Not everything that can be Counted Counts, and Not Everything that Counts can be Counted: Notes from ARNOVA, 2013


I left Hartford, CT on Saturday after three grueling days of intense thinking and engagement at the 42nd Annual Association for Research on Non-profit and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), the Mecca for nonprofit theorists and practitioners. For over four decades the organization has been the meeting ground for anyone interested and engaged in this sphere. The three days of discussions, debates over coffee, lunch and dinners and intense panel discussions brought forth one key fact for me – data has finally trumped values as the epistemic framework for nonprofit management. And I am not convinced this is an entirely positive thing. Let me explain.

Photo Credit :  Sabith Khan
Photo Credit : Sabith Khan

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Of the various sessions I participated in, and also chaired- I ended up chairing two sessions, one  on Understanding and Measuring Capacity in the Nonprofit Sector and the other being The Relationship between Performance Management and Nonprofit Outcomes. One of the discussants in the first panel, Celopatra Grizzle, from Rugters University pointed out that donors don’t care about efficiency of the projects/ organizations that they donate to, but rather its legitimacy. This goes against the utility maximization theory that is used by Economists and those in the profession, who are interested in measuring the effectiveness of philanthropy. Chongmyoung Lee discussed his project of measuring outcomes in nonprofits and the perennial challenge of doing the same.

Lilly School of Philanthropy, an institution that is at the forefront of research in the field of Philanthropy was extremely well represented. Almost its entire research team was here and having worked with them this summer, I was personally excited to see that they turned out in great numbers. Dr.Amy Thayer presented her research on philanthropy and meaning making practices in education among K-12 students. One of the findings of this pilot study is that participation in philanthropic education programs enhances emotional maturity and also participation in these programs is linked to grants being available. This is not surprising, given similar results from a longer program, that has been ongoing at Center for Arab American Philanthropy, part of ACCESS, in Dearbon, MI; targeting a similar demographic among Arab American Youth, through the Teen Grant Making Initiative ( TGI).

Yuan Tian, a doctoral student at the Lilly School of Philanthropy presented her research on International Giving in the High Net Worth givers category. This has been compiled and is documented on an on-going basis through the Million Dollar List, a public list of gifts over a Million dollars made by individuals, in the U.S. She pointed out several interesting findings from the list, showcasing trends in giving and also some unique insights including that the highest donations to the international sector went to Healthcare, Education and Arts. These insights are helpful for both planners and those working in the international affairs sector.

Among the sessions dealing with values, religion and faith – I managed to attend two. One was a meeting of the Values in Philanthropy group, that sought to understand and research the “dark” and the “light” side of Philanthropy, including the activities that are not often brought up , i.e, funding of illegal or anti-social activities through the institution of philanthropy. It could be either the Church support of the Irish Republican Army or support by certain faith based groups in helping Al-Qaeda. The group has decided to further this approach and is seeking inputs on these issues, as they plan the agenda for the upcoming year. I was part of this lively discussion and contributed a few insights.

Finally, I managed to hear Shariq Siddiqui, the Executive Director of ARNOVA and Dr. Mounah Abdel Samad of San Diego State University, who spoke about Civil Society Legislative Advocacy in Morocco, based on his survey of legislators in the country and how much they trusted civil society organizations. Siddiqui spoke about his research on the American Muslim giving experience and this was captured through the example of Islamic Society of North America, the national representative body of American Muslims.

Overall, this was a vibrant atmosphere, and the conference itself addressed philanthropy, voluntary action from various perspectives – both quantitative and qualitative. There were researchers focusing on all sorts of issues – domestic, international, big and small. But one could not miss the heavy focus on quantitative methods and the frameworks leaning towards this mode of enquiry. Amidst the hundreds of presentations, a handful were purely qualitative studies and perhaps this is an indication that researchers are not asking the often harder questions of ‘why’ certain things are the way they are, and are focusing more ‘what’ and ‘how’, that are more easily answered through regression models and quantitative analysis.


