Monday, January 17, 2011

The Mountaintop

I'm a person who thinks in the long-term. I'm not much for process or details, but I think about the bigger picture, the end-game. I like ideas and notions more than I like thinking about how to put those thoughts effectively into action. At one point in my life, I dismissed policy and practice as secondary to the concept they are trying to create, but now I'm beginning to realize how important those details are. If you can't make an idea work in the reality of a situation, it doesn't do anyone any good.

But I still tend to think of things in the bigger picture. Especially when considering nonprofit and social change work, I always ask myself, where is this going? What are the eventual goals of this work? Will there really be a time where there is nothing more to solve and don't have to worry about all of the problems we face now?

I'd like to say yes, but I'm not sure if that's based in reality. Last week, I wrote a post about the role of philanthropy in the long-term, and Sean from Tactical Philanthropy commented:
[W]hile I appreciate your goal of "putting yourself out of business", the underlying assumption is that if we work hard enough we can create a utopia where attempts to increase social welfare will not be needed.

That ain't gonna happen.
Sometimes, I agree with him. The intellectual side of me knows that there is no way we as a species can reach a point were we have no problems and there is no suffering. The law of unintended consequences shows that no matter how hard we try to solve all the world's problems, any intervention can spawn new problems where we least expect them.

This intellectual and rational side of me is constantly at odds with the side of me that completely and wholeheartedly agrees with the vision set out by people like Dr. Martin Luther King. He saw a world that was free of struggle and full of love and peace. In his final public speech, "I Have Been to the Mountaintop," he said that he didn't worry anymore, because he knew that one day, somehow, we'd get to that promised land. I'm not one to disagree with a visionary like Dr. King, so I don't know how to reconcile these two opposing thoughts in my mind.

I think the best that we, as those working to put Dr. King's vision into practice, can do is to create a world that can adapt and solve problems as quickly as they arise. As I said in my last post, that is not what the nonprofit sector does right now. There needs to be many changes to how resources are allocated before we can get to that point.

This tension between the desire to build a perfect future and the reality that we can never foresee all the problems we will face is a constant struggle for me. But I cannot keep worrying about the future and what it will look like. I need to trust the words of Dr. King that he saw the future promised to us, and whatever it looks like, we will get there. I can only do my small part to build on the legacy left by him. He was not worried on that night before he was assassinated, and so I too don't worry.

To celebrate the day honoring his memory, a clip from his "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech:

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

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion: January Edition

Another month, another issue of VPPNews. Check it out and let me know what you think.

  • VPP President Carol Thompson Cole's column on redefining "scale." I find this a fascinating take on a concept that is thrown around a lot in the nonprofit sector. She expands the definition to consider not just the number of people an organization serves, but its overall impact on a community or a sector. 
  • A look at the innovative corporate philanthropy strategy of Capital One.
  • A review of the first year of VPP's investment partnership with the workforce development program, Year Up.
Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Turning the Dials on an Outdated System

I think one of the hardest things for me to deal with in my professional life is that I am making a living off of the misfortune of others. Without the inequalities that exist in our society, the organization I work for would not have a purpose, and I would not have a job. I have a comparatively privileged lifestyle to those I am trying to help and I live comfortably while they do not. If their problems were solved, or didn't exist in the first place, I would not be able to do what I love, and get paid for it too.

Last week, Lenore Hanisch of the Quixote Foundation wrote a guest blog post on Tactical Philanthropy on its recent decision to spend down all of its endowment by 2017, which resonated with my struggle to be comfortable with my work. Hanisch commented on how the decision to spend all of the foundation's reserves will put her into some personally difficult situations:
Erik [her husband whose father started the foundation] and I have always been clear in our belief that the foundation and its assets exist for the purpose of progressive work—not to give us purpose. This field can be seductive: when you’re associated with a foundation you’re suddenly always funny and interesting, with people eager to hear your opinions. When the money is gone I’ll not only need a new job, I’ll also be left out of quite a few parties and someday, someone might even admit they don’t like me. In other words, spending everything puts us in a fairly normal situation as far as our jobs are concerned.
For those that work in the social sector, our goal should always to put ourselves out of a job, otherwise, we are just making money off of poor people. As I learn more about the field, I'm realizing that nonprofit funding is very donor-driven and subject to the whims of major donors and foundations. This creates a capital stream that is fragmented and variable, which doesn't help encourage organizations to focus on long-term solutions to society's problems. Instead, we get caught in a cycle of charity that aims to fill the needs of the underserved, rather than creating large shifts in systems and values. I benefit from this constant cycle, as I will be constantly employed.

I think the only way I can truly feel good about working the social sector (and, by extension, the whole social sector itself), is to create a shift away from donor-driven cycles of charity. These changes are happening all around with the rise of social entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy, but I feel like it is not enough. It is important for foundations to spend down their endowments and for organizations to work on accomplishing goals so they are no longer needed, but this is only one piece of what is needed. To make a true shift away from charity to solutions-driven change, we need to reshape the rules of the nonprofit sector.

Lucy Bernholz and Steve Goldberg recently had a fascinating exchange about the place of philanthropy in the long term. While discussing the different innovations going on in the nonprofit world (from those great social entrepreneurs and venture philanthropists), Lucy commented that:
[P]hilanthropy as an industry is "designed" by policies. It is a regulated industry. It is shaped by the rules. And the rules, currently, favor "donor centric, fragmented, etc"... The game itself doesn't change because there are new players - it needs new rules.
All of the changes to nonprofits that are currently going on, Lucy said, are mainly financial innovations, or business model innovations. Thinking about effective management or outcomes measurement for nonprofits is important and can create some lasting change, but those changes are just turning dials on an outdated system that can't respond effectively to the needs of the population. Instead, we should try to think about the assumptions that the nonprofit sector is built on and change those.

Developments on this level are the most exciting to me. The creation of L3C's, the growing market for impact investing, and reforming the tax-deductible donation are areas which seem to have the most potential to create some pretty profound systems-wide change. I think that if we can find a way to blend business and philanthropic capital effectively, we could create a capitalist economy that is based on solving society's problems, rather than creating profit. I'm not sure how to do this, but I'm excited to try to figure it out.

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