Does journalism's past hold clues to nonprofits' futures?

The last fifteen years have been hard on journalism.

While the entrants under each of the above bullets would be different, trends seem to be heading in the same direction for nonprofits.
Maybe its just the categories of change that seem similar. Maybe the trends themselves, or the impact they have, will be different.




Why history helps

I'm trained as an historian though I spend more time writing about the present and the future than I do in the archives (speaking of which, Blueprint 2018 will be live on December 13)

Learning from the past is key. It's how I understand the present and the future and it's how I find hope when it seems like current events are rushing us over the edge.

(photo: Warshawski in the documentary “Big Sonia.” Credit Gloria Baker Feinstein/Argot Pictures)

I was thrilled to get to know the filmmakers Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday during a fellowship made possible by the Rockefeller Foundation. I was even more thrilled to get early glimpses of their then nascent project, Big Sonia. Meeting Sonia Warshawski, star and subject of this incredible film, made me smile for days. I traveled to Kansas City to meet her, her family, and community, and learn more about her work with prisoners and high school students.* If you need a little perspective on our current world and why each of us needs to do what we can to improve it, see this movie.

Today I opened up the New York Times and found yesterday's review of this (Oscar-eligible) documentary and a story about Sonia. This is fantastic. Reading the news these days is an exercise in controlling panic, channeling outrage, and managing despair. Reading about Sonia will give you much to be thankful for and inspire you to do more, now.

If you're in NY, LA, or KC you can catch the film in theaters. If you're part of a community that cares about the struggles and survival of individuals when entire populations are being targeted by forces of hate, then see this film. If you like great movies, see this one. You can request a screening in your community. Mazel Tov, Sonia, Leah, Todd and team and thank you.







*Full disclosure, my family helped raise a little bit of money for the film but compared to the life chronicled in the movie and the effort by Warshawski/Soliday and team my contribution is miniscule. I call it out in the interest of full disclosure.

Laundering away democracy


Representative Kevin Brady’s Amendment to the House’s tax bill is the charitable sector equivalent of military equipment that Congress insists on budgeting for even when the Pentagon says “No, thanks.”

Brady’s Amendment allows nonprofit organizations to engage in political speech without penalty. This change in the rules for nonprofits would apply to the next three national election cycles, 2018, 2020, and 2022. Using the last three cycles as precedent, the Amendment could unlock more than $650 million in new nonprofit funding by opening the floodgates of “dark money.” The nonprofit sector, which rarely looks a gift in the mouth, has collectively stood up and said, “No, thanks.”

Why don’t nonprofits want this money? Just as the military knows when certain equipment isn’t right for the job, the sector knows that Brady’s Amendment will cost more than it is worth. Specifically, it will undermine nonprofit’s individual organizational integrity and weaken their collective contribution to democracy.  The effect of the Brady Amendment will be to turn both secular and religious nonprofit organizations – the local food pantry, pet shelter, church, temple or mosque – into money laundering operations for politicians. Congress budgets for unwanted military equipment to keep local manufacturers happy. Similarly, the Brady Amendment is an unwanted giveaway to political donors.

History shows us that democracies fall when there is no independent civil society, separate from the political realm. One of the nation’s largest trade groups for nonprofits is even called Independent Sector. This group and others oppose legal changes that will destroy that independence. Brady’s Amendment carries with it three threats to the sector.

First, donations to churches and nonprofits can be made anonymously. Donations made to them for political purposes will literally launder the donors’ name off of that funding, regardless of existing disclosure rules on campaign contributions.

Second, the millions of dollars that might flow will be too great for nonprofits to refuse. Faced with a donor dangling money for a social media campaign featuring certain candidates or programs to teach kids about one side of a political issue, perennially cash-strapped organizations will take the money. Slowly at first, and then quicker than you can say sell-out, cash flow issues will lead nonprofits and churches to subjugate their independence to partisan politics.

