April 23, 2024

the strings that bind

a photo of oak trees towering over gravestones at a cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. Spanish moss grows in thick clumps on every visible branch. a row of headstones peek out from the bottom of the cropped photo. i grew up believing Spanish moss was a parasite on the mighty trees that did all the work. but they're both just plants in an complex ecosystem. the real parasites are billionaires. also, i spelled "cemetery" right on the first try. 😎
photo caption: oak trees towering over gravestones at a cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. Spanish moss grows in thick clumps on every visible branch. a row of headstones peek out from the bottom of the cropped photo. i grew up believing Spanish moss was a parasite on the mighty trees that did all the work. but they’re both just plants in an complex ecosystem. the real parasites are billionaires. also, i spelled “cemetery” right on the first try. 😎

I’m suspicious of nonrandom acts of charity. In my college ethics class, I learned most selfless acts aren’t completely selfless. They can give someone a warm feeling or a return on their investment. In the industrialized world of non-profits, these good works can come with a lot of strings.

Take grant applications, for instance. I have been a funder, and a grantee, for different organizations. Right now I do a little of both, depending on how much money we’re talking about. Some grant applications I read request a mountain of information. Narrative, budget, logic model, letters of recommendation. And once I receive the grant money, I have to turn in another mountain of information to keep receiving it. Monthly reports, client stories, survey results, year-end reports.

It got me wondering about the practice of exchanging stories for funding or services. How did it start? I tried looking it up, but I’m not a great researcher. Instead, I thought about how I’ve used this practice across my career. During my funder days, we used to ask grantees for client success stories. On the occasions we received them, the stories were great. We packaged those stories into quotes that we repackaged and sent up the chain in our own reports. These stories went from a few paragraphs to a bullet point list. Further up the chain, the list trimmed down to an anecdote in a briefing. Paraphrasing the anecdote might land on the desk of an elected official. At some organizations, client stories add personality to fundraisers and impact reports. As my boss once said to me, stories can move a donor to give, but data tells them how much money you need.

But where do we go from there? What happens when we feed this narrative, that X story will earn Y impressions or Z dollars? People who actually do research call this poverty porn. Poverty porn creates a cycle that begets more poverty porn. It teaches people that the pain they see has a remedy, and we can only apply that remedy if they write us a check. There is no path out of exploitation that is made through more exploitation.

What needs to happen is removing donors from the center of what we do. They should not be the first or only beneficiaries of our good works. I’ll look at this through three transactional lenses: applications, client data, and stories.

“please note: this application requires a second mortgage to complete”

It’s already a cliché that grant applications are more complicated than they need to be. But it’s that way for a good reason, right? These answers help the selection committee decide who should and shouldn’t get funding. I get it: staring at a pile of applications, all requesting the same shallow pot of our money. But it’s a bit like teaching for the test. The applicants who get funding are the ones who are good at grant writing. It doesn’t mean their plan is good. It only means that their application is. What about when we zoom out and see that we all breathe the air of an artificially white supremacist society? Some of the biggest large-dollar donors are recipients themselves of generational wealth. They pass those dollars onto organizations that share their values. How do organizations getting off the ground ever manage to compete? This is more challenging as white-dominant organizations adopt the language of racial equity.

What if we made things different?
What if we funded organizations that were at different stages in their development? “Before you finish your business plan, here’s seed money to work on it full-time,” or “Before you write that logic model, here’s funding and training on how to do it.” What if the grant application worked more like a sales pitch? What if the selection committee included only people with current and past lived experience? What if that selection committee met with potential grantees? What if they had a conversation about the goals of the grant and how we’d use the money? Holding onto money doesn’t mean you should hold it over people.

“don’t worry about PII, your clients are numbers to us”

My first question about data collection is usually, “why do you need to know?” I’m serious. Why do you need to collect this information? This goes doubly true when the data includes Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Some organizations collect metrics that they have no intention of using. Data that might be useful later. Or, funders might ask grantees to analyze the data to create a report that never gets read. Worse, the power relationship between grantor and grantee prevents that kind of dialogue. Grantees feel like they have no grounds to push back on the data they’re asked to collect. They act like DaVinci wrote down exactly what his patron paid him to do and made it all to spec. He definitely would not pose his male lover as the most mysterious woman in the world (allegedly)! But when we pull apart the power dynamic, we create a stronger relationship with our own patrons.

What if we made things different?
Think about your program. How do you use the data you already collect? What could you stop collecting and nobody would notice? What information could we ask to create a better program? What if funders requested data, then paid to have it analyzed and shared? How could we collaborate with our clients and our funders to collect data that makes a program of value? What if all the grantees in a cohort decided together what was important to study? What if receivers of the service told funders what was important to know? What could we do with an environment of mutual respect between people with and without institutional power?

“enough about me! how do you feel about me?”

The most sinister side of charity is the things we demand from people in need. Data is huge, but stories are so much more personal. The way we collect most stories exploits the power dynamic of people who feel like they can’t refuse. Like means testing, stories and data set qualifications in exchange for help. I’ve written elsewhere about why I am very cautious when I ask for and use stories.

What if we made things different?
Start with awareness. Start by compensating people for their stories or their time. Promise a cut of the fundraising dollars you earn from their face on the side of a bus. Client stories can be exploitative, but they don’t have to be. What if client stories were more like enthusiastic YouTube videos? Uploading them is voluntary. Production values vary wildly among creators. But their creators tell their story, whatever it is, exactly how they want to tell it.

“captain, what if we used the deflector array to invert the paradigm of funding to power?”

What if we asked funders to hold themselves accountable to their grantees? What if organizations were accountable to the people who need the help?

We can push back on invasive data requests, or find another way to collect the data. Non-profits are offering basic safety net services. What harm do we cause when we ask invasive questions before they qualify? Do our benefits outweigh their dehumanization? Is any dollar amount worth that?

Many of us already think of our clients as the most important part of our work. So why would we take part in a system that demands their exploitation? Let’s take these recent feelings of political relief and zoom out on the system we live in. Let’s start to be really clear about who is tying the strings, and who should be holding the scissors.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space