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Why Philanthropy Must Speak Out: An Interview with Grant Oliphant

In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments (and frequent contributor to their excellent blog).

Prior to running The Heinz Endowments, Grant was president and chief executive officer of The Pittsburgh Foundation for six years. Before that, he served as press secretary to the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz from 1988 until the senator’s death in 1991.

Grant frequently leads community conversations around critical issues such as public school reform, civic design, the ongoing sustainability of anchor institutions, domestic violence, riverfront development and various socio-economic concerns. He also serves extensively on the boards of local nonprofit and national sector organizations, including the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which he chairs. He has also served on the boards of Grantmakers Evaluation Network, Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, and the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance.

You can read other conversations with social changemakers in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: You have written on the Heinz blog and elsewhere about the importance of philanthropists speaking out against government policies or decisions that are at odds with their work. However, philanthropy is often hesitant, because of both real and perceived limitations, to become too political. What do you think philanthropists, and the nonprofits they fund, can and should do to speak out against political decisions that are at odds with their missions?

Grant: This question makes my brain hurt. I mean, seriously, we live in a time when everything is labeled as political—affirming the science of climate change, standing up for equity, denouncing racism, defending basic math, you name it. A cultural institution we support recently faced criticism from its own docents for posting an inclusion policy they condemned as “political” because it welcomed all visitors, including immigrants. When your core values are suddenly defined as political, what are you going to do—run from your ideals and hope they somehow survive in the shadows? Or are you going to step into the light and advocate for what you say you believe in?

We have to remember this is about policy and the marketplace of ideas and values, not politics. Philanthropy shouldn’t be about trying to influence who wins an election, and private philanthropy can’t lobby on specific legislation. But foundations of all ideological bents have long understood that on some issues, the only way to bring about meaningful change is to persuade the broader culture that it matters and then translate that into supportive policy. In telling the story of its own impact, philanthropy loves to point at successes like universal vaccinations. But now even vaccines are under attack, along with the science informing them. So what should philanthropy do—stand mutely by and pretend it doesn’t have a point of view on saving lives and preventing suffering, or for that matter on the importance of science as a basic decision-making tool for public policy? You can’t win the battle of ideas by hiding.

We have to speak honestly about the perils of policy rooted in magical thinking and so-called alternative facts. That sort of candor is described as courageous in the foundation world, but really what’s brave about speaking the truth when everything you believe in and work for is under attack? We are witnessing a jaw-dropping assault on fundamental institutions of democracy—the press, the judiciary, free speech, basic notions of civility, even the right of the people to assemble. The American system of philanthropy, which hinges on an engaged civic sector, simply cannot work in the context of dysfunctional or broken democracy. Speaking out against these attacks is basic self-defense for the sector but it’s so much more than that. It’s really a defense of the democratic freedoms and governance that make philanthropy matter in the first place. And if we’re not willing to fight for that, then what in the world do we stand for?

Nell: Some argue that philanthropy is at least partly to blame for the divides currently impacting our country because philanthropy is a result of wealth inequality and sometimes perpetuates inequity. What are your thoughts on that?

Grant: Martin Luther King commented on this far more eloquently than I ever can, and recently Darren Walker at The Ford Foundation has done some excellent writing on it. There’s not much more I can add. No question, the ideal goal for philanthropy should be to help create a society where it is no longer necessary. And it’s fair to ask whether a by-product of massive wealth disparity can really address the social inequity that in some ways helps drive it.

At the same time, to dismiss philanthropy as merely a symptom of inequality is to understate both the enormous value of enterprise creation and the positive social impulse that drives philanthropy at its best. Foundations and other forms of philanthropy may be imperfect expressions of an imperfect system but they also can do tremendous good, especially at a time when government is paralyzed and the private sector has become so removed from social and community concerns.
So much of the social good that philanthropy has helped support—from sensible thinking on climate change to marriage equality—is being unraveled right now, and that’s terrifying. But if nothing else maybe it’s giving those of us who are privileged to work in this field a renewed appreciation for the value philanthropy really can contribute and a heightened sense of responsibility and urgency to actually deliver it.

