Jeff Trexler: January 2008 Archives
Yesterday on the way up to my office I overheard two students talking about the assigned reading for their class--a philosopher who kept talking about gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, though the students weren't exactly sure about the difference between the two.
Ah, memories . . .
Nonprofits embody the dueling cultures that sociologist Ferdinand TÃ¶nnies described as gemeinschaft (â€œcommunityâ€) and gesellschaft (â€œsocietyâ€). From one angle, nonprofits represent the emotional, spiritual, and even familial values of a communal realm outside state and market: the Metropolitan Opera is art, but Les Miserables is commercial pop; a museum Lichtenstein is superior to a Batman comic; church transcends group therapy; NPR offers â€œintelligent talkâ€ while Rush Limbaugh is a pitchman. And yet in direct contrast, the nonprofit as gesellschaft embodies the impersonal world of contract and commodity. Vague talk of transcendent values must give way to a crisp, quantifiable metric, and the role of the nonprofit expert is to educate the public in what the term â€œnonprofitâ€ truly means.
One fascinating aspect of junk media is the way they refract social values. Take, for instance, Carl Barks' Donald Duck comics, which transformed the gag cartoon into an epic exploration of the moral complexity of American culture. Drugs, exploitation, radioactive hair-treatment scams (!)--Barks had the freedom to hold his magic mirror to our world precisely because no one took his artistic medium seriously.
Following up on yesterday's image from A Christmas in Shacktown, here are a few panels from what happens after Uncle Scrooge answers the door. When Uncle Scrooge sees that his visitor is his nephew Donald Duck, he decides not to fire his anti-philanthropy cannon. But much to Scrooge's dismay, Donald is indeed seeking a donation for a charitable cause--the children of impoverished Shacktown. The request: $50--$25 for a turkey dinner, and $25 for a toy train, the first and only Christmas present the children in Shacktown would ever receive.
Moving beyond outright resistance to the very notion of giving, Uncle Scrooge zeroes in what he sees as the gift's fatal flaw:
Feeding the poor--that he can agree with;it has an identifiable return on investment. Giving children a toy train, however, is "useless." If the women--and in a previous panel Uncle Scrooge launches into the irrationality of charity as a woman's domain, one that taints the males foolish enough to indulge it--are going to insist on such nonsense, they are going to have to earn that money first before he gives his more practical gift.
Note that what Scrooge promotes--utility, matching funds, and as the rest of the story elaborates, earned income for charity--are precisely what we tend to value today. Yet Barks sees them as antithetical to charity. Even in the purest sense of poverty relief, Barks conveys, the inutile plays an essential role in making life truly human.
One might be tempted to say this sequence is a relic of an obsolete tradition, irrelevant to today. And that would be wrong. Barks was a designer and a storyteller, an artist skilled in the timeless rhetoric of composition. The utter hopelessness of Shacktown--not even enough money to play--stood in stark contrast to the absolute wealth of Uncle Scrooge, whose every business venture yielded ample returns.
As the past decade's market boom subsides, the social enterprise movement is going to face more cultural resistance. Bringing the logic of rational capitalism to areas seemingly overwhelmed by systemic market failure is not going to make sense. It's also going to seem cruel, or at the very least inhumane. How we adapt to this is going to determine whether social enterprise itself will be sustainable.
NEXT in Charity and Comics: The tipping point and toy trains
I try my best to avoid parroting memes, which is why you'll never hear me describe someone as a "change agent." I knew the phrase had an extensive prior history as a term of art long before it became the center square in buzzword bingo, but I didn't know how long until I decided to lull myself to sleep tonight by tracing its evolution through Google Books.
That's how I discovered its stunning secret origin in an 1899 book on Enterprise IT Architecture:
Given that most of the technology in this book wasn't invented until the late twentieth century, there's only one logical conclusion: that Tony Beveridge was a cyborg sent back in time to assassinate President McKinley.
In the everything new is old department, nuns in Arizona are renting out space in their monastery to Superbowl fans at more than double the normal rate. The rate is still considerably lower than area motels, but there is an even steeper price to pay: guests sleep in single beds and there's no alcohol, no smoking, no telephone and no TV.
"Hmmmmm. How can our charity discourage older guys from fetishizing young girls?"
"I know--let's Photoshop the heads of prepubescent teens onto women with big breasts!"Â
The trend toward using sex to sell charity no doubt seems cutting-edge to the folks who design such campaigns, but more often than not the result is tacky and counter-productive.
Social enterprise took flight in a prolonged period of market expansion. Now venture capital is pulling back. Via Portfolio:
"There has been a real 'de-risking' of the market, which will certainly affect the I.P.O. market," said [Union Square Ventures' Fred] Wilson, whose firm was an early investor in the social bookmarking site del.icio.us, which Yahoo bought, and Twitter, a site that combines social networking with blogging.
"That will impact the late-stage venture market," Wilson added, "because the I.P.O. market drives the late-stage venture market. And that will slowly impact the early-stage venture market."
As investors move out of equities and into fixed income and other usually safe investments, equity prices will drop across the board, he predicted, creating bargains.
"Valuations will come down," Wilson said. "There will be less exuberance about venture capital investments. What will probably take place is a flight to quality. Venture capitalists will want to invest more in the companies that look like they're going to be successful and be a little less willing to take fliers on things that are hard to really handicap.
Commercial social enterprise tends to operate in areas of the market characterized by high risk and low margins. To continue to attract substantial investment--as opposed to de facto grants--social entrepreneurs will need to develop more sophisticated business models that rely far less on good intentions.
Lawyer-types may remember Clean Flicks, the firm that sold censored family-friendly versions of popular movies. Tech Space has an update on what's happened since the company was ruled to be violating copyright:
Turns out that the "family friendly" outfit was a front for porno-movie shoots, and that founder Daniel Thompson has been arrested for soliciting sex from -- oh, lovely -- 14-year-old girls. He even allegedly asked the young ladies to be in one of his movies. (They refused.)
From the photographer: "The lettering on this grimy building in the City Road, just north of Old Street and the City of London, is the only vestige of the Edwardian philanthropy which flourished here in the early twentieth century."
One of my favorite Socratic dialogues is the Euthydemus, in which Plato explores the link between words and things. One of the limitations of language highlighted in the wordplay of this text is the way that one word can mean different things.
For instance, take the classical Greek verb "porneuo." In English we translate this most directly as "to prostitute", with its most common usage in the passive voice signifying "to engage in prostitution." Yet if we look at the most ubiquitous English cognate--porn--we find that it is rarely if ever used in reference to people classed as prostitutes, either by law or convention, despite the fact that any number of people depicted in pornography are doing so for money. Indeed, depending on the jurisdiction or observer the person depicted in the image need not be engaged in a sexual act at all; mere exposure of certain body parts may suffice.
Then there are other languages in which the word porn has no reference to sex at all--and that's the story behind the picture above. Design blog Eyeteeth explains:
One of the reasons my wife Mok goes by her nickname is that in the U.S. she's sometimes met with snickers when she says her given name: Julaporn.
But in Thailand, the word "porn" has a very different meaning. It's the name of the king's daughter (and technically, no one else is supposed to use it) and means "silk." Often a part of women's names, "porn" is a formal and somewhat antiquated word for a blessing from God. So the name literally refers to the ceremonial silk one would present to monks at a Buddhist temple: prayer silk, if you will.
For a complete explanation of Julaporn's neon sign, check out the rest of this enlightening post!
Saks jumps on the sustainability bandwagon.
I'm curious as to how the actual numbers shake out. Green is a must for marketing (longtime readers may remember that Barney's branded itself green a while ago), but once people get into the store how much green are they dropping on green goods?
My suspicion is that green branding is a bit like Snakes on a Plane--it's something people talk about as a way of identifying with a particular group, but it's not something for which most consumers will pay real money.
Too cynical? Well, compare the Barneys eco-bag with what it bets most people will actually want to put in it.
Murketing has gone where Craft feared to tread: printing the censored article, "What would Jesus sell?" The title is actually a riff on a new Morgan Spurlock documentary; the article itself is not about Christianity. Rather, it's an inquiry into the commodification of handicraft, asking whether the market for handcrafted items is actually consistent with the movement's do-it-yourself ethic.:
But I can't help thinking: Isn't shopping, no matter how wonderfully crafty and politically correct still, well, shopping? Can you escape the so-called sin of consumerism by buying handmade? Isn't the whole point of modern crafting Do It Yourself--not Buy from Someone Who is Doing It Themselves? Not to be a total hypocrite; I shop Etsy and artisan crafters as well as buy the crap from China just like everyone else. It's just that I see a new trend, which is moving away from crafting and towards consuming. What's next? "Hip Craft" aisles at Wal-Mart?
The presumption--now denied--that the reference to Jesus would be offensive to Christians highlights an unintended consequence of protests against blasphemy: rather than speaking of Christianity more reverently, people might conclude that mentioning Jesus at all is more trouble than it's worth.
Here are two.
First: the description of making loans as "charitable giving." It's an elision we shouldn't ignore, because understanding why folks speak this way re Kiva can help other organizations redirect attention away from relations of exchange. At the same time, it also highlights a cognitive shift that, inter alia, helped fuel the subprime mortgage meltdown: the perception of home loans to the less well-off as a social benefit, a la George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life." At what point the loan-as-charity model breaks down is a limit we have yet to define. In this context we should be aware that the IRS has recently revoked the tax-exemption of a few charities dedicated to helping otherwise unqualified people obtain loans, on the grounds that they too close resembled commercial businesses.
Another important issue: the exemplary value of scale-free success. Thanks to a perfect storm of favorable developments--the economy's apparent robustness, the Yunis Nobel Prize, the Clinton-Oprah publicity--Kiva emerged as a hub for microlending in the U.S., just as groups like the Acumen Fund, Greyston Bakery and Ethos Water have become dominant players in their respective domains. Hooray and amen, but it should not blind others trying to enter the social enterprise market to the harsh conditions facing the other ninety percent in the field. I'm well aware of the long tail hype, but as I've noted before targeting those markets is a doubly difficult strategy for social entrepreneurs--the margins are even lower than those for mainstream commercial business, and the environmental pressure to provide aid on a noncommercial basis is stronger. Hope for the best and plan for the worst may be a hoary bromide of small business advice, but there's a reason it's repeated so often--my sense is that one of the reasons Kiva itself has done so well is that it doesn't let itself get carried away with the hype.
Compare the 2006 example above with the latest from this week.
Looks like we have a recurring theme.
Victoria Beckham and Marc Jacobs team up to fight skin cancer. Because, you know, walking around nude is the best way to prevent melanoma.
