Urgency and Opportunity – A New Series

Highway markers, we’ve discovered, make great reading. Posted by state and regional historical societies all along State, US, and Federal highways, they provide lessons and insight into what happened right there, where you’re standing, in earlier American history.

But reading them, one can’t help but notice the brutal history of the American West (where we just were), won by the White Man backed by the US Army and Government through acts that can only be described as dishonest, treacherous, and murderous — and especially dishonorable.

Reading these well-told stories of the not-so-distant past was revealing and, frankly, embarrassing.

Before leaving home on this recent trip, I read obituaries of the legendary B.B. King (1925-2015), of how he was energized and directed early in life by the sight of a just-lynched man being carried through his rural Mississippi town. “I couldn’t turn the fury into hatred,” he said. Instead, “I worked off my fears.”

Reading that, I became more aware of the context of pain, brutality, and terror that so many Negro boys and men and girls and women of the time grew up in. The challenges faced by their children and grandchildren can easily be explained by the post-traumatic stress they endured and inadvertently passed to their families. That the White Man can express no shame, and can still refuse to act from Christian kindness says much about his level of development.

And, then, on the way home, reports of the massacre in a church, of all places, in the still proudly Confederate American South, took everyone’s breath away for its brazen and violent act of pure and self-admitted race-hatred. Even more stunning for the world to see was the explicit and genuine forgiveness expressed toward the despicable killer by the victims’ families.

Seeing that, I became more aware of the dignity with which such atrocious indignities are borne by our African American brothers and sisters.

Black folks respond with dignity; White folks respond with rage and violence. This truly is a racially hurt, unhealed, troubled, and traumatized nation. The vision still expressed by White supremacists, whether shrilly in the media or quietly by unassuming neighbors, that theirs is the morally superior race, must fade away soon in the light of day, one can only hope.

In a fine summary, Alex Daniels writes (Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 2015) that both the White House and institutional philanthropy, coming from a sense of urgency, are redoubling efforts to deal with issues of racial equity. But he also reports skepticism. There’s no easy cure, and the structures and habits of institutional philanthropy are not conducive to sustained helpfulness.

What’s a foundation board and staff to do? That’s the question that I’m intending to address on this site in a short series. These posts, as with all previous posts, come from “the confluence of philanthropy, justice, and evaluation,” but also from a new sense of urgency. Fortunately, more recent events suggest “opportunity” as well.

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Philanthropy can help with racial equity and social justice

How? Grants can be made for the following purposes:

Strengthen Organizations and Networks

  • Listening, reflecting, learning – and shaping improved efforts
  • Strengthening personal, leadership and organizational skills
  • Developing organizational vision and priorities for enhancing RE/SJ work
  • Improving an organization’s ability to make progress with RE/SJ
  • Strengthening, partnerships, networks, and coalitions

Offer Leadership, Especially Across Divides

  • Building trust: creating opportunities for dialog, healing, reconciliation
  • Encouraging others to come together to discover opportunities for improving conditions
  • Entering into new relationships that build support for progress
  • Raising the profile of racial equity/social justice work
  • Improving materials and channels for communications of this kind of work

Craft Solutions and Moving Them Forward

  • Create opportunities for learning and teaching about inequity, injustices, and their root causes
  • Compiling data about local trends, challenges, and opportunities for improving RE/SJ
  • Compiling wisdom and lessons that build support or guide action
  • Crafting solutions to be moved towards action and implementation
  • Drawing on bases of support for advancing solutions

Transform Local Conditions, Barriers, and Economies

  • Creating a culture of accountability and cooperation
  • Moving policy proposals from inception to successful implementation
  • Getting the rules changed to increase the opportunities for achieving good outcomes
  • Stimulating investment and creating assets to benefit more segments of the community
  • Spreading innovation and improvements to other arenas, to spread the benefits

Increase a Community’s Resources

  • Helping a community discover its assets and what it can give to RE/SJ efforts
  • Finding new donors (of time, talent, or treasure)
  • Increasing the flow of resources into RE/SJ efforts
  • Using philanthropic resources better
  • Improving access to institutional resources

The framework above is adapted from materials prepared by the Effective Communities Project for the Ford Foundation in 2006, available here, concerning ways to benchmark progress in achieving greater racial equity and social justice (RE/SJ).

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / January 8, 2015

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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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