14 posts categorized "Reviews"

[Review] 'The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It'

August 10, 2017

In The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It (Basic Books: 2017), urban studies theorist Richard Florida offers a mea culpa of sort for the back-to-the-city movement he has long championed. In books such as The Rise of the Creative Class, and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life (Basic Books, 2002) and Cities and the Creative Class (Routledge, 2005), Florida argued that, if cities hoped to thrive in a competitive global economy, they needed to attract and retain talent — "[t]he knowledge workers, techies, and artists and other cultural creatives who [make] up the creative class.:

Book_the_new_urban_crisis (002)If nothing else, Florida's timing was impeccable. By 2000, the ranks of the creative class in the United States had grown to 40 million — a third of the U.S. workforce — and many of its members had left the suburban or rural communities of their childhood and headed to cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where they moved into neighborhoods that had been written off by the professional class and city officials. That story was repeated around the globe, as knowledge workers and creatives flocked to already vibrant cities such as London, Paris, and Tokyo; booming Asian metropolises such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Seoul; and sprawling, emerging mega-cities such as Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai.

Indeed, today — in a stunning illustration of the power of urban centers to transform societies through what Florida dubs the "3Ts of economic development" (technology, talent, and tolerance) — more than half the population of the globe lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that by 2050 upwards of 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas. Little wonder, then, that in recent decades urbanists have proclaimed "the triumph of the city" (the title of an excellent book by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser), or that the future of humanity is urban.

And yet this newfound appreciation for the richness, convenience, and stimulation provided by city living has not been without costs, as gentrification, rising rents, and real estate speculation have squeezed blue-collar and service workers out of neighborhoods and livelihoods, contributed to the re-segregation of public schools, and driven huge increases in wealth and income inequality. It is an economic failure that we should have seen but didn't, and from the Brexit vote in England, to the election of Donald Trump, to the growing popularity of far-right populist parties in Europe, we are living with the consequences of that failure. The New Urban Crisis is Florida's attempt to diagnose where things went wrong — and offer a prescription for how we can recover an urbanism that works for all people, not just elites and the creative class.

If that's too conceptual, allow me an anecdote by way of illustration: As I was finishing Florida's book in Washington Square Park in Manhattan earlier this summer, surrounded on all sides by buildings belonging to New York University (where Florida is a fellow), I could see, firsthand, his 3Ts at work. Across the way, diverse crowds of college students walked to their next class or appointment while sending photos to friends on the latest app; on the corner, a well-heeled couple waited impatiently for their Uber driver; and, a group of foreign tourists were listening to their guide about the history of the square. To the "urban optimist," it was a perfect illustration of "the stunning revival of cities and the power of urbanization to improve the human condition," while for the pessimist, it might suggest just how profoundly "modern cities [are] being carved into gilded and virtually gated areas for conspicuous consumption by the super-rich...."

And that's not the half of it. The juxtaposition of boundless opportunity and desperate poverty found in so many cities has led to mounting alienation and resentment. Indeed, Florida, who counted himself among the optimists "not too long ago," argues that to truly understand this new urban crisis (as opposed to the mid-twentieth-century urban crisis of deindustrialization and white flight), we need to recognize and come to grips with the fact that cities are both "the great engines of innovation, the models of economic and social progress," and "zones of gaping inequality and class division."

Florida identifies five key factors that have combined to create this crisis: 1) the growing economic gap between so-called superstar cities — where a disproportionate share of high-value industries, high-tech startups, and top talent are concentrated — and struggling industrial cities, or what he calls "winner-take-call urbanism"; 2) the steep rise in urban housing costs, which has resulted in the displacement of countless numbers of blue-collar and service workers, not to mention the poor and disadvantaged; 3) a rapid increase in inequality and segregation driven in part by "sorting" — a phenomenon in which creatives and the well-off congregate in neighborhoods formerly favored by the working middle class, creating a patchwork of relatively small areas of privilege surrounded by large tracts of poverty; 4) the growing crisis in the suburbs, where problems typically associated with urban areas — poverty, economic insecurity, crime, and segregation — are growing and becoming entrenched; and 5) the urbanization of the developing world, often without the improvements in standards of living that accompanied an earlier wave of urbanization in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China.

