Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Do the research

I got another one of those "that wasn't a very good study" comments last week. People are still complaining about the Georgetown study on trustee fees, a phenomenon I dealt with in this post.

Geez. Will you people ever let this go?

Apparently not.

In a recent conversation about board compensation, statistics from the Council on Foundations and the Georgetown study were cited. The Georgetown study provoked the bad study remark despite the fact that you can't exactly say that the Council's numbers are much better. They're better, I suppose, but they're not perfect either. The Council only surveys its members. Respondents tend to be larger foundations who are more likely to pay higher trustee fees, artificially inflating the bounds of acceptability, and, from what I understand, the information given in the management surveys isn't double-checked against the organizations' 990's. (I'm not saying the Council's members can't be trusted. I'm just saying people make mistakes.) So you've got a small, unrepresentative sample and a questionable self-reporting methodology. Nonetheless, the Council's numbers pass with a nod, but Georgetown is mentioned in a huff.

For the umpteenth time, it's not intended to be the definitive statement on trustee fees. It says so on page 4. What it is intended to do is draw attention to the fact that some people in the foundation world are paid incredible amounts of charitable dollars to do work that could just as easily be done by motivated, creative volunteers. And considering the effort that is expended by philanthropoids in attempting to dismiss its findings, I can say that it's certainly doing its job.

What I'm attempting to understand is why no one will fund the research to replace it. I mean, if that research isn't the best, stop complaining about it, and give Ahn, Eisenberg, and Khamvongsa the money to do the right kind of study.

Why aren't we funding the university centers to do the research? As it is, you're pretty much paying nonprofit infrastructure groups to do research, and these groups live and die by the information of which they can be the exclusive provider. Ask them to do a research study, and it's going to be very difficult convincing them to share information in the way that universities do.

If the foundation world is serious about research, serious about doing scientific research in order to really examine itself in the face of so much scrutiny, it would do well to fund independent university research. There's an entire research apparatus we are simply not using and could be to greater ends. We're not going to make everybody happy, but the mode of thinking around here ought not to be "that's a bad study" but "here's a better one."

An Ethical Dilemma

Imagine you're a recent college graduate working at a relatively well-known nonprofit headed up by a very creative and charismatic CEO. The nonprofit is doing great things, making a difference in many people's lives. Funds are flowing in, and the nonprofit and its CEO are getting a fantastic amount of favorable press and public goodwill. In short, the nonprofit couldn't be more successful, and you're just thrilled to be a part of it all.

Then, one day, you begin to notice inconsistencies in the finance department. You dismiss it at first as something you don't understand. It would seem your CEO is skimming money off the top. Impossible, you think, he'd never do something like that, but the thought stays with you. Eventually, a pattern emerges, and you and a like-minded co-worker confront him about it. He tells you that you have no right to tell him how to run his business. You respond that it's not really his business; it's a nonprofit. The conversation doesn't go much further, and you're both told to get out of his office. You arrive the next morning to find out that the nonprofit is restructuring, and your jobs have been eliminated.

You consult a sibling who also happens to be a lawyer and find out that you could pursue this but at a great cost not only to you but to the nonprofit and to the cause it is a part of. You believe in the cause. You believe in the nonprofit, and, until recently, you believed in the CEO, too.

Do you rat out this CEO even if it means that the ensuing scandal would shut the nonprofit down?

My answer: absolutely - if for no other reason than the CEO is counting on your silence. He's counting on the fact that he can hide behind his supposed philanthropy. He's counting on your altruism and the altruism of thousands of others who are prepared to overlook his faults in the name of charity. He's counting on charity - and he doesn't deserve yours.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Free speech for the dumb

The Parents Television Council, you know, the people responsible for 99.8% of complaints filed to the FCC in 2003, has called a hamburger ad featuring Paris Hilton "soft-core porn." Thanks to the Council's remarks, a commercial I might not otherwise have seen is playing everywhere.

I've got to tell you. In the Council's defense, the ad is indecent. I've viewed it several times now, and upon the 342nd viewing you really do begin to see the crass indecency of it all.

It's only 30 seconds long.

Update: The LA Times agrees.

So does this guy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Leave it to the professionals

Emmett D. Carson, CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation and chairman of the Council on Foundations, has "An Easy Way to Curb Foundation Abuses" in this week's Chronicle of Philanthropy: "require donors to contribute at least $1 million if they want to create a foundation." It's an op-ed so riddled with condescension and even contempt for smaller and family-run foundations that I think Minneapolis and the Council ought to seriously rethink their relationships with him. Instead of seeing recent regulatory and media scrutiny as an opportunity for needed self-examination, Carson sees it as an opportunity to self-servingly reinvent the sector by jettisoning the 70% of the sector he thinks simply isn't up to the task. Carson overlooks better solutions to industry woes, creates a small foundation straw man, and then attacks it with all the arrogance that grantees, small foundations, and infrastructure organizations have come to expect from philanthropoids like Carson.

