Headless, heartless, clueless

There is no argument in philanthropy less productive than the supposed fight between strategic vs. heartfelt grantmaking. It’s the “versus” that creates the problem, suggesting never the twain shall meet. Simplified as “getting donors to rely on their heads rather than their hearts” vs. “letting donors rely on their hearts rather than their heads,” this discussion is riddled with one false distinction after another.

Doug Donovan, author of “Hewlett ends effort to get donors to make dispassionate choices on giving,” (The Chronicle of Philanthropy, April 10, 2014) is obviously a student of mainstream media’s practice of creating fights between falsely posed propositions; “head versus heart” begins to take on the aura of another media-bated controversy, “nature versus nurture.”

The pro-head people, according to the author, allegedly want donors to “behave more like data-driven investors.” The pro-heart people warn that “the demand for immediate results” and “short-term measurements” is “at the expense of worthy efforts that may not bear results for years.”  The pro-head people, according to the author, allegedly “emphasize quick returns,” but the pro-heart people allegedly say this “discredits the personal motivations of most Americans.”

Donovan quotes Paul Brest, “Personal philanthropy may sometimes be so profoundly emotional as to be invulnerable to rational analysis,” but he doesn’t pick up on the key word “sometimes,” and leaves “other times it can be downright sensible” as unspoken and even unconsidered.

Can I get a “both-and”?  Must the activities of the heart be random, thoughtless, ungrounded, disconnected to purpose – ineffectual and brainless? Must the activities of the brain be disconnected from feelings for family, neighborhood, and community — heartless and unconcerned?  Doesn’t the heart meet the brain somewhere, sometimes – with everyone? Just as all species require both “nature and nurture” to thrive, philanthropy requires both “head and heart” to be effective.

Knowing is not anti-heart. A wish to know how we’re doing is neither anti-heart nor anti-brain. A wish to make gains on tough societal issues is no more head than heart, and no more heart than head. Ditto the wish to help a hungry person.

It’s evidently fashionable to bash data as inherently heartless, but that’s bunk. If one cares about an issue, then evidence of progress, pitfalls, and what does and doesn’t work is useful – especially if one cares passionately. Evidence, of course, can come in many forms. Numbers is only one form, and even numbers come in varied degrees of precision. Evidence has to be interpreted, after all; that’s a job for both head and heart, which is why even two brainy people can disagree with what a set of data means. A useful mantra is “no numbers without narrative, no narrative without numbers.” Add graphics, and you’ve got evidence that communicates.

The problem is that too often “impact” is conceived by investors (aka funders) in grandiose ways with heavy-duty, save-the-world, distant bottom-line indicators (“eradicate hunger,” “eliminate disparities”) attached to big system performance, all pursued in the name of accountability. This is seen by some as heady, but actually it’s clueless. This way of pursuing impact does not acknowledge all the short-term gains that need to be achieved, strung together and parlayed into longer-term gains, and it inadvertently holds organizations responsible for outcomes they cannot control or even influence. It’s the near-range benchmarks that should be pursued and funded until achieved, and funded further to link to other activities that ultimately can move the needles indicating hunger or equity. You’d think a business-oriented investor would know that, but these days too many are obsessed with quick bottom lines and have foisted their preoccupation onto the nonprofit sector, whose boards they occupy.

Perhaps a useful reconciliation can be imagined using the precepts of “value investing” à la Warren Buffet. He doesn’t shoot for short-term profits, and he ignores the fluctuations of the stock market. Instead he invests in companies that promise continuous improvements in performance and delivery on their mission in their own marketplaces. He’s not a quick-buck artist, but buys into the whole project, the whole mission, and is in it for the long term. He’s most definitely data-driven, but uses different data than the in-and-out types. Value investing uses data that speak to the long term viability and performance of the organization, data that come, dare I say, from the heart and soul of the organization.

Such a value-investment formulation should work well for those saying “just give operating money to us organizations that are doing a good job” (positioned erroneously by Donovan on the heart-side of the divide). It should also work well will donors saying “give me real evidence that this organization is doing a good job.” I submit that all stakeholders would like to know something about the well-being and progress of their beneficiaries.

There’s a hunger for this kind of knowledge from all stakeholders engaged with the nonprofit arena – those using their heads and their hearts.

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project

April 24, 2014

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Indicators of freedom from “12 Years a Slave”

I went to see “12 Years a Slave” the other night, but was a little apprehensive about going, given what I’d heard.  To keep it together I decided to take notes as your faithful scribe of “just philanthropy,” on  those indicators of enslavement or loss of freedom that I noticed.

