Gift Xchange: Giving, Investing, and Grantmaking for Good

Part One of Two

The TakeAway: Charitable requests are a constant, but the end of the year brings a blizzard of appeals. In addition to our donor dollars, there’s a vast amount of untapped money power held by nonprofit institutions, particularly if they have endowments. Here’s a listing of some of my favorite organizations that are seeking to build more prosperous, sustainable, and just societies. The idea is to create a “virtuous circle” of exchange relationships, something as old as time itself. And not necessarily limited to end-of-year benevolence. Please consider making a gift, and becoming an Xchange agent for good.

We all know the drill: from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, our inboxes – virtual and analog – are stuffed with appeals—occurring now on an hourly basis, as charities seek last-minute tax-deductible contributions. Their messaging urgency makes it seem they’re on their own kind of “fiscal cliff”, that somehow at the stroke of midnight tonight they’ll disappear, like Cinderella’s bejeweled coach.

Most of us wish we had more to support them. We do what we can, but beyond a few dollars here and there, how might we use our limited charitable resources to help bring about a better world? How can we look at the entire twelve-month cycle of charitable activity, and view ourselves as “investors” in their good works? In fact, how do we even know if they’re fully using their power as change agents – after all, all nonprofits exist to advance the public interest, which is why they are tax-exempt in the first place.

How can we lengthen our leverage, so to speak, so that not only do our donations make a difference, they also join an arsenal comprising several money pots: a charity’s investments, if they have an endowment; their grantmaking, if they’re a foundation; and the formula for allocating operational funds, e.g., program and administrative costs.

Here are the key questions:

  • How do decisions affecting these overlapping financial pools square with a charitable institution’s primary beliefs, commitments, and values?
  • Does the entity fully flex its fiduciary muscle to advance the public interest, consistent with its espoused mission?
  • And, perhaps more importantly, How are we, the people, to find out the answers to these questions?

The Untapped Power of Xchange Relationships │ Our role as donors – and citizens – endow us with more power than we think. That’s because gift relationships provide the foundation of sustainable, prosperous, and just economic systems. They constitute transactions that have a “greater good” in mind: we transfer funds from ourselves to institutions, expecting something good in return—not necessarily for ourselves, but for a better world. They have “change-making” power, so let’s call our relationship to them, when we give them our time, talent, or treasure, Xchange relationships—where “X” stands for whatever is desirable: cleaner air and water; decent health care; affordable housing and education; cultural expression; social justice. The list goes on and on.

They’re gift relationships, with teeth.

At their core, economic systems are gift relationships, too—they’re transactions, exchanges of one thing for another, some of which are tangible, some which are not. Whatever the motive and means, exchange relationships occur with an eye toward something better—although nowadays that “something” usually benefits a tiny few, at the expense of the many.

But that’s not a reason to deny the simple power of gift relationships, of exchange relationships, to sustain and strengthen community. Indeed, the term “economy” comes from the Greek “oikonomia,” which meant “management of the household,” with the household connected to the production, distribution, and consumption of life’s necessities. The household, the family, however small it is and whether or not there are blood ties, is the fundamental unit of community—encompassing even those who are too poor to have a roof over their head. Oikonomia is a multifaceted word that sometimes is translated as “stewardship,” itself a first cousin of “fiduciary,” which means a designated agent occupying a special relation of trust, confidence, or responsibility in obligation to others.

The fiduciary duty, rightly understood and enacted, is mindful of the moral, social, judicious, and political dimension of human experience. That’s something French sociologist Marcel Mauss helped us understand 88 years ago in his wonderful little book, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies.

But in recent decades, we’ve experienced massive fiduciary failure and institutional corruption. The fiduciary duty has fallen victim to a cynical, reductionist view of human behavior, leading to, as longtime corporate governance guru Nell Minow puts it, “ethical risk, the collective choice problem and conflicts of interest, amplified by informational asymmetry.”  The result, she says, fosters a self-perpetuating cycle of “perverse incentives and the imposition of externalities.”

Yuck.

Let’s make 2013 the year that we revive the fiduciary ethic by restoring “ethics” and “civic virtue” to it. As donors, you can look beyond outstretched hands and leverage your donor power to assure better corporate, investor, and nonprofit accountability to the public interest all year ‘round.  Tomorrow, on New Year’s Day, I’ll show you some ways this can happen.

But for the moment, in the waning hours of 2012, here’s a listing of ten of my favorite organizations – in no particular order – that are making a difference. They’re helping to restore the fiduciary ethic to its truest meaning, particularly in the realm of corporate and investor accountability.