Nell: What role do facts play? We are arguably living in a “post-truth” world where opposing sides can no longer agree on a common set of facts. How can the social change sector hope to create change when there is no longer agreement about what the current reality is? What do we do about that?

Grant: I’d joke that the Bowling Green massacre changed my thinking on this, but I worry folks might miss the sarcasm. This is a scary time. We have leaders just making stuff up and hiding behind disinformation machines posing as media. It’s bizarre but that’s the landscape now, and I hope the social sector wakes up to it in two critical ways.

First, we need to stop confusing facts with persuasion. Our sector loves to throw data at people and preach from what we assume is our scientific and moral high ground. But neuroscience has taught us that people rely more on their emotions and “gut feelings” to make important decisions than they do on reason. It turns out we are more likely to be persuaded by a good story than by a good fact. I’ve long thought our sector could do better at simply bearing witness, at telling stories that help people see themselves in the lives and suffering of others. That’s the most basic work of philanthropy, this process of sowing compassion. In a time of unprecedented division when humanity’s notions of who we mean by “us” are being challenged as never before, philanthropy needs to get back to that.

But, second, at the same time we need to fight like hell against the normalization of “alternative facts.” Data may be a weak tool to shift closely held beliefs but over time it can move civilizations. Think about how dismissive the medical establishment was initially of the idea that germs cause disease and how conscious our society is today of antibacterial everything. Truth wins in the end, but we need to remember the end can take a long, long time to arrive. Give up on science and suddenly you end up in the Dark Ages for a millennium. For philanthropy that means continuing to invest in science and research, but it also means investing in the institutions and processes that help facts become more broadly known, including journalism. And it means not backing off when propagandists try to peddle their lies as just an alternate reality. We need to have the courage to call that nonsense out.

Nell: For many in the social change sector these are dark days. What gives you hope?

Grant: Oh wow, I could so easily sink sanctimonious piety here, which is not what any of us needs right now. The truth is, there are plenty of days I despair over what’s happening, and it’s important to acknowledge that. If you work in the social sector and these aren’t dark days for you, then you seriously aren’t paying attention.

For me, though, hope is connected with purpose. If we only feel hope when it seems like we’re making progress or winning, then that’s not really hope, is it? It’s expectation. And there is absolutely nothing about the goals we are fighting for that can be taken for granted. Every single step of humanity’s journey toward justice and sustainable community has been marked by hardship and reversals, and often outright losses, so who are we in this era to only feel hope if the circumstances are right?

If it were up to me, Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” would be required reading for us all right now, because the only way any of this gets better is if people of good intent keep pushing, even when we don’t know what the outcome will be, even when it feels like we’ve lost on something irredeemable, like the climate. We have to be humble enough to own that none of us ever really “controls” anything, but over time somehow progress still happens as long as we keep at it.

The other day the President tried to drag my hometown of Pittsburgh into his myopic decision on the Paris climate accords. I loved how local leaders here and all over the country responded with a collective roar of “no way,” which was not just about saying “that isn’t us” but went beyond that to “we’ll do it ourselves.” That’s what gives me hope—all the people I get to work with every day who greet the darkness by bringing the light of their own creativity and unrelenting determination.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Nov 2016

reading in darkI don’t have to tell you that November was rough.

A shocking end to an intensely divisive presidential campaign has left many in the social change world reeling. From trying to understand the underlying issues that are dividing our country, to figuring out how to move forward from here and what the future may hold, November was full of soul-searching, blame and calls to action. And growing activism and protest added to the feeling of unrest. But beyond the election there were some bright spots —  a new experiment in growing individual giving, a new way to evaluate nonprofits, and new technology to watch in 2017.

Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in November. But I know it was an incredibly busy month, so please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington.

