A reminder that it’s still about power

Mark Rosenman impeccably synthesizes the need for building political power in the philanthropic sector. Writing for Philantopic (emphasis mine):

Grantmaking foundations are being taught an important lesson, but most of them don’t seem inclined to learn it. The Tea Party movement has shown that building political power is of much greater consequence to the causes foundations care about than is their support for innovative and scaled-up programs in the nonprofit sector.

Although foundations desperately want to be “more impactful” than current practices allow, they generally settle for becoming more effective at what they already do. Rarely does any truly fresh approach to grantmaking get serious consideration. And in spite of this being a “teachable moment,” too few funders fully recognize the importance of government and even fewer are willing to talk about power. Unfortunately, that has become the essential conversation.

The import of government for foundations has long been clear to some funders, many of whom have pushed themselves and their peers to provide greater support for critical public policies and programs. Today’s challenge to philanthropy, however, goes far beyond its support for advocacy and an often narrow focus on parochial interests.

Indeed, what is at stake today is nothing less than who has the power to define government’s role with respect to the common good. The lesson being taught foundations is that without the power to implement advocated policies, problems of concern to philanthropy will rapidly grow more complex and intractable.

Most of the troubles we face as a society, and that foundations seek to address, reflect failures of government to effectively moderate the forces that created those problems in the first place. Whether those problems originate in the failures of the market and the sometimes-destructive behavior of corporations, in the poor performance of public and private institutions, or in the dysfunctional conduct of individuals, governments can and should do something about them.

Markets and corporations need effective regulation to ensure the orderly conduct of business and to provide public protections. Institutions need leadership, accountability, and resources to promote the public interest. And individuals can both be encouraged and helped to behave in their own and society’s best interests. Government is a critical player in each of these realms and an essential partner to philanthropies that seek to address problems in all of them.

The current arguments for smaller, cheaper, and weaker government are, at least in part, a response to the perceived inadequacy of the public sector’s efforts to provide effective protections and deliver programs and services efficiently. Yet, while some believe that the scope of laws, regulations, social programs, and taxes exceeds acceptable limits, the majority of Americans continue to want better safeguards and services; many are even willing to pay higher taxes to make sure that appropriate regulations and programs are available.

Simply advocating for that position and/or improved government responsiveness isn’t sufficient in our current political reality. The momentum in the pro-/anti-government debate has swung toward the latter – a development that hasn’t happened spontaneously. It is, instead, the result of some funders, even a few foundations, understanding that it’s all about power.

In funding citizen-engagement work and by using sympathetic media outlets, uber-wealthy conservatives like the Koch brothers, the folks at the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and many other like-minded philanthropists have helped build the Tea Party movement into an important force in our democracy.

The anti-government ideology advanced by those donors and activists holds profound negative consequence for most of organized philanthropy and its causes. But few foundations have come to a recognition that they ought to support a counterbalancing power, one that serves aggregated interests across the nonprofit world.

Because foundations and charities are prohibited from partisan political spending, some content themselves with efforts to strengthen democratic participation. Few, however, really focus on it. But while electoral politics appropriately remains a forbidden zone for tax-exempt entities, foundations are free to encourage robust civic engagement and to support and develop social movements in pursuit of the common good.

Unfortunately, most of philanthropy steers clear of such efforts, even though the exercise of political power today is undercutting work long championed and supported by foundations.


We might not like to admit it, but the momentum behind tax cuts and public-sector retrenchment is unlikely to fade unless foundations undertake a new kind of grantmaking, one that goes beyond funding services and advocacy and aims explicitly at building power in support of a government committed to, and capable of, taking action on the myriad problems that confront us – including rational and humane approaches to deficit reduction.

This will require direct organizing as well as efforts to educate the public about vital government programs and regulations that work. We need significant investment in projects that mobilize the grassroots. To support such movement-building, we also need additional funding for public policy work, for advocacy, for mass media, and for social networking campaigns.