"Hmmm--how can we inspire teen-age misogynists to respect women?"
"I know--we'll compare it to being nagged to eat your vegetables and do your homework!"
Took a break from a rather busy weekend to drop by the New Museum. The first floor is smart--a gift shop that doubles as a display area, a food kiosk doubling as exhibit space--serving as a model of how a charity can shift attention in ways that transform commercial space.
The top floor is cool, too, with a wraparound outside deck that practically makes it a sin not to buy a glass of wine to sip as you soak in the cityscape.
The exhibit in the middle . . .
Well . . .
It's too '80s, and not in a good way. In a boring way.
Now, I like a lot of stuff from the eighties, including things you might not guess. But the reason I like it has a lot to do with the fact that in its time, it was interesting. Copying the style twenty years later--not so much.
The premise of "Unmonumental" is that we live in an era of fragmentation. Thus the exhibit "exploits the formal and ideological power of juxtaposing found images to create everything from social and political commentaries to Surrealist fantasies and personal confessions."
In other words, Bush is bad. Brands are superficial. Suburbia is empty. Everything is broken.
Yes, the absurdist disaggregation of corporate icons had its moment--in fact, anyone who saw my grad student collage displays in the basement of Duke Div got an eyeful of that from yours truly back in 1988.
But what's more interesting now, I believe, is the subsequent shift toward cultures of coherence. It's like the McLuhan quote I dropped in a comment over at GiftHub--today, it's the traditionalist who is the true radical.
In that regard the basement "Donor Hall" exhibit charting arts & culture philanthropy is equally disappointing. Plotting pie graphs on giant images of pies--oh, how radical. Sifting out donors to highlight corporate hegemony and to diss Halliburton--oh, how subversive. We'd have a much better hope of "understanding and change" with more rigorous Tufte-esque data displays and fewer self-indulgent cutesy visual tricks.
The whole experience got me thinking of museum exhibits I'd like to see, but that's a post for another day.
Do you want to fight for those suffering without heat? Do you want to fight hunger? And do you want to live well while doing good?
That's the spirit of this poster by Soviet poet and designer Vladimir Mayakovsky, which urges citizens of the new Soviet Russia to join the ranks of those working hard for social good. With others in the Constructivist movement during Lenin's 1920's experiment with social capitalism, Mayakovsky championed "commercial agitation"--a strategic fusion of activism and advertising that leveraged market forces to promote public good.
Over time, though, Mayakovsky grew disillusioned with the disjunction between ideal and reality. His poems document his disenchantment with how consumerism with a purpose was giving way to careerist greed and cynical manipulation.
He shot himself in 1930.
Do I note this because I think articles such as Nick Kristof's latest celebration of social entrepreneurs at Davos are wrong?
No, not at all.
Rather, it's just another reminder that we're not the first to get excited about this particular model. People just as smart and just as earnest have said the same things before. We think we're revolutionary because we willfully ignore the failures of revolutionaries past.
Or worse, we dismiss them as irrelevant.
If we don't want our own efforts to collapse, it's not enough to revel in our moment of success. We need to remember those who went before us thundering the world with the power of their voice, beautiful and handsome, twenty-two years old.
Or du week. Anyway, here are a few:
- KFC's "chicken dance for charity" unauthorized by NFL
- Does award-winning social entrepreneur Dov Charney trade American Apparel clothes for sex?
- Two-faced Unilever: the same company that's behind Dove's campaign against beauty sells Axe through sexist ads
- Is Dell's pricey Project Red PC a rip-off?
Project Red has responded to the Dell controversy with this interesting observation:
(RED) is just one tool for people to do good - it doesn't replace the need or desire for charity donations, volunteering or getting involved in other ways. It is simply a choice when you're out shopping for something you need.
Thanks in part to ministries such as XXX Church, a network of porn accountability groups has been emerging in Christian circles. An accountability group is basically a 12 step meeting for men who believe they are addicted to pornography--the guys confess what they've looked at and how they respond to it (!), and when temptation strikes, they call their accountabilibuddy for support.
It's an interesting social phenomenon for any number of reasons. One is the diffusion of the hierarchical structure of the traditional Catholic confessional into dispersed mutual support. A popular critique of the Catholic penance ritual (back when parishioners under 70 actually used it) was that it concentrated absolute power in the priest, who knew everyone's dark secrets.
Does flattening confession into an array of modular associative networks signify the end of this dynamic? After all, the norm for these groups is to make everyone agree to keep the confessions confidential, which, since the pastor isn't part of every group, would seem to distribute access to negative information throughout the church and even across Christian communities.
Intrigued by the latest article on the subject to appear on ChristianityToday.com, I decided to see if I could track down a confidentiality agreement to see exactly what it is the guys in such a group agree not to say. A sample agreement, with commentary, below the jump.
On September 9, 1945, U.S. Navy officer Grace Hopper found the first computer "bug": a moth stuck between the relays on the Harvard Mark II (successor to the Mark I above) She noted it on her log as the "first actual case of bug being found." Though the term "bug" had meant a computer error beforehand, it became a popular term after this incident.
A tourist mom from England falls ill in Manhattan and New York Child Services takes her kids away from her. Luckily, the kids knew that a wry sense of the absurd can be the most effective weapon to wield against a hyper-rational bureaucracy:
Too weak to wave goodbye, their mother was forced to leave Gemma and Katie in the custody of social workers who asked them â€œdo you have any homicidal tendencies?â€ and â€œwhich street gangs do you belong to?â€. Gemma, a student at Bideford College, replied: â€œI am a member of Appledore library.â€
I'm fascinated by the breaking news story about the teen arrested for planning to commit suicide by hijacking and crashing a plane.
Because his intended crash target was a Hannah Montana concert.
What insight this gives into the kid's mind! He looks beyond the veneer of pop innocence to react against all it masks: burgeoning sexuality, exclusionary status networks, fluctuating personal identity. The kid may not know what he wants to be, but he knows he wants more than that.
There's an intriguing resonance here with the reaction of Sayyid Qutb, architect of radical Islamic terror, to the Greeley, Colorado church sock hop that--strange as it may seem--served as a stepping stone to 9/11:
They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire...
One person's bubblegum is another's Abaddon, destroyer of souls.
I'm prepping for the semester's first class on startups, and once again I can't help thinking about the bigger picture. This 1970's cartoon from years ago provides a glimpse into how my brain responds to discrete educational environments:
"The "recantation" of old men, if it occurs, is easily understood. Having been brought up in a particular religion, their earliest and tenderest memories may be connected with it; and when they lie down to die they may mechanically recur to it, just as they may forget whole years of their maturity, and vividly remember the scenes of their childhood."
--G.W. Foote, Infidel Death-Beds
"Bill Gates Issues Call for Kinder Capitalism."
That's the front page headline of today's Wall Street Journal, and I guess if I were a good little trooper I'd join in the celebration of his Damascene conversion to the cause.
But that's not how most people in business will see it, and it's important we recognize why Gates' sermonizing is likely to fall on deaf ears.
First, there's the natural reaction that Gates is merely giving voice to a guilty conscience. Â Sin in business, repent in retirement is one cliche that has indeed become an archetype. Â One by-product of this: reinforcement of the image of charity as a luxury good.
In addition, there's the suspicion that Gates is cynically trying to shore up Microsoft's market position. Â How? Â Well, now that he's not in active control and competitors are chipping away at Microsoft's market share, he's trying to shame competitors into pulling back--and, more directly, to get consumers to see its competitors as selfish and exploitive. Â If government responds by requiring businesses to be more socially conscience, that's all the better, because it has the potential to freeze the market in its current state.
It's the kind of virtue-jitsu we see in the Clinton campaign, which is a master at using appeals to decency to shut down political opponents. Â Except Microsoft is not a politician campaigning on a platform of universal health care and aid to the poor; it's still first and foremost a multi-billion dollar quasi-monopoly with an established reputation for ruthless profit-seeking in pursuit of market share.
For Gates' appeal to have had substantial ripple effects, it really had to have been issued while he was in charge. Â It would also require visible changes in Microsoft's own business practices. Â Last but not least, Gates would have to provide a compelling rationale beyond a guilty conscience, an argument easily parried by anyone who has a superficial acquaintance with Adam Smith. Â
In this regard, the ultimate failure is not Gates', but our own. Â The self-identified do-gooding community has not given him or any other aspiring philanthropic capitalists the conceptual tools to move beyond prevailing corporate norms.
RESPONSE TIME EXTRA:
The Slashdot thread on the story provides an interesting set of reactions.
"If Iâ€™m totally honest, I think that my favourite parts of this design arenâ€™t the rear-mounted flamethrower, or the ninja-throwing stars, but actually the padded seat and non-slip pedal. It suggests that villains are looking for comfort and practicality when it comes to equipping their incompetent hench-men with a more environmentally friendly vehicle of doom."
I've been seeing this Cisco TelePresence ad a lot--the hook is that Cisco connects a family with a son/boyfriend doing humanitarian relief work. The commercial's small print says that the screen image is "simulated." I wonder if that adjective also applies to the rather telegenic relief worker.
This is the other piece of artwork I see every day. It's a page from
Jeff Nicholson's classic Eisner nominated "Day's Work, NIght's Rest" in The Dreaming #15.
I've been asked what it is about this page that makes it so iconic to me. After all, I'm a professor & lawyer--haven't worked an honest day in my life, at least since high school.
One could, I guess, look at it as a means of connecting with my past, hundreds of years of drechslers--"lathe-turners", craftsmen--who, as one law professor from Germany once aptly observed, no doubt shaped my fascination with design.
That's probably right, except it goes a bit deeper. I look at photos of the stars and see the constant churning of creation--connection, destruction, transformation, the new--and I can't help but draw a line between that and less overtly physical work. It's all of a piece, really; our minds draw their power from the cosmic furnace giving rise to infinite varieties of form.
At least I like to think so, anyway, in part with the daily reminder provided by this page.
CORPORATE COMICS EXTRA:
Click here for the pages leading up to this one.
Nicholson is also the writer/artist of Through the Habitrails, an equally trenchant and surreal look at corporate identity.
At a conference over New Year's, one point I emphasized was that the halcyon days of civil society and social enterprise are about to give way to a re-assertion of centralized government control. Via the New York Times:
Critics of government spending argue that Americaâ€™s private sector does a better job making socially necessary investments. But it doesnâ€™t. Public spending is allocated democratically among competing demands. Rich benefactors can spend on anything they want, and they tend to spend on projects close to their hearts. . . .
