America’s philanthropy problem?

170616141515-amazon-whole-foods-jeff-bezos-grocery-brick-and-mortar-00001001-1024x576A debate that is becoming salient, over the past few years is if philanthropic foundations are becoming powerful by the day? A recent article in The Huffington Post points this out. The writer points out, correctly, that Jeff Bezos solicited ideas for his philanthropy, just a few days before the purchase of Whole Foods. PR stunt? Astute move to buy some social capital? Or perhaps a combination of both?

For some, this is a problem – arguing, as does the Huff Post writer, Matt Stoller. But for others, this is nothing but a transactional idea. A means of buying some legitimacy in a world where raising questions such as this is moot. The battle of ideas over the legitimate use of power is over, in this other world-view. The capitalists have won and rightfully decide what needs to happen in our world. Whether it is by monopoly or other means is irrelevant.

A friend recently pointed out Hypernomalization, a documentary that also makes this point. The thesis in this documentary, that giving away of democratic power to those with wealth is dangerous and has brought us to the current state of affairs – with a climate change denying President and a world where the state is increasingly being made irrelevant and the real power resides in the handful of oligarchs around us.

This is not just a political problem but also a social problem. And in that sense, a philanthropic problem as well. For those of us who study (and practice) philanthropy, this should be disconcerting – simply because of the ramifications of how the act of philanthropy is perceived.  Whether it is a genuine act – aimed at bringing about social change or a PR stunt depends as much on one’s motivations and style of managing it. The current tilt towards hi-networth philanthropy makes it less egalitarian and ‘normal,’ it seems.

Can celebrity philanthropy be harmful?

Remember the ads in which Angelina Jolie comes out and shames the world for ignoring the plight of refugees?  Or the Bono concert for helping AIDS victims? While each of them have done incredible good in the world, there is an argument out there; and it is a fairly strong one that goes like this : Since these celebrities are part of a governing regime of capitalism that causes this poverty in the first place; they are not doing anything substantive to address/ ameliorate poverty. They are just putting a bandage over a wound that is bleeding a patient to death.

Here is a scholarly paper by one of my PhD committee members, who helped me think about this aspect when I was a Phd candidate. I was aware of some of the negative influences of celebrity culture. This whole notion of attention seeking has never appealed to me. While attention seeking for a purpose is OK, most celebrities seek attention for  the sake of attention, that has never appealed to me.

Patricia Nickel says in her paper  “modern-day parables of philanthropic celebrities powerfully govern the oppositional impulse as they impart as sense of ‘benevolence’ in the form of an individualized disposition towards well-being and entitlement.” She further argues that this ‘governing regime’ which the celebrities sanitize with their appeals to charity is itself rotten.

In another paper, she, along with another scholar Angela Eikenberry argue that “However, this discourse (of celebrity philanthropy) falsely conveys a community of individuals with access to a venue for shaping social change. Rather than providing an open, discursive space for imagination, philanthropy as it has come to be defined, disguises its own discourse in its portrayal of the mediums of consumption, profit, and media celebration as the basis for benevolent human relations.” So, the issue that is problematic is one of relying on the market to manage relationships of benevolence. The buying of a laptop to eradicate AIDS (Red’s campaign) is problematic, according to Nickel and Eikenberry. This is also problematic given the ‘end of discourse’ that they suggest is going on.

This is also to suggest that while celebrities bring up certain problems, they don’t really talk about the structural problems that caused the crisis we are in, in the first place. This is the real issue with celebrity philanthropy.

While I agree with her assessment that there is an over-reliance of market mechanism for philanthropic activities, we seem to be enveloped in the market, the world over. There seems to be little space, if any for transactions or discourses to occur outside of the market mechanism. How does one impact lives outside of the market mechanism?

There are mechanisms and tools available to reach people and meet their needs. One is to explore traditional systems of charity, for instance religious giving to one’s place of worship or charitable organizations that are faith-affiliated. My dissertation work looked at some of these possibilities.