Even though they provide less than 2 percent of total nonprofit sector revenues, foundations can play a unique, some might even say a heroic, role in energizing and mobilizing the millions upon millions of Americans involved in charitable work to stand up for their concerns through greater engagement in our democratic process. It is time for philanthropy to step up and help build popular political power for the common good.

Reductionist function and practice

Rob Haitani on Palm OS from Designing Interactions:

One bit of advice that I gave to people designing the Palm OS was, “If you can really understand the one thing your customer wants to do most frequently, and make that a one-step process, then I guarantee people will like the product.”

Just say, “What is the one thing you want to do?” and even if you have to throw out conventions of logic, architecture, and hierarchy, you should make that one step. The more “illogical” your approach is, the less likely it is that it will blindly follow the conventional wisdom, and hence the more likely it becomes that you will be able to differentiate and create a successful product relative to your competition, If you take the conventional approach, by definition you’re not innovating. If you just say, “Here are all the features,” and you lay them out in a logical pattern, then that’s not going to be a successful product.

From Michael Lopp’s interview of Instapaper’s Marco Arment:

Were there design decisions you made early on in order to manage that? What were they?


The biggest design decision I’ve made is more of a continuous philosophy: do as few extremely time-consuming features as possible. As a result, Instapaper is a collection of a bunch of very easy things and only a handful of semi-hard things.

This philosophy sounds simple, but it isn’t: geeks like us are always tempted to implement very complex, never-ending features because they’re academically or algorithmically interesting, or because they can add massive value if done well, such as speech or handwriting recognition, recommendation engines, or natural-language processing.

These features — often very easy for people but very hard for computers — often produce mediocre-at-best results, are never truly finished, and usually require massive time investments to achieve incremental progress with diminishing returns.

If a one-person company is going to build a product, it can’t have any of those huge time-sink features. At most, I can afford to have one or two components of moderate complexity, such as the HTML-to-body-text parser and the Kindle-format writer. But even those are barely worth the time that I put into them.

Top photo is by Nicholas Zurcher from Designing Interactions.

Apps off the approved vendor list

I ran across a year-old article I had bookmarked from GovTech entitled “Do Apps for Democracy and Other Contests Create Sustainable Applications?” ( via Justin Massa)

For the past two years, innovation contests have swept the country in a contagious craze, from Washington, D.C., to New York City, from San Francisco to Portland. Even first lady Michelle Obama got in on the action in March when she launched Apps for Healthy Kids as part of her campaign aimed to end childhood obesity within a generation.

In the age of Government 2.0, these catchy contests thrive due to a simple concept: To improve transparency, governments release hundreds of public-sector data sets, which developers then use to create Web-based applications. The best apps win big prizes. The public reaps the rewards of new apps that help them get around New York’s subway system or navigate historical sites in the nation’s capital.

On the surface, it seems like a win-win situation for all. But local buzz only lasts for so long, especially when a winning app doesn’t always lead to a long-term government contract.

…the contests let city officials advertise transparency efforts and collaborate with citizens to address local issues. But because applications submitted in the competitions don’t go through normal procurement channels, [Jay] Nath [manager of innovation for San Francisco] said, cities cannot use them as “official” apps. That means the shelf life of the winning app is left in the hands of the developers.

Just ask Brian Sobel, one of the three developers of the website iLive.at, where users can learn about a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., by plugging in an address. After winning the top individual prize for the district’s first Apps for Democracy contest, he remembers meeting the mayor and attending press conferences. But eventually the hoopla died down. And without any incentives to keep the data up-to-date, he said, the free site has “gone kind of stale.”

“We produced something, and we were part of this whole to-do,” he said. “That was great. But there was no next step, so we all went back to our gainfully employed ventures. They could have asked us to buy a next phase of the project, but they didn’t because they didn’t have the infrastructure set up for that.”