Philanthropic contributions are usually tax-free. They directly reduce the governmentâ€™s ability to engage in public spending. Perhaps the government should demand a role in charitiesâ€™ allocation of resources in exchange for the tax deduction. Or maybe the deduction should go altogether. Experts estimate that tax breaks motivate 25 percent to 30 percent of contributions.
Here we go again.
Got tied up a bit so the podcast edit will have to wait one more day, alas. I did in my various travels get to read Jerome Groopman's new New Yorker article on academic culture and nonprofit medical research as social enterprise. I'll post a few thoughts on this later, because the issues raised in the article touch on exactly the sort of law, culture & identity matters that we've been discussing.
But not now, alas, 'cuz I gotta run.
(Reagan pic via Clusterflock)
There's been some interesting conversation on the web recently about the culture clash between nonprofits and business, which, if you poke around here, you'll see is a subject of some interest to me. Folks who don't think it's an issue really should pay attention; observations such as this are signs of a growing backlash that the social enterprise movement must face if it is to survive.
I know some of you are wondering, hey, Jeff, what's the deal--you're a professor of social enterprise, but you're not all rah-rah like other social enterprise professors. Schizophrenic much?
To which I answer, no, not at all, and for two reasons:
First, I believe it's important as a professor to stand perpendicular to any movement you're studying, even if you think it has value. Social enterprise, nonprofit studies, civil society--one of the things holding these areas back as academic disciplines is that we tend to replicate the same fusion of advocacy and analysis characteristic of nineteenth century first generation sociology. One of the reasons sociology evolved was that professors came to realize that they actually didn't help social movements by merely serving as a mouthpiece for the latest trends. Our value-added, I'm convinced, lies in providing a broader analytical perspective on what's going on.
Which is a nice segue into social enterprise itself. Anyone who teaches business will tell you that an enterprise won't go very far if it doesn't get real about its own situation. Yes, every startup has a moment in the beginning when the founders know they have a cool idea that's going to make them bazillionaires in a month. But to make it work they eventually have to face facts.
In a business plan, a core part of this is the SWOT analysis, which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The strengths and weaknesses sections assess things internal to your organization; opportunities and threats, things outside your control. A startup's chance of success will increase the more it is honest in addressing these issues; the more it pretends that there are no weaknesses or obstacles, the less its capacity to overcome them.
Social enterprise as a movement, sad to say, belies its own entrepreneurial values in refusing to acknowledge its internal weaknesses and external threats. Instead, its foremost advocates and their followers take the position that there are none--everyone who disagrees with them is simply wrong and obsolete. When things are going well it's a heady brew, but getting drunk on success is a straight path to the ditch if you don't sober up soon enough.
One of things that's going to trip social enterprise up is failing to understand nonprofit culture. In fact, another thing that's going to trip up social enterprise is its failure to understand corporate culture. There are commonalities between the two--in this respect social enterprise has positive value--but the movement has by and large not sufficiently identified what these commonalities are. The result is a movement whose lifespan will be limited to that of the entrepreneurial metaphors flourishing amidst an economic boom.
My own aim, to the extent that I have one, is to explain how everything relates. Social enterprise will succeed by making itself obsolete, by functioning as a transitional form that takes us beyond artificial divisions between art and business or faith and finance. No B Corps or cause marketing or social businesses--they're all just a symptom of the very problem that people have been trying to correct for much of the past two hundred years.
What's that problem and what's the solution? Stay tuned . . .
Humans have an innate drive to rise above the mundane. Not just poets, painters and priests--everyone, from cubicle workers to
garbage collectors sanitation engineers strives to be part of something more.
If you're like me, when you think of innovative ways to be philanthropic the first thing that comes to mind is getting workers in India to put fifty thousand dollars worth of diamonds on a pair of Nikes so you can give them to a wealthy celebrity.
It's a simple dream, really, but in these cynical times it has been a dream long left unfulfilled.
And how does this benefit charity, you ask? Proceeds from sales made during the event announcing the diamond-encrusted sneaks went to Big Boi's Big Kidz Foundation.
One observer's commentary: "sneaker culture is wack."
Last week I had the pleasure of talking to Ian Wilhelm, a reporter who has been writing about the GiveWell controversy for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. His story for the print edition hit the web early this morning.
Ian does a great job providing an overview of what happened & a range of different perspectives. Tomorrow I'll post a podcast with highlights from our conversation. In the article itself, Michelle Moon--MetaFilter's Miko, the first to spot the GW sockpuppetry--hits the nail square on the head by highlighting the importance of the culture clash between commercial marketing and charitable transparency.
Click the link below to read a few excerpts. I'll chat more about my own quoted comment when I post the podcast.
If you're not clear on the historic significance of the current campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, here's a reminder from the New York City Transit Museum. It's a pre-suffrage subway ad for a dishwashing powder, complete with stereotypical African-American servant imagery.
Because the North was, you know, so much more enlightened on these issues than the rest of the country. There's more here and in the flickr set.
While MLK Day is, for good reason, a time for commemorating the landmark civil rights protests of the 1950s and '60s, it's also instructive to recall those who have fought the good fight in more subtle ways. The next time you're tempted to think that ads are just commodified ephemera, remember the unsung writers on Madison Avenue who subtly shifted the image of women and minorities from servitude to autonomy.
Or at least it can be, according to this article in the Economist, which explains why family co-operative breeding is rare outside birds and primates.
The problem: cooperation increases the transmission of "pathogens and parasites . . . , imposing a price that is not always worth paying."
My own two cents re this: intentionality in humans can help to curb this, but we can also intensify the phenomenon in horrific ways, and for reasons folks haven't yet guessed. Just another reminder that I need to write down everything I came up with while thinking through my uncivil society project.
Also worth reading in the same issue: a study whose methodology indicates that new empirical work may not be the best path to fresh insight. The key lesson:
[T]he old cry â€œmore research is necessaryâ€ is not always true. Sometimes all you need to do is look at what you already have in a different way.
This is a picture of the TV news screen in the elevator at my office. The service is called the Captivate Network.
I get why biz would want an advertising hook in a closed office space that well nigh everyone must use. And hey, their ad copy says I'm "desirable."
But why choose a name that reinforces the metaphor of a corporate prison?
The Parkside Evangeline is a high-rise building that borders New York's Gramercy Park. It originated as a Salvation Army way-station for young working women in New York--with inexpensive housing as the lure, this no-men-allowed building kept the women out of trouble (the Juno kind of Trouble) and provided a medium for the Salvation Army to inculcate the strong moral values that would make them upright wives and mothers.
Times changed, and eventually the building basically became a cheap apartment complex with the charity as its landlord. A number of residents became lifers; others were new arrivals staying for a time, but with by-and-large no significant engagement with the Salvation Army's spiritual mission.
And when property values soared through the roof, the Salvation Army decided to sell the building. After all, the rumored asking price--one hundred million dollars--could go a long way toward stabilizing the charity's system for providing aid to the impoverished.
Thus began a conflict akin to the CBGB dust-up, except with rent-controlled tenants. Last August a court ruled that because the Salvation Army is a charity it was exempt from the rules that typically apply & thus could toss the residents out. There's been an outcry that the SA is acting contrary to its nonprofit purposes, but . . .
The whole thing's actually kind of complex.
Yes, the Salvation Army is essentially evicting people. and usually that's not something a charity wants to do if it is averse to reputational blowback.
At the same time, the building no longer serving its core mission, except in the tangential way of maintaining New York's identity as something more than just a playground for the rich.
Court documents indicate that the building may be running in the red to the tune of a couple hundred Gs a year. Is rent-controlled living something that something the Salvation Army should be required to subsidize?
Literal translation adapted from Wikipedia:
Night, street, lamp, drugstore,
A meaningless and muted light.
Live another quarter century -
All will be thus. There's no way out.
You'll die -- you'll start again from the beginning,
And all will repeat, as before:
Night, icy ripples on a canal,
Drugstore, street, lamp.
As we nonprofit experts live our little lives, sipping our chardonnay at benefits and reveling in the nondistribution constraint, a monster from beyond is poised to attack.
And if it doesn't get us, symbiotic parasites will finish the job.
No, I'm not talking about the latest cinematic 9/11 metaphor. I'm referring to attorneys general and ratings-driven commercial media.
This headline from Billings, MT is just the latest example of the horror that lies in store for any charity that believes it is safe: "Some Nonprofit Hospitals Keeping Too Much of the Profit."
From the standpoint of nonprofit legal theory, hey, no probs--as long as the money doesn't get distributed to insiders, it's cool.
Does no one see the absurdity of Congress insisting on greater efficiency in public benefit expenditures?
Hearings such as the one linked above aren't just about making charities more effective. The bigger story: strengthening the state by undermining trust in a chief rival.
In what was surely a coincidence, apparel retailer Aeropostale had two announcements appear in yesterday's Women's Wear Daily:
Speaking of expulsion, today's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article on the resurrection of expulsion & shunning in church discipline. The sinfulness of gossip and discord is a recurring theme, but read the article carefully and you'll see that the sinful gossip in question invariably involves questioning the pastor's actions.
One expellee raised questions about the pastor's apparent extravagance.
Another objected when the pastor breached a confidence and
gossipped about recited her sexual history to impress a spiritual lesson on the church.
And then there's the main illustrative tale, about a 71-year-old woman who threatened the church by failing to repent of the sin of wanting to follow the church's bylaws.
Shortly after the church hired Mr. Burrick in 2005 to help revive the congregation, which had dwindled to 12 members, Mrs. Caskey asked him to appoint a board of deacons to help govern the church, a tradition outlined in the church's charter. Mr. Burrick said the congregation was too small to warrant deacons. Mrs. Caskey pressed the issue at the church's quarterly business meetings and began complaining that Mr. Burrick was not following the church's bylaws. "She's one of the nicest, kindest people I know," says friend and neighbor Robert Johnston, 69, a retired cabinet maker. "But she won't be pushed around."
In April 2006, Mrs. Caskey received a stern letter from Mr. Burrick. "This church will not tolerate this spirit of cancer and discord that you would like to spread," it said. Mrs. Caskey, along with Mr. and Mrs. Church, continued to insist that the pastor follow the church's constitution. In August, she received a letter from Mr. Burrick that said her failure to repent had led to her removal.
Expelled is a new movie promoting intelligent design. Besides its controversial subject, the film is drawing attention for its blatant attempt to bribe Christian schools into goosing the box office. Here's the scheme:
Generous donations can be awarded to schools according to the number of movie ticket stubs they turn in. By accepting this challenge, your school could be awarded a donation up to $10,000, just for bringing your kids to see this film!
