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Grassroots Solutions in an Age of Centralization

William Schambra in a presentation to Chicago Grantmakers for Effective Organizations July 1, 2008, suggests that strategic philanthropy working from a grand theory of social change, will almost always founder. There are simply too many variables, and they all interact. History shows that central planning, whether by government or foundations will fail.

What foundations can do, I would suggest, is to be serious, quiet, attentive students of their surroundings, watching carefully for opportunities to enhance slightly the trends that they applaud, and diminish slightly the trends that they deplore.

...This approach – watching for opportunities to make small differences – applies not just at the grand policy level, but at the grassroots level as well. Here, I heartily recommend a new book entitled Grassroots Philanthropy, written by Bill Somerville, founder of Philanthropic Venture Initiatives in San Francisco.

Rather than having the experts at foundation headquarters draw up a grand strategy for transforming a neighborhood, he suggests, it would be far wiser for the philanthropist to get out of that comfortable chair in the foundation office and spend most of her time quietly and discretely poking around the neighborhood.

The point is to find the unsung community leaders who have particular, concrete ideas about how the neighborhood can be improved, and who can do a great deal with a small grant at a particularly critical place and time.

These small, quiet interventions certainly don't add up to a coherent, unified strategy. But they do modestly enhance favorable trends and diminish unfavorable trends in the manner appropriate to the status of foundations as relatively minor players among other, more important players.

The additional virtue of this approach is that it opens itself to the civic engagement of citizens who have otherwise often been marginalized by the larger social policy actors, and thus helps meet the pressing national need for democratic renewal.

"Sweetness and light" was a Roman conceit: The diligent bees go from flower to flower. They create honey (sweetness) and wax (light from beeswax candles). I am not a grant maker, but in sales promotion, the proven best practice is not for the Home Office to tell those in the Field what will work and make them do it; that almost always fails. Rather we who would promote sales circulate among the best advisors to find out what is working for them. Then we share what works, and draw attention and support to those who are most successful. The spread of ideas and best practices is lateral, and in all directions, merely supported from "above." I would think the same would go for encouraging social change.

I have noticed that conservative thinkers tend to say that progressives are in favor of scientific management, large governmental programs, theory-driven grants, and top down, technocratic solutions imposed upon ordinary people. I can see why conservatives would say that, thinking of the New Deal, central planning in socialist countries, strategic big foundation philanthropy, and the aftermath of the civil rights era, when populist gains were translated into laws and into Great Society social programs.  But you could make a similar charge against Fortune 100 companies, with their hierarchical command and control org charts, their interwoven mesh of media, advertising, intellectual property restrictions, privatization of public goods, lobbying, legislation, court-packing, and revolving doors, all leading to more wealth and power in fewer hands. We have seen a considerable centralization, verging on monopolization, of power into fewer hands on Wall Street and inside the Beltway, under both parties. Globalization is producing an elite, a Superclass as David Rothkopf calls them, that is worse than Federal, it is countryless, and nomadic, and beyond the reach of voters, and often beyond the reach of any nation's laws.   

I truly wonder if we could make common cause, all of us, who believe that solutions for us, in this country, start on main street, in community with others, who work out the solutions among ourselves, rather that coming to us from, say, Home Office,  Davos, or DC? Or, from Ford Foundation for that matter? If we agreed on the decentralization of wealth and power, on the rule of law, including international law, and on a level playing field, would libertarians, main street conservatives, Lou Dobb's populists, small business owners, internet utopians, and (at least some) progressives make common cause? And if so, who would the "other" be? Presumably, the bi-partisan, global, forces of centralization, now in the ascendant?

How to promote such grassroots bi-partisan alliances? Well, encourage small gains, when we find them, I guess. 


Solari is Better than Philanthropy?

I stand corrected. Catherine Austin Fitts, apropos of this post, wrote me to clarify her position on philanthropy.

Catherine Austin Fitts promotes the Solari investment model which aligns financial wealth and natural wealth and encourages diversified ownership and creation of  wealth. She is uncomfortable with the use of philanthropy as part of a  comprehensive strategy of financial warfare to centralize and consolidate ownership and control of global resources. As a weapon of centralization, philanthropy has been used to cleanse dirty money and promote the brand of numerous individuals and organizations engaged in a wide variety of covert and criminal enterprises. Philanthropy has been used to encourage people most interested in solutions to embrace not-for-profit models that are financially dependent on large governments and corporations. By doing so, the practice of philanthropy ensures that people who are committed to real solutions are not in a position to address root causes and will have little or no ability to build or attract financial wealth while the process of starving small business, small farms and a broad based diversified economy and centralizing capital into large corporations and banks continues.

