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November 05, 2007


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This feels pretty profound -- cross-posted on PhilanthroMedia.org today.

Sean Stannard-Stockton

Great post! The most important lesson that I've learned from investment management is that the four most dangerous words in the English language are "It's different this time" (I'd love to take credit for that phrase, but others said it first).

Actually, "the more things change, the more they stay the same" is much more accurate. Here's the thing. People do not change. Human behavior does not change. Greed and fear and love and hate will always be with us. But frameworks change. Technology changes.

I do think that we are in the early stages of a Second Great Wave of Philanthropy. But 50 years from now, people will still be giving to people and they will still be subject to the same behavioral traits that influenced the Romans.

Albert Ruesga

Thanks. Human nature is a little harder to shift than the (currently dysfunctional) culture of philanthropy. If self-knowledge is the first step towards change, then we really need to invite anthropologists into our offices and board rooms. They can observe our interactions through two-way mirrors, if they can manage to stay awake through it all.

Tidy Sum

Funny you should mention the human factor, Sean.

I just got back from my time portal into 60,000 b.c. where I observed the Upland Neanderthal Fund's board meeting.

It was not much different than what you see now only it smelled real stinky and I had to eat a rat.

They spent a lot of time talking about the high and lows of their hunting. (lots of posturing from the men on this subject)

They funded an evaluation of their arts initiative -- some cave thing. Nobody really cared about it but old Grogg. He's 24 and will die soon so they did not argue.

They funded a nice community program celebrating bipedalism and morphological diversity.

They funded a small stone tool making program for youth after the stern objections of one trustee who wanted better data on spear effectiveness.

One member, Oog from Dear Clan, raised the big extinction issue in reference to news about Cro-Magnons and humans but this discussion was squelched because someone wanted to talk about the new CavePoint mapping antler that would track their donations.

I guess some things never change.

Sean Stannard-Stockton

Tidy Sum, your post gave me my biggest laugh of the day. But I'm going to take you dead serious because I think that most people actually assume that nothing much changes the way that you portray.

My take is that Grogg and Oog are like people today in that they care deeply about other people in a way that is not quite rational (caring for these people often does nothing to improve the lives of Grogg and Oog), but they are driven by a deeply felt desire to help. This desire is part of being human.

But what has changed is that in 60,000 bc, people did not create institutional giving (for better or for worse). Today we have an opportunity, not to transcend our human-ness, but to re-imagine what it means to "give".

Some things never change, Tidy Sum. But lucky for use, in this case what will never change is the deeply felt human desire to help other humans (even other non-humans such as animals and plants, etc). What will change is the form that this desire takes.


TS, your comment almost created for me a “laundry situation,” to borrow a phrase from Joel Orosz. I plan to blog it this weekend, after I dig myself out of the work-hole I’m currently in. And I hear you, Sean. As you do currently, I too worked with many donors who were as inspiring as you describe. I can also go on at length about those whose acts of giving were far from pure, and those who were frankly self-serving and/or self-important. It’s no accident that the great gurus of planned giving (Debra Ashton, for example) urge fundraisers to do the research and keep the records necessary to understand and exploit (my word) the motivations of potential donors. Does a donor give because he wants recognition? because he wants to belong to an elite group of benefactors? because he’s motivated by power or by the idea of having his name live on forever? Supposedly only a foolish or incompetent fundraiser would ignore these clues.

True: I'd much rather give the way these donors give, than the way most people don’t. But I’m also not inclined to drink the “let’s re-imagine what it means to give” Koolaid down to the dregs. What’s to re-imagine?

As for institutional funders: By their fruits and by their characters ye shall know them. But Lord, from my experience, there are more than a few silly gazelle to impale on Oog’s spear, starting with me.


"And yet while Maureen packs a ray gun and travels from planet to planet in a flying saucer, she also plays the reassuring role of post-war housewife and mom, staying at home to prepare a nice meatloaf while her husband goes off to protect the ship from tentacled aliens. Let’s face it: she’s a bit of a throwback. It’s easier for us to imagine a world in which solid objects spontaneously shift form than one in which the basic relations of power between men and women are renegotiated."

She's an elite response to an infinite demand that "basic relations of power between men and women are renegotiated"?

I mean, you might think that "Lost in Space" could not be an elite response to anything, but Irwin Allen did go to Columbia j-school. That probably disposed him to a role as an elite messenger, which is perfect fit for an apocalyptic disaster aficionado. BTW, Allen Ginsberg's real name was Irwin Allen Ginsberg, which I did not know when I saw him sitting in a booth at the Odessa on Avenue A in 1988 when I was there to eat my usual $3.25 hot turkey sandwich. The Odessa is still there, but Leshkos is gone.


I forgot to mention that hot turkey sandwiches cost $5.95 now at Odessa, and also that the price has always included cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. Leshkos used to have this breaded chicken cutlet meal that was truly a chore to consume, taste-wise, but the portions were larger, the price was less, and you'd get corn or beans too.

