Good lines

by Henry on May 19, 2012

From Curtis White’s article on philanthropy in the current issue of Jacobin:

bq. In the United States, everyone may enjoy freedom of speech so long as it doesn’t matter. For those who would like what they say to matter, freedom of speech is very expensive.

It goes on:

bq. It is for this reason that organizations with a strong sense of public mission but not much money are dependent on the “blonde child of capitalism,” private philanthropy. This dependence is true for both conservative and progressive causes, but there is an important difference in the philanthropic culture that they appeal to. The conservative foundations happily fund “big picture” work. … On the other hand, progressive foundations may understand that the organizations they fund have visions, but it’s not the vision that they will give money to. … If there is need for a vision, the foundation itself will provide this. Unfortunately, according to one source, the foundation’s vision too often amounts to this: “If we had enough money, and access to enough markets, and enough technological expertise, we could solve all the problems.”

Have I mentioned recently how happily superannuated “Jacobin magazine”: makes me feel? You should all be subscribing.



Witt 05.19.12 at 3:22 am

An additional complicating factor is the structural (and in some cases I think willful) ignorance of foundation funders. The fundamental difference between for-profit and nonprofit businesses* is that the basic economic model is different.

In a for-profit business, your customers are the people who pay you money and purchase your product. If they like it, they buy more, and you make more money.

In the nonprofit world, the people who pay you money are often foundations, but the “customers” you’re serving are either direct-service recipients, or a broader and often ambiguously defined public. Whether or not you get more money is only very loosely — if at all — connected with whether the service recipients/general public are satisfied with the work you are doing.

Hence, you wind up with situations whether funders pay for things that nobody wants (the “eat your broccoli” syndrome) or funders refuse to pay for things that many people want. Either way, the feedback loop is radically at odds with the capitalistic paradigm that many people — including nonprofit staff and funders alike! — are unconsciously operating from.

*especially direct services nonprofits, but also advocacy and policy organizations


Alison P 05.19.12 at 7:01 am

I know what you mean, Witt, but our direct-service charity was advised by some MBA types and we cost up our benefits to the service user in quite a detailed way when we make funding bids. For instance if we remove the need for one ambulance call-out, that saves the public purse £x and we estimate we prevent y call-outs a month etc. This is very far from why we are doing it, but by quantifying it in that way, we make our bids to foundations. I’m not really contradicting anything Henry or Witt has said, but I think there’s a two-step that charities do, translating what they want to do (for example helping people on the street) into quantified monetary benefits (less health spend and fewer arrests). And this is not an unconscious adoption of capitalist models, but a deliberate effort to force ourselves to present our case in a capitalist way (as I say, asking some MBA types to teach us how to do it) which by the way seems to work and gets the money coming in.

Big picture and advocacy work is probably part of this package which we have costed up. Sorry, not sure if this is a coherent contribution.


John Holbo 05.19.12 at 7:47 am

Here’s a link to the “Philanthropy” piece:


AWS 05.19.12 at 11:48 am

Is that entire third paragraph, after “It goes on:” supposed to be a block quote from the article?


Metatone 05.19.12 at 12:13 pm

The article reminds me of the recent conflagration over Nick Hanauer’s TED talk.
While the apparent sin was not being “bipartisan” it seems the real sin was to tell the TED live audience that they aren’t as important as they think they are.

On the subject of philanthropy, lots of things come to mind.

1) The left of centre in the USA is still living with and through political infrastructure of the 1960s in lots of ways. A lot of the power of the right is that their funders have more modern views on how you influence discourse.

2) Foundations are mostly just rich people represented as institutions for tax and longevity reasons. So they are bad places to look for funding of things that those rich people are not interested in. One thing those rich people are rarely interested in is being embarrassed in front of their peers by the actions of some ad campaign their foundation funded.

3) This then is where the rubber hits the road on the disillusionment of Gen Y. You might have thought you could be a “social entrepreneur” and do some good at work, in part using foundation money. Reality is they’ll only pay you to do what they want, not to be entrepreneurial.


AWS 05.19.12 at 12:50 pm

Even supposedly “non-partisan” foundations can fall prey to attacks from those who disagree with the funded non-profits, as witnessed by Planned Parenthood this year.


Henry 05.19.12 at 1:29 pm

bq. Is that entire third paragraph, after “It goes on:” supposed to be a block quote from the article?

It is, and now the formatting should reflect that …


Witt 05.19.12 at 1:31 pm

Alison P, I don’t disagree with any of that. Indeed, in my nonprofit work over the past 12+ years, we’ve done exactly that.

