Friday, November 12, 2004

Encounters with the Archdruid

Those of us who remember John McPhee's classic New Yorker story on David Brower will be very interested in an interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr and Christine Todd Whitman in the November issue of Outside Magazine. As in McPhee's story, which became his 1977 classic Encounters with the Archdruid, two national figures see the environment as profoundly important and in terrible jeopardy. They connect seemingly-unrelated issues and argue about the systemic ramifications of certain actions in a way that reassures of us the ability for deep thought in this moment of "campaign-oversimplification-fatigue."

Of course, the beauty of the piece is that Kennedy's and Whitman's agreement ends at the starting premise of a threatened environment and the need for cars with greater gas mileage. The piece is a highly charged debate about how to protect the environment, the role of regulation and markets, and who should care. They both are eloquent in arguing that,"Good environmental policy is always good economic policy," as Kennedy put it.

More important, however, are the logical connections drawn between the negative environmental impact of regulatory loosening of media policy, such as the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and more recent FCC actions that encourage media consolidation. By making it harder for diverse opinions to be heard on broadcast TV, radio, and in newspapers, these "non-environmental" policies have had profound (negative) environmental effects. Similar logic is used to show how campaign finance reform might be the most important policy issue facing environmentalists, who otherwise stand no change of drawing politicians away from big-spending, big polluters.

The proper roles of regulation and the market are the key points of contention for Kennedy and Whitman, other environmentalists, media experts, and politicians.

What this published debate helps us see are the intricate lines of reasoning that connect so many disparate elements of our regulatory, market, and social systems. Perhaps Kennedy and Whitman's roles as environmental voices predisposes them to systems thinking.

The article is an easy read and useful reminder for the rest of us - systems are complicated. What may look like an indirect force on the issue you care about, could, in fact, be the most direct route of influence. As philanthropists think about their programmatic strategies in the arts, education, health or whatever, the systemic connections matter. And as we think about philanthropy - and its nature as a regulated industry - we need to think about how the systems we've created require that we connect disparate ideas and forces to argue our points of view and develop visions of improvement.

More cool tools

Yesterday's post should have included the link to Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools Site so here it is.

Also check out the Internet Archive where everything old is new again.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Cool Tools

Hey, if Kevin Kelley can tell you what he thinks is cool, so can I. Here, in no particular order, are several websites of organizations, or ways of working, or opinions on the future that I think thoughtful philanthropists could check out. They are basically cool resources that I have found that have made me ponder their potential for philanthropy.

If you think of a way that these resources or others like them are applicable to philanthropy, let me know.

Cool idea sites

ShouldExist || Good ideas, prototype reviews, group projects

I Called It!

Global : Ideas : Bank

International Chindogu Society

Ideas for philanthropic action
Information for Development

Horizon Project

Small Change Network

Community Giving Resource

Strengthen the Good

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Politics and philanthropy - Its all about the data

Last night's election coverage couldn't help but make me think - about becoming an ex-pat, about the differences between and among us, and about data.

I watched as much of the coverage as I could stand over at a friend's house. TVs in two rooms with remote control experts in charge of making sure we never had a commercial break. Pizza, salad, beer - it might have been the Superbowl or Oscars except for the kids lying on the floor coloring in the states - red or blue - in pull-out electoral collage maps of the U.S. Personally, I'm thrilled that politics finally got our attention as a nation the way sports and entertainment usually do. And sad that the electric tone of the coverage was due at least as much to the sense that we might have another dramatic and divisive stand-off as to the interest in an actual outcome.

CNN leased the NASDAQ data center to show state by state, county by county, minute to minute results. Wolf Blitzer could barely control himself. All afternoon (here on the west coast) he was promoting the coverage and the fancy technology bells and whistles the station now had at its disposal. The message, "Hey, our data might not be accurate, and we might not learn the results tonight, but boy, will it look cool on these room-sized screens covering all four walls!"

OK OK, so television news is cut-throat business and everyone needs a gimmick. And as a nation we seem to love data: sports statistics, box office returns, political polls, polls of the polls. Heck, Jon Stewart hosted John Zogby - a POLLSTER - the other night. I can see it now - pollsters as the next rock stars!

Our love of data ties in nicely with our national obsession with wealth and power (Yes, that is my partisan read of the election results). We know that markets run on information, information is power, and that this is the age of the knowledge economy.

So, here's my question. Why do we still expect the philanthropy to run on such crummy data? Our data sources are admittedly years out-of-date (Foundation Center), inaccurate (the 990s that fuel GuideStar), and incomplete (no global data, no data on 5/6 of the US foundations' giving, etc. etc.) We cannot improve philanthropy or nonprofit action without better data. We need real trend data on giving, we need complete information on the firms in the industry and the products they sell, we need ratios of private to public investment in social issues, we need comparative data on global remittances and international philanthropic revenue.

How can we improve politics? Let me count the ways. How can we improve philanthropy? Let me get the data.