In today’s Social Velocity blog interview I’m talking with Albert Ruesga. Albert is the President and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, known for its leadership in the region after Hurricane Katrina. He serves as chair of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and sits on the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace steering committee. He earned his Ph.D. at MIT and taught philosophy at Gettysburg College before entering the world of philanthropy. An accomplished writer, his articles have appeared in the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, Social Theory and Practice, and other publications.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: As President & CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation you were deeply involved with the rebuilding efforts after hurricane Katrina and the attempts to use Katrina as an opportunity to kickstart social innovation. Looking back, how successful do you think efforts were to use the aftermath of the storm as an opportunity to create social change?
Albert: I came to New Orleans at the beginning of 2009, three years after New Orleanians had cleared their streets of rubble and buried and mourned their dead. It was also two years after the Greater New Orleans Foundation had launched its very successful Community Revitalization Fund that helped rehabilitate and construct affordable housing for 9,500 families. Certainly some good things have happened under my watch–at least I hope other people will judge this to be true–but it’s worth remembering the substantial good that came before, thanks to the sacrifices of so many.
The term “social change” is as slippery as a fresh Louisiana oyster. How do we measure it? One model that springs immediately to mind is the New Testament story of the sheep and the goats in which God says to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed … ; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ You may recall that God had some very choice words for those on his left.
There are many good people in New Orleans who understand and abide by these words. These people–and there are many–continue to be the hope of our city. As individuals or through their foundations, they give generously to help the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned.
We need to remember also that what drew the attention of the world to New Orleans was not a powerful hurricane–powerful storms are by now a commonplace. What drew their attention was the fact that so many people needed to be rescued from their rooftops. What shocked the world were the appalling disparities between New Orleans’s poor, largely black, population and those who were better off. If you judge social change in these terms, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, metaphorically at least, many New Orleanians are still running for their attics. While there has been progress in some domains, we have not adequately addressed the cultural, structural, and spiritual causes of these disparities.
And before we start pointing fingers at New Orleans, let’s not forget that these same kinds of disparities exist in every metropolitan area in the United States.
Nell: On the White Courtesy Telephone blog you sometimes take philanthropy to task (for being too theoretical, for chasing shiny objects, etc.). Is there something fundamentally wrong with philanthropy? Does the power imbalance between funder and recipient create a dysfunctional relationship that stands in the way of social change?
Albert: There is nothing fundamentally wrong about philanthropy when understood as generosity, as the giving of time and treasure to help others, as giving for the sake of the common good. On the contrary, philanthropy is hands down our greatest achievement as a species.
As for “organized philanthropy,” “professionalized philanthropy,” the philanthropy practiced by foundations large and small — that’s another matter. The problems with organized philanthropy, in my view, go far beyond power imbalances. Several years ago, I tried to summarize philanthropy’s shortcomings in “Twenty-Five Theses”. I still believe these are essentially accurate.
I’m constantly amazed at what our field marginalizes and what it deems important. There’s currently a good deal of discussion about the differences between strategic and emergent models of philanthropy. Highly compensated consultants will make fortunes helping befuddled foundation CEOs like me sort out the differences. But it’s not the model that will make or break our efforts at social change: it’s us; in most cases, we will be the reason our best models will not work. We simply cannot make good omelets out of bad eggs.
We philanthropoids chase the new model, the new technology, the new structure — the “shiny object,” as you call it — because we’re a deeply insecure tribe, lacking the self-awareness we need to admit to ourselves and others that affecting the dynamics of social change is beyond our powers, and that, as a consequence, we really don’t know what the heck we’re doing. Either that, or we do in fact understand how social change works — at least intuitively — and we fear that a frank discussion of the subject will cost us our jobs. Both of these possibilities constitute what I’ve called “philanthropy in bad faith.” I’m not immune to these criticisms; I too am guilty as charged. If my understanding of the field’s shortcomings is at all accurate, it’s because I embody so many of them. Every morning my next blog post stares at me from the bathroom mirror.
Nell: You have written about your hope that the next generation of philanthropists will make some significant changes to philanthropy. And studies have claimed that Millennial philanthropists will be different (although some disagree). How much do you think Millennial philanthropists will actually change philanthropy and in what ways?
Albert: My generation has left a terrible mess for the Millennials to clean up: a huge gap between the haves and have-nots; unthinkable gender and racial inequality; an insecure world; a despoiled environment; the illusion of democracy in our own country; and much more besides. My great hope is that the Millennials will realize that philanthropy-as-usual simply will not get the job done. We need to discourage them as much as possible from thinking and behaving like their predecessors.
If I could give the Millennials one piece of advice it would be this: pay close attention to the frame. While you’re focusing on the content (hunger, homelessness, global warming), the frame you’ve internalized — the frame we’ve all internalized — is keeping us from seeing and understanding the larger picture. What happens locally, pretty much everywhere in the world, is shaped by simple rules of human behavior that have over time led to a global economic order that needs to be made transparent. This awareness, I hope, will be the legacy of the Millennials and their successors.
Nell: One of the areas that the Greater New Orleans Foundation funds is capacity building. Is it possible to convince a critical mass of funders to start investing in nonprofit capacity building?
It’s certainly worth a try, isn’t it? Short of launching a capacity building program, as we did, grantmakers can start by providing general operating support whenever possible (although multi-year support is better), providing grants for capacity building, providing capital for operating reserves, and awarding larger grants. Foundations can teach their program officers to look and listen for cues that a nonprofit needs special assistance. There are so many ways in to the capacity building “space,” ways that cost so very little. The payoffs, in our experience, are substantial.
Photo Credit: Greater New Orleans Foundation