Fix the Police, Part 2

August 28th, 2014

All right. Ferguson. Ferguson Ferguson Ferguson.

Let’s talk about the professionalization of the security forces (those are the police plus the armed forces). In my dissertation, I posit the idea of a “security-force configuration,” which is the set of institutional relationships among the army, police, and politicians. In Latin America, there have historically been two kinds:

  • Militarized security-force configuration: The army controls the police, in part because it has vastly superior resources, but also because it has the power of appointment and oversight. Both entities are professionalized, meaning that merit rather than connections are the primary means of getting ahead. There’s a unified military command, which means the police are in essence an extension of the army.
    • Locus of Control: Soldiers
    • Balance of Resources: Army > Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army = Police
  • Politicized security-force configuration: Politicians have the power to appoint and fire police officials. The police and army have roughly equivalent resources, and the army is much more professionalized than the police. The police have their own command, and their loyalty to the national regime is unpredictable.
    • Locus of Control: Politicians
    • Balance of Resources: Army = Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army > Police

Neither of these is a picnic. They each create a distinctive kind of vulnerability in the political system: militarized ones are susceptible to national coup (think Argentina and Paraguay), because the unified military command can turn against the government, and politicized ones are subject to local insurrection (think Colombia and Mexico), because local party actors use local forces to fight local battles.

What’s striking about Ferguson is that it reveals how much the U.S. actually has a politicized security-force configuration, even as we’re talking about how (undeniably) militarized the police have become. There’s a transfer of materiel from the army to the police, which makes the balance of resources more equal (though far from equal), but more importantly, the level of professionalization doesn’t change. If anything, the contrast gets more stark: police don’t know how to use their new tools (toys). Merit is devalued: those who know how to use these tools better don’t get ahead, because no one knows how to use them. For example, it’s been pointed out that soldiers are trained never to hold their weapons above a 45-degree angle unless they’re being attacked; police in Ferguson aren’t respecting those norms.

But what’s different about the U.S. system is that we have inherited the tradition of the sheriff from England, and that’s often an elected position. In the Colombian politicized security-force configuration of the first half of the twentieth century, the president appointed governors, who appointed state police chiefs as well as mayors, who appointed local police chiefs. There were no elected police officials, they were an extension of the party system. The sheriff is different; he or she has a direct accountability to voters.

And here’s where foundations, particularly community foundations, can play a role in depoliticizing our country’s security-force configuration – by placing greater pressure on the elected office of sheriff to be more accountable to community norms and professional practices, particularly with regard to military hardware, and funding advocates who seek to increase citizen oversight of the police.

Because there’s a third security-force configuration that we should be striving toward: a democratized one.

Fix the Police

August 14th, 2014

My shtick is usually to do song titles as blog post titles, but tonight, I have to change it up a bit. But just a bit.

Ugh, Ferguson. So, my dissertation was about the military, the police, and politicians – particularly state and local politicians. Governor Jay Nixon, meet the police chief of Ferguson. There, we have the militarization of the police that has gotten out of the control of politicians. I looked at the inverse, when the politicization of the police gets out of the control of the military, which is the structure that most folks assume about Latin America, the region on which I focused.

I don’t know that I have a lot to say about how to reverse the militarization of the police, just that it’s likely to take a long time, as I’ve seen pointed out online today. It’s helpful to think in terms of organizational incentives. My Berkeley classmate Maiah Jaskoski looked at this in Peru and Ecuador, what else the military does when it doesn’t have external defense to focus on.

A brief anecdote to illustrate. I was in Colombia visiting family over Easter week. We were a few hours outside Bogota in a vacation area, driving between town and the house where we were staying. We passed a military checkpoint along the way, where nothing much was happening other than keeping some uniformed dudes busy in the sweltering heat. I asked my cousin’s husband, who’s a recently retired senior officer in the national police, why the military was running a highway checkpoint. “You see, they’re worried for their jobs. The peace process [with the guerrillas] looks like it might actually stick this time, and then what will they do?” The military has been fighting the internal terrorist threat for many years, and since the late 1950s, the national police have been the “fourth force” within the armed forces. But what does the army do when its decades-long internal enemy surrenders? My cousin was suggesting that the army needed something besides fighting to justify their continued elevated budget after the conflict would in principle be over.

