Monday, May 11, 2020

Corona Chapter One

I am writing this from home ending week 8 of Covid-19 virus -induced “sheltering in place” that began  on March 14. I have been dancing around about starting a post, probably due to shell shock or perhaps, as my father used to say before beginning public remarks: “ I am like the mosquito in a nudist colony- I know what I have to do, but don’t know exactly where to start.”  

I will start with this from the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: “ I have discovered that all human misfortune  comes from this, being unable to sit still in a room.” Right now, a large number of states are going against medical advice and relaxing lockdown guidelines so, in the case of Georgia, people can go back to gyms, tattoo parlors and hair salons. There the pent up desire to get out of the house, to not sit still as it were, prevails despite experts’ concerns that such moves will enable virus spread.  Americans, it seems to me, are largely an impatient society and one that favors instant gratification.

The Lt. Governor of Texas, one Dan Patrick (R) called for the re-opening of the country with this: “there are more important things than living” e.g. the economy. He joins Trump in tone deaf and misleading statements about the current deadly crisis. 

The effects of the pandemic in the country, even at a relatively early stage, are catastrophic. To date over 80,000 have died, millions put out of work, businesses ruined and peoples’ retirement savings in the stock market savaged. An hour a day watching the T V news tells the grim story. And when we need a Churchill, a FDR or even a Reagan to lead and encourage us in a crisis, what we have instead is a mentally deficient, clueless and feckless narcissist. 

Our lives and society are upended. When I was a kid there was a large blowup vinyl figure, called I think a Bop Bag, almost life size, weighted  at the base, so that when you whacked it , it bounced right back . My hunch is that our nation, like that play figure will, in time, bounce back, but like that figure, hit many times, it will have lost some of its buoyancy. 

I think nonprofits, of which I have written many times in these posts, will play a big part in the recovery, although ironically many of them may not survive, especially the smaller ones.  The reasons for their importance have to do with their missions and their human capacities. 

The broad range of their missions, - health care, feeding the hungry, soothing the soul through the arts, research, religion, education- touched  every aspect of our society when it was healthy and will need to again as it recovers.  As for their human resources, nonprofits have traditionally been led and staffed by bright and, most importantly, resourceful talent.   In the best of times, although sometimes unsure of the source of their next dollar, these organizations rose to their missions’ calling. I hope you will think of the charities you love and favor them with whatever you can spare nowadays. They will be needed to help fashion the “new normal.”

I am going to stop now although I will, like so many others, comment on our current and evolving situation in the future. This horrible tragedy will inspire much work from writers, artists, musicians, politicians and pundits. One theme is likely to be how the pandemic has laid bare the great economic and social disparities in our nation. I live in a suburban (to DC) neighborhood. Here, when outside, there are many walkers, children are learning to ride two wheel bikes and their sheltered in parents are training newly adopted dogs. But not many miles away families are lining up to get charity food bank dinners. 

I count myself lucky and hope you are too, and those whom you love.  So many are not so fortunate; let us not forget them.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Rebuilding the Public's Trust in Nonprofits

Public trust in nonprofits is sinking to new lows, according to a study cited in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual study of institutions, found that only 52 percent of Americans believe nonprofits will do “what is right.” Furthermore,  a Better Business Bureau survey reported that seventy percent of respondents stated that trust was essential before deciding to make a donation to a charity, but that fewer that 20 percent “highly trust” nonprofits. 

Why this worrisome and surprising trust deficit? What can be done to narrow and erase it?  If not rectified, charities’ missions will be damaged, with fewer donations and lessened ability to attract talented staff, followed by the diminishment of any positive impact a charity might make.

For the most part, nonprofits have long basked in the rosy glow of public approval. They do “good work,” by taking up the slack of weakening government support of important functions in our civil society, whether it is in health, education or culture. However, as the statistics above bear out, they are not immune to an important attitudinal shift in our country- growing distrust of institutions.

The tip of the crumbling trust iceberg is scandal. The Catholic Church (sexual abuse), Universities (dodgy admission and fundraising practices), Corporations (Boeing 737 Max ), and Major League Baseball (sign stealing) are just a few of the ivory  towers in fracture.  The Pew Research Center cites millennials as being particularly distrustful of institutions. The cynical phrase “OK Boomer” encapsulates the divide between generations and the tendency of younger people to fix blame on an older generation for present day society’s divisive ills. 