  • The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), a U.S. based nonprofit launched in early October, has embarked on a multi-stakeholder consultative process to establish material sustainability issues for 89 industries, suitable for corporate reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Get involved, if you’re interested in changing reporting requirements, and donate here.  (Disclaimer: I’m on SASB’s Advisory Council.)
  • The New Economics Institute, helmed by longtime friend and colleague (and Murninghan Post co-founder) Bob Massie, seeks to “build a New Economy that prioritizes the well-being of people and the planet,” according to its vision statement. It’s exciting, and just getting started. Get involved if you want to build a New Economy, and donate here.
  • The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) has been around for more than 40 years, leading the charge on economic opportunity and justice for all. Their motto: 41 Years of Faithful Investment in People and Planet. Building on the moral commitments and public theology of the civil rights movement, ICCR and other religious investors – more recently, Islamic investors – have drawn upon multiple roots to advance the idea of sustainable prosperity, an ancient idea going back to the oikos. Help them remain a force for good, encourage your house of worship to get involved (if they aren’t already), and donate here. They’re awesome!
  • Ceres is a powerful network of investors, companies and public interest groups working to accelerate and expand the adoption of sustainable business practices and solutions to build a healthy global economy. Their impact is huge. If you donate by midnight tonight, your gift will be matched. Donate here.
  • The Center for Responsive Politics operates OpenSecrets.org and has a powerfully urgent mission: track political money. It’s “the only independent nonprofit organized to follow all the money spent to influence federal elections and the policies that have an impact on American lives.” As stated on its website, Count Cash. Make Change. Donate here.
  • Speaking of political money (and corruption), Rootstrikers.org is a grassroots network of activists fighting the corrupting influence of money in politics. As stated on its website, “There is no partisanship in the fight against this corruption. There are liberals, conservatives, and libertarians among our members. And while we don’t pretend that we share a common end, we do recognize our common enemy. Our project will live until that enemy has left.” Learn how to get involved to support their efforts, and donate here.
  • The Responsible Endowments Coalition (REC) works hard to “build and unify the college and university-based responsible investment movement, both by educating and empowering a diverse network of individuals to act on their campuses, and by fostering a national network for collective action. We empower young people to defend human rights and the environment while making both corporations and universities accountable to global stakeholders. Our goal is to foster social and environmental change by making responsible investment common practice amongst colleges and universities, and to support the next generation of activists with a new and powerful toolkit.” Help the next generation make a better world by supporting their efforts, and donate here.
  • No doubt you’ve heard of 350.org, which was founded by Bill McKibben. Its mission: “building a grassroots movement to fight climate change. Our online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions are led from the bottom up by thousands of volunteer organizers in over 188 countries.” According to May Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org, I got word that an anonymous donor was willing to match donations up to a total of $75,000 from NEW donors to 350.org. So if you’re new to 350.org, donate here.
  • You probably haven’t heard of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), but you should. It’s often is a thorn in the side of mainstream organized philanthropy, and that’s a good thing, given the foundation world’s overall power and lack of accountability. NCRP, founded in 1976, “has served as the country’s independent watchdog of foundations. NCRP promotes philanthropy that serves the public good, is responsive to people and communities with the least wealth and opportunity, and is held accountable to the highest standards of integrity and openness.” They’re not just rabble-rousers. “Over time, institutional grantmakers, federal and state governments, and individuals have taken our recommendations and turned them into policy, such as our promotion of comprehensive financial reporting for foundations as well as the inclusion of advocacy organizations in the Combined Federal Campaign—now both widely accepted as ‘good practice,’” they state on their website. “One of NCRP’s early accomplishments also involved tackling United Way’s monopoly on workplace fundraising. It played a critical role in the development of alternative workplace giving funds, such as Community Shares, Earth Shares and Community Coalition Funds.” NCRP’s work is vitally important, and you’ll be hearing more about it in 2013. Donate here.
  • The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is another nonprofit perhaps unknown to you, but has been fighting hard on your behalf since 1985. You don’t have to pay a lot of money to write documents, send email, or do other things electronically. “Giants like Microsoft and Apple are trying harder than ever to control the software you use.
    The FSF brings software freedom supporters together to amplify your voices and make an impact,” says FSF. “In 2013, our goal is to turn up the volume and reach more people than ever before with the message that all software can and should be free. To make this possible, we want to raise $350,000 by January 31st. If you’ve been following the progress bar on our homepage, you know we’re about halfway there. Can you help us reach our goal?” Support freedom. Donate here. (Disclaimer: MurnPost Technical Strategy Advisor Joshua Gay works with FSF.)

So there you have it. Ten organizations, working hard to make money and power more accountable to the public interest. What better way to ring out 2012 and ring in 2013 than to get involved with their efforts—or support organizations with similar aims? That’s a gift relationship that counts, and what it means to be an Xchange agent.

Happy New Year!

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