Your school will be awarded a donation based upon the number of ticket stubs you turn in (see submission instructions in FAQ section). That structure is as follows:
- 0-99 ticket stubs submitted = $5 per ticket stub
- 100-299 ticket stubs submitted = $1,000 donated to your school
- 300-499 ticket stubs submitted = $2,500 donated to your school
- 500 ticket stubs submitted = $5,000 donated to your school
Each school across the nation will be competing for the top honor of submitting the most ticket stubs with that school having their $5,000 donation matched for a total donation of $10,000!
Graffiti on the space left behind by CBGB, evicted by the charity that owned its building.
A recent article in Policy by Peter Saunders:
By perpetually raising productivity, capitalism has not only driven down poverty rates and raised life expectancy, it has also released much of humanity from the crushing burden of physical labour, freeing us to pursue â€˜higherâ€™ objectives instead. What Clive Hamilton airily dismisses as a â€˜growth fetishâ€™ has resulted in one hour of work today delivering twenty-five times more value than it did in 1850. This has freed huge chunks of our time for leisure, art, sport, learning, and other â€˜soul-enrichingâ€™ pursuits. Despite all the exaggerated talk of an â€˜imbalanceâ€™ between work and family life, the average Australian today spends a much greater proportion of his or her lifetime free of work than they would had they belonged to any previous generation in history. . . .
Nobody planned the global capitalist system, nobody runs it, and nobody really comprehends it. This particularly offends intellectuals, for capitalism renders them redundant. It gets on perfectly well without them. It does not need them to make it run, to coordinate it, or to redesign it. The intellectual critics of capitalism believe they know what is good for us, but millions of people interacting in the marketplace keep rebuffing them. This, ultimately, is why they believe capitalism is â€˜bad for the soulâ€™: it fulfils human needs without first seeking their moral approval.
Is the plethora of websites measuring the effectiveness of charity a monument to efficiency or a quantified Tower of Babel? Heather Carpenter wonders:
I am sitting back and reading the commentary about Holden at GiveWell and I'm thinking to myself why? Why do these websites exist to tell donors what the best charity is to donate to? Do donors even use these websites? . . .
There are all these standards of accountability that have been created for nonprofits, however which are these standards of the right one? Does Holden or the folks atCharity Navigator or GreatNonprofits really know what it is like to run a nonprofit organization? Here in San Diego we are having an issue with the Better Business Bureau because it is pushing its way into the nonprofit sector and thinks it knows how nonprofits should run, it has its wise giving standards that are sweeping across the United States. It is frustrating that all these different groups think they know the right way a nonprofit should run. . . .
I've been running various nonprofits for the past 7 years all of them with budgets ranging from 500k to 1mil. And, sure, I know the multi-million dollar nonprofit have a department that can fill out all the paperwork requested by the BBB and pass all the standards set by Charity Navigator, GiveWell, etc, however lets not fail the small to mid-sized nonprofits that are working on the grassroots level. Don't just fail us because we don't fit into your accountability standards box. I can tell you my organization is more ethical than the multi-million dollar nonprofit down the street. . . .
So, a note to all of you who run your wonderful donation sites that want to channel money to my nonprofit, just remember the research, and the fact that I along with many other nonprofit managers, don't have time to figure out what website I need to log on to today to make sure I meet your standards.
Speaking of the two as one, I loved the following grant announcement in the 1/10 Chronicle of Philanthropy:
Lilly Endowment. Higher education. To construct and equip a new building for its Jacob School of Music, and for a program to attract professors and scholars to the School of Law: $69,000,000 to Indiana. (Bloomington, Ind.).
Ut omnes unum sint . . .
"Once upon a time there was a little boy. All he knew of story was what he saw on television. Mostly it was brands and cartoons. Being a precocious child he graduated at age 12 to the financial news, the story of who made a killing. He dreamed that he would some day grow up and turn the whole world into an efficient market...." Is that not the saddest story you ever heard?
It's an important question. Remaking charity in the image of commercial markets has had any number of positive effects vis a vis quantifiable output, but it also has corrosive effects. People who went into charity to escape our society's obsession with metrics and commodified time become disillusioned with nonprofit corporate culture. For every wealthy donor drawn to venture philanthropy there are dozens of lesser donors repelled by notion of a charitable business. And lest we forget, the IRS has long held to the rule that charity must be distinct from commercial markets.
For too long the conflict between these competing visions has been a gnostic struggle between darkness and light, with each side viewing the other as a distracting lie. Yet both sides only see part of the whole.
There is poetry in money and money in poetry. Both are media that serve to transform the material, connected and routine into abstract values. In short, they do the same thing in different ways. A poet who senses this connection has the potential to reach the heights of each without selling out, just as the capitalist who grasps the poetry of finance can make money without feeling the need to quit to find higher meaning.
Does that mean bridging the values of poetry and money is easy? No, not at all, especially in a culture that has for far too long treated them as dueling absolutes. I'll be writing a lot more about this in the coming weeks. For now, here's a bit of moneygami to help point the way:
Hey, diplomacy hasn't worked, so who's to say things won't go better with a crate full of toasters and vases?
Today's WWD tipped me off to this press release on Luc Besson's new save-the-environment documentary, Boomerang. The apparent aim of the publicity is to say that the doc will benefit charity, but the press release doesn't sound too optimistic:
Any profits from "Boomerang" will go to [goodearth.org] . . .
"All" might have been a more hopeful word than "any," but as someone who has heard social enterprise documentarians lament how much they (do not) earn, I can see why they wouldn't want to tempt fate.
I put my foot in mouth often enough that edible footwear would actually be useful. But that's not really why vegan shoes have become an issue. Jezebel has the rundown on Portman's new line for non-leatheristi, along with a price comparison with Stella McCartney (expensive) and MooShoes (cheap). Commenters ask the obvious question: isn't clothing made of plastic or nylon bad for the environment?
No wonder hippies go barefoot all the damn time. If you had to decide between wearing more sustainable, animal-killing leather shoes and non-biodegradable, air-killing, chemical-packed plastic ones through a fog of pot and acid, wouldn't you?
A cry from the heart on leadership misconduct from a Christian blog:
Pastor Resigns Amid Allegations
The subtitle of this newspaper story tells it all: â€œThe man who led Shiloh for 14 years was also accused at his last churchâ€. Why, oh why, does this happen over and over in churches all across the country? Why, if a man, who also calls himself a preacher, is accused of sexual misconduct and the evidence is strong, is he allowed to take another church in another part of the country? Who would hire him, and why? In my past work with Churchstaffing.com, I know that there are literally hundreds of pastors applying for some of the same jobs at any given time. Why would (if you were looking for a pastor) you give a pastor accused of sexual sin a shot at being your pastor? Iâ€™m convinced that many churches are unaware of the pastoral candidateâ€™s past (either because of clever hiding of the candidate, the turning of the backs of denominational leaders, or the laziness of not running a background check). But some hire these guys willingly, and then are surprised when the behavior returns. I donâ€™t get it. End of rant. Hereâ€™s the story...
Skeez of the day update:
Attitudes like the following don't help. The backstory: Bishop Earl Paulk has finally pled guilty to lying under oath about his sexual misconduct after a DNA test proved that he had fathered a son (the church's current minister!) with his brother's wife. Here's how his lawyer characterizes the court's decision to give Paulk probation (!!!) for years of stonewalling and threats after eight women gave sworn depositions that he pressured them into sex:
''It was a fair and just resolution of the case for a man who has lived his whole life and done wonderful things but made a mistake,'' said Earl Paulk's attorney, Joel Pugh. ''He's ready to move on.''
I am not at all ashamed to admit that thirty years ago tonight I watched the first video below on its premiere broadcast and thought it was the coolest thing ever. Thus inspired, I went on to give a Shatner monologue from Star Trek as my oratorical performance for the middle school academic fair.
Yes, that's right. As a yoot I modeled my rhetorical style on Captain Kirk. Came in second place, dammit. PA Dutch Country was truly not yet ready for Shatnerian greatness!
BONUS VIDEO: In addition to Rocket Man, I'm including what is arguably a rival for Shatner's greatest performance: his rap version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, from the film Free Enterprise.
Beth's Blog offers a useful post on metrics as a tool as opposed to a goal.
Now I'm actually glad that my early morning post evaporated. I wrote about how Givewell stands on a precipice where many charities have stood before. It could fall into nothingness, like the PTL Club; linger as a tragic phantom of being and nonbeing, like Jimmy Swaggart Ministries; or luck out with a huge boost in support and meaningful accountability reform, like what seems to be happening with Oral Roberts University.
Over at Non-Profit Tech Blog, though, Allan Benamer has provided a more analytical meditation on GiveWell's future, with a chart and hard stats and no Heidegger or televangelists! If you aren't a reader of NPTB or a habitue of socialmarkets.org, you should be--Allan and Jeff are cool cats doing interesting work.
My own response to the news was quite different. When I read about it in the Wall Street Journal Monday morning, I actually laughed so hard I had to put down my coffee.
Why? Because the Eco-Patent Commons is just a clever update of an old marketing scheme.
Sure, the press release makes it sound sustainalicious, as if corporations like IBM and Sony were donating their valuable intellectual property assets to the world for open-source development.
That's what they want you to think, anyway.
But look carefully at what the corporations are actually doing. Ferget about the PR fluff; pay attention to the gruesome details. The following paragraph from the WSJ & an IBM lawyer gives the game away:
[W]hile individual patents that are donated may not be bringing in licensing revenue, or be protecting actual products, donating them still represents a gift of value. "We're pledging that we won't assert the patents that are put into the commons against anyone who is using them in an environmentally friendly way."
Ha! Check out the sleight of hand. The strategy should be rather familiar to anyone in business--the publicity touts the billions and billions earned by the IP assets of the donor companies, but what's the actual transaction? Getting good PR from donating their under-performing IP assets and promising not to go after folks who use them in ways that aren't likely to generate substantial revenue.
A brand new world? More like Thrift Shop Horrors gussied up in the lingo of Open Source 2.0. It's the next generation of dumping remaindered books on the Salvation Army or giving stale bread to City Harvest, then proclaiming yourself the next Mother Teresa.
Instead of this PR show, pay more attention to how oh-so-old-fashioned-and-traditional charities have been building multi-million-dollar empires by leveraging their IP assets. When there isn't a strike, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences makes fifty million bucks tax-free A YEAR by selling the broadcast rights to the Oscars. Leading universities--Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Stanford--have reaped billions from acting as de facto patent farms. The NCAA, NFL and Major League Baseball--fuhgeddaboudit. And off-the-radar screen, much smaller players have been licensing software, marketing trademarks, harvesting copyrights--in short, strategically managing their IP portfolio--in a host of profitable ways.