Bruce Trachtenberg

Hope it's ok to repeat a comment I put on Tactical Philanthropy earlier...guess I'm just lazy or running out of things to say. Ironic, consider the topic is change (or not)...so be it:

"Reminds me of the time my ex-foundation boss and I were at Harvard for a review of a case study by the business school about the foundation’s major transformation to a new way of doing business.

Case study revealed how hard it was to turn around a tradition-bound organization (and especially the staff) that had gotten a bit too comfortable doing things the same way over and over and over again.

During the Q and A, one of the students asked: 'If foundations are so resistant to innovation, why would someone like myself who has just spent the last several years learning about the importance of innovating in order to stay in business ever want to work for a foundation?'

My boss answered: 'We need people like you, who bring those ideas and new attitudes so we can change our cultures.'”


Sa’Luk: I resonate with Žižek’s post insofar as I think I understand it (I'm a little shaky on where the “interstices” are located, for example). Resistance to the current moral and political order, for the benefit of the Greater Good, comes in many forms. I feel an enormous affinity for the grandmother in Altoona, Pennsylvania, who shouts at her television set whenever the evening news comes on. Is this what Žižek calls “Third Way Social Democracy”? Perhaps. It’s too grand a term for my kind of resistance: a weak voice, saying some incomprehensible thing even as it fades below the level of audibility. May God have mercy on us all.

Bruce: I’m in an odd place here. The kind of innovation your former boss longed for is not the kind of change I think philanthropy most needs. We’ve got new models and gadgets a’ plenty. What we need is a transformed culture. The kind of innovation proposed by the fresh-faced Harvard student strikes me as wonky and arrogant, and, as you know, we have more than our share of arrogance in the sector. Perhaps this was your point?

Bruce Trachtenberg

Mea culpa. I wasn't talking about "new models and gadgets" or wonky ideas. Instead I was using that story to send the signal that we need to change philanthropy so that there is a place for genuine reflection and ongoing questioning about what we're doing, and why. In other words, a culture in which people are encouraged to ask honestly "what are we trying to do?" "How do we know it's working?" "What measurements are we using to guide our work?" "How are we being held accountable for results?" "Are we fully transparent...ie, do we tell all all the time, or just when it suits our purpose?" "Do we treat our grantees with respect and recognize that they know a whole lot more than any one program officer about the needs of the fields in which they work and the services needed by those they are trying to help?" "Are we willing to admit we don't know everything and that we can't do it all, no matter how best our intentions?" "How do we prevent ourselves from becoming so attached to how we do business that we become like that proverbial frog who boils to death because it can't tell the water in the pot is slowly heating?"

Maybe, in the end, I want us to recognize that we are only human, that our abilities are limited, that arrogance is a sin in philanthropy, and that we can't be right all the time.

We need to attract people into our work who can help us create cultures that allow honest debate and discussion and provide a way for new ideas to flourish that grow out of real experience, and not a dogmatic attraction to our own theories, logic models and blind obsession.

Does that help...at all?


I think by "interstices" he was critically referring to the postmodern political tendency which finds it rationale in the works of Hardt/Negri, Agemben, Deleuze and others, where you find the exaltation of the "multitude," the marginal and the rhizomatic. Also, with the recent proliferating popularity of network metaphors to explain social configuations, warfare, and almost every other human activity, you could also think of interstices as the spaces between network nodes which evade mapping or surveillance, and therefore can be fertile sites for resistance.

I'm not sure how the grandmother in Altoona yelling at her TV fits into the third way. I remember one day my grandmother was unable to open a jar of pickles, finally resorting to a space-age circular rubber device whose purpose was precisely to assist in the opening of jars, and, when she was still unable to open it, she looked at me and said with uncharacteristic and memorable contempt, "You know who invented this? Men!"

I take that as an expression of a certain dissatisfaction with basic relations of power between men and women, but I'm not at all sure it represented a desire for their complete renegotiation. It may have been limited to the practical deployment of pickles in their jars.

I think Zizek might be saying that this is something Chavez is aware of.

Sally Wilde

Men and their pickles have caused untold suffering.


Even an American literary giant pales in the shadow of the Upland Neanderthal Fund post, but for more proof positive that past is prologue...

"As far as I notice what passes in philanthropic meetings and holy hurrahs there is very little depth of interest. The speakers warm each other's skin and lubricate each other's tongue and the words flow and the superlatives thicken and the lips quiver and the eyes moisten, and an observer new to such scenes would say, Here was true fire; the assembly were all ready to martyred, and the effect of such a spirit on the community would be irresistible; but they separate and go to the shop, to the dance, to bed, and an hour afterwards they care so little for the matter that on slightest temptation each one would disclaim the meeting.'Yes, he went, but they were for carrying it too far,' etc., etc.

The lesson is, to know that men are superficially very inflammable, but that these fervors do not strike down and reach the action and habit of the man."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, April 26, 1838

Just replace the word 'dance' with the words 'host event.'

Albert Ruesga

Thanks for the excellent quote. Contemporary "holy hurrahs" of the philanthropic variety appear to be more hurrah than holy.

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