I’ve been reading a lot on Metafilter and various blogs about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 99 percenters, which has brought up an issue which has nagged me for a while; it is sometimes mindbogglingly difficult for me to reconcile my background and my beliefs with the sector I work in. Philanthropy inevitably involves the wealthy and powerful. I’m fortunate that the vast majority of the wealthy and powerful I work with are genuinely good people who have a burning desire to make the world a better place, although occasionally I do encounter an attitude that leaves me bemused or despairing.

One of the earliest commentaries on philanthropy I read when I first started working in the sector was the 1999 Allen Lane Lecture by Stephen Burkeman; it still makes fantastic reading because it zeroes in on the heart of some of the real issues that make people cynical about philanthropy, and creates some discomfort for those of us who believe in it and defend it.

Beside that, it seems obvious that Western society is in a particularly parlous state right now; that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few, and the massive and widening gulf between those with wealth and those without, is getting worse and leading to ange and disenfranchisement as well as – on both sides of the debate – wildly distorted worldviews. And that encouraging wealth generation via the stockmarket and the housing bubble – focusing on making money through money, rather than making money through providing services or making stuff people need – is a totally, ridiculously unsustainable way to run a society (and yes, that is a huge generalisation and the real situation is far more complicated than that – but when you have a large number of unoccupied luxury investment properties which nobody can afford to rent on the one hand, and a squeeze on housing because there aren’t enough affordable properties for sale or rent on the other, it’s not difficult to draw conclusions, hmmm?)

That’s why it’s been a pleasure of sorts to see the US-based Resource Generation, a bunch of young people with wealth who are doing stuff like advocating for tax reform, encouraging their family foundations to consider impact and program-related investing, funding grass roots social justice campaigns. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to scoff at, and it’ll be interesting to see whether it grows or burns out – but at the same time it is sending a message, and also doing some practical stuff (however small-scale).

Paraphrasing  a commentator on Metafilter, we’ll always have rich kids, but it’s better to have socially responsible rich kids, who care about not being exploitative, than a bunch of Paris Hiltons.

Philanthropy can’t do everything

I’ve just come back from doing grantseeker workshops in Canberra and Merimbula, and I’m off again this week for Sydney and Brisbane. I think it’s two months since I had a week where I haven’t hopped on a plane and spent a few nights away, apart from the week I was too sick. Normally I love workshops – the workshop itself, not the travel – but at the moment I’m hanging out for some workshop-free weeks.

I had someone at a recent workshop who really got me down. I find myself in a peculiar position whilst doing workshops – effectively trying to reveal “trade secrets” about how to access philanthropic funding, while at the same time often being put in the position of having to defend the philanthropic sector in general to angry disappointed grantseekers. Normally I quite enjoy it when I get someone a wee bit feisty, because it sparks things up a bit. This time, though, you could tell I’d lost my groove. The lady in question spoke up and said “I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say that most of the organisations here are volunteer run and we have a thousand other things to do, and we don’t have time to do what you’re suggesting. We don’t have time to research and call people and tell them what we’re doing and write submissions. We can’t do what you’re telling us we should do”.

As I said, I usually have an answer; but in this case my first instinct (although I didn’t follow it) was to say “Well, why are you here? And why am I here?” What I actually did was tell her that I understood her dilemma, that I share her frustration, but that the reality is that if you want some of this money, you need to step up and ask for it, because it will not just come to you no matter how acute the need.

Soon afterwards, she left. I don’t know if she left because she was upset with my answer, because she decided I had nothing to teach her, or because she just had something else to do. But it depressed me.

I’m used to people giving me fabulous feedback for workshops, and I’m also used to people getting upset. I’ve had people upset at my using real life examples which they thought were generalisations or assumed were me falling prey to stereotypes – even though I stated that these were real examples I had seen. I’ve had people from small towns upset because they thought I implied that small towns were full of uneducated rubes, and people from arts groups upset because they thought I implied that the arts is difficult to justify funding when I was actually pointing out how vital it is for the health of the community. I’ve had representatives from Indigenous groups upset because I did not mention specifically that foundations fund indigneous projects, and others upset that I did mention indigenous projects because they felt they were being singled out. All this has told me is that there are people out there who will get upset and feel something is aimed at them personally, or is a comment on their organisation, when it really isn’t. Also that I need to be more careful with my wording – most of the time I talk on the fly, rather than from prepared notes, and sometimes I don’t express things as clearly as I should. Most of the time I read the feedback, take it under my belt, and adjust or not as I feel it’s necessary.

The negativity of “It’s too hard, we don’t have time, we can’t try, what you’re telling us is no good” really got me down, though. Normally it wouldn’t, but it came towards the end of a long, long series of workshops in which I’ve felt I was forced to defend my sector and myself a lot. But the funny thing is that I relate to that lady in a way. When you think about it, philanthropy can’t do everything. So much is obvious. Philanthropic funding is a tiny, tiny band-aid on a gaping wound. You compare it to the huge swathing bandages of government funding, and it seems insignificant. Half a billion or so per annum, versus tens of billions from government. We’re too little and spread too thin. We can’t do everything.

