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July 30, 2007

The Lonely Profession?

philanthropy.jpgFor an engaging exploration of what constitutes good work in philanthropy -- and the challenges involved in doing it -- check out the transcript of Grantmaking: The Lonely Profession, a panel discussion convened on July 19 by The Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Moderated by William Schambra, the panel members were:

Howard Gardner, Harvard University
Laura Horn, Harvard Division of Medical Ethics
Julie Rogers, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation
Mindy Hernandez, Aspen Institute

The springboard for the session was Gardner and Horn's introduction to The Good Works Project, a twelve-year research effort that according to Gardner "is interested in understanding people and institutions which strive to do good work and which hopefully achieve good work at least a lot of the time." The project has looked at a numerous professions including law, medicine, and journalism. (Good work being defined as work that is embodies expertise, meaning, and a sense of ethics). It doesn't sound like they would have included philanthropy in the professional mix if not for the important fact (wryly noted by Gardner) that they received a lot of funding to do so!

The panel discussion and audience questions touched on a number of themes that have come up in the ongoing "Funders Reflection" we host at TWI, including the sense of isolation that can come with working in a foundation, the power dynamics between grantors and grantees, lies and truthtelling, flattery and ego, assessing impact, funding a person not just a program, and whether philanthropy is really a "field."

Here's one passage from Howard Gardner that stuck with me:

We interviewed a lot of grantees, and boy, do they have a different picture than you get from the people who give away the money! It's filled with anger - and these are successful grantees. But I think a kind of question I would like to ask both of grantees and grantmakers is: Within your area or sector, could you rank-order the foundations you work with and give us the reasons why? Because it's important for me to know whether Julie (Rogers) is describing what is routine in regional community foundations, which have had a lot of stability and leadership, or is she an outlier that is just much, much better than the other ones. I know all of the big foundations very well. I have a very strong opinion about how to rank-order them (laughter). But I'd like to know whether those are idiosyncratic or whether people would generally agree about Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Macarthur, Mellon, and so on. I think that would really shake people up. (Waldemar) Nielsen used to do that on his own, but that was one person. I'd love to know what fifty people, national NGO types, think about foundations and why.

To summarize, I think it would be very valuable to delineate subsectors and to see whether there is some consensus about ones that know what they're doing and ones that are careening or just looking in the mirror.

And that got me to thinking. You know those underground guides to colleges that supposedly give the real scoop on life at various campuses? What if someone put out an underground guide to foundations (at least the bigger ones) that talked about such things as how grantees are treated, the number of hoops you have to jump through to get funding, size of grant awarded versus amount of time invested in applying and reporting, etc. I realize such an undertaking would be fraught with bias of all kinds, not to mention other drawbacks but I do wonder what would happen if some sort of competitive ranking, as Gardner suggests, was introduced into the foundation world.

Conversely, there are things like the annual lists of the 10 best companies to work for. Could there be a list of the 10 best foundations in an area to collaborate with? And if so, what would the criteria be? And what changes in thinking and behavior might come from publicizing such a list?

The Center for Effective Philanthropy
has begun exploring the territory of grantee assessments of foundations but assess individual foundations and don't get at the assessment across foundations that Gardner addresses.

Those speculations aside, the real question is how do foundations encourage and reward really authentic feedback from grantees both about their own work and the work of the foundations they collaborate with.

Clearly, it's a complicated question. But just as clearly it's a question that needs to be seriously addressed at all levels of the foundation world if people hope to do something about constructive about the grantee anger and grantor arrogance referred to in the Bradley Center discussion.

July 27, 2007

The Challenges of Storytelling

TWImasthead_01_01.gifIt's July 27 and I'm thinking about the fact that it was three years ago today that TWI's founder Fred Whitman died. A lot has happened since then. We've gone from a small operating foundation that flew under the radar for many years to a grantmaking foundation that is funding important work, building strong relationships, and achieving higher visibility for our mission.

In terms of our mission, I am convinced more than ever of the value of our explicit focus on the processes of thinking, communication, and decision-making. And I'm also aware of the continuing challenge of articulating this work in ways that are concrete and compelling. The gap between reading or hearing about things such as dialogue or group reflection and participating in them is wide indeed. And this challenge especially hits home for process proponents trying to capture the attention of prospective funders. Process-oriented work can come off sounding too touchy-feely, too abstract, too general, too something - not to mention the problem of measuring "impact."

Anyway, I've been thinking about the challenge of communication not only because Fred's been on my mind (he was never satisfied with how the Institute was described) but because I've been reading Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The title says it all in terms of what they explore in the book and I'm finding much of it useful and thought-provoking. It's not all new of course, but they do present their material in a sticky fashion!

One point that strikes home is what they refer to "The Curse of Knowledge" and our tendency to "forget what it's like not to know what we know" in terms of our communications with others. I think I fall under this spell more often than I'd like to think when talking to new people about the Institute and some of the things we're involved in.

