Monday, October 8, 2007

Is the Nonprofit Sector Becoming Obsessed with Credentials?

I recently received an email announcing a forum about the difficulty young people are having in pursuing public service jobs because of the debt they incur in college, as well as the high cost of living in many cities that necessitates high salaries. As a result, young people have no choice but to favor earning some bucks over “doing good.”

Good topic, but the invitation was enveloped in some rhetoric suggesting that the most troubling thing about this trend wasn’t just the lack of incentives for young people to pursue public service jobs but that it’s keeping the “the best and the brightest” from doing so.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but from where I sit, it seems as if the “best and brightest” are pretty much becoming the only ones able to pursue public service careers. And what’s wrong with wanting those folks in our ranks?

Nothing---if we're using “best and brightest” to connote people with exceptional skills, intelligence, passion, and tenacity. But it seems that increasingly, the phrase is being used as a code for credentials, educational pedigree, social capital, and financial connections.

And I've experienced some of this myself as a former program officer with an older foundation. Not surprisingly, most of the young people who had entrée to its coffers were the those who've had access to an Ivy League (or equivalent) education; parents who paid their rent so they could get (or did get) the "good" internships; and/or friends or family members who were political figures, academics at other Ivy League schools, famous media people, and others comprising what David Brooks would call the ruling class.

More disconcerting was that they tended be viewed by adults as "the best and the brightest," which had less to do with the merit or experience of these young people and more with the connections and capital of their parents or others with the influence to propel these folks over other the heads of other worthy (and less entitled) candidates who were equally (and sometimes more) qualified.

Yes, older and more established institutions are more likely to adhere to a white-gloved tradition. But is the latter trickling out to less-established nonprofits and to the sector, overall? Are we becoming just as obsessed as the larger culture on the famous, the connected, and the rich? Nonprofit conferences and events showcase individuals whose bios, full of elite credentials, are proudly proclaimed. Young people held up as the best examples of nonprofit leadership are often those who’ve had access to financial, social and educational connections. At a recent conference, one brave soul stood up and asked whether there were any national service initiatives that had been launched by "anyone not from Harvard, Yale or Princeton." Of course there are, but they're sometimes overlooked because they lack the cachet that an Ivy League rubric immediately bestows.

So what's wrong with this? Nothing, if one believes that educational pedigree, credentials and social capital are inherently superior to experience, hard work, skills, tenacity, and one’s own “gumption,” as a young friend of mine called his own rise to success in the nonprofit sector (and who had little credentials of which to speak, he noted happily). But how much is "gumption" valued? When it comes down to a choice between my friend and a recent Harvard graduate whose parents are Stanford professors, New York Times reporters, or former White House staff members, whom do you think is going to get first dibs on the job... the grant... or the opportunity?

That's a thorny issue that hasn't been discussed much in nonprofit forums because it runs right up against the values that many in that sector say they hold dear. And it makes people understandably uncomfortable, especially those in nonprofit leadership positions whose rise to prominence may have had less to do with merit than with their pedigree or personal connections.

So what do we do about it? We can start by recognizing that a cultural obsession with last names, pedigree, and/or social capital doesn’t have to be one that we embrace, but rather, challenge. We can hire people on the basis of their experiences and skills, rather than on who their parents are or where they went to school. In the midst of all the accolades being bestowed on our leaders, we can ask, “what have they actually done to deserve these?” And, perhaps most importantly, we can ask what obstacles, if any, has this person endured or overcome and how has that made them a stronger, smarter, and/or ethical person?

As Booker T. Washington once wrote, "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome." Perhaps that's the criteria we should think about using for "the best and brightest" in the nonprofit sector.
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Citizen-Centered Work is the New Civic Core, Says New National Report

The citizen-centered concept has been rightfully bemoaned as somewhat elusive, naunced, and difficult to convey in two-second sound bites. (But, not everything can be.... It's like pornography; we know it when we see it.) Thus, it's been relatively difficult to measure or even include in studies about civic engagement, at least in rigorous ways.

