Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

Translation Services: What Does Venture Philanthropy Really Provide?

January 10, 2013

The Nonprofiteer threw a bit of a bomb at a meeting today.  (“Now, dere’s a bolt from da blue,” as Andy Sipowicz would say.)  Perhaps she should be sorry—but she’s not.

After a group of young “venture philanthropists” described their efforts to help expand a small number of poverty-fighting nonprofits and to attract other philanthropists to support them, she had a few thoughts which she generously shared.

  • Their analysis of Return On Investment in this context was very exciting, comparing the dollars spent to the dollars added to the projected lifetime earnings of program participants as a result of whatever intervention the nonprofits provided.
  • Their goal of “Scaling Up What Works,” while admirable, had challenged many other institutions.  Did they have a template for determining which nonprofits would continue to succeed after significant expansion?  (Not really: they look for leadership and give it management support; but management support can’t clone inspired leaders.)
  • Their main achievement was to have assembled a group of white people (staff and Board) to whom other white people would give money.  White people are reluctant to give money to black and brown people (she observed).  But this group, by virtue of its comfortingly familiar MBA-speak upper-middle-class front, is able to overcome that reluctance. 

Afterward, the meeting’s host suggested to the Nonprofiteer that her last comment had been both off-putting and dismissive.  On reflection, she concluded that, while she was sorry to have embarrassed her host in front of his guests, she was glad to have given voice to the Subject That Dare Not Speak Its Name: the gap between the resources available to white people and those available to nonwhites.  We’d like to think that philanthropy responds to need, but most donors actually respond to being asked by those who look a lot like they do.

If these people can level that tilted playing field, more power to them.  And if some of them can make a career out of doing so, mazel tov.  But while the advice and management training and analysis and for-profit perspective on nonprofit problems are all very well, let’s not fool ourselves about what’s really useful in this model: the ability to look and sound like the sort of people who should be entrusted with a lot of money.     

That’s not a critique of pale people who want to help.  It’s just a plea for frankness about how racism plays out in our sector.


On Wisconsin! Part II*

August 9, 2011

Boy, this guy is the gift that just keeps on giving:  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, not content to interfere with the provision of public services by destroying public-sector unions, has now decided to refuse to sign off on nonprofit grant applications to the Federal government that might “lead to ongoing programs that would need money from state taxpayers later.”   The first wave of grant applications deprived of the state’s endorsement would have supported health services, including programs to reduce binge drinking, an unhealthy activity in which Wisconsin leads the nation.

The hard Right has long argued that government services were unnecessary because nonprofits could step into the breach.  This claim was always nonsense; but at least its exponents didn’t also take on themselves the task of interfering with the charities’ overwhelmed attempts to do so.  Wisconsinites will pay the same Federal taxes whether or not the state receives Federal grants to support its nonprofit sector.  So clearly the point is not to shelter the state’s citizens from confiscatory taxes but to punish people who need help.   Governor Walker’s ideology apparently requires not just that people in need of assistance seek private charity but that private charity be deprived of the means of assisting them.

And let’s be clear about the legal antecedents of what’s going on here.  Groups of citizens of a single state are being deprived of access to something available to all other citizens of the United States—just as groups of citizens of the states of the Old Confederacy were once deprived of the vote.   Then, “states’ rights” was a buzz-phrase meaning “the opportunity to mistreat black people without interference from those durned Feds.”   Now, in Governor Walker’s view, the phrase is even more expansive, meaning “the opportunity to mistreat unhealthy and/or poor  people of every color to make the point that those durned Feds have no right to interfere.”   Anyone who’s enthusiastic about the states’ rights claims in the governors’ lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act should check out Wisconsin for a foretaste of what states’ rights really mean to the rights of states’ citizens.

The good news is, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made clear that states’ rights are trumped by citizens’ right to vote.  Thus—and despite many recent efforts to enact barriers to that right-there’s a reasonable chance that Governor Walker will lose his legislative majority in the next few weeks, whereupon the appropriate state-federal balance can be restored.

Or, should I say, the Constitution can be restored.


On Wisconsin! Part I appears here.