Carson conveniently overlooks the fact that there is a reason the IRS cannot oversee the vast charitable sector. Excise taxes paid by the nonprofit sector have become general revenue. The government has grown into this revenue stream, and, hence, any mention of putting more money toward IRS enforcement has been termed a "political non-starter," despite the fact that the money already exists for full enforcement and is taxed for that purpose. Carson overlooks the fact that any abuse that has been found has been found because somebody somewhere took a look at the Form 990's that these organizations fill out. The solution, then is to pay someone to look at those 990's, i.e., fully fund IRS enforcement. From the December 15, 2003 Nonprofit Times:
"While the public's trust with our field depends on government oversight, we have practically no oversight," said Dorothy S. Ridings, president of the Council on Foundations, an organization that must balance demands for further scrutiny with the interests of its members. The excise tax that the IRS levies on excessive compensation was originally designed to fund enforcement of nonprofit foundation rules. Instead, the tax revenue has been routinely diverted to other government programs since its inception in 1969.

"It's been an absolute farce to say that the excise tax has anything to do with oversight of the industry," Ridings said.

Admittedly, this is an old source, but I cite it to demonstrate that Dot Ridings is aware of this even if Carson doesn't want to see it. The solution begins with greater oversight of the sector we have. It is interesting that Carson would rather reinvent the sector.

Carson paints a startingly inaccurate portrait of small foundation work, proceeding by assertion rather on the evidence. I challenge Carson to produce serious evidence showing that, despite having only 5% of the wealth, the smaller foundations are responsible for the majority of foundation abuses. Carson claims:
Philanthropies with $1-million or less in assets seldom have staff members, typically do not produce annual reports or grant-making guidelines, and usually offer no means by which grant seekers can contact them. What's more, most of those foundations do not join national or local professional associations so they do not often get exposed to training sessions and educational materials that would help them understand changes in laws governing nonprofit organizations and learn how well-respected, effective grant makers operate.

Where to begin? Smaller philanthropies do typically have little or no staff; they have competent volunteers, sometimes highly trained businesspeople or lawyers by profession, sometimes simply people that care to make a difference. They're volunteers - the people that built the voluntary sector, and Carson should show more respect. He conveniently omits the fact that many of his vaunted big foundations aren't the greatest about regular annual reports or connecting with grantees, and they wouldn't consider themselves any less a foundation for opting not to publish an annual report. Carson's claims would be laughable if they weren't so gallingly self-serving. Carson doesn't need to trumpet the value of the Council by denigrating the contribution of hard-working, passionate volunteers who might not have the time or resources for the Council's annual conferences and the like. After seeing his op-ed, many foundations may have just found the reason why they avoided such places. He just told smaller grantmakers and the organizations that serve them, the Association of Small Foundations, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and dozens of other infrastructure organizations, that they're all simply not doing a good enough job. Carson just told 70% of the nation's foundations to go to hell, that they don't know what it is to be a "well-respected, effective grantmaker."

I'm not so sure the larger grantmakers do either, though. Remember the man who paid for his daughter's wedding with foundation assets? The Paul & Virginia Cabot Charitable Trust, The Bielfeldt Foundation, The Kimbell Art Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, The James Beard Foundation, foundations at the middle of the scandals, these weren't small foundations. Read this. Smaller foundations were not the target of so much of the media scrutiny of recent years. Again, I challenge Carson to provide serious evidence that asset size has anything to do with recent foundation abuses.

True, creating a $1-million floor for foundations wouldn't prevent people from giving, but it would prevent smaller grantmakers from participating in foundation discourse, a discourse that is increasingly professional, bureaucratic, and jargon-laden. Small foundations don't have a place in our high-falutin' foundation discourse, says Carson, what with our collaborative convenings, our targeted partnerings, and our social venture leverage. You may give generously through that precious donor-advised fund of yours or indulge in checkbook philanthropy, but you will never be quite the grantmaker we are. The condescension is appalling. Pat the smaller grantmakers on the head, and send them off to bed. Leave philanthropy to the philanthropoids. I'm sorry but philanthropy is far too precious to be left to the likes of Carson.

Carson wants to codify the difference between professionalized, organized, big money philanthropy and small-scale, volunteer philanthropy, allow the big foundations to retreat from the vitality and responsiveness that 50,000 new and different voices would provide. This is readily apparent at the end of Carson's piece where he demonstrates that experts say it's not worth it to create a foundation with less than $1 million. Instead of allowing people make their own philanthropic choices, Carson, knowing that there's no good reason to exclude smaller grantmakers, now attempts to say that they should exclude themselves. It's in your interests, Carson says, not to give as a foundation. The professionals say so, says Carson.

