Monday, November 29, 2010

We can only do so much

I've been oscillating between being a vegetarian and eating meat for around three years now. There are some times when I'm able to go weeks or months without eating meat, and other times when I don't go for more than a day or two. I've tried to limit myself in different ways (no meat on weekdays, no meat on weekends, don't cook meat, don't eat meat when going out), but nothing has seem to stick.

I know and believe all the intellectual arguments for not eating meat. I know the overall social costs do not outweigh the individual benefits for me. But I always tend to slip back into eating meat in one way or another. Mostly, my degree of meat consumption depends on my life circumstances at the time. Right now, I'm eating more than I have in the past, probably because I'm making decent money for the first time in my life. My emotional state of excitement over a (sort of) new lifestyle outweighs the overarching intellectual arguments in the back of my mind. It probably shouldn't, but it does.

I lay this out because I think it's important to recognize that at different points in our lives, we are able to do different things. I write a lot about working for social change through nonprofits on this blog, but, in reality, we do not all have the privilege to do that at all points of our life. Brigid Slipka commented on one of my posts awhile back saying that she would like to work in a nonprofit, but the low-salary might not be able to meet the needs of her or her children.

This is a point well taken. I am able to work in a nonprofit for (relatively) low pay because I have no dependents, no debt and not many needs. I also scored a sweet deal on cheap housing. The nuances of nonprofit and social change work I and other bloggers discuss isn't an option for the majority of the population. I, and many of my fellow nonprofit employees, have the privilege to be able to give back, instead of having to focus on what is best for us or our dependents. (Not that we are all completely selfless. Like I said, I'm making decent money for the first time in my life and spending accordingly.)

I think we always need to keep this in mind when we consider the actions of others. Not only limited to the decision to work for social change or not, but also when considering what people doing with their positions at certain times. People cannot always give everything to their job. Creating change can't always be the most important thing to people. We shouldn't feel guilty about that. We can only do so much, and we should recognize that in the actions of others.

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Embedded Giving, Redux

It's that time of year again! Soon we will be walking through the aisles, stumbling from product to product to try to figure out just what all those special people in our lives want this year. And after we leave the check-out counter, it's important for us to not forget our favorite nonprofits, who also need gifts from us during this season of giving.

Luckily for all of us American consumers, we can do our shopping and give to charity at the same time. The gracious and good-willed corporations of the world are making it easier for you to give to your favorite charity in these times of small-budgets, while also buying that perfume your sister wants. Several companies have started partnerships to give a portion of their profits to the well-deserving charities, so you don't have to make those hard choices.

This is the phenomenon of embedded giving, the act of tying a charitable donation along with a purchase. I've written about this before, so I will try to not go much into what I've already said. You can also read all about it from people much smarter than me on Philanthropy 2173, GiveWell, Tactical Philanthropy, and, most recently, Good Intentions are Not Enough and AidWatch. What I'd like to go into a little more with this post is Lucy Bernholz notion of "charitywashing,"  which is related, but not limited to embedded giving.

Bernholz defines charitywashing in this way:
Charitywashing. Verb. Gaining the trust, good faith, or simply the business of customers by aligning your product with a charity. Often takes the form of statements that claim "...x% of sales of this object will be given to charity." 
I think I would push this a little further and say that this is not only about aligning a product to a  specific charity, but to the notion of working for social change in general. As Nathaniel Whittemore observed, doing shit is the "new cool" thing. It's cool to be trying to make a difference in the world, and corporations are catching on. There are countless charity-corporation partnerships that are branding corporations as "socially-conscious" in the hopes to sway consumers in their direction. Most recently, GAP released a new ad (which Whittemore discusses in the post linked above) that highlights the charity work of several very attractive people, wearing attractive GAP clothing. (Side note, Tim Ogden has been working on a system to rate these partnerships. Check it out, it's pretty cool.)

I tend to not have a problem with these charitywashing partnerships, as long as they do not increase consumption, and instead just shift it towards more socially-responsible choices. But the one area that I am concerned about is the complacency that it might create. I think this was best summed-up in a recent episode of 30 Rock, where the main character, Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, buys jeans from a socially-conscious store and says wearing them makes her "not feel bad for all those long, hot showers I took because I was bored." (In the end, it turns out the jeans were made by Halliburton.)

When engaging in these purchases, we always need to constantly analyze our behavior to determine our motivations behind our actions. Are we doing it to feel good? Are we considering this our good deed for the day? Or are we just making a logical and rational decision that if you have the choice between a product that helps a nonprofit or one that doesn't, clearly you should buy the one that does. I'm concerned that most people engage in embedded philanthropy to be a part of the social-change lifestyle without having to do much work.

