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5 posts categorized "author-Mirielle Clifford"

[Review] The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

April 11, 2017

Ours is not a particularly big-hearted species. Many of us come of age believing that success is measured in dollars and that kindness, compassion, and a willingness to turn the other cheek are behaviors best left to fools. Our generosity, meager as it often is, is reserved for kith and kin, and when extended to others often comes with a price. We would rather be feared and respected than loved and admired. And so it goes.

Book_the_power_of_kindness_2In The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life, Italian psychotherapist Piero Ferrucci rejects this ethos and instead asks his readers to reflect on what it truly means to be kind. To help us, Ferrucci explores nineteen "qualities" he deems to be the essential components of kindness, ranging from virtues such as forgiveness, empathy, and patience to honesty, a sense of belonging, and gratitude.

His reasons for doing so aren't solely altruistic. Ferrucci points to a multitude of studies which show that kindness and its related qualities are good for our health and overall sense of well-being. Not, he argues, that we should be kind simply because it's good for us, as though kindness were like "broccoli or exercise" but because, as studies show, we are hardwired to be kind. What's more, Ferrucci argues, integrating kindness more fully into our lives need not be a thankless sacrifice. Instead, we should think of it as bringing a musical instrument into tune with itself. Not necessarily easy, but so essential to our humanity that without it we are, by definition, diminished.

Much has changed in the ten years since the first edition of The Power of Kindness, translated from the Italian by Vivien Reid Ferrucci, was published. The new edition includes a preface by the Dalai Lama, a new introduction by the author, and a chapter on an additional quality, harmlessness, and its relationship to kindness. Like its predecessor, the new edition also addresses many timeless themes, offering advice calibrated to a wide range of situations and leaving ample space for readers to reflect on their own beliefs, priorities, and vulnerabilities. And yet, against the backdrop of our current contentious and deeply polarized political climate, I often found myself considering Ferrucci's advice and guidance and wondering whether the book stands the test of time.

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[Review] American Generosity: Who Gives and Why

May 17, 2016

Imagine a snapshot of American giving. What would it look like? Would it portray an abundantly generous America, or show a dismal lack of involvement in charitable causes and civic society? In American Generosity: Who Gives and Why, sociologists Patricia Snell Herzog and Heather E. Price address this question using a variety of methods with the goal of both broadening and deepening our understanding of how generosity is expressed, what fuels it, and what can be done to encourage more of it.

Book_american_generosityTo write their book, Herzog and Price drew on the results of Notre Dame's Science of Generosity Initiative, a Templeton Foundation-supported effort to promote interdisciplinary approaches to the study of generosity in all its forms. The initiative's findings, and Herzog and Price's presentation of those findings, offer valuable insights for the individual giver as well as scholars, religious leaders, and nonprofit practitioners and fundraisers.

The book, which draws much of its data from a nationally representative survey of more than a thousand people, is organized into a "who, what, where, why, and how much" structure. Herzog and Price begin by defining generosity as "giving good things freely to enhance the well-being of others." Although they identify nine such forms of giving, the "Big 3" are: donations of cash, time spent volunteering, and political or civic activity. (The other six encompass a wide range of actions, including the donation of one's blood or organs, estate giving, environmentally sustainable consumption, the lending of one's possessions, and "relational" giving to friends and family.)

Having defined generosity and identified its constituent forms, Herzog and Price then look at how generous Americans are, and how social and demographic factors — age, race, gender, education, income level — and regional characteristics influence generosity — "zoom[ing] out," as they put it, "from the frame-by-frame snapshots [in the earlier chapter] and survey[ing] the overall landscape of American generosity with a wide-angle lens." It's a view, they add, that lends itself to a "glass half-full perspective," in that it allows us to "see that Americans are generally quite active in working to help others."