Third, you’ll be subsidizing political actions with which you disagree. Charitable donations are tax deductible. For more than a century, Americans have subsidized charitable giving because we recognize that a diverse nonprofit sector serves as counterbalance to the majoritarian nature of government funding. The Brady Amendment extends the charitable subsidy to political contributions. If it passes, you will be underwriting political activity by the neighbor you disagree with, the uncle with whom you never discuss politics, and the big money political donors whose very names make you cringe.

Two weeks ago the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated tech companies for the role they and foreign governments played in the 2016 presidential election. The Brady Amendment (section 5201) offers a different threat to democracy, one coming from “inside the house.” Just as the Pentagon knows the threat of outdated equipment, the nonprofit sector recognizes the structural threat in Brady’s Amendment. Useless military equipment risks our country’s defenses. The Brady Amendment undermines democracy by subjugating civil society to politics.

Civil society and disinformation

We live in an age of disinformation. Lies under oath, lies on line, bot-spread fake news, the inability to tell fact from advocacy, trolling, doxing,* online/offline harassment - this is the atmosphere in which civil society actors - organizations, activists, and individuals - operate. In many cases we perpetuate these acts.

Yes, that's a harsh thing to admit but nonprofits, groups of citizens, and people coming together are using these tactics to get their messages across, to mobilize people, and to silence those with whom they disagree.

In other words, as a whole, civil society is neither exempt from nor innocent in creating and perpetuating the age of disinformation in which we now live. Some examples:
  • Activists get doxed. White supremacists descend on Berkeley, CA knowing they will attract counter protesters.  They use the opportunity to photograph, identify, and then make life miserable (or worse) for the counter protesters by using those photographs to hassle them endlessly on line and off. The white supremacists groups are exercising their free speech and  associational rights - they are acting in civil society. The protesters are also. The physical gatherings were intentional tactics to lure out the groups' opponents, gather information on them, and use it to impinge on their individual and collective ability to speak out and gather safely in the future. The old tactic of countering bad speech with more speech doesn't work anymore - online, offline, or in the real world in which we live in which these two are very difficult to separate. The transition is to a world in which that physical world engagement generates the raw material for ongoing, online violence. 
  • Advocacy organizations spreading false information about everything from vaccines to gay marriage create online presences (websites, social media accounts) and amplify their messages above and beyond the voice of accurate scientific information. 
  • People let down their guard in an information environment which offers few clues to credibility - and lose the ability, or fail to use their ability, to critically assess fact from fiction.
  • The social media platforms that provide a majority of people with their first pass at "news" do nothing useful to prioritize veracity.
  •  Newsrooms aren't alone in needing to fact check; nonprofits need to do this also - it needs to become part of their communications strategy. And it is not easy to do
  • Doxing, trolling and disinformation are long term issues. They require a sustained ability to respond. Nonprofits and foundations need to be in it for the long term
Nonprofits and foundations that fail to recognize this reality are doing a disservice to their causes. It is not enough to invest in good causes getting their messages out. There needs to be deep reckoning - on all issues - about what is the counter message, where is it coming from, and how do you respond to it in ethical, safe, and effective ways?

This is, in part, a communications issue. And much more. It is really a mission and strategy issue and a reality check on how well we, the people running nonprofits and foundations, understand the digital environment in which we live, the way it can be used to manipulate people, and the ways in which our actions - or inaction - matter. Nonprofits and foundations like to think of themselves as the "good guys." But each and everyone one of them - if they're doing something that matters - faces nonprofits and foundations that disagree with them and are working to achieve a countervailing goal.

We don't live in a world of clear truths (not that we ever have). We do live in an information ecosystem which is extremely easy to manipulate - the social media systems are purpose-built  to manipulate. Facts and good intentions aren't enough. Understanding the nature of the information ecosystem - the ways it makes getting your message heard harder, not easier, and the ways it threatens the well-being and safety of those you are trying to help - is no longer an optional, edge requirement. It's reality for all of us in the digital age.