Nonprofit lawyers have known this--and done this--literally for decades. Yet outlier charities that want to get in the game must be careful. Jumping on the open-source bandwagon can make you feel with-it, but in all likelihood it won't make your group financially self-sustaining, let alone rich. There's also a real potential for innovation to flat-line. What groups need to make this work is a nuanced grounding in IP law and how it relates to cognitive psychology and organizational dynamics.
Morever, if your charity does manage to leverage its intellectual property, it needs to try to do so in a way that won't attract negative attention from the IRS, the media or legislators. Far from being marginal, the nonprofit IP boom has scaled to such a degree over the past generation that questions are now being raised about whether it's appropriate for nonprofits to be so commercial. Congress zapped tax-exemption for unrelated business fifty years ago; don't think the same thing couldn't happen to exempt orgs' IP.
Does this mean I'm opposed to the Eco-Patent Commons? Nah, far from it. Let a thousand flowers bloom and all that.
But if you really want to understand what's going on with charity and intellectual property . . .
Didja ever have one of those moments where you sum up a day's reflection in a single post, only to have your blogging platform gobble the #@#! thing up?
I just did.
And the irony is, the theme concerned teetering on the edge of the existential abyss.
Looks like the score is Nonbeing 1, Being 0.
Employing the disabled and other low-income individuals?
Selling gift baskets from needy third-world countries?
If this nonprofit sounds like a model of social enterprise, that's because, well, it is.
And besides exemplifying the triple bottom line, it also illustrates how the commercial character of such ventures can cause serious trouble with the IRS.
Click through the jump to read some key points from the Service's explanation for denying this nonprofit tax-exempt status under 501(c)(3). Remaking charity in the image of commercial business can yield certain benefits, but failing to respect the design logic of nonprofit form can create far more trouble than your business plan may anticipate.
After three years of investigations, threats of more investigations and still ongoing perjury inquiries, the Congressional investigation of the Major League steroid scandal appears to have entered a hiatus. But it's helpful to remember why Congress held such sway over the league's internal matters in the first place: the implicit threat of revoking MLB's antitrust exemption.
A similar dynamic is in play arising from tax-exempt status for charities and other nonprofit groups. Exemption gives Congress far greater power & incentive to intervene than it would otherwise have were these groups paying taxes.
Will exemption always be worthwhile?
A couple weeks ago I used a photo of the first telephone book--well, page--to illustrate how a Christian minister helped pave the way for all night sex chat lines. The photo above points to the end of the line for the phone book as a mass medium.
Years ago, the latest Manhattan telephone book was something you wanted to grab the day it arrived in the building before all the copies disappeared. This year, my super informed me, not a single copy was taken from the stack despite a week in the lobby. Last night they were sent down to the trash.
I hadn't intended to write another entry on GiveWell. However, a number of things have happened or are now in the works, so I figured I'd add a few thoughts.
The big news, of course, has been the quasi-discipline of co-founder Elie Hassenfeld for posting online under the pseudonym Talia. More than anything, this made me laugh. As a lifelong Batman fan--the "Batman" logo in the Adam West TV show is literally the first word I remember reading--the name Talia immediately brings to mind the devilish daughter of Ras al Ghul, best known for trying to seduce Batman into taking over her father's global criminal empire.
My recommendation if you're a guy choosing a cross-gender sockpuppet: try "Silver St. Cloud" or better yet, "Julie Madison." You'll get serious geek cred without raising questions about your moral compass!
Why do many Russians tolerate incursions on associative freedom? Because they remember that less than twenty years ago, democratic market reconstruction ("perestroika") left them with long lines, little money and less food. The next ten years weren't much better--more stuff, but no lines because only the relatively wealthy could it afford it. The image above is a line for meat ("myaso"); other lines from the text scanned in this Russian blog entry include liquor, bread, cigarettes and the U.S. Embassy for emigration.
I was reminded of this ad today when at a local grocery store. Next to the cashier was a big handwritten sign urging the cashiers to direct people to the self-checkout. The target: 35% of total shoppers scanning & bagging their own groceries. Punctuating the note was an enthusiastic exhortation, "Let's Be #1!"
Rah-rahs and praise can be motivational, sure, but didn't this manager realize he was rallying the cashiers to make themselves obsolete? What's worse, do the cashiers realize what is likely to happen if they "win"?
If you were on the 6 line yesterday afternoon or milling around Union Square at dusk, you probably saw a number of people without pants.
The occasion: the seventh annual No Pants Subway Ride. A secular mini-carnivale, NPSR2k8 started with the pantsless ride and led into a rowdy celebration at Union Square, replete with pantsless jogging, hula hoops and Twister.
But as much as this was an outlet from routine, you can't help noticing that the event equally a testimony to the rise of cultural conservatism.
After all, thirty years ago everyone would have been streaking.
In the following video, a pantsless Carla Bruni sings about the fragility of life while a shirtless Nicholas Sarkozy walks around with a candle, looking for his keys.
Women's Wear Daily had an interesting sidebar yesterday re an emerging controversy over Madonna's charity, Raising Malawi. Here's the story, followed some facts that I've dug up that suggest there might have been a better way to handle this:
On Wednesday, foxnews.com claimed the singer "has conned both UNICEF USA and Gucci into helping her raise money for the Kabbalah Centre and Madonna's patron gurus, the Berg family." The article claimed Madonna's charity, Raising Malawi, is a front for the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, and thus implied that Gucci's Feb. 6 benefit to aid UNICEF and Raising Malawi, which Madonna cohosts, ultimately benefits the Kabbalah Centre.
"I think that the claims in the story are outrageous, they are incorrect, inaccurate, hurtful and malicious," Liz Rosenberg, Madonna's publicist, told WWD. "The reality is â€” and it's never been a secret â€” that the Raising Malawi organization was cofounded by Madonna and Michael Berg, who is one of the spearheading executives of the Kabbalah organization. The Raising Malawi organization is completely separate from the Kabbalah, and they are run as two separate organizations."
The foxnews.com report also suggested Raising Malawi had plans to indoctrinate "unsuspecting Malawi orphans into their brand of mysticism," having flown in teachers from Malawi to Los Angeles to "retrofit them for Kabbalah."
"There are no religious lessons being taught to the children of Malawi," Rosenberg said of those claims. "It's tragic, because Madonna has put her passion and love and money behind a project that is saving children's lives, giving them food, health care and schooling. The money that is being raised at the Gucci benefit is being divided between UNICEF and Raising Malawi."
She added that the funds raised that night are earmarked for the building of a girls' school in Malawi. "There is a board, where accountability will be very clear and very specific, and all funds will be accounted for," Rosenberg said.
Gucci, too, issued a statement refuting the claims: "The accusations are not true. By agreement with Raising Malawi, the gifts and donations dedicated to Raising Malawi from this event will go directly to Raising Malawi, which is a legally distinct entity from the Kabbalah Centre or from any religious organization. Proceeds from this event are specifically allocated to support programs for orphans and children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, including the building of a girls' academy in Malawi."
Sounds pretty straightforward, no?
Yet there remains, pardon the pun, a loose thread that could give rise to further accusations that Raising Malawi is not being forthright with the facts. Go to the Raising Malawi site and you'll find a reference to the charity's partnership with Spirituality for Kids, an organization dedicated to providing children with the "spiritual tools" that will help them find "true spirituality." A quick trip over to Guidestar reveals that the president of SFK is Karen Berg, co-founder of the Kabbalah Centre and Michael Berg's wife.
Is any of this in violation of the law? Is it weird or underhanded or cultish? No, not at all. Having a religious motive, working with a religious organization and partnering with one's spouse in a charitable endeavor are not illegal in the least.
But that's not how the PR teams responded. Instead, they disclaimed any and all connection between Madonna's charity and religious instruction--an assertion that Raising Malawi's own website undercuts.
How should the charity have responded? More below:
After 9/11, the New York regional headquarters of the Red Cross became a symbol of unity as people came in droves to donate blood. If you want to make it part of your sightseeing next time you're in the City, you're too late: it's been demolished to make room for a new apartment building. The Red Cross got $72 mil.
Today's quote of the day from the Dallas News' religion blog:
â€œ[W]e don't have any problems with movie stars having more than one home. We don't have any problems with sports people having more than one home. But, boy, if you get a man of God that has more than one home, then he's got to be doing something wrong.â€
-- Creflo Dollar, one of the televangelists whose finances are under investigation by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. He spoke on CNN's â€œLarry King Live.â€
Frankly, I'm wondering why Hasbro didn't C&D the Scrabulous folks sooner. My favorite aspect of the story: the defense that the Scrabulous folks only make around $25,000 a month. Just one more illustration of how pricing strategy and relative scale can shape perception of a space beyond competitive exchange.
Wow, long day. Fun, though--one of the highlights was talking with a photographer about how the fear of a picture's stealing one's soul could be a metaphorical expression of how people set aside their normal identity when posing for a shot. Fifty or so of the things I intended to note today are sitting in a pile in my file cabinet, and I'm too lazy to look up the articles on the web. Still, there's one I absolutely did not want to leave behind.
It's a quote from today's NYT column by David Brooks on tax cuts and the waning of supply-side economics. The column is interesting enough to a guy for whom reading "The Way the World Works" was one of the pivotal moments of middle school (What can I say? I was a dork), but that's not why I'm writing this post. The following sentence, that's why I'm writing this post:
The entrepreneur is no longer king. The wage-earner is king.
Why does this matter? Well, as I like to say, social enterprise is not so much a movement as a metaphor--it's a rhetorical form whose popularity is in part a function of the Reagan/tech market booms. As that market recedes new modes of expression are emerging--or, more accurately, old modes of expression are re-emerging. More and more people are looking for certainty, not risk.
The ongoing sustainability (ba-dum-bump!) of social enterprise will depend on its adherents' adeptness at adapting to this environmental change.
GLASS HALF EMPTY EXTRA:
Ah, what the hey--here's another one. Scott Shane has a nice write-up of the top ten myths of entrepreneurship over at Guy Kawasaki's blog. Number 8 is one I try to hammer home whenever possible when speaking to social entrepreneurs:
Most entrepreneurs are successful financially.
Sorry, this is another myth. Entrepreneurship creates a lot of wealth, but it is very unevenly distributed. The typical profit of an owner-managed business is $39,000 per year. Only the top ten percent of entrepreneurs earn more money than employees. And the typical entrepreneur earns less money than he otherwise would have earned working for someone else.
If it's true for pure profit players, it's doubly true for folks trying to generate profits in areas of the economy traditionally seen as low return. More on what scale-free networks mean for social enterprise is coming soon.
