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political reform

Guest Post: An Emergent Approach to Philanthropic Strategy

Kelly Born Note: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. Next up is Kelly Born, program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Kelly also writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog. Here is her guest post…

In March of 2014, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation launched a new initiative focused on US democracy reform, The Madison Initiative. The overarching goal is to “help create the conditions in which Congress and its members can deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in ways that work for more Americans.”

Our mandate is for a 3-year, exploratory initiative to assess whether and how the Foundation might be able to make a difference here. During this period, we are focused on three central questions:

  1. Are there solutions and approaches that are worth pursuing?
  2. Is there ample grantee capacity to pursue these ideas (or can we help build it)?
  3. Are there funding partners we can work with to make it happen?

In exploring this problem of congressional dysfunction we realized early on that, unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any silver-bullets that will solve this problem – it’s not as if campaign finance reform, nonpartisan redistricting, or increased voter turnout, taken on their own, would resolve our current democratic ails (even setting aside for the moment how hard it would be to actually achieve these changes!).

Regrettably, there is no clear consensus on what to do to improve the system, much less on how to do it. This may be, in part, why Inside Philanthropy awarded The Madison Initiative with 2014’s Big Foundation Bet Most Likely to Fail. Given this, our view has been that current congressional dysfunction is occurring in a system of systems (and sub-systems) that are interacting in complicated ways.

Early on we decided to develop a systems map rather than a theory of change to guide our work (working in close partnership with the Center for Evaluation Innovation and Kumu, collaborations we’ve written a bit about here). Theories of change typically outline desired (social or environmental) outcomes and then map backwards, linearly, to the activities and inputs necessary to achieve those outcomes. Systems maps are perhaps better suited for more complex, uncertain environments like democracy reform, where cause-and-effect relationships can be entangled and mutually reinforcing, rather than unidirectional.

Version 1.0 of our map includes more than 35 variables we believe are contributing to the problem, distributed across three key domains: Congress, Campaigns and Elections, and Citizens. In light of this complexity, rather than making an initial set of big bets on a few key variables, we have instead spread a series of smaller bets within these systems to see where grantees might gain traction, and what this reveals about the system’s more confounding parts.

The benefits of this approach are many – in fact, I cannot imagine effectively tackling this particular problem any other way. But employing this spread betting approach also involves a few challenges for us at Hewlett, and for our partners and grantees. The trade-offs are worth considering:

  • We are acknowledging and respecting complexity, but this can sow seeds of confusion for our partners. Our approach has the essential benefit of taking into account the systemic complexity and interdependency of what we are trying to help change. We are avoiding over-simplifying and thereby misconstruing our reality (a good thing). But we are exploring more than 35 variables (ranging from deteriorating bipartisan relationships to the proliferation of partisan news media), with more than 60 active grantees. This approach can be hard to manage, and harder still to convey to others – especially anyone accustomed to a more linear and readily understandable theory of change.
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  • Our course correcting helps us learn, but has a real impact on partners. As we diversify our investments to learn more about what works, we will continue to learn more about which efforts are having the most impact on congressional dysfunction, and which are less germane to the problem. As we do, we will necessarily converge (and double down) on a few core interventions, while discontinuing others. This will mean disappointing organizations that we respect and had supported at the outset – an inevitable byproduct of this approach, but unpleasant for all involved.
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  • Our evidence-based approach risks coming off as overly academic. We are determined to avoid investing in solutions where there is not solid evidence to support their viability vis-à-vis our goals. This helps us avoid squandering funds on interventions that won’t, ultimately, work. But this approach also runs the risk of coming across as standoffish, academic, and idiosyncratic in the eyes of a practitioner-driven field that in some instances may be pursuing work that is harder to (or has yet to be) substantiated by solid research.

We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us. But we deeply believe that the social sector shouldn’t shy away from complex problems. We also believe that the benefits of this approach far outweigh the costs. It enables broad-based learning, and truly forces us to constantly re-think the grants we are making. Building in these tough choices, rather than forging ahead with a pre-defined strategy, requires that we not just learn, but that we act on what we discover. And fast.

In short, while beset by a few real challenges, we’re convinced that an emergent path is the best path forward. Surely we will place some wrong bets along the way. But, as a favorite colleague of mine often says, “it’s not like we’re selling cigarettes to children.” All of our grantees are doing great work – ultimately it will (not so simply) be a question of which of these lines of work is most likely to improve Congress.

