Sunday, October 31, 2010

Thoughts on the Rally to Restore Sanity

I know this is an unabashed detour from the typical content on this blog, but I felt like I needed to write about my experience at the Rally to Restore Sanity yesterday. I've written several drafts for this post, but I can't seem to put something together that I'm proud of, or that does the event justice. I've become frustrated at myself for not being able to put this event into context, because I feel like it might be something that I've been waiting for my whole life.

I've been watching Jon Stewart since I was 11 and I've followed the stand-up comedians of my era in the same way that I idolize the rock stars of the 60s. I've continually compared myself and, by extension, my generation, to the generation 40 years before me. I am always searching for my generation's Woodstock, a cultural convergence that symbolizes a generation while also propels it forward at the same time. I anxiously analyze my history as it is being created around me instead of living it, always in the shadow of the people that have come before. Every major event I witness I think to myself--is this it?  When I went to rebuild in New Orleans after Katrina--maybe this is it. Obama’s election--maybe this is it. And the Rally yesterday--maybe this is it.

I've poured over comedy in the same way I poured over the lives and words of the musicians of the 60s. I memorize lyrics, I memorize punch lines. I try to get in the head of Jon Stewart, I try to get into the head of Bob Dylan. I try to tease out what each of their actions--and the actions of the people around them--mean for the broader trajectory of a generation's development. When Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced their rally over a month ago, my thoughts on what it could mean built on top of each other with each new episode.

Needless to say, when I went to the Rally (and it will always be simply known as "the Rally") on Saturday, I was nervous. It had already been labeled my generation's Woodstock, but I wasn't sure. I wanted it so badly to be, I wanted so badly to have the privilege years from now to say "I was there, and I remember that" to those that wish they could have been there, in the same way that I wish I was at Woodstock or the '68 Chicago protests when people tell me they were there. So today after I shook off the sleep that followed a Saturday night of instant reminiscence; (Where were you standing? Could you hear the whole thing? How many people do you think were there? How pissed were you when Ozzy Ozbourne cut off Cat Stevens? But it was pretty sweet...), I sat down ready to write about my generation's moment, how it was better than Woodstock, and how comedians deliver better messages than rock stars ever could.

It didn't come out. I ended up with scattered paragraphs and half-thoughts in full sentences. I forced myself to keep writing: This is what I've been waiting my whole life for. I was part of a crowd of over 200,000 people, who took to the streets of my nation's capital with a common goal of understanding and civility, and a shared dream of a better tomorrow. I watched as one of my heroes stood in the shadows of the Capitol building saying that our presence here alone was enough for him, that when everything is amplified we hear nothing, that the only place where we can't work together is in DC and on cable TV. And I did it with some of my best friends with me scattered throughout the crowd. I should be able to say something about this.

But I couldn't find the right words to give a deeper meaning to all of these moments. I tried to compare this possibly-historic event to Woodstock. I tried to talk about how comedians were the rock stars of our generation. I tried to talk about how comedians were the only ones who could keep us sane in these complicated times and the messages of the 60s were too simple now. But nothing seemed to fit together.

I was reminded of a quote from, either fittingly or ironically, the Dylan biopic, "I'm Not There." One character tells a young Dylan, who at that point in the movie will only play songs from the Great Depression and not about what he is experiencing; "Live your own time, child, sing about your own time."

I can't say what the Rally means, because I don't know if it means anything yet. I lived through it, but I'm not sure if my three hours on the Mall will mean anything more than a fun afternoon, some good stories and the chance to be apart of something that I thought was pretty cool. And I guess it isn't really for me to say what it meant for my generation--that will be determined by historians smarter than myself--but I know it meant a lot to me. I've always admired the way that the Daily Show and the Colbert Report (and all of my favorite comedians) can point out the flaws in our society by making humorous connections no one else can see. I think they put on a great Rally.

The message that they delivered was exactly what I think our country needs right now. The Rally wasn't an anti-Tea Party message, or an anti-establishment message, or against really anything at all. It was more about stating the obvious for those in power--media or government--that might have forgotten it: These are hard times, but they are not end times. We will continue to work together and do the things we need to do, as we have always done.

