Monday, August 6, 2007

New Study Says that Diversity May Hurt Civic Life

A recent Boston Globe story announced a rather shocking assertion: That diversity may actually hurt, rather than help, to increase civic engagement. Perhaps even more startling is that the data comes from none other than the "guru of civic engagement,” Robert Putnam.

The results of this new study emanate from a survey Putnam conducted among residents in 41 U.S. communities. Residents were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of four categories used by the U.S. Census (black, white, Asian, Hispanic). They were also asked about their civic attitudes and practices. “What emerged,” writes the Globe, is a “bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.” Specifically, the study found that the greater the diversity in a community, the less people vote, volunteer, give to charity, and work on community projects. They also tend to trust each other less than those living in more homogenous settings.

In short? Higher diversity equals lower social capital.

Putnam suggests that people who live in diverse settings may be more likely to “hunker down, i.e., pull in like a turtle.” As the BG piece points out, this is bound to make those who champion diversity as a necessary and healthy part of democracy, education, and civic life rather uncomfortable. Yet, others argue that the study results are important to “put out there” because they highlight the challenges of an increasingly diverse culture. Social identity, Putnam argues, can and will change over time, with “social divisions” giving way to more encompassing identities” that “create a new, more capacious sense of ‘we,’” he writes.

And while more diversity may hinder strong social ties and capital, other research indicates that it may be an asset for driving productivity and innovation. Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist and author of Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, has found that in high-skill workplaces, different ways of thinking among people from different cultures can push new ways of doing things. “Diverse teams tend to be more productive,” he asserts. As the Globe puts it, “those in more diverse communities may do more bowling alone, but the creative tensions unleashed by those differences in the workplace may vault those same places to the cutting edge of the economy and of creative culture.”

Page calls it the “diversity paradox.” According to the Globe, he thinks that the contrasting positive and negative effects of diversity can coexist in communities, but “there’s got to be a limit.” If civic engagement falls off too far, he says, it’s easy to imagine the positive effects of diversity beginning to wane as well. “That’s what’s unsettling about [Putnam’s] findings,” Page says.
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Can Philanthropy Be Citizen-Centered: Part 2: The Chronicle of Philanthropy Piece on Foundations Using “On Line Voting”

A just-released story by the Chronicle of Philanthropy attempts to shed light on what appears to be a trend among foundations (and a few nonprofits such as NetSquared) to invite the public to vote online as to which groups should get their grant dollars. Several institutions are highlighted, among them, The Case, Knight, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations.

Overall, the piece is fairly balanced and thorough. But it got me thinking that here was another missed opportunity to address a larger issue, specifically: What responsibility do foundations have to a public from whom they derive significant tax benefit? Do they owe the public a voice in the decisions these institutions make? Instead, the piece focused primarily on one of the many tactics some foundations are using to invite more public involvement in their decisions--in this case online voting-- which should be viewed as a means to a greater end, not an end unto itself.

There are legitimate critiques of online voting, of course, not the least of which is that it can become a “free-for-all” or that the most sexy projects will be selected, rather than those that may be the most effective. That's why it will always be important to have intermediaries and, yes, experts involved in these kinds of processes. And, to be sure, there's a strong argument to be made that private foundations have every right to decide what to do with their money, especially in the case of living donors.

But given the increasing and palpable animosity between grantseekers and grantmakers—and a parallel increase in the amount of suspicion bubbling up in the public domain about what foundations do and how—perhaps it’s time for foundations to be a bit less defensive and start considering, at the very least, that the nonprofits and individuals they support might actually have something more to offer than proposals and reports.

Essentially, foundations need to start exploring new ways to develop stronger partnerships between the professionals that staff foundations and “real people” on the ground living in real communities. And that means going beyond simply hiring consultants to interview those people for “input” that usually gets fed back to the foundation experts who ultimately decide what they’re going to do. It means working with people to figure out how foundations can best to address the issues they say are important to them and their communities.

