April 4, 2009

The New School @ Commonweal

Commonweal, a member of the Whitman Community, has for the past thirty plus years been at the forefront of the environmental health field, describing itself with remarkable understatement as:

a health and environmental research institute where for three decades we have worked at the interface of personal and planetary healing through focused initiatives in the environment, education, and health.

Over the past two years or so co-founder, Michael Lerner, has been hosting conversations/dialogues with thought leaders in these subjects from around the world. Fortunately, Michael has been generous enough to capture these conversations and post them as netcasts (mp3 files) easily accessible through Commonweal's website, or through iTunes.

Over the last several weeks I have been listening to a number of these netcasts.  Michael is in my experience the most effective interviewer on the internet today.  He brings a depth of knowledge to each encounter that is at times astonishing; yet he manages to keep the focus on his guests and their particular (and considerable) expertise.

I invite and encourage everyone associated with TWI to download these netcasts and listen to them at your leisure. (BTW I learned recently from Michael's interview with Peter Kingsley that our English word school comes from the Greek word, schole (σχολή), which means leisure.) 

Check out all that The New School has to offer - including links to its netcasts and iTunes - here.

July 2, 2008

The Empathy Switch


Recent empirical research from Taipai has validated anecdotal evidence that has long suggested that medical practitioners have a physiological capacity to disengage "natural" empathic responses to seeing others in discomfort, or in pain.  This kind of neurophysiological research leads to any number of questions about the interplay between thinking and feeling.

Here is one of the interesting research findings:

Physicians registered no increase in activity in the portion of the brain related to pain, whether they saw an image of someone stuck with a needle or touched with a Q-tip. However, the physicians, unlike the control group, did register an increase in activity in the frontal areas of the brain--the medial and superior prefrontal cortices and the right tempororparietal junction. That is the neural circuit that is related to emotion regulation and cognitive control.

The research was focused on acupuncture practitioners exclusively.  One question that emerges from this study is whether or not there is a similar, yet dysfunctional, capacity in sociopaths for instance to "turn off" empathy when they see others in pain.  And of course that would lead to the possibility that such a switch might be turned on.

Here is a longer discussion of the study along with appropriate journal links.

April 12, 2008

Academic Freedom is Alive and Well at Boalt Hall


The dean of Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley's School of Law), Christopher Edley, has published an open letter on the school's website in response to a number of appeals to fire John Yoo, a tenured professor, and the principal author of the now infamous "torture memos" (PDF).  These memos seemed designed to give legal cover to the Bush Administration to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" on suspected terrorists. A number of organizations and individuals, including The National Lawyers Guild, a human rights group, have criticized the university for keeping Professor Yoo as a faculty member.

The letter is a valuable read for a number of reasons, not the least of which being as a reminder of the purpose of tenure at a university.  All too often tenure has come to mean a kind of guarantee for permanent employment.  The dean reminds us otherwise.

Without tenure, professors in universities might tend to shy away from controversial issues.  They might "play it safe" and in so doing short change their students by denying them a rigorous airing of various issues that emerge from any meaningful dialogue in the classroom, or in the world for that matter.  And they may become reticent to research "controversial issues".

Here is a snippet:

It seems we do need regular reminders: These protections, while not absolute, are nearly so because they areessential to the excellence of American universities and the progress of ideas. Indeed, in Berkeley's classrooms and courtyards our community argues about the legal and moral issues with the intensity and discipline these crucial issues deserve. Those who prefer to avoid these arguments--be they left or right or lazy--will not find Berkeley or any other truly great law school a wholly congenial place to study. For that we make no apology.

The dean for his part is not at all reticent to take issue with, or at least raise serious questions about, Yoo's tortured legal wrangling that sought to place the President beyond the law in his role as Commander-in-Chief, even to the point of ignoring treaties and other international agreements that according to the Constitution are the supreme law of the land. He writes:

There are important questions about the content of the Yoo memoranda, about tortured definitions of "torture," about how he and his colleagues conceived their role as lawyers, and about whether and when the Commander in Chief is subject to domestic statutes and international law.

The dean is reluctant, no adamant against, initiating any proceedings to strip Yoo of his tenured faculty position. In doing so, Dean Edley has demonstrated the clear thinking, and determined leadership that apparently was so lacking in Yoo's memos. 

Academic freedom is still alive and well...and we suspect not just at Berkeley. Oh, and "Go Bears!"


Again here is a link to the letter.  

March 25, 2008

Fear and Anger Lead to Different Perceptions About Risk


Several of us at TWI been looking at how the interplay between thinking and feeling leads to effective (or ineffective) action.  For the most part we have looked at this anecdotally.  