In 2017, we will go back to our Board of Directors to discuss whether and how The Madison Initiative’s work will continue. In the meantime, we would love to hear how other funders have approached emergent problems like this – and how nonprofits might advise that we manage these inherent challenges as we progress?

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Fundamentally Changing American Politics: An Interview with Josh Silver

joshIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Josh Silver, Director of Represent.US, an organization building a movement to pass tough anti-corruption laws in cities and states across America.  His local approach to political and social change is a fascinating model. Josh is a veteran election and media reform executive and served as the campaign manager for the successful 1998 Arizona Clean Elections ballot initiative campaign. He is also the co-founder and former CEO of Free Press, a leading media and technology reform advocacy organization. He also served as the Director of Development for the cultural arm of the Smithsonian Institution.

If you want to read past interviews in the Social Velocity interview series go here.

Nell: With Represent.Us you take a city­-by­-city or state­-by­-state approach to political reform, instead of a nationwide approach. Why do you think a local approach holds more promise?

Josh: It’s all about momentum. Every poll available has shown that Americans of all political affiliations — conservatives, progressives, and independents alike — support tough, new anti-corruption laws. But, as with so many other issues, these wildly popular reforms are going nowhere fast in today’s Washington.

If we want to break the gridlock at the national level, we need to be pragmatic about where we focus our efforts. Rather than throw ourselves at a brick wall in Congress, we’re taking this fight to the thousands of cities and 27 states where we can use the ballot initiative process to bypass compromised local legislatures and put tough, new anti­-corruption laws directly to a public vote.

Focusing on city and state initiatives is both good policy and good politics. In policy terms, many state and local anti­-corruption laws are even more out of date than federal law and in significant need of reform. We can and should do everything in our power to make the exchange of money and favors for political influence illegal at every level of government.

In political terms, using a local ballot initiative strategy will allow us to start racking up wins immediately, showing an understandably cynical public that change is possible and building momentum for national reform. While self­-interested politicians might be reluctant to change the system that got them elected, the public will overwhelmingly vote for a local Anti­-Corruption Act if given the opportunity.

Advocates of marriage equality and marijuana legalization have seen huge success with the same strategy. 20 years ago, both issues faced seemingly insurmountable odds in Washington. By picking smart targets at the state and local level, they’ve managed to redraw the political map and set their campaigns on the path to national victory.

We’re running the same playbook, and it’s already working. On November 4, 2014, Tallahassee, Florida passed the first municipal Anti­-Corruption Act in the United States by a two to one margin. Now, campaigns for new Anti­-Corruption Acts are already in the works for twelve cities and two states in 2015 and 2016.

Nell: As you mentioned, your approach is part of a larger state­-by­-state reform trend, with movements like the state­-by-state legalization of gay marriage and of marijuana. Why does the state­-by-state approach work now and will we ever go back to federal­ level reform?

Josh: The state­-by­-state approach works because it allows Americans to take matters into their own hands when politicians refuse to act. Instead of worrying about local politicians carving out loopholes for themselves and their parties, the People can craft their own comprehensive reform plan, gather the signatures necessary to place it on the ballot, and put their local Anti­-Corruption Act directly to a public vote. Given the popularity of the reforms we’re talking about, these local Acts are very likely to pass, building the movement from the ground up and creating a domino effect which will spread from state to state and eventually Washington, DC.

Passing a statewide ballot initiative can fundamentally change a state’s political culture. It sends a clear message to every elected official in the state, including that state’s federal delegation. Every time we pass a statewide anti­-corruption act, it makes it possible for federal candidates in that state to run for Congress and win without the backing of big money special interests. So, every state we win means more members of Congress who support comprehensive nationwide reform. Once we’ve attained a critical mass of support in the states, federal level reform is inevitable.

Nell: A big part of what you do involves creating coalitions of strange bedfellows, for example Tea Party loyalists and progressives. How do you circumvent our current environment of the dismissive or openly hostile discourse between opposing viewpoints and get people to find some common ground and work together?

Josh: Americans self-­identify as roughly one-third Conservative, one-third Progressive and one-third Independent. Maintaining a fiercely cross­-partisan campaign is critical to our long-term success — winning national reform is impossible with only one-third of the country behind you.

We’ve found that the people fighting at the grassroots are sick of the gridlock in Washington, and much more willing to work across partisan lines than their members of Congress. While our supporters might not agree on everything, they’re united behind the fundamental belief that government — no matter how large or how small — must put the needs of the People first. Public policy decisions should be made based on merit, not lobbyists and campaign contributions. Our supporters are willing to put their partisan differences aside and work together to make that happen.