The challenge is that even when metrics and outcomes are being presented, they still have to be compelling to an audience other than the service recipients. A funder might be very interested in a program that provides afterschool tutoring for children, but totally uninterested in an program serving adjudicated youth — even if you can make a powerful economic argument that the incremental financial and social benefit of diverting a few 10- or 12-year-olds from the juvenile justice/adult prison system is much higher than the boost of helping an equal number of similar-aged students to do a bit better in school.

Or, to take another example, the cost to individuals and society of under-informed, low-income teenagers and young adults signing up for high-debt, low-reward trade or technical schools is significant — but no foundation, as far as I am aware, has shown any interest in funding a public awareness campaign about the appropriate questions to ask before enrolling.

(NYC is running an exceptionally good campaign called “Know Before You Enroll,” but other states have shied away due in part to the significant lobbying influence of proprietary schools.)


Emily 05.19.12 at 2:42 pm

I’m not American, and I’m not sure such funding is the same down under, but the ideas kind of remind me of Franzen’s Freedom…


Witt 05.19.12 at 3:24 pm

Holbo, thanks very much for the link to the full essay in 3. It’s an interesting piece, although to my mind rather incoherent in places. The author touches on the fact that many/most foundations treat the 5% threshold (percentage of assets that must be distributed each year) set by Congress as a ceiling rather than a floor, but he doesn’t focus on issues that are of some debate in the field — e.g. whether foundations should be forced to “sunset” (go out of business) after a set period of time.

He also seems to attribute more rationality, internal consistency, and self-understanding to foundation officials that I have generally observed to exist. For instance, while this is accurate:

One of the most maddening experiences for those who seek the support of private philanthropy is the lack of transparency, that is, the difficulty of knowing why the foundation makes the decisions it makes. In fact, most foundations treat this “lack” as a kind of privilege: our reasons are our own. One of the devices employed by philanthropy for maintaining this privilege is what I call the mystique of the foundation’s Secret Wisdom.

in the next paragraph, he seems unfamiliar with fairly widely-used definitions: So you want to ask, “What do you know that I don’t know? What do you know that makes your decisions wise?” The closest thing to an answer you’re likely to hear is something like this: “The staff met with some Board members last night to discuss your proposal, and we’re very interested in it. But we don’t think that you have the capacity [a useful bit of jargon that means essentially that the organization should give up on what it thought it was going to do] to achieve these goals. So what we’d suggest is that you define a smaller project that will allow you to test your abilities [read: allow you to do something that you have little interest in but that will suck up valuable staff time like a Hoover].

I don’t doubt that examples of the kind he’s citing actually occur, but in my experience, “capacity” actually has a pretty clear definition.

When foundations say “We don’t think you have the capacity, we’d like to see you start with a smaller project,” what they often mean is “You say you can ramp up and serve 500 people in 7 locations next year, but since you’re only serving 30 people right now we think that’s unrealistic and would rather give you less money to demonstrate that you can actually serve 200 people in 3 locations next year.”

Similarly, while this is spot on:

The uncertainty and opacity of this reality leave organizations frustrated and bewildered. No matter how many meetings are held, no matter how carefully the questions are posed, the fundamentals remain maddeningly elusive. It is as if grant seekers were Kafka’s K in The Trial searching absurdly for someone to tell him exactly what crime he has committed.

the next paragraph is to my mind a serious misdiagnosis:

The foundation has money but it has no organic idea (no idea that is native to its being) what to do with it. Perhaps the foundation really would like to help someone somewhere, but it can’t quite bring itself simply to trust the organizations it funds and set them free to do their work, in part because it fears that once freed this intelligence and competence might produce results not in keeping with the interests of the foundation.

The issue isn’t that the foundation has “no organic idea,” it’s that the maddeningly opaque conversations described in the paragraph prior are the totally natural outcome of a system that wants to think of itself as fair, rational and objective above all else.

It’s not unlikely Jay Rosen’s contention that journalists want to be seen as “savvy” above all else. Funders are human. They want to think of themselves as rational actors that are objectively weighing criteria and selecting the “best” possible grantee.

Like any humans, they are often blind to the ways in which their availability biases, petty interpersonal preferences, careless stereotypes, and wrongheaded ideas about how the world functions affect their decisionmaking.

Unlike most humans, though, they have enough money that it distorts other people’s ability to call them on those blind spots.