Here is an interview with Harvard Kennedy School Professor, Jennifer Lerner. She is the director of the school's new Laboratory for Decision Science.  Professor Lerner studied this phenomenon in the lab, and then nationally after 9/11.

Some snippets: 

In our early laboratory studies, we found that experimentally induced fear and anger did indeed have these opposite effects on risk perception. However, this lab research was not a sufficient test of our hypothesis...

In the aftermath of September 11th, we realized that, tragically, we were presented with an opportunity to find out whether our lab research could predict how the country as a whole would react to the attacks and how U.S. citizens would perceive future risks of terrorism. We did a nationwide field experiment, the first of its kind....

The results mirrored those of our lab studies. Specifically, people who saw the anger-inducing video clip were subsequently more optimistic on a whole series of judgments about the future--their own future, the country's future, and the future of the world. In contrast, the people who saw the fear-inducing video clip were less optimistic about their own future, the country's future, and the world's future....

Again, the entire interview is HERE.

March 6, 2008

Be Afraid...Be Very, Very Afraid...

RiskCirclesSmall.gifSo, you are at the beach.  Which is more dangerous: the sand or the water? Or you have to decide which is safer for your child: riding in the school bus (without seat belts), or in the passenger seat next to you (with a seat belt and shoulder strap).

This recent article on risk assessment graphically illustrates how our emotions often cloud our reasoning when we are trying to make decisions about risk.  And what is the impact of all these disclosures about lead paint in toys, and cough medicine for children on our capacity to make effective decisions?

The author notes:
Perhaps the most insidious change is with the rare but spectacular risks. The sensational tales of brain-eaters and sand killers. Such stories have always existed, of course, but something is different now, and that's the Internet. Ubiquitous access combined with the bazaar potential publishers means the freakiest event can be shared by millions of people. Anyone can read about it, blog about it, link to it, forward it in e-mail, and post it as a Flash video, but there's no impetus for them to disclose the risk responsibly or reasonably. Their agenda may even call for them to twist the truth, make the risk seem more or less serious than it is.

Here's the paradox that rises from all of this: As an individual and consumer, I like disclosure. I want every corporate and civic entity I place trust in to be accountable. I want journalists and scientists to unearth the risks I'm not being told about. At the same time, while any one disclosure of a threat may be tolerable, or even desirable, the cumulative effect of so much disclosure is, frankly, freaking me out.

Interesting article that dovetails nicely with some of the work by Whitman grantee, Decision Education Foundation.

October 5, 2007

Playing the Learning Game

Thumbnail image for BPlogo04smst.gifLast year Lucy Bernholz from Blueprint Research & Design in San Francisco published a paper, Pedagogy, Playstations and the Public Interest, as part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative.

In the paper she addresses these three important questions:

1. How do digital media influence what and how youth learn, and what they should learn?

2. What, if any, public responsibility do we have to provide these media as tools for learning?

3. If there is such a public purpose, how can it best be met?

What may be most interesting is that she focused her research specifically on one aspect of digital media - video games and gamers. Here is a peak at some of her conclusions.

What skills games teach, how they might be used to build content expertise, and how to use them effectively in both formal and informal learning and work environments is a series of questions to which researchers are approaching answers. How games matter - framed as a more complex issue than merely their relationship (or not) to violence - is a conversation that we can move toward, both in the general public and among policymakers. Games that are both fun and educational - either in the creation of them and/or while playing them - may be successfully introduced into the marketplace, if certain deliberate investments are made.

There are both public and private interests at stake in this work...

A good read. Download the PDF from Blueprint's site.

September 24, 2007

New Video Site on the Web Shows Great Promise

Thumbnail image for fora-thumb-350x240.jpgWhat if videos were available on your desktop that captured some of the best minds and most creative thinking in the culture today? Speeches, presentations and seminars on politics, religion, and the arts, business, education, government, science and technology - the whole enchilada. Or perhaps on a topic of particular interest to The Whitman Institute - philanthropy - on their Giving Channel.

How about interviews from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, or Brookings, the Commonwealth Clubs and the Carnegie Endowment? And then how about tapes of leading authors on book tours around the country would also be great to have? And then maybe transcripts of the videos with word search capability so you don't have to watch the whole presentation to get to the most interesting bits.

Well of course after that pitch such a site is already up and running on a desktop near you. Just go to and browse around for a bit. But be careful, before you know it an hour will have gone by as you become engrossed in watching a conversation unfold that you wish you had been to in person.