At the core of these challenges, writes Florida, is an economic divide that shapes our built environment and determines where we live. "Simply put," he adds, "the rich live where they choose, and the poor where they can." This reality creates a host of related problems with both short- and long-term consequences (e.g., "people who live in far-flung suburbs and endure long commutes have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, stress, insomnia, and hypertension and are more likely to commit suicide or die in car crashes").

Florida illustrates each of these challenges using the latest demographic and economic data, much of it pulled from the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, which he leads. In fact, the book is filled with interesting graphs and charts, including one showing the number of houses one could buy in various U.S. cities for the price of a single apartment in Manhattan's chi-chi SoHo neighborhood (Memphis, Tennessee, tops the list with 38!). He also highlights his institute's New Urban Crisis Index, which reveals high levels of combined economic segregation, wage inequality, income inequality, and housing unaffordability not only in superstar cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, but in Chicago, Miami, and Memphis. (While interesting, many of the maps and charts could have benefited from better graphic design, and most of the data cited are for U.S. cities — a weakness in a book that purports to be about global trends.)

But what most readers will be looking for is a solution (or solutions) to this complex crisis of inequality. On that score, the glass is half full (or empty, depending on one's perspective). Florida points to the tension between the kind of "urban density and clustering that innovation and economic progress require" — and a "New Urban Luddism" — as the greatest impediment to the kind of equitable development and opportunity needed to overcome rising inequality. He has little sympathy for these twenty-first-century Luddites, who live in well-off communities and neighborhoods and are quick to say no to projects that may pose inconveniences but whose benefits in terms of the greater public good are indisputable. As he writes at one point, "If we are to...enjoy a widely shared and sustainable prosperity, we must become a more fully and fairly urbanized nation."

With that tension in mind, Florida sets out seven strategies designed to foster a "more productive urbanism for all": 1) make clustering work more efficiently by switching from a property tax to a land value tax; 2) invest in urban infrastructure to support greater density and growth; 3) build more affordable housing; 4) convert low-wage service jobs into living-wage work by raising the minimum wage; 5) address urban and suburban poverty by investing in people and places and providing a universal basic income; 6) shift development policies from nation-building to city-building and mobilize behind a global effort to build more resilient, prosperous cities; and 7) empower cities and communities by devolving political power from states and national governments to cities themselves.

As wide-ranging as these solutions are, the recommendations at the core of Florida’s books are fairly straightforward: governments and the private sector need to make investments in new and upgraded infrastructure and adopt tax and land-use policies that encourage increased density. Around the world, he writes, "strategic investments in basic infrastructure can help connect [poor people] to jobs; leverage their talent and productive capabilities and enable them to become more fully engaged; and, ultimately, turn the vicious cycle of urban isolation and poverty into a virtuous cycle of urban progress." In an American context, that means moving beyond the longstanding practice of encouraging suburban sprawl and expansion into rural areas and, instead, putting a new focus on the country’s neglected urban cores — a re-urbanization movement, if you will — that creates jobs and opportunities for all Americans.

While The New Urban Crisis may not be the twenty-first-century equivalent of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities or Lewis Mumford's The City in History, it is an interesting and highly readable update of Florida's creative class concept and an excellent introduction, for those not familiar with his earlier work, to how a new generation of knowledge workers and creative class types are shaping our economy, our cities, and, for better or worse, our future. The challenges posed by this development are profound, both in the U.S. and around the world, and The New Urban Crisis is a welcome contribution to the conversation around the best ways to address those challenges.

Michael Weston-Murphy is a writer and consultant based in New York City. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

[Review] 'The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age'

May 11, 2017

The mega-wealthy have long been celebrated in American culture. Even in the first Gilded Age, when the likes of Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and Sage were scorned as robber barons, their wealth — and power — were much admired. In their time, these titans of America's burgeoning industrial might determined the economic destiny of millions and set the course of the nation. And their philanthropy — more than a century on — continues to echo with all the force that money can buy.

TheGiversBookShotToday, as we celebrate the dynamos of a new gilded age — their fortunes, in many cases, made younger, growing faster, moving at the speed of light — we're witnessing a second philanthropic boom. And that seemingly inexhaustible river of "private wealth for public good" brings with it the ideas and voices of those who, having made vast fortunes, are now determined to put that money to use. How society responds to and channels that torrent of money while making sure the ideas it funds best serve the interests of the American people is of broad concern.