Indeed there needs to be greater space for personal benevolence and charity to occur, but the manner and speed with which celebrity philanthropy is occurring is not without its flaws.

If not for profit, for what?

nonprofit

I sat next to an older gentleman on my flight from D.C. to Atlanta, GA. While he was quite in the beginning and was absorbed in his newspapers, a quick smile and conversation started him talking. And despite his strong southern accent – he was from Alabama – we managed to discuss a lot of ideas on this short trip.

One of the first things he said when I pointed out that I was working in the nonprofit sector was that it’s all a sham. “It is all about tax write-offs, ultimately, someone has to pay for all that service.” He argued.

While I do meet the occasional Libertarian, who brushes off all feel-good work of nonprofits as just instances of market catallaxy, or the ‘entrepreneur’, who quite genuinely scoffs at the idea of the nonprofit being a sector, the truth is that about 10 percent of Americans are employed in this sector and it is one of the most enduring parts of American work-force and cultural landscape. Nonprofits today are growing and thriving, if anything. There is no denying that this sector is important and worthy of our attention, even if we don’t believe in how it operates or its assumptions.

This conversation brought to mind the famous book by Dennis Young, ‘If not for profit, for what’?  In this book, he has argued for a behavioral theory of studying the nonprofit sector.  In terms of framing the study or discourse of nonprofits, young suggests that the demand side of nonprofits has been studied quite extensively, i.e, how nonprofits provide public goods as studied by Burton Weisbrod and as providers of ‘trust goods’ as offered by Henry Hansmann – where nonprofits ‘asymmetric information led consumers to prefer nonprofits over less trustworthy for-profit providers.’ What this means is that there is a market-gap in most areas, where consumers/ citizens don’t have access to the best information and in the absence of that, for-profits would – given their motivation to make as much money as possible- make use of this gap. On the other hand, a non-profit, which has a service motive is not likely to indulge in this sort of behavior.

Young offers an explanation that the ‘supply’ side of nonprofit behavior has not been extensively analyzed and this can help understand the motivations for why people work in this sector and why it even exists. He uses entrepreneurship as a motivating factor to understand the sector. His framing of the nonprofit sector leadership and motivations as ‘entrepreneurship’ is key to our discussion. Most nonprofit leaders and organizations are trying to solve some social problems for which there is no market solution. Or if there is, it is too expensive or exclusionary.

As Peter Frumkin, writing in this book suggests “The value of his (Young’s) early contribution was and continues to be his focus on the way the values, personal traits, and skill sets of individual entrepreneurs are a useful starting point in understanding where nonprofit ideas and organizations originate.”  By this means that the focus of most scholarship and discourse has been on why market failure has been responsible for the rise of nonprofits, while there hasn’t been much focus on the supply side – meaning why individuals do what they do, in the context of social organizations and institutions. The study of values, motivations and drives is key as well. This also explains the rise of the civil society sector in the U.S., which Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about, in Democracy in America.

Back to the question: if not for profit, then for what? The answer to this lies in both normative and philosophical dimensions. Sometimes profit is not the key motive. It could be service or the desire to make a difference. The motive to serve public and do ‘good’ is inherent in the social sector, of which nonprofits are a part. This also means that we need to take into account other motives, other than pure profit motive, that drives individuals to serve and work in these forms of organizations. The market and government cannot provide all answers to questions before us, hence the need for nonprofits.

Does Bill Gates’s philanthropy make a difference?

I have been reading about the philanthropy of the super-rich or the Hi-Networth individuals ( HNW) as they are called. The media celebrates wealthy people, and their acts. As the saying goes, a wealthy’s man’s joke is always funny and few question the ‘good works’ of the super-wealthy. With the ‘Giving Pledge’ and similar initiatives, the super-wealthy have come together to give their wealth away, to the poor. Noble indeed, but is it all there is to this story?