September 6, 2007

TWI Grantee: Youth Dialogue Project Video

ThumbnailServer2.jpg The video, Conversations for Change, shows how theYouth Dialogue Project was a vital part of the RockRose Institute's World Forum 2007 held in San Francisco earlier this year. The youth dialogue component, partially underwritten by TWI, made it possible for youth from five different parts of the world - South Africa, New Zealand, Cyprus, Denmark and the US - to stay in dialogue with each other throughout the year in some very innovative ways. Then they came together in San Francisco to learn more in-depth dialogue skills and techniques, and to share their learning with other participants of the forum.

The video very effectively captures a model for intergenerational sustainability. It is 16 minutes in length, and well worth the time investment. Here's the link.

August 20, 2007

Internet Use and Gender Differences

Male_Female_Sym.jpgThe researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project have some useful data about how men and women use the internet differently. Not surprisingly they find that men "are using the internet more intensely than women [and] are still first out of the blocks in trying the latest technologies" while "women are catching up in overall use and are framing their online experience with a greater emphasis on deepening connections with people."

Some of their other conclusions are noteworthy as well:

Men reach farther and wider for topics, from getting financial information to political news.
Women are more likely to see the vast array of online information as a "glut" and to penetrate deeper into areas where they have the greatest interest, including health and religion.

Still, our data show that men and women are more similar than different in their online lives, starting with their common appreciation of the internet's strongest suit: efficiency...
Men and women also value the internet for a second strength, as a gateway to limitless vaults of information.

Looks like the virtual world is very much like the "real world" after all.

Here is a link to the report.

August 15, 2007

Critical Thinking and National Security

Thumbnail image for dune.jpg

"I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear..."

From Bene Gesserit prayer, The Litany Against Fear, in the novel, Dune.

When we are in a pleasant alpha-state carefully mulling over all the various possible occurrences that might, well might occur, we are usually capable of making fairly reasonable threat assessments.

If it is threatening to rain, for example, we might choose to take an umbrella.  We probably would leave the titanium umbrella safely stored in the umbrella stand accurately assessing that the likelihood of being struck by a meteor during our walk braving the elements was minimal.  Not zero.  But close enough to take our trusty old fabric one to keep us nice and dry.

When we put random events that generate a fear response - like terrorism - into the mix, though, remarkable things begin to happen. We begin to over estimate the likelihood of "big" disasters (like 9-11) and falsely minimize the likelihood of small ones (like getting hit by a bakery truck).

Zack Phillips at* has written a very clear and cogent piece about this entitled Security Theater.  Phillips references John Mueller, author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (Free Press, 2006):

For example, international terrorism annually causes the same number of deaths as drowning in bathtubs or bee stings. It would take a repeat of Sept. 11 every month of the year to make flying as dangerous as driving. Over a lifetime, the chance of being killed by a terrorist is about the same as being struck by a meteor.

Phillips also makes the case that the Department of Homeland Security is slowly getting up to speed in terms of measuring risk, rather than just responding to possible threats.

That's reassuring.  The biggest risk we have as citizens is to create a culture of fear that leads to the further reduction of our civil liberties while not really making any of us any safer.

Fear is the mind-killer.

* (h/t Bruce Schneier)

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

June 25, 2007

Fear and Decision-Making

pv-waves.jpgIt is almost axiomatic that the American people became more conservative after the attacks on 9-11. But just why is still being debated. One explanatory thread involves fear - but not just fear in general, rather particular fears.

A posting on Pacific Views has an interesting take on the role of fear in our decision-making processes.

A few snippets:

The conservatives generally, evidently including members of the top military brass, seem to be driven by a primitive fear not of attack or physical violence, but of humiliation. This is what makes them tick and it's the essence of what's gone wrong since 9/11.

And this from a speech by Aun Sang Suu Kyi:

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it... With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.

The posting also references an article in the February edition of Psychology Today that discusses several studies related to temperament in childhood and political orientation in adulthood.

The author of one study came to a noteworthy conclusion:

People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.

The Envelope Please...

knucklehead.jpgFred Whitman, the institute's founder, often spoke of creating a '"Knucklehead Award" to be presented to...well knuckleheads. If we were to give out such an award, perhaps no one would be more deserving right now than the respondents to the latest Newsweek poll about all things current. And if these respondents are at all representative, then heaven help us, as we present the award to the American people.

Here are just a few of the disturbing highlights:

77% -- Americans who did not know, or answered incorrectly, a question about which country has the largest number of Muslims (correct: Indonesia)

55% -- Interestingly, a majority of respondents knew the current price of a barrel of oil (correct: about $70)

54% -- Also somewhat surprising a majority of respondents knew that the human brain continues to produce neurons well past the age of 65.