In The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, David Callahan gives us a grand tour of the philanthropic landscape in the opening decades of the twenty-first century while opening a window on how today's economic winners — having proved themselves in business — are eyeing philanthropy as the ultimate opportunity to convert wealth into power. But where a Matthew Josephson might have distrusted such a development, in Callahan's telling these masters of the universe are thoughtful, broad-minded, and, yes, even likable. He's not interested in taking them down, criticizing their often rapacious business practices, or pointing out the role played by fiscal and tax policy in cementing their status as the .01 percent. Instead, his is a book about the giving away, not the getting, of great wealth.

Founding editor of the Inside Philanthropy website, a founder of public policy think tank Demos, and a former fellow at the Century Foundation, Callahan has a reputation as a keen observer of philanthropy and civil society and it serves him well here. Not only does he know his subject, he's also interviewed many of the people in his book — Priscilla Chan, Eli Broad, Melinda Gates, and John Arnold, to name a few — and is able to support his own judgments with their words. And what both he and they see is a future in which giving by the mega-wealthy is going to be bigger, more sophisticated, and more focused on influencing public policy debates.

Of course, many of today's mega-wealthy, people like Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg, have indicated they have little interest in leaving much of their wealth behind. (In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Bloomberg joked with correspondent Steve Croft about "a guy on his death bed in a hospital with the rails around and his family looking down like vultures. And he looks up and says, 'I know I can't take it with me, but I can take the access code'.") Indeed, in the next decade alone, some $740 billion is likely to be distributed in the form of private philanthropy. And if the Giving Pledge — the Buffett and Gates effort to encourage the uber-rich to commit the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes — is any gauge, we could see another trillion dollars in private wealth making its way to nonprofit organizations and causes over the lifetimes of the one hundred and fifty-eight current "pledgers" who have signed on. (Learn more about that campaign and its signatories at the Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge feature.) How all that money will be used over the coming decades is what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might call a known unknown, but it undoubtedly will have important and lasting effects, and that — as well as who will decide what its impact might be — is at the center of Callahan's inquiry.

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[Review] Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

July 02, 2016

The 10,000-hour rule popularized by New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell in his bookOutliers is just another way to say practice makes perfect. But what makes us want to continue practicing? In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, MacArthur Fellow and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth makes the case for understanding personal achievement through the lens of "grit." Yes, intelligence matters, Duckworth argues, but follow-through and tenacity are just as, if not more, important.

BookImage_GritWith Gladwell-esque verve, Duckworth, a former management consultant at McKinsey who left the firm to teach seventh-grade math in a New York City public school, combines engaging stories with the latest research in her discipline, positive psychology, to explain why achievement should be understood more as a function of continuous effort rather than natural ability, all the while maintaining the reader-friendly language and cadence of pop science.

Duckworth's big idea is based on her graduate work, which she distills into two equations: talent x effort = skill and skill x effort = achievement. "Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort," she writes. "Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them." While she acknowledges that her framework overlooks the role of luck and opportunities provided by nurturing relationships, be it a coach, parent, or mentor, her point is straightforward: concentrated long-term effort is a key ingredient in achieving any goal. "With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive."

So what is grit? Using stories from the NFL, journalism, Wall Street, and even cartooning, Duckworth argues that grit isn't just about working incredibly hard (although that's important); it's about "working on something you care about so much that you're willing to stay loyal to it." Think you've got passion and perseverance? Duckworth includes a "Grit Scale" to help readers calculate just how gritty they are. If you don't score well, despair not. You can change, she says — "grittiness" can be improved.

The "life-organizing goal" that drives Duckworth's work is to "use psychological science to help kids thrive." Her core thesis is that grit can be developed "from the inside out" — through the discovery of a passion or purpose, dedicated hours of practice, and the belief that our efforts will help create a better future — as well as "from the outside in" — through supportive anddemanding parenting, immersion in enriching extracurricular activities, and exposure to a culture of excellence.

Of course, given that economic, educational, and cultural resources are not equitably distributed in society, there's an obvious flaw in Duckworth's promotion of "growing grit" as a solution to systemic educational challenges. And while she admits that social biases and structural impediments can deter even the grittiest students, she really doesn't have an answer as to how those challenges might be addressed.

