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Social Movements

Philanthropy in Troubled Times: Blogging the 2018 GEO Conference

Next week, as part of the 2018 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) Conference, I’m excited to host some exceptional guest bloggers here on the blog. GEO’s biennial conference is where the most engaged philanthropists gather to talk about how they can more effectively support nonprofit leaders. GEO has asked me to host a blog series about the conference this year (as I did at the 2016 GEO Conference), and I was more than happy to oblige.

I’m particularly interested this year to see how the GEO Conference plays out amid these troubling times. Certainly the world is a very different place than it was at GEO’s last conference, and this gathering of the most engaged and thoughtful philanthropists could be, I hope, an opportunity for philanthropy to find a way to lead in a time that is arguably dismantling the progressive causes many of these philanthropists have been championing for decades. Indeed, leading philanthropic leaders like Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments has argued that philanthropy “can’t win the battle of ideas by hiding,” and Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation has described his hope that philanthropy will “realize the urgency of now.”

The GEO Conference, held this year from Monday, April 30  to Wednesday, May 2 in San Francisco, is a first-in-class display of philanthropists thinking long and hard about their role in social change. Particularly now, when there is a real opportunity for philanthropy to stand up and have a stronger voice about where our country is headed, this conference provides a real opportunity. I’m looking forward to some open, honest and challenging conversations about how philanthropy can and should do more to lead in these challenging times.

I am particularly excited about several of the planned sessions, including “Supporting Advocacy during Turbulent Times,” “Strengthening Nonprofits as a Social Justice Strategy,” “Philanthropy’s Role in Closing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” and “Power and the Future of Philanthropy.”

And starting next Tuesday, May 1st you’ll be hearing from this great group of guest bloggers:

Kathy Reich, Director of BUILD at the Ford Foundation  
Kathy guides Ford’’s efforts to implement sector-leading approaches to support the vitality and effectiveness of institutions and networks that serve as pillars of broader social movements. Before joining Ford, Kathy worked for 15 years at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, most recently as organizational effectiveness and philanthropy director. Prior to that, she was policy director at the Social Policy Action Network, served as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, and worked for state and local elected officials in California. Kathy currently serves on the boards of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, and co-chairs the Fund for Shared Insight. She was named a Schusterman Fellow in 2016. She has also been featured on the Social Velocity blog several times in the past, as an interviewee twice (here and here) and a guest blogger.

 

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project
Prior to joining BMP, Sean spent a decade working in various roles at the Center for Community Change, developing training programs for grassroots leaders, coordinating online and grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbying on a range of issues, including immigration reform, transportation equity and anti-poverty programs. Before joining the Center, Sean worked as a Policy Analyst at UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), where he focused on employment and income security issues. Sean received a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from NYU’s Wagner School, where he now serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service. You can read my past interview with Sean here.

 

Pia Infante, Trustee and Co-Executive Director of The Whitman Institute
Pia speaks and teaches on radically embodied leadership and trust based practice in many settings including Harvard Kennedy School: Center for Public Leadership, Ashoka Future Forum, Opportunity Collaboration, Net Impact, Council on Foundations, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, International Human Rights Funders Group, and the Skoll World Forum. She also proudly serves as the Board Chair for the Center for Media Justice and is on faculty for the M.A. in Leadership Sustainability at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources as well as Thousand Currents Academy. She is an I.C.F. certified executive leadership coach and holds an M.A. in Education from the New School for Social Research.

 

After the conference is over I’ll do a wrap-up post that will bring the blog series to a close.  If you plan to be at the GEO Conference, please let me know, I’d love to see you there!

Photo Credits: GEO, Ford Foundation, Building Movement Project, The Whitman Institute

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Will There Be a #MeToo Moment for the Nonprofit Sector?

In light of the recent #MeToo movement raising awareness about sexual harassment and gender disparity in Hollywood and other industries, the Chronicle of Philanthropy/AFP study released earlier this month showed that 25% of nonprofit fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment in their job, most often from donors.

Perhaps this will be the impetus for the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to uncover and reckon with gender disparity.

And I wonder if this reckoning will also include a recognition that the nonprofit sector itself suffers from a larger gender-based disparity between those who have money and those who seek that money for their cause.

The nonprofit sector is predominantly female — 70% of workers in the nonprofit sector are women. And the leadership of the private sector (from which much of the money to fund nonprofits comes) is predominantly male — 96% of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are male, and 80% of all C-Suite roles belong to men.