It's akin to telling women or blacks they shouldn't be allowed to vote because it would just be too hard for them. They're not up to the privilege. If women and blacks were uneducated, that wasn't their fault; they were systematically denied educational opportunities. Similarly, if smaller foundations aren't educated grantmakers, as Carson maintains, it's because people like Emmett Carson, with their baseless preference for larger, professionalized institutions, have routinely excluded them from mainstream philanthropic discourse to the detriment of the sector.

It boggles the mind that Carson is actually proud to restrict foundation status to the top 30% to the point of publishing this op-ed. Carson's $1-million floor would nothing but exacerbate claims that the foundation community is an isolated, elitist clique of well-to-do, arrogant, paternalistic technocrats - you know, like Carson. Carson ought to be wary of wanting to boot 70% of the foundation world. That 70% may respond in kind.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Clarification: Accountability/Responsibility

If there is any inconsistency in my desire for a more democratic sector and my views on responsibility and accountability, it is in my discomfort with the coercion that I see as implied in notions of accountability.

I'm all for a more democratic, responsible sector. I don't know that a more accountable sector would be the same thing, and, if I have to choose between them, I'll take democracy to accountability. In my view, accountability is having to answer to somebody else for one's own actions, and, to a great extent, I don't think one should have to answer for one's philanthropic choices. There's a difference between being responsible, the condition of having moral obligations, and being accountable, the condition of being held to those morals. If there is any muddying of the waters here, it's only because of the element of coercion I see in the push for greater accountability.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Accountability and Legitimacy

The next installment in the Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy occurs today in St. Paul and is entitled "Accountability: For what and to whom should philanthropy be responsible?"

I think Peter Frumkin's analysis of accountability is dead-on. Expanding on his diagnosis of the philanthropic sector in Trouble in Foundationland, Frumkin argues that debates over accountability and effectivness obscure the real question of philanthropic legitimacy. Our preoccupation with effectiveness and accountability is merely a manifestation of our collective insecurity about our sector's legitimacy in a democratic society.

How do we reconcile the vast amount of wealth allowed to accumulate tax-free in the hands of self-appointed stewards of a public trust with the egalitarian and democratic ethos of our society? How does one legitimize such a practice?

Usually, legitimation requires some vision of the just society. Anybody up for demonstrating that philanthropy follows from John Rawls' "original position?"

Thankfully, we have a vision of the just society, a democracy, and we might simply say that the more democratic a practice is, the more legitimate it is. We're looking for a more democratic philanthropy. Although Frumkin never says the word democracy, I think his second definition of philanthropic legitimacy is working at a vision of a more democratic sector:
Philanthropic legitimacy can be defined as the just and fair exercise of philanthropic power. By this, I mean donors can claim to have met the test of legitimacy when they are perceived by the full range of relevant stakeholders around them as acting in a way that is just, fair, and free of caprice and ill-intent.
Frumkin then goes on to claim that by engaging the issue of legitimacy, the sector will find:
...it is impossible to be legitimate without being substantively accountable for their work. They will also soon discover that it is impossible to be substantively accountable without being able to demonstrate their effectiveness at achieving their own objectives and missions.
That is where I disagree. I do think that a more democratic sector, a philanthropy "of the people, by the people, and for the people," would certainly be a more responsive, more responsible sector. That isn't the same thing as a more accountable sector.

I'm of the frame of mind that the philanthropic sector is largely unaccountable, and this is as it should be. This doesn't mean that philanthropy doesn't have responsibilities. I think it does. This doesn't mean that an unaccountable philanthropy is undemocratic. In fact, I think the opposite. I think unaccountable philanthropy can actually serve democracy more than it harms it.

I think the problems start when we start to appoint people who will hold philanthropy accountable for its philanthropic choices because, as much as democracy is about checking and balancing power, it is also about creating spaces in which we don't have to answer to anybody. Philanthropy ought to be one of those spaces as long as there are matters that are not up for a vote or up for sale. There ought to be a way to affect the political process, to gain control of the forces that affect your life and the lives of your fellow human beings, without having to effectively ask somebody else's permission first, and philanthropy is one of those ways.

I don't want an accountable sector as much as I want a philanthropy that inspires, and I find very little inspiration in a sector that is so insecure about its place in a democratic society that it is willing to accept the chains of accountability in the hope that it will somehow be ennobled and made better by those chains. Prometheus wasn't more philanthropic because he was chained to a rock. Prometheus was chained to a rock because of his philanthropy.

Of Charity and Philanthropy

[I've been sitting on this post for quite some time. It's in response to the first of the Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy entitled "Goals and Intentions: What Should Today's Philanthropy Aim to Do?"]

