bug them. They shouldn’t have to. A contract is a contract and funders have an obligation to fulfill their part.[There are indeed some few circumstances that legitimate a reconsideration, but that isn’t the topic of this post.]
Why is this political? It appears that some congressional leadership has announced their intention to change Medicare and Social Security. They don’t like “entitlements” as a burden on the federal budget. Why not simply privatize the system and let citizens take responsibility for their own retirement and health-care?
The problem here is one of contracts. An entitlement means that there is a contractual obligation. Millions of us have paid into a system throughout our careers with the guarantee of a benefit at the other end. This is not simply a favor a benevolent group of government officials do for us, but their lifetime contractual obligation. It cannot be unilaterally broken just because a current group of elected leaders wish that contract didn’t exist. To break a contract is, as we know, illegal, immoral, unethical…. And given the destructive impact on millions relying on that contract, unconscionable.
Just as there are funders who must be reminded that paying their grant commitment is not a choice but a contractual obligation, so too our current national political leadership must be held to that standard. Medicare and Social Security are not favors to be bestowed if they happen to feel like it but a binding obligation, not negotiable at the whim of political winds.
Perhaps the details of how to assure this obligation may not be simple, but the principle certainly is.
November 2nd, 2016
Over the last year or so, the power of words has been a recurring theme in these posts. Underlying it all has been the profound responsibility we all have in how we speak – and how words really do matter.
First this: Needless to say, the irresponsibility of too many during this distressing and destructive election cannot be overstated. The critique applies to many, but any honest reviewer, whatever your political leanings, must acknowledge that the extremist and divisive words of one candidate exceed any ethical standards: to espouse misogyny or nativism or anti-Islamism from the podium is unconscionable. To mock those with disabilities or victims of wars is beneath contempt. To turn the other way as racists and anti-Semites and hooligans feel empowered is despicable. The USA will be paying the price of this abuse of the power of words for a very long time.
OK – I got that out of the way, but the rest of this post is really about a more nuanced set of issues related to how words are said and what is heard. It happened to me again last week.
Last week, we attended a great art walk in Newark, NJ, and one of the exhibits used extreme white paint of many objects as a commentary on Black Lives Matter. I made a comment that standing in front of this exhibit shows that no one is pure white – we all are people of color. My intention was to see this as a pedagogic tool to show those who see themselves as white, and therefore inherently superior, might rethink their positions if they stand in front of the art piece and reflected on themselves.
But what was heard was something that I neither intended nor believed. The artist likened my comments to those who dismiss “Black Lives Matter” with what they believe to be the more inclusive “All Lives Matter.” Of course all lives should matter, but in the USA, it is more important than ever to affirm – and espouse – Black Lives Matter! Whether it is the needless murders of black men by uniformed police in far too many communities or the bizarre acquittal of anarchistic White vigilantes in Washington State, uneven justice is all too evident in our country. Still. One cannot solve a societal ill if one is not willing to call it what it is. Black Lives Matter is as good a way to name it as any.
Over the course of my adult life, I like to think I have been consistent in this point of view and have acted accordingly. When I look back at boards, task forces, actions and positions I have taken, it looks that way to me. But not everyone knows that history; all people know is what they see or hear – now. So, while I like to think that my comments on the exhibit were consistent with the long term context of where I stand on matters of racism and xenophobia, our friend, the artist who heard me, knew nothing of the context and heard my words as dismissive and not an endorsement.
What was said – or at least intended – was not what was heard.
I probably shouldn’t have been that surprised. It isn’t the first time when people have come to wrong conclusions – not based only on my words but also my affect. Those of you who know me are aware that I am known as the “bow tie” guy and someone who dresses in a certain style. Because of that, I have learned over the years, many make the wrong assumptions about my political convictions and even my involvements. A few years ago, at an event I attended very much aligned with my commitment to community activism, the organizer/chairperson told me that someone asked him what I was doing there! Fortunately, the chair was well aware of where I stood and set the record straight – much to the surprise of the one who asked the question. It was not the only time something like that happened.