And where does government fit into the institutional distrust diagram? You need look no further than our nation’s elected leader, whose record of lying and grifting defies description, for a symbol of why government is an ever present symbol of the public’s loss of confidence in not just institutions, but authority in general. The antics -  perhaps that word implies a undeserved degree of activity - of  Congress adds to the mix. Where there is activity, such as the recent Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, the reputation meter sinks even lower. 

So it is no wonder the charitable sector, aside from its own peccadilloes, should be tarred with the same anti-institutional brush. It is a generalized mistrust and when people are asked about specific organizations the results may be very different. For instance, the American Red Cross suffered a black eye for its handling of its part in the Hurricane Katrina crisis, whereas The Salvation Army is held in high regard. Some nonprofits lose public confidence if the perception is that they are too centered on high overhead fund raising at the expense of doing their charitable work.  

As any regular TV nightly news watcher knows, many broadcasts end with a happy, “warm and fuzzy” segment to soften the blow of our having been treated to almost 30 minutes of natural and manmade disasters.  The final segment is often a story of a small group of adults and/or children that see a community need and raise dollars or in-kind donations to meet the need. What’s more, they deliver what is needed, say clothing or food, themselves. That’s core philanthropy. 

Gaining back trust, or even acquiring it in the first instance, is most effectively achieved person by person, organization by organization, from the ground up. Nonprofits, especially smaller ones, often find themselves living isolated in a silo or a bunker-like  existence, beset by scarcity of financial and human resources. Larger and well known institutions exist in their silos too, but some are happy to be ensconced in their exclusivity. Each type of organization could benefit from a greater transparency as a means to gaining the public’s trust.

Here are a few ideas for trust building. 

Have a substantive annual meeting for members (donors). Often these gatherings are used to puff up an organization’s accomplishments and “reward” their donors with cheap wine and canapes. Instead, leadership should use meetings to describe forthrightly the opportunities and challenges ahead. Corporations have annual stockholder meetings; nonprofits should as well, even if they attract, like corporations, an occasional controversy and stray hothead. The old adage: It is better to have them inside the tent, wanting to get out; than outside wanting to get in.  Listening to supporters is an important step to take. 

The same concept applies to board meetings:  organization should open portions of board meetings to the public, including the media. Board leadership has the right to control the agenda and attendance. If matters are controversial, would you rather have them revealed in the way you choose, or leaked?
Consider a “public member” of the board, a person nominated by the public or membership. Board membership is traditionally self-selecting. The board membership chooses itself, tempting insularity.   The public position could be non-voting, if necessary. 

Charities enjoy nonprofit and tax exempt status granted by the Federal government, which is funded by public taxation. Members of the public also voluntarily support nonprofits with donations. The point of the measures suggested above, or others like it, is to create a relationship of openness with the public, who supports them and whom they serve.

The matter of public trust of nonprofits must be taken seriously - then aggressively addressed by nonprofit leadership, organization by organization.

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Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Big Bad Donor and Anonymity

Imagine you’re a university fundraiser charged with raising millions of dollars annually to fund the work of your institution.  How much do you want to know about the source of a donor’s wealth, the use of that wealth, or for that matter the personal life and mores of the donor? If you find disturbing information, will such knowledge cause you to break the relationship with the donor or will you turn a blind and perhaps rationalizing eye in favor of the support such money will provide for your institution?

A recent case involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) brings this question into sharp and discomfiting focus.  It has the elements of a drama with a colorful cast of characters, and a plot centered on questions of cover-up, poor judgment and the plain old fashioned chase for money.
The setting: The prestigious MIT and its illustrious Media Lab program. The cast: The Lab’s star Director Joichi (“Jo”) Ito, MIT’s top administration, its development department and the late financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Prominent Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig plays a small, but significant,  role.  In the wings, with possible walk- ons, are Microsoft’s Bill Gates and finance wizard Leon Black. The plot and Mise en Scene is created by The New Yorker magazine’s investigative journalist Ronan Farrow.