The Dialogue focused on a discussion of the difference between charity and philanthropy as a way of envisioning what it is that philanthropy ought to be occupying itself with. This is a relatively easy distinction to draw with regard to institutions. Charities are the grantseekers; philanthropies, the grantmakers.

I prefer, however, to refer to these entities as virtues because, too often, philanthropoids like to flatter themselves with the term philanthropy as if what they do is somehow superior to "mere charity," which is left to other, lesser beings. Never mind the fact that, organizationally, philanthropy depends on charity to actually accomplish its goals. Anyone can claim to be a philanthropist from an organizational perspective. If you work for a philanthropy, you're a philanthropist. Well, not necessarily, as somebody once told a particularly arrogant foundation program officer, "You're not a philanthropist. The man who set this place up was. You just work here." I am so irritated by the hubris of some that I just want to define philanthropy out of the hands of everybody, and, in due time, I plan to do just that and make it hubris to call yourself a philanthropist.

So charity and philanthropy ought to be looked at as virtues, but what's the difference? Well, I like Karl Stauber's vision of a continuum with charity at one end and philanthropy at the other, and so I will attempt to travel this continuum beginning with charity.

Amy Kass began the dialogue with a quotation from Lao Tzu: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." This begins to illustrate our continuum. Someone responded that this progression is all well and good, but sometimes you have to change the fishing industry, too. (I respond with the words of Terry Pratchett: "Build a man a fire, you keep him warm for a day. Set a man on fire, you keep him warm for the rest of his life.")

She was right. The charitable impulse is that impulse, that excellence, that allows us to identify with the problems of another person, and to care about and to work toward a solution to those problems. So we meet this man who is hungry, and being blessed with copious amounts of these fish, we give him some. We see him the next day and give him some more. Eventually, though, we realize that maybe if we just taught the guy how to fish, we wouldn't have to keep doing this because he'll feed himself. Maybe he'll even catch more than he needs, and he can sell the surplus. Maybe he too will become a philanthropist just like us.

But if we're really charitable, we begin to see that this guy has friends, and they're hungry too. In fact, we have an entire village of people who don't know how to fish. Most of them are illiterate, too, so the "How to Fish" books we ordered won't help right now. So we set up fishing schools to teach these people how to reap the resources of the nearby river, but it turns out that another village, a village of farmers, upriver has been allowing their fertilizer to run off in to the river, and it's killing all the fish. So we start campaigns for better environmental regulation to protect the wildlife, and talk to the people downriver who've begun complaining that there aren't enough fish for them now.

Notice the picture keeps getting bigger and bigger, and pretty soon we've forgotten the original guy's name. Come to think of it, did we ever learn it? No, because we didn't ask. His name is Mortimer. He married Louise, his high school sweetheart. They have two kids, Lisa and Marie. But we didn't know about that. How could we? I hadn't made that part up yet. Then again, we never bothered to find out about them. We were too busy reforming the fishing industry.

In my mind, the perfection of the charitable virtue would be philanthropy. Charity allows you to identify with the condition of another and work toward its amelioration, but this impulse naturally drives us to help more and more people. At some point, though, human fallibility creeps in. Humans have to abstract. We don't think about Mortimer. We think about Mortimer's town. What's the town's name? Townville. We just learned that, too. We think about "the commmunity," an abstraction which may or may not include Mortimer. This is only human. Maps are not the same size as the places they represent for a reason; humans can't take that much information into account, nor would we want to. If we had a map of Townville as big as Townville, what would be the point of the map? Essentially, we cannot work the big picture with perfect resolution. We cannot see all and each at the same time, but the absolute perfection of the charitable excellence, i.e., philanthropy, would require doing just that.

But if seeing, understanding, and working for the benefit of all and each is impossible, then it would follow that philanthropy is impossible for human beings. Correct. There is a reason that the first recorded mention of the word "philanthropic" is applied not us mere mortals but to a god, Prometheus. Only a god could see the potential within all and each, never lose sight of that, and sacrifice for it. There is a reason that the philosopher Francis Bacon identified "philanthropia" as "the character of the Deity."

So what of all us would-be philanthropists in the world? We should get used to the fact the power that set this place up is the philanthropist among us. We just kind of work here.

To be charitable is human. To be philanthropic is divine.

Who, then, are our saints and who are our charlatans?

The Luminous Web

My soon-to-be mother-in-law gave me an autographed copy of Barbara Brown Taylor's The Luminous Web for Easter. It isn't my usual fare by any means, but it's a topic I'm interested in, the relationship between science and religion, and it was a gift from the woman who gave birth to the love of my life, so I went ahead and read it. And why not? Taylor's a spiritual person fascinated by science; I consider myself a skeptic fascinated by religion. We're foils for one another. I can learn from her.