I've been busy in deadline stuff, so while I was hoping to continue to engage some revealing news and interesting discussions on places such as MetaTalk, GiftHub, & Tactical Philanthropy, I'm reduced to a 30-second fun Flickr grab.
Like this example of corporate social responsibility from the UK. Excellent cause and all, but I'm not sure that the best sign of success for prostates is thumbs up . . .
In the aftermath of l'affaire Givewell, Gifthub and MetaTalk have been engaged in a lively chat re online interaction and philanthropy.
This morning Phil posted a provocative on how satire and parable keep the wayward self in check. This discussion reminds me of Marshall McLuhan's observations on roles and humor in the contemporary media economy.
As McLuhan noted, jobs and goals have morphed into roles, as we now assume an array of diverse identities adapted to various media environments. The roles of artist and clown are similar in they each stand perpendicular to the environments in which they're immersed. Humor in particular plays a valuable role in exposing hidden assumptions and providing a forum for otherwise unaccepted thoughts. It's public relations not in the sense of craven advertising but providing a medium for multiple roles to relate--outsiders can express grievance without penalty and insiders can learn what they're doing wrong.
The picture above contains one of McLuhan's favorite aphorisms in this regard, taken from the Marshall McLuhan Distant Early Warning card deck. The full set is available for viewing here.
Teens want to know how they can help save the world. Study medicine? Became a research scientist? Nah, that stuff's too hard. Real slacktivists know that the best way to help stop AIDS in Africa is to shop!
HT: Profit for Non Profit, an online journal created by one of the students in my nonprofit web class. Thanks Amit!
This afternoon I went to the Guggenheim Museum for the final day of its Richard Prince "Spiritual America" retrospective.Â Prince is perhaps most famous for his explorations of appropriated imagery, such as Marlboro cowboys, biker mag girlfriends and nurses on the cover of pulps.
The one that really grabbed me, though, was the picture on the left.Â The caption on the bottom:Â "Leading his own life now?Â Are you kidding?Â That's not his own life."
Surely it's not possible to be super-effective and yet lose one's sense of self . . .
A prophetic moment by way of the Kenneth Copeland TV ministry.
Charity shops are a real crapshoot--sometimes you find things so horribly tacky they deserve to their own blog, and sometimes, fabulous style. To help promote the latter, Goodwill has launched its own luxe fashion blog. And like many fashion blogs, it indulges a fair bit of snark, such as this mini-jeremiad against preening greenies:
Green is good. Let's just quit talking about it all the time. The world's gone eco-crazy these days, and fashion is no exception. There's lots of positives in this trend: use of sustainable materials, responsible business practices, emphasis on a bigger system of give and take. But aren't we all a little tired of having "green" shoved down our throats? Can't we just be responsible keepers of the earth without proclaiming it to everyone and their mother? Is it okay to wear organic cotton and naturally dyed denim...and not even mention it to anybody? You know, like, be humble about our environmental consciousness? Here's hoping that designers from Stella McCartney to American Apparel keep doing their thing (vegan shoes and accessories; vertical integration of manufacturing) and that other brands take notice...quietly.
A lawsuit, if you're not careful. Two stories from the current news cycle:
One, a dispute between the San Antonio affiliate and national HQ of Habitat for Humanity. The issue: what the SA branch claims are improper new terms regarding use of the Habitat for Humanity name. San Antonio claims national Habitat's new affiliation agreement gives national too much control.
Why is resolving such questions important? Just look at religious groups, whose property battles following splits over doctrine are legion and legend. In the news today, this report from Virginia that an Episcopal Church property dispute among is costing so much--to the tune of millions of dollars--that the Virginia Diocese is in financial trouble. If not worse:
Meanwhile, the national Episcopal Church isnâ€™t revealing where itâ€™s getting the funds for its legal efforts. Some retired bishops have requested the information because theyâ€™re worried the church might be violating federal pension fund laws. And thereâ€™s another issue lurking here that often pops up in religious conflicts. Itâ€™s crucial to find out if the national church â€” or anyone else for that matter â€” is spending endowment funds for purposes other than the purposes designated by the donors.
[Washington Times reporter Julia] Duin follows the money on both sides of the legal battle:
The Anglican District of Virginia, representing the 11 churches, spent $1 million on legal fees last year and plans to spend another $1 million this year, Vice Chairman Jim Oakes said yesterday. Its members have pledged to raise $3 million.
â€œIf people in the pews knew how much money was being spent on this stuff, thereâ€™d be pressure to put an end to this,â€ he said. â€œWe just hate spending this money on lawyers.â€
UPDATE: I've uploaded a copy of the complaint and contracts in the Habitat case, which, if you have a lengthy contract fetish, you can download here.
GiveWell aside, the story of the year so far in the charitable world has been the split between Intel and One Laptop per Child. Jack Siegel cites this to argue against the viability of charity/business partnerships, thereby prompting Give and Take to whether such partnerships are doomed.
My answer: no. There's a lesson to be learned from the Intel/OLPC split, but it's not the inevitable failure of joint ventures or social enterprise.
For this incident to be a model of failure, the partnership between business and charity would have to have actually failed. But it didn't, not completely. As the Business Week story linked above observes, OLPC continues to have substantial and lucrative for-profit corporate ties, such as eBay, Amazon, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. No doubt dozens of charities would view such alliances as desirable, if not a sign of roaring success.
To understand what really happened, scroll down to the end of Jack's blog post, where he notes that the Form 990 of One Laptop Per Child, Inc. describes it as an Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(6) trade association,* not a charity. Far from being of no practical import, in reality it's the whole story.
On the surface, the OLPC campaign adopted a legal structure that is not at all uncommon in the charitable world, consisting of an exempt 501(c)(6) trade association and a related charity, the OLPC Foundation, which, unlike the trade association, is not only tax-exempt under 501(c)(3) but can also receive tax-deductible contributions. In your typical set-up like this, none of the activity of either entity is in competition with the businesses who belong to the trade association. The trade association can't be engaged in its members' business because that would disqualify it from tax-exempt status under 501(c)(6); the charity, because setting up a direct competitor to the member businesses would spark a political clusterf**k of such magnitude that the trade association would likely collapse.
And here is where OLPC-Intel went awry. Unlike the typical venture conducted either by the trade association or the charity, the mission of the OLPC Foundation--distributing its own branded laptops--put it in direct competition with one of the trade association's core members. What's surprising isn't that this partnership collapsed, but that anyone thought it was viable in the first place. It's as if GE, Ford and McDonald's formed a charity to distribute free fast food in developing economies--at some point McDonald's will probably get miffed.
The key to success in a for-/non-profit partnership is a symbiotic relationship, akin to plovers cleaning crocodile teeth or bone-crunching bacteria in oceanic tubeworms. The more the partners can benefit each other without impinging on the other's market or mission, the greater the potential for the partnership to succeed.
*What ties all the businesses in OLPC together? Per its 1024 (annual return), all member businesses must be "within the information industry," which encompasses, well, pretty much the entire universe.
Speaking of New Scientist, recent discussions re the commercialization of charity got me thinking about the broader implications of the recent NS piece on "The Santa Delusion," examining the ethics of telling kids that St. Nick is real.
I'd always thought of this issue in terms of its implications for trust in adults and religion, but the article got me thinking about how the Santa myth relates to my own thinking on identity and design.
The key link: Santa's role in mediating relations of exchange by providing a free space beyond them.
John Kremer, reader in psychology at Queen's University Belfast in the UK, agrees. "Santa Claus is part of the mythology of childhood, which is full of white lies," he says, and Santa may have a useful social role to play. Kremer cites the work of the American psychologist George Homans, who argued decades ago that all social relationships are based on reciprocity and the balancing of rewards and cost. This is starkly revealed at Christmas, says Kremer. Each gift must be carefully matched in value with another, each card must be met with a card, or you risk embarrassment or worse. "Children find themselves in this intricate web of exchange without the necessary social skills, nor indeed the resources, to become active participants."
Santa is the perfect solution. "Because Santa gives presents to children but expects nothing in return, he protects them from the minefield of social exchange known as Christmas," Kremer says. "This allows children to learn the ropes of gift-giving, without having to play an active role."
In fact, I'd argue, the value of Christmas as an exchange-free zones goes even further, in that helps normalize corporate identity as a meta-economic institution. On one level, the child relates to the family as a corporate entity beyond exchange; perhaps even more significant, the child relates to branded commodities as objects originating beyond the system of commerce.
Which brings us back to social enterprise. As I've suggested here before, social enterprise isn't really new; you can find variations on the business-charity hybrid throughout recorded history, if not before. What distinguises social enterprise more than anything is the degree to which we've allowed the business metaphors to dominate the frame.
And this is where we seem to have it backwards. Rather than reducing the allegedly obsolete values of traditional charity to units of exchange,social enterprise could achieve a more--dare I say it--sustainable revolution by highlighting the transformative dynamic within business.
This requires more than glib assertions that doing good is more profitable for business in the long run, a rhetorical strategy that relies on quantified evidence that simply does not exist. Rather, we need to rethink the nature of business itself. The Santa myth persists, I think, because at base we sense it isn't a lie--the family, society, even modern branded commerce have morphed into identities beyond mere exchange.
According to me, anyway. The last couple issues of New Scientist have been publishing the results of their "Flirt with Science" contest. I didn't enter, alas, but I'm going to be on the lookout for next year's contest. That I differ from the magazine's chosen winners and runners-up is probably a reflection of my own scientific interests, but what a fun mix of education and entertainment!
Why am I posting my own favorite top ten here? Because . . .
Well, um . . .
Because it's my site, dammit, and I'll post what I want to, even if it's not about social enterprise.
So here they are, my top ten. Your mileage will no doubt differ.
"Looking at you, the creationists may have a point after all."
"How can I know a hundred digits of pi, but not the 11 digits of your phone number?"
"Forget what they say about butterflies, I think that you could whip up a storm just by fluttering your eyelashes."
"As a quantum physicist, the moment I observed you I determined that we were heading to your place or mine."
"What's a nice girl like you doing in a superposition like this?"
"You have a hyperfine structure."
"Baby, you must be a start codon because you are turnin' me on."
"You're so sweet I am developing insulin resistance."
And for the sentimental favorite, here's one that actually worked for Michael Boddy of New South Wales, Australia:
"Did you know that if oysters had no natural enemies, in 10 years the world would be 28 miles deep in oysters?"
(Boddy: "We married in 1968 and are still going strong.")
Makes me wonder what the Boddy count is now in New South Wales!
I'm fascinated by the way people create meaning from the seemingly mundane.