In God’s Land: Triumph of faith over facts

Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s In God’s Land is a dystopian tale set in Tamilnadu, South India. While it brings together history, discourse of development and progress, there is an underlying tale that is not visible, even after watching the film in its entirety. This is one of the “land grab mafia” involving the local Vanamamalai Temple authorities, the Tamilnadu government and of course, the Non-resident Indian investors in the U.S. I watched this movie last week, at Virginia Tech, where Kumar came over to screen his film and talk to students and faculty who were interested in the ideas that he had to share, through this film. The film is based on the village near Tirunalveli district and is a tale that made me question the untold stories of ‘development’ that one reads or often, does not read about.

Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech
Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech

The dominant narrative in In God’s Land is about the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that is due to come up in the village, that’d occupy over 2500 acres of land. “I was passing by this area, when I saw this sign for the SEZ, and was intrigued. That is what started the project,” pointed out Kumar, about the serendipitous way in which he came across the project and hence his film. The villagers in the film are active participants and the story is narrated partly from their perspective, with Tamil as the language of the film. The film is very visual, and the sound of the local speaking in local Tamil dialect brought back memories of my own friends, who speak with a tone and speed that is all too befuddling, even for a Kannada speaker, such as me. The villagers also seem to be ones with agency and the will to defy the local authorities, mainly the temple chiefs who seemed to have appropriated the village property. A court case against the temple brought by the villagers decades ago is still pending, but it seems to have created animosity and also downright ‘oppression’ of villagers by the temple authorities. One of the village chief speaks of being physically harassed and beaten up for standing up against the temple’s illegitimate takeover. To complicate matters further, the temple authorities sell the land to the government, to develop the SEZ and this creates a situation, where their arable agricultural land is classified as “dry land,” up for “development.” And this is just one of the several absurdities in this situation that the film showcases.


The tensions between the villagers and temple are not only about the project, but involve the caste-dynamics, going back to centuries, involving economic issues of patronage and landless agricultural farmers. The villagers invent a new god, Sudalai Swami to cater to their spiritual needs, once they are barred from entering the big temple. They find creative ways to battle this imbalance of power. While the local priest couches his move to sell the village land in the notion of “doing good for the community and their welfare,” it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine how dispossessing hundreds of families and taking away their livelihood would constitute “welfare.” The landless farmers, who for decades have paid rent to farm on this land, are not technically without this piece of land, that sustains not only their lives, but also gives them a sense of purpose and agency- as the film demonstrates. There is a deep-rooted love of the land among these people, one that defies rationality. This seemed to be an attachment that is not only emotional, but partly mythical, given the strange way in which the land was originally handed over to them by the local ruler – the Nizam, more than a hundred years ago.

Finally, this film is also a call for examining the politics of development, as it stands today. As Arturo Escobar, the Colombian Post-development scholar and thinker would say, we need “undevelopment” rather than development, if we are to look out for the interests of these people. If I am sounding too Marxist for your taste, I suggest watching the film and also reading a bit of Escobar. A good reality check for those who are enamored of the development discourse, and see it as a totally necessary and not contingent fact of life. While not aiming to be an “activist” film, the film does raise some important questions that everyone involved should think through. While development does call for certain sacrifices on everyone’s part, the bigger question that one should ask, and I think Kumar is hinting at this is: Do we need this sort of development at all? And finally, who gains and who loses? Is all of it worth it, in the end?

The resilience of the landless farmers is startling, so is their humanity. Their collective will and character seems to shine through in the film, which, in an unexpected way makes them the heroes of the film. Between giving up hope, fighting the system and keeping their faith in a god they invented, the film shows them for what they are: Human, all too human.

Are the Saudis getting something right?

Are the Saudis getting something right, in terms of their foreign policy, both in the MENA region and around the world? Or is it all a big mess, much like American foreign policy in the region? In a recent article in the TIME magazine, Farid Zakaria[i] pointed out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is a disaster and that it is pouring money down the drain, while alienating itself from the global order. The kingdom’s  rejection of the Security Council seat is the most egregious example of this phenomenon. There is however, one area where the Saudi government is acting in good faith and putting its money for a cause that may actually drastically change the intellectual and foreign policy landscape of the country in the decades, if not years to come – higher education. The billions of dollars that King Abdullah has allocated to higher education may hold the prospects for a more liberal, open and vibrant in the years to come.