Witt 05.19.12 at 3:25 pm

Whoops, this part was supposed to be italicized:

So you want to ask, “What do you know that I don’t know? What do you know that makes your decisions wise?” The closest thing to an answer you’re likely to hear is something like this: “The staff met with some Board members last night to discuss your proposal, and we’re very interested in it. But we don’t think that you have the capacity [a useful bit of jargon that means essentially that the organization should give up on what it thought it was going to do] to achieve these goals. So what we’d suggest is that you define a smaller project that will allow you to test your abilities [read: allow you to do something that you have little interest in but that will suck up valuable staff time like a Hoover].


William Timberman 05.19.12 at 4:02 pm

I can’t help thinking God bless the child that’s got his own. No doubt this is as unfair a thought as any which disparages this or that good faith effort to make the world better, but there’s some truth in it nevertheless.

Bill Gates has ideas about education and 40 billion dollars. I think his ideas are nonsense, maybe even destructive, but I only have a couple of hundred bucks to help fund ideas that I consider better. Whose ideas do you suppose will be implemented? No matter how you turn it, this isn’t an unalloyed good for society. It may be better than a Bill Gates Sports Arena which seats 50,000 at the prestigious university of his choice, but given what I read about his ideas, it’s not better by much.

So what, right? It’s his money. Sort of, anyway….


Data Tutashkhia 05.19.12 at 4:12 pm

The piece seems painfully trivial. Of course the official philanthropic organizations, as well as their upper- and middle-class supporters, are only interested in maintaining the system, not changing it. As manifested by the fact that they are perfectly legal. The other kind, like the animal liberation front and such, are called ‘terrorist organizations’. What’s the revelation here?


Henry 05.19.12 at 5:45 pm

Witt – but the lines I quoted are excellent I think, and even if there bits of the argument that don’t ring true, the sentiment that left-of-center funders tend not to like proposals that are aimed at rocking the boat seems entirely correct to me. This piece by Mark Schmitt and Steve Teles may be more interesting on the specifics – it builds on Teles’ work on how the conservative foundations’ funding arrangements work, and on Schmitt’s experience on both sides of the question (as a funder at OSI; as a fund-seeker at New America, the _Prospect_ and other places).


Henry 05.19.12 at 5:47 pm

Data – you are either being very silly, or extremely tendentious. If you don’t see a _lot_ of political space between the kinds of stuff that Ford funds, and the Animal Liberation Front, then you really aren’t looking very hard, are you …


geo 05.19.12 at 5:50 pm

“Superannuated”? But, Henry, you’re a spring chicken. How are us boomers supposed to feel?


Witt 05.19.12 at 6:06 pm

The piece linked in 14 is indeed excellent. There are a number of very effective points, including this one:

Advocacy efforts almost always involve a fight against a strategic adversary capable of adapting over time. Practices that once worked beautifully get stale once the losers figure out how to adopt the winner’s strategy or discover an effective counterstrategy. There was a time when bombarding the Congress with phone calls was an effective way of exercising influence by indicating mass support, but it became nearly useless once everyone did it. Strategic litigation was a genuinely disruptive innovation in the 1970s but declined in impact as its targets developed their own organizations and figured out ways to push back against public interest lawyers. The declining returns on political tactics that are a result of the repeated, competitive nature of advocacy makes it almost impossible to evaluate advocacy strategies against the metric of best practices.

I wonder if another part of what is going on might be that left-leaning foundations are by definition more likely to employ technocratic/procedural liberals who don’t actually support pure advocacy work. Certainly my experience has been that there is enormous pressure within many foundations to be nice — that is, nonconfrontational — even in cases where that undercuts your own supposed policy goals.


Tim Wilkinson 05.19.12 at 10:17 pm

Shorter part 1 : Beggars can’t be choosers, and he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Key clause: Like the system of patronage that served the arts and charity from the Renaissance through the 18th century.

Not just like, though: it is the same thing. The odd thing about part 1 is while to leftists it is trite, for all the verbiage it does little to convince anyone else. I wonder if the excess of euphemism and circumlocution is down to White’s initial misgivings, and was never corrected once the commissioning organisation found it still too rich for its blood. If this were intended to press home an unwelcome message to those who are currently wilfully blind enough not to have grasped the simple point already, it should have been far more forensic, and specifically have related a good deal more testimony to drive home the point.

Shorter part 2: Capitalism accepts the idea that it will have enemies, but if it must have enemies it will create them itself and in its own image. In fact, it needs them in the same way that it needs the federal government: as a limit on its own natural destructiveness.

Key line: Capitalism accepts the idea that it will have enemies, but if it must have enemies it will create them itself and in its own image. In fact, it needs them in the same way that it needs the federal government: as a limit on its own natural destructiveness.

Part 2 exclusively addresses environmentalism, which is an easy, and atypical, case. When White says no one understands the importance of environmentalism better than the stockholders of BP. They will be very happy for environmental groups to put pressure on the oil industry to provide more safety for deep sea drilling, he may be right up to a point, though much of this stuff is surely pure PR.