Not quite, point out some scholars and activists/ thinkers. bill-gates-wide-wallpaper-3790One of the interesting arguments that is out there is that their philanthropy or giving can do good, but also cause harm. How so, you might ask? 

For starters, there are two arguments against HNW doing more ‘good’ for the world.

  1. By picking their own visions of what needs to be done, and setting their own agenda, the HNW individuals may ‘distort’ the priorities of the given location/ country, where they are working
  2. HNW can become a facade for showcasing ‘benevolence’ while ignoring the ground reality in many of these situations and the structural inequality that produced that massive amount of wealth disparities.

Lets look at each criticism, in turn.

Firstly, as this post points out, the fact that the HNW individual/ foundation can set its own priorities, which may, in some cases; go against the policies of the country/ region they are working in, can distort the situation. What if, for instance; the national government wants to implement a certain program, which the administrators there think is far more important than what the ‘experts’ of the foundation think? How do the actions of this foundation reflect? Who is this HNW or foundation accountable to?

Secondly, the involvement of private sector players, that are often driven by bottom-lines and profits in policy making is problematic, as the same article points out. The network can soon become a ‘group-think’ exercise, which may leave out the best solution, and decrease changes that the best solutions will be adopted; in favor of those solutions or ideas that the foundation favors. Redtapism and favoritism can begin to take root, in these contexts.

Finally, the question of priorities comes up. As Bowman points out” Research by Devi Sridhar at Oxford University warns that philanthropic interventions are ‘radically skewing public health programmes towards issues of the greatest concern to wealthy donors’. ‘Issues,’ she writes, ‘which are not necessarily top priority for people in the recipient country.’”   This disparity in power, in putting the priorities on the table is a worrying trend, indeed.

At the same time, there is no denying that several thousands, if not millions of lives have been saved by the Malaria and other vaccines that these foundations have given out.

So, how does one evaluate the work of HNW philanthropists/ Foundations?

There are no easy answers, as in life. The question itself is a political one and the answer one offers depends on one’s  worldview.

The alternative, as many; including the President of Ford Foundation has pointed out – and even Bill Gates acknowledges, is to make sure that the structural issues, that cause poverty are tackled. There is a need to ensure that everyone is able to access healthcare, good quality education and other amenities that make for a complete and ‘free’ life. But this is easier said than done, especially in a system that is skewed towards the rich and well-connected, even in a ‘developed world.’

As long as there is sensitivity to local needs and inputs from the governments/ agencies that are in the regions, then the foundations can actually do a lot of good, ensuring that the local infrastructure is built up and people don’t perpetually depend on the largesse of the rich and famous.

If this is not kept in mind, then such philanthropy can become an exercise in publicity and in an effort to further establish the ‘greater glory of rich.’

 

How to measure what matters : Nonprofit management 101

The nonprofit industry is obsessed with one thing : measurement. For those who do research or are involved in actual program delivery in the nonprofit sector, this desire to ‘measure spoons’ as Alnoor Ebrahim, a Harvard University professor calls it, can translate into a variety of things. There are a great many metrics that are often considered, when evaluating if a nonprofit is doing its job. For instance, people ask if the proportion of money spent on programs versus program administration (overheads) is ‘reasonable’. There are industry norms, suggesting that if an organization spends ‘too much’ then it is wasting people’s money. We base many of these arguments on the fact that they are the ‘rational’ thing to do. In a world, where philanthropy i.e., scientific way of doing charity has overtaken all other forms, this call for rationality and scientific ways of measuring this is but natural. But the really rational or ‘substantively rational’ question should be: what should we measure. And why? What impact does this have, in the long term.

Max Weber was one of the more prominent thinkers who write largely about rationality and how it is shaping our world. This short paper offers an in-depth discussion of the different types of rationalities that Weber expounded, upon. To summarize it, he posited there being four different types of rationalities: practical, theoretical, substantive and formal.