One of the ways Herzog and Price add nuance to their portrayal and "breathe life into" the "static quantitative snapshots" is by including in-depth interviews from twelve survey participants. And one of the most interesting aspects of their analysis is the finding that while resources such as time, money, and connections do influence whether and how much someone gives, they are hardly the only factors that shape individual generosity — and don't explain why individuals with few resources often give more generously than those who have more to give. Why that might be the case is the subject of the second half of the book.

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[Review] The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

December 16, 2015

The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?, journalist Dale Russakoff's riveting account of how a $100 million pledge from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg aimed at turning around the public school system in Newark, New Jersey, went very wrong, very quickly, opens with a scene from 2009. Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark and a rising star in the Democratic Party (he would be elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2013), has invited New Jersey governor-elect Chris Christie, a Republican (and today a candidate for his party's presidential nomination), to join him on a late-night tour of some of Newark's poorest neighborhoods. Sitting in the back seat of an SUV driven by Booker's security detail, the governor-elect is hearing all about Booker's approach to reducing the city's sky-high crime rates. But Booker, according to Russakoff, has another agenda on this particular evening: to enlist Christie's help in transforming public education in the city.

Book_the_prize_for_PhilantTopicAnd who wouldn't want that? Newark schools had been failing students, 95 percent of whom were black or Latino in 2009, for decades. "In twenty-three of the district's seventy-five schools fewer than thirty percent of children in grades three through eight could read at grade level," writes Russakoff. "The high school graduation rate was fifty-four percent, and more than ninety percent of graduates who attended the local community college required remedial classes." Operationally, the district was a disaster. "Clerks made up thirty percent of the central bureaucracy...yet payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate. Test and attendance data had not been entered for months, and computers routinely spat out report cards bearing one child's name and another child's grades...."

It was a daunting challenge, but Booker believed that with "Christie's absolute legal authority and [his own] mayoral bully pulpit, they could close failing district schools, greatly expand charter schools, weaken tenure protections, [and] reward and punish teachers based on their students' test scores." And so the two men, up-and-coming members of "the growing national movement seeking to reinvent public education" — a movement that included some of the nation's wealthiest philanthropists as well as President Obama and his education secretary,
Arne Duncan — made a pact then and there to fix the city's schools and, in the process, position Newark as an education reform model for struggling urban districts across the country.

Months later, Booker presented Christie with a confidential proposal titled "Newark Public Schools – A Reform Plan." The plan described a process that was top down (so as to avoid "being taken captive by unions and machine politicians") and "called for an 'infusion of philanthropic support'." Enter Zuckerberg, whom Booker greatly admired. The mayor had learned, through his extensive network, that the young tech billionaire was contemplating making a "significant philanthropic move" in the area of education. The two men eventually connected, in the summer of 2010, at the annual Sun Valley gathering of movers and shakers hosted by retired financier Herb Allen, and, after dinner on the deck of Allen's townhouse, they went for a walk. According to Russakoff, Zuckerberg told Booker "he was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education, where his money could make a difference and create a national model." Booker responded with his pitch, and a month later he sent the Facebook co-founder a proposal that included a six-point agenda and a request for $100 million over five years — the number chosen "largely for its size and the public attention it would draw...." Zuckerberg agreed, writes Russakoff, "with the caveat that Booker would have to match it with another $100 million from other donors."

Booker's next move was to enlist Christie's help. He knew that resistance from the teachers' union and district employees would be fierce, having earlier told the governor in a confidential report that "real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously." There was, after all, a lot at stake in who exercised control over "the prize": the school district's billion-dollar-a-year budget.

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[Review] 'Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results'

October 19, 2015

What makes a good old-fashioned mystery so much fun? In part, the enjoyment lies in the opportunity to gather clues along the way and figure out who committed the crime and why. In his book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results, systems thinking pioneer David Peter Stroh, a founding partner of Bridgeway Partners and director of www.appliedsystemsthinking.com, draws a parallel between efforts to solve seemingly intractable social problems and the mystery stories many of us love. Instead of asking "Who done it?" however, Stroh suggests that those working to bring about social change should ask, "Why have we not been able to solve the complex social problems that plague us in spite of our best intentions and efforts?"