Kristen Joiner pointed out this discrepancy a couple of years ago in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, arguing that the gender power imbalance between those who have money to invest in nonprofit solutions and those running those solutions is based on the larger gender disparity of our society:

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that leaders of startups in the male-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to develop and execute original ideas, while the leaders of start-ups in the female-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to manage someone else’s idea well. Maybe. But I believe it’s likely that the power dynamics at play between the nonprofit and private sectors reflect the gender dynamics of our larger society.

The nonprofit sector is mainly run by women, the private sector is mainly run by men. Is it possible that the power imbalance we talk about between nonprofits and funders has its roots in good old fashioned sexism?  And if we acknowledge and discuss that, could we at long last perhaps find a way through it?

If we were to rectify the gender disparities at play in the nonprofit sector, it might look like this:

More Nonprofit Advocacy
Regulators, board members and funders ask nonprofit leaders to keep their political voices silent, sometimes even on issues that directly impact their ability to achieve their mission. While businesses can spend millions on lobbying and support of political candidates, nonprofit political action is much more restrictive. Nonprofit leaders need to be allowed to raise their voices, whenever and wherever it will help their mission.

More Access to Unrestricted Money
Money given with strings attached is a signal that the funder doesn’t fully trust the skills and abilities of those he is giving the money. More unrestricted dollars means nonprofit leaders are freed up to do whatever they think it takes to achieve their organization’s goals.

More Support of the Fundraising Function
Robust marketing and sales operations are a given in the business world. But “fundraising” (the nonprofit equivalent of “sales”) remains a dirty word. Nonprofit leaders need to be emboldened to build robust, sophisticated fundraising functions, and they need sufficient financial investment to be able to do that.

Rejection of the Overhead Distinction
Nonprofit leaders are often encouraged to spend only a small amount of money on infrastructure, administration and fundraising (overhead expenses). But overhead is a meaningless distinction made in the nonprofit sector, and one that is not made in the for-profit sector. Nonprofit leaders need to remove the overhead shackles so that they can create strong, effective, well-supported organizations.

Development of Strong Leaders
Business leaders often invest in professional development, training, and coaching, but a nonprofit leader must figure it all out on her own. We need to recognize that strong nonprofit leaders are every bit as important and necessary as strong for-profit leaders, and we should invest in nonprofit leadership development accordingly.

I say Time’s Up for the debilitating restrictions placed on nonprofit leaders around securing unrestricted money; investing in organizations, fundraising and leadership; and pursuing political activity. We must recognize and rectify practices born from a history of gender disparity if we want to truly benefit from the solutions nonprofit leaders have to offer.

Photo Credit: numb3r

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Why Women Will Lead the Social Movement For Gun Control

As a mother and a human being, the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Wednesday cut me to the core. As I know it did so many of you.

And as someone who spends my time writing about and advising social change efforts, I am also curious about how growing momentum to create change to the obviously severe social problem of gun violence in America will evolve. Because it can often seem that gun violence is an impossible problem for America to solve. But as Daniel Kibblesmith put it on Twitter, it is not:

 

True, smoking was once so pervasive in America, and the tobacco lobby so strong that there was little hope that change would happen, but it has. There are now few places where you can smoke inside and smoking rates have dropped dramatically over the last 40 years. In 1965 almost 43% of American adults smoked, in 2014 only 17% did.

History shows that this pattern of social change repeats again and again — from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the legalization of interracial marriage. An issue becomes so egregious that it builds enough critical mass to force change.

Bloomberg did a fascinating graphic of 6 social issues and how quickly they went from a flash point of public interest to a change in federal policy. The issues ranged from prohibition, to women’s suffrage, to abortion. The amount of time that spanned between an issue’s flash point and change to federal law ranged from 2-19 years:

 

The idea is that once an issue becomes so important to the American public it is only a question of time (and relatively short time at that) before the issue moves through the states to eventually become a federal policy change. As Bloomberg writers Alex Tribou and Keith Collins put it:

“Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

The 10+ year social movement to legalize gay marriage is an excellent example of this. Launched in 2004 as a collaboration among many social change organizations, funders, and experts, by June 2015 (11 short years later) gay marriage became legal across the country.