Happily, that's changed, thanks to the National Conference on Citizenship, which included several new questions that get at the concept in its annual survey, America's Civic Health Index. This year, in addition to documenting the degree to which people vote, volunteer, and keep up with the news, the Index asked whether and how people are working in their communities to learn about public issues and then, together, address them--a component of civic engagement that's been relatively overlooked in scholarly studies.

And guess what? There are approximately 36 million of these folks out there, according to the study, who comprise what the Index calls a "new civic core":

We find that although most Americans are not deeply involved in civic, community, or political affairs, there is a group of about 15 percent—roughly 36 million people—who participate in impressive ways and stand out as civic leaders. They are well informed, attend public meetings, work together on community problems, are leaders in clubs and associations, attend religious services, vote and volunteer. An overlapping group of about 24 percent of the American population uses online technology quite heavily for civic purposes. These active, well-informed citizens are fairly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and political ideology. We want to draw attention to the millions of civic leaders because they deserve recognition and support—and it may be possible to increase their numbers.

So what can be done to add to their ranks? A first step, writes Ron Fournier, in an Associated Press story about the findings, is pushing elected officials, the two parties, and those running for office to stop giving this group of Americans "short shrift" and start incorporating what they're doing into "citizen-centered" public policies and programs that encourage these efforts. And candidates and policyamkers should talk more about this work publicly. What better way to encourage more people to "get involved" than to show how it's happening in communities all across this country? And to emphasize that it's getting results, not only in improving the places where people live and work but in creating more vibrant civic cultures where participation becomes part and parcel of everyday life?

It's not hard to imagine that they'll have a receptive audience, since most people "crave a greater sense of community," and are "ready to ask to do something for the common good," according to the report. And, to top it off, there's a new generation of young Americans, ages 18-25, who are showing signs of being as civic-minded as the "so-called Greatest Generation," Fournier notes.

Auspicious news, indeed, but democracy shouldn't be the responsibility of only 15 percent of the our population. Getting to 100 percent should be the goal, but it can only start with more attention to and support for the 36 million people who are leading the way. Let's hope it happens soon. Read the rest of the post

What is this Thing Called Transparency Anyway?

In a call for ideas from the folks at Tactical Philanthropy regarding how to help foundations more transparent and accountable, I sent the posting below ("Can Philanthropy be Citizen-Centered?" -- scroll down) as something that might be considered. Two lines were pulled from my post:

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.

Sean Stannard-Stockton, the host, responded:

I think that for foundations that want to try this approach, it might lead to exciting results. But I also want to be clear about my continual urging for a broader philanthropic conversation and more foundation transparency. I do not think that foundations should be required to be transparent. The concept of private foundations having a right to “privacy” is not something I disagree with at all. I think that foundations should be free to pursue whatever course of action they desire and that they should not be obligated to take any direction from the public. This distinction is why I talk about transparency as an issue of philanthropic effectiveness, not public accountability.... I think that we will find that transparency is good for foundations, good for nonprofits and good for the public. But at the end of the day, I think that the transparency decision is completely up to each individual foundation. This is why I make the distinction between "public accountability" transparency and "philanthropic effectiveness" transparency. I'm interested in the second type.

This is an interesting delineation, and one I've heard before. And it's certainly a legitimate one, given that most foundations are private institutions. But I’m not convinced the larger public would view it as entirely acceptable, given that they're not getting much feedback about what's actually done with the millions foundations dole out and how "effective" they are. Yes, there seem to be lots of evaluation reports floating around, but how many of these are actually conducted by third parties that sample beneficiaries randomly and over time? The latter are the three most important questions to ask of any evaluation, according to William Cotter, former president of Colby College, Oak Foundation, and the Africa-America Institute, in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article.