The rich get richer, once more

January 19, 2011

Take a look at this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education documenting the important role of legacy preferences—admissions boosts to the children of alumni—in college acceptance rates.  It raises the question, as our colleague Rick Cohen puts it at the Nonprofit Quarterly, “why tax preferred institutions of higher education in many cases get to use their tax-exempt status to serve children of immense wealth and privilege.”

This is the real issue embedded in another question frequently asked: “Why do well-endowed universities get tax breaks?”   The answer to that can easily be “because education is a public good,” but if that good is available disproportionately to a tiny subset of the public then the entire edifice of tax protection for elite institutions starts to crumble.

Legacy preferences are regularly justified on the grounds that they’re necessary to assure alumni loyalty and therefore alumni financial support.  As the Chronicle article documents, the evidence for this is ambiguous at best.  But even if it were true, it’s not clear why the convenience of fundraising officers should trump society’s legitimate questions about how it’s allocating scarce benefits among competing groups of beneficiaries.  And as long as universities receive tax breaks, it is the broader society that’s doing the allocating and has the right to ask the question.

And here’s another question we have a right to ask: why is affirmative action a problem when it benefits poor people and minorities but not when it benefits wealthy white people?  “Legacy preferences” is, after all, a euphemism for making sure that thems that has, gits—and gits more.

Most colleges and universities these days would regard it as an ethical violation to accept tobacco money, or porn money.   Why should their ethical standards tolerate accepting privilege money—which means, essentially, accepting a bribe?  It makes little sense for the source of money to be evaluated for purity while its purpose goes unquestioned.

As an ex-admissions officer, the Nonprofiteer is more familiar with legacy preferences than she ever wanted to be, and she can assure her readers that merely being the child of an alumnus is not a bona fide occupational qualification.   Plenty of successful alumni have no-‘count kids—hence the old saw about “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”  Nor does it matter that the practice is long-established.  Ivy League colleges had a long-established practice of coordinating their scholarship packages (to keep students from choosing among them on the basis of cost), until someone read and implemented the antitrust laws.  The sky didn’t fall as a result of that change, and it won’t as a result of this one.

Of all the ways in which universities violate the spirit if not the letter of the laws granting them tax advantages (from running semi-professional sports teams to serving as research arms of the military), legacy preferences are perhaps the most damaging.  Every legacy preference helps perpetuate a system of inequality.  Every legacy preference deprives someone better-qualified of an opportunity s/he’s earned.  What’s more, the howls of protest that go up when that accusation is leveled at some other system of preference are nowhere to be heard.

If institutions of higher learning want to maintain their tax-favored status, they should abolish legacy preferences.  If they don’t—if they go on practicing white people’s affirmative action—they deserve to be knocked off the comfortable perch on which they now sit.

Cheating on this blog with another

October 1, 2010

The Nonprofiteer shares her reflections on the differences between self-government and Chicago government in a new piece on the Huffington Post.

More thoughts about communal volunteering

January 26, 2009

It’s not just their loyalty to preexisting groups that should lead us to recruit volunteers by the bunch rather than one at a time.  It’s also the attitudes (prejudices?) they have about the groups we want them to join, compounded by how vividly they remember the stigma of being the new kid.  Hardly anyone who had that experience looks back on it fondly.

Fortunately, a single device removes both these obstacles: recruit people in pairs.  (This may also make it possible to increase the volunteer population by mating them, but that’s a longer-term strategy.)

The two-by-two recommendation is most often made about Board members, and specifically about minority Board members: don’t ask someone to be the only African-American or the only woman in the room.  But it’s equally true of any Board recruit, or in fact of any volunteer: bring in 1 person, and you’ve got a 50% shot at keeping him/her.  Bring in 2, and you’ve got an 80% shot at keeping them both.

Why?  Because misery loves company, and being a newcomer/outsider is always misery.  And because unless your Board or volunteer program is truly astonishing, anyone observing it from the outside will think it could use a lot of improvement.  The prospect of trying to improve something unaided is usually daunting to the point of not bothering.