Offhand, Taylor preaches to the choir. If you're a believer, you'll see that science has something to offer religion. If you're a skeptic, you'll see little value in interpreting quantum mechanics through a religious lens. Perhaps, that's what's needed in the current political climate - getting religious people to see that science is not necessarily a threat. The problem is that Taylor fails to take the argument in the other direction and show that religion isn't a threat to science.

As an Episcopalian priest, Taylor probably sees herself as a child of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, of religion and science. I too see myself this way but my perspective on the divorce seems to be markedly different from my sister's. I don't know what she thinks about the break-up but let me tell you what I know.

Our parents, Science and Religion, stopped speaking a long time ago, and Taylor, like some children of divorce, hopes that if she just tries hard enough, they're going to get back together. They're not. It's not going to happen. Not any time soon anyway. Religion cheated on Science a couple of times with her off-and-on lover, Politics. After a bitter custody battle, I went with Dad; she went with Mom. Religion has been bad-mouthing Science in front of me, and her new husband, Politics, isn't much better about it. He's worse in fact. Science, on the other hand, is quite happy to be living the single life once again, but he doesn't think much of our new step-dad and said as much when he dropped me off the other day. I believe him.

So what we have here is a situation in which she lives with Religion and visits Science every once in a while, and that's fine. Her book is refreshingly optimistic, and it's good to know that there are religious people out there who take it upon themselves to look at what science can really offer in the way of making sense of our absurd existence.

I live with Science and visit Religion, but that's not okay. I'm always going to hate going over there as long as Politics is skulking about. I love my sister, but I can't stand her step-dad.

Taylor succeeds in presenting a world in which believers can see science as non-threatening but fails to show skeptics that religion isn't a threat. Of course, that's not entirely her fault. We're called skeptics for a reason. You see, no one's ever going to be good enough for Mom.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

How Charitable Are You?

Discover just how charitable you really are.

Parable of the Cats

Once upon a time, there were two cats, one of whom had learned to fetch in her own special sort of way. She learned that if she brought her owners a ball, they would throw it for her so that she could chase it. This she enjoyed very much. The problem was that this cat didn't pay attention to where the ball was thrown. She'd always run in the same direction and expect the ball to appear somewhere along her path, which sufficed for the times that it was thrown that way but confused when it wasn't. The other feline was content merely to watch the entire affair. He watched the ball, saw where it was thrown, looked at his companion running the wrong way, looked back at the ball, and remained where he was.

I suppose there's a lesson in there somewhere.

On effectiveness

It seems to me that effectiveness has already been defined to a great extent. Despite all the anxiety surrounding the effectiveness question, foundations make decisions all the time as to what they will fund and what they won't. The conversation about effectiveness, about the impact you're having, then, should begin with a simple question: would you fund you?

Friday, May 13, 2005

Accountability

I sent the Senators Baucus, Rockefeller, Conrad, Jeffords, Bingaman, Snowe, and Crapo an email detailing my concerns laid out in this post. Here's my email:
Dear Senator [name]:

I was wondering if you would care to comment on a recent report in the Kansas City Star that you are receiving the homestead deduction normally reserved for those whose primary residence is in the District.

Since I would think that your primary residence is in your home state home of [state], you would seem ineligible.

Furthermore, as a worker in the nonprofit sector, I was wondering how you see this perceived oversight in light of your work on the Senate Finance Committee to root out just this sort of abuse.

As with several of your colleagues, I am certain that this is a mistake and that there is an explanation. As a concerned citizen, I would simply like to know what that is.

Sincerely,

[my name]

It looks as though I'm going to have to call them, however, because the Senators are bombarded with so much email that they'll only answer to their constituents. In this case, I hope they'll make an exception. It's simply irritating that despite setting policy that affects a Virginian like me and taking a tax deduction that affects District-dwellers, Senator Snowe will only send a written response to someone in Maine.

That's the funny thing about representation based on geography: Senators are accountable to their constituencies but not necessarily to the people their decisions will affect.

Finance Committee Members Taking "Questionable Tax Breaks"

The Kansas City Star (link via Wonkette) reported:

Nearly two dozen senators, including Kit Bond and Sam Brownback, got tax breaks on their Washington houses supposedly reserved only for those who make D.C. their primary residence.

By taking the tax breaks, the U.S. senators - several of whom are millionaires - cost the district government thousands of dollars in tax revenue, a review by The Kansas City Star shows.

Because lawmakers generally must be residents of the states they represent, district officials said they did not qualify for the Homestead Deduction, which is for people who are domiciled in Washington and make the city their permanent residence.

A quick review of the names reveals that seven of these Senators are members of the Senate Finance Committee, currently leading the charge in the nonprofit sector to root out just this sort of abuse.