Here's a story about how a metal worker, Shane Prukop, adapted his skill in producing industrial parts to create Sacred Cut, which sells custom-cut tags with spiritual designs. His motivation: "to integrate his artistic talent, engineering skill and spiritual beliefs." The article has lots of good stuff, including the educational function of jewelry, the transformative value of spiritual dog tags and Shane's plan to give part of the profits to charity or perhaps start a nonprofit himself.
For more, check out the above-linked piece in the Ventura County Reporter, which in true Southern California style chose, out of the diverse range of available spiritual symbols, to picture the happy face. You can visit Shane's site here and, if you're truly dedicated, read the quick write-up on my blog on spirituality and material culture, The Blingdom of God.
bad chemical peel + nonprofit entrepreneurship camp = profit.
And not an underpants gnome in sight.
A couple things about this story caught my eye beyond the teen/natural products connection. One is this little riff on chemical names:
But Lawrence's bad hair experience made her stronger, wiser -- and now successful.
She began to read labels on hair care products.
"Some ingredients would have normal names like tea tree. And other ingredients had 20 letters," said Lawrence.
The other was that the sign of success was getting into Wal-Mart, which is not typically something praised in environmentalist circles, regardless of its ties Adam Werbach. Judging from all the positive PR, looks like selling the product of a high-profile sustaina-teen might be an effective way for the company to greenwash the protesters out of its hair.
The following comment from the new MeFi Givewell comment thread is part of a growing trend. Recommendation for those who don't take the backlash seriously: read Robert Reich's Supercapitalism, especially, IIRC, the chapter entitled "Politics Diverted." If social enterprise is going to remain a viable organizing principle, it must address the concerns of those who feel that entrepreneurial values are inconsistent with true charity.
For those wondering why the emotion arose in [the initial GiveWell discussion], fourcheesemac nailed it, I think, as being about a microcosm of recent trends in the world. So you don't have to wait for that thread to load, here is the start of his/her comment:
After reading nonprofiteer's smart post above, this occurred to me. Maybe some of the visceral anger here is scapegoating, in a sense, but man is the anger deserved.
We have had years, now, of being told that rational and efficient market-based forces would radicalize the hitherto flabby and emotional ways we have thought about social justice and morality. Across all sectors, not just philanthropy. There have been many prior Holdens, waving stopwatches and sliderules and books of rational choice theory and quantitative methodology at us and telling us that being "good" and being "competitive" are the same thing. The left -- and "liberalism" -- has been repeatedly humiliated by this rhetoric, not least in the last 7 or so years of a CEO president who also seems to have managed to surround himself with fellow incompetents who, behind their moralizing discourse, were busy fucking everything up while robbing everyone blind and lining their own pockets.
If the past is any guide, the reaction will be layered. Perhaps most visible, especially within the charitable community: affirmations of the board's action, with sporadic objections that the apparent demotion was too severe, a la the first comment in the post linked above.
A number of those who objected to Karnofsky's behavior will offset accusations of irrational hostility through gracious conciliatory gestures.
A number of people will lose interest now that there's no official action left to influence.
Then we see responses such as this:
Ah, the familiar smell of CYA PR hackery! The GiveWell board "believes that the acts of misrepresentation that were committed are indefensible and are in direct conflict with the goals of the organization and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms", but they don't fire Karnofsky.
So much for trust and transparency.
Even among those who don't put it so starkly--or are silent--the damage has been done.
My own personal reaction?
As I've said from the outset, my primary concern was not with Karnofsky's sockpuppetry but with the unfortunate tendency to characterize the folks who found the problem as the problem. Had the red herring of anonymity never raised; had constructive commenters not been lumped in with the inevitable trolls; had the Board publicly thanked Miko or MetaFilter for bringing this issue to light--that would have been exceptional.
As for what the Board did in regard to Karnofsky, again, they had a chance to take action that was truly revolutionary. While I'm glad the Board at least did something, the result was on the whole unremarkable. GiveWell started out proclaiming disruptive change; now it is just another organization that has chosen to weather bad publicity by affirming the status quo, albeit with one of its leaders brandishing a different managerial title. That may keep Givewell going, but that doesn't make it interesting.
However, this isn't to say the experience left me wholly nonplussed. I won't go into all the positives--it's about 4:30 a.m. here in NYC and while the Chrysler Building is a marvel late at night I want to try to get a little shut-eye--but I'd be remiss if I failed to note the evolving interactions among the MeFi community, Phil Cubeta, Maureen Doyle and folks at other philanthropy sites that took an interest in thinking through what all this meant. Sure, there were rough patches, cross words and unfortunate misunderstandings, but that comes with being human, which last I checked was a condition that afflicts us all. What really stood out in such moments as when the MeFi crew flocked to GiftHub, 2173 & GiveandTake or Phil & Maureen joined MeFi is the power of empathy to create meaningful connections where none may have seemed likely before.
And seeing that in action just might have made this whole mess worthwhile.
At last week's New Year's Eve concert in New York, Chris Rock made the following observation about social norms:
White people arenâ€™t allowed to mock black people; rich people arenâ€™t allowed to mock poor people; skinny people arenâ€™t allowed to mock fat people; and so on. The more stuff you have, the less stuff youâ€™re allowed to say.
The panels to the left are from a wonderful all-ages Nature comic on DNA manipulation. Shoot, if Nature had had comics back when I was a tyke, I probably never would become a lawyer, let alone a religious historian.
The "black box" metaphor will be familiar to anyone who has studied law and economics, as it's also a common means of characterizing the firm. And the way it works is pretty similar--we throw together a bunch of useful tools & functions in a single nifty device, of which we then make more and more and more.
But the similarity doesn't stop there. Just as the comic depicts a child playing with the genetic device, we can see corporate identity as itself the legacy of people with a child's understanding of the tool that they had made . The folks who first modeled corporate form identified cool properties and went to town, even if they didn't fully comprehend what they had made. Now we all are playing with their toys.
When flying into Charleston the other day, I looked out my window and saw water flow through land. Fractal patterns everywhere. Rivers, streams, swamps, houses, developments, cities--you could see unfolding nature taking shape before your eyes.
Image via ffffound, which has quickly become one of my favorite sites on the web
Is this a social enterprise? Just askin'.
TASTELESS PUN EXTRA:
My great-grandfather was deaf from a young age due, I was told, to an incident in World War I. He introduced me to advanced science scholarship, the evolution of hearing tech and the virtue of laughing at one's own limitations. And so, it is in his memory that I make the honorary title to this post, The Naked Eh?
Anyway, he'd've thought it was funny.
WorldChanging reports on shared space traffic management, which eliminates "most signals and lane markers . . . in a radical effort to force people to use common sense and courtesy when driving rather than relying on lane markers." Animating the movement: an understanding of the fundamental role of design as law:
The premise of shared space is that people pay more attention when they're not distracted by "highway clutter," in the words of its founder, traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Shared space relies on environmental context--in this case, a landscape unlittered by signs--to influence human behavior. "Our behavior in a theatre or a church differs from a pub or in a football stadium as we understand the signs and signals through years of cultural immersion," Monderman told an interviewer in 2006. "Likewise if we see children playing in the street, we are more likely to slow down than if we saw a sign saying 'Danger, Children!'"
Design plays a similar role in conditioning our perception of nonprofits in the marketplace. Traditional nonprofit environments--hospital, church, school--use a variety of techniques to transcend relationships of exchange and necessity, creating an image beyond commerce despite the fact that they are in many ways more business-like than many of today's so-called social enterprises.
What we are seeing today with the backlash against entrepreneurial rhetoric reflects a failure of social enterprise to respect the design logic of nonprofit form. We could view what's happened as shared space in reverse, eradicating cues in context to rely primarily on nominal signs. The problem: when the only thing visibly distinguishing nonprofit from for-profit is the word itself, the distinction becomes incoherent.
The core question, in short, is not whether nonprofits should adopt the values of the market. Such values have been their all along. Rather, we need to focus on how we can transform market relations into an identity beyond exchange. Then, and only then, will nonprofit social enterprise be sustainable.
Why am I mentioning it today? Because the issue that the article addresses has not gone away. If anything, it's reaching critical mass right now. The culture clash inherent in the social enterprise movement has been surfacing throughout the discussion of the Givewell controversy on MeFi, and in his latest comment Phil Cubeta at Gifthub hits it dead on:
The question is whether what we are seeing here is pushback against the Marketization of Philanthropy, or the Emergence of the MBA Elite as Masters of all Three Sectors.
Definitely, no question. And as Phil notes, it's an issue that "needs careful research and documentation." My next article--which I think given the circumstances I'll post serially here--develops the themes of the one posted here in more depth, but folks interested in the question may find this 2002 piece a useful introductory analysis. Information design, the medieval corporation, Renaissance art and Barney the Dinosaur--it's all here, and more. A few excerpts:
The effects of nonprofit reform increasingly resemble the programmed illusory dreamspace of The Matrix: a green hue colors the world created by a hidden code. In the movie this offputting glow reflects the hue of a digital screen; for nonprofits, it is the color of money.
The core design flaw within modern nonprofit legal theory is its constricted perspective: the assumption that we must cut to an essence behind the fictional mask. It is a methodology that excels at further breaking down nonprofit form into its separate parts, but it has lost sight of how these individual elements compose a greater whole.
The more we encourage the rules of segmentation to dominate the scene, the faster the distinctiveness of nonprofit style will degrade. Advising nonprofits is a task that requires an intuitive grasp of history, culture, and the rhetoric of form--in short, a comprehensive view of nonprofit law as a humanistic discipline.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on.
--Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven
These lyrics sprang to mind immediately upon reading the latest blog post by Lucy Bernholz, Givewell director and proprietress of Philanthropy 2173. In her meditation on the ongoing Givewell controversy, Bernholz asks readers for advice on what the GW board should do in response. Several of the initial responses argue for dissolution, which, as I've suggested elsewhere, is what I believe to be the most appropriate action--not just as punishment or out of recognition of the loss of trust, but as a public example of the courage to shut a venture down when it has passed its peak.
Besides the suggestions for the future, there is also a comment on internet anonymity that raises a telling point about social networks and power dynamics:
Not everyone has a Harvard degree, a few hundred thou in the bank, and a powerful, well-connected charitable board - lawyers, accountants, captains of industry - to back them up. Folks like us - Leona's "little people" - are well aware that even just a little negative attention from folks like you - a phone call to our employer, maybe, or some other way of using social capital that you know about but we don't - could crush the little hopes and dreams of our miserable little lives with great speed and finality.
We think GiveWell and the issues it raises are important, and we are flattered and pleased that you have chosen to listen to us. But your class of people terrifies us because we know you have all the wealth, all the connections, all the power; and at the end of the day, if we know anything at all, we know that what you say, goes.