*to dox, doxxing - to search out and make public personal information (address, kids' names, account #s) of people you disagree with and dump it onto the internet for others to use to harass and endanger those individuals.

Engine of Impact

Let me say, right up front, I am not a fan of business books. I find the genre stultifyingly dull. Often entire books are written from what was, at best, a very brief PowerPoint's worth of ideas. The authors often seem uninterested in, or incapable of, writing decent sentences, so the bullet point lists, matrices, and icons that fill the pages are simultaneously intelligence insulting and sanity saving. Perhaps because the commercial sector valorizes efficiency above all else, its literature has come to do the same.

(Photo credit: http://www.engineofimpact.org/)

OK. Having gotten that out of the way, let me now express gratitude for Bill Meehan and Kim Starkey Jonker's new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. For one thing, Meehan and Jonker have read the business press so I don't have to.  More seriously, their message is important - the social sector has great responsibilities and concerns and improvement is both necessary and possible. Efficiency matters in service of mission.

Meehan and Jonker have worked in the sector, studied their history, interviewed key players, and can compare and contrast what's known about the social sector with what's known about public agencies and corporate actors. The book is grounded in two careers worth of real work.

Now, as part of the business literature, Engine of Impact provides a requisite list of distinguishing attributes. In this case, it is seven elements of strategy and leadership that successful nonprofits demonstrate. If I were to excerpt the list here you would be hard-pressed to disagree with, or be surprised by, any individual item or even the whole list. It's not the list that makes this book - it's the wisdom from which they extract the list.

Meehan and Jonker are not interested in platitudes. Meehan (whom I know, I haven't met Jonker) is a proud contrarian. He doesn't suffer fools. The introduction of the book lays out a quick history of how we arrived at what the authors call "The Impact era." In it they run the reader swiftly through the events of the last two centuries in the U.S. and zero in on the last two decades. Here they find a great deal of potential - from the building of a digital infrastructure for the social sector to the popularization of impact investing. To the authors, this potential has, for the most part, gone unmet.

At this point I should note that the book's title has two meanings, or meaning at two levels. The "engines" of which the authors write are both individual nonprofits and the entire sector. They are motivated not just by the potential for better performing organizations, but by the need for a sector that can (and must) get better at contributing to the great challenges of our time.  These contributions will come mostly (the authors argue) by working with government and corporations - the global challenges of climate change, population migration, economic dislocation - cannot be solved by any one sector alone.

The idea that the social sector can both improve itself and, in so doing, improve and challenge, cajole and nudge other types of enterprises to greater action sets this book apart. Meehan and Jonker aren't providing the nonprofit sector with "lessons learned from commerce" because business knows best, but quite the opposite. There are plenty of lessons for nonprofits from business, but the social sector's opportunity (obligation?) is to act in such a way that businesses can follow. Collective, they (nonprofits) are the engine of a society that can collectively address its greatest challenges.

The book also points out two things that every decent nonprofit professional knows, but is rarely listened to when she says it aloud. Boards matter and most of them are lousy, and fundraising is a critical part of the work that happens in irrational, resource absorbing ways. Meehan and Jonker's voices should be heard on these two points. They provide proof, they provide examples of better, and they're able to connect both the practical realities of individual organizations with the structural faults that keep those realities in play.

Most of the examples in the book come from organizations of such size and scale that small organizations might wonder what the book offers for them. Stick with it, I say, as many of the examples taken from large organizations are of failure of strategy or limitations of leadership. Meehan and Jonker are not acolytes in the school of "scale at all cost." They are, as the title implies, interested in impact - accomplishing mission in measurable and meaningful ways.

If you, unlike me, appreciate the efficiency of the business book genre then by all means, read Engine of Impact. If you, like me, find the business section of the bookstore the easiest one to skip past, this is one of the rare books worth stopping for.