In lieu of more formal regulatory or accountability structures (is there really such a thing as "self-regulation"?), perhaps foundations might consider alternative steps toward public accountability, beginning with involving the latter more in their decision-making processes. Will doing so enhance institutions' effectiveness? Other institutions are slowly realizing that it may--not only in their ability to address specific issues but also in increasing people's interest and involvement in their larger community and the institutions that support it. While the jury may still be out as to whether public involvement in foundations' work is cost-beneficial in terms of concrete outcomes, perhaps the most valuable "outcome" of such efforts may simply be increasing the levels of civic engagement in communities that are starved for it. Read the rest of the post

Does the Public Deserve a Voice in Philanthropy?

Those of you who have been following this blog know that a favorite topic is whether or not philanthropy can follow in the footsteps of other institutions—such as schools and local legislatures—that are understanding that to be successful, they need to have the involvement of “real people” in their efforts.

Last month, there was an opportunity to explore that issue, thanks to a story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about foundations using online voting as a way in which to involve the public in grantamking decisions. The story was good, but I wanted to pose a question that I thought was missed in the piece, specifically, whether foundations have a responsibility to the public from which they derive significant tax benefit. Do they owe the public a voice in the decisions these institutions make?

So, I wrote a letter to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, raising these questions, which elicited some interesting feedback. But I think it's time for a much larger forum in which to air these important questions.

Why? Because these significant and thorny issues are rarely discussed publicly and when they are, it’s usually under the aegis of accountability, transparency or other issues that may be related to, but not necessarily synonymous with, whether foundation have a public responsibility to do all these things. When public participation is the focus, it’s usually framed either as a “nice thing to do” (on one side) or “something that should be required” (on the other) with little exploration as to what may lie in between or beyond.

There is even less discussion about whether public participation should be seen as a tactic (one of many) that philanthropic institutions can or should use to achieve their goals or whether public involvement is an ethos or value that could or should be embedded more deeply across the philanthropic community. If so, how can philanthropy move toward that goal?

Given increasing animosity between grant seekers and grant makers — 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 the philanthropic community to throw open the doors and explore these questions more fully and substantively. Specifically,

- Why should private institutions be compelled to involve the public in their efforts? What incentive is there--and should there be an incentive?

- What is the value of public participation to philanthropic institutions? Does it enhance their effectiveness or impact? If so, how? If not, why not? And does there need to be evidence of it having an impact or is it something that should be done because it reflects the value or mission most institutions have on serving the public good?

- What is the role of private philanthropy in the public domain? What is the role of the public in relation to private philanthropy?

- Is there a middle ground between involving the public in philanthropic processes as one of many tactics institutions use to achieve their goals or something that could or should be embedded as an ethos or value across institutions?

- What are some of the many ways in which philanthropic institutions can involve the public in their processes?

Add your questions to the list. And your ideas about how to get them on the agenda!

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Social Networking Sites Aren't for Civic Engagement....Or Are They?

A recent New York Times op-ed sparked some controversy by suggesting that attempts by adults to use Facebook and similar social networking sites to nudge young people toward civic and political pursuits were misguided. Why? Because Facebook, Alice Mathias writes in "The Fakebook Generation," is a form of entertainment and shouldn't be taken seriously. And contrary to popular belief, she adds, these kinds of sites aren't necessarily about building networks as much as they are about escaping to another reality--one that's user-generated.

Some have suggested another reason these attempts may fail: Adults who use social networking venues to encourage more youth volunteering or other civic activities, well-intentioned as they are, may have forgotten what it's like to be young. And when you're interacting everyday with extremely civic-minded people, both young and old, it's easy to forget that not everyone's as engrossed in "doing good" as are those who've made it their life's work. The reality is that most people just aren't as into it. And others may not want something that they see as enjoyable and fun turned into something that's "good for them." Further, they may see those of us preaching about civic engagement as prissy "do-gooders"--the kind of kids, as one friend recently commented, "who were running for Student Council president or analyzing election returns in the womb." You know, the "nerds" who grew up and continued to do what they did in high school. And who wants to be a nerd? (Yet another painful example of how high school does permeate the rest of life--unfortunately).