On September 6, 2019, the magazine published a piece by Farrow entitled “How an Elite University Research Center Concealed its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein.”  The Pulitzer Prize winner Farrow, the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, has developed a reputation of uncovering sexual abuse allegations of notable figures, most prominently the movie producer Harvey Weinstein .

 In the article Farrow details how the MIT administration and its Media Lab star Jo Ito hid the identity of Jeffrey Epstein as  a major donor to the Lab of $1.7 million, while knowing full well of his 2008 Florida conviction for procuring an underage girl for prostitution. The article was so damning that Ito resigned from MIT less than a day after its publication. He also left positions on the boards of the MacArthur Foundation and The New York Times Company and as a visiting professor at the Harvard Law School.  During his tenure at Media Lab, described by The New York Times as “a sort of academic skunkworks,” Ito had helped raise $50 million. 

The brilliant Ito, described by The New York Times as a “tech evangelist and master networker,” allegedly also brokered, through Epstein, a major donation to MIT from Bill Gates and Leon Black. Throughout, MIT ‘s administration concealed the deep relationship it had with Epstein.

Then, if the Ito resignation was intended to end the matter, the waters were roiled again by a friend of Ito and Harvard Law School colleague Professor Lawrence Lessig. Within days he published a 3500 word essay on the blogging platform “Medium” in support of Mr. Ito.  Lessig, noted as an expert on intellectual property and industrial corruption, argued that MIT’s keeping Epstein’s donations anonymous was good as it avoided “whitewashing” his reputation. Another storm of protest ensued.

Lessig defended his position in a September 17 interview with The New York Times: “ ..the suggestion of the Ronan Farrows of this world that somehow there’s something terrible about the anonymity – no! If you’re going to take the money, you damn well better make it anonymous. “

That begs the question:  Should you take the money in the first place?  On this matter Lessig provided in his essay a provocative template as a guide. He outlines four donor types institutions might encounter :

“Type 1: People like Tom Hanks or Taylor Swift, whose wealth comes from nothing but doing good.
Type 2: Entities like Google or Facebook or people whose wealth comes from those companies of ambiguous good.
Type 3: Criminals, whose wealth does not derive from their crime, such as Epstein , who no one suggested that his enormous wealth was the product of blackmail or sex slavery.
Type 4: People or entities whose wealth comes from clearly wrongful or harmful or immoral behavior, such as the RJ Reynolds Foundation, the Sacklers and the Kochs.”

Lessig believes universities have taken donations from all of the aforementioned categories. The MIT case, however, presents an opportunity for soul searching by university administrations, which should begin with an analysis of the motivation for a gift. Is it to advance the work of the institution or is there any evidence the donor is looking to cleanse a reputation?  Donor types in categories 3 and 4 above would be suspect if it is the latter.  Lessig argues that such gifts must be declared anonymous so that any whitewashing can be blocked. That was MIT’s and Ito’s intent in accepting the Epstein money on that condition.

As he admits, that strategy “was a ticking time bomb.”  And when it went off, the damage was compounded. The Lab staff was reportedly traumatized by learning of Epstein’s involvement with MIT, hidden by the MIT hierarchy and especially by their boss, Jo Ito.

Lessig’s essay is remarkable in its emotional honesty. He is a close friend of Ito, had prior knowledge of the MIT-Epstein connection and what’s more, was a victim of sexual assault himself. He had to post several clarifications to deal with the backlash to the essay specifically the implication that he condoned universities accepting contributions from Type 3 (criminal) donors.  He asserted he does not, but if a university decides to accept such gifts they should be listed as anonymous.  Further uproar ensued, and, in the language of today, Lessig  soon “walked that back” to declare  such donations  should never be accepted.

The tortured Lawrence Lessig saga should not been seen as a sidebar to the MIT drama.  At its core, it lays bare a moral and ethical dilemma facing those responsible for raising funds for nonprofits when confronted by offers of money from donors with dubious backgrounds. Equivocation and rationalization are temptations when faced by the bald-faced need for money . MIT hid behind donor anonymity as the solution, with the rationalization that at least Epstein’s reputation would not be enhanced by revelation of the gifts. But these days there are few secrets that can be hidden.