So, what will it take for Americans, who overwhelmingly support common sense gun legislation, to rise up and convince their elected officials to make change? It is already beginning in many states, with hundreds of gun control laws passed at the state level since Sandy Hook. I think we will see a federal-level change to gun control in the next 5-10 years. It is within the realm of possibility to push the federal government to change gun laws.

And I honestly think that that push will come largely from moms. Women like me, who watched in horror as children the exact same age as my youngest son ran, arms locked with classmates, screaming in terror out of Sandy Hook Elementary and then just 5 years later watched again in horror as children the exact same as my oldest son shared video on SnapChat of the bloodshed they witnessed.

Let me tell you, there is hardly a more powerful force in this world than that of a mother wanting to protect her child. 2018 has been called “The Year of Women” because women are stepping up in record numbers to run for office, to advocate, to volunteer, and even take to the streets all in the name of social change. I think gun violence — violence that increasingly threatens to harm our own children — will compel women who are already stepping up to force change.

As a dear friend and fellow mother texted me Wednesday morning:

“Just reading all the politicians offer their bullshit condolences and take money from the NRA makes me sick.”

And as Margaret Mead (also a mother) famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Yep. I’m telling you. Our leaders’ willingness to turn a blind eye to the daily carnage around us is wrong on every single level and it will and it must change. I don’t think moms are going to take it much longer. Change is coming. Just you watch.

Photo Credit: Slowking4 

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A Reactive Nonprofit Leader Will Get Us Nowhere

Let’s be honest, nonprofit leaders tend to be a pretty reactive bunch. Instead of creating or controlling a situation, they tend to simply react to it. And it makes sense.

A foundation suddenly changes their funding strategy, and a nonprofit leader must scramble to find a new revenue source. A shift in how or where the government provides social services and a nonprofit leader suddenly sees a dramatic spike in the number of her clients. A board chair finds a job in a new city and a nonprofit leader finds his board leaderless. Nonprofit leaders are incentivized and learn quickly to react to ever-changing internal and external circumstances.

But I worry that in the face of the relentless shocks that 2017 brought, many nonprofit leaders have gone from a mode of normal reactive to super reactive. And the problem is that when you are operating from a point of reacting to circumstances instead of creating circumstances, you are much less effective at achieving your ultimate goals.

Lately I have seen some nonprofit leaders swept up into the chaos wrought by our divisive political and social climate and thus become less effective than they could otherwise be.

Let me give you an example. A nonprofit leader who runs a national nonprofit recently became understandably concerned about a proposed federal policy change that would dramatically affect her mission. She became obsessed with emailing, calling, texting everyone and anyone in her network and encouraging them to call, write, email their members of Congress. She became so controlled by this need to react to this policy change — a change, by the way, that was ultimately outside of her control because the political will simply did not exist in the current Congress — that it made her sick. She became wild-eyed, exhausted, and ill and ultimately of little use to her staff, board or social change mission. If she had instead taken a step back, become quiet, and analyzed what was within her ability to change and what was not, she could have then developed a way forward from that knowledge. And I think she would have been much more successful.

If our actions come from a place of anger, frustration, or despair in reaction to the behavior of others, then we are only exacerbating the problem. This has become even more obvious since the 2016 election. The Trump Administration will take an action or make a statement that is so egregious, that goes so completely against what we as social change leaders have worked our whole lives to promote, and our initial response is to react, to fight, to bend in despair.

But we are only making it worse. We are feeding the demons of division, anger, and hatred.

I think Brene Brown would likely agree.  In her latest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone she argues that in feeding into the anger and hatred that swirls around us, we are only hurting our efforts for larger social change and a better, more just world:

If we zoom way out and take a wide-angle shot of our world that’s increasingly defined by twenty-four-hour news, politics and social media, we see a whole lot of hatred. We see posturing, name-calling, and people trading humiliations…Pain will subside only when we acknowledge it and care for it. Addressing it with love and compassion would take only a minuscule percentage of the energy it takes to fight it…Holding on to [anger] will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

I wonder how the tide might shift if each one of us stepped away from the noise and the hatred and instead came from a place of courage, love, change, compassion, and justice, as Brene suggests. Instead of reacting to the noise, we became silent and sought to truly listen, to understand, to find common ground with those around us.

