Is Democracy Dead?

retreat of western liberalism Edward Luce By Todd J. Sukol
This week I read Edward Luce’s jarring The Retreat of Western Liberalism. His sober assessment of American and European democracy left me more concerned than ever about today’s fractured political and economic environment. As for post-2016-election America, Luce doesn’t spare criticism of either the right or left as he draws into high relief the historical and economic conditions that form the basis of his bleak outlook for the future of America and of democracy. Whatever your take on Luce’s (borderline) dystopian implications, few would argue with his assertion that we live in a time filled with fear of economic insecurity, political polarization and cultural turbulence.

Scary stuff to be sure!

But let’s take a giant step back from the edge for just a moment. While Luce is focused on the economy as a driving factor for the precarious position we find ourselves in, there is another major driver that we in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector just may be in a unique position to do something about.

bowling alone robert putnamtical institutions have all weakened dramatically. Putnam and others have argued that social capital, trust, norms of reciprocity – these sometimes intangible concepts with elusive definitions — form the glue that keeps democratic republics cohesive and free market capitalism alive. Trends in political and economic successes and failures can be linked directly to the health of civil society. The ever-evolving political scientist and political economist, Francis Fukuyama makes this case convincingly in Trust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity (1995)

Going all the way back to Alexis deTocqueville’s observations of a young United States of America (Democracy in America,1835, 1840), our great nation has been known for its citizenry’s peculiar tendency to form voluntary “associations” of all kinds. Tocqueville and his intellectual descendants keenly deduced that democracy’s impact and viability had something to do with this phenomenon, that civil, social, trade and professional associations were an indispensable element to democracy.

So what’s this got to do with philanthropic and nonprofit leaders?

As home base for our nation’s wildly diverse voluntary associations, the nonprofit and philanthropic sector might be thought of as the guardian of American civil society. If that’s true, it’s high time we step up and into that role, intentionally… and quickly.

So how do we go about doing that in today’s polarized environment? There are as many answers as there are voluntary associations (whether formal nonprofit organizations or not). For my money, one good starting point for any organization would look carefully at its decision making processes. We should take every opportunity to promote collaborative decision making in our organizations. Even small, seemingly insignificant decisions can be harnessed as opportunities for building social capital among participants and giving them experiences with civil debate and deliberation. This can be introduced at the board level, committee level, staff level, membership level, beneficiary level, etc. People already affiliate and associate with the organizations we run and fund. Let’s make that connection count for the health of society. I’m not claiming that nonprofit participation alone will solve our country’s ills. Rather, I am asserting that without the benefits that nonprofit participation provides, business and government alone will never pull us out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves stuck in 2017.

With the populace increasingly divided, aligning with political actors assembled on artificially bright battle lines, each with certainty that theirs is the only right perspective, who will give Americans an opportunity to interact as fellows? How will they re-discover that even in their diversity they are part of a single union, dependent on its component parts for survival and prosperity? This has always been the role of America’s third sector. We create a free space where enlightened self-interest can thrive, where voluntary actors contribute wealth, wisdom and work to complement government and free commerce by generating their own experimental forms of public good. At its best, our philanthropic and nonprofit sector finishes what government and commerce leaves undone while simultaneously forging communities of individuals. Some early observers of philanthropy in America have described our sector as a training ground for democratic participation, an institution uniquely suited to turn partisans into citizens.

Far from some head-in-the-clouds fantasy, this concept is hardwired into the United States Constitution itself. By prohibiting government from establishing or interfering with religion, the First Amendment left room for private citizens to assemble freely and voluntarily to step into social roles historically fulfilled by official state churches. This simultaneously enabled the birth of the American philanthropic and nonprofit sector as we know it and it left room for Americans to weave themselves together with one another to form the very fabric of American society. It has been a clumsy, messy and sometimes unfair and unjust process, but in ways large and small, it enabled the rise of the best aspects of this great nation. It is our beating heart… and our best hope.