I'm reminded of a lyric from an Immortal Technique song, "Beef and Broccoli," (warning, strong language in that one):
"Being a vegetarian should never be associated with being a revolutionary or being open-minded. That's a dietary choice."
Buying something should never be associated with being revolutionary. It's a consumption choice. There's nothing wrong with consumption, but don't pretend it's anything more than that. I think there is a lot of potential to try to change consumption habits in revolutionary ways: For example, there are some group coupon companies that focus solely on bringing people to social enterprises. That's cool, and it's trying to shift our consumption patterns, which is necessary if we want to accomplish systematic social change. But there are also group coupon companies that simply give some of their proceeds to charity. That's cool too, but it isn't as revolutionary as upsetting consumption habits. And we shouldn't think of it in that way.

So, as you walk through those aisles, make sure you are aware of the motivations behind your giving at the checkout counter. If you want to give, then do it. But don't pretend that it's anything more than what it is. And if you want to be a part of the "new cool" like those attractive people in the GAP ad, remember, you can't buy your way into that club.

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Communications Associate Speaks Out Against His Profession

I love my job. I really do. I love working in communications, promoting my organization's work, talking to people about it and trying to raise our profile within the sector. I've loved doing that at other organizations I've worked for. But there is a by-product of my profession that makes me uncomfortable.

As communications professionals, we try to make everyone else see why our organization is the best thing out there. I do genuinely believe that my employer is doing some of the most important work in the field and doing it in an innovative way; that's why I work for them. But not every organization can be the most important thing to every individual, or doing the most important work in every field and sub-field. The image that is created when looking at the sum of communications from all nonprofits--foundations, community organizations, research institutions, etc.--would make it seem like each alone has the all answers to social problems. The contributions of others is recognized in person, through presentations or informal contributions, but rarely do I see the prominent display of another organization's work on websites or promotional materials.

Now, this isn't the worst thing in the world. Most people accept messaging with a certain level of skepticism, just like they do not believe everything a corporation's advertisement tells them. But what makes me uncomfortable is the level of competition and isolation it creates amongst nonprofits. (In management speak, this is called "building silos.") We want to prove that our work is better than our peers, which limits how much credit we can give them in their work. Because communications is always linked to fundraising, a constrained and restrained capital market intensifies this competition.

I think this phenomena is most pronounced, and most problematic, between grantmakers and the nonprofits they support. This relationship is inherently collaborative, but I feel like neither parties typically tend to acknowledge the contribution of the other as much as they should. At conferences for grantmakers, the focus is almost always on the strategies of the foundations, not the innovations on the ground coming the community organizations.  At meetings of nonprofit community organizations, funders are seen as bureaucratic overseers, rather than partners. Looking over grantmakers' websites, there is always some sort of mention of "partnership" or "collaboration," but you have to dig to get into any specifics. This is the nature of communications to have a broad focus on the organization up front, and only get into specifics of the work later.

I attended a talk by Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation a few months ago about the new federal innovation programs coming from the Obama administration. He discussed how the requirement for match funding on the Investing in Innovation, Race to the Top and Social Innovation Fund awards actively increases collaboration among grantmakers, and between grantmakers and their sub-grantee nonprofits. He said that this collaboration has many benefits for the nonprofit sector and can cut down on a lot of inefficiencies. I think communications professionals need to find a way to tell the story of their organizations that includes the acknowledgment of these collaborative efforts going on around them. Collaboration is key, and the messaging should reflect that.

I also don't feel like acknowledgment of collaboration--stating that some result couldn't get done without the insights and connections of a funder, or that a community organization's sensitivity to local issues was essential to completing an initiative--always reflects poorly on the organization who did not come up with that solution. The players in the nonprofit sector should recognize that everyone has different roles to play in accomplishing the end goal of social change, and we should find where we fit in and celebrate those different roles. This can also help us focus our energy on our strengths and let our weaknesses be supplemented by others' work. (I think this is also pretty good personal advice, too.)

As the sector shifts towards a more collaborative effort to solve social problems, those of us telling that story need to include the efforts of all the organizations working around us and with us. This more accurate portrayal of the work being done can only help the nonprofit sector as a whole.

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

Shameless Self Promotion: November Edition

That's right, VPPNews came out today. Check it out and let me know what you think.

  • An advice column from President Carol Thompson Cole for funders looking to scale across local jurisdictions
  • Coverage of VPP's recent conference on the "Suburbanization of Poverty."

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

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    Hang one more year on the line

    Today is this blog's one year blogiversary. Ch-ch-changes.

    Thanks to all of you for your insightful thoughts and continued support. It means a lot to me.

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