What was seen was not an accurate reflection of what I believe.
The other side of this coin is seen in this recent anecdote. At a national philanthropy conference, I gave a talk on the interrelationship between public policy and private philanthropy. It is a talk I have given in many places over the years and it is, I am happy to say, usually very well received. Every once in a while, though, in the midst of mostly complimentary reviews, someone complains about my “lefty” views. In fact, if one carefully reviews what I actually said, it was simply a reporting of how the policies of recent administrations had an impact on the philanthropy sector. Depending on one’s personal perspective, one may agree or disagree with those policies. I surely don’t deny that I have a point of view and try to be honest about it but the facts that were presented in this presentation could not be in dispute. Yet…
What was heard got in the way of the message.
When I teach philanthropists and foundation professionals, in an interactive presentation on philanthro-ethics, a few of the cases ask these funders to focus on how their behavior, no matter how intended, can be misunderstood. The structural imbalance of power between a funder and the ngo/npo’s needing funds means that all funder behavior is laden with implied meaning. The bottom line is that a funder has an abiding responsibility to exercise the “conscious use of self” in these relationships. Only then can a funder convey what is truly intended and not what a grantee may see or hear or wish. Most funders don’t violate this willfully, but the result is the same.
What is said or done may not be what is heard or seen.
In all of these examples, the issues are the impact and affect of words said and unsaid. They are not examples of overt slander or dishonesty or attempts to mislead, but they all speak to the power of what we say and do. All of us, each of us, has a responsibility not only to what we say, and how we say it, but to speak with a consciousness of how we want to be heard and understood.
Yes, words do matter.
August 9th, 2016
Except for a veiled reference to a recent ad by the Council on Foundations calling for HOPE, this post is another statement on the current civic reality and not primarily about philanthropy.
For those of us who believe that there is only one sane and reasonable choice for the next president of the United States, it has been a reassuring week. All of the polls are showing that, finally, American voters are consistently expressing their horror and trepidation of the election of Donald Trump, even if they are not all enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton. It continues to astound me that people challenge her credibility when she has been vindicated in almost all cases, and when Mr. Trump is caught in outright prevarications on almost a daily basis. Not to belittle sins of email commission, but how can you compare that to business fraud, tax evasion, enrollment scams, and spewing of hatred of all sorts?
But even if Hillary Clinton continues on this path and wins decisively, and even if she carries the Senate along with her, we will still be far from national civic weal and populist equilibrium. The last few years of obstructionism and divisiveness have taken their toll. Voices long considered below the surface and beneath contempt have been heard in too many places – with impunity. Overt racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant, xenophobia, anti-Islamism are expressed openly, publicly, vitriolicly, and dangerously at rallies and on line. Individuals are attacked verbally and physically. A decisive win will show that the populace doesn’t approve, but it won’t make all of this go away.
This is a time when “why can’t we all just get along?” won’t suffice. The divide is too wide and the chasm too deep. Trust of institutions, all institutions, is at an abysmal low. There is plenty of guilt to be spread around on why. Why should someone trust an employer that expects 24-7 loyalty with an insistence on at-will employment? Why should someone trust that higher education really is worth it when it comes with a non-negotiable long term debt at the end? Why should someone trust governments that have cut education and human service funding for years – and threaten to reduce social security and Medicare?
Reasonable people will, hopefully, continue to reject the sick and bizarre Trump candidacy but there are people who still believe what he says or that his rants represent them even when they see through his scam. I know some of these people, some of whom still intend to vote for him. The ones I know are not the uneducated, disempowered, disenfranchised left-behinds. Yet they somehow resonate with the anti-establishment rant. And while most thoughtful Bernie supporters affirm that Sanders is not just another name for Trump, they echo a profound disillusionment with the established order as not being consistent with their personal needs and destinies.
This erosion will not be corrected in the short term with policy fixes, although that will help. This deterioration of belief in government will not be quickly reversed even if the proverbial aisle that divides becomes bridged. This frightening explosion of hate – of publicly expressed hate – will not easily go back underground, or be expunged from public squares and private chat rooms with the wave of a hand or the development of a slogan of “hope”.