This isn't easy to hear because it diminishes the dedication and passion of those working to promote and increase civic engagement as something that's tangential or irrelevant. But it's important to turn the tables once in awhile and see these efforts as others may seem them--and in ways that may not sit comfortably with our own images of ourselves. Otherwise, we risk becoming smug and self-righteous in admonishing people to "get involved." After all, if we're being seen as a "bunch of nerdy do-gooders" who've forgotten what it's like to be young, can we expect anyone but the younger version of ourselves--a very small percentage of the population--to
participate? Something to keep in mind when talking about, doing, and encouraging civic engagement more broadly.

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And Youth Shall Lead Us....

For a long time, some of us have been trying to figure out why there's been so much attention on getting young people to vote and much less on acknowledging that today's political system isn't really quite conducive to encouraging such participation. So, shouldn't we be harnessing people's frustration toward changing that system? Isn't that what true democracy's all about?

Happily, there's at least one group that's made this the focus:, a national "all-partisan" organization dedicated to youth civic engagement. Unlike some organizations that view young people as constituents for specific causes or agendas, provides the support for and encourages young people to weigh in on whatever issue or area they decide is important, decide what they want to do about it, and then do it in the ways they decide are most appropriate for them.

In short, they focus on the democratic process. And that focus comes through loud and clear in their just-issued Democracy 2.0 Declaration. (Read the full statement here.) Already turning some heads (including grey ones), the Declaration announces that "Democracy is an unfinished project [and that] it’s time we upgrade." Indeed. And who should lead this upgrade? Young people, of course. "We, the Millennial Generation, are uniquely positioned to call attention to today’s issues and shape the future based on the great legacy we have inherited. Our founding fathers intended for every generation to build, indeed to innovate, on the American experience. We realize that as young people we are expected to be the leaders of tomorrow, but we understand that as citizens we are called to be the leaders of today."

This isn't the usual manifesto issued every few weeks by yet another group of DC-based experts or insiders. It's what results when thousands of young people pool their energy, creatitivty and optimism toward creating a greater good--one that transcends the usual partisan or political siloes, issue agendas, and/or parties. And by using an online wiki process that gave a rather large group of young people the chance to weigh in with their ideas, sent a message that they walk the talk of the deliberative democratic process they'd like to see enacted in every state in the country.

See if it brings you to tears as it did for some of the people involved in writing it. And then rally young people you know to apply to attend's Party for the Presidency on December 29-31 in Hollywood--the "Mardi Gras" of youth politics that will convene young people from every Congressional district to create a plan to make real the the vision outlined in the Declaration.
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'Ssup With Minnesota?

Recently, the Minneapolis-St Paul Metro Area was declared the "number 1 metro area" for volunteering in the U.S., with 40.5 percent of residents--that's nearly half --volunteering annually, compared to a national average rate of 28.1 percent. The metro area also topped the rankings for retention of volunteers, with 77.3 percent of people returning to volunteer for the same organization or cause in multiple years. And Minnesota was third in the statewide volunteer rankings with 40.4 percent of people volunteering (Utah and Nebraska topped the list).

So is there something in the water up there--or do they know something the rest of us don't?
According to Volunteering in America: 2007 City Trends and Rankings, there are four key drivers of volunteering: community attachment; commuting times; high school graduation levels and poverty; and the prevalence of nonprofits and their capacity to retain volunteers from year to year.

While the first three drivers do favor Minnesota, the importance of the numerous vibrant nonprofits and civic organizations that exist in this rather cold climate (maybe people need to huddle together to stay warm?) can't be understated. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits has long been one of the country's most dynamic nonprofit associations, representing and giving voice to thousands of nonprofits, their members and their constituencies. Minnesota is also home to one of the country's best resources on citizen-centered civic engagement: The Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. Under the leadership of Harry Boyte, a seminal thinker and doer on these issues, the institutions have become nationally-recognized leaders in developing and assessing effective strategies for citizenship.

A particularly innovative and recent initiative, for example, is the CDC's new “Warrior to Citizen” campaign, which is matching Iraq war veterans' skills with local community needs. And in true citizen-centered form, St. Paul's mayor, Chris Coleman, continually talks about the need for "neighborhood learning" and the importance of a sense of "place" in the community--a message that is bolstered by a strong Youth Commission through which teens from different neighborhoods in the city work to engage their peers on issues of concern to the larger community.