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[Review] Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World

October 28, 2015

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau tells readers that "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." It is the same kind of hopeful advice that social sector veteran Paul Shoemaker offers to readers in his new book Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World.

Cover_cant_not_doShoemaker, founding president of venture philanthropy network Social Venture Partners International, argues that the book's intentionally ungrammatical title captures a sentiment that is ubiquitous among people working to create social change. It is not "a self-help book," he writes; "it's a help-the-world book." And whether one has just a few hours a week to devote to change work or is determined to devote a lifetime to it, everyone can do their part.

Can't Not Do opens with a call to action inspired by the loss of a good friend of Shoemaker's who died in a plane accident. "[H]is life, and even the loss of him," he writes, "galvanized my personal mission in a way I never expected." Indeed, the theme of the intensely personal serving as motivation for making the world a better place is carried through many of the stories of change presented here.

Those stories are organized around a handful of big questions: Are you a determined optimist? Who are you at your core? Are you willing to go to hard places? Can you actively listen? Do you believe 1+1 = 3? And: What is your can't not do? Shoemaker devotes a chapter to each question along with an exemplary story or two of how someone has answered that question. My favorite was, Are you ready to be humble and humbled? As Shoemaker notes, we often are humbled by our failures, and this is especially true of social change work, where the complexity of most problems is both frustrating and daunting. This shouldn't drive us to despair, but rather serve to remind us that the work is hard. "When we get humbled, really knocked back on our heels," writes Shoemaker, "it means we've gotten close enough to the real problem to truly learn what matters, to feel the problem enough that it hurts, and to show our authentic commitment to the cause." It's also important to realize the power inherent in humility. Shoemaker explores this seeming paradox by looking at a number of successful businesspeople who have focused on social change — and the power dynamics inherent in philanthropy — arguing that humility expressed as inclusivity, authenticity, and inquisitiveness is key to overcoming the challenges of social change work.

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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] Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library

September 17, 2015

Book_patience_and_fortitudeScott Sherman's Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is a nuanced, enlivening, and ultimately sobering account of the birth and death of a plan to renovate and reorganize the New York Public Library, whose iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan has welcomed millions of scholars, researchers, and readers since it opened in 1911. While the book is an impressive exercise in investigative journalism — providing, as it does, a meticulously researched account of the development of the "Central Library Plan" (CLP) — and the loud public rejection of said plan — it is also a paean to the NYPL and the power of citizen engagement.

Indeed, were it not for the impassioned voices of countless New Yorkers raised against the CPL, people like author Junot Diaz, who wrote, as part of a campaign protesting the plan, that "[t]o destroy the NY Public Library is to destroy our sixth and best borough; that beautiful corner of New York City where all are welcome and all are equals, and where many of us were first brought to the light," it is likely the institution's leaders would have succeeded in "repurposing" the library for the digital age while creating an enormously valuable parcel of land in the heart of one of the priciest real estate markets on the planet.

Taking its title from the two granite lions standing guard at the entrance to the library's landmarked building on Fifth Avenue, Patience and Fortitude examines in detail the plan's origins, as well as the objections to it, which focused on the proposal to transfer three million books from the library's basement stacks to a state-of-the-art storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. In the process, Sherman, who first reported on the CLP in The Nation, reminds his readers that, throughout its storied history, the NYPL was funded by New York-based business and civic luminaries — Astor, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, among them — in the name of private philanthropy for the public good. The CLP, in contrast, was designed by consulting firms with an expertise in real estate and appears to have been driven by a handful of wealthy library donors, including some sitting trustees, with their own interests in mind.

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[Review] Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference

August 18, 2015

Book_compassionate_careers_for_PhilanTopicWhen you have a choice of paths to take, take the path with a heart.

– Yaqui Indian proverb

In Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference, Jeffrey W. Pryor and Alexandra Mitchell encourage young people to take "the path with a heart" when considering how they want to spend their lives. Filled with the stories of people who did just that, the book describes the joy and fulfillment — as well as some of the challenges — of a cause-focused career.

There is plenty of inspiration, and even humor, in the stories Pryor and Mitchell share. Who knew, for example, that the initial motivation for Jane Goodall to visit Africa was her love for Tarzan? Or that, as a young girl, Goodall was convinced she would make a better partner for the jungle swinger than his "wimpy" wife.