I hope this message makes a difference in the near future, and the long-term future, but I don't know if it will. I hope I can, at some point, look back on this day--this period in history that I was lucky enough to live through--and say something more substantial that I have said with this post. But until then, I will be glad I was there to share it with everyone else who was there, or who watched it, or who shares the sentiments. That is good enough for me, for now.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Glossary of Useful Terms

This industry has a lot of jargon. I know I get confused with all the terms thrown around these days, so I thought I'd put together a helpful guide for myself and others. They are below, in no particular order. Let me know if I've forgotten any or if you take issue with any of the definitions:

Social Return on Investment: Helping people with your money.

Entrepreneurship: Doing things that may or may not help people, including, but not limited to, things you can make money on.

Social Entrepreneurship: Doing things that may or may not help people, including, but not limited to, things you can make money on.

Social Enterprise: The thing that you do when you do things.

Leverage: Doing something that helps and/or inspires others to do something.

Effectiveness: Doing the thing that you do really well.

Capacity: As in, "increased capacity" or "capacity building." Actually, I'm not totally sure on what this means. But I know it's important and I know I say it a lot.

Scale: Making the thing that you do bigger.

Growth: See "Scale."

Growth Capital: The money that you need to make the thing that you do bigger.

Evaluation: Making sure the thing you are doing isn't the wrong thing.

Rigorous Evaluation: Really making sure the thing you are doing isn't the wrong thing.

Metrics: The numbers that you use to make sure the thing you are doing isn't the wrong thing.

Innovation: Doing something new, or something in a different way, that may or may not help people.

Social Innovation: Doing something new, or something in a different way, that may or may not help people.

Social Capital Markets: All the money that there is to help people do the things that help people.

"Triple Bottom Line": Making money, helping people and helping the environment all at the same time.

Philanthropy: Money that helps people.

Charity: Money that helps people.

Social Investment: Money that helps people.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Monday, October 18, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Two years ago next month, I was able to cast my first vote in a presidential election, for Barack Obama. I was a college senior at the time and in the months leading up to the election, my college campus was full of the hope and change that the Obama campaign was spreading around the country. I went to a extremely liberal school and Obama buttons and stickers could be seen attached to every backpack outside the dining hall and on the door of most professors' offices. Topics of conversation didn't stray much from the idiocy of Sarah Palin, the fall of John McCain from his pre-2007 persona and the most recent stats on the Democrats' assured takeover from Our older professors told us this is what it felt like when Robert Kennedy was running for president. I don't know if that was true, but I've never felt such a collective sense of joy and hope for the future from my peers.

I was an aspiring journalist at the time, and being the downer that I am, I decided it would be a good idea to go around and interview people about what they thought would happen if Obama lost. I had memories of the tears on my high school classmates' faces the day after Kerry lost in 2004 and I couldn't bear the thought of my generation having to go through another loss like that. I wanted to be prepared for the inevitable and I considered it my civic duty to go around and bring everyone down a notch, just to make sure things didn't get out of control. Because you never know.

The response was encouraging. There was no doubt that if Obama lost, things would not be good, and on my college campus especially--we were so liberal we considered Tom Friedman a war criminal. In the course of my interviews, I was able to talk with the then-Vice President of the College Democrats of America, who happened to be my classmate. He said that the enthusiasm surrounding the election and the political activism that had arisen from it was not contingent on Obama alone. With or without him, the sense of hope and the drive for change would stick with this generation for life.

Two years later, I think he's right. Things have not dissipated since the Obama administration has come into office and my peers seem to still be fighting for change. There's talk about youth voter turnout (and general turnout) being lower this year, but there is so much evidence to suggest that my generation is much more engaged--politically and socially--than the previous. (You would like to see some of that evidence? Well, here's a few nice anecdotes I feel justify that previous statement completely: Young lawyers are deciding to work in nonprofits, Americorps' applicants are sky-rocketing, as are TFA's.) The decision of many of my peers to flock to the nonprofit sector is probably partially due to the crappy economy, but I have a feeling we might stick around for a while.

And this engagement stretches to younger members of my generation too: USA Today recently ran a fascinating article about tweens who volunteer regularly and even start their own nonprofits. For some  anecdotal evidence on this, I just wrote a profile (shameless self-promotion alert!) on a young woman who has already founded a nonprofit at the age of 18. It's clear that even if my peers don't stick around to push for social change, our younger siblings will.