On the other hand, we can make some small difference in a real life.

One of the inherent dilemmas in philanthropy is what you tackle and how – do you spread your funds widely, or focus on one area and throw everything into it? Do you fund broadly or deeply? Tackling the root causes of problems is popular in philanthropy right now; advocacy, education, trying to prevent problems before we start. I think what we’re not seeing enough of right now is the differences that we’ve made. I know that I’ve read project acquittals that talked about making a real difference to real people; people who’ve learned how to manage tiny budgets and save for treats, people who feel better about themselves and are able to go out and socialise now, people who get some respite from caring for a child with difficult intellectual and physical disabilities. But those were internal. They weren’t shared, and nobody gets to hear about them. Why not?

Maybe it’s just that we in philanthropy are the same as the lady at the workshop. We’re overworked. There aren’t enough of us to do everything, there isn’t enough money to do everything, and we don’t have time to read and share and learn because we’re all frantically flailing about trying to keep our heads above water. Just in a different way.

Or maybe the workshops – and associated prospect of my regular work piling up in the office – are getting me down, and I’ll feel better in a month’s time 🙂 Who can say?

GiveWell fallout blogs

For me a lot of the GiveWell/Metafilter controversy hit home because I believe passionately in philanthropy. I also believe passionately in online community. I participate in both. Philanthropy pays my bills, since I’m a paid philanthropoid, but I also believe in its potential. I believe in what it has achieved. And online community – which I’ve participated in, in one form or another, since the mid 1990s – has been one of the most important and intellectually enriching factors in my life.

The Rise and Fall of Givewell at the Chronicle of Philanthropy – a really good post from Uncivil Society’s Jeff Trexler, who I feel is one of the nonprofit commentators who best “gets” the crux of the matter and understands the nature of online community. Jeff’s other posts on the GiveWell crisis are also good: check out my two favourites, Givewell Revisited and Hubris 2.0: Five Lessons of the Givewell Metafilter controversy. Uncivil Society is a great blog in its own right.

Charities Urged to Set Online Guidelines following One Group’s Lapse – this is a premium article available only to Chronicle subscribers, alas, but there’s a nice excerpt in Jeff Trexler’s blog above.

The faceplant that rocked philanthropy – good summary from Doing Giving Differently, which looks like an interesting blog which I’ll check out in more detail later.

N00bs in Philanthropy – a great piece from Allan Benamer at Non-Profit Tech Blog.

AstroTurfing burns. Be authentic or else – from Katya’s Non-Profit Marketing Blog

Nonprofits should avoid astroturf too – from Issue Dynamics Inc. Nice and blunt – “It’s slimy, it’s pointless and it tends to backfire”.

What do I think about all this? That’s a longer post, coming up on my day off. I just wanted to link some of my favourite reading.

The ongoing post at MetaTalk is full of useful stuff as well, but there’s a lot of general blather there as well. There are some excellent comments made by Miko, in particular, as well as MeFi mods Jessamyn and Cortex. I’m going to quote two comments which have summed up my simultaneous frustration and delight about how this controversy has made my worlds of philanthropy/online community collide:

1. “I can’t cite any of this stuff, because no one will admit to it on the record. But I’ve had plenty of conversations with funders and recipients, and I’ve been on the (non) receiving end of this. I’ve been living it… The entire philanthropic “industry” has its head up its ass.” (quotee: nax)

2. “Metrics from one type of nonprofit (the symphony) will never be applicable to another type (the soup kitchen, or the fund to buy track shoes for poor kids, or the equine-therapy program). There is no way to compare apples to apples when you have apples, kumquats, plums, kiwis, bananas, durians, and all sorts of other fruit lined up side by side. All nonprofits are different, and differently funded. Each organization completes a constellation of reports to a constellation of organizations each year, but those organizations are all different, funded you for different reasons, and demand different outputs.

The GiveWell folks were looking for simple, comparable data. But because our funding sources are so diverse and divergent, simple comparable data does not exist. Which frustrates them no end, because they are unable to determine something they vaguely define as ‘impact.’ So they are asking nonprofits to provide them simple comparable data by dangling a carrot in the form of a small-impact grant. This is not different than what any other grantmaker does, with the exception that they are planning to share their documentation. The bigger question this raises for me is: where should the burden of transparency really fall?” (quotee: Miko)

More to come, eventually.

I are serious cat. This is serious blog.

Why a serious blog? Couple of reasons.

1. I really want to have something where I can share links and interesting stories, etc, as well as travel details, with colleagues and family. Most of the other social networking sites I have are full of rants and rambles and silly games and other stuff which is not all for public consumption.

2. I’ve been thinking about online participation, aliases and community. It was sparked off for me by the Givewell – Metafilter incident. I’m a MeFite and also a philanthropoid and a longtime participant in online communities, and all those worlds were colliding and hitting sparks off each other (and insulting each other heartily in the process). I had a lot to say (still do) and nowhere to say all of it.

I don’t expect to get “a readership” with this. No Google AdWords or anything like that here. I don’t have pretensions to be the most authoritative or best blogger. So relax. I’m going to 🙂