More typical is the story of Ana Dodson, a young woman who was adopted from Peru as an infant and raised in Colorado by her adoptive family. At the age of 11, Ana and her mother made plans to visit Hogar de Ninas, an orphanage outside of Cuzco, Peru. Thinking the children in the orphanage probably had no one to hug, Ana decided to collect books and stuffed animals for them and approached the local Rotary Club for help. Invited to speak at a club luncheon, she raised $700 on the spot — and received a standing ovation. That was the beginning of Peruvian Hearts, the organization Ana started to provide orphaned girls and young women in Peru with medical care, skills development, and computer training. "The girls at the orphanage were wearing clothes that were all torn. They were malnourished and had no education," Ana, now seventeen, says. "It hit me that I could have been living in that orphanage. That...could have been me. And I wanted to do something to help them."

Ivan Suvanjieff had a different journey. The creator of PeaceJam, he and his girlfriend (now wife), Dawn Engle, envisioned bringing Nobel Peace Prize-winners together with young people to create a movement for global peace and justice. They had one contact — the Dalai Lama, whom Dawn had met while working in Washington, D.C. Intrigued by their idea, the Dalai Lama agreed to participate — but only if the couple could get other Nobel laureates involved. With no connections to speak of, Suvanjieff and Engle did the one thing they could: they picked up the phone and began making calls. Almost twenty years later, PeaceJam offers programs to young people from kindergarten through college and has engaged more than a million youth participants, as well as thirteen Nobel laureates, in its cause.

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[Review] 'In Defense of a Liberal Education'

August 07, 2015

Book_in_defense_of_a_liberal_education_for_PhilanTopicToday the word liberal is encumbered by partisan connotation. Viewed through a broader lens, however, its meaning is more expansive. Derived from the Latin root liber, the word's etymology has been associated with freedom and liberty, whether political, economic, or social. In many ways it is a very American word, both in substance and style. In his classic Democracy in America, the French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville posited, "Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom." To which Fareed Zakaria might add, learning to exercise one's freedom in a responsible way is the raison d'être of "liberal" education.

In his latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Indian-born Zakaria explores what this very American concept has meant in the past — and what it means in the increasingly globalized world of the twenty-first century. The book's main arguments were born out of Zakaria's 2014 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. In that address, Zakaria acknowledged that his deeply held views on the subject were grounded in his own journey — one that took him from a childhood in Mumbai to Yale University, to national acclaim as a columnist for Newsweek, a host for CNN, and a respected author. The result is both a summary of the ongoing and often contentious debate about the value of a liberal arts education in a world obsessed with technology and anxious about its consequences as well as a very personal meditation on the ways in which liberal education has shaped his life.

Zakaria begins the book with a brief history of liberal education, from the Greeks and Romans, through the Islamic Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the development of the modern American university, itself a hybrid of the British collegiate and German research models. From the development of the "quadrivium" (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and the "trivium" (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) in late antiquity and early Middle Ages, to the Yale Report of 1828 (a document written by Yale College faculty in defense of the classical curriculum), Cardinal John Henry Newman's publication of the Idea of a University in1852, and Charles Eliot's transformation of Harvard into America's premier research university in the early twentieth century, Zakaria provides a solid context for understanding the evolution of the liberal arts in America.

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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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[Review] 'Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology'

June 26, 2015

Don't be fooled by the title of Kentaro Toyama's Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology: this is not an iconoclastic anti-technology manifesto. Nor is it a paean to an idealized pre-digital age when social change was driven by "people in the street." Instead, as back-cover blurbs from both Bill Gates and William Easterly, the NYU economics professor whose book The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor excoriated the kind of "technocratic" global health interventions favored by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Geek Heresy presents a nuanced argument for a human-centric approach to development work that leverages, rather than relies on, technology to create change.

Cover_geek_heresyA "recovering technoholic," Toyama, co-founder of Microsoft Research India and now the W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan, once believed fervently in the power of technology to solve a range of "social afflictions." Like many of his peers in the tech industry, he embraced the idea that digital technology and cleverly designed devices could improve failing schools, eliminate health disparities, and lift communities out of poverty. But his work in India and elsewhere soon disabused him of that notion, convincing him, instead, that technology's role in society, not to mention its many grave consequences, was widely misunderstood. He couldn't ignore the fact, for instance, that Microsoft Research India's pilot projects, though successful in well-funded, closely monitored demonstration schools, faltered when scaled to underfunded government schools — in part due to the lack of adequately trained teachers, engaged administrators, and tech support and infrastructure. In those situations, technology not only didn't improve things; it exacerbated existing problems and disadvantages.