There are profound and abiding changes that are far more far reaching than any of the political types are addressing. Most of the political discourse addresses economics and the nature of international influence/terror/encroachment. At a time when the economy and employment is way up by any objective measure, one party runs as if we are still in recession, and many seem to agree. Why? Most murders in the US involve guns and are by citizens without a political agenda, and most of those that do have a political or ideological agenda are homegrown. Yet the fear of “the other” [read: Mexican, Muslim, African-American, Jew, Asian…] is all too real for too many. Why?
On a macro level, the indisputable reality is that the world has changed and it is not going back. There is no country that can return to economic or cultural isolation, no matter what the Brexits thought or no matter what the American nativists romanticize about. There is no way that technology that transformed manufacturing everywhere is going to return to a post WWII reality no matter what a rust belt victim may wish. There is no way that communication, social media, and news access is going to revert to the same mediated systems that existed from Gutenberg through the last century. There is no way [barring the unthinkable] that migrations of millions will somehow easily be reversed. There is no way that the world can fully mitigate the impact of climate change that our behavior has wrought without a radical commitment that so far has eluded many in the United States and China.
Yes, the world has changed and it isn’t easy to live through a time of radical transformation. For some of us, it is merely a challenge of learning to use apps so that we understand our children, grandchildren, or younger employees. For others, these changes represent a world gone unrecognizable, with no certainties, no guarantees, and no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It is unsettling and that anomie cannot simply be ignored, even if it has been maliciously coopted by many politicians over the last few years.
The solution, I reiterate, is not yielding to the basest instincts of those fears, but it is also not helped by thinking theirs is only a naïve and ill-informed political preference. Those who are opinion makers, multipliers, thought leaders, and influencers… and that is a lot of us… have to accept an extra burden beyond simply guaranteeing a Clinton win this November. We need to find ways to reintegrate those who feel disenfranchised back into normal society –not by overlooking their hateful rhetoric but by demonstrating its fallacy. We need to develop educational methodologies recognizing the altered epistemology of how most people now receive and absorb information. We need to change our formulations of how the world is now organized to recognize the porosity of our economic and cultural borders. We need to reject the destructive power of the anarchy of political obstructionism and unfettered weapon ownership. And, finally, we need to work hard, very hard, very very hard, to make sure that governments and other institutions that define contemporary life re-develop a true and authentic loyalty to our citizenry.
Our challenge is not the rhetoric of “hope, not fear”. It is the creation of a nation and people who demonstrate, authentically, at every level of civic life, that “we care.”
Everything else is simply politics – and we know where that has gotten us.
July 21st, 2016
[Those of you who read my posts for my thoughts on philanthropy may choose to take a pass on this one; it reflects continuing personal thoughts on our responsibilities in the current destructive political atmosphere.]
As this is published, many of my colleagues in the professional speaking profession are meeting at the annual conference of the National Speakers Association. I am otherwise committed these days, so I will have to rely on contemporaneous social media and retrospective reportage to get a flavor of the days. [One thing I know for sure: a meeting in Phoenix in July virtually guarantees that few will play hooky in the Arizona sun]
After last year’s conference, I chose to speak up – in writing – in response to some negative scuttlebutt about a presenter who had a clear [but non-partisan] political perspective. I thought it was great but others felt that such political positioning was an intrusion on the plenum.
My own view, as long time readers know, is that those of us who earn our livelihood by words have a special responsibility to use words carefully and also to serve as models of how one can articulate particular and challenging points of view respectfully and constructively. Not so easy, I can attest, since I have had conflicting reactions to some of my own public presentations: while some challenged me for espousing my views so readily, my favorite response was from someone who reported in his/her review: “I don’t agree with his politics, but I could listen to him all day long.”
The posts I wrote after last year’s NSA conference and in a subsequent post expanding on the topic were considered too political for NSA Facebook pages and I was asked not to post them there. They are still available on this blog.
It raises the question, though, about when should one, anyone, choose to speak up and when must one speak out.