I was raised in the Catholic faith, and although I no longer practice, I’m sometimes reminded of the beautiful prayers of that faith. One of my favorites is the Prayer of St. Francis. I wonder if in these historic words there is something for those of us who want to see a more just, inclusive, loving world. Perhaps as true leaders we must do what sometimes feels impossible and instead of reacting to hatred and anger, offer love and hope, as the prayer suggests:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy…

I am not suggesting that we pardon behavior or comments that we find objectionable. But rather, that we refuse to add fuel to them by stirring up the anger, frustration, and despair of our friends, our family, our employees, our donors, our board members, our fellow social change leaders.

What if instead of spending time forwarding, commenting or re-Tweeting depressing news or comments; obsessively refreshing our news feeds for the latest dose of adrenaline; or worrying over what the next outrage will be, we build effective organizations and work across organizations, we develop smart strategies and deep networks, we instill social change leaders with confidence and ample resources, we focus on what brings us joy and peace so that we are refreshed each day to start anew, we take good care of our families and friends so that we all have the energy and the optimism necessary to see our goals realized.

There is no doubt that these are incredibly challenging times. But what if the social change leaders who dream of a more compassionate, equitable and inclusive world work towards that goal from a place of calm and confidence, rather than a place of anger and fear. Indeed, I wonder if that is truly the only way forward.

Photo Credit: sarowen

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June & July 2017

Since I was on vacation (and off social media) for a chunk of June, I decided to combine the June and July 10 Great Reads lists into one.

But that proved to be a tricky feat, since there was no shortage of activity in the world of social change during those two months. From the U.S. leaving the Paris Climate Accord and cities stepping up in its wake, to a new book from philanthropy expert David Callahan, to a new approach to the healthcare debate, to ways nonprofits are using artificial intelligence for good, it was a busy couple of months. In my (limited) view, these were the 10 best reads in the world of social change in June and July.

But I am quite sure that I missed some great stuff during those months, so feel free to add to the list in the comments.

And if you want to see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists, go here.

  1. President Trump announced in June that the U.S. would leave the Paris Climate Agreement, making us one of only three countries in the world that are not participating. Lest you think there’s nothing to worry about, check out this interactive map that projects how hot your city could be by 2100. But governors, mayors, and business and nonprofit leaders across the country defiantly stepped up to outline how they would fight climate change without the federal government.  Even on an individual level, there are things you can do to combat climate change, says a new study. And Tate Williams argued that philanthropy must now step up to fund a comprehensive social movement to combat climate change.

  2. Speaking of philanthropy funding social movements, Kate Kroeger from the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights explained how funders can support civic action in our current political environment,  and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy put out a call to social movement leaders for ideas on how to do just that.

  3. As Republicans in Congress continued to struggle to function as a party, some took a look at what’s going on with the Democratic party. Caroline Levine wondered if the Democratic party can change enough to effectively engage Millennials. And Lee Drutman argued that the Democrats are suffering from an inability to engage organizers at the local level.

  4. The biggest example of our Congressional leaders struggling to lead may be their inability to fix healthcare, but Malcolm Gladwell suggested a new way to reframe the conversation that could move it forward.

  5. As the Internet of Things, the increasing online connectedness of everyday things, continues to grow, Pew Research explored what the implications are. But at the same time, good old fashioned libraries are being increasingly used, particularly by Millennials.

  6. Artificial intelligence can be a scary, new thing, but nonprofits (not Silicon Valley) are actually leading the pack in developing some pretty socially positive things with it. And Beth Kanter offered some ideas for how nonprofits can use bots to advance their missions.

  7. Lucy Bernholz discussed the importance of a new report from Betterplace Labs that describes how Germany has used technology to integrate 1 million+ refugees. For Lucy, this report is a critical read because we all are, or will, face population displacements, and we must learn how to become resilient together: “This prospect – welcoming, receiving, moving forward together – is our collective future. Lessons learned now, about the politics, social challenges, technological realities of building welcoming and resilient diverse communities is information we can all use.”

  8. David Callahan released a new book, The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, which charts the growth over the past two decades in the number and scale of mega philanthropists. He argues they have a new kind of influence on public goods and public policy, perhaps to the detriment of broader, more inclusive civic engagement.  His book found some criticism, which Callahan himself answered.

  9. But at the same time, some like Cathy Cha from the Haas Fund, would argue that we are witnessing a dramatic increase in civic engagement. As she wrote: “At a time when so much is on the line, people are stepping out of their comfort zones and becoming more involved in our democracy. We are marching, participating in spur-of-the-moment protests, volunteering, giving money, and contacting our elected representatives — all in unprecedented numbers, and all in an effort to show we’re paying attention and we care.”