Asking people to vote on grant award dollars is a step in this direction--but it's only one step.
Another might be asking people in communities to work in partnership with foundations to develop decision-making criteria and grant application/program guidelines that spell out how these institutions will make their funding decisions and using what criteria. Unlike some foundations that define transparency as publishing an annual report, grantseekers have long known that real transparency is when funders are straight about the decisionmaking criteria they’re using and why. Foundations can also ask the public to engage in their priorty-setting when they do their periodic assessments, hold occasional meetings for the public, and bring in practitioners and outsiders to brief foundation staff on a regular basis.

These kinds of things, admittedly, won't be easy for institutions that have historically and traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Particularly difficult will be giving control to a large group of people with little or no experience in professional philanthropy which is, to be sure, a risk. But is it worth it? You bet. Even it fails, it’s at least an attempt to help nudge the philanthropic community toward a mindset that considers ways in which they might be more responsive, real, and respectful to the public it purports to serve.

That's a real stretch from the way in which many grantseekers now view philanthropic insitutions, whose practices often raise hackles among nonprofits. And one comment in the COP piece tends to underscore that perhaps those sentiments have some merit, specifically, the notion that somehow letting the public in the doors of the hallowed walls of philanthropic institutions will "endanger" or "take the edge off philanthropy." One foundation executive emailed me after reading this, saying that it made him/her "laugh out loud" since "the entire realm of foundation philanthropy could be summarized as ‘a soft, safe center.’ “ That sentiment, we can safely say, is shared by thousands of others working in the nonprofit sector, even though few are wiling to say it publicly.

It's also important to question the notion that somehow this attempt to engage the public is will digress into a popularity contest. Let's face it, though. Hasn't philanthropy, generally speaking, always been a “popularity contest”? As a former fundraiser, the first rule we all learned was “getting money is less about the work and more about whom you know.” Yes, there are certainly many cases in which funds have been provided to groups doing exceptional work and have been assessed on the basis of that work. But those tend to be in the minority, if the laments among scores of nonprofit colleagues I’ve heard during the past 25 years are any indication. As Pablo Eisenberg and others have rightly pointed out, the foundation world is hardly a bastion of ardent risk-takers, as evidenced by their general reluctance to support anything that smacks of advocacy or controversy.

In any case, let's hope that this piece stirs things up a bit and incites more discussion—not only about “online voting” or the tactics of participatory philanthropy—but how we can be more effective in increasing and engaging the public in the processes so many of their tax dollars suport.

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The Experts Vs. The Rest of Us: New Book Makes the Case for Deliberative Democracy

Several years ago, I was interviewed for a job at a rather prominent institution by the president who spent several minutes ticking off the names and credentials of the experts s/he had planned to commission as consultants who would advise program staff on all facets of their activities. When I asked whether "real people" -- you know, the ones who are affected by the programs that this institution implemented--would be involved in advising the organization on similar matters, s/he paused for several seconds. Finally, s/he replied: "Well, we'll invite them to our conferences."

This is the kind of attitude that Alison Kadlec, a senior research associate at Public Agenda, addresses in her new book, Dewey's Critical Pragmatism, an examination of John Dewey's writings on pragmatism and a rallying cry for soundly-constructed public engagement programs that fulfill Dewey's vision of "democracy as a way of life." That way of life, Kadlec argues, is not solely the purview of the experts, pundits, and pontificators who deem "the people" as congenitally unfit for effective deliberation. She also takes on "radical democratic theorists" who criticize deliberative democracy practitioners as being blind or ill-prepared to address existing power relationships that they claim are reinforced in the deliberative process.

These "power oriented critics," she asserts, "do not enough and too much when it comes to assessing the meaning of and conditions for genuine deliberation. On the one hand, they operate with an unnecessarily cramped notion of deliberation and on the other, they rely on a counterproductively totalizing and static view of power."

That's laying down the gauntlet, indeed--and it's time that gauntlet was taken up by those who say they care about community organizing, deliberation, and public work. Is community organizing different from deliberative practice and if so, how? Is deliberative practice and public work a part of community organizing or vice versa? To date, however, I haven't seen much public space dedicated to exploring these issues, which bear considerable attention if we're to move foward. A previous post, "The Power Equation in Citizen-Centered Work," generated nary a comment, but it's time to change that. What could be done to facilitate these kinds of discussions? We sure could use them.

In the meantime, you can find out more information about the book at
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