Revival

A lot has happened in the past year or so, and that’s an understatement. I won’t bore you with the details, o beloved Internets, as anyone who’s even remotely interested in me knows much of the story already. Instead I will bore you with revival of the blog. It’s going to be more active, although it will also be more mixed.

Due to recent family events, I’ve been doing a lot of family history lately – mine and Rohan’s. His is much more interesting than mine – I’m solid English and French, whereas he has Irish peasantry, Scottish royalty, Italian nobility, convicts, and the first Jewish settler in Hobart :) There will be some genealogical discoveries talked about here in the future. I’m delighted by some of the details I’ve found; it’s so interesting and reassuring to see your ancestors as real people and find out what they were doing.

Along the way I’ll be talking about some of the resources I’ve used and how helpful I’ve found them.

Here’s one of my first discoveries. I had my DNA tested with 23 and Me and have been a happy customer – so happy that I’ve done Rohan’s and my brother’s DNA as well and have just ordered a kit for my mum. it is a consolation to discover that I have pretty healthy genes, but one of the conditions 23 and Me reports that I have an elevated risk for is atrial fibrillation, which is a type of irregular heartbeat. Since my test I’ve discovered that my dad has atrial fibrillation, so I’m pretty sure it was inherited from his side.

The other day Findmypast.co.uk uploaded a bunch of new British Army service records, and in there I discovered my great-grand-uncle, Archibald Bruton Meachen. In 1898, at the age of 19, Archibald enrolled in the militia. A surprising amount of information is available from these military records – I know Archibald’s height and weight, hair and eye colour, and even his chest measurements, as well as that he had a tattoo of a heart with a crown and anchor. But the connection of most interest to me is that in 1899 he was discharged as medically unfit for further duty. The cause? “Disordered action of heart”. I know that later “DAH” became a very common diagnosis covering all kinds of symptoms of post-traumatic stress and panic attacks, but Archibald had not been in the theatre of war and his record makes it clear the disorder is not a result of his military service. I suspect therefore that this is an earlier manifestation of the genetic propensity to atrial fibrillation.

Archibald went on to marry and have children, and died in Norfolk at the reasonable age of 63; he was luckier than two of his younger brothers, Charles Edgar, killed in action, 1915, in Flanders, and Herbert Edward, killed in action, 1917, in Mesopatamia (now Iraq).

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I’ve been reading a lot on Metafilter and various blogs about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 99 percenters, which has brought up an issue which has nagged me for a while; it is sometimes mindbogglingly difficult for me to reconcile my background and my beliefs with the sector I work in. Philanthropy inevitably involves the wealthy and powerful. I’m fortunate that the vast majority of the wealthy and powerful I work with are genuinely good people who have a burning desire to make the world a better place, although occasionally I do encounter an attitude that leaves me bemused or despairing.

One of the earliest commentaries on philanthropy I read when I first started working in the sector was the 1999 Allen Lane Lecture by Stephen Burkeman; it still makes fantastic reading because it zeroes in on the heart of some of the real issues that make people cynical about philanthropy, and creates some discomfort for those of us who believe in it and defend it.

Beside that, it seems obvious that Western society is in a particularly parlous state right now; that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few, and the massive and widening gulf between those with wealth and those without, is getting worse and leading to ange and disenfranchisement as well as – on both sides of the debate – wildly distorted worldviews. And that encouraging wealth generation via the stockmarket and the housing bubble – focusing on making money through money, rather than making money through providing services or making stuff people need – is a totally, ridiculously unsustainable way to run a society (and yes, that is a huge generalisation and the real situation is far more complicated than that – but when you have a large number of unoccupied luxury investment properties which nobody can afford to rent on the one hand, and a squeeze on housing because there aren’t enough affordable properties for sale or rent on the other, it’s not difficult to draw conclusions, hmmm?)

That’s why it’s been a pleasure of sorts to see the US-based Resource Generation, a bunch of young people with wealth who are doing stuff like advocating for tax reform, encouraging their family foundations to consider impact and program-related investing, funding grass roots social justice campaigns. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to scoff at, and it’ll be interesting to see whether it grows or burns out – but at the same time it is sending a message, and also doing some practical stuff (however small-scale).

Paraphrasing  a commentator on Metafilter, we’ll always have rich kids, but it’s better to have socially responsible rich kids, who care about not being exploitative, than a bunch of Paris Hiltons.

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Sunday: the day of civilised happenings

Our first full day in London (well, this trip, anyway)! Sadly, the sun wasn’t out for most of the morning and we did get rained on a bit in the afternoon. However, we spent much of the day doing terribly cliched and magnificently fun English things:

Verity visited a red phone booth!