Example: while the Nonprofiteer firmly believes she should run for the Board of her condominium association because the job is really important and members of the current Board really aren’t up to it, she can’t bear the thought of being stuck alone with all those people who really aren’t up to their jobs.  Lately, however, it’s occurred to her: if she can persuade one or two other member of the association,  people she knows to be competent, to run alongside her, they’d have a fighting change of reforming the institution.

Face it: most people watching your Board meetings or volunteer projects would probably have similar thoughts–and if they don’t see what’s going on til after they’ve joined, they may just quietly get discouraged and go away.   But bring in a whole class of Board members–two or three or four, not just a little new blood but gouts–and each of them will feel empowered to help turn the place around.

Foundation Friday: ‘Fess up or pay up

June 27, 2008

Our colleague Jack Siegel is up in arms because some California foundations headed off legislative action on diversity issues by making additional grants to minority agencies. He regards this as extortion, and thunders that the foundations should have left the state rather than either comply with legislative demands for disclosure of their diversity [or lack thereof] or give grants to agencies the foundations wouldn’t otherwise have funded. Why? Because “Foundations are private corporations and their assets are private property.”

Piffle. Foundations are tax-privileged institutions whose tax privileges rest on an assertion that they’re operating in the public good. If they refuse to disclose the ethnic composition of their staffs, Boards and grantees, legislators can reasonably infer that the composition is tilted toward the white; from which they can further reasonably infer that minority communities might be underserved by foundations, in violation of the public good.

It seems utterly reasonable for foundations to say, “No, our lack of diversity doesn’t interfere with operation in the public interest, including the portion of the public interest that requires attention to matters of racial equity. And we’ll prove it, by funding additional agencies representing or serving the minority community.”

Confronted with a reasonable legislative demand that they ‘fess up or pay up, the foundations chose the latter. Perhaps that suggests something rather unattractive about the results of their much-touted efforts at diversity; but if the public doesn’t get the benefits of diversity, at least it gets the benefits of diversified funding. The Nonprofiteer salutes the California legislature for having built such a fine pair of horns for this dilemma, and for its success in impaling foundations thereon.

Racism, Social Welfare and Government Intervention

April 1, 2008

Here’s a powerful–and painful–review of the true costs of racism.  This summary begins with an examination of a recent study showing that Americans’ reluctance to support public welfare programs is attributable in large part to a view among white people that such programs mostly benefit nonwhite people.  Other studies show these attitudes infecting the nonprofit community, with white churches reducing their involvement in charitable outreach as nonwhites increase their representation in the churches’ neighborhoods.

But, as Senator Obama made clear in his speech, racism isn’t static (thank God); and, as the researchers found, racism isn’t everything: they attribute half of Europe’s consistent support for public welfare programs to the existence of strong Social Democratic political parties, supported by labor and small farmers.  (You know: kind of like American Democrats, only with backbone.) 

The research is a salutary reminder–necessary after years of relentless neo-con rhetoric about how the government is the problem and the private sector the solution–that the only way to make sure everyone gets taken care of is to use the mechanism that belongs to everyone.  Not to mention that anytime we’re NOT using that mechanism to make sure everyone gets taken care of, some profiteer will be using it to make sure HE gets taken care of.   

Foundation Friday: A New Grantmaker

March 21, 2008

Good news from Chicago: 3Arts, formerly a residence for women artists called the 3 Arts Club, has reinvented itself as a grantmaker providing "cash support that goes directly to artists, residency fellowships, an organizational grant given to up to three nonprofits for their support of women artists, and sponsorship of events and programs that showcase artists."

Several aspects of the 3Arts story invite praise:

  • This was an organization whose original model–residence for women artists–had been rendered obsolete by a number of social, economic and real estate development factors.  So its Board made some years of good-faith effort to reinvent the residence, and then finally went all the way and reinvented the agency.  It sold the building and plowed the proceeds into support for artists–maintaining the original purpose but in a form suitable to contemporary life.  Bravo (or, mostly in this case, brava)!   A truly courageous set of choices.
  • 3Arts examined arts funding in Chicago and noticed that it’s least available to artists–the people without whom there would be no art.  Having found a niche, it promptly occupied it, focusing its grantmaking precisely where the need is greatest.
  • In keeping with its original mission to aid under-supported artists, 3Arts will focus its grants on women, people of color and people with disabilities working in music, theater and visual arts.  This straightforward statement contrasts beautifully with the usual namby-pamby language about "diversity."  3Arts will support those who need supporting and assure that those who have been silenced will be heard.