With the militarization of local police departments, we see something analogous, where military-grade SWAT gear get passed on to units in towns and cities like Ferguson. One of the most impressive social-media responses has been Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tweeting that the pictures show police in a small city having better gear than the U.S. military invading Iraq eleven years go. As we’re seeing, and has been emerging under the radar until it came chillingly to light this week, the militarization of the police is a very dangerous development.

Here’s why, beyond the obvious. You have to pay attention to the professionalization of the security forces. How is their mission defined, and what are the principles on which their training is based? In early- and mid-20th-century Colombia, you had a situation where the army had professionalized, but didn’t have overwhelming force relative to the police. And you had a highly unprofessional police yoked to the whims of local and state politicians – but that wouldn’t automatically get whupped in a fight with the army. So when partisan politics turned deadly in the 40s and 50s, what you saw was police defecting unpredictably to join the rebels, and the army not able to simply quash them. So you got recurrent local-level insurrection that didn’t aggregate up into revolution, as it did in Mexico. Politicians and their enemies had local tools to fight local problems, and that’s why the conflict stayed local.

In Ferguson, we see local conflict that’s extremely, EXTREMELY one-sided, and that is not rebels vs. the government, but the government vs. unarmed people living their lives. But there’s a terrible combination of unprofessional (I don’t mean that they’re not trained, I mean that they’re not clear that their mission is to protect and serve, rather than search and destroy – H/T Talking Points Memo, I believe) and wildly over-resourced police. This is a recipe for disaster. Here, we’re not talking about the police vs. the army, but the police vs. a part of the population. And the disconnect in power, as well as a willingness to respond disproportionately, is just stunning.

So here’s what I come back to, because this is a blog about philanthropy and democracy. Community foundations have a role to play here. They are civic leaders, or they should be, and these are civic issues about how public resources are used to actually promote public safety and community welfare, which can’t happen when a significant proportion of the population is systematically profiled and demonized. I really like the approach that Perry & Mazany and Albert Ruesga take in Here for Good, talking about community foundations as “borderlands institutions” that have to embody “agonistic pluralism.” This basically means that the typical tension between the more conservative proclivities of many donors and the more progressive inclinations of grantees and staff is not a problem but actually a strength. Because as Congress demonstrates, there are precious few places where people can disagree civilly these days across partisan lines. And community foundations can and should hold that tension productively.

I think of that holding as “advancing difficult dialogues in the community,” and at work, I talk about it as one of the non-grantmaking roles that funders can play. Well, here’s a chance. “How does our community promote public safety in a just and real way – not based on uninformed, unexamined prejudices, and in a way that keeps us all safe, and does not sacrifice the public lives of some for the perceived comfort of others?” Civilian oversight of the military is one of the key innovations that has finally let Latin America emerge from a long shadow of military dictatorships. It’s sad that we have to think in terms of increasing civilian oversight of the police, but that’s what it’s come to.

How can community foundations and other place-based funders advance difficult dialogues about the proper role of the police and other law enforcement officers in promoting peace with justice?

Double Vision

August 7th, 2014

Short and sweet this time: I heard a great description of what I think is an essential skill in philanthropy, the ability to have focus but not be rigid about it.

The firm for which I work is bidding on a project with a group of community foundations, and one of the people involved was on a podcast about philanthropy, so I took a listen. He reflected on his experience as a community foundation leader, saying “you have to be single-minded, but also open-minded,” or words to that effect.

That strikes me as just right: I think the art of “strategic philanthropy” is to take your time figuring out a problem that is at the intersection of what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and where the need is, and where a focused intervention can really make a difference. I keep thinking about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work on juvenile justice, from hearing CEO Patrick McCarthy speak about it at a conference. They saw that it really makes a difference in the juvenile justice system where kids end up on their first sentencing: if they go right to prison, their outcomes are much worse than if they’re put in a community-based setting. But the more extreme response is more common than it should be. So the foundation has focused on helping to create conditions where that sentencing decision goes the other way. They’re single-minded about making that change, because they believe in the potential upside.