We saw the Changing of the Guard!

Some swans posed artily for us!

We had High Tea at the Orangery!

We listened to a band in Kensington Gardens playing a James Bond medley!

And I said hello to a squirrel!

The trip wasn’t bad this time; Qantas at least had decent food and kept us properly hydrated. It was a bit turbulent over Europe, though, and most of the first day has been spent feeling a little bit as if we’re swaying…

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Normal service to resume shortly

Heh. It’s been a while :) Mind you, most of that was because I lost my password and the retrieve password script doesn’t seem to have worked.

Since I last wrote there have been good times, bad times and interesting times. Overall things are good.

Blog has been revived. Huzzah!

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A chilly city suits a troubled soul

I’ve decided that I really need to do something with this blog, like actually update it once in a while. The reasons for my long absence, in approximate chronological order, are:

  • Heavier workload as a result of:
    • staff at work leaving and being only partly replaced;
    • the Black Saturday bushfires;
    • the Treasury inquiry into PPFs;
    • the global economic crisis
  • Stress resulting from heavier workload
  • Not being able to see very well

Yes, you did read that last one correctly. I’ve had almost two months now of distorted vision. I’m very myopic and have worn contact lenses for many years, and I also have issues with my retinas, which look as if someone has taken a teeny tiny hole-punch to them in neat rows (this is a relatively poorly understood retinal condition which has given me a blind spot, but the eyes have adapted and I don’t really notice it).

The latest issue is keratitis – my corneas are inflamed and so swollen that the top layer of the cornea has developed folds. It gives me distorted vision with difficulty looking at print and a “smeary” look to lights, and increased light sensitivity. I put up with it for about a month, thinking it was the result of a head cold I’d just had, or falling asleep once with my lenses in, or just being generally tired and run down. I didn’t realise the tired and run-down-ness was in fact a symptom. It’s being treated with cortisone drops and is slowly getting better.

Black Saturday was a real turning point here. I felt so for my friend E, whose family live in Kinglake and who went on a long-term visit to the UK just a couple of weeks before it happened; her family and their home survived, but so many others didn’t. We think we’ve mastered the natural environment, but we are still at nature’s mercy and she has no pity.

Apart from that, we’ve gone within what feels like a blink (although it’s more like four months) from our hottest ever days to bloody freezing nights. That never makes you feel good. We have a holiday to Queensland booked late in the month and I’m hoping to rest properly and recuperate. In the meantime, I am getting back into sock knitting now I can see more, heeding the advice of the great EZ: Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises.

I turn forty in a few months. I feel the weight of wisdom on me :) Still deciding whether to have a party, or a night out.

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Crisis!

So I’ve been busy. I went overseas (Paris and the UK; wonderful) on holiday and then came back to a conference, which had its own behind-the-scenes drama (but don’t they all?) And of course, while I was away in September, the big credit crunch / economic crisis / whatever you want to call it happened. Because I work in philanthropy – and philanthropy kind of requires people to have money – this means tough times at work (and indeed for all of us).

I don’t understand economics at all. I have never owned shares (except I am now apparently owner of some via my health insurance) and I don’t really understand how it all works – nor would I normally want to. I don’t come from the kind of family or milieu where shares and companies and investments were even on our radar.

So I find it really hard to A) understand the current crisis, and B) not fixate on a general stereotype of “rich fat cats”as being to blame for it all. Fortunately, a number of external sources have helped me understand what’s been going on and how we got into this ridiculous state.

This American Life is one of my favourite podcasts of all time. The Giant Pool of Money was the first show they did on the crisis; it explains the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the complicated series of decisions (or non-decisions), abrogations of responsibility and barely-honest marketing that created it. It does this through interviews with some of the people involved – a guy who got a mortgage he couldn’t afford to repay, a mortgage broker and a banker who were involved in the deal, and what the global pool of money has to do with it. Excellent stuff.

TAL followed this show up with Another Frightening Show About the Economy.  This one explains the commercial paper market (what? you say; yes, I did too) and credit default swaps. It leaves you shaking your head.

You can’t download the TAL episodes unless you pay (99 cents US per ep) but you can listen for free online.

And the BBC World Service – another podcast favourite -  has recently done Fraud or Failure? which is another look at the crisis, from a slightly more global perspective.

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Philanthropy can’t do everything

I’ve just come back from doing grantseeker workshops in Canberra and Merimbula, and I’m off again this week for Sydney and Brisbane. I think it’s two months since I had a week where I haven’t hopped on a plane and spent a few nights away, apart from the week I was too sick. Normally I love workshops – the workshop itself, not the travel – but at the moment I’m hanging out for some workshop-free weeks.