Cover_systems_thinking_for_social_changeQuestioning the unhelpful modes of thinking that perpetuate chronic social problems is at the heart of Stroh's book — none more so than "linear" thinking, which involves breaking problems into their individual components "under the assumption that we can best address the whole by focusing on and optimizing the parts." For Stroh, this is the opposite of systems thinking. Not only is it myopic, but its failure to recognize and account for the many forces that feed into a problem often leads to unintended consequences. This kind of "conventional" thinking also fails to account for "time delay" — the time required for a series of actions to work themselves out, or, alternatively, for unintended consequences to unfold. As Stroh says, "today's problems were most likely yesterday's solutions."

A prime example of linear thinking is the idea that providing temporary shelter for the chronically homeless will end homelessness. But while shelters would seem to be the most humane and timely response to homelessness, writes Stroh, they're actually an ineffectual "quick fix" that divert time, effort, and resources away from a more lasting, systemic solution such as providing permanent housing. A more systemic solution to homelessness also would improve relationships among all stakeholders, including the people who provide support services to the homeless as well as homeless people themselves. As Stroh notes, the people who are supposed to benefit from social change are "too often excluded" from the actual planning process intended to drive that change. Thinking systemically, he adds, forces changemakers to focus on the people who have the most at stake.

Another example of conventional linear thinking cited by Stroh is America's reliance on mandatory "get-tough" prison sentences. As a growing number of studies have shown, the policy often backfires, in that it distracts the justice system, policy makers, and other stakeholders from addressing the root causes of many crimes while doing nothing to prevent a large percentage of ex-offenders from ending up back in prison. As Stroh writes, "[P]olicy makers who want to protect society from addicts (homeless people suffering from substance abuse or drug addicts who commit crimes) can ironically become addicted to solutions that exacerbate these social problems in the long run."

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[Review] How to Be Great at Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World

July 29, 2015

Book_how_to_be_great_at_doing_good_for_PhilanTopicThere are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, and in 2013 over 62 million Americans volunteered nearly 7.7 billion hours to charitable causes. Given these statistics, you might think we were well on our way to a world in which caring people are significantly improving the lives of people in need. According to the World Bank, however, more than a billion people globally live in extreme poverty, and each year over 2.6 million children die of hunger-related causes. It's enough to make one wonder whether charity does any good.

In How to Be Great at Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World, animal rights activist Nick Cooney offers an antidote to such cynicism in the form of a "complacency-shattering guidebook for anyone who wants to actually change the world, whether as a donor, a volunteer, or a nonprofit staffer." 

In the book, Cooney addresses the misconceptions that persistently prevent donors and volunteers from "succeeding" in their charitable endeavors. He tells us, for example, that most people see charity as

a warm, fuzzy thing and that as long as our intentions are good we should be applauded. We are not taught to think rigorously about our approach. We are not taught how to succeed at doing good, or even that success is what matters. So we aren't in the habit of making calculated decisions when it comes to doing good....

But what do we mean by "success"? "The measure of success for charities," Cooney writes, is not an "up or down vote on whether they are making the world a better place." The question is, or should be, how much good can a charity accomplish. It's not a revolutionary — or even new — idea, but if pursued to its logical conclusion, it requires donors, volunteers, and nonprofit practitioners to make some tough decisions. If we really want to change the world and include as many individuals as possible in that change, we need to completely rethink the way we do our work.

For nonprofits to become more efficient, Cooney argues, they first need to establish a "bottom line" that reflects their "cost per good done." It could be something like the "cost per HIV infection prevented," or "the cost per ton of greenhouse gas emissions prevented." Not that establishing such metrics is easy. A study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that "even among the largest foundations...only 8 percent had any data whatsoever that showed how successful they'd been at achieving a defined goal." 

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