But then, once you’ve found that focus, you should be open to good ideas, wherever they might come from. And such good ideas include having those directly impacted play a leading role, including in decision-making, on how resources should be allocated in pursuit of that goal. Work across sectors, empower nonprofit leaders and those directly affected to speak and lead, look for insight from throughout your own organization, draw on the experiences of your funders – once you’ve figured out what to be single-minded about, you can be gloriously open-minded about everything else.

It’s not easy to get there, because not that many problems may fit those criteria of mission, need, capacity, and ripeness, but when you find them, go all in.

Baby Come Back

July 31st, 2014

It’s been a while, but I’m back at it with the blogging.

It’s interesting to see the backlash against “strategic philanthropy” continuing to gain force. Bill Schambra’s latest continues a theme he’s hammered for a while, but when the likes of FSG (disclosure: a competitor of the firm for which I work) begin to moderate their approach, you know something is up.

Part of this has to do with an absolutism about data, which cuts both ways. Either you have to be driven entirely by metrics, or they’re the devil. If metrics don’t work, throw ‘em overboard.

But what’s most interesting, and difficult, is decision-making in conditions of uncertainty. Which is, you know, the human condition.

This is particularly important when you put data in their proper social context. As I’ve continually railed, the concept of “moving the needle” in philanthropy is inherently problematic. The scale of changes philanthropy can foster, particularly in a social-service context, just aren’t big enough – there aren’t enough people affected – to actually change social indicators. The scale is off. Maybe I’m just being too literal, but it seems like the phrase should actually mean something….

To that point, economist Justin Wolfers has a fascinating account of how difficult it is to draw meaningful conclusions even under the best quasi-experimental conditions, allegedly the gold standard of social analysis.

To wit, North Carolina stopped extending unemployment benefits as of this past January, while surrounding states with broadly similar economies and cultural backgrounds continued them. Conservatives argued that stopping benefits would incentivize the unemployed to try harder to find a job, lowering unemployment rates. Progressives argued that those denied benefits would spend less money, exerting a negative influence on the economy.

When Wolfers crunches the numbers, thoughtfully and in accord with good standards, the answer is…we can’t tell. There are changes in both expected directions, but they’re not significantly different than changes in neighboring states. We can’t tell what difference the reform made, and who’s right.

If we’re hoping data will give us greater certainty, there’s a good chance they won’t. And we’ll need to go back to good old values to decide whether or not to do certain things. Now, there are values that are out of touch with lived reality on the ground. For my money, those aren’t worth much cottoning to. So I’m not saying we abandon evidence. But let’s be clear that the data aren’t necessarily going to give us the anchor we thought they could. A degree of faith may be required that longer-term outcomes will ultimately result. Or we may want to value process outcomes more, like improving people’s dignity or promoting learning among relevant actors.

Intentionality in philanthropy is critical, but let’s be honest about what we can and can’t be certain about, and be all right with less certainty than an overly predictive view of metrics might suggest….

“A Responsible Funder Role in Movement Building” – Sat June 7, 10am

June 5th, 2014

I’ll be speaking at the Joint Affinity Groups (JAG) Unity Summit in Washington, DC this Saturday, June 7, at 10:00am on “A Responsible Funder Role in Movement Building.” It’s a 20-minute TED-style talk, so come watch me wave my hands and mix metaphors for less time than it takes to do your morning commute.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart, with a group to which I was Hispanics in Philanthropy’s representative way further back in the day than I can remember. Good to see them continuing to fight the good fight on diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy.

Chain Chain Chain

May 8th, 2014

While on vacation last month (go to Colombia, it’s fabulous), I finished reading Teju Cole’s Open City. Well worth the read. I especially enjoyed it because the narrator lives near my neighborhood in northern Manhattan and spends much of his time walking around the city; I liked being able to picture his itinerary. I found Cole very thoughtful and attentive to the variety of immigrant experiences in the city. Like his protagonist, Cole was raised in Nigeria and came to the U.S. in the early 90s. So I was interested to see that he’s had some provocative things to say (yes, on Twitter) about the #bringourgirlsback campaign.

#BringBackOurGirls, but to where? In Gamboru Ngala, 3 1/2 hours away from Chibok, 336 people were killed last night.