I had someone at a recent workshop who really got me down. I find myself in a peculiar position whilst doing workshops – effectively trying to reveal “trade secrets” about how to access philanthropic funding, while at the same time often being put in the position of having to defend the philanthropic sector in general to angry disappointed grantseekers. Normally I quite enjoy it when I get someone a wee bit feisty, because it sparks things up a bit. This time, though, you could tell I’d lost my groove. The lady in question spoke up and said “I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say that most of the organisations here are volunteer run and we have a thousand other things to do, and we don’t have time to do what you’re suggesting. We don’t have time to research and call people and tell them what we’re doing and write submissions. We can’t do what you’re telling us we should do”.

As I said, I usually have an answer; but in this case my first instinct (although I didn’t follow it) was to say “Well, why are you here? And why am I here?” What I actually did was tell her that I understood her dilemma, that I share her frustration, but that the reality is that if you want some of this money, you need to step up and ask for it, because it will not just come to you no matter how acute the need.

Soon afterwards, she left. I don’t know if she left because she was upset with my answer, because she decided I had nothing to teach her, or because she just had something else to do. But it depressed me.

I’m used to people giving me fabulous feedback for workshops, and I’m also used to people getting upset. I’ve had people upset at my using real life examples which they thought were generalisations or assumed were me falling prey to stereotypes – even though I stated that these were real examples I had seen. I’ve had people from small towns upset because they thought I implied that small towns were full of uneducated rubes, and people from arts groups upset because they thought I implied that the arts is difficult to justify funding when I was actually pointing out how vital it is for the health of the community. I’ve had representatives from Indigenous groups upset because I did not mention specifically that foundations fund indigneous projects, and others upset that I did mention indigenous projects because they felt they were being singled out. All this has told me is that there are people out there who will get upset and feel something is aimed at them personally, or is a comment on their organisation, when it really isn’t. Also that I need to be more careful with my wording – most of the time I talk on the fly, rather than from prepared notes, and sometimes I don’t express things as clearly as I should. Most of the time I read the feedback, take it under my belt, and adjust or not as I feel it’s necessary.

The negativity of “It’s too hard, we don’t have time, we can’t try, what you’re telling us is no good” really got me down, though. Normally it wouldn’t, but it came towards the end of a long, long series of workshops in which I’ve felt I was forced to defend my sector and myself a lot. But the funny thing is that I relate to that lady in a way. When you think about it, philanthropy can’t do everything. So much is obvious. Philanthropic funding is a tiny, tiny band-aid on a gaping wound. You compare it to the huge swathing bandages of government funding, and it seems insignificant. Half a billion or so per annum, versus tens of billions from government. We’re too little and spread too thin. We can’t do everything.

On the other hand, we can make some small difference in a real life.

One of the inherent dilemmas in philanthropy is what you tackle and how – do you spread your funds widely, or focus on one area and throw everything into it? Do you fund broadly or deeply? Tackling the root causes of problems is popular in philanthropy right now; advocacy, education, trying to prevent problems before we start. I think what we’re not seeing enough of right now is the differences that we’ve made. I know that I’ve read project acquittals that talked about making a real difference to real people; people who’ve learned how to manage tiny budgets and save for treats, people who feel better about themselves and are able to go out and socialise now, people who get some respite from caring for a child with difficult intellectual and physical disabilities. But those were internal. They weren’t shared, and nobody gets to hear about them. Why not?

Maybe it’s just that we in philanthropy are the same as the lady at the workshop. We’re overworked. There aren’t enough of us to do everything, there isn’t enough money to do everything, and we don’t have time to read and share and learn because we’re all frantically flailing about trying to keep our heads above water. Just in a different way.

Or maybe the workshops – and associated prospect of my regular work piling up in the office – are getting me down, and I’ll feel better in a month’s time :) Who can say?

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Travel tips

It’s been a while since I updated, hasn’t it? That’s due to a number of factors. I spent most of February travelling around doing workshops for the Not for Profit Network, and adding to my collection of travel horror stories (like having my flight from Perth cancelled, hanging round there for hours in stinking heat, and getting home to Melbourne – via Brisbane – 12 hours after I was supposed to…) In March I took on a temporary second job with one of our member foundations on my day off and so March and April went by in a blink. I also had a run-in with someone who was being less than honest with charities and attempting to extract large sums of money from them, which took up a lot of time. May has been mostly spent travelling around doing workshops – both some regular ones for my job, and contracted ones for the NSW government – and I also got very sick, necessitating a whole week off work.