This "Law of Amplification" is the crux of Toyama's argument. "[T]echnology"s primary effect," he writes, "is to amplify human forces...[and] magnify existing social forces" — another way of saying "the degree to which technology makes an impact depends on existing human capacities." While it isn't a novel idea, as the author himself admits, Toyama sees it as a useful framework for a discussion of how NGOs, development experts, and industry leaders can leverage technology more effectively to address poverty, educational disparities, and other development challenges.

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[Review] 'The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations'

June 18, 2015

In his poem "i thank You God for most this amazing," e.e. cummings wrote that "now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened." It is precisely this sense of clarity that comes to mind when reading The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) by David Grant, former president and CEO of the New Jersey-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Cover_the_social_nonprofit_handbookAs Grant notes, the world of the twenty-first century increasingly is defined by metrics and data. The social sector is no exception, and calls for better and more timely measurement of its activities have become a feature of the landscape. Gone are the days when funders were content to let intuition and anecdotal evidence guide their funding choices. Donors today — both institutional and individual — are keen to move the needle on large, seemingly intractable societal and environmental challenges, and in attempting to do so they have become ever-more interested in data that can demonstrate the impact of the programs and organizations in which they have invested. As a long-time admirer and teacher of poetry and literature, Grant relishes the complexity of this brave new world and applies his nuanced perspective toward a keen assessment of what it means for the field. "Social profit," he writes, "is about desired social benefits, and so it has to be defined locally depending on what a community of people values and what they need. It will never have a fixed or standard measure, and efforts to create one will get bogged down in endless quibbles and conflict about measurement itself."

According to Grant, efforts to measure social impact are fraught with challenges with which the for-profit world does not have to contend. Trying to balance multiple bottom lines, for example, is necessarily more complex than having to worry about a single one, he notes, especially given the fact there is no single agreed-upon unit of "social profit." Rather than focus on quantitative measures, therefore, Grant emphasizes qualitative "formative assessment." While not ignoring quantitative performance measures, he favors "soft measurements" and argues that a true assessment of social profit demands "a combination of pertinent metrics and a qualitative description...that can only be created by the people who are providing and receiving it."

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[Review] Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America

May 28, 2015

The arts — as we know it — are doomed. The broad cultural and economic consensus of the last century that placed paramount value on the arts, arts education, and art institutions has been lost like the voice of Yeats' falconer in the widening gyre. Tomorrow we will have less art, and we will be the poorer for it.

Cover_Curtains_the_future_of_the_Arts_in_AmericaLike an Old Testament prophet, Michael M. Kaiser, the former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, warns of a fundamental crisis in the arts: the way they are created, managed, and marketed in America is simply not sustainable. Ironically, as recently as 2013, Kaiser, in The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations, was somewhat optimistic that such a worst-case scenario could be averted, and he outlined a series of steps arts organizations could take to fortify themselves for the tough times ahead.

Not so much in 2015. In his new book, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015), Kaiser paints a dark picture of the future, both explaining how things came to pass and what arts organizations, especially mid-sized ones, might do to (maybe) save themselves from oblivion.

His argument goes like this: In economic terms, the arts are playing a losing hand; in almost every other industry, the costs of production are reduced over time, allowing for more goods to be sold at a lower price point. Innovation and commodification contribute to this process, enabling goods to be produced ever-more cheaply and distributed on a vast scale, which in turn allows for the increasing segmentation of consumer markets and real-time adaptation to changing tastes and expectations. Alas, almost none of this is true for the arts.

The performing arts in particular, writes Kaiser, are a labor-intensive endeavor in which every unit (i.e., performance) is numbingly expensive to produce — a cost that is passed on to members of the audience in the form of ever-rising ticket prices. Moreover, when every performance must support a portion of the salaries and pensions of hundreds of performers, managers, and back-office staff, as well as theater maintenance and the marketing of the production and institution itself, it's little wonder that arts professionals look to the future with pessimism and deep anxiety.