For almost 4 decades, racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist speech was eschewed in polite company. None of us is so naïve to imagine that no one harbored those thoughts, but American society had a standard of public right and wrong whatever may be harbored in the deepest private recesses of ones heart or mind. Knowing that racism is wrong didn’t eradicate it, we certainly know all too well; nor, sadly, has it eradicated anti-Semitism or misogyny, or nativism, or xenophobia – as we have learned all too vividly during this frightening election cycle, but most knew better than to indulge those private thoughts in public or social settings.
In some ways, though, because people behaved properly in polite company, for a long time, few were challenged with the dilemma I mentioned above, of deciding to or not to speak up. That choice is far more present today. To take an example:
A couple of years ago, when sitting in a hot tub while on vacation in Florida, two others in the large spa began bad-mouthing President Obama. While I completely disagreed with their politics, and was prepared to dispute the putative facts of their rants, I only chose to speak up when their rants deteriorated into overt racism. I chose to call them on it. After realizing I wouldn’t back down in my rebuke, they chose to leave. Others in the hot-tub were uncomfortable. Some agreed with their politics and some with mine but all had heard the overt racism and felt it was wrong. None of them was prepared to confront the two aforementioned gentlemen. [I never saw either of the two again; it is possible that they saw me and chose to go another direction.]
The question here: was this a correct place to speak up or did I violate social norms and etiquette that should take precedence?
Obama’s election seemed to mark a change. Strange, sick, dishonest sentiments continue to arise in social media daily. The birthers, the anti-Islamists, the overt racists, the conspiricists, haters all, think nothing of saying the most outrageous things – in public. Any semblance of restraint in polite company is long gone. And they think nothing of viciously attacking the motives, sincerity, intelligence, or legitimacy of those who disagree.
Frankly, for most, including me until recently, it has been safer and easier to just dismiss them as perverse kooks. We turn them off, disconnect them, un-follow them, un-friend them. But that doesn’t make them go away and it doesn’t dissuade them. They are reinforced by their fellow extremists and bigots, not repudiated by those who ignore them.
A newspaper publisher recently wrote an op-ed with which I agreed. He challenged single-issue voters to think more broadly about the implications of ignoring all the other parts of a candidate’s and party’s agenda. I thought two and three times before writing a supportive letter to the editor since I have seen the vitriol that is regularly cast his way when he opines in ways that some consider too moderate [my word, not theirs]. Did I want to subject myself to that same vitriol and character assassination?
I chose to write it since I now feel this is not the time for reasonable people to remain silent. Allowing hate speech legitimates it. Ignoring bigotry gives it sanction. Silence in the face of extremism empowers it. If I, who can pen an opinion piece with little risk, do not express my support, then who can? If not I, then who else should?
A long, long time ago, when I was a lot younger, a lot more charismatic, and actually had groupies, I was asked to consider running for elected office. It wasn’t what I wanted to do then, but it did flatter me and it held the promise of being a change agent from the inside.
Today, sadly and tragically, it is hard to imagine wanting to do that. The public square is polluted by self-interest, and political means tests. Even if I thought I could do better, the trade-offs are simply unacceptable.
If I don’t or won’t have power or authority by an ascribed or elected role, many of us do have the possibility of earned power. The one asset that I do have is words. Words in text and words in speech.
If I am correct that the time, this moment in time, requires strength of conviction, I am left with no choice, to accept a self-imposed mandate to speak out, to call out extremism and hatred for what it is, to challenge those who would destroy values that most of us hold dear, and to actively advocate for the triumph of reason and acceptance over nativistic rejectionism.
I am quite sure that I will lose some speaking engagements and some advisory contracts, alienate some who may have illusions about my views, and put me squarely in the crosshairs of those who attack disagreement. If enough of us choose to do this, it will begin to re-create a civil society that honors responsible speech and respects all others. If enough of us choose to do this, this will indeed be a country worthy of the values we espouse and of a citizenry who aspire to the ideals we admire. This call is not restricted to my fellow professional speakers, NSA members. It is to us all.
To my mind, the times, these times, require no less.