The simplest solution: Don’t accept blood money regardless of the need.  But as Lessig points out in his last rejoinder postscript: tell that to the development department, . And then be prepared to expect resistance from that quarter.

If the university sets such a “Just Say No” policy regarding big bad donors, think of how much grief it will avoid in having to explain away tainted donations if, and when, they are revealed. Along the way it would also have to deal with the public relations damage that could affect the attitude of lower profile donors, such as devoted alumni- the bedrock of any university’s support. So “No" is the way to go. Fund raisers - are you listening?

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Sweepings from a Blogger’s Floor

For this end of summer post, I am going to present what my mother Helen used to call “Sweepings from the Floor.” She was a knowledgeable music lover and when she heard a composition that she thought was not up to the composer’s usual standard, she’d say, for example “Oh that was Sweepings from the Floor of Beethoven.”  The image is that of the composer gathering up scraps of torn up manuscript paper from the floor and cobbling them together in order to meet some commission deadline or another.

Sweeping #1:  I tried to engage this summer in what the Dutch call Niksen,  the translation for which  is  “doing nothing.”  The Dutch consider the concept of Niksen an art form, as a way of combating stress. According to The New York Times, a psychologist Doreen Dodgen Magee, whose specialty is boredom, likens Niksen to “a car whose engine is running but not going anywhere.”  Gazing at the mountains or the sea during visits to Colorado and Maine this summer was good for my Niksen aspirations.

Sweeping #2:  I was struck by a line in a report last spring on the political demise of UK Prime Minister Theresa May. A colleague of hers said: “She is very hard working. She can’t construct a song, or write poetry. And if you’re driving big change you must infuse that either with drama or with lyricism.”   This criticism evokes unfavorable comparisons to Winston Churchill, John F, Kennedy, Dr. King and Barack Obama who had those qualities. At the same time, we are daily reminded that our current president clearly does not.  

Sweeping #3: I just discovered a profession that, should it be espoused widely, might help leaders with expression deficit. In a New York Times wedding announcement August 18, the groom’s job at a solar-energy equipment installer in Rhinebeck NY was listed as “a creative content producer and story teller.”  I wish I had that job description during my career as I did just that frequently and I guess I still am trying with this blog.  At my 50th prep school class reunion dinner, after I told the story of having to deal with a  guest orchestra conductor with bad BO,  the prep school master who tried to teach me Greek declared: “I always knew you’d be a raconteur “– a great compliment.

In the same wedding announcement the bride was named as a great-great-great-great granddaughter  of a  19th century publisher whose importance I’m sure can be found somewhere in the mists of time. Maybe it’s the influence of but shouldn’t there be a limit to how far back you go to impress the reader in such announcements?

Sweeping#4:  An update. I have been writing about the opioid epidemic, the  Sackler family , and the family’s connection to museums - .  In July the art world was surprised by the announcement that The Louvre had decided to strip the Sackler name from the famed facility in Paris, namely the Sackler Wing of Oriental Antiquities. The advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which was active in demanding similar action in the USA,  was part of a demonstration outside the Louvre Pyramid on July 1. The Louvre announced its decision July 17, later claiming it was done in concordance with a policy that limited naming rights to 20 years. The Sackler donation was made in 1993. As the prestigious Louvre is the most visited museum in the world, look for other institutions that thus far have declined to scrub the Sackler name, to think again. 

Sweeping #5: On a cheerier museum note, and one very much in tune with disappearing summer, let’s applaud the decision by the Museum of Ice Cream to build a permanent space in New York City’s SoHo. The museum has previously been very popular with pop-up installations in New York, as well as San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles. The 25,000 square foot building will feature a “Hall of Giant Scoops” and a “Sprinkle Pool.”   Yippee!!  If they are smart they won’t get into the naming game.

Sweeping #6: According to Agence France-Presse (via The Week magazine) two professors from the University of California, Berkeley,  have installed what they call the “Teetertotter Wall” –three pink seesaws across the U.S. Mexico border wall between Sunland Park, N.M. and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, that enables children on both sides of the border to play together.  Professor Ronald Rael, one of the designers, said the seesaws clearly illustrate that “actions that take place on one side have direct consequences on the other side.”

To which I add - “As well as having fun,” which I hope you will be having these remaining days of summer.

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