Confronting Organizational Entropy

By Todd J. Sukol
Today I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon in honor of Joshua Venture Group‘s most recent cohort of talented social entrepreneurs setting out to the change the world through Jewish values and teachings. What an impressive group! What stood out most to me was the way that the two year experience they had with Joshua Venture Group has given them the support — and the tools — to turn their respective bold visions into clear, impactful actions. The degreee to which this group had learned to care for and bring out the best in each other was palpable. As I sat among these inspiring young visionaries, my thoughts turned to my more established colleagues in blue chip Jewish organizations we all know and sometimes love.

upstart bikkurim joshua venture group presentenselish. There is a risk in being too hard on the old guard, of course. It is no easy task to remain sustainable and relevant in the face of financial pressures, changing circumstances, a tough labor market and immutable forces of diminishing returns. Twenty years ago I was outraged at what I have come to call “organizational entropy,” the tendency of established nonprofit organizations to slide into an impotent state of self preservation as primary mission, with lofty visions deployed only as fundraising rhetoric and anti-accountability tactics. Today I am no less saddened by the tendency, but I no longer blame individuals. No one goes into this line of work because they yearn for mediocrity.  Rather, organizational entropy is a natural condition that necessarily accompanies nonprofit efforts just as greed accompanies commercial enterprise and corruption accompanies government. The trick is not to get angry about the tendency or blame individual actors, but rather to productively seek ways to mitigate the negative forces in order to keep positive efforts on track. I think many nonprofits — large and small — recognize this trend. Some are trying hard to confront it. A few are succeeding. 

What lessons could this newly minted group of Jewish social entrepreneurs teach old time professionals at established Jewish communal organizations that play such important roles in the fabric of American Jewish life? How could the support JVG taught them to give each other be applied to BigOrga? Are there ways we can take care of each others’ neshamas (souls) to keep individuals and organizations vibrant and impactful, even in the face of organizational entropy? Success happens when inspiration coexists with environments of structure, support and accountability. This is what Lisa Lepson and her Joshua Venture Group colleagues have taught today’s young leaders to strive toward. It is time we stop looking at these innovative young leaders with kind eyes that say “awww, isn’t that nice,” and start opening our eyes widely to their wisdom, learning from them as we mentor them — allowing them to show us how to repair what is broken, how to take care of our most precious commodity, each other.

The Nonprofit “Uniqueness Epidemic”

Last summer I had the pleasure of taking a course in Economics as it relates to the philanthropic and economic sector (at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University). Like many in our field, my background is on the programmatic side and my orientation is more intuitive than analytical. Over many years as a nonprofit manager and leader I have developed financial literacy and some degree of expertise, but only as a means to an end. I have had little exposure to the field of economics per se, and little to do with those who study and practice this fascinating subject (at least professionally – I do have some charmingly nerdy friends who are economists, people whose work life never seemed to connect with mine). I’ve always thought of economics as something in the cerebral, mathematical, scientific arena. I never appreciated the vital role its principles can play in increasing nonprofit impact. My study this summer opened my eyes to see economics with a very new perspective, one I think many nonprofit leaders and managers would benefit from.

Working from the somewhat dated but surprisingly readable text, Economics for Nonprofit Managers, by Dennis R. Young and Richard Steinberg, I came to see economics as a “behavioral science,” a “decision science” and a “moral science.” Economics can help describe and explain the way individuals and organizations act. It can help us make wise decisions about allocation of resources. Economics can help us clarify and refine values and develop theories of change to help us fix serious social, societal and environmental problems. The complex formulas and graphic functions that used to baffle me are simply representations of anticipated human behavior. By taking what we know about individual and group psychology and translating it into formulas, we then have a means by which to evaluate different courses of action objectively and see how they might work in service of or against our organizations’ missions. We strip away the messy details and attempt to predict outcomes of various choices quantitatively.