From Catherine's blog I took these links to our rapid loss of Constitutional protections. How, I wonder, can "the Solari investment model which aligns financial and natural wealth and encourages diversified ownership and creation of wealth" restore the rule of law? Maybe there is a secret connection between owning a successful closely held business, or a farm, and being independent enough to push back when pushed into a corner? But, still, doesn't restoring the rule of law require citizen organizing and outcry? (As opposed to merely investing, producing and consuming within a social capital market.) Not that philanthropy tends to promote activism, to conserve our republic, but still, some givers do promote such ends. Those dollars are few and precious. 

Mr. Yoo benefited from the dollars givers invested in the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society. Where you find resistance to the deterioration of our rights you find, for example, the ACLU. So it is a battle in part of giver against giver for the soul of this nation? Can we avoid that conclusion, whatever other benefits we might also draw from decentralized, community-based, social investing?


Endow A Fool (Insert My Picture Here)

As hundreds of billions of sub-prime loans were packaged and sold, ending up in pension plans, mutual funds, hedge funds, insurance company reserves, or assets backing savings accounts, who will be holding the empty bag once all this is marked to market? Not just the intermediaries who were holding these flawed investments in inventory or for their own account, but all the schmucks and investment advisors who went by the ratings these mispriced investments carried.  Still, if you are the CEO of a huge investment firm who gets fired, the news is not all bad. From such ranks we might recruit a new President, a State Attorney General, or a big time philanthropist. Catherine Austin Fitts lays it out in a list of links. My favorite such moral story is that of the man who headed up a sub prime lending company, made a big donation to Bush and is now Ambassador to the Netherlands.  Either Clinton would have done the same, probably. As the Emperor Vespasian said of the toilet tax, Pecunia non olet, "Money has no smell."

Could someone please endow a team of Satirists in white Emergency Vehicles, making house calls on Wall Street and in DC? We stage interventions for the mental health of unimportant people. Who will intervene among those who rule us? What investment for political return, what philanthropic initiative to heal the body politic, could have a bigger bang for the buck than a team of Clowns taking America's ruling elite away in straightjackets? Once safely in the asylum we could begin the long slow process of healing.  At times the cure may seem to the patient worse than the disease, but the main thing is that the disease itself not be allowed spread. Speaking of corruption, the Italians say, "the fish rots from the head down." We must extirpate the corruption among our elite lest it infect the whole. Philanthropy won't do it, politics is too sick to cure itself. Big business is in cahoots. That leaves the Satirists. I am happy to do what I can but I am fed up with doing it all pro bono publico in a Dumpster. I at least want a bounty for every politician or CEO I bag and cure.


Social Capital Markets Closed by Order of the Northern Command: Wirearchy and Hierarchy

Stuart Henshall on Jon Husband's presentation at KMWorld.  Jon, along with others like Tracy Gary and Catherine Austin Fitts, works at a deeper level, not from what will advance his career, or garner praise, or make a buck, but from the demands of his own disciplinary logic and the demands of the future.  All three of these intransigent figures meet resistance from the entrenched present. Jon's expertise is in human resources for large organizations. He worked with Hay. Now he is intuiting a world that runs on networks, swarms, coalitions, on love and love of the work as much as on money, whether inside or outside the corporate firewall. His  vision, no less than Tracy's inspired, grassroots progressivism, or Catherine's Solaris are a fundamental critique of today's corrupted and malignant Wall Street (not Main Street) capitalism. He like they are limning radical (from "radix," or root) alternatives to the world we know today. The three envision a decentralized, less hierarchical future, flattened but not as Thomas Friedman thinks of it.

Today we have a world controlled from the top down and the center out, by corporate power in cahoots with what remains of government, and enmeshed in philanthropy to support rather than challenge vested interests.  Tomorrow we will have progressive social change with social justice paramount (Tracy). We will have our money flowing from and to local Main Street businesses, including ranches, farms, and ordinary Rotary Club firms, that support the quality of life in towns, villages, and cities (Fitts).  And, we will have citizen/employees creating ever changing networks (online and off)  of purpose for commerce, politics, civic friendship, and profit.  Against that stands what? Well, most of you see in the newspapers, most of the figures you see on tv, and most of the mind-corrupting material supplied to us via think tanks, pundits, marketing, and the mainstream media by those currently in power.

Change starts on the margins, in the Dumpsters, not inside Wealth Bondage, nor outside, but where it abuts the public square, where as with garbage, ownership is not what it was, and pariahs congregate to promote the public good. Meanwhile,  let us  respect those set above us.  I am grateful to have a job at all, and to be allowed to blog, subject to editorial style guidelines, and approval by the higher ups.  I speak subject to correction.  Unlike The Happy Tutor, I am not looking for any trouble.  Until the new day dawns, I need to make a living.  My morals tutoring business may be a sham, but I will live in comfort until everything falls apart.  I will leave it to Jon, Tracy, and Catherine to buck the system.  I suggest you do the same.   


