Search is not Serendipitous

Erin McKean makes the point in a TED talk that, unlike paper dictionaries, online dictionary searches do not provide serendipity: finding something you didn’t know you were looking for.

I take this many ways:

True, but…

How many people regularly flip a dictionary?

How exact is search?

How many people just type the word into Google (which, because internet search sucks, is quite serendipitous).

(via Daring Fireball

Exploring Poverty: Participation, Practice, Imagination and Exploration

In my last post exploring poverty, I defined poverty as “the inability to fully participate in or benefit from society”. This definition sought to move beyond a simple definition of poverty as an economic floor, and towards a broader conception of poverty and a goal for society in general.

To begin this post, I’d like to explore the idea of participation as an opposite of poverty. Using participation as a guide, we can thus provide a conceptual benchmark: a society can be measured by the people who are excluded from it.

Describing poverty as exclusion is not unique. Prof. Yves Cabannes writes extensively upon South American anti-poverty movements and their notions of exlusion. Urban organizer Martin Longoria of Brazil has said “You know what is the opposite of exclusion for us? It is not inclusion, but participation. Active participation is what makes you a full citizen.” (“Poor, or excluded? lessons from Latin America and the Caribbean”. UN Chronicle, March-May, 2001)

Within the United States there are many examples of exclusion, but an illustrative one is an exclusion of age: will our older population, expected to grow with the influx of Baby Boomers (and others of the same age), continue to be able participate within society at the same level they currently do?

There is no easy answer to this question (or the multitude of questions like it); and that we frame it within an easy/complex binary system is perhaps the problem. In approaching questions like these, our most common impulse is to look towards existing problems:

  • Older people have difficulty voting

  • Older people have difficulty earning a living-wage

  • Older people have difficulty socializing with younger people

And breaking these down, we usually approach them as essential elements that are missing or unfulfilled:

  • They can’t register to vote

  • They can’t get to polling stations

  • They are not engaged on issues or by candidates

It is easiest to frame issues as the absence of something currently existing, rather than creating something new. We look for simple indicators of success, rather than describing the outcome as a whole. Our collective inability to accept diversity and create participation can be viewed as a failure of imagination.

Experiment: Describe society if people over 65 years old were fully able to participate within the political system. Do so using language that doesn’t actually use “old people” (or senior citizens, or any subject that would stand-in for an idea of them).

It’s difficult. Instead of saying something easy like “Old people can easily get to polling places”, you have to reframe it as “Polling places are close to and accessible to where people live.” And even more difficult, imagine what form that would actually take: more polling places (micro-polling centers?), transportation (who do you imagine driving?), more opportunities to vote so missing one election is less consequential (micro-ballots?).

Imagine solutions not as absence or fulfillment, but as practice.

_Experiment: Describe a society that has entirely eliminated recreational drug use (we’ll say alcohol, tobacco, and everything else too)? Don’t use the word “drugs” (or any other stand-in). How are people spending their time? How do they relax? Or find thrills Or explore their mind and body? _

You may find yourself imagining everyone as being identical—we naturally seek homogeneity as it is a simplifier and makes imagining easier but at a cost. Try to push away from this and think of the diversity of people you know (or even common stereotypes)? Do not imagine them disappearing; instead imagine their activities transformed according to the constraints of the experiment.

Thinking along these lines allows you to explore incremental changes and improvements that may be more achievable, and, when taken together, be more effective than strictly seeking absence or fulfillment. It also helps you avoid framing things as absolutes. Think middle.

I’ve got one more method to help overcome our innate desire for absolutes and homogeneity: use the double-negative.

Experiment: Describe “not not-poor”. Avoid the logical or mathematical desire to cancel out nots like negative signs. If not-poor is rich, than what is the opposite of that, if it is not poor?

The purpose of this exercise is not necessarily to come to a categorical answer (“…the middle-class…”), but instead explore the meaning and connotations of these words and the alternatives that present themselves when you move beyond them.

From feedback to my last piece, I have left the explanation of this method to the end—but I still find it greatly interesting. It comes from the Ismaili philosopher Abu Yaqub Sijistani, who advocated speaking of God in double negatives: by saying He was “not no-thing” or “not not-wise”, it allowed seekers to “become aware of the inadequacy of language when it tried to convey the mystery of God.” So says Karen Armstrong in A History of God (p. 179-80).

Why are nonprofits tax-exempt?

In my last post about nonprofit structure, some interesting and important aspects of tax-exemption weren’t fully explored. Specifically, I glossed over why tax-exemption exists in the first place. Let’s rectify that.

The tax-exemption at the heart of nonprofit organizations—along with “nondistribution constraint” (i.e. one cannot profit from, or own equity in, a nonprofit; it may not inure to someone)—is the the key distinction between a nonprofit organization and any other incorporated entity. The reasons why a nonprofit organization should receive tax-exemption (and the government subsidy it implies) are varied and contested.