  10. A day before the big announcement that Amazon was taking over grocery giant Wholefoods, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced he was getting into the philanthropy game with a Tweet asking for advice about how to make a difference “right now.” His focus on the short-term, irked many (manymany) philanthropic thought leaders who argued that he should focus on long-term social change. But philanthropic historian, Benjamin Soskis argued that direct charity (like cash transfers to the poor) is actually seeing a resurgence and perhaps for good reason.

Photo Credit: perzon seo

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What I Learned From My Time Off

I am back from vacation, and as I suspected it would, the space has given me a new lease on life. I have returned with more energy, more hope, more perspective, and less worry.

As I said before I left, I really encourage you also to take some time off this summer. Reject the pervasive notion that we must be always on and create some space for yourself to recharge.

Perhaps as an added incentive, I offer you some of the perspective that my time away gave me.

On my vacation I traveled to Europe, and I have to say, Europeans seem so much more relaxed than Americans. Now I spent only two weeks there, so this is far from a scientific observation, but the pace just seemed less harried. People walk more slowly than they do in America, taking more time with their strides, observing their surroundings, pausing to chat with friends. Meals take much longer and require that you specifically ask your waiter for the bill because they don’t want to rush you. The lack of a relentless pace allowed me to take a deep breath and live more in the moment. I’m trying to take that slower pace back to work with me.

Europeans also move their bodies and get outside much more than Americans, it seems. There are so many more bikes and pedestrians on the roads. In fact, in Berlin every street has a dedicated bike/pedestrian lane, and often one for each. And the biker or walker always has the right of way over the car. It is obvious that while cars are important, the healthier, more environmentally friendly forms of transportation are more valued. I found that the increased amount of walking and biking made me feel healthier, but also gave me a new perspective on my surroundings. Removing the separation of the car window, I became much more cognizant of and part of my world.

I also spent a lot of time exploring museums and monuments in order better to understand European history. Because we were in London and Berlin, our historical exploration tended to focus on World War II and the Cold War. And for some strange reason I found the people and places from that period of history strangely comforting. Our current times often feel overwhelmingly uncertain and grim. But those anxieties pale in comparison to the second half of the 20th Century, which was particularly hard on the people of Europe — from the rise of Nazism, to the violence and destruction of World War II, to the displacement and fear of the Cold War. Yet the European people somehow found a way to get through it. In fact, the DDR Museum, which chronicles social history in East Germany under communist rule, demonstrated how East Berliners, essentially cut off from the rest of the world by the Berlin Wall, found creative ways to build lives for themselves despite the limits of their surroundings. It was, to me, a testament to the human spirit’s ability to endure, adapt and survive. And it was a particularly heartening message for me in our 2017 world.

The geographic and historical space my time away provided helped me realize that my little world is fairly insignificant. There is a much larger world and a much longer history out there. And so I emerge more relaxed, more present and with a greater appreciation for focusing on what I can control and letting the rest just be.

Photo Credit: October 1961. Children keep their friendship across the barbed wire border between East and West Berlin. From the booklet “A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall.” The Central Intelligence Agency.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2017

May was another fascinating month in the world of social change. There are some interesting shifts happening among the institutions and movements working to improve black lives, new polls point to a surging American liberalism (not conservatism), the suburbs are no longer the route to the American dream, anti-hunger efforts may actually be perpetuating the problem, and a librarian who questioned the impact of Little Free Libraries received quite a backlash.

Below are my picks of the 10 best social change reads in May. But feel free to add to the list in the comments. And you can see a longer list by following me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can also see 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency have been exhausting for the country. The Chronicle of Philanthropy offered some questions for philanthropist to think about after those first 100 days. And Trump’s budget recommendations, if adopted by Congress, could have pretty damaging effects on the nonprofit sector and the foundations that fund them.

  2. A more specific impact \ that the Trump Administration could have on the nonprofit sector would be to eliminate the Johnson Amendment. The 60 year old Amendment has prohibited churches and nonprofit organizations from any political campaigning. Robert Egger, founder and president of L.A. Kitchen and Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, debated whether the repeal of the amendment would be a good or bad thing for the sector.