Much as we might wish this to be a single issue with a clear solution, it isn’t, and it cannot be. It never was.

Boko Haram killed more human beings yesterday than the total number of girls they kidnapped three weeks ago. Horrifying, and unhashtagable.

For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.

Do good work, support good work, find whatever in the inferno is not infernal, but do it from a place of understanding, that is all.

Remember: #bringbackourgirls, a vital moment for Nigerian democracy, is not the same as #bringbackourgirls, a wave of global sentimentality.

This got me thinking about a favorite topic, the nature of causal thinking in philanthropy. A lot of what I do is help funders think through their assumptions about how the work they do (their strategies) is actually expected to result in the changes they hope to see in the world (their outcomes). How realistic are those assumptions? How grounded are they in an understanding of the environment in which you’re operating, and in your own capacity to do the work?

A favorite tool for doing this work is the “pathway to impact,” a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked logically. Marvelous word, that last one. It imparts objectivity, but as I think about it and I experience this work, it should probably be replaced with “empirically.” A pathway to impact is a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked empirically – that there’s some evidence that it’s reasonable to expect on thing to lead to another. Improving curricula for teacher education leads to better trained teachers leads to more effective classroom instruction leads to better educational outcomes for kids. Better understanding of the needs of low-wage workers leads to more tailored employment training programs leads to improved skills leads to greater ability to access jobs leads to greater likelihood of applying for a job leads to greater likelihood of getting one…to keeping one…to improving family income sustainably. And so on, for whatever issue you’re working on.

What I see Teju Cole saying is that our assumptions about how hashtagging “bringbackourgirls” will help, you know, bring them back, are fuzzy and based somewhat on wishful thinking. Other commentators go further and say that this social media campaigning is actually harming Nigeria in the long run, because the most direct thing it can lead to is justifying U.S. military intervention. This tweet is pretty eerie in that light:

@JohnKerry: On behalf of #POTUS spoke w/ #Nigeria’s Pres GJ earlier. US will send security team to help #BringBackOurGirls safely

So one thing to do in these cases is to ask, what are the most likely direct results of what I’m doing here? Whose cause will I help by doing this? There are likely to be multiple answers. But it’s useful to weigh them in the balance. Helps draw attention in the West to a part of the world experiencing issues that should get more attention. Cool. Builds North-South solidarity and causes people to identify with others very distant from themselves geographically, culturally, and economically. Awesomesauce. Helps justify intervention by US forces that can have negative side effects. Jeepers.

Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage in this way. But play out the chain, imagine the pathway(s)…which probably means learning more about circumstances on the ground. And that can never be a bad thing.

Is #bringbackourgirls the new #kony2012? Or does it represent a genuine advance over that experience? (I remember that one of the things I liked about the video was that they did a really good job of laying out a pathway to impact…but it turned out to be wrong, or incomplete, or misguided – perhaps. A topic for another time, maybe.) What do you think?

Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #4

March 27th, 2014

Returning to an ongoing series.

#1 is “Foundations are legally prohibited from doing advocacy.”

#2 is “There are too many nonprofits.”

#3 is “We can move the needle.”

And #4 is….

We’re going from being responsive to being strategic.”

Just as the zombie was once alive, and retains something of life’s essence, zombie ideas contain kernels of truth. But their expression in the world has become…something other.

The kernel of truth in a dichotomy of responsive and strategic grantmaking is the difference between funding whatever ideas come over the transom and naming specific outcomes you as a funder want to see achieved, and asking grantees to pursue those specific outcomes.

The problem comes when we view strategic as an honorific, and set up a dichotomy where responsive by implication becomes a pejorative. We’re “moving beyond” responsive grantmaking, doing something “more” strategic.

