Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

February 25, 2008

Political correctness curbs social progress

The nonprofit world’s recognition of the importance of diversity can lead to political correctness that sometimes is self-defeating.

Rather than confronting words or actions that can seem hurtful, especially on issues of race, ethnicity or gender, people who work for nonprofits and foundations often choose silence and deference to members of a racial, ethnic or gender group who voice concern about those words or actions.

Liberals and progressives, in particular, tend to be overly concerned with preserving their image of being open and inclusive of everyone, especially on highly-charged and complex issues of race.

So they avoid confronting the very problems they are fighting to address.

Consider a recent exchange at a nonprofit that has set itself the task of ending racism.

During an interview with a finalist for the job of executive director, a member of the search committee asked the candidate to talk about the importance of public relations and communications.

The candidate, a white woman, told the committee that while it can be a “bugaboo” for nonprofits, communicating effectively is a critical job.

After the candidate left the room, and at the tail end of a much longer discussion that followed about her qualifications, an African-American member of the committee said the word “bugaboo” had racial connotations.

A standard dictionary definition of the word, which is possibly of Celtic origin, refers to “something that causes fear or distress out of proportion to its importance.”

That is the meaning the candidate, who is middle-aged, says she intended.

When the committee member later suggested to her colleagues it might be a racial slur, several of them agreed, while several others said they had not been aware the word had that meaning.

Regardless of that initial difference of opinion, all committee members by the end of the brief discussion apparently had accepted, or failed to challenge, the suggestion that the candidate had used a slur.

One committee member said later that the episode underscored the value of having a diverse committee because now all the committee members are better educated about the word’s racial sensitivity.

The candidate was not invited back for a second interview, a decision reportedly not based on her use of the word.

Yet the committee did not formally communicate to the candidate some members’ concern about her use of the word, nor did they give her an opportunity to respond.

The episode cuts to the core of a communications gap, often driven by political correctness, that can perpetuate racial misunderstanding.

The candidate says she was not aware the word had any racial connotation, and was stunned when she later learned second-hand that a search-committee member had raised the issue.

A Google search finds that African-American singer Beyoncé has used the word in a song to characterize a man who annoyed her.

And a check with finds a handful of entries left by visitors to the site who suggest the term is urban slang for an annoying person, usually a suitor.

More significantly, however, “bugaboo” happens to sound a lot like another word that is indeed an ugly racial slur when a “j” and an “i” are substituted for the first two letters.

So it is possible that when the candidate said “bugaboo,” the committee member heard the other word, or simply believed “bugaboo” was off limits.

For her part, the candidate says she was not familiar with the slur that sounds like “bugaboo.”

And consider the context: She says her intention was to use “bugaboo,” with the meaning she understood it to have, to respond to the committee member’s question by saying that effective communication is an ongoing challenge for nonprofits.

During the interview, however, committee members who may have been offended by her use of the word failed to voice their concerns directly to her, a conversation that could have prevented similar misunderstandings by both sides in the future.

Simply engaging the candidate in a conversation might have helped her and the committee members better understand one another, as well as the extraordinary power of words, even when used innocently, to hurt and divide.

And doing a little research might have helped everyone involved better understand what the word means and does not mean, and who uses it, and in what context they use it.

The committee members also failed to truly question their colleague who suggested “bugaboo” was a slur, and instead simply accepted her interpretation.

That is precisely the kind of response often taken by well-meaning people working for nonprofits and foundations.

The more productive response among people who want to end racial misunderstanding would have been to discuss the issue while the candidate still was in the room.

Or later, at least, once the candidate had left the room and their colleague had raised the issue, the other members should have shown a little more backbone in questioning the suggestion that it was a slur.

They also should have examined whether the word was in fact offensive in the context in which it was used and with the intent with which it was used.

But too many people take the easy way out because they do not want to get stuck in awkward conversations, or be perceived as being anything other than totally open and inclusive.

In other words, they fear being seen as uninformed or racist.

As a result, too many words have become off limits, replaced by a vocabulary of mush, a comforting jargon of safe words, guarding against any and all perceived slights, devoid of clarity, directness, common sense and the power to communicate deep-felt human emotions and beliefs.

By failing to make any effort to learn more about the source of the concern their colleague raised, or to talk openly to the executive-director candidate, the search committee simply helped perpetuate the racial misunderstanding its organization wants to end.