  3. Despite the fact that state and federal government is being led largely by Republicans right now, it looks like American populism may have a liberal, as opposed to conservative, bent according to some new polls. Ruy Teixeira from Vox analyzed recent poll data and argued that America is actually witnessing a liberal surge:  “Trump in the White House and the Republicans in control of Congress and most states…owes much more to the peculiar nature of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, structural GOP advantages in Congress, and poor Democratic strategy than to the actual views of the American public.”

  4. And that populism that is sweeping the country is beginning to target philanthropy. David Callahan argued that the underlying elitism of philanthropy must be laid bare: “America is in the midst of an epic backlash against elites, one that’s put a reality TV maestro in the White House. So far, philanthropy has been insulated from this broader convulsion, but there are good reasons for the sector to engage in its own introspection about elite power…There’s not yet much discussion about the bigger question regarding how much sway private philanthropy—and a growing class of savvy “super-citizens”—should have over public life in a democratic society like ours.” And Kristin A. Goss and Jeffrey M. Berry argued on the HistPhil blog that the populist surge is posing at least 3 challenges to foundations.

  5. There is something interesting happening in the efforts to improve the lives of African Americans. The NAACP fired its president Cornell William Brooks after only 3-years in the hopes that the organization could become more responsive to changing external circumstances. But Cyndi Suarez wondered whether this 100+ year old institution can adapt to and engage with growing social movements like Black Lives Matter.  And earlier in the month she described how BLM itself is evolving amid changing times.

  6. Jay A. Winsten from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health described how a national media strategy, even in today’s very fractured media environment, can move social change forward.

  7. Some new data in May showed giving differences between genders and generations, and the  Master of Public Administration program at the University of San Francisco created a nice infographic on The Current and Future State of Philanthropy.

  8. Something really interesting happened when a Toronto librarian questioned the claim that Little Free Libraries, the small birdhouse-like boxes of free books cropping up in neighborhoods around the country, are actually increasing literacy. People got really mad.

  9. Writing in CityLab, Richard Florida painted a pretty bleak picture of how the suburbs, once the destination for the growing middle class, are now crumbling: “Suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.”

  10. Finally, there’s a new book to add to your reading list: Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Fisher argues that anti-hunger nonprofits are perpetuating the underlying wealth inequality that causes hunger by aligning with corporations that are exacerbating poverty through low wages and job cuts.

Photo Credit: kyle rw

 

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We Need Great, Courageous Leaders

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately. Well, to be honest, I am often thinking about leadership. I’m perpetually fascinated by it in all of its forms — the good, the bad, the ugly. In particular, lately I’ve been mulling on Nancy Koehn’s definition of leadership. She spoke at this Spring’s Center for Effective Philanthropy conference on what history can teach us about leadership. And what she discussed has really stayed with me.

For Koehn, leadership is not something inherent in any one person, rather leaders are created when they face a critical event and make a conscious decision to step up to the plate: “Leaders make themselves capable of doing extraordinary things…A true leader has to decide to embrace the cause and get in the game.”

I completely agree. Leaders are not born, they are made. And a leader is made when she or he decides to stand up and do the hard, right thing.

It is, at its essence, a purely selfless act. Leadership is not easy. In fact, it is often difficult, uncomfortable, unpopular. But the true leader, as opposed to the blind follower, makes a decision to step up. Steven Pressfield calls this distinction between the true leader and the blind follower the “amateur versus the professional mindset.” The “amateur” takes the easy path and expects someone else to get them what they need, but the “professional” understands that they must step up and do the hard, right thing. The “professional” says: “I will expect no opportunity and no remuneration until I have first created value for someone else.”

I believe that our country is in the midst of a leadership crisis. No matter your political beliefs, our democracy is facing a critical event. Those we have elected to represent us are faced with a decision about whether they will step up and defend the equal power of our three branches of government or whether they will not. As Max Boot wrote on Twitter:

 

 

 

And as always, history provides an analog. As American Revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

These are definitely interesting times. Only history will tell where we will land. As Robert Kennedy said in a speech in 1966, interesting times demand something from us:

“The temptation [is] to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us…Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged — will ultimately judge himself — on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society.”

Now is the time for true leaders to emerge. And it is not just a moment for our political leaders to step up. Every single one of us must take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we have the courage, the fortitude to lead us forward.

Because in this moment in our history, as Nancy Koehn put it, “We need great, courageous leaders like we need oxygen and water.”

Photo Credit: Winston Churchill on V-E day, IWM Collections.

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