Norman Silber’s A Corporate Form of Freedom (p. 167-169) presents the following reason why nonprofit organizations—in aggregate—should receive the special privilege of tax-exemption:

  • The difficulty in measuring a nonprofit’s income and assessing an appropriate tax. (Boris Bittker and George Dahdert, 1967)

  • It rewards altruistic behavior in support of communities that might otherwise diminish or fail entirely without governmental subsidy. (Prof. William Ginsberg, 1980)

  • Tax-exempt services offset services the government would otherwise provide directly. But, to compensate taxpayers for the benefits conferred by government exemption, taxpayers must receive services(“quid pro quo”). This would also require tax authorities to seek direct evidence of need prior to conferring an exemption.

  • Tax-exemption contributes to pluralism “by providing the public goods and services that either are undersupplied by the private market or by the government or else not provided in the same socially desirable manner” (“Community Benefit” theorists)

  • The nondistribution constraint necessitates that nonprofits operate where the government or market have failed and this thus justifies their tax exemption. (Prof. Henry Hansman, 1980)

  • The justification for tax-exemption may be found in understanding nonprofits as part of a “sovereignty”: independent of the state rather than subservient to it. The weakness of this theory being how this quality—and by whom it is determined—is conferred upon these “sovereigns”. (Prof. Eveylyn Brody)

Of all of these theories, “none of them quantify, in the interests of equal treatment, the particular quality that would result in an exemption being granted or denied.”

Additionally, none of these theories provide rationale for why anyone would go to the trouble of forming a tax-exempt organization that inherently denies profit and ownership. The rise of the modern nonprofit sector can be traced back to the 1960s with an increase in government giving and the humanitarian, charitable and altruistic impulses that emerged in culture at that time. As to why those impulses should lead to the current expansive nonprofit field, the following reasons have been given:

  • Middle-class guilt about the disparities between the affluent and the poor

  • Wealth-transfer mechanisms for the rich

  • Dissatisfaction with the profit motive as an incentive to extract work and induce consumption

  • Greater abundance in society general

  • The inability for government agencies to provide services to meet growing needs as a result of the widening gap between rich and poor

Pod of Whales


I’ve recently been collecting examples of whale art. My interest mostly lies around their monotonous use in hipster art; and they’re kind’ve cute. I put up on Flickr a gallery of whale archetypes.

Left-to-right and top-to-bottom, the whales are named: Billy, Gus, Tina, Sal, Sanjay, Perth, Jill, Buddy, and Ann. Some of them may be familiar to you.

What is a nonprofit? A structural definition

My radio program piece I posted last week generated some good discussion in the comments. In this post I would like to follow up by providing some background to the discussion that nonprofit organizations are not fully deserving of the aura they they receive. The following is a synopsis of the Nonprofit Structure training I give for AmeriCorps*VISTA members; you can also watch the 40 minute training.

Most people have heard of what I will, for the rest of this article, call nonprofit organizations, nonprofits, or the nonprofit sector. There are many terms though that people use:

  • Non-profit (with a hypehen)

  • Not-for-Profit

  • Charity (or Charitable Organization)

  • Agency

  • NGO (Non-Governmental Organization)

  • Social Change Agency

  • Mission-Based Organization

  • Community Benefit Organization

  • Philanthropic Agency

  • Voluntary Sector

  • Third Sector (the first two being the Public and Private Sector)

Regardless of what you call a nonprofit, it’s really only but two elements:

  1. A Corporation: an incorporated entity that provides limited liability for its agents and its actions

  2. Tax Exemption: generated (program income) and contributed (donations) revenue are not subject to taxation

These two foundational pieces are explicitly regulated by the government: state governments determine the rules under which an entity may incorporate; the Federal Government—Congress, the Courts and especially the IRS—determine why a corporation may be tax-exempt. Important point:

By allowing certain corporations to be tax-exempt, the government, in effect, provides an indirect subsidy of about 25% of their income.

(This frame is not my own idea, but was first presented to me by Michael Davidson of Governance Matters from this post on board governance)

Why would the government provide such a subsidy? The rules for tax-exempt organizations are laid out in the 501(c) tax statute, but Nonprofit Organizations, as we think of them, lie specifically within the 501(c)3 statute. This statute lays out exempt purposes for charitable, religious, educational, and scientific purposes (as well as some very specific ones, like international sports competitions). Charitable is defined in the generally accepted legal sense as relief of the poor or distressed, lessening burdens, eliminating prejudice and discrimination and other things.

In actuality, the purposes for which a nonprofit organization can organize are near in-exhaustible. As Norman Silber argues in A Corporate Form of Freedom, court cases during the 1950s and 1960s (especially NAACP v. Patterson and Association for the Preservation of Freedom of Choice v. The Secretary of New York State) eroded Discretionary Conception—the legal framework under which the formative purpose of a corporation could be contested. These court decisions created a near entitlement to organize for any purported social purpose upon the grounds of liberty and the 1st Amendment.

Because of these decisions, it’s perhaps more important to look at the few reason for which a nonprofit may not incorporate, or actions an incorporated Nonprofit may not take. Here they are:

  1. May not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.

  2. None of its earnings may inure to (i.e. there is no equity to be owned), or activities benefit any private shareholder or individual.