The effort behind the Tallahassee Anti­-Corruption Act is a perfect example of this principle in action. It was spearheaded by the chair of the Florida Tea Party Network, the former president of the Florida League of Women Voters, the chairman of Florida Common Cause, and a leader of Integrity Florida, an independent state ethics watchdog. This politically diverse coalition played an enormous role in the Tallahassee victory. As the editorial board of  the Tallahassee Democrat, the local paper of record, put it: “When you have representatives of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Integrity Florida and the state Tea Party Network all aligned against you, it might be time to reassess your position.”

Nell: You just won your first victory by passing an anti­-corruption code in the city of Tallahassee, FL. Let’s be idealistic for a second. What if you are able to log victories like Tallahassee’s in cities and states across the country. Is there a critical number of places before the movement becomes truly national? And then do you look at federal reforms? Or is the end goal every city and every state?

Josh: There is no “magic number” — Each state­-level win makes national reform more likely. Every statewide victory means more Congressional delegations from states with an Anti­-Corruption Act, and more public pressure on politicians to get on the right side of this issue or risk losing their seats.

While winning a federal Anti-­Corruption Act is a major goal, bringing reform to every city and state is just as important. This movement is bigger than any one law — it’s about fundamentally changing the political culture of the United States. It’s about demonstrating that Americans will not tolerate laws putting self-interest before the public good, and ensuring a government committed to serving the People at every level.

It’s not a question of idealism. This movement is real, and has no plans of slowing down. We’re planning to bring local Anti­-Corruption acts to 12 cities and 2 states in 2015 and 2016. We are already working with local law firms, political strategists and grassroots activists to make it happen.

If you’d like to be part of it, visit represent.us to learn more and join the campaign.

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What Social Change Requires

ConstitutionIt is obvious to most in this country that our political system is quite broken. A gridlocked Congress, a shilling mainstream media, a checked-out electorate, and the list goes on. But last week I saw some hope.

I participated in a really interesting gathering in Baltimore hosted by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. As part of their Madison Initiative (a $50 million project to “support and improve the health of representative democracy in the United States”) Hewlett brought together 90 nonprofit and government leaders, consultants, journalists, heads of think tanks, and other foundation leaders to connect and analyze.

It was a fascinating few days. Through conversations and design-thinking sessions we were encouraged to stretch our thinking about solutions to the often depressing state of American government. I met some inspiring people who are creating solutions to our broken political system. (A few have agreed to be interviewed on the blog, so stay tuned.)

I am only tangential to this world of political reform, so for me it was interesting to see how conversations happening here can inform social change more broadly.

A few things occurred to me over the course of the three days about what effective social change requires:

Networks AND Institutions
Networks, loose connections of people and groups, exist outside of our 200+ year-old political institutions, but social change happens when networks organize themselves enough to pressure outdated institutions to adapt. This happened in the civil rights movement, recent global democracy movements, and the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage. But when networks and institutions don’t connect, social change doesn’t happen (like in the Occupy movement). So networks must organize enough to influence institutions, and institutions must open themselves enough to let networks in. Social change requires that the two work in tandem.

Millennials AND Boomers 
Echoing Robert Egger’s guest post this past summer on this blog, both Millennial and Boomer generations have a deep commitment to social change and the critical mass necessary to make it happen. But they would be even more effective at creating social change if they worked together, instead of against each other. Millennials need to recognize that Boomers fought for system change in their day (civil rights, women’s rights) and Boomers need to recognize that Millennials are creating similar kinds of system change, just with new tools and technologies. The two must find connections and collaborate more often. And I think Gen Xers (of which I am one) can play a critical role in translating between the two generations.

East/West/Rural/Urban Geographies
This is a huge country and sometimes that reality gets in the way of change. Red vs. blue, rural vs. urban, Eastern time zone vs. Western time zone, coastal vs. flyover states, there are many ways to slice our country. It amazes me how often people focus on geographic differences instead of common values and goals. But true change comes when we break down those walls and have a conversation based on shared values rather than opposing frames of reference. The only way we move beyond impasse is for each side to listen with a completely open mind (free of assumptions and stereotypes) to the other side. And occasionally leave our comfort zone and meet others where they are.

At the end of the day, political reform is no different than any other social change we seek. To create positive change we must move beyond the dichotomies. We have to think much bigger. Perhaps the answer to our political woes is the same as the answer to our other social challenges, as E.M. Forster put it, “Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer.”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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