You can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.

  1. With a presidential election outcome that almost no one predicted, there was plenty of conversation about what everyone missed. From deep rural disaffection, to the “class culture gap,” to political correctness on college campuses, there was no shortage of analysis about what might be causing such deep political divides in our country. As always, Pew Research added critical data to the conversation by breaking down America’s political divisions into 5 charts.

  2. Some lay blame at the feet of philanthropy.  From philanthropy forgetting about the white working class, to elite distance, there were many theories. But philanthropic historian Benjamin Soskis was perhaps most insightful: “We must admit that philanthropy…failed. With a few notable exceptions, grant makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic health. No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on which advocacy rests. There is a desperate need for more funding of grass-roots social-justice organizations that can speak to the anxieties and fears of Americans across the nation.”

  3. And there was real concern about what a Trump presidency could mean for the social change sector. Vu Le provided some balm to worried nonprofit leaders, David Callahan predicted 6 effects on the social change sector, and Lucy Bernholz worried about the impact on civil society. But at least in these early days, some nonprofits have actually seen a significant spike in support.

  4. Amid the soul-searching and prediction there were also many calls to action. NPQ offered 10 questions for nonprofit boards to ask themselves and 4 things for nonprofits to do post-election, Vu Le suggested nonprofits and foundations get on the same page, and Lucy Bernholz offered some practical advice.

  5. But perhaps most inspiring was Ford Foundation President Darren Walker urging social change leaders to stay hopeful because “We can, and must, learn from history that the greatest threat to our democracy is not terrorism, nor environmental crisis, nor nuclear proliferation, nor the results of any one election. The greatest threat to our democracy is hopelessness: the hopelessness of many millions who expressed themselves with their ballots, and the hopelessness of many millions more who expressed themselves by not voting at all. If we are to overwhelm the forces of inequality and injustice—if we are to dedicate ourselves anew to the hard and heavy lifting of building the beloved community—then the cornerstone of our efforts must be hope.”

  6. Amid the political upheaval, activism and protest were on the rise. The ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation continued to grow in size and attention in November.

  7. And Chobani yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has become something of a corporate activist by fighting for and employing immigrants and refugees.

  8. Writing on the Markets for Good blog, Andrew Means is completely over Overhead. Instead he encouraged us to move to a cost per marginal outcome metric to evaluate nonprofits. Yes!

  9. Beginning the 2017 predictions a bit early, the Nonprofit Tech for Good blog offered 5 Nonprofit Technology Trends to Watch in 2017.

  10. Along with the Gates Foundation, ideas42 is experimenting with a new approach to growing charitable giving in the US — helping individuals set philanthropy goals.  Fascinating.

Photo Credit: Emanuele Toscano

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: Jan 2016

Korean_War_Veterans_Memorial_as_seen_during_the_January_2016_BlizzardFrom an historic blizzard that blanketed the country, to tackling poverty, to the leadership of Black Lives Matter, to technology in the new year, to using social media to stop ISIS, to advice for Charity Navigator, January was an interesting month in the world of social change.

Here is my pick of the 10 best reads in January. If you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter @nedgington. And to see past month’s 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. Winter storm Jonas dumped several feet of snow across the country, but also offered a couple of interesting lessons in social change. First, the sheer amount of snow piled up on east coast urban streets provided a glimpse into better urban design. And after the blizzard hit Washington, DC it seems only female senators were brave enough to come to work. Among them, Senator Lisa Murkowski wondered: “Perhaps it speaks to the hardiness of women…that put on your boots and put your hat on and get out and slog through the mess that’s out there.”