At the time, I left this note in Google Reader:

Are these contests done in concert with other initiatives (like CDBGs)? Are they engaging horizontally (community groups and social orgs) or just vertically (coders)? I’m at the periphery of the pubdata movement, but I fail to see broad engagement (tongue in cheek: as measured by nobody asking me about it)

Are these contests structured (do a funding round of engagement, then coding, then deployment and evaluation)? Do the contest questions/project descriptions talk about how the project was designed and the structure for which it will be completed or is the focus just on the final product? As someone who designs and evaluates capacity building grants, I’ve found greater success by scrutinizing the workplan more than the impact statement. Of course, overpromising and underfunding is no surprise in the social sector.

Lovingly reimagined, progressively remade

Chris Rabb’s Invisible Capital uses a quote from Robert Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West’s The Future of American Progressivism:

“To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America—this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes—needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”

Belief-based design

Matt Webb posted “Inbox Hero” about a month back (via AJ):

Rand: The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about an email app built on a principle of Objectivism. At the moment, my email client defaults to doing nothing, and I must intervene to create action (ie, write a reply).

But if I had an Objectivist email app, it would automatically respond to all emails with stock enabling and forceful replies after a period of (say) 15 minutes, and I would have to intervene if I wanted it to not do that.

I shared it in Google Reader and Tom Wolf (who I’ve quoted before) replied:

This is a neat way to think about building applications. Rather than starting from “let’s solve a problem”, start from “given this solution, how should it behave assuming I hold X as my primary belief framework?” I’m not sure it’s a practical way to build apps for the masses, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless :)

And just in minor regards to Objectivism, I inadvertently dabbled in it when I was about 14 but fortunately quickly outgrew it.

Shirt sales, scraped daily

I am remiss to finally get around to blogging Day of the Shirt, which I launched back in October, 2010. It’s a straightforward and (hopefully) aesthetically-pleasing t-shirt aggregator.

What’s nifty about Day of the Shirt is that it’s built entirely with  PHP Simple HTML DOM Parser. And when I say entirely, I mean entirely: there is no database backend, everything is scraped, including itself. Day of the Shirt…

  1. scrapes t-shirt vendors to get names, links and thumbnails (which are cropped and cached);

  2. scrapes, parses and rewrites its own DOM when new shirts are added (we’re serving completely static html);

  3. and scrapes itself to compose its daily tweets.

That last step is a little extravagant, but I wanted to separate the early-morning website update from the mid-morning tweeting—otherwise only the early birds would ever see the tweet. Of course, I re-used the tweet-composing algorithm from Panlexicon.

Now the unfortunate part of this project was that I did a fair amount of competition research prior to building this website—but it wasn’t until about a week after I launched that I discovered an equivalent service: Tee MagnetC’est la vie.

Social Media Community Architect and Manager

Exploring the recesses of my email I came across some bad ideas I gave to a good friend, neighbor and excellent “Social Media Community Architect and Manager” as we were exploring possible resume headers for him:

If I were to take the best amalgamation of words, I would go with “Social Media Community Architect and Manager”—which is somewhat awkward. I think you want the words:

  1. social (which is the buzzword of online social networking);

  2. community (which is both online and offline and has a certain fuzziness to it); and

  3. something that describes the process of creation… and management.

I would shy clear of the word technology… “media” definitely has more hotness right now. Maybe “Social Media and Community Architect”.

What about “Social Media and Community Entrepreneur” (everyone loves an Entrepreneur and I would say you qualify more than anyone I know… though it is somewhat heartless)

I went through my contacts on LinkedIn and picked out some words/phrases they use to describe themselves:

  • Community Technologist
  • Online Community Manager
  • strategic planning for your online social network initiatives
  • Building and Executing Social Media Business Strategy
  • Rich Media Developer
  • Interactive Marketing Executive
  • Technology Coordinator
  • Community Architect
  • community & communications coordinator
  • New Media
  • hybrid social media
  • collaboration technology
  • listening technology
  • Emerging
  • Link Development
  • Interactive

I think he went with something sensible like “Community Alchemist”.