The list of Senators taking the deduction, which includes not only a third of the Finance Committee but also its ranking Democratic member, is here (asterisks indicate Finance Committee members):

Wayne Allard, CO
*Max Baucus, MT
*Jeff Bingaman, NM
Sam Brownback, KS
Richard Burr, NC
Maria Cantwell, WA
Susan Collins, ME
*Kent Conrad, ND
*Michael Crapo, ID
Pete Domenici, NM
Michael Enzi, WY
Kay Bailey Hutchison, TX
James Inhofe, OK
*James Jeffords, VT
Edward Kennedy, MA
Frank Lautenberg, NJ
Joseph Lieberman, CT
*Jay Rockefeller, WV
*Olympia Snowe, ME
Arlen Specter, PA
George Voinovich, OH

Update: Contact these seven senators and ask them to explain how it is that they can claim this deduction when their primary residence should be in the state they represent and what they plan to do about this perceived abuse:

Max Baucus, MT
511 Hart Senate Office Bldg.
Washington, D.C. 20510
(202) 224-2651
(202) 224-0515 (Fax)
(800) 332-6106 (from MT)
(202) 224-1998 (TDD)

Jeff Bingaman, NM
703 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-3102
Toll-free (in NM): 1-800-443-8658
DC: (202) 224-5521
TDD: (202) 224-1792
Fax: (202) 224-2852

Kent Conrad, ND
530 Hart Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510-3403
Phone: (202) 224-2043
Fax: (202) 224-7776

Michael Crapo, ID
239 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Phone: (202) 224-6142
Fax: (202) 228-1375
TDD: (202) 224-2806

James Jeffords, VT
413 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
(202) 224-5141

Jay Rockefeller, WV
531 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
(202) 224-6472

Olympia Snowe, ME
154 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-1903
v: (202) 224-5344
f: (202) 224-1946

Thursday, May 12, 2005

On Cover Songs

"To redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all 'it was' into a 'thus I willed it'--that alone should I call redemption."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Walter Kaufmann, trans., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1954), 251.

I like cover songs - not mash-ups or remixes or sampling (although come to think of it I like these for the same reasons) but covers. For one reason or another, they have tremendous power for me. I had trouble articulating why exactly I like the idea of covers so much until I remembered the above passage from Nietzsche.

So what follows is a quick and dirty examination of the function of cover songs:
  • Homage - It's important that this be pronounced "oh-mazh." This is cultural criticism here and I simply won't sound anything less than utterly pretentious. Homage covers your tribute bands: Beatles, Led, Stones, GNR, KISS. We love the band; we play the band; we are the band. It also covers bands that simply enjoyed another band's material and felt like playing it, e.g., bands doing a one-off of David Bowie at a club. We love the artist; we play the artist, but we obviously are not that artist.

  • Irony - While some covers demonstrate affection, respect, or even worship for a given band or tune, other covers have a different relationship with the covered. I'm thinking here of three covers in particular: Dynamite Hack's cover of Eazy-E's "Boyz in the Hood," Nina Gordon's cover of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" and Ben Folds' cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit." All these covers are of material by hardcore rappers N.W.A. or its former members. The deadpan sincerity of the covers allow for the misogyny, profanity, and violence of rap music to shine in all its glory. Gordon's singing of Ice Cube's verse gives the words "punk motherfuckers" a sweet beauty, and you can hear the dejection of a man who discovers his ho with another man when Ben Folds sings, "Man, fuck that bitch." It's sublime. It borders on parody, but I don't know that Dre would take the hit if he weren't in on the joke, so I call it irony. Then again, I don't know Dre not to take a hit when offered.

  • Paying your dues - While the first two functions deal in a band's relationship to the artist covered, these next two deal with where a band is at in its career when it releases the cover. Early in their careers, bands have to build up their repertoires, and naturally they fill out their sets with other people's material. Sometimes, you see bands score their first hit with a cover, e.g., Alien Ant Farm with "Smooth Criminal" and Limp Bizkit with "Faith." Maybe they go somewhere from there; maybe they don't, but you have to be able to draw like Leonardo before you can paint like Picasso. You have to show that you have the ability to play just about anything before you can legitimately choose to play a certain way. You have to pay your dues, so you play a few covers. I cannot believe I implicitly compared Michael Jackson and George Michael to Leonardo and Picasso. My apologies to all who were offended.

  • Phoning it in - You'll also see bands playing covers at the end of their careers. You're under contract for another album but the band is coming apart at the seams, or maybe your career is waning and you need to build momentum. Either way, you need to do something and do it now, so you phone it in. You play some covers. I'm not saying these bands don't like the artists and songs they're covering, nor am I impugning the quality of cover or covered. I'm just saying that, at some point in a career, you can tell when a band isn't terribly invested in coming up with original, provocative material anymore (if they ever were in the first place). Rage Against the Machine's last album was all covers, but the biggest sinner here is Metallica. Since "Metallica," their last good album, they've written a sequel (songs have sequels?) to "Unforgiven," released a double disc of covers in "Garage, Inc." (covers we've played before and covers we haven't), and essentially covered themselves with "S&M."