The Nonprofiteer has watched the 3Arts transformation from afar.  She was enthusiastic about the plan to reinvent the building as a cultural center, and disappointed when it collapsed.  But she’d be hard-pressed to think of a more welcome addition to the Chicago arts scene than a grantmaker with this mission, this clearly stated, at this time.

Note: 3Arts Artist Awards are by nomination only, in recognition of the group’s lean staff.  Details about its other awards at

Foundation Friday: Doin’ What Comes Naturally

February 29, 2008

The Nonprofiteer gets a giggle from the argument laid out here that there’s no need for proposed California legislation requiring foundations doing business in the state to report on the diversity of their staffs and Boards and the communities they fund, because foundations are already discussing the topic and the Council on Foundations has appointed a diversity officer. 

This work is too important, however, to leave to prescriptive
government intervention. We can do better when it comes to diversity —
and we will. But government reporting requirements are not the way to
get there.

Are we supposed to believe that what’s being described is a coincidence?–that legislators
just happened to charge in and demand a redundant accounting on
diversity while foundations were in the thick of healing themselves?

More likely, it is with diversity as it is with expenditure of university endowments: that nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as the prospect of being hanged, but the threat of legislative attention comes awfully close.  All those who believe that tuitions at elite institutions would have dropped naturally, without the grumblings of Senator Grassley and Company, please contact the Nonprofiteer for another free-market opportunity–one having to do with the purchase of a bridge in New York. 

Labor relations at nonprofits; or, Shut up and serve your indenture!

February 20, 2008

Thanks to Phil Cubeta at Gifthub for pointing out the view of Jeremy Gregg that charity employees are overpaid.  On January 28, Mr. Gregg wrote,

I am so tired of hearing from my peers that we’re making a sacrifice
being employed in a non-profit organization. Making less money than we
might earn in another pursuit? Perhaps… though few of us would be
candidates for my organization’s food pantry, I suppose we could argue
that we — like many of this blog’s readers — disappointed our dear
financial planners when we made the choice to join this sector instead
of pursuing more lucrative ventures.

But please, dear friends
and fools of charitable intent, do not for one moment pretend that you
are making a sacrifice. The opportunity costs are minimal in this
regard when we look at the enormous gains we have made in other areas:
seeing the impact of our work every day, feeling the sense of ownership
over our actions, revelling in the glorious triumphs of lives changed
through a series of events that we set in motion… we make no
sacrifices to be here. Indeed, we might even be seen to be selfish.

For me, the sacrifice would be to forego these rewards in pursuit of monetary gain so that my family would be better off.

What pisses the Nonprofiteer off about this blithe dismissal of a significant economic injustice is the way it overlooks the entire pink-collar sector of the charitable world: people earning less than $40,000 with no health insurance who struggle to support their families and pay their student loans for the sake of jobs without meaningful authority or autonomy or opportunity to see the impact their work makes.  It’s hard to revel in the glory of lives changed when your own life consists of working 70 hours a week with no overtime pay, taking direction from 8 or 10 different people with exaggerated notions of their own importance, and getting no credit for your contributions. 

This is a gender issue, in a sector that’s always subsidized itself on the unwaged labor of women.  The  Nonprofiteer’s concern is not white men who are making only $100,000 a year when they could be making $300,000 but women (and people of color of both genders) who are expected to be grateful to make less than a law-firm secretary.  If suggesting that people who do the world’s important work be paid as if the work were important–and as if their futures, and the futures of their children, were as important as those of the clients they’re serving–if suggesting that is being "selfish," the Nonprofiteer pleads guilty. 

If charities are the public services they claim and are intended to be, they should be paid for by the public–not by the sacrifice of selected individuals.  And if Mr. Gregg doubts that there’s sacrifice involved, the Nonprofiteer suggests he consider asking the person who types his letters.