I enjoy giving workshops. I love the buzz in the room and I love hearing from people about what they’re doing and the projects that they want to get up. I always come away from a workshop with a performance high and some good feedback to bask in. I usually end up feeling quite restless after them because there’s all that energy coursing through my system.

But workshops are absolutely exhausting. That initial high leaves within a few hours and I’m left feeling tired and empty, and usually with several hours’ travel to get to my next destination (or to get home). People who travel a lot for work will know how draining it is. Even when you’re sitting in an airport, you can’t really relax; you need to be alert for announcements and changes, and just making sure that you’re on the ball. Even in your hotel room, you’re making sure you know where you have to go the next day, that you know how to get there, that your handouts are in order, that you know where you’re going to get dinner and what time the breakfast room opens, etc. And you’re lonely. Even if you have friends in that city, you’re usually too weary and voice-sore to be much company.

In the spirit of understanding that travel for work is Not Fun, here are my strategies for coping with work travel. These are mainly appropriate for someone in a similar situation to myself – travelling for work but on a budget, and maintaining a relative level of professionalism whilst still remaining sane.

Clothes need to be as trouble-free and comfortable as possible whilst still looking professional, which is quite difficult. I prefer not to wear suits for travel, because they are too easy to wrinkle; I also do a lot of my workshops in regional towns and a suit makes you stand out too much. I favour Traveller’s Pants from Taking Shape, which are flattering, comfortable, easy to pack and pretty wrinkle-resistant; if they wrinkle you just shake them out. For the top, I have some inexpensive cotton/lycra fitted shirts in darkish colours which don’t wrinkle or stain easily, and team that with a decent cardigan, or with a short trenchcoat if it’s winter. If I am travelling to a hot area (which I often do), I wear a sleeveless tank under a thin cardigan.

Comfortable underwear and decent socks that aren’t tight are essential. Pantyhose are complete crap to travel in. Those quick-dry undies and socks are brilliant – even if you’re only going for two nights, take only the quick-dry ones in case you get delayed or something. If you’re in Perth or Darwin in summer and your flight ends up being cancelled, it’s so nice to have clean stuff to change into. You can wash them in the sink, roll them up in a towel and stamp on them, and then they’ll dry in a few hours.

Dark pants and shoes are best. I always have a black base (shoes, pants and cardigan/coat) and then stick to one other colour for all my travel stuff (usually purple for winter, and green for summer) so I know all my stuff will coordinate – earrings, necklace, scarf, etc.

Have a toiletries bag ready packed and waiting to just be bunged in the suitcase with small amounts of stuff you use all the time. Mine contains deodorant, travel toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, contact lens lotion, spare contact lens case, comb, sunscreen, moisturiser, “feminine hygeine” products :) I don’t bother taking my own shampoo; I travel so much that I just swipe the wee ones from hotels and use them, provided they smell OK. I don’t swipe the hotel soaps, because they almost invariably smell really strongly perfumed – unless you’re staying in a really nice hotel :)

Body lotion is especially important, because when you travel you’re usually on your feet all the time and your skin gets really dry; nails tend to break from hauling stuff around all day, so take a nail file.

In your carry-on luggage you’ll need to have any medication you need. As well as my regular medication I include the following:

  • ibuprofen (or preferred headache remedy)
  • travel sickness tablets (invaluable to stop the plane-banking nausea and headache I get)
  • immodium (you’ll hardly ever use it but a day will come when you are awfully glad you packed it; take it in carry-on because it’s really agonising to need it during the “fasten seatbelts for landing” times!)
  • assorted other remedies (I have an aromatherapy roll-on remedy for headaches and one called “Buzz” which wakes me up; also Bach Rescue Remedy and a pure saline nasal spray)

Create an itinerary for yourself containing all the information you need for the trip – flight numbers and times, hotel addresses and numbers in case you need to call them, where your appointments are and when and instructions on how to get there. Have printouts of all the e-tickets and bookings. Copy the whole lot and have a spare copy in the suitcase just in case.

And have something comfy to change into – even if it’s only a pair of old tracky-daks and a comfy T-shirt. If you’re going to be hanging round a hotel room gutsing room service and watching TV, especially after a hard day, you want to be as comfortable as possible.

As far as getting work done on the road goes, nothing beats my Eee PC. It’s as small and light as a laptop gets, only cost me $500, and its inbuilt wireless means I can check email in most airports and plenty of hotels; the only accessory I’ve  purchased for it is a tiny USB mouse and a memory card which lives in the PC and contains all my files. Also remember to bring chargers/power cords.