So, should we all move there?
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Does Community Matter in Education?

Nick Longo’s recently-released book, Why Community Matters, is an important contribution to the dialogue about the relationship between citizenship and education. Longo, currently the director of the Harry T. Wilkes Institute at Miami University, argues that it’s not enough to teach about citizenship in schools; we must “rethink where education takes place,”and reimagine the relationship between community and schooling so that the school becomes the center of the community, and in turn the community becomes central to the school.

In making this argument, Longo turns to several great educational practitioners of the late 19th and early 20th century: John Dewey, a leading advocate for education reform; Jane Addams, founder of Hull House; and Myles Horton, founder of Highlander Folk School. Longo points out that these practitioners weren’t working in isolation as they developed and implemented their ideas---they were in dialogue with one another, and their ideas in turn influenced a nascent movement of community-centered education.

One area in which that influence has taken root a century later is in the West Side of St.Paul, Minnesota. Through two interrelated initiatives, the Neighborhood Learning Community and the Jane Addams School for Democracy, the principles of community education are playing out in powerful ways. As Longo says, “the ghosts of the past, from places like Hull House and Highlander, are alive in contemporary efforts, like those of the Neighborhood Learning Community.”
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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Guest Column: Democracy is a Shared Global Project--Not an Export

by Matt Leighinger, Executive Director, Deliberative Democracy Consortium

“Democracy is a gift from the industrialized countries of the Global North to the lesser-developed nations of the Global South.”

This seems to be one of the key assumptions behind the foreign policies of the United States and many other Northern countries, despite that in most of these places, voter turnout and other traditional measures of democratic participation continue to fall. Undeterred, the North keeps trying to give, export, or dictate by force a particular, outdated form of democracy in other parts of the world.

Countries of the Global South are starting to question the “gift assumption” more and more, pointing not only to the attitudes of Northern citizens, but to the new accomplishments and – in some cases – the longstanding democratic traditions of Southern nations. Scholars and democracy activists are studying and promoting the work of ward committees in South Africa, citizen-driven land use planning exercises in India, participatory budgeting in Brazil, and “co-production” by citizens and government in the construction of water systems in the Philippines.

At the same time, the rapid growth of civic experimentation in the North is causing many leaders in those countries to reconsider the changing state of their own democracies. All over the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, local, state, and federal leaders are organizing projects that involve citizens in more meaningful ways. These efforts are still a drop in the bucket when compared to more traditional forms of politics, but they illustrate and embody a larger shift in the relationship between citizens and government. A broader definition of democracy is emerging, one that that emphasizes the capacity of citizens as problem-solvers and decision-makers, not just voters and volunteers.

Local leaders have been dealing with these shifts in the citizen-government relationship for a while; now federal governments are starting to address them. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced a major new commitment to citizen engagement; in the U.S., a similar initiative by the Centers for Disease Control has received far less attention, but is no less meaningful.

It's time we recognized that the continuing development of democracy is a shared global project. Democracy is not something that has been perfected in the North, and bestowed upon (or rejected by) countries in the Global South. Instead, its continuing evolution is affected by unique local and regional factors, by universal conditions and principles, and by constant innovation and experimentation.

The Southern countries have much to learn from their Northern counterparts, but they also have much to teach. Their struggles, successes, and failures can provide lessons for democracy-builders everywhere. As John Gaventa, the chair of Oxfam Great Britain, has put it, the rising democracies of the South can help us understand how to revitalize the “diminished democracies” of the North.

Therefore, the nurturing and improvement of democracy will benefit most from a comparative, collaborative approach, rather than an exportation model. Different countries, regions, and the Global North and South need maximum opportunities to learn from each other and support one another. No one nation has figured out how citizens can govern themselves fairly, efficiently, and powerfully; we need to rethink how every nation can play a meaningful role in this shared global challenge.

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