By David Shrigley via Core 77. Even better for everyone concerned by excess commodification is the backstory:
A few years ago I went to St Moritz in Switzerland. I decided to build a non-conformist snowman. When the art collector who owned the hotel saw it he became very excited that I had created an artwork in the grounds of his hotel. I had to explain that it was not an artwork - it was just a snowman. Itâ€™s an easy mistake to make.
I'm taking care of school obligations (Fall grades, etc.) for a bit, so my thoughts on open-source charity and other things will, alas, have to wait tonight. Until I get back to 'em, folks into eco-fashion can click here for a slideshow from today's front-page WWD story on the growing eco-fashion trend:
Eco-conscious apparel is gaining momentum for 2008, even in the denim market, where environmentally friendly designers are making strides. According to the charitable organization Organic Exchange, sales of organic cotton are expected to reach $2.6 billion this year. Here, from Loomstate, launched by Rogan Gregory and Scott Hahn in 2004, a cardigan, henley and jeans.
Organic, sustainable and natural â€” they're the latest buzzwords in fashion. Though the processes are not yet perfect, here's what a few noteworthy denim lines are doing to live up to that billing.
It's not unusual for wealthy folks to try to skirt federal campaign contribution limits by giving donations through their kids. At Barney's, they can make this ruse appear more valid by dressing their infants in clothes from the Election 2008 line.
The signal-to-noise ration on the Gifthub Givewell thread has vacillated, but there's some constructive conversation going on now. One commenter's suggestion that I wasn't being constructive when suggesting that Givewell dissolve rankled a little, 'cuz that's the spirit in which that was offered. Not only is market need an issue to consider in any startup--for-profit or non--but dissolution and merger are hot issues of discussion among nonprofit lawyers, consultants and managers. Someone even recently suggested to me that the Wilson Center--my day job--offer specialized training in this subject, and I'd hate to think it's one of those things we only let ourselves consider in the abstract.
Aaaaaaaaaanyway, back to the Gifthub discussion. Master of ceremonies Phil Cubeta made an interesting observation while I was out that I want to archive here, as it gives an inside look at a world many folks will never see. As I've said elsewhere I may not be into the personae and I don't always agree with what he says (then again, I often disagree with myself from day to day), but it's stuff like this that shows you why so many in the biz look to him for counsel. He's responding to Michelle Moon:
"It interests me that exposure to the 'insider world' of nonprofits would be unusual for you as a donor adviser." Yes, good catch. You see, in the world of finance philanthropy is mostly about estate and finanancial planning around tax, and only secondarily, if at all, around passion, meaning, identity, or social result. To many advisors a foundation is "charity." That is, if the money ends up in a private foundation that is charity because it is deductible going in. Add to that, the advisor may manage the money. Money that leaves the foundation as a grant en route to a nonprofit is, in effect, a leak in the bucket managed by advisors. So, there has been comparatively little work in the forprofit advisory world on the evaluation of nonprofits, or on making good grants. There are certainly players in that niche, like Rockefeller Advisors and The Philanthropic Initiative, but Holden is responding in part of a "hole in the market." Before the recent events, he had been writing me back and forth about business models to support the kind of work he was doing. I told him that many have tried and few have flourished. The standard model is fee for service paid by donor, but that has proven hard going for most who have tried it. Holden was pioneering another model, and clearly, it was in its infancy when this all came to a head last week.
What keeps me blogging is in part having a chance to connect across the silos to good people doing good work in adjacent areas, so begin to built a kind of mental map of the field. An ecosystem, in effect, with many elements. So, yes, I am in learning mode in many areas and am grateful for the stuff you have posted online at Mefi and here.
The Givewell discussion has been continuing on MeFi and Gifthub, which is where I've been posting more thoughts. There was a point last night, when I read these two comments, when my visceral disgust grew so strong that I almost checked out, but I'm glad that I did not. The MeFi folks in particular are raising a number of useful points.
A couple I want to highlight here.
First, this tasty comment by fourcheesemac:
There is a generational shift here, and it seems *way* over-invested in the internet as the be all and end all of social change. Amusingly, none of them ever really deal with the issue of community at all, except their own communities. What every social scientist who works with poor people knows (I be one) is that strong communities help themselves, and that the first challenge of any social improvement plan is to re-inspire a sense of community in a depressed or defeated or terrorized social group. None of these kids seems to even consider this bigger picture issue.
It's an observation you could actually extrapolate to charity more generally. Time and again we rush toward the latest shiny things that promise to Change The World and attract donors, and time and again our well-meaning but naive programs muck up as many things as they cure. But hey, they doesn't matter, because when things get all fuxored we blame the stupid yokels and move on. I've been in this gig long enough that I've seen this multiple times in multiple forms, and I'm tired. Hence the name of this blog, a reaction against the numbing recitation of the "civil society" mantra as a panacea for the world's ills.
The solution, methinks (and have long thought) lies in the direction pointed by 4cm: we need to understand all systems from the inside out if we are going to have any chance of making a positive difference. And that includes the system of do-gooding, which at present is merely lurching from fad to fruitless fad.
The other comment is from Miko, who has over the course of this week been an invaluable resource of helpful insight. It's a reaction to a Givewell blog post criticizing foundations for distributing only about 6.6% of the assets annually:
This last comment is noteworthy because it also critiques large private foundations for giving away about 5% of assets a year, betraying an ignorance of endowment management. The conservative figure for endowment investment is that endowment can be expected to generally throw off 5% a year, which forms the budget used for grantmaking purposes. Minimum spending is set at 5% because that is what can reasonably be expeceted for income. If there is additional revenue, that board decides to either reinvest in endowment or dedicate it to that year's programming. It is not because charities are reluctant to give away money or enjoy "sitting on" the funds, as Holden suggests. It's the way a foundation endowment is supposed to work. All on open, public record.
That Miko had to explain this points to a serious weakness in how many in the social enterprise movement see financial sustainability. For many charities--and this has been true for decades--financial sustainability derives from an array of income resources, including donations, endowment assets, and direct business activity. Yet the past few years have seen a steady devaluation of the first two resources, as if the only valid mode of financial sustainability is income derived from selling goods and services. From this perspective maintaining an endowment appears to be a symptom of greed and fear, the archaic residue of obsolete tradition now being swept away.
Um, no. What it is is shrewd long-term management of a diverse asset pool.
Which is what makes Givewell's rhetoric so puzzling. It claims to embody the values of Wall Street, but you'd think folks from Wall Street would be familiar with the practices of institutional investors. What Givewell's standard--spend down that endowment, spend it DOWN--actually reflects is the attitude of 1960s' Congress critters who were trying to eradicate private foundations by forcing them spend down all of their assets over twenty years.
And that leads to an issue I don't have time to address now but have been chatting about a bit in my public talks. A teaser: could this so-called reform movement actually reflect a shift in public policy away from private charity?
Stay tuned . . .
I thought that I'd spend tonight summing up what I said about social enterprise over the past few days, but instead I've spent my time back home absorbed in the unfolding Givewell controversy. The situation in a nutshell: after a high-profile publicity blitzkrieg touting Givewell as a revolution in charitable transparency and accountability, its founder was caught using false identities--i.e., sock puppets--to promote Givewell and to criticize other groups, including its main competitors. Ground zero for the scandal: this thread on MetaFilter.
The founder, Holden Karnofsky, has already admitted that what he did was wrong, and if all this story involved was a guy copping to sock puppetry I probably would have stopped reading the myriad blog posts and comments hours ago. What has made this incident particularly compelling for me has been the response of professionals in the charity community. I'll probably come back to this story later for a big-picture look, but for now, a few quick lessons:
- Doing good ain't hula hoops. To be blunt, Givewell director Lucy Bernholz' evident lack of familiarity with MetaFilter, the reputational dynamics of its online community and the ethics of sock puppetry and astroturfing make all the 2.0 lingo on Philanthropy 2173 seem little more than superficial trendhopping. Defending her tech savvy by saying that she uses Facebook does not help. The danger here goes way beyond technology: so-called nonprofit experts have a dismal track record of, to quote Bernholz's slogan, "remixing" their advice to fit the latest fads. Russia is an authoritarian country today in large part due to well-meaning but ignorant promoters of civil society; do we really want to base the future of philanthropy on a knack for Scrabulous?
- Don't attack the character of whistleblowers before you've checked out their claims. The same goes for the transparent technique of admit-the-confirmed-mistake-but--raise-oh-so-noble-questions-about-the-whistleblower. Not only is this likely to make you & your organization look even worse, as strategies they're ethically dubious at best--these responses are just a short jump away from the behavior seen in, say, Enron, the Catholic Church pedophilia cover-up and retaliation against reports of sexual harassment at Madison Square Garden. One of the persistent themes in scholarship on organizational dysfunction is the hidden danger of collective identity. The innate tendency to favor our own against others is not inherently benign; the same social glue that fosters loyalty can lead to violence and other forms of moral nihilism.
- Never forget that charities sell trust. Transparently trying to bribe online accusers with a "donation"--don't do this. An imprecise answer to a specific question won't silence your critics, nor will lame excuses. The occasional mistake is to be expected, even encouraged--after all, you can't break new ground without taking a risk. However, a sustained documentable pattern of lies and attacks followed by partial disclosure and defensive responses? If the folks at Givewell were trying to provide a case study of inflammatory and ineffective damage control, they succeeded. No matter how many times management may tout their ongoing commitment to corporate governance, they're toast.
- Which leads to the next point: karma's a bitch. While I agree in principle with the sacred virtue of forgiveness, Givewell is in a somewhat different position from your average sinner. Holden flew out of the gate loudly proclaiming his ethical superiority and judging other charities for not living up to his standards. His getting busted for fraud is a secular analog to discovering that Ted Haggard had gay sex or Jim Bakker covered up an affair. The issue isn't just a mistake--it's hypocrisy. If we're going to look to the Bible as our moral guide, perhaps a more relevant passage might be Matthew 7:3--"Why do you focus on the splinter in your brother's eye but ignore the log in your own?"
- In short, it all comes down to a lesson that we haven't seemed to learn from the earliest days of Greek drama: beware of hubris. Oedipus Rex was not about sex; it's a story about how pride can blind us to becoming what we despise. And as Plato observed in The Defense of Socrates, to confuse knowledge of one thing with a knowledge of everything is a systemic problem with specialized expertise. Still here we are, twenty-five-hundred years later, glibly proclaiming that a bit of experience with PR, tech or hedge funds makes one a master of the charitable universe. The only thing different about Givewell's hubris 2.0 is that instead taking a lifetime, Oedipus fell in a day.