Of course economic analysis is imperfect as a predictor, and only one tool for decision-making, but it can serve as an important counterweight to our sector’s rampant overreliance on intuition and over emphasis on nuanced sensitivities. As a group, nonprofit leaders suffer from a uniqueness epidemic. We frequently fall into the trap of thinking that our particular situation is completely different from anything else in the world. But in reality stripping the details out of a circumstance in order to make a more analytical decision is not such a bad idea. Our refusal to consider the possibility that maybe our organization is not so different often leads to wasted resources and diminished impact.

Three prevalent characteristics of nonprofit organizations and nonprofit leaders contribute to this problem. First is passion. We are who we are as a sector because of our incredible passion for making real, meaningful, lasting change. This is the engine that drives us and we could not survive without it. But sometimes our incredible zeal blinds us. As a wise person said to me recently “it’s hard to see a picture when you’re standing in the frame.” The set of tools that economic analysis provides would lend some much needed objectivity to our decision making.

Second is hubris. By definition the nonprofit sector gives private actors that opportunity to express their beliefs about major societal issues and take direct action based on those beliefs. Engagement in our work depends on a conviction that we are right about the change we seek, and that our approach to making that change is the best way. Think about how much confidence it takes to build organizations that actualize our vision, not to mention convincing others to invest their hard earned resources. Let’s face it, this kind of certainty comes with risk of a certain measure of arrogance. Why waste time seeking objective analysis when we already think we know the truth. Economic analysis can provide a reality check on what we think we know. Even minor modifications to our assumptions or methods could dramatically change outcomes.

Third is collaborative decision-making. The most sustainable nonprofit organizations have strong leaders, but they also have a deep well of committed constituents that participate in decision-making. This includes boards of directors, other volunteers, staff members and other stakeholders. Collaborative decision-making is a critical tool, but sometimes we over idealize it and overuse or misuse it. Arriving at good group decisions takes a long time, and lots of trial and error. It also involves an unendingly complex mixture of human emotions and interrelationships. When the process becomes a game of “the strongest personality wins,” stupidity often prevails. Economic analysis provides a way of bringing calming pillars of sanity to turbulent deliberations.

I want to thank my fellow classmates from this summer, and especially our professor, Dr. Patrick Rooney, for giving me literally dozens of ideas for applying economic principles to the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. If you have not been initiated, I encourage you to spend some time getting to know the fundamentals of economic analysis. It’s a lot more practical — and applicable — than you may think.

Zero-Based Budgeting for Nonprofits

I recently had the pleasure of debating with fellow students at the School of Philanthropy about the relative advantages and disadvantages of zero-based budgeting for nonprofit organizations. Over the last few years, zero-based budgeting has become very much in vogue again in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Like so many good things, however, is sometimes overused, misused, or extolled as having ridiculous magical properties. While I acknowledge the extraordinary value zero-based budgeting can have, it can also be a colossal waste of time for many nonprofits.

A tremendous benefit of zero-based budgeting for nonprofits is that it forces planners, leaders and managers to ask the tough questions about “business as usual.” When we’re honest, we all know that organizations tend to default toward self-perpetuation. That’s the silent plague in our sector. Zero-based budgeting forces us to question assumptions and tie spending to desired outcomes and anticipated program accomplishments. That’s a good thing!

But zero-based budgeting can also cause planners who think they know better to ignore valuable lessons learned from the trenches of program execution. I have seen zero-based budgeting introduced by a CFO who was completely out of touch with the rank and file within the program side of the organization. It became an exercise in his ego and candidly it was more of a gimmick to impress the board then anything that was practical or useful. So yes, I agree that it’s important to rethink the way we do things periodically, and to make sure the desired outcomes indicated by our vision and mission find their way directly into the anticipated outputs of our programs.

My favorite comment from our debate was the suggestion that perhaps zero-based budgeting could be institutionalized, but not every year – perhaps once every two, three or five years, depending on the organization’s size and culture. Such a balanced approach would make for more healthy, self-evaluating, ethical, impactful nonprofit organizations. That’s an idea I can get behind! And for you zero-based budgeting zealots out there – hey, it’s better than nothing.