From Big ideas

Latino scholars share American Dreams

And now the road approaches its reward – the completed destiny of the first child to graduate from college. The first child who will become not what they must be, but what they can dream of becoming – a teacher, an artist, a doctor – maybe the President of the United States. If this is a cliché, we need more clichés.

After a LADO dinner I’m farther than ever from understanding America’s anti-immigrant, anti-urban, anti-education anger. America needs these young men and women. We can’t afford for them not to realize their dreams – our dreams – the American Dream.

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Nonprofits need to hang out together more often

The buzz is all around about the need for more collaboration and joint ventures in our sector. But most successful collaborations require trust and good faith in addition to mutual benefit. Collaborations don’t jump all the way to trust, they build up to it. What better way to get to know each other than by coming together in unstructured, no pressure places to share ideas, see new things, make connections and maybe get some feedback from a colleague.

It’s time for more organizations to open their doors and treat their colleagues as friends they’d like to know better, rather than competitors. I’m convinced there are great opportunities in the making.

So how about inviting new people to your office to hang out with you for a while.

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Cashing in my chip at SERI Summit

Last week, I attended the Social Enterprise Rhode Island Summit, a project of Social Venture Partners of Rhode Island. I came with a chip on my shoulder.

The term “social enterprise” has swept the non-profit world. Everyone from startups to the old dinosaurs of the public service world now claim to be “social entrepreneurs.” It’s a great style statement. Just tell me: what does it mean?

What’s the harm in a buzzword? For one, hoopla about “innovative, market-based models” gives business and government more cover for starving health care, education and other critical social investments of the real resources they need. Be that as it may, the SERI Summit knocked the chip off my shoulder with its energy, optimism, good will and some really smart solutions to problems described by featured panelists.

Who could be grumpy about Hippowater International, a cool low-tech solution to the huge burdens that fetching water imposes on women and girls around the world? Who would not admire Rajiv Kumar’s clever use of peer pressure to mass-market healthy exercise through Shape Up Rhode Island or the way his group’s leveraged the market value of the mission to underwrite national impact? What child of the Sixties wouldn’t be charmed by John Abram’s stories about South Mountain, the employee-owned design and construction company he founded?

What else I loved about this summit:

  • Lots of stories, lots of ages, lots of perspectives.
  • A big, lively crowd – 200? 300? More? – full of people I knew and didn’t know.
  • Just enough slack in the schedule for random encounters.
  • Lots of energy and curiosity and a refreshing lack of certainty.
  • Mashups: new-tech/no-tech, for-profit/non, thinkers/doers.

The conference moderators frankly refused to define social enterprise. (Check here for Wikipedia’s definition, or this one, from the British government’s Office of the Third Sector).  Instead we heard a wide range of ideas and stories from people who put themselves under this big umbrella. Here are some common threads I captured:

  • Problem-solving
  • Profit-seeking
  • Social mission
  • Innovative, inventive, creative
  • Values design
  • High- and low-tech solutions
  • Focus on cost reduction
  • Bias for data
  • No “conventional wisdom”

A list isn’t a definition and none of these are qualities are exclusive to “social enterprises.” Lots of the organizations that presented looked like regular old, resourceful, dedicated and professional nonprofits to me. But, there’s no denying that this was a different crowd with a different vibe than you’ll find at conferences called by the Association for Fundraising Professionals, the Rhode Island Foundation or the United Way, all still vital centers of learning and support for nonprofits

I still think that the lack of serious, well-directed investment capital, not a shortage of clever ideas, is the chief barrier to moving the national needle on education, among other critical needs. Social entrepreneurs won’t get the job done if they settle for praise and token funding. But I’m now more hopeful that a generation of  who speak a business dialect and live in an enterprise culture could really generate or attract that investment.

Half of kids on food stamps – shocking.

“Nearly half of children will be on food stamps” read the headline on page B4 of my newspaper this morning. You can read more about it here.

I have to say, I was pretty shocked at the findings. The paper was reporting a study by Mark Rank of Washington University and his Cornell University colleague Thomas Hirschl. It went on to say that “90% of black youngsters will be on food stamps at some point during childhood.”

Then I turned the page and read an editorial explaining why I shouldn’t be upset about huge compensation packages for Wall Street Traders. After all, “Wall Street professionals… lost a lot more money than Main Street did.”


Then a story came on the radio that the president of our local Ivy League University earned $800,000 last year. That put her below the over $1 million in compensation received by her peers at 23 other private colleges, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also reported that over 58 private colleges now charge over $50,000 per year for tuition, room and board. For a family of four to be eligible for food stamps, their take home pay has to be less than $22,000 a year. according to that food stamp report.

For many, myself included, a college education was the path to a better income. But today, over two-thirds of college students graduate with debt averaging over $20,000.

Even in this recession, colleges continue to raise tuition and fees to their students – and that includes the public colleges of cash strapped states. The college graduation rate of black students nationwide is 43%, though much higher at those ivy leagues. But then again, I have  to wonder how that breaks out by income of students enrolled as many lower and middle class students can’t afford private colleges and 3/4 of all African American students are enrolled at state universities, according to a 2007 article in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

“Income inequality is at an all time high.” Nonprofit income inequality is also shocking.

Education is touted as the solution.

I still ask: How much is enough? What do we owe each other?

Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change

While a local land trust or watershed organization may not be able to stop climate change in its tracks, their work creates healthier ecosystems which may prove more resilient to climate change. Resilient ecosystems are better prepared to resist, tolerate or recover from climate change.

On Blog Action Day 2009, I hope that you’ll take seek out and support some of these critical organizations or similar organizations in your own community.

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Listen to the Lion

“Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together…

“A fair prosperity and a just society are within our vision and our grasp, and we do not have every answer. There are questions not yet asked, waiting for us in the recesses of the future, but of this much we can be certain because it is the lesson of all our history: Together a president and the people can make a difference. I have found that faith still alive wherever I have traveled across this land. So let us reject the counsel of retreat and the call to reaction. Let us go forward in the knowledge that history only helps those who help themselves.

“There will be setbacks and sacrifices in the years ahead but I am convinced that we as a people are ready to give something back to our country in return for all it has given to us.

“Let this be our commitment: Whatever sacrifices must be made will be shared and shared fairly. And let this be our confidence: At the end of our journey and always before us shines that ideal of liberty and justice for all.”

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democratic National Convention 1980