Supercapitalism by Robert Reich

NPR:

In Supercapitalism, Robert Reich argues that there's a growing conflict between democracy and capitalism. As citizens, we have ideals, but as consumers, we have needs. We abhor child labor, for instance, but we want a cheap pair of jeans. And we might be dismayed over Main Street's demise, but we still look for bargains at Wal-Mart.

Capitalism versus Democracy? Which side is winning? Economic Freedom is winning, in the sense of monopolies, cartels, tongs, and insiders. Liberty is losing, in the sense of fairness and political regard for ordinary people.  Ownership society is winning. The public life and public goods are losing. In my personal reading, I am dipping back into the Hellenistic philosophers, including the Epicureans, Stoics and the Cynics, not only because they provide good role models for engaging powerful people in an unequal conversation about meaning, identity, virtue and community, but also because these were the philosophers, who like Jesus, worked in a public way under increasingly heavy handed rule by imperial powers, first Macedonia and then Rome.  Corporations rule us as they must, per Milton Friedman.  American Greatness is upon us.  We had better learn to tend our garden and possess our souls in patience.  "My Kingdom, " said Jesus,  eying the Roman soldiers monitoring his conversations,  "is not of this world."  Still, Rome fell, as if it had collapsed into the Catacombs.  Maybe we should keep digging.  At the very least we can create a Necropolis as the mirror image of Empire.  Underground or hidden in plain sight, we can maintain the highest traditions of  the America that was once a light for the world. When Jesus returns with a bloody sword to Rapture the Faithful, I suspect he will drop by the Catacombs for a good laugh with Diogenes.  At least they could discuss advanced tools of the meaning trade.


The Centralization Team and the Decentralization Team

From Catherine Austin Fitts I learned a new dichotomy that better aligns with my own intuitions than do existing polarities like Red/Blue, Retro/Metro, Conservative/Progressive, Devout/Skeptical, North/South, Bicoastal/Heartland. Her dichotomy is between "The Centralization Team" and "The Decentralization Team." (Guess which side is winning? At your expense, maybe?)

Centralization Team

  • Mass media  pumping out ads, sound bites, punditry, press releases and displacing locally owned newspapers, radio, and cable stations.
  • Best sellers, mass spectacle, "American Idol."
  • Politicians branded like merchandise repeating bromides
  • Wall Street firms buying out Main Street firms, or putting them out of business
  • Financial conglomerates displacing local banks
  • Mortgage scams pumped by Greenspan on down
  • Hedge funds gaming the market
  • Home owners going broke while their house is bought up cheap by outside investors
  • Engineered foods displacing indigenous crops, and biotech replacing small family farms
  • Government consolidating power in the hands of a duopoly headed by a Decider/CEO
  • Citizen surveillance by secret bureaus
  • Centralized police powers
  • Private prisons making money every time a black man goes to jail, making more money for every day he stays there. Wall Street firms, private investors, drug lords, judges and politicians all making out like bandits, while the ghetto proves a fertile field to plow.
  • New laws laying the groundwork for martial law in the unlikely event the Head Knocker considers it necessary as citizens awaken to how they are being abused
  • Scaling back of civil liberties to protect us from Terror while every effort is made to keep us scared
  • Brands displacing ritual, folklore, living traditions
  • Copyright abuse consolidating control of culture in corporate hands
  • Reliance on law to protect the "special rights" of specific groups, rather than the human rights of all groups
  • Legislation of top down solutions en masse from Corporate or Governmental HQ
  • Megalomania in high places whether in corporate board rooms, in the White House, or on both sides of the aisle in Congress
  • Drug money, black money, armaments, the secret flows in and out of the halls of power
  • Celebrity philanthropy, status contests. "Let's change the world" rhetoric from those who have screwed it up to the best of their ability whenever they are given power
  • Interlocking elites serving on boards, rotating through government, business, nonprofit, and regulatory roles, playing every seat at the table seriatim and cleaning up at the expense of the public interest they are sworn to serve between self-serving gigs
  • Dynastic families forming Tongs and thinking of themselves as a new Aristocracy with fine human capital, etc., making them well-suited for rule, from the background if need be. 
  • Corporate lobbyists writing legislation, hiring the family of law makers, giving legislators jobs after they do the corporation's bidding
  • Think Thanks helping us all to think in hateful platitudes
  • Message discipline
  • Torture for the good of all
  • Lies for the good of all
  • Secrecy for the good of all
  • Indoctrination for the good of all
  • War for the good of all

