Monday, July 21, 2008

Keep the Momentum

I attend a lot of conferences (too many). Philanthropy, technology, education, nonprofit, finance, entrepreneurship, community change, media, publishing - a lot of interests and a lot of conferences. So, with my credentials established, I want to put it out there that this afternoon I may have been to the most interesting plenary session I've ever attended.

What made it so interesting? Well, it certainly wasn't the title ("money"). Or even the deadpan delivery of the session moderator. And from the written agenda; well, let us just say I was hoping to learn something.

In fact, it took me a Muni ride home to realize just how informative it had been. Here's what I realized as I tried not to put my bag on any body else's foot while also keeping other people's elbows out of my ear (rush hour public transit):
  • Two professional "money men" decried the financial industry. One of them decried government's deference to financial services as a major cause of our current economic woes;
  • A representative of organized labor recognized its failures, and told hopeful stories of its work with the emergent labor movement, centered around worker centers, interfaith groups, and community organizations. He rightly noted the similarities between today's day laborers and the building trades workers of the late 19th century (you know me, cite some history and you’ve got me);
  • Building assets is a key to ending poverty (not just jobs and not just income). Existing and potential market and regulatory solutions to making this happen for poor people and people of color were discussed – and we needed more time to learn more;
  • Kiva’s discussion of micro-lending was the only philanthropic player on the panel – and the talk was all about lending, re-using capital, and transnational and intranational entrepreneurism (not giving). Ninety percent of money lent through Kiva get loaned again. Kiva recognizes the data market it is building and the potential uses for it down the road;
  • No one touted – or even mentioned – philanthropic efforts* as an initiative, a solution, a program, the silver bullet, (or a panacea);
  • The subsidies that help asset holders build wealth were laid out next to the subsidies that “theoretically” help poor people climb out of poverty. No surprise, the first ones work and are rarely talked about as subsidies (they have fancy names like tax incentives) and the second ones don’t (and are routinely decried as public benefits). One exception – the earned income tax credit.
  • The top contributors to Obama’s campaign were listed, and then show next to a list of the top contributors to McCain’s campaign. If you weren’t in favor of public financing before these lists should make you a believer. Same thing if you wondered about politics, the economy, and our current financial state - on both lists are Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Lehman Bros, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs.
  • Free market orthodoxy was denounced as a misapplication of Newtonian physics. By a money guy.
So, why did I like the session so much? Let me count the ways:
  1. When was the last time you attended a session at a philanthropically-sponsored conference and actually wondered if there was a role for philanthropy in the solutions?
  2. The speakers all made it clear that there are structural problems built into both our political and economic systems that are a) human created, b) manipulable, c) inherently and overtly biased, and d) fixable.
  3. Complexity can be explained quickly. These speakers proved it.
  4. Have you ever left a philanthropy conference session wondering if there were any philanthropic examples?
  5. Alternative credit scores, alternative post secondary options, and the idea of new capitalism.
  6. I now have a slightly better understanding of the relationship between the credit crisis, mortgage collapse, gasoline prices, bailouts of Bear Stearns and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac.
  7. This kind of discussion is ALL about the relationships between public and private, collective and individual, big and small, black and white, rich and poor, here and there.
  8. Jennifer Johns.
If I got this much out of every conference session I attended, my head would explode. When I checked my email after the session I had received an announcement of a new Changemakers competition (sponsored by Citi and ASHOKA). This time they are looking for financial solutions that promote social change. My suggestion - talk to these panelists.

*Seriously, the only time foundations were mentioned was one comment about the Gates and Kellogg Foundations' work to develop alternative post-secondary credentials.

** Full disclosure: Momentum is sponsored by Tides. My company has consulted to Tides, several of the senior executives at Tides are friends and mentors of mine, and I am friends with and have worked with their PR consultant. I even have a frequent coffee-drinker card for the ACRE Cafe which is located in their building. That said, I had no role in organizing Momentum, paid the full freight to attend the conference, and am blogging on my own time and for my own reasons.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear of the attention being paid to asset-building at a conference like Momentum (and I should also add that I love your blog).

I know you said you attend too many conferences, but considering how much you loved the "money" plenary (which sounded terrific), you should think about attending CFED's bi-annual "Assets Learning Conference" ( in DC in September, with over 1,000 practitioners, researchers and policy makers from the asset development field. Not to be missed. I'll be blogging there.