Part 2 – An Introductory Essay Series (Click here to start at the beginning!)
Through my work, I come across some stark statistics about community needs in Northwest Ohio. I am most troubled, not necessarily by the facts I have collected over the years related to these community needs (though they are extremely troubling), such as the staggering number of homeless youth in Lucas County (2000), or the exceedingly high infant mortality rate among African American babies in Toledo (16 per 1000 births), but by the information I have accumulated about just who lacks critical pieces of information about the institutions, organizations and funding in our community, and just how it all works.
I meet nonprofit, governmental and civic leaders right at the edge of their understanding. I listen to the kinds of questions they ask. I bring them information and analysis to help fill in that understanding. What I find most revealing are the questions themselves and who is asking them. It may be a donor interested in supporting early childhood education, but that has no idea of what Head Start is. It may be the regular person who mistakes a philanthropically-funded program with one funded by tax dollars, and whose annoyance at the program fuels their voting decisions. It may be the local public health official whose enforcement program against slumlords has the effect of evicting innocent families, and who knows nothing about the community’s rich collection of nonprofit housing agencies that could have devised a supportive response. It may be the nonprofit staffer who has no idea what other nonprofits are doing similar work in the community. Through the many situations I have experienced, I have determined that we collectively understand very little about how we are currently sharing our resources to advance the common good in one mid-size city in Ohio.
I call the set of conditions that produces these stories “civic fractionation.”
In the United States, we do our sharing in ways that are public and private. We share through our taxes, at the federal, state and local levels, our charitable donations or through institutions such as charitable foundations. We also share through our acts of volunteerism, professional employment or board service at nonprofit organizations, or through participation in our faith-based institutions. But we lack broad, collective knowledge of how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The incredible number of nonprofit organizations, funding streams, levels of government, nonprofit organizations, programs and actors means that it can seem impossible to figure out who does what, how is it all funded and who is really responsible.
Those who are looking outward from their own homes and families and into their communities confront staggering problems, like the infant mortality rate I cited above. It is natural for humans to want to solve problems and to improve conditions in their communities. But, how would anyone go about addressing a challenge like that? How can you find out who is already investing resources to address this problem? The hospitals could be; the local public health agency could be; the state public health agency could be; a host of nonprofits could be; the local universities could be. They all could be. They could be working independently, in silos, or through a coordinated coalition or task force. What do we know is working? How can you find out? How could you take action to improve matters? And what is the best, most efficient way to do that? When questions like this are asked, what typically results are more questions. Getting the answers is what I specialize in, as the manager of a foundation grants department (aka the “Program” department, in philanthropy jargon).
Like the Native Americans grappling with land fractionation, there is no shortage of resources in the United States. Those Native American families have access to millions of acres of land, just as Americans have access to trillions in tax dollars, charitable resources and other assets that can be deployed towards the common good. The way in which the land is encumbered, however, makes it incredibly difficult to take action to maximize those incredibly rich land resources. The same can be said for the resources pointed towards the common good in the United States. It is difficult to know what resources we have, and because of the tremendous proliferation of units of government and charities alike, it is difficult to organize and activate those resources in the most effective way, that would allow us to effectively tackle our biggest challenges. I describe this phenomenon as civic fractionation.
Civic fractionation is the condition that results from our inability to see the resources we have to put towards the common good – and our inability to effectively activate them towards solving the problems that challenge us.
The complex way in which these resources are broken up and separated into individual silos makes it difficult to actually see them all, and the way in which they are governed makes it difficult to organize and deploy them in effective ways.
But it is my job to try. It is my job to figure out where all of the resources are, and in so doing, offer a picture of a funding “landscape” into which my Foundation may inject new dollars to attack a particular problem. This offers a backdrop that can help us figure out the highest and best use of the limited charitable resources we have to grant. Foundation program officers, and program departments all over the country, do this work every day. We help figure out what programs are working, which programs are not, where there are growing needs in the community that are going unfulfilled. All of this requires an understanding of the resources that are currently being invested, and the actors, such as nonprofit organizations and government agencies that are currently working on them.
At my organization, we generally invest in the metro Toledo, Ohio area. The problems we are considering are all coming through a highly local lens. While we don’t have all of the information at our fingertips all of the time, we know how to find it – whether through publicly available sources of information, or the relationships we develop to acquire the information that is not.
The role of a foundation program officer, however, is primarily inward-facing. While I may meet with many nonprofits, government officials or other civic actors, and my organization occasionally commissions and publishes reports, I am primarily supplying internal research to internal bodies of decision-makers or clients. The reports I write do not see the light of day. And from what I can see, many more people need access to information like this. It may, in fact, be critical to the functioning of our democracy.
Through this blog, I plan to explain how I have come to understand how this yawning information and gap hampers our collective ability to make good decisions about this most fundamental aspect of governance – the administration of shared resources. Our institutions of governance, through their complexity, have generated a large information gap for the American people. Our institutions have evolved in ways that do allow anyone to see, understand and maximize the impact of public and private resources, and make rational, well-informed decisions as an electorate – or, for that matter, as elite resource-controllers, like philanthropists, lawmakers and governmental executives (they often don’t know what we have or how it works, either, which I will illustrate in the coming pages). Though American democracy was founded on the decentralization and distribution of power, our political institutions are not set up to manage the current level of complexity, nor facilitate an electorate in effectively contending with it. And this gap in the functionality of our institutions is beginning to harm us gravely.