It’s a long list because the film, exploring the enslavement of Africans in this country, is so thorough.  In it, enslavement is marked by the loss of those freedoms below, noted in the order I saw them.  The film makes clear that to not have these freedoms is to be dominated and oppressed.  To not have these freedoms is to be in prison.  To not have these freedoms is to be enslaved.

One can argue that many of these deprivations are ordinary or garden variety offenses inherent in the human condition, relatively petty actions that maybe most of us have experienced at least a little, and don’t really rise to the standard of “official slavery.”  But when any of these is part of a persistent and insistent pattern of not just one but several of these deprivations, then that approaches the condition of slavery.  And it rises even more to the condition of slavery when this pattern is enforced by legal, customary, or institutionalized authority.

At the very least, these “indicators of freedom” are aspirational, goals for the future, being about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that we as Americans care so much about:

To be permitted to make a home where one wants, and to eat where one wants

To be permitted to work where one is able, and to be rewarded

To be permitted to learn, and to express oneself

To be permitted to love whom one wants, and be loved back

To be permitted prospects for advancement, for improvement, for living a better life

To not be denied knowledge of where one comes from, or be forced to pretend otherwise

To not be hurt by another’s hand, and be free of beatings and worse

To not be denied fair treatment in any or all dealings

To not be denied the opportunity to friend, or to be befriended; to care for, and be cared for

To not be denied the freedom to go where one wants, unafraid and unfettered

To be free of risk of kidnap and being held for ransom or sold into slavery

To be permitted to live, not just survive

To live without fear of death by another’s hand

To not be brutalized or demeaned, and not be required to brutalize or demean others to save oneself

To be known for who one really is

To not be separated forcibly from one’s family

To not be required to forget one’s children, or one’s parents

To not be lorded over by anyone thinking himself superior

To be able to use one’s talents, and to profit from one’s honest labor

To feel the satisfaction of work done well

To share in the bonhomie of one’s colleagues

To be permitted to escape the depths of despair

To not be made to vanish from the sight of one’s loved ones

To not be hanged within an inch of one’s life, by anyone for any reason

To live as an exceptional free man rather than an exceptional nigga

To understand the Lord’s will in a way that incorporates love rather than the dominating ambitions of another

To not be required to be a party to another’s merriment if you don’t feel like it

To make a break for freedom – and make it!  — to escape the curse of the Pharaohs

To be comforted in this life

To not have the sanctity of one’s own dignity be violated

To be able to write a letter, and to send it without fear of interception or theft

To not be required to destroy one’s own means of salvation

To know God’s blessings, even as one’s life is ending

To understand that what is true and right in the eyes of God, is true and right for all

To not be required to suffer the moralizing of ignorant fools

To be united, or re-united, with what is rightfully yours

To have the world recognize that what you built, you built, and to receive fair compensation

To know one’s own children, and grandchildren

To have those who have transgressed against you know the meaning of their actions

To believe in justice and rescue as if it is possible

These are all knowable and observable indicators of freedom.  People can agree on how much they do or do not prevail  in their circles and communities.  They inform a framework of social indicators useful to advancing a more just philanthropy, and a more free society.

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / December 16, 2013
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Drive-by evaluation

Returning from a month-long road trip to Los Angeles and back, putting 6100 miles onto our homey little Vistabule teardrop trailer, traveling mostly the blue highways of the West and staying mostly in county or state parks and US Forest Service or BLM campgrounds, we offer this purely impressionistic evaluation report on the state of the country.

The West is magnificent, grand, thoroughly tough and awe-inspiring – even in places where there are human settlements.

It’s challenging for human beings to live peaceably and fruitfully on the land and with the land, but there are hopeful signs everywhere that more and more people are trying, individually and severally, to do so.

Thank the balance-of-powers-that-be-so-far that a total rape of the West has not occurred, through apparent affirmation of the enormous public interest in keeping these lands well-stewarded.  Public land and private land both, it seems to us in our limited drive-by assessment, are increasingly managed with an eye toward sustainability.

It doesn’t look as though gigantic faraway intrusive and disregarding corporate interests have completely captured the West (though I’m probably naïve).   But to the extent that they have not, we must have civic groups and nonprofit advocacy organizations to thank for maintaining vigilance, pressure, and accountability.

Networks of social of environmental indicators that actually measure the qualities of our lives and environments can be seen in snippets of local and regional newspaper coverage, with a tendency to improved reporting.

We feel grateful to have such an opportunity to explore this exceptional country.  As is evident, we feel both hope and fear, optimism and pessimism for the future.

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Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / May 20, 2013

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