Drink lots of water. Plane flights and airports really dry you out. Avoid alcohol and disgusting airline coffee.

And my last travel tip: have a “weary but cheery” attitude. It makes talkative fellow travellers leave you alone to rest your voice, but it’s pleasant for friendly taxi drivers and that nice bloke at check-in who just might slip you on an earlier flight.

Optional extras for the paranoid: quite possibly I have seen too many episodes of Air Crash Investigation or am influenced by having a partner whose job involves aircraft accident investigation, but when I fly I always do a few things aimed at my accident survivability. I wear closed-toe shoes, preferably sneakers, so that burning jet fuel in the event of a crash doesn’t burn my exposed feet and stop me getting out; and I carry a bottle of water and a bandanna so that I can douse the bandanna with water and wrap it round my nose and mouth, thereby avoiding some of the poisonous fumes from burning plane materials. Remember, people, most plane accidents are survivable :)

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GiveWell fallout blogs

For me a lot of the GiveWell/Metafilter controversy hit home because I believe passionately in philanthropy. I also believe passionately in online community. I participate in both. Philanthropy pays my bills, since I’m a paid philanthropoid, but I also believe in its potential. I believe in what it has achieved. And online community – which I’ve participated in, in one form or another, since the mid 1990s – has been one of the most important and intellectually enriching factors in my life.

The Rise and Fall of Givewell at the Chronicle of Philanthropy – a really good post from Uncivil Society’s Jeff Trexler, who I feel is one of the nonprofit commentators who best “gets” the crux of the matter and understands the nature of online community. Jeff’s other posts on the GiveWell crisis are also good: check out my two favourites, Givewell Revisited and Hubris 2.0: Five Lessons of the Givewell Metafilter controversy. Uncivil Society is a great blog in its own right.

Charities Urged to Set Online Guidelines following One Group’s Lapse – this is a premium article available only to Chronicle subscribers, alas, but there’s a nice excerpt in Jeff Trexler’s blog above.

The faceplant that rocked philanthropy – good summary from Doing Giving Differently, which looks like an interesting blog which I’ll check out in more detail later.

N00bs in Philanthropy – a great piece from Allan Benamer at Non-Profit Tech Blog.

AstroTurfing burns. Be authentic or else – from Katya’s Non-Profit Marketing Blog

Nonprofits should avoid astroturf too – from Issue Dynamics Inc. Nice and blunt – “It’s slimy, it’s pointless and it tends to backfire”.

What do I think about all this? That’s a longer post, coming up on my day off. I just wanted to link some of my favourite reading.

The ongoing post at MetaTalk is full of useful stuff as well, but there’s a lot of general blather there as well. There are some excellent comments made by Miko, in particular, as well as MeFi mods Jessamyn and Cortex. I’m going to quote two comments which have summed up my simultaneous frustration and delight about how this controversy has made my worlds of philanthropy/online community collide:

1. “I can’t cite any of this stuff, because no one will admit to it on the record. But I’ve had plenty of conversations with funders and recipients, and I’ve been on the (non) receiving end of this. I’ve been living it… The entire philanthropic “industry” has its head up its ass.” (quotee: nax)

2. “Metrics from one type of nonprofit (the symphony) will never be applicable to another type (the soup kitchen, or the fund to buy track shoes for poor kids, or the equine-therapy program). There is no way to compare apples to apples when you have apples, kumquats, plums, kiwis, bananas, durians, and all sorts of other fruit lined up side by side. All nonprofits are different, and differently funded. Each organization completes a constellation of reports to a constellation of organizations each year, but those organizations are all different, funded you for different reasons, and demand different outputs.

The GiveWell folks were looking for simple, comparable data. But because our funding sources are so diverse and divergent, simple comparable data does not exist. Which frustrates them no end, because they are unable to determine something they vaguely define as ‘impact.’ So they are asking nonprofits to provide them simple comparable data by dangling a carrot in the form of a small-impact grant. This is not different than what any other grantmaker does, with the exception that they are planning to share their documentation. The bigger question this raises for me is: where should the burden of transparency really fall?” (quotee: Miko)

More to come, eventually.

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Catching bullets in our teeth

When I was at Ben’s party on Friday night, meeting the lovely Sam from Tunng, a question about Australians’ attitudes to international poverty came up and Ben asked me my opinion since I work in the sector. After a bit of discussion, one of Ben’s friends turned to me and said, wonderingly “So your job is… good?”

When I have a day like yesterday – which I must emphasise was crappy because of external people, not any of my wonderful co-workers – I need to remember that, because it’s why we all keep going.

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