  2. Writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Tom Klaus took issue with those who criticize the Ferguson and Black Lives Matters movements as being “leaderless.” Instead, he argued that they demonstrate a more effective “shared leadership” model: “Shared leadership…means that multiple members of a team or group step up to the responsibility and task of leadership, often as an adaptive response to changing circumstances. Multiple members may emerge to lead at the same time, or it may be serial as multiple leaders emerge over the life of a team or group.” And The Chronicle of Philanthropy profiled three of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

  3. One of my favorite bloggers, David Henderson, has made a new year’s resolution to write more often. Let’s hope he keeps it up because he offered us two great ones this month. First, he wrote a scathing critique of the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors for not standing up against presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hate-filled ideology. And then he took it further in a later post arguing that the philanthropic sector must get more political: “It seems a strange consensus that philanthropy and politics do not mix. Yet it is our politics, and more specifically our collective values, that creates the maladies we aim to address. Martin Luther King was a civil rights pioneer not for creating a nonprofit that provided social services to help African Americans live a little better, but by challenging the laws and social values that subjugated a significant portion of our community. Social interventions like homeless shelters, food pantries, and tutoring programs are fundamentally responses to injustice. While these programs are wrapped in apolitical blankets, they are plainly and intuitively critiques of the system we live in.”

  4. And speaking of critiques, columnist Tom Watson wrote a sharp commentary on American philanthropy arguing that it is going the way of American politics — moving from democracy towards plutocracy: “The disparity between democratic philanthropy and its plutocratic cousin is nowhere more apparent than in the importance placed on the Facebook co-founder’s commitment to giving away much of his vast personal fortune compared with the potential of the largest digital social network in the nation. Mr. Zuckerberg’s billions may create major causes and eventually steer public policy, but many nonprofits will struggle to find in their budgets the money required to purchase desperately needed social-media eyeballs from his advertising department. If there’s a better example of the power gulf in American philanthropy, I’m not sure what it is.”

  5. And other critiques of philanthropy in January went even further, with some arguing that modern American philanthropy attempting to address growing wealth inequality (illustrated by a new Oxfam infographic “An Economy for the 1%“) is a paradox because philanthropy itself emerged from the wealth excesses of capitalism.  A new book by Erica Kohl-Arenas argued that philanthropic interventions to solve poverty have been flawed because they don’t address the structural issues causing the poverty in the first place. And her argument was extended when she wrote about her view of a January 7th public event at the Ford Foundation where Darren Walker (who recently announced a new foundation focus on overcoming poverty) and Rob Reich discussed these issues.

  6. Caroline Fiennes argued that nonprofits should not try to “prove their impact,” since proof of impact is impossible, but rather use evaluation to gain knowledge that can help “maximize our chances of making a significant impact.” Patrick Lester, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, offered a similar caution about outcomes, but this time to the Obama administration: “A dose of…realism, combined with a greater reliance on evidence and a willingness to learn from the past, could transform the administration’s focus on outcomes into an important step forward. By openly acknowledging the challenges and dangers, recognizing the difference between mere outcomes and true impact, and demonstrating how this time we will do better, the administration could show that what it’s really calling for is not just an outcomes mindset, but an Outcomes Mindset 2.0.”

  7. Speaking of proving results, Charity Navigator’s new leader, former Microsoft exec Michael Thatcher, and the board that hired him came under attack in January for not moving quickly enough away from rating nonprofits on financials and towards rating them based on results.   But Doug White, writing an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and who created the beginning data behind Charity Navigator many years ago, took it even further took it even further: “Charity Navigator is far worse than nothing. The best that could happen is for the group to sink into oblivion, with no charities, no news outlets, and no donors giving it any thought. Or the group could take serious steps to grow up, humbly taking the time and effort to truly try to understand the charitable world.”

  8. Wanting to get further into the social change game, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced a new effort to use Facebook “Likes” to stop ISIS recruitment efforts on social media. It will be interesting to see how effective this slacktivism effort becomes at creating real change.

  9. Kivi Leroux Miller released her annual Nonprofit Communication Trends Report, including lots of data about how and where nonprofits are marketing. And while she found that YouTube is currently the #3 social network for nonprofits, that may change since YouTube just announced new “donation cards” that allow donors to give while watching a video.