43% -- American who knew that the majority of the 9-11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia

41% -- Americans who still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the attack on 9-11 (up from 36 points since the last survey)

22% -- Americans who think that the Amazon River is in Africa

Perhaps now is the time to begin shooting our TV sets before we all go Hi-Definition, and put our AM radios on mute. It is truly remarkable how much incorrect information seems to get into the bloodstream of the body politic, and how difficult it is to leech it out.

April 17, 2007

This From the Critical Thinking File

Last year, security expert, Bruce Schneier, published a piece in Wired News entitled Refuse to be Terrorized. It is still current today.

His thoughtful analysis very clearly lays out how much being terrorized is a choice, one possible outcome in the wake of terrorist acts. He cautions against over reaction, and shows how such over reactions actually play directly into the hands of the terrorists.

On a national and international policy level, he points out that:

Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we're terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists' actions, and increase the effects of their terror.

And in the final paragraph he suggests that we acknowledge that living involves taking risks, and living fully involved thinking clearly about managing those risks.

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn't make us any safer.
The article is a rich field of hyperlinks, each one leading to more interesting nuggets. Worth a read.

April 2, 2007

The Problem With the Internet and Social Change – Its the Tubes

Two postings (Part 1 here) and (Part 2 here) that may well serve as the beginning of some conversations with other activists. But if the postings are correct – and I suspect they are – those conversations may well have to take place in the old fashion way, that is, face to face.

I am still convinced that change is possible when two things occur: a small group of committed people show up a.) on time, and b.) stay on task.

“The Internet is not a truck”, or so said Senator Ted Stevens (alas the video is no longer available), but it may not be the best place for social change either.

March 31, 2007

Critical Thinking - Native American Style

"Only when the last tree has died; only when the last river been poisoned; only when the last fish is caught; only then will they realize that you cannot eat money." - Cree Indian Proverb

January 22, 2007

The Brain Chemistry of Altruism

Researchers at the Duke University Medical Center have published a study recently in an on-line edition of Nature Neuroscience.

Here are some quotes from the university’s press office:

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of 45 people while they either played a computer game or watched the computer play the game on its own. In both cases, successful playing of the game earned money for a charity of the study participant's choice.

According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it.

The scientists suggest that studying the brain systems that allow people to see the world as a series of meaningful interactions may ultimately help further understanding of disorders, such as autism or antisocial behavior, that are characterized by deficits in interpersonal interactions.

Interesting chicken and egg questions emerge from this. Are some of the "series of meaningful interactions" a result of brain chemistry, or does the way we "see the world" affect that chemistry?

Here here is a link to the press release. Here is the abstract.

BookTV’s excellent interview with Joel Fleishman, author of The Foundation: A Great American Secret

BookTV’s After Words has an excellent interview with Joel Fleishman, author of The Foundation: A Great American Secret - How Private Wealth is Changing the World

Here is the description of the program from the site:

Joel Fleishman is a professor of law and public policy at Duke University and is the director of the university's Foundation Research Program. Formerly the president of the Atlantic Philanthropic Service Company, a grantmaking foundation, Prof. Fleishman is currently a trustee of the John and Mary Markle Foundation and serves as chairman of the board of trustees of the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. He discusses his book, "The Foundation," with Elizabeth Boris, director of the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.

Click here for the video of the interview. Its about an hour long.

January 19, 2007

Another Way to Give: eBay to the Rescue

eBay’s "GivingWorks” may be a great way for some folks to donate to their favorite charities. Perhaps you have some gifts in storage that you have yet to regift. Or those sterling silver candlesticks that you received as a wedding gift. Now that the wedding (and maybe even the marriage) is long over, you can sell these items and give some or all of the proceeds to charity with just a few mouse clicks.

Here are all the details.

January 13, 2007

Gates Foundation Investment "Approach"

In a statement on the Gates Foundation homepage Cheryl Scott, the foundation’s chief operating officer, “explains the foundation's approach to investing its endowment.” The explanation seems to represent some backtracking from its pledge to review its investment strategies. It also appears that Mr. Gates is not an enthusiastic proponent of socially responsible investing.

As we mentioned in a previous entry, this is a very thorny issue – made even more complex because of this particular foundation’s impact on the whole sector.

Here are a few excerpts from the statement:

"Two recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have raised questions about whether we should spend time evaluating companies and shifting our investments away from the ones that get a low score on some ranking criteria. We want to make it clear why the foundation focuses on our grant making, rather than on such evaluations, and we want to explain Bill and Melinda’s investment philosophy."