But insofar as there is a point there, it needs to be clarified why BP would need a super-ego. And that is because it serves the standard oligoplistic need for strong limits on competition. And setting up tame but even-handed industry regulators is just one way in which capital does this: others include ‘professional’ and industry associations such as the British Bankers’ Assocation, as well as the good old-fashioned smoky room and the 18-hole chat.

There are other functions for capitalists’ charitable foundations, of course: as straight tax dodges, for example. But the idea that they help it to curb its own excesses as a form of self-protection has yet a further application beyond cartel-enforcement. I have a specific example.

EDF energy funds and runs a trust (runs a trust? oh yes) which is intended to assist people in hardship to pay their bills. If someone is unable to pay, and certainly as in the case I know of, if they are being rather obdurate about it and suggesting they hadn’t been properly billed and had acted (key phrase) in reliance on incorrect or absent bills, then EDF will grant them access to a form to apply to this charitable ‘trust’ for money to be paid direct from the trust to the firm in settlement of all or part of the outstanding bill. In the case I’m familiar with, the supplicant filled in only the bare details and referred the trust to the person in the firm who had suggested applying. The money was paid, apparently, and the customer’s supposed debt supposedly extinguished.

So this functioned as a form of price discrimination – those who really can’t pay, in particular anyway if they show signs of having a grievance and being vocal about it, will in the end be allowed not to pay, but this fact is kept rather quiet, disguised as charity, and carried out through a supposedly independent third party ‘trust’ which no doubt has all kinds of fiscal and accounting advantages. Prices in general don’t have to be cut, bad debt will be kept off the books, and complaints will never be made and registered with the ombudsman, nor awkward sob-stories be picked up by the press, MPs written to etc., nor any liability or fault be admitted, even indirectly (and extra-legally) by the fact of settling. And of course the whole process remains de facto entirely within the discretion of the firm – self-regulation at its best. For all I know, the trustees were – if a bit shaky about the law of trusts (who isn’t?), and no doubt appointed on the basis of having exceptionally safe hands – quite sincere about wanting to help people (well, EDF customers) with their utility bills.

Similar to the way banks used to deal with customer complaints about their swingeing charges for ‘unauthorised’ overdrafts – at least when they issued from from articulate complainants who couldn’t be painted as feckless scum. They would simply wiave the fees on challenge, at their own discretion. It worked for a long while, but that’s another and even longer story, and one I’ve recited here before.


Michael E Sullivan 05.20.12 at 2:10 pm

This is exactly the awful contradiction that my wife experienced working in the non-profit world as the director of a domestic violence shelter. Funders are mostly the state, or rich people, or organizations who agglomerate the philanthopy of mostly rich and middle class people (such as the United Way or Church organizations). When it comes to domestic violence, those folks are very willing to fund to help a fantasy picture of what women in domestic violence shelters look like — a typical middle class woman fleeing an abusive husband in the middle of the night, and who has no other problems.

What you find out when you work in domestic violence services is that in the real world, women who have no other problems (such as poverty, total lack of family/friend support, drug addiction/recovery, criminal history, mental health issues, etc.) typically don’t need shelters. Women with real support systems and no other problems are less likely to be with abusers, and when they find themselves there and ready to leave, are more likely to have ways to get away from them without requiring shelter.

So the population of dv shelters contains a lot of people with addiction problems, mental health problems, low/no job skills, poor social skills, etc. Generally similar to the population in homeless shelters, and in need of many of the same kinds of services. But funders of domestic violence shelters are funding the fantasy together middle/working class woman who just happened to experience that perfect storm and need a few weeks to get things together, or is running from not a typical abuser/controller, but some kind of pyschopathic killer. So they insist on levels of secrecy that make it difficult for people at shelters to do things like find jobs, or apartments when the time comes to leave. They don’t have funding for things like 24/7 staffing, or drug recovery counseling, or mental health services, job training, life skills training, each of which is needed by significant portions of the population of mostly poor women in dv shelters.


Evil von Scarry 05.23.12 at 4:56 pm

Why is it that industrialists seem to think they have the need to change the education system? Gates is just another modern day Carnegie or Rockefeller. Ever wonder where the work place standard of 2 -15 minute breaks (ie recess) and the “lunchbreak” or “homework” for those who
want to advance came from? The idea of going to “the office” when your in trouble or getting an award for being a good sheep. The school bell summoning worker bee’s back to task? This is why Bill wants this, he want’s to control the new indoctrination also known as public education.

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