But as the California Wellness Foundation argued ten years ago, “Responsive Grantmaking Is Strategic.” There are several ways this can be the case:

  • Responsive grantmaking can complement the goals of “strategic” (or directed) grantmaking, providing an opportunity to learn about a particular field, or gauge responsiveness to a new idea or approach.
  • If we ask the question “whose strategy is it?” (and for this I’m grateful to Judy Patrick of the Women’s Foundation of California for framing it), then a different perspective emerges. If the answer is “the foundation’s,” then perhaps the strategic-responsive dichotomy holds. But if the answer is that the strategy belong to the grantee, or the community, or the field, or the movement – then responsive grantmaking appears in a different light. If you as a funder are bought in to a strategy larger than your individual organization’s, then perhaps the most strategic way to intentionally pursue your strategy is to sign on to the strategies that grantees and other partners develop on their own or in concert with you. Responding to others’ strategies that you endorse is the strategic choice.
  • Responsive grantmaking can be strategic if what you value as a funder is not your ability to define a problem and name a solution, but your ability to “pick winners,” to identify strong organizations with effective leaders and solid plans, and support them in executing on those plans. Often, the difference between these values is framed in dichotomous terms – but a picking-winners approach can be used in concert with a defining-problems approach. You just have to be willing to see what actors in the field you’ve chosen are up to and ask how you can help, rather than coming in with a defined solution.

Responsive grantmaking is undervalued because its benefits for learning, field-building, place-building, and reputation management aren’t well articulated or robustly defended. And strategic grantmaking is overvalued because its roots in ecosystem thinking, learning, and value judgements is similarly less understood than its intentionality or proactiveness. Viewing them dichotomously and assuming that strategic funding is better misses a lot of opportunities for impact.

How do you think about responsive and strategic grantmaking in your own work? How does this particular zombie idea, of a dichotomy between the two, play out in your world?

Naming the Elephant in the Room

March 20th, 2014

Here’s my post about last week’s GEO conference from the conference blog.

It’s time to start talking about funders’ internal capacity, and how that shapes their effectiveness. For too long, funders have been externally focused, without systematic attention to whether they have the skills, abilities, knowledge, and networks to pursue their missions most effectively. On one level, this comes from a good place, like when my Colombian grandmother (either of them, qepd) would be more worried about what we were eating than whether she ate. But on another level, my Colombian grandmother was really skinny – she didn’t eat enough. I’m not saying she needed to gorge, but all that selflessness wasn’t necessarily a good thing. In moderation, some attention to funder internal capacity can help funders play their various roles more effectively. And it will give them more perspective on what they’re really asking nonprofits to do when they offer capacity building.

What forms of funder capacity do you think are most important? Which funders do a good job of building their own capacity in moderation?

Discount Double Check

February 6th, 2014

One of the central issues in philanthropy is time horizons. Do you exist in perpetuity? Are you spending down within the donor’s lifetime? Are you looking to bring the next generation into governance? When can you expect to see impact?

Private funders have a tremendous luxury in the ability to set their own time horizons. If they want to exist in perpertuity, the law allows them to pay out 5% of assets per year, and with sound investment policy, they can keep ahead of inflation for a long, long time, and not have to touch the principal. If they want to spend down within the founding donor’s lifetime, as Chuck Feeney of the Atlantic Philanthropies has elected to do, or within fifty years of the death of the last founding trustee, as the Gates Foundation will do, there’s nothing stopping them.

Compare their reality to that of other endeavors:

  • Publicly traded companies: Quarterly earnings reports drive the stock prize and the value of compensation. Analysts will punish you for failing to make predictions. (Almost makes you not want to publish your theory of change if you’re a foundation – why be seen as making a prediction?)
  • Elected officials: Members of the House of Representatives are elected for two-year terms. As soon as they’re elected, they have to start campaigning again. Maybe this was designed to keep you accountable to the people, but nowadays, it means you’re accountable to donors and fundraising events.
  • Pop stars: One album doesn’t sell – hmm, have they lost it? Two albums don’t sell – bye-bye record deal, enjoy the nostalgia circuit.
  • Sports coaches: The Monday after the final regular-season NFL game, the coaching carousel begins to turn. The Cleveland Browns have had three head coaches in three seasons.

It’s really only tenured college professors who have at all comparable time horizons to private funders.

So how should private funders handle this power?

There are worse places to start than gauging δ.

What’s that, you say?

I said, δ.

Is that a backwards six?

No, it’s a lowercase delta, the Greek character. You may recognize its upper-case sibling, Δ, the symbol for change.