  • Now, after that last category, I could accuse the inimitable Johnny Cash of "phoning it in" for the several albums of covers he did at the end of his career, but Cash's project reveals the redemptive power of the cover. Due to Cash's wide-ranging appeal, the video for Cash's "Hurt," for instance, played on all the music video channels, MTV, VH1, and CMT. Now, on CMT, they display the songwriter's name as well as the name of the artist, song, and album, so, for "Hurt," you saw Trent Reznor's name. My thought upon seeing that was: "Hell yes, there are millions of country music fans out there who hate the music I love and they're proud of it, and here they all are, marveling at the work of Nine Inch Nails." That's what I'm talking about when I say redemption, the work of both artists is raised up, if only briefly, from the mediocre morass of popular music by a creative and gifted will.

    No More Excuses

    [This was one of those fetal posts. I don't know about the tone, but the general idea is right: as much as some people talk about how hard it is to quantify what it is that we do, what impact we have, it seems that the sector almost deliberately relies on incomplete research. Whatever research has been done on the sector, the sector has had to carry it out and fund it itself, so if there isn't any one place for objective, rigorous information, it's because we haven't done it or simply don't want it. Whenever research comes out that we don't like, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's research on HR 7 or a study on trustee fees, for instance, people tend to come back with what those foundation reports leave out. If they're not telling the whole story, please fund nonprofit sector research and tell the whole story yourself. More often than not, though, I think we don't want it because it would deprive us of our excuses. If we do bad research and it tells us something good, we can sing the praises of the philanthropic sector. If we do bad research and it tells us something bad, we can dismiss the results. We do it on purpose, and that has to stop.]

    In September 2003, a study on trustee fees came out of The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University. The authors, Christine Ahn, Pablo Eisenberg, and Channapha Khamvongsa, examined the 1998 990-PF reports of 238 U.S. foundations, 176 of the largest foundations and 62 smaller foundations.

    Some fun facts from their survey of foundation behaviors:

  • In 1998, the 238 foundations surveyed paid a total of more than $44 million in trustee fees.

  • 14 of the larger foundations paid their trustees more than $100,000. This includes $750,000 and $747,000 to Kay and Ben Fortson of the Kimbell Art Foundation, and $500,000 to Walter Annenberg of the Annenberg Foundation.

  • 5 of the smaller foundations paid their trustees more than $100,000, including $232,619, paid by the Ira and Doris Kukin Foundation.


  • There's a whole lot more: people getting paid $250,000 a year for a whole two days' worth of work (see the part about the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust on page 13), potential conflicts of interest (Stewart Kwoh, same page), and foundations stonewalling the researchers by referring the researchers to their accountant but then refusing to give them his contact information (see page 14).

    I was shocked. Wow, this is nice work if you can get it, and I took this to friends. I'm new to the sector, and this was nuts. Unfortunately, when I talked to a few colleagues about this study, I got the same response: "Now you know that's not the most representative or scientific study in the world." Hemming and hawing followed: "Not that I don't agree with you, but you have to put that into context."

    What?

    First of all, this is a clear insult to the intelligence of anyone who actually read the report. The authors of the study contend on page 4: "This study is not intended as a definitive study of trustee fees." It has to be evaluated for what it was - a revealing look at how some, not all, foundations behave. I'm all for more rigorous research in the sector, but really, if the picture isn't pretty, please don't blame the researchers, and please don't make excuses, especially when foundations were given a chance to explain, and they arrogantly elected not to do so.

    Second, this study came out amidst a firestorm of criticism, brought on by excellent investigative reporting in the Boston Globe, San Jose Mercury News, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and in other sources. To say that abuse isn't widespread is to ignore a good amount of evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, the fact that abuse is happening at all is an incredible breach of public trust, which is the only thing that keeps the government from taxing the sector into oblivion.

    One of the things I would like to see come out of the work of the Senate Finance Committee and Independent Sector is more scientifically rigorous research in the sector. [Or maybe you could just pay somebody, I don't know, the IRS maybe, to acutally look at the 990's? It's amazing to me that most, if not all, of these abuses are already illegal, and we're going through this fantastic rigamarole when the simplest thing to do would be to fully fund IRS enforcement.]

    The fact remains that most of these abuses were uncovered because reporters started sifting through 990-PF reports. It is a matter of public record where our grants go, whom we pay, and how much. The information is there, and we've only just begun to start looking through it. My question is: why haven't we been looking? I almost think that we have studies like the incomplete Georgetown study on purpose.