Apparently I’m nonprofitly conservative

It’s kind’ve funny how in some contexts I’m a shut-up-and-go radical and in others I’m a hold-your-horses conservative. In response to this article on the Nonprofiteer:

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.

… I left this comment

I’m sympathetic to the overall sentiment, but I’m always worried when an organization’s activities are judged against an arbitrary measure of “nonprofitness”. The strength of the sector—hard fought over 150 years of legislation and case law—is the breadth of allowable activity. The danger of reform is codifying subjective and contemporary distaste as unlawful behavior, thus limiting the ability of truly transformative organizations to form or function. How might Howard University, for example, find egalitarian social benefit in favoring legacy students?

When an organization’s status as a “nonprofit” is the basis for allegations of hypocrisy I find that the outcome usually furthers the goals of those who wish to do away with the nonprofit sector by doing away with taxes entirely (and by extension their social and redistributive benefits). Which is not to dismiss all nonprofit reform (I am quite in support of transparency and reporting), but the real issue here is not “How can we get more poor kids into Harvard?” but “Harvard should not be your only or best option.”

And I agree with the response I received back from the Nonprofiteer—which goes to the strength of dialogue as tool for navigating between two extremes:

Fair point–and I may have overstated my own (so new?). I certainly am not part of the group you describe which opposes taxes–far from it. But the nonprofit community has long regarded itself as above criticism, and I think the portions of it which foster inequality should be called to account. Perhaps depriving those institutions of their nonprofit status is using a sledgehammer where a scalpel would be preferable–I’m certainly open to that possibility. But that there is an ailment to be addressed strikes me as indisputable.

That national interest thing

I’m still parsing through H.R.1363, the $38 billion appropriations bill passed late last night, but this is generally representative of the sausage trading to pay Paul approach:

Sec. 8079. In addition to the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available elsewhere in this Act, $65,200,000 is hereby appropriated to the Department of Defense: Provided, That upon the determination of the Secretary of Defense that it shall serve the national interest, he shall make grants in the amounts specified as follows: $20,000,000 to the United Service Organizations; $24,000,000 to the Red Cross; $1,200,000 to the Special Olympics; and $20,000,000 to the Youth Mentoring Grants Program: Provided further, That funds available in this section for the Youth Mentoring Grants Program may be available for transfer to the Department of Justice Youth Mentoring Grants Program.

…it was sexist when I got here

I find the concept of feminization—how the presence or predominance of women in certain roles or occupations affect those roles and occupations, their legitimacy, compensation, etc.—to be fascinating and directly affect areas I work in (nonprofits, service, social media). Below is the abstract from a paper presented to the American Sociological Association by Paula England, Paul Allison, Yuxiao Wu, and Mary Ross entitled “Does Bad Pay Cause Occupations to Feminize, Does Feminization Reduce Pay, and How Can We Tell with Longitudinal Data?” (2004):

Predominantly female occupations pay less than “male” jobs, even after adjusting for skill demands. The devaluation perspective sees sex composition to affect wages; it says that gender bias affects employers’ decisions about the relative pay of “male” and “female” jobs. The queuing or relative-attractiveness view sees occupations’ sex composition to be affected by their reward level, with less attractive jobs going to women because employers prefer men and can get them in jobs that pay well. Past longitudinal research on how changes in occupations pay and sex composition are related has employed the cross-lagged panel (lagged-Y- regressor) model, generally finding support for the devaluation but not the queuing/relative attractiveness view. We argue that a stronger statistical approach to assessing causal dynamics is a fixed-effects model with lagged independent variables. Using CPS data from 1983 to 2001, we test these two perspectives. We find support for neither idea. That is, generally, the feminization of occupations does not lower their wages, and a fall in occupations’ relative wages does not lead to feminization. We conclude that in earlier historical processes, as occupations and organizations originate, there was a causal relationship between pay and sex composition, but that the continuing relationship is due to institutional inertia freezing in that early relationship, rather than to ongoing causal dynamics.

Emphasis mine.