Number 2 on that list is a pretty self-evident, but Number 1 is the prime reason that nonprofit organizations are beggared in their ability to effectively change society for the better. The context and effect of this fundamental rule though will have to be left to another post.

Get a Government Job

I’ve been thoroughly amused by the vetting process for political (and supposedly un-political) government positions. Recently there was the vetting for Sarah Palin, VP for McCain’s Republican ticket:

Defending his choice and the team that helped pick her, McCain said Tuesday that “the vetting process was completely thorough.” Advisers said Palin went through a rigorous process that included a three-hour interview and a survey with some 70 questions, including: Have you ever paid for sex? Have you been faithful in your marriage? Have you ever used or purchased drugs? Have you ever downloaded pornography?

Those 5 questions are good to juxtapose against the Nexis search string Monica Goodling used to research applicants to the Bush Attorney General’s office:

[First name of a candidate]! and pre/2 [last name of a candidate] w/7 bush or gore or republican! or democrat! or charg! or accus! or criticiz! or blam! or defend! or iran contra or clinton or spotted owl or florida recount or sex! or controvers! or racis! or fraud! or investigat! or bankrupt! or layoff! or downsiz! or PNTR or NAFTA or outsourc! or indict! or enron or kerry or iraq or wmd! or arrest! or intox! or fired or sex! or racis! or intox! or slur! or arrest! or fired or controvers! or abortion! or gay! or homosexual! or gun! or firearm!

Radio Ga Ga 2: The role of nonprofits in constructing a better world


DSC03505 DSC03502

I returned to the airwaves this morning with my coworker Jules to talk about nonprofits and society on WUML. My good friend Charlotte, who I know from my Lowell cable access days, hosts Thinking Out Loud every Friday morning. I previously was a guest on her show two years ago plugging my job, the CTC VISTA Project.

This time, Jules and I had a free-ranging discussion on the nonprofit sector and its role in constructing society. As we’re arguing, nonprofits are hamstrung as social innovators because of their structure: barred from advocacy, they concentrate on services which—while individually valuable—provide only symptomatic relief rather than comprehensive reform. We don’t want to discount the valuable and necessary services of nonprofits (not at all!), but believe that a parallel movement of advocacy and reform is key to building a better society. While nonprofits are perhaps a natural place to begin dialogue, vision and action for improving society as a whole, those components must ultimately move beyond the narrow confines of traditional nonprofit organizations in order to be effective.

Listen to the program below


Video thumbnail. Click to play.

Click to play

Click here to download the mp3.

If you find this type of talk interesting, you would probably enjoy the book The Revolution Will Not be Funded.

Makes You Crazy

Makes you crazy

I feel like this xkcd comic describes a lot of internet interactions I know. This is my take on it.

Also, a shout-out to my mom, who now subscribes to my blog via Google Reader.

How to make do with what you got

I like taking on the role of facilitator to help people realize their potential, whatever it might be. In a strategic planning class I audited last year, I found myself spending more time (and enjoying myself more) turning other people’s vague concepts into plans, than I did my own. Many of the AmeriCorps*VISTA members I work with have trouble recognizing their abilities, expressing their roles, and most importantly, translating their experiences into a narrative they can parlay into brighter pastures. I’ve learned a lot about how to work with them to do this.

This I’ve learned: no one ever has everything they need, and not even everything they want. Being able to make do with with what you got (“have” for the grammar police), is one of those key lifetime skills.

The following substitutional characteristics are how I try to make do with what I’ve got. These are for use in situations where I have to persuade someone of my abilities or those of something I represent or anything that requires more than a broad smile (though that goes far as well):

If you lack ______, stress your ______.

For example,

  • If you lack Education, stress your Competence: demonstrate your hands-on experience or abilities; use big words and big ideas; show analysis and foresight
  • ExperienceDedication: talk about how far back your interest lies; create a narrative that makes where you are right now seem like a mandate from god; talk about how A led you to B, which led you to C
  • ResultsParallels: refer to similarities from other semi-related successes; “Albert Einstein failed math in school, therefore you should give me a chance”/p>
  • ResourcesPopularity: talk about your base; describe a safety net of friends or constituents
  • LegitimacyCredibility: explain why it should__ work; show planning and due diligence
  • Partnerships/Collaborators/Corroborators: Get some!

Failure of confidence

Diebold (now Premier Election Systems), admits voting machines have had critical software bug for the last 10 years that can result in votes being lost.

Nonsensical comments from election officials:

DuPage County election officials were upset to learn their election equipment vendor has acknowledged a programming error that could cause votes not to be tallied, but they said last week that they are confident local elections were not affected.

DuPage has used Premier equipment since 2001. Still, Saar [executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission] said he is confident there were no problems in previous elections.

Saar said DuPage has a rigorous pre-election testing regimen, and its election results are audited by a bipartisan committee.

Where does this confidence stem from? Obviously the pre-election testing and bipartisan committee failed to catch this critical flaw. Not to mention that the lab that certified voting machines was shut down for not actually doing their job.

The first NY Times article says that they have systems in place to audit and catch inconsistencies. But shouldn’t that have set off alarm bells that something in the system was broken?