Pic courtesy:
Pic courtesy:

Just taking a cursory look at the number of Saudi students in American schools tells us that something profound is taking place. Post 911, the number of Saudi students in the U.S. plummeted, for reasons related directly to the tense relations that characterized the countries and people, immediately following the incident. As this Wall Street Journal article[ii] points out, in 2004, there were just 1000 Saudi students in the U.S. In 2011, there was a huge jump to over 66,000 students. This also corresponded with the increased interest and lobbying at the highest level from the Saudis to help their citizens understand the rest of the world and vice versa. On a macro-level, the overall literacy rate was 5% in 1950s and has climbed upto over 79%, since then. This is part of the strategic plan put forth by King Abdullah, who is concerned with the potentially declining oil revenues and also an increasingly networked world, where Saudis have to find their place – once the oil runs out.

I believe that this is visionary thinking and rightly puts money where the mouth is. With a greater number of students coming to the U.S., learning, interacting and sharing their experiences and lives with others, they will create a better understanding between the two countries. Once they return- and many scholarships are tied in such a way that they eventually return to Saudi Arabia- they will bring back this understanding and nuance in dealing with the rest of the world with them. I believe that this new generation of people will be the defining factor in how Saudi of tomorrow will shape up – either as a continuation of the current order, or a radical shift to a new and more open system, one that is open to many more ideas and versions of Islam and ways of life, than it is currently.

There are indicators that this is already occurring. The women contingent’s participation in Olympics in 2012 and this year’s activism to end the ban on women driving cars are both instances of reform and change that are taking place in the kingdom. Things are changing, albeit slowly. Citizens movements, and work from activists who are asking for greater integration into the global human rights discourse and activism are changing the landscape of legal reform. Saudi based humanitarian aid organizations are cooperating and working alongside international aid agencies and both the entities are learning to appreciate the different worldviews that they approach their work.

As Zakaria points out, and quite rightly, the kingdom’s vast oil wealth has been used to underwrite the promotion of Wahhabism, a rather orthodox and fundamentalist version of Islam that is not entirely acceptable to most countries in the Muslim world. While this brand of Islam has been promoted as the “mainstream” Islam by the ruling elites in Saudi, one must be aware that the diversity within the house of Islam is as much as the diversity of human races and religions – as Islam is literally present everywhere in the world. So, in short, the Saudi version of Islam does not have a monopoly of representing Islam – the presence of the holiest sites of Islam notwithstanding. Other strands of Sunni Islam are equally valid, so are Shia Islam as well as the various permutations and combinations of syncretic Islam that has emerged in India, Indonesia and the U.S., sometimes radically challenging our conceptions of what it means to be a Muslim.

All of these hold prospects for change, but most importantly it is the 66,000 plus students in the U.S. who will define the future of Saudi. And by the look of it, and having interacted with a few dozen of them, I am optimistic that there will be a more tolerant and open Saudi Arabia in the years to come. The Saudis are getting something right – and that is investing in the future of their youth. And I hope that they don’t give up on this, anytime soon.


How to overcome cultural barriers to philanthropy?

Doing good is not easy. In today’s globalized world, where different values, norms, cultural attitudes towards life are coming together and interacting there is bound to be friction, misunderstanding when it comes to what it means to do good, and the intentionality of the acts themselves. In the field of philanthropy, this is markedly so, and listening to a few speakers during the MENA Social good, an online conference that brought in speakers from around the MENA region, I was reminded of this reality. Doing good may mean vastly different things to different people and finding the ‘common ground’ is not as easy as it sounds._12865_kuwait-charity-2-3-2005

                So, what are the challenges to doing global philanthropy or philanthropy with people of different norms and values from that of our own? For starters, the very idea of philanthropy and ‘common good’ may be different across cultures. In the U.S., one can argue that there is a broader definition of ‘common good’ and there is a vibrant civil society, as evidenced by the number of nongovernment organizations, political action committees and other forms of “civil society” institutions, that provide services to the public. The ‘self-help’ ethic can be said to be ingrained in the American psyche that is deeply suspicious of too much government intervention in their private lives. The ongoing debate about Obama care or the Affordable Healthcare Act is an example of this phenomenon.

