This was last in your inbox early in Covid. Then it went on hiatus, like so much of our lives. Is it back for good? Or will I be writing “the newsletter is back” again circa June 2022? We’ll see!
Before the content, some housekeeping 🧹 : We’ve moved from Mailchimp to Substack—mostly for the cleaner writing experience. Mailchimp is great for designing a newsletter; I just want to write one, and Substack is better for that. And I like that Substack has commenting. (Substack is also known for paid subscriptions, but this newsletter will always be free.)
I also still have a blog on Medium. Why both Substack and Medium? Think of the newsletter as a flow (links + commentary) and the blog as a stock (original ideas with more lasting relevance—yes, in a world of impermanence, a blog now constitutes a long-term commitment). I’ll always include the most recent Medium posts here in the newsletter: if you only want one or the other, Substack is the one to pick.
Speaking of which, my latest on Medium:
Now, the good stuff…
Strategy, hope and change
✨ The Act of Creating Hope - in which Lina Srivastava gives us the phrase “industries of hope” and a call for investing in reimagining.
🐘 Elephant Problems - An Xiao Mina and Nicole Anand reframe the idea of “wicked problems”—and as much as I hesitate to see one form of jargon swapped out for another, “wicked” only seems to describe a problem as “really hard” (which doesn’t say much. In referencing a well known parable, “elephant problems” emphasizes the core challenge: that we’re all seeing different aspects of the problem and no one has a full grasp on it.
Why Your New Strategy Will Fail 😞 - Sam Spurlin of organizational design firm The Ready. (tl;dr - organizational transformation is strategy implementation. Sam uses the metaphor of the org’s operating system, which needs to be updated to execute a new strategy.)
Remaking the Economy: Core Elements of System Change - I sign up for far more webinars than I attend, and rarely watch any on replay, but I’m very glad I caught this one. Thoughtful discussion with practitioners working on cooperatives and the solidarity economy. (Bonus report: Solidarity Not Charity - Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy)
🌍 Introducing Amateurs Without Borders - Allison Schnable gives an overview of the research behind her new book on volunteer-driven “grassroots” INGOs. I haven’t read the book, but it looks like she’s put some hard numbers on an issue others 😉 have merely opined about in the past.
What We Believe About Our Institutions 🏛️ - Malka Older, who is (among other things) a fiction writer, writes about one of our shared fictions. The kicker:
Institutions offer us powerful hope that when we work together we can create abstractions that order and coordinate our efforts, amplify our potential and outlast individuals. But they are a means, not an end. We don’t owe them our belief or our allegiance. Institutions, and the societies they delineate, are ours, to make and remake.
People, people, people
🧠 We Need to Reimagine the Modern Think Tank - Emma Vadehra, executive director of startup think tank Next100, writes in SSIR about ensuring policy is informed by impacted community, diversifying the talent pipeline, and “going beyond the white paper”. (Amen.)
Foundations, the Solution to Our Democracy Deficit Lies in Plain Sight - Despite the bleh title, this piece (from Deepak Bhargava and Gara LaMarche) puts a rightful focus on developing social change leaders, with solid principles on how to do it and lessons from right-wing efforts.
Cultivate talent with the same energy level you cultivate gifts—especially with your BIPOC support staff - Priscilla Lopez writing on Community-Centric Fundraising (tl;dr - invest in people).
📋 Digital Organizing as if Volunteers Really Mattered - Libby Falck writing in Micah Sifry’s The Connector. I’m always a little :eye-roll: 🙄 about arguments that human-centered design will solve X problem, but Falck offers a really sharp analysis of how campaigns face incentives that lead to poor volunteer engagement, and how the approaches and principles of design can help.
Speaking of design…
Surviving IDEO - George Aye wrote a detailed and blistering assessment on the culture and ethics of design mega-firm IDEO, reflecting on his own time there and the experiences of other alumni. (It starts with a content warning as it discusses workplace trauma and abuse.)
Brain candy 🍭 - You are a network 🕸️
The big recent philanthropy news is the divorce of Melinda and Bill Gates. Or, is it philanthropy news? Early articles suggested little would change for the foundation that bears their name (and which they are 2 of only 3 board members—the third being Warren Buffet).
Then news of the divorce led to other articles about Bill’s past behavior, and pretty quickly the commentary about the Gates’ philanthropy was off the charts 📈 - a small, non-exhaustive list:
Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates Explore Changes to Foundation - Emily Glazer and Betsy McKay in WSJ
How to Fix the Gates Foundation - former senior Gates staff Alex Friedman and Julie Sunderland on Project Syndicate (tl;dr - fix governance, increase transparency, double endowment spending rate 🤷)
Humanity Does Not Need Bill Gates - Rob Larson & Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs
Bill Gates’s Carefully Curated Geek Image Unravels in Two Weeks - Austin Carr in Bloomberg
Bill Gates will never be the same - Teddy Schleifer in Vox
Why Billionaires Like Bill Gates Can’t Fix the Problems They Helped Create - Linsey McGoey in NYT
The Fall of the House of Gates? - Tim Schwab in The Nation
Gates Foundation changes could bring transparency, accountability - Stephanie Beasley, Catherine Cheney on Devex
Some of the above were written by long-time Gates detractors who suddenly got heard more. They were joined by others in shining a spotlight on the world’s largest foundation.
How this all shakes out remains to be seen, but one general lesson I’d like to take: every organization that leads its sector—whether the Gates Foundation, IDEO, McKinsey, or Google—likes to set itself up as a special place beyond reproach, until a problem in one area draws questions about all the others. Maybe we should start questioning sooner.
🕊️ Peace-washing: Is a network of major donors neutralizing activism in the peace movement? - Dave Lindorff in Slate on the dangers of donor collaboration.
Soros’s Open Society Returns More Focus to Fight Authoritarianism Around the Globe - Alex Daniels in the Chronicle of Philanthropy with the other big foundation news of late.
📰 News: Omidyar Network launches the Community Infrastructure Fund for Mutual Aid.
What is “mutual aid infrastructure” and how can a philanthropic organization support it? That’s a good question—and researcher Anna Levy has few more.
Responsive v. strategic grantmaking - David Sasaki wrote a great thread 🧵 on what he sees as a generational divide in philanthropy. (tl;dr - between older experts who think they know best about how to solve the world’s problems, and younger foundation officers who want to respond with humility to the field.)
Beyond the newsletter
I just passed the 6-year mark as an independent consultant. While the first year was the hardest, this year was a close second. Consulting can be isolating, and that isolation is amplified during a pandemic.
Through my strategic advisory and facilitation practice, I’ve had some great clients and collaborators this past year, including virtual retreats and strategy processes with The B Team, the FACT Coalition, the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, the Open Contracting Partnership, and the Alliance for Peacebuilding. I also published joint research with Sol Gattoni and Flor Guerzovich on anticorruption “windows of opportunity” (this is the long version, or check out this summary on the Global Anticorruption Blog and an extension of the findings beyond anticorruption in a post on From Poverty to Power).
But I miss seeing my collaborators in person. I miss side conversations during the coffee break, team dinners where the thorny issues get hashed out, the mood shifts in the room when the group realizes the problem is bigger (or maybe smaller) than they thought. I miss flipchart paper and apologizing for my bad handwriting.
If this year has taught us we can do more virtually than we realized, it’s also highlighted the value of what can’t happen behind a screen. Hoping to see you all together again, soon.
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