Together or Alone: Can Philanthropy Effectively Tackle Systems?
‘Kids are the canaries in the coalmine. Where kids are doing well, communities are doing well. Where kids are not doing well, communities are not doing well,’ came the challenge from an audience member.
‘True, but many foundations decide, for example, that education is THE answer to community improvement. That’s like saying, “If only the canaries were smarter …”’ responded John A Powell, director of the Haas Institute, in a breakout session on inequality at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2015 conference in San Francisco on 19–21 May. The purpose of the canary, he stressed, is to tell us what’s wrong with the environment, with the system that surrounds us.
This exchange captured a theme that ran throughout CEP’s conference—the importance of understanding systems, not just symptoms, in order to drive philanthropic impact and effectiveness.
Van Jones, who received a standing ovation for his remarks, challenged the more than 300 foundation leaders to consider systemic bias and not just individual outcomes. He gave as example working to close prisons rather than just treating individual offenders. The latter is certainly important, but the former is an upstream, system change that has the potential to shift the trajectory of the problem, not just outcomes for x number of individuals.
Jones, a CNN correspondent and non-profit leader who worked in the Obama White House, encouraged foundations to step outside of their comfort zone to build allies for change, citing his current prison reform initiative in partnership with Newt Gingrich. ‘Turns out you can work with people you disagree with, on the issues you agree on.’
Further encouragement to push past business as usual was delivered by Henry Timms, founder of #GivingTuesday and exec director of 92nd Street Y, one of the largest social service non-profits in NYC.
Henry put the crowd through exercises to uncover their understanding of what he and Jeremy Heimans in their much-discussed Harvard Business Review article coined ‘new power’ and the way it will transform how people engage in good works.
The power to do good will no longer be concentrated in the hands of large incumbent organizations filled with professionals, but will likely be more distributed through technology-enabled networks where messages are not centrally controlled and brands will be co-created by aligned publics.
Echoing themes of partnership and alliances, Barbara Kellerman of the Harvard Kennedy School challenged our current fixation on what she called ‘the $50 billion leadership industry’.
Why, she asked, have we created a culture where following is seen as less than and inferior?
A terrific challenge for our times as we see foundations with giant communications budgets and branding strategies that trumpet their leadership and distinctiveness from others.
Maybe she’s on to something.
This theme of followership and partnership also appeared in breakout sessions highlighting foundation collaboration, co-creation and examples of shared impact.
Overall, the conference seemed to succeed in challenging current thinking while also providing tools and ideas for improving foundation effectiveness. New research by CEP showed the disconnect between foundation talk about social investing vs the actual work being done in this area.
Perhaps most fascinating was the success of a nine-person panel—which seemed like a terrible idea but actually worked because it showed the breadth of approaches foundations are taking to achieve their work.
Clara Miller from Heron pushed foundations to stop being ‘hedge funds with a tiny philanthropy office on the side’ and put the other 95 per cent of assets to work.
And Sylvia Yee shared the Haas Foundation’s experience of funding marriage equality from the early days of the movement to current successes—describing the donor commitment necessary to see through the many failures and setbacks along the way.
Do conferences change foundation practice? Perhaps yes. Certainly so if participants left with Lynn Perry Wooten’s opening remarks in mind, ‘A good leader’s role is not just to serve, but to enable others to act.’ CEP’s conference provided tools, if foundations want to take action.
We Always Give What We Have, Not What People Need
This post was originally published as a guest blog on the Good Intentions web site.
The aid community has been having a healthy debate about whether gifts-in-kind (GIK) othertimes called SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) donations are a good or bad thing. The most recent spark to the flame occurred in February 2011 when t-shirts declaring the Pittsburgh Steelers the 2010 Super Bowl Champs were donated by the NFL to World Vision International for distribution in Zambia, Romania, Nicaragua, and Romania. (follow @GoodIntents or @texasinafrica on Twitter, for the low-down)
Critics argue that these kinds of giveaways harm poor communities more than they help because they flood the markets with free goods which underprice clothing and thereby put local tailors, dressmakers or small clothing companies out of business.
But are all clothing donation programs created equal?
As an advisor to Ashoka, I was invited to meet Anshu Gupta at a coffee shop here in Singapore to learn more about this fellow’s work. He’s polite and a bit reserved until he starts talking about Goonj, the organization he founded in 1999. Goonj, which serves 21 states in India, receives donated clothing, largely from upper and middle class Indians, and then using hundreds of trained local volunteers, cleans and distributes that clothing to Indians too poor to afford even basic clothing.
But the process is far from simple. Middle class women in Mumbai donate jeans. Rural women in Tamilnadu don’t wear jeans. They wear saris. And they might not wear saris made of the same cloth that women from Delhi might donate. So Goonj volunteers have a highly developed cataloging system that allows them to identify, separate and group clothing according to where the recipients can actually use it. In addition, recipients engage in neighborhood-building work in exchange for clothing. Goonj’s community organizers have developed a variety of means of helping communities help themselves using this recycled resource as an incentive, commodity, and exchange.
Goonj sees its mission as giving people clothing to help them move toward self-esteem, skills building and self-sufficiency. So the right clothing exchanged for work or expertise in a respectful way, is critical to the model.
So I’m so impressed with Goonj and I’m asking myself how is this charitable clothing donation different than the process employed by some large aid organizations? Seems to me there are a few key points of what makes Goonj effective:
1) Locally driven.
2) Culturally respectful.
3) Organized around the needs of the recipients, not the needs of the donors.
4) Fueled by creative re-use. Their newest initiative is using clean, recycled cloth scraps to make locally produced sanitary pads for poor women. A real public health and sustainability breakthrough.
5) And it recognizes that poor communities are looking to build markets of exchange and value, not destroy them. Those who extend the life of resource are performing an important function in the community’s ecosystem, they are not passive recipients.
When I met him, Anshu was asking for assistance in further developing his business model, training other NGOs to replicate the Goonj program, and seeking experienced volunteers to document and write case studies about their work. He was actively seeking support and critique. I was stopped in my tracks by World Vision’s statement that it has never evaluated their gifts-in-kind programs because “they are gifts, not programs.” Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement that it’s still blowing my mind.
My point here is not to denigrate or bestow sainthood on any organization. World Vision is full of smart and dedicated people, so I have no doubt the organization will change and grow, as will Goonj.
But this discussion encourages us all to respond energetically to our charitable impulses, while also being open to learning when those impulses might need refining in order to be responsive to community needs. There is no shame in having an idea or program that needs improvement. The shame is in being too close-minded to make the improvements.
As we were parting Anshu summed it up perfectly when he said, the problem with most programs is that “we always give what we have, not what people need.”
Please share your ideas for how we might be able to change that.