It wasn't always this way. A half-century ago, with the U.S. economy booming, government coffers bursting, and the costs of sustaining arts institutions much less daunting, the arts in America entered a sort of golden age. Arts education increasingly was viewed as a social good to be sustained with taxpayer dollars, and children, as they grew older, followed their parents' lead and became arts consumers and patrons in their own right. While twentieth-century forms of entertainment such as movies, television, and pop music all competed with live performances of more traditional art forms for audience dollars and attention, they served, more than anything else, to fuel Americans' interest in and a broader engagement with the arts. In particular, visionary investments like those made by the Ford Foundation in developing networks of regional theaters enabled the performing arts to flourish in cities large and small, while Lucille Lortel made Off-Broadway a household name.

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[Review] 'A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity'

February 10, 2015

Cover_A-Path-AppearsA recent survey conducted by World Vision found that, despite the growing list of humanitarian crises around the world, 80 percent of Americans did not plan to increase their charitable giving in 2014. Discouraging perhaps, but not surprising. Those without the means to fund large-scale interventions tend to feel helpless in the face of widespread suffering, with many believing that a modest donation cannot possibly make a difference in addressing seemingly intractable problems, while others worry that little of their money will ever reach the intended beneficiaries.

In their new book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, award-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife, former journalist-turned-investment banker Sheryl WuDunn, beg to differ: You can make a difference. But to do so, you have to be thoughtful and intentional in your approach. That means: 1) doing research to ensure that your gift benefits the target population; 2) volunteering your time and expertise when possible; and 3) engaging in advocacy.

The authors, whose 2009 book Half the Sky examined ways to expand opportunity for women and girls in the developing world, here broaden their canvas to include efforts to expand opportunity for all marginalized populations, in the U.S. as well as abroad, with a particular focus on poverty alleviation. It's a formidable challenge, and Kristof and WuDunn do their best to make it comprehensible by breaking it down into parts: how effective interventions can make a lasting impact; how nonprofit organizations can maximize both their income and impact; how giving can benefit the giver.

According to Kristof and WuDunn, these days individual donors can be more confident about the effectiveness of their donations, for a number of reasons: anti-poverty interventions and development projects have become more evidence-based and cost-efficient in recent years; the Web makes it easier for donors to learn about the impact of their giving; and, increasingly, development projects are run more transparently and with greater buy-in and expertise from local communities. Indeed, the book, as much as anything, is a compilation of admiring portraits of nonprofit practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and activists working to remove barriers to opportunity. At the same time, it emphasizes the importance of (and increasing use of) rigorous randomized controlled trials to ensure that interventions are evidence-based and effective. And in highlighting organizations such as Evidence Action, MDRC, and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, organizations that do the un-sexy but essential work of research and evaluation, it aims to empower individuals to think critically about the programs and charities they choose to support.

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[Review] 'The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession'

January 07, 2015

Bookcover_The_Teacher_WarsConventional wisdom has it that America's once first-rate public education system is a shadow of its former self, today surpassed in both quality and cost-effectiveness by the educational systems of any number of European and Asian countries and with little hope of improvement.

Although some of this decline has been blamed on larger societal problems such as poverty and racism, the teaching profession itself has come in for a large share of criticism. In this view, "bad" teachers — those seen to be undereducated, coddled by their unions, and/or unmotivated and uncaring — are virtually untouchable, while good teachers are forced out of the profession by poor pay and lack of respect.

According to Dana Goldstein, there's nothing new about the conventional wisdom. Indeed, throughout U.S. history, she writes in The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, teachers have been unfairly blamed for the state of American public education even though a host of larger "villains" — misguided reform movements, an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests, ideological crusading, political meddling — are more rightly to blame.

Goldstein characterizes the regular attacks on public school teachers as the product of "moral panics," a term used by sociologists to identify an all-too-common feature of American society in which "policy makers and the media focus on a single class of people . . . as emblems of a large, complex social problem." She identifies at least a dozen such panics, and in each one she finds that blame for the failings of the American educational system, real or imagined, was assigned to one easily vilified group or another: intemperate male teachers, undereducated female teachers, black intellectuals, unionized teachers, unpatriotic teachers, alternative-program recruits, and teachers protected by seniority, to name a few.

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