Decentralization Team

  • Blogs, study groups, learning circles, consciousness raising groups, donor circles, on-line alternative media, podcasts,  neighborhood groups
  • Local religious groups
  • Art, music, dance, fun, carnival bubbling up all around
  • Copy left, GPL, Creative Commons, and other schemes to keep culture alive as a public good
  • Main Street entrepreneurs
  • Main Street voluntary orgs, or social ventures
  • Patriotism based on love of country and our Constitution
  • Moral outrage at the way patriotism has been abused by demagogues and machiavels
  • Family owned small business struggling to survive
  • Local life insurance agents, financial planners, independent advisors, charitable consultants
  • Political engagement at the state, local, and block level
  • Growing your own food, eating local produce, supporting local merchants
  • Alternative currencies to cut out the financial combines and the management of the economy from the financial centers
  • Withdrawal of time, energy, attention from the blaring ads, haranguing politicians, and the "liar against liar" political debates
  • Reduction of expenses, paying off of loans, living simply
  • Opting out of brand culture and the frenzy of propagandized consumption
  • Civic friendship based on individual humanity, not just group identity, party affiliation, or other divisive difference
  • Peer to peer philanthropy, giving circles, volunteering
  • Openness, trust, trustworthiness, transparency
  • Family values like mercy, compassion, love and faith in reason and God
  • A culture of contempt for the abuse of power
  • The naming of names and the outing of abusers
  • Investigative journalism
  • Checks and balances
  • The watching of the watchers
  • Satire that draws blood and heals, as did the Leech in Old Tyme Medicine

You can see how different this is from Red/Blue debates. (Those debates are staged by and for the two wings of The Centralization Team. We are indoctrinated with pointless sound bits so we can hate our neighbor and debate non-issues as The Centralization Team walks off with the planet.) I find libertarians, progressives, and people of conscience across the country wanting to have this conversation rather than the sterile conversations retailed to us from on high.  Hello! We want our country back.  We are more than a market to be gamed. We are citizens.  Whether philanthropy will be a lever of social change for the decentralization team, or whether it is mostly a head fake from the centralization team, remains to be seen.  No doubt it will work for both teams, both preserving and undermining the status quo.


Finding Ourselves and One Another for a Better Life in a Better World

"Finding People to Make a Living With," by Dave Pollard at How to Save the World.  Could also be entitled, finding people to make a movement with, to make a meaningful life, or to create the world we want.  How can we mashup Dave Pollard and H. Peter Karoff, to take just two seminal figures concerned with building a life worth living? (I found the Pollard link within Michel Bauwens's take on Trebor Scholz.  Does William Schambra follow such links? Might he or Karoff convene a panel to get the online and offline conversations about making a life, making a living, and civil society to converge? I wrote Bill asking if he might.)


We The People Giving Online

Peter Deitz:

As of this week, the Wall Street Journal has started to report on micro-philanthropy websites such as Change.org, Project Apage, SixDegrees, and DonorsChoose.  Check out this interview with Ben Ratray of Change.org and this article, A New Generation Reinvents Philanthropy.

What term best captures this new form of giving: Peer to peer philanthropy, micro-philanthropy, crowd sourcing of philanthropy, grassroots giving, democratic giving online, philanthro-populism? So far it seems in its infancy, more "feel good" than "get real," but if we can begin to pool token amounts maybe we could take on issues that entrenched foundations can't or won't for fear of embarrassing their well-connected boards.  Ford, Pew, Soros, Rockefeller, Omidyar, name any big foundation, are fine with the gutting of our Constitution. No problem. Nothing said. All fine with them. If we are going to put both parties back inside a Constitutional container, serving us, not money,  it will have to start with we the people.  We need to fix a whole lot of things that most wealthy givers won't even look at.  (I wish this were not true, but I get it on good authority as well as from experience.  Philanthropy is an inside job. To change it we need to involve many more people from the bottom up, not just giving to feel good charities, nor supporting party A or party B, but giving for fundamental social change, right where it hurts entrenched interests most. We are not there yet, not even started, but maybe there is hope.)


Conversation with Taj James

Taj Talked today with Taj James, head of the Movement Strategy Center. I had met him through Tracy Gary at a funder's conference two years ago.  His Center builds community among progressive activists. We talked about how we could build community among progressive organizations, funders, and client advisors.  And we talked about widening such communities to include other groups, like conservatives and business people and politicians who share many of the same ends in view - like a livable world, healthy children, and a vital democracy. We tended to agree that for funders to give with full energy they need a safe place in which to explore what they are trying to accomplish overall, without being importuned by nonprofits, nor processed or handled by advisors. Out of such a space can come a funder prepared to partner with advisors and nonprofits on behalf of his or her own vision of the good.  For that space to be opened requires that all participants but aside self-seeking long enough to find elevated common ground.  Taj saw that, and has the skills to hold such a space open. I hope he will.