Lower-case delta, δ, is the symbol for the discount rate, your personal algorithm or set of assumptions for how you value future payoffs relative to present ones. “This ice cream tastes good. If I have another few spoonfuls, I’ll enjoy them, but man, my stomach will hurt in 20 minutes. So I can have yummy ice cream now, or sleep better later.” If I have a low discount rate, the value of future payoffs goes up, and I get a good night’s sleep. If I have a high discount rate…well, at least I can blog at 1:15 in the morning.

So, low δ = high patience.

High δ = politicians, public-company CEOs, sports coaches, pop stars: give me success now, whatever the cost.

Now, what happens when you have high δ people running a low δ institution? This is one of the problems with governance in philanthropy. We look to experts who thrive in high δ environments and ask them to downshift to a low δ mindset, without necessarily the tools for making that shift and checking their own instincts.

The good news is that in economics at least, δ boils down to preferences. And preferences can change. The art of governance in philanthropy may be tapping into the power of low δ thinking. I’m curious how much being a family board affects this. The presence of children is a classic way to lower δ – “think of what they’ll inherit.”

How do you see δ play out in the foundations with which you work? How do they value future payoffs relative to present results, particularly with regard to funding decisions?

Phantom of the Paradise

January 30th, 2014

Picking back up on the “Redefining Capitalism” article from the latest issue of Democracy. In a prior post, I wrote:

The role of foundations as labs for innovation…The redefining-capitalism lens suggests that this function is essential to philanthropy’s role in the capitalist system. By focusing on specific problems and promoting creative solutions to them, foundations play their part in helping capitalism function more effectively. Which depending on your point of view, may not necessarily be a good thing. But this redefining perspective certainly makes it sound more palatable.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about phantom needs that fuel the economy. Go into any Duane Reade drugstore (that’s what Walgreens is called here in NYC), and all along the aisles and in front of every checkout counter are little products someone came up with to entice people to part with their money: USB dongles that go in a car’s cigarette lighter, another kind of candy bar, light vanilla soy milk. What if you walked into a Duane Reade, or a grocery store, and the only things on the shelves were things you actually buy or have ever bought? How bare would those shelves be? Now layer on the version of that image for each person who walks in on a given day. How empty would the shelves be? What proportion of products never get bought by more than two or three people in a given week, or month? Yeah, you’d think those products would disappear from the shelves, and I’m sure the data analytics at Duane Reade are pretty decent to enable them to do so – but maybe some items are a package deal from manufacturers: want to sell Doritos, which you know people want? You gotta stock Funyuns, which no one wants, but we’re going to try to push anyway.

Funyuns are a phantom need. If they didn’t exist…meh. Would the world be any different? Would anyone’s well-being really be diminished? (Don’t touch my Munchies mix, though, those are vital to national security and the general welfare.)

And yet we’re told that what the economy needs is more businesses, more ideas, more people making…stuff. Like USB dongles and Funyuns. Those are invented needs. Which are EVERYWHERE. They fuel our economy: stuff we don’t need, and just barely want. But you know, just seem, maybe useful, once. I’m thinking ahead to spring cleaning, and looking at how many clothes I haven’t worn even once in the past year. Closet full of phantom needs.

This may ultimately be the value of the social sector: we focus on real needs, not phantom needs. The problems we focus on are hopefully ones that are genuinely worth solving. If that’s helping capitalism function more effectively (doing the right things) as opposed to just more efficiently (doing things right), then maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Until you stop to think about the problems that capitalism creates, especially in the pursuit of phantom needs.

There are some problems that are just problems of resource extraction – fuel pollutes. Those are real needs, however bogus the solutions (“clean coal”). Those negative externalities should be internalized, and taken into account when making planning decisions.

But problems caused by the fulfillment of phantom needs, like the giant plastic island in the Pacific from plastic shopping bags? (Which, it turns out, isn’t an island, but is still bad news.) As the guys on ESPN would say, “c’mon, man!”

So, new rule: to judge the value of a solution, you have to weigh both the problems its solves as well as the problems it creates. And if the needs the solution solves are phantom needs, well, that’s just a problem in itself.

How good are nonprofits at defining and solving real needs and not phantom needs? How good are foundations?