Michael Seltzer contends that the "diversity" debate is not really about diversity but perhaps something greater:
What has transpired is an ongoing commitment by a group of large California foundations to address a key issue of our time -- the growing economic and social disparities affecting low-income and minority Americans, and the undercapitalized, community-based organizations that have been created in an attempt to make health care, education, and housing available and accessible to all Americans. The agreement struck by these California foundations invites the question: What would happen if all U.S. foundations agreed to put poverty alleviation and the elimination of economic and social disparities based on racial, ethnic, gender, and other differences on their agenda and allocated a portion of their grant dollars toward that end?
Since Mitch Nauffts says, "It's an excellent question -- and one that more foundations should be asking themselves," I'll take a stab at a response.
Indeed, what would happen if all U.S. foundations agreed to put poverty alleviation and the elimination of economic and social disparities based on racial, ethnic, gender, and other differences on their agenda and allocated a portion of their grant dollars toward that end?
Well, what would you call a contractual arrangement by which a portion of our collective resources are devoted to public ends? I could have sworn there were words for these things.
Kevin, I don't know about you, but that sounds a lot like taxes and, you know, like, a government.
Kevin, I think you're right.
I've noticed two broad critiques of the independent sector.
The first tends to come from the business sector. Nonprofits need to cut administrative costs, streamline processes, and pursue earned income strategies. They need to define goals, measure results, and determine impact. If we only applied lessons learned in the business world about how to run a successful organization, the nonprofit sector would be much more successful.
The second critique is that leveled by critics in the diversity debate. Certain populations are short-changed by philanthropy, a problem that would be alleviated if philanthropy committed to giving certain amounts to society's most vulnerable and if more members of these populations were included in philanthropic decisionmaking. Philanthropy should involve and represent the public it supposedly serves.
Basically, philanthropies should act more like businesses -- except when they should act more like our democratic government. Indeed, things would be so much better for everybody if the philanthropic sector acted more like the other sectors.
You know, I'm all for a more effective and accountable sector, but I think things would be so much better for everybody if we stopped asking philanthropy to do the work of the other sectors.
As if the other sectors are such exemplars! Since when are business and government in any position to criticize philanthropy?
Nonprofit should act like businesses? Which ones? Our airlines and our record companies whose failed business models are somehow my problem? Our insurance companies that make up the rules as they go along? Our nation's lenders who thought that making bad loans, repackaging that debt, and selling it to others was good business? We have businesses that deceive and bilk consumers, employees, and shareholders, and leave the American people to pick up the tab. I'm all for streamlining nonprofit practice, but God help us all if nonprofits act like some of today's businesses.
And don't get me started on the government. Regardless of your political affiliation, I think we can agree that American government has become by and large a spectator sport. We're entitled to an opinion every two years at most. It's government of, by, and for somebody else because it sure doesn't seem like it's of, by, and for anybody most of us know.
The reply to any Congressperson who dares question philanthropy's commitment to the poor and vulnerable in this country should be simple: what have you done lately? Seltzer imagines a philanthropic sector that puts "poverty alleviation and the elimination of economic and social disparities based on racial, ethnic, gender, and other differences on their agenda." Why not imagine a government that does that?
And there we get to the real issue: why are we turning to philanthropy for these things? Behind the desire for a more effective, accountable philanthropic sector is the desire for a more effective private sector, a more accountable public sector. But so alienated are we from the market and political forces that affect our lives, we hold philanthropy responsible. The diversity debate, as Seltzer says, really is more about "health care, education, and housing" than it is about diversity, but should we imagine foundations banding together to solve these problems?
What if more businesses banded together to develop sustainable energy technologies with the same creativity that some show in creating new ways to hide debt? What if more businesses created products that met real needs with the same energy some of them show in manufacturing fleeting wants?
What if members of both parties banded together to reforge a government that represented everyone? What if fighting poverty was back on their agenda?
What if the other sectors started pulling their own weight? What would philanthropy do then?
Because these are good questions, too, ones that more foundations should be asking themselves.