The ‘disenchantment’ of the world that leads to greater ‘rationalities’ of the formal, practical and theoretical type are evident in the field of philanthropy, as well. By this, I mean, there is a move away from ‘feeling’ or ‘reasoning based on an other-worldly’ sense of why we do charity or philanthropy. There is a growing sense that an act is justified or carried out towards an end. As Kalberg (1980) points out, the four types of social actions: affectual, traditional, value- rational, and means-end rational action are the core traits of ‘human’ actions and are outside of historical man.

Substantitive rationality ‘directly orders action into pattern.’ In seeking this form of rationality, one asks, not “what good is there at the end of the action” but rather, “should one even carry this out” and “what good will come out of this action,” in other words, this form of thinking is based on an ethical disposition of what is right and wrong.

Coming back to our initial discussion, if one were to use a substantive rational dispositions, one might : what is being measured and why? Does what we measure matter? And if so, how?

Ebrahim warns us in his piece Let’s be realistic about measuring impact, that “ It is crucial to identify when it makes sense to measure impacts and when it might be best to stick with outputs — especially when an organization’s control over results is limited, and causality remains poorly understood.”He suggests that simply repeating the mantra that measurement matters won’t get us there. There needs to be a long-term commitment to research and collaboration.

 

As Dan Pallotta argues in his book The Uncharitable that how we measure overheads is problematic. He gives the example of two soup kitchens: Kitchen A and Kitchen B. Assuming that Kitchen A spends only 10% of their revenues on overheads and Kitchen B spends about 30%. If this were all one knew, then one would judge Kitchen B harshly, saying they are producing a lot of waste. However, if one discovers that Kitchen A offers very bad quality soup, in poor conditions, while Kitchen B produces very high quality soup, at a great environment, then our perception of the services may change. This is a classic example of using substantive rationality, in making decisions.

There is a strong argument to be made for measuring only a few things, but asking more hard-nosed questions that get to the heart of why we are measuring a thing and at what point in time of the project life-cycle. Not to do so may actually lead to bad and hasty decision making.

 

 

 

What is wrong with the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse

First things first : I am happy that Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London. Nothing could be cooler than having someone who shares your last name become the Mayor of a global city.

This incident has been commented upon, quite a lot. Well meaning people point out that this is an indication that the ‘West’ is tolerant of Muslims and Islam. And that forces of intolerance have been defeated.

Agreed.

khanacademy

What I do have a problem with, is the simplistic characterization of his win as somehow mainstreaming of Muslims .  The second problem I see with this discourse is a lot of focus on Mr.Khan’s identity as a Muslim ( ok, I get it – he didn’t bring it up, but was rather attacked for being a Muslim, and an extremist). This identification of him – a Muslim- as an ‘outsider’ who has somehow been ‘accepted’ by the establishment is problematic to me.

He is not an outsider, but a London born Brit. Secondly, Islam has centuries of history in Britain and is certainly not a ‘new’ entrant into the nation.

Just as much as those claiming that ‘Islam’ is out ‘there’ and we in the ‘West’ are ‘here.’ This is patently false. Mr.Khan is part of the West; indeed, he is the new West, as he has claimed. The West and Islam are not only compatible, but are intertwined to such an extent that it is not fair to talk about these two as different categories. Conceptually, Islam and West should be seen as co-existing and co-equal, not two separate or distinct entities – in opposition.

Orientalists have always spoken of Islam as the ‘other’ that is somehow inferior to the West. This discourse of ‘Islam and the West’ perpetuates this Orientalist stereotyping.

On the other hand, Muslims in the West do occupy this ‘liminal’, in-between space, which makes them unique. As Kambiz Ghaneabassiri argues, in his analysis of the History of Islam in America – this space between White and Black America, has made American Muslims unique. To some extent, this argument can be used for Muslims in Europe, as well; though the history of Muslims on that continent has been markedly different.