"Bill and Melinda oversee the investment of the foundation’s endowment. In giving guidance to the investment managers, they have chosen not to get involved in ranking companies based upon factors such as their lending policies or environmental record. There are dozens of factors that could be considered, almost all of which are outside the foundation’s areas of expertise. The issues involved are quite complex...Which social and political issues should be on the list?"

"Many of the companies mentioned in the Los Angeles Times articles, such as Ford, Kraft, Fannie Mae, Nestle, and General Electric, do a lot of work that some people like, as well as work that some people do not like. Some activities might even be viewed positively by some people and negatively by others."

"Shareholder activism is one factor that can influence corporate behavior. The foundation is a passive investor because we want to stay focused on our core issues."

Ms Scott’s entire statement is here.

A personal note after the jump.

Continue reading "Gates Foundation Investment "Approach"" »

January 6, 2007

Is the Gates Foundation Stealing From the Future?

In the first part of a two-part investigative story in the LA Times, Dark cloud over good works of Gates Foundation, focusing on the investment strategies of the Gates Foundation raises some thorny issues about means and ends.

By comparing [Gates Foundation] investments with information from for-profit services that analyze corporate behavior for mutual funds, pension managers, government agencies and other foundations, The Times found that the Gates Foundation has holdings in many companies that have failed tests of social responsibility because of environmental lapses, employment discrimination, disregard for worker rights, or unethical practices.
Using the most recent data available, a Times tally showed that hundreds of Gates Foundation investments — totaling at least $8.7 billion, or 41% of its assets, not including U.S. and foreign government securities — have been in companies that countered the foundation's charitable goals or socially concerned philosophy.

For instance some of their investments in oil companies, especially in some European firms whose polluting facilities are exacerbating the very same health issues that the foundation is working so hard to alleviate.

The report also describes some similar tensions between the foundation’s mission to treat HIV and their decision to invest in drug companies that seem to make it more difficult for some infected individuals to get needed medication

This is "the dirty secret" of much large philanthropy, said Paul Hawken, an expert on socially beneficial investing who directs the Natural Capital Institute, an investment research group. "Foundations donate to groups trying to heal the future," Hawken said in an interview, "but with their investments, they steal from the future."

This is an important issue for philanthropy. It is much too simple just to throw stones at the 500-pound gorilla. There are systemic tensions and possible contradictions here that many foundations have already addressed, and many more need to.

January 3, 2007

An Experiment in Social Economics

We Want a Million Dollars is an almost interesting charity site. The hook is a scheme to provide a conduit for micro donations from as little as $1for an as yet undisclosed purpose. The donors will have some input in how the money is to be distributed.
Once you drill down into the details, the site is sponsored by a Christian charity, Feed the Children, in Oklahoma. No problem there. But…
When one drills down a bit further (farther?) turns out the site is a “wholly owned subsidiary” of FTC Transportation Inc. “a contract carrier offering truckload hauling throughout the continental United States…”
Shouldn’t take that much effort to learn who owns this experiment.

January 2, 2007

Offsetting America’s “Bad” PR With Philanthropy?

In a wide-ranging interview with PBS correspondent, Judy Woodruff, Bill and Melinda Gates share their thinking about giving. Since their foundation is increasingly seen as a trend setter in the philanthropic world, how they look at investing their foundation’s resources will impact many others.

One of Mr. Gates’ intriguing assertions is about how the US is seen in the world (especially in light of developments in Iraq) and how important it is for the aid to developing and underdeveloped countries to really impact long entrenched problems in those countries. He said:

Well, there's a real question of whether the U.S. will be viewed positively, in terms of, are we bringing health advances? Are we bringing in aid that's really effective? I think that's very important for the country. And right now, there's somewhat of a deficit of how we're perceived.

The video and audio feeds are here.

Teach Them to Fish…

In an interesting twist on that kernel of wisdom Heifer International is an organization dedicated to providing both livestock (and the training in how to care for them) to communities trying to recover from violence of varying kinds. Too late for this past holiday gift-giving season, but well worth remembering for next year.
This appears to be another important example of building sustainability into the donor process.

The Impact of Simplified Data

Well designed graphs have the potential to present complex data in a way that maintains clarity without sacrificing details. The Global Education Project has a site that seems to accomplish this. It shows the relationship between clean drinking water and childhood mortality. It also shows just how far apart the first and third worlds still are. For example it shows that:

More than five million people, most of them children, die every year from illnesses caused by drinking poor quality water.

Here is the link.

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…

Continue reading "Report on Gathering of "America's Most Generous"" »

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.

Continue reading "Free at Last: John Lennon’s Secret FBI File is Finally Open" »

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.