If, among themselves and with those who want to work with them, the leaders of an organization committed to ending racism cannot talk honestly about the meaning and use of vocabulary, their mission will remain only a dream.

As the candidate for the job tried to suggest to the search committee, communication does indeed represent for nonprofits “something that causes fear or distress out of proportion to its importance.”

February 11, 2008

Storm brewing for nonprofits

As if surviving and thriving in the charitable marketplace already were not tough enough, the skidding economy promises to make nonprofit work even tougher.

So nonprofits need to be smarter about doing business, and foundations need to be smarter about helping nonprofits strengthen their operations.

Signaled by a growing number of economic indicators, the recession the U.S. economy is entering simply will deepen the growing scrutiny of nonprofits by the partners they count on for the resources they need to run their shops.

Those partners, including grantmakers, individual givers and government, increasingly have asked that nonprofits show they mean business by quantifying the results they expect from the resources they seek, and then measuring the impact on their clients.

To do that, nonprofits need to be smarter about managing their organizations, delivering services, gauging results, developing resources, and engaging supporters and other partners.

Now, they need to be even smarter.

In addition to looking for ways to curb or cut costs, nonprofits need to be more innovative in operating their business, developing new revenue streams, involving their boards and givers, and shaping public policies that affect their organizations and clients.

For years, fighting efforts to toughen rules and policing of charitable organizations and giving in the face of growing concern about excess, abuse and arrogance in the charitable world, many nonprofits and foundations have claimed they can and will clean up their act, both as individual organizations and as a sector.

And parroting philanthropically-correct sermons preached by big foundations, and by the consultants and nonprofit trade groups that depend on foundation support, many nonprofits have devoted a lot of time talking about the need for innovation, collaboration, transparency and diversity, without actually changing the way they do business.

With the economy tanking, nonprofits only will be asked to do more with less.

Rather than spouting empty words, nonprofits truly need to be more innovative, collaborative and open, and to better reflect and engage the diverse constituencies they serve.

And instead of pumping out more sermons, foundations need to invest more of their resources in helping nonprofits address the critical organizational challenges they face so they can more effectively address the urgent and escalating social problems our communities face.

February 4, 2008

California philanthropy police are out of control

While government should tighten its regulation of philanthropy, a move by California lawmakers to police the diversity practices of foundations goes way too far.

As an opinion column in the Los Angeles Times reports, a bill approved by the California State Assembly would require every private, corporate or public operating foundation in the state with assets of more than $250 million to collect and publish date on the gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation of its members, board and staff.

Foundations also would have to disclose the race, ethnicity and sexual orientation of the owners of businesses they work with, and the diversity of the boards and staffs of groups to which they make grants.

What’s next? Should foundations be required to disclose the religious or political affiliation of their board members, staff, business partners and grantees?

The charitable marketplace works because philanthropy is both independent and regulated.

Americans see needs in their communities and address them by creating nonprofits and by giving, and that activity is voluntary, not required.

But in return for the tax-exempt benefits they enjoy, nonprofits and givers also must account for the way they oversee and invest their resources.

That is a reasonable tradeoff.

In recent years, government and watchdogs of philanthropy increasingly have called for greater policing of the charitable marketplace because some nonprofits, foundations and individual givers have abused their independence in the face of weak regulation and policing.

Foundations, for example, can do a lot more to address the needs of the communities they serve, to pay out more of their assets, and to give more to support the operating needs of nonprofits.

Yet while foundations argue they can and will police themselves, too few have been willing to do more than hoard their assets while ignoring the urgent needs of nonprofits.

What’s more, many of those same foundations, acting as self-appointed vigilantes, demand that nonprofits seeking support behave the way foundations demand.

Foundations have failed to police themselves, and lawmakers should pass laws that require foundations to pay out more of their assets, and to better disclose how they operate, including more information about their boards and staffs to help track potential insider dealing.

But the bill approved by the California State Assembly reeks of government intrusion and political correctness that eclipses the philanthropic correctness of many foundations.

The bill does offer a lesson, however: Instead of just talking about it, foundations actually need to make themselves more open and accountable.

By continuing to hide them in the sand, foundations are making their heads much easier targets for lawmakers.