On the other hand, there are countries in the Middle East that have, for historic and geo-political reasons relied on state patronage to people and suppressed civil society formation. This is a different model of philanthropic giving and one that has strong networks with the religious institutions in the region. While religious giving is also high in the U.S. and according to Giving USA, it is about roughly one third of all individual giving in the country, the fact that much of giving occurs through ‘secular institutions’ is a differentiator. Secondly, when it comes to philanthropy across borders, there is a question of power relations, hegemony and unequal access to knowledge, resources and mutual perception of the ‘other’ that becomes a barrier. As Muna AbuSulayman, Media personality from the UAE pointed out: “We want to be treated as partners, even if we are not equal. We are tired of being treated as victims, and the Western world treating us as subjects to be colonized and need saving. We need to understand that these are complex issues, and need to be taken into account. We need dignity for all stake holders and this needs to be considered, as global partnerships are created.”

Institutionalization of philanthropy is another important factor that is underdeveloped in the MENA region. Especially in the Gulf countries, that are cash-rich, there is a lack of systems of measurement of philanthropy and also only now are NGOs’ in the region starting to look at accountability and transparency.  As Abu Sulayman further added: “We still suffer from a lack of institutionalization, and there is a missing link of societal needs and planning. One of this is low-cost housing. Either open-source housing or other models such as Dr. David Smith is advocating. We need to bring this into the Arab world. We need an actionable plan and how look at funds are going into projects. In CSR, we are seeing this as part of money being spent, but much of the decision making happens based on what CSR administrator thinks what a society needs. A lot of it revolves around Public Relations, and not genuine needs of the people.”

The other main problem is the notion of “doing good” and “doing well while doing good”, i.e., looking at philanthropy through the lens of business thinking. The notion of “Philanthrocapitalism” is new even in the west, but is being rapidly adopted in the MENA region, according to Ahmed Ashkar, CEO of the Hult Prize. He pointed out that the barriers to entry must be low for start-ups and also that doing good and doing well can and should go together. These are not contradictory things in themselves, added. When the cost of doing business is low and all the extra profits earned go back into the business, then we are looking at a “socially conscious business,” he said.

Criticisms of Philanthrocapitalism

One of the biggest criticisms of philanthrocapitalism is that when people get involved in what are essentially political issues, it is easy for everyone else to fear the worst. Today’s democratic freedoms have been hard-won; votes don’t want to trade their rights for plutocracy. “For traditional-minded Americans, George Soros is public enemy number one,” thunders TV pundit Bill O’Reilly in Culture Warrior,” say Bishop and Greene in their book Philanthrocapitalism.  They point out that a liberal like him can raise troubling questions such as why should the rich determine society’s priorities? Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities argues that much of philanthropy is ego-driven. “Pride and vanity have built more hospitals that all the virtues together.”

Another criticism is that most giving in the USA is  tax-driven and if the money is in a foundation, the taxman cannot touch it, at least in America.  The same is not true in the MENA, however. This also creates different incentives in both systems for giving – one a highly professionalized and almost ‘business-like’ attitude, while the other encourages a rather personal and  charitable attitude. This is extremely significant and should not be overlooked, when analyzing the differences between the two systems.

While both speakers brought up relevant concerns and seemed to be pointing to some of the challenges to doing business and philanthropy in the MENA region, there are structural issues to deal with. How does the bureaucracy of the country deal with start-ups and nonprofit organizations? What are the cultural attitudes towards charity? How does this intersect with what the entrepreneurial “do-gooders” come up with? These are some basic questions that need to be addressed, as well. I am not proposing any solutions, nor are any simplistic ones possible. These are deep questions that need to be worked out, on a case by case basis, as there are many moving parts to this problem. While power-dynamics, access to knowledge, capital and networks are key to address them, one must be sensitive to the fact that history, culture, religion and relations of the individual and state need to be factored in, before proposing any solution.

This is a necessary first step towards finding any common ground, without which, all “doing good” may actually backfire and cause more heartburn and damage.