    Why? Because what would happen if a representative sample turned up a decadent culture of arrogance, deceit, and greed that cloaks itself in charity? What would we say then?

    What would happen, if instead of inferring malice where incompetence will do just fine, we found a jarringly rampant lack of self-awareness in a sector that preaches accountability and effectiveness?

    For that matter, what are we going to say when the Foundation Center, Guidestar, and the Urban Institute finish their study of the 990-PF reports of the top 10,000 foundations? (And when is that coming out?)

    Prepare your talking points now; "that's not a representative sample" isn't going to cut it.

    It is time, as some have argued, for a peer-reviewed journal of philanthropy. From the Aspen Philanthropy Letter:
    Philanthropy will remain a "cottage industry and primitive craft," and its practitioners will continue to be unrecognized for and a bit insecure about their contributions - not to mention those of their colleagues - if the field remains without a peer-reviewed journal, according to two philanthropy observers. Frank Karel, formerly vice president for communications at both the Robert Wood Johnson and Rockefeller foundations, argued at a Duke University foundation research seminar earlier this year that the sector needs a refereed journal incorporating the best features of other similar journals, such as Science, Health Affairs, and the Harvard Business Review. More expansive than the Stanford Social Innovation Review, this journal should present scholarly studies as well as offer independent, investigative journalism and share information from academic presentations and discussions, according to Karel. His prepared text can be requested from the author by email, with "Request for Duke paper" as the "subject" line.

    Peter Karoff of The Philanthropic Initiative made a similar recommendation in his chapter of TPI's recently released book, Just Money: A Critique of Contemporary American Philanthropy. For Karoff, a "Journal of Philanthropy" would incorporate reflective pieces and discussions of practice in the field, and would be equivalent in value and influence to the New England Journal of Medicine or Foreign Affairs.

    Karel echoed his call for greater information about philanthropy at a May gathering of Florida philanthropy leaders organized by the University of Florida's Askew Institute on Politics and Society. He also called on philanthropy to help "reduce the anger, hostility and contentiousness that so mars public discourse in our society." A summary of Karel's keynote speech, as well as other speeches and recommendations from the gathering, has just been published in a report from the Askew Institute.
    It is time that, instead of making excuses for the inexcusable, instead pointing fingers at everyone but ourselves, researchers and reporters sifted through the 990's, asked the hard questions, published the results, and forced foundations to take a good, hard look at themselves. The Stanford Social Innovation Review is an incredible step in the right direction. I wonder why more people aren't doing this. If the sector is as great as we all believe it to be, fund the research that will tell us that.

    Now I don't want to take away the freedom of foundations to make creative, innovative grantmaking choices.

    I don't want to take away the ability to reasonably compensate competent, indeed visionary, board members and staff.

    I want the sector's self-serving privacy, its insularity, its arrogance, its greed, its indifference.

    I want this sector's excuses because the only flaw I found with the Georgetown study was that it let us keep them.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2005

    How I (Used to?) Blog

    I started this blog back in October of last year, but, finding myself unable to match what I thought the blog ought to be, I scrapped all the posts I'd created (all two or three of them) and more or less cyber-squatted (not that anyone was clamoring for Philanthropica) until this past April.

    I had this system, you see. I would use the fantastic BlogThis! feature on the Google Toolbar to sort of clip online newspaper articles. Throughout the day, whenever I came across something interesting, I would sketch out an outline of a decent post and then save it as a draft so that I could go back later and make the post what it ought to be. Of course, I would never actually finish the post, and the fetal posts would keep piling up. The only posts that made it to the blog were the ones that required less than two minutes' thought - not a way to run a blog at all.

    But, tonight, all that changes. Stay tuned. I might actually say something important.

    Monday, May 09, 2005

    Taibbi on Friedman

    Thomas Friedman's new book is out and about and this guy has his number.

    Personally, I've always gotten the impression that Friedman is five to ten years behind the rest of us and he's still missing the bigger picture.

    Feel free to decide for yourself if Friedman's happy, slappy hero metaphor is enough to think he has his fingers anywhere near the pulse of whatever he's diagnosing.

    Tuesday, May 03, 2005

    Somebody saw this coming

    In today's Express:

    ON TV TONIGHT...

    WELL, NOT BY DUNBAR
    A victim can't be identified on BLIND JUSTICE (10 p.m., ABC).

    It's wrong, so very, very wrong.

    Monday, May 02, 2005

    Am I crazy?

    Could somebody do me a favor?

    Listen to White Zombie's "El Phantasmo and the Chicken-Run Blast-O-Rama."

    Now listen to TRUSTcompany's "Downfall."

    Am I crazy or do they sound really similar?