  10. And finally, in January we lost David Bowie. But Callie Oettinger urged us not to be sad, but rather, inspired: “I [am] comforted in thinking of Bowie…on Mars, mixing it up with other artists…a place where the greats go to keep an eye on the rest of us and send down jolts of inspiration from above.” Yes.

Photo Credit: Northside777

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November 2015

Reading on the StairsLet’s be honest. November was a really tough month. The terrorist attacks in Paris (and other attacks in Mali, Beirut and elsewhere) put the world on edge. And the anti-refugee rhetoric that followed was incredibly disheartening. Finally, the loss of tenacious nonprofit investigative journalist Rick Cohen made for a difficult November, a month that is typically focused on gratitude and giving back.

But there is always hope. Some foundations are taking an innovative approach to failing cities and to supporting networks, students are rising up for equality, and the Overhead Myth was dealt another blow.

Below are my selections of the top 10 reads in the world of social change in November, but please add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list of great reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+.

And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads here.

  1. The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris created an ugly backlash in America against Syrian refugees. There were worries about the attacks causing a slowdown in fundraising for Syrian refugees and parallels drawn to the exclusion of Jewish refugees in World War II. But rising above all of this Rick Cohen urged nonprofits to take their rightful place as defenders of the downtrodden and speak up against anti-refugee policies. As he put it: “If the U.S. slams the door on desperate Syrian refugees, the nonprofit sector that claims to represent openness, inclusion, and democracy will find its credibility seriously damaged should it fail to do whatever it can to confront the politicians using fear and hatred as a tool for political advancement.” Amen!

  2. Adding insult to injury, that beautiful piece was Rick Cohen’s last published article because he died in November, creating an enormous loss for the sector. The Nonprofit Quarterly created a lovely tribute to their colleague by culling his best pieces, and they have big plans for carrying on Rick’s legacy.

  3. There is hope amid the fear and turmoil of our times. Susan Ragusa from Inside Philanthropy looks to the nonprofit sector to “lead with optimism and champion hope.” Yes.

  4. Perhaps heeding that call, some foundations have stepped up in innovative ways to help struggling American cities. Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin described ways resilient cities can mitigate climate change.

  5. The whip smart David Henderson has created a new tool (currently in beta) for individual donors to track and analyze their favorite nonprofits.

  6. We are far from completely overcoming the Nonprofit Overhead Myth, but there was a big step forward in November when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to pay the full costs for nonprofit services. As Tim Delaney, president of the National Council of Nonprofits explained: “Los Angeles County has now raised the bar for collaboration between governments and nonprofits by stating its firm stance that its nonprofit partners must be paid the full cost to deliver services that the County contracts with them to provide. We urge states, counties, and localities across the country to follow its lead.” Amen!

  7. Student protests against racial inequality on college campuses across the country reached a fever pitch in November with some wins at the University of Missouri. It will be interesting to see how student demands and this movement evolve.

  8. Steve MacLaughlin from Blackbaud put together an interesting Slideshare on 50 Fascinating Nonprofit Stats that became so popular that Blackbaud created a whole website around it.

  9. Many nonprofits made preparations for today’s Giving Tuesday campaign (perhaps using the nifty interactive data dashboard that allows you to slice and dice online giving data, or some new Facebook giving tools). But some nonprofits, feeling that it’s just a gimmick, opted out of participating in Giving Tuesday at all.

  10. The Ford Foundation announced that a big part of their new direction will include further investing in networks and institutions. As Darren Walker described: “Networks are fulcrums for creativity and dissent, beacons of stability, scaffolding for aspiring change makers, and connectors for social innovators.” And to help create more effective social change networks, network entrepreneur theorists, David Ehrlichman, David Sawyer, and Jane Wei-Skillern  offered 5 Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network.

Photo Credit: Jens Schott Knudsen

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