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December 28, 2006

Interesting Twist on Public-Private Partnerships

But first some background…

Growing up as I did in Philadelphia, the American painter, Thomas Eakins, held an iconic allure for me. He was a native of the city, and painted with a controversial style (at the time) that conveyed in graphic detail the lives and events of everyday people, as well as such notables as Walt Whitman. His life was no less controversial than his work.

One of his works, The Gross Clinic, was recently sold by the Thomas Jefferson University for $68 million to an heir to the Walton fortune – Sam Walton’s daughter, Alice – for her new museum in Arkansas. The painting was originally purchased by the medical college's alumni for $200 after it was derided in a juried show as being too graphic. The sale was also controversial, coming on the heels of Ms Walton’s purchase of an important painting hanging (or that was hanging) in the New York Public Library.

The terms of this particular sale allowed for the City of Philadelphia to match that sale price in order to keep the masterpiece from being relocated to Arkansas. But the movers and shakers in Philadelphia were given less than two months to come up with those matching funds. A tall order as anyone who has been in the fundraising world certainly knows.

And here is where the interesting partnership comes in. After some major local donors chipped in about $20 million, and another 2,000 or so contributed $10 million more, a Charlottesville, NC bank (Wachovia) offered to guarantee a bridge loan, if needed, to offset any short-fall by the deadline.

So, the city will keep its historically important painting and the medical college will have $68 million to add to its capital campaign. The only apparent loser in this seems to be an Arkansas heiress. The full story is here and here.

I’m wondering how common such loans are in the philanthropic world. Does anyone in our community know of other deals such as this where a financial institution steps in to guarantee the results of a fundraising campaign?

December 27, 2006

Report on Gathering of "America's Most Generous"

In November 2006 a group of about a hundred of “America’s most generous” got together at President Clinton’s library for several days to discuss the future of philanthropy at the Clinton/Slate Philanthropist Gathering in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Charles Maclean from Philanthropy Now was credentialed as a journalist to report on the gathering. His insights and summary highlights are invaluable reading for our community. It seems that many of the leaders in philanthropy are beginning to express similar thoughts about how philanthropy needs to be reshaped to meet current needs as we at the institute have been discussing with funders over the past few years.

Here are some of the central themes Dr Maclean took away from the gathering:

Shared Opportunities, Leveraging, Sustainability, Partners, Scalability, Investment, Take Risks, Measure the Right Results, Self-Sufficiency, Innovation, Long Term Commitment, Humanity

Dr Maclean noted, “There was general agreement on the panels that nonprofits must become increasingly self-sufficient and that scalability and sustainability were major factors in survival and success.”

One wonders what these panelists meant by these terms: self-sufficient, scalability, and sustainability in the context of the not for profit world. Does it mean developing their own funding sources? Or creating a for-profit component within their organizations?

Some of Dr Maclean’s other insights follow the jump. A really good read…


A sampling of comments:

Slate Magazine publisher Cliff Sloan set the tone of the private gathering alluding to an “explosion of creativity and innovation in approaches” to giving with “no one content to rest on past laurels” rather tapping the, “collective power to make this a better place”.
Bill Gates Sr. of the Gates Foundation was reflective in saying, “The greatest thing about this job is that you get to say yes”. Our foundation’s approach is to “Work with other organizations already doing it” with an emphasis on prevention of disease not cure of disease. He noted that, “To get government support you must first get widespread public support.”… He noted that he is a “. . . fan of the wealthy paying the estate tax. The world is not improved by the concept of inherited wealth . . . public policy should not be built around a policy of being able to pass billions to our kids.” He drew laughter saying, “Bill is not in my will.”

Read all of Dr Maclean’s comments here.
For audio and video of many of the conference presentations click here.

December 23, 2006

The Future of Documentaries…

The future of documentaries may be in some jeopardy due to the potentially restrictive copyright laws currently on the books. Many low budget, indie productions pay an enormous percentage of their budgets to clear music copyrights.

One blogger pointed put that the film series about the civil rights movement, Eye on the Prize, is no longer available because the producers were unable to afford the purchase price for rights in perpetuity. Such pieces of cultural history are vital to the task of sustaining a national narrative, and encouraging dialogue.

In a more recent case here is an interview with Marilyn Agrelo, the producer of the film, Mad Hot Ballroom, about the ballroom dance competition in New York City. In the interview she discusses how astonishingly expensive it was to clear the music rights for the film. She even had to clear a six second ring tone! In all those clearances cost her almost half of her production budget.

Hopefully, the new congress may take up a bill to address (or redress) this situation. It may not rise to the level of troop surges and the future of social security, but it is an important piece of legislation, and an important matter for national dialogue.

December 21, 2006

Free at Last: John Lennon’s Secret FBI File is Finally Open

Perhaps his spirit will be freed now that he is no longer classified as “secret”.


The US government’s classification system is out of control and has been for some time now. Of course there are any number of files that need to be kept secret, but in a free society that number should be as small as possible.

It takes but a few seconds to mark a document ‘Secret”. Yet, as we see from this LA Times article, it took 25 years for that stamp to be removed from FBI files concerning John Lennon. Now that they have seen the light of day, it is a real head scratcher to understand the delay.

But it is not difficult to understand this propensity to over classify. In the moment it is the safest way for a government official to go. All too often now, documents are classified to hide embarrassment, and possibly official misconduct, or at least conduct that would raise an eyebrow or two, and possibly a congressional hearing or two.

While much of this over classification process is the result of huge bureaucratic inertia, it serves another purpose as well – it hinders and at times squelches civic engagement. It works like this: In a secretive culture, where those in power are also those in the know, it is all too easy for an official to say, “If only you knew all the facts…” Implicit in this argument is a “Trust me, I’m from the government” proposition. Also, unspoken in this assertion is the fact that the reason I may not have all the facts is because that very same official may well be the one preventing me from having all the facts.

The more secrets a government holds on to, the more difficult it is to have meaningful civil conversations, and civic engagements. As meaningful dialogue diminishes in the political culture, there is a tendency for people to become more positioned, and then more defensive.

The over classification f public documents, while not he cause of this coarsening of public discourse, is certainly a contributor to its erosion.

Complete description and images of the newly released files are here.

Update: One positive note on the declassification front (from the POR) reminds us of the witching hour that is coming for many bureaucrats. At midnight on December 31st millions of classified documents 25 years old or more (except those specifically retained by federal agencies) will be automatically declassified. Here is that article.

December 19, 2006

The Darker Side of Social Construction - The Plight of the Medical Workers in Libya

The assertion that what we call reality is a mental construct held together with brick and mortar comprised of the narratives we tell each other was once a hotly disputed topic among academics. It seems less and less controversial now, especially as the rubrics of this theory continually play themselves out in the very stories we see and hear in the media each day, no less so than the ones we tell each other in our personal lives.

Perhaps most strikingly these days this type of reality-creating enterprise is playing itself out in Iraq, and in Washington, where it is becoming increasingly clear that the “winner” will be the one who can sustain the story. And it is playing itself out in a most bizarre manner in Libya today, where five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor have been yet again sentenced to death after being found guilty of infecting 400 children with the HIV virus.

In some ways there are essentially three narratives at play here. The first narrative is a straightforward spy novel, post Cold War potboiler. The CIA hires an operative from the Halliburton Company to contact one of these nurses to infect the children. The motive is sketchy, but with these three major players – CIA, Halliburton, and Libya – coming up with a motive does not take much heavy lifting.

The second narrative is a bit more complex. In this narrative the health care system in Libya at the time of the infections was so broken that poor hygiene (i.e. contaminated needles) was the cause of the infection. This narrative – “true” by any empirical standard from the fact-based community – is problematic because then Col. Qaddafi and his regime would take the brunt of the blame. Not only would their health care system be criticized publicly, but their judicial system as well.

The third narrative is the most complex of all, and may never be fully articulated. But it involves Bulgaria’s imminent inclusion into the EU, and Libya’s recent rapprochement with the west reopening her rich oil fields.

So, what will happen? The only narrative that works will become real. The convictions will stand, but the Libyan leader will mercifully spare the lives of the medical workers because there is a lack of absolute certainty about what happened. Because of this uncertainty, Libya will agree to share the responsibility for compensating the families of the children evenly with Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government, not because they believe that the nurses were guilty, but out of a humanitarian concern for the needs of these children, will agree to this arrangement.

And the nurses will go home to a hero’s welcome in Sophia, the Libyan leader will be haled as both wise and just by his people, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Libyan oil will continue to flow northward.

And the flowing oil may well be the most powerful reality we are all constructing these days.

December 15, 2006

Learning From Conservatives

A few weeks I attended the Philanthropy Roundtable’s annual conference It was my first time going to a gathering such as this, and though I’ve talked about my experience a lot, I’ve been hesitant to follow through on my original intention to write something about it. I guess I’ve been reluctant, and still am, to generalize (at least publicly!) based on my first, limited foray into such identifiably conservative territory.

That said I’m glad I went and I intend to go again. And I was reminded in an experiential, rather than an abstract, way of how our different lenses on the world affect what gets talked about, how issues get framed, and how we feel about it all. Personally, it confirmed for me the importance of walking TWI’s talk in terms of engaging in cross-perspective dialogue.

One thing that has stayed with me was how comfortable speakers at some of the sessions were talking about the importance of funding talented individuals and of funding ideas. This brought home to me again the whole “people vs. programs” funding issue that is so common in philanthropic conversations.

Often, a foundation’s story revolves around supporting programs, when the implicit conversation or understanding is that foundations are actually funding individuals, funding vision and leadership.

Obviously programs are important, but I think the field would benefit more from making that implicit conversation about supporting people, explicit. Certainly, that’s the case in the business world. Leaders in business seem very comfortable talking about the individual “human assets” in their organizations, and how important it is to invest in them over time. For all the talk about nonprofits learning from business, why is that one lesson many foundations seem reluctant to embrace?

December 2, 2006

Around the Blogosphere: Philanthropy Updates

Who is more generous – Compassionate Conservatives or Progressive Liberals?

Well, it turns out that the CCs are, if research out of Syracuse University is to be believed. (And why shouldn't it?) The researcher, Arthur Brooks, is a professor there, and also is the director of nonprofit studies for the university's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also the author of a recently published book, “The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism" (Basic Books). Here is a quote from the article in beliefnet:

The book's basic findings are that conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure.

Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone's tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes, even when governments don't provide them with enough money.

Such an attitude, he writes, not only shortchanges the nonprofits but also diminishes the positive fallout of giving, including personal health, wealth and happiness for the donor and overall economic growth.

So, now we know.


Points of Light or Supernovas?

Robert Reich has a piece in The Prospect that draws some valuable distinctions about the state of philanthropy between today and some 40 years ago. His analysis of our dependencies on the newly minted billionaires – they are not points of light, but supernovas – deserves some light of its own. As he says,

We depend on individual billionaires to do what government used to do. That's not a good thing.

An important read dished up here.


This just in… Gates Foundation not to last the century….

Reuters is reporting a Wall Street Journal article that says that the trustees of the Gates Foundation – Bill, Melinda and Warren? – have decided to spend down the foundation’s assets within 50 years of the death of either Bill or Melinda.

In a statement from the foundation the trustees asserted that:
"The decision to focus all of our resources in this century underscores our optimism for making huge progress and for making sure that we do as much as possible, as soon as possible, on the comparatively narrow set of issues we've chosen to focus on.”

No doubt a testament to the emerging complexities of the foundation’s recent hypergrowth, it has also decided to split the organization into two internal strictures – an asset trust and a program foundation.

These decisions are clearly in alignment with the Gates’ and Buffett’s philosophy of taking on big problems sooner rather than later.