May be it is a nuance that many don’t care about, or may be it comes across as not being celebratory of his victory; but it is far from true. I am indeed happy that someone like him could become a leader in a cosmopolitan society. It is a proud moment for all minorities. Indeed, not many Christians or Hindus will get to lead a city in a Muslim majority country, such as Pakistan, for instance.

So, yes, Western Liberalism is good and mighty and powerful. But at the same time, this Liberalism should also not reduce complex subjects such as Mr.Khan to a mere symbol – a symbol of the ‘West’s tolerance’. Nor should it perpetuate the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse.

Do we need theory?

Of late, I have been having a lot of conversations with people in the nonprofit sector. And one clear divide I am noticing is between those who ‘do’ stuff and those who ‘think’ about stuff and theorize about it. The assumption is that those who can, do and those who don’t, teach. You may have heard this cliché many times over. But is it true? And is it valid? Are all practitioners, heroes; who just show up, to sacrifice their time, energy, reputations and sometimes, their lives just based on how they ‘feel,’ or are they also operating on a model of the world that seems coherent and a narrative of how things work – in other words, a ‘theory.’ I think all of us theorize, to some extent and theorizing is an essential part of the meaning making process.

CW Mills
CW Mills. Source :Sociology.about.com

So, what is theory? It is nothing but a general explanation for a phenomenon at hand, using language and ideas that are mutually agreed upon. In various disciplines, the conventions are particular to that discipline, so theorizing is done in a particular way. For instance, in ‘pure’ sciences, such as Physics or Chemistry, empirically testing a theory is the gold-standard, while in Social Sciences, where such experimentation is not possible – you can’t dissect living people or go back in history to perform a certain thought experiment, with someone who is dead – theorizing happens in other ways[i].

Broadly speaking, one can theorize based on one’s methodological orientation – i.e., if one is a ‘positivist[ii]’, i.e., whether one believes in just empirical data and what it ‘tells us’ about the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, there are those who theorize normatively, i.e., considering the value frameworks involved. While the philosophical debates about what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are complex and I cannot explain them fully here, suffice it to say that knowledge is nothing but ‘agreement’ among competent people.

While grand-theories of the kind that Talcott Parsons and others came up with may not help you understand your own immediate life or your surroundings, other kinds of theorizing; based on sociological analysis of your immediate life may actually be very beneficial. This ‘grand-theory’ is a universalizing effort to understand the whole world or a big portion of it, through one or two key ideas or concepts. One can see this in play when uses words such as ‘reason’ or ‘rationality’ or Enlightenment thinking to understand the lack of democracy in the Middle East, for example. Is it helpful? I am not too sure. And C Wright Mills, the celebrated Sociologist was suspicious of it. Instead, he called for greater ‘empirical based’ theorizing, based on observing the particulars of each case/ society and theorizing for that particular case, while drawing out some general principles[iii].

And this brings me to the important point – why do we need theory and those who theorize, i.e., professors and ‘thinkers’? Wouldn’t just practice based work and tacit knowledge of the phenomenon or industry, be enough? The answer is, no.  I think we need theory for the following three reasons. There are many others, but for now; these three will suffice.

  • It helps us go beyond the immediate situation and help learn general principles, that may be applied in other situations
  • It helps build a body of knowledge, so others can apply it to build an understanding of their world
  • It advances human thinking and our ‘knowledge’ of our own selves and the world around us

So, the next time some hustler, who knows nothing about the field of study/ work you are engaged in tells you that you are wasting time, producing knowledge or ‘learning’ the theories, you know what to tell him/her.

We need hustlers, but we also need theorists. The world would be much poorer without either of them!

[i] For more see Sendberg – http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11186-011-9161-5

[ii] http://press.anu.edu.au//cotm/mobile_devices/ch07s02.html

[iii] See The Sociological Imagination ( CW Mills, 1959) for more.