They also talk about the importance of stories, and that too has overlapped with my reflections about Fred. I find when I talk with people about the Institute, they "get it" in a much more real way when I relate the Institute's mission and interests to Fred life's story and struggles. Of course, the importance of using stories to convey ideas is not new, but the challenge of finding the right stories and telling them in a compelling way remains ever present. Successfully meeting that challenge is especially key for emergent fields like dialogue and deliberation or deliberative democracy.

So, on the anniversary of Fred's death, looking at where we've come the last three years and where we're going, I find myself thinking a lot not only about his story and my part in it, but also about the importance of story telling to our mission, and to the more prominent role media might play in terms of our goal of raising the public conversation about the importance of critical and collaborative thinking.

July 24, 2007

Money Talk

moneybag.jpgMany Americans can recall various conversations around their family kitchen tables about finances. Probably most of such conversations involved the family's budget deficit. (Conversations about family surpluses were probably held at nice restaurants instead!)

A new conversation about finances - this time a national dialogue about the looming US budget deficit - is occurring throughout the country. The organization that is spearheading this initiative is called simply, Facing Up to the Nation's Finances.

In their press release they say:

The Facing Up to the Nation's Finances initiative aims to move the conversation about the federal budget challenge away from individual spending bills and discretionary spending and toward a larger discussion of how to address entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare that will explode as baby boomers retire in the coming years, the growing national debt (that continues to increase despite smaller deficits in recent years) and more closely matching expenditures to revenues.

To get more information about this dialogical initiative check out their website here.

And this might give you an idea of just how bad the family budget crisis is:

Nation's Finances
National Debt Clock

July 17, 2007

Three Questions to Help Make California a Healthier State

CA_map.jpgQ1: Will you be in California on Saturday, August 11th? Q2: Do you care about reforming California's health care system? Q3: Do you want to send a message to state leaders about what the priorities should be? OK, four questions really... And are you an experienced facilitator?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, then CaliforniaSpeaks is looking for you to become a volunteer table facilitator at one of eight sites that day - from San Diego to Humboldt County - for a "State-Wide Conversation".

Here's what volunteer facilitators will do at these conversations:

Facilitators will work with small groups of 6-10 people to deliberate about a series of questions pertaining to health care reform proposals. Via laptop computers and keypad polling devices, individual tables will share the results of their conversations with the hundreds of participants in the room and in other cities. Facilitators will be oriented to the program and are expected to have experience with small group face-to-face deliberation, comfort with diversity and difference of opinion. The time commitment entails attendance at a two-hour orientation prior to the event, as well as all day on August 11.

[Editor Note: A great resume builder, and a fabulous networking opportunity.]

Register to be a volunteer facilitator here.

Here is some information about the national organization, AmericaSpeaks:

CaliforniaSpeaks is a project of AmericaSpeaks, a non-partisan, non-profit organization with the mission of providing Americans with a greater voice in the most important decisions that affect their lives. Most recently, AmericaSpeaks convened thousands of New Orleanians to create their city's recovery plan. AmericaSpeaks has engaged more than 130,000 citizens across the country on such topics as shaping municipal budget priorities in Washington, D.C., creating regional plans for the greater Chicago and Cleveland regions, and developing rebuilding plans for the World Trade Center site in New York City.
Click here for more about AmericaSpeaks.


July 16, 2007

VOICES youth staff member and local community supporters profiled in Napa Register articles

OTM_logo.jpgMitch Findley, the first youth advocate hired by VOICES was profiled in a recent article in the Napa Register. He describes how his own experiences in foster care are informing his work with emancipating foster youth who are currently "aging out" of the system.

Details here.

The second article describes three Napa men (including Mitch Findley) closely associated with VOICES who have been given awards in recognition of their community involvement, especially in foster care. Greg Sutton was named 'Father of the Year". Dick Bull - also from Napa - received the "Male Role Model Award", and Mitch was named this year's "Youth Role Model".

Here is a link to the article.

Congratulations to all!

Whitman grantee, Alison Fine, Winner of 2007 Terry McAdam Book Award

Alliance_logo.jpgAlison Fine's recent book, Momentum, was Recently recognized by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.

Here is the first part of the news release:

Washington, DC - Alliance for Nonprofit Management named Momentum: Igniting Social Change by Allison H. Fine as the winner of the 2007 Terry McAdam Book Award. Fine's energetic and entrepreneurial approach to building ownership and influence for activities that create social benefit caught the both the minds and hearts of this year's jury in an engaging and provocative way.

"This year's pool of exceptional candidates reflects the growing and vibrant field of experts in nonprofit management," said Tangie Newborn, Alliance Executive Director and CEO. "The profound and cutting edge thinking arising from the nonprofit sector and authors like Allison, indicates the positive change emerging in our industry."

Alison is a writer and researcher supported by TWI through a fellowship with Demos.

Congratulations, Alison!

Whitman grantee, VOICES, begins new youth wellness program


The Napa Register has recently profiled CHANCES, the latest program offering at V.O.I.C.E.S., an innovative community in Napa, California that provides services to emancipated (and emancipating) foster youth. CHANCES is a much needed new wellness program targeting youth with special needs.

Check the article out here.