Thankfully, for many reasons, Barack Obama did win the election on that cold November night. (Best Tuesday night party ever.) I am very proud that my first vote for president was for the first black President of the United States, and for one who (I think) will have the most social impact on our country in my lifetime. If I am wrong and Obama's reforms do not pan out to be what he claims nor what we all hope (or his efforts are derailed after the mid-terms), I'm not worried. I know my friends and I will still be around, picking up the slack to drive the country in the right direction.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Monday, October 11, 2010

Shameless Self Promotion: October Edition

It's that time of month again! VPPNews came out last week. Take a look at it and let me know what you think.

  • VPP Chairman Mario Morino's column about transparency. Very powerful piece that gets to the heart of the issue: "Transparency is about our value set and how we act on it—not about checking a set of boxes or posting a set of documents on a website. It is about the honesty, openness, and integrity we live by in governing and running our organizations and doing our jobs"
  •  An article on Adri Smith, founder of the nonprofit YouReach. At 18, she is already well on her way to making a big difference in the world.
  •  A profile of the two leaders of KIPP DC. With all the buzz surrounding "Waiting for 'Superman'", it's nice to hear the stories of people working on these issues on the ground.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    Doin Good

    Since I choose to work in the nonprofit sector, I've been told that I'm  "doing good work" or "doing good" many times through my life. This never sat well with me. I never seem to feel good about doing good and tend to have a visceral reaction to hearing those words. When I try to explain this feeling to people, it mostly comes out as a spewing tirade against the traditional do-gooder, activist model of change. This explanation also never sat well with me and I don't think I even convinced myself.

    Related, I've also struggled with people who say they give donations or volunteer or work on a cause to "feel good." I'm beginning to understand these motivations a little better, but I still think "doing good" and "feeling good" are non-starters when it comes to creating change. I do feel good about my donations and I do think I am doing good work at my job, but that really isn't my motivation. I'm motivated by what I think is right and what I think is the most effective way to create change. It's great that you may think I'm doing good, but that's a bonus. I don't prescribe any moral judgments to what I'm doing.

    I consider myself in the Jon Stewart camp of sanity, so I try to keep these feelings mostly to myself and not convert others to my side, except for the occasional spewing (I am a blogger, after all). But then, in a black-hole of blog surfing a few weeks ago, I came across this article, "Leverage Points--Places to Intervene in a System," written by Donella Meadows, the systems analyst, in 1999. She outlines 12 "places to intervene in a system" to create change, in increasing order of effectiveness. They range from "Constants, parameters, numbers" (least effective) to "the power to transcend paradigms" (most effective). I'm sure you can tell by those snippets alone that this is some pretty heavy stuff. It completely blew my mind.

    I won't go into what exactly the different "places" to create change are or what they mean, because Meadows does that quite effectively and succinctly. But I will focus in on second most effective place to intervene and create change on the list (which was originally #1): "The mindset or paradigm out of which the system--its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters--arises."

    When I read this, something clicked. I realized that "doing good" is the mindset the entire nonprofit sector has arisen from. All of the nonprofit sectors' structures, rules and goals have arisen from this notion of "good", as have all of its subsequent problems--inefficient capital markets, low pay for nonprofit employees, a hesitancy to blend for-profit/nonprofit ventures, etc. I think I fundamentally disagree with this mindset and have begun to recognize the problems that it creates. Meadows' list showed me that changing this mindset is actually one of the most effective ways to fix these problems on a large scale. (For more on this check out Uncharitable by Dan Pallotta, where he traces this moral framework all the way back to the Puritans.)

    Now, I think the label of "doing good" is less of a pet peeve and more of a cause for action for me. (I think I should have realized this sooner because a synonym for "doing good" is charity and I did name my blog "Change Charity.") Being able to shift something as fundamental to a sector as the "mindset or paradigm out of which the system...arises" is pretty powerful. I'm not sure how we can make this shift, but I know there's a lot of people working on it. If anything speaks to that, it's the recent Social Capital Markets Conference.

    But until that shift, if we ever meet, please make sure to refrain from telling me how great I am for working at a nonprofit. I don't care, and you don't want to hear me spew.

    Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners