Archives for the month of: February, 2004

My daughter is an animal person; has been ever since she discovered them. She loves farms, pet stores, the pound, and the zoo. So I have been closely following the sad spectacle at the National Zoo. Management has fallen victim to a classic nonprofit ethics trap, one to which all mission-driven organizations are prone: they forgot they had to execute ethically.

Many nonprofit organizations right now are pleased that the latest Harris Interactive reputation survey shows them to be more trusted than for-profit corporations — but it’s only 15 percent to three percent. Hardly a ringing endorsement from an essentially untrusting society. Given this context, the Zoo should serve as a warning.

For months now, the National Zoo has been besieged. Animals have been dying. In their last review from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association they received an unusually short one-year accreditation, a form of probation. Staff has been leaving. The Washington Post ran a series of high-profile examinations of the practices and deficiencies at the Zoo. And, the National Academy of Sciences has launched an investigation and just issued a scathing interim report. The final report, due out in the summer, is unlikely to be much rosier. Under intense criticism, Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman has said she will resign, rather than be such a “lightning rod” for public controversy.

On the one hand, another high-profile controversy at a public institution (even a quasi-governmental one) cannot be good for the nonprofit sector. But on the other hand, such times can lead to a positive introspection, as leaders examine what went wrong and what they can do to avoid the same fate.

What happened to one of the jewels in the crown of the Smithsonian? While many may say it’s a management problem, that assessment skirts the issue. It’s an ethics problem.

Nonprofit leaders thus ought to take note, and ask themselves a set of probing questions. The answers, like many things relating to ethics, will require rigorous honesty. The questions get at the three dimensions of ethical action, all of which must be aligned: intention, practice, and execution. Leaders should ask themselves:

* Intention: What is my mission and purpose? To what extent is the achievement of this mission more important than the way I go about it?

* Practice: Are the systems, structures, and procedures I have in place sufficient? Are they truly designed to foster ethical action or are they just meant to appear that way?

* Execution: Am I carrying out my plans? Am I following my own rules? Or are they just plans on paper that I would follow in a perfect world?

Many will answer the first two sets of questions gladly and well. In mission-driven organizations such as most throughout the nonprofit world, executives feel comfortable with their purpose, and see themselves as ethical. Their hearts are definitely in the right place. And, most savvy nonprofit leaders have readily grasped the need for both the appearance and reality of a robust, ethical management strategy. Their heads are not in the clouds.

But, what about execution? How effectively are the hands of nonprofits operating? So many groups that I talk to are strapped for cash, time, and other resources. It’s hard to make ends meet and keep the lights on, let alone dot every i and cross every t.

That was the Zoo’s experience. In releasing its interim report, the chair of the Academy investigatory panel said, “We believe there has been pervasive weakness throughout the institution, from the keeper level to management.” The Zoo has plenty of policies and procedures. They’re good ones, all designed to ensure that the Zoo’s public trust is upheld. But they aren’t being followed.

It is easy to scapegoat Spelman and deride the Zoo. The problems are clearly deep ones at that institution. But the Zoo is not alone. The United Way and the Nature Conservancy in Washington DC, PipeVine in San Francisco, and Provena Covenant Medical Center in Illinois all come to mind. Good missions. Systems galore. Bad execution.

Thankfully, there is a movement among nonprofits and foundations towards greater effectiveness. New ways of measuring effectiveness are being devised. This can only be a good thing for this vital feature of the American landscape.

Because, sometimes in the nonprofit world, commitment to mission seems to trump everything else. It may have in Spelman’s case. In the news conference at which she resigned, Zoo director Spelman said, “I have pushed, pulled and prodded to move the zoo forward.” Her intentions were good. “Everybody here is here to try to make sure the animals are okay,” she said to the Washington Post, lauding the good intentions of the staffers who changed medical records and made mistakes that cost lives. In response to her chief critic, former chief pathologist Don Nichols, she said, “I’m sad that Don would be as critical as he is, given that I know he does care about the animals.” In this alternate world, it seems, if you care then that’s enough.

But it clearly wasn’t enough. Hearts must be in the right place, and heads must not be in the clouds. But, in the end, it is the hands that must do the work.

Whether he has withdrawn or not (and it’s unclear what the answer is), Howard Dean is out of the race. Now his supporters are rallying around the idea of continuing the “movement” his campaign started. The unprecedented success of this pioneering campaign has got to be harnessed, they say.

But what, if anything, is behind the curtain of the “first true Internet-based campaign” mystique? Less than might be hoped. We have been here before. We have heard about the brave new political world being ushered in by technology, especially where the Internet is involved.

After Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota state house, there was a spate of “first Internet-based campaign” pronouncements. They were all in response to the fact that the campaign used e-mail to get people to rallies. Ordinary Hockey dads who had never been politically active were coordinated through e-mail lists to great effect. Later, the McCain campaign raised a lot of money over the Internet and so it became in its turn the “first Internet-based campaign,” ironically heralding a new era in political money.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Project Vote Smart appeared to be on the vanguard of forging a new Internet-enabled relationship between citizens and politicians. It posted a searchable database of answers to candidate questionnaires. But then, the next election cycle, those same answers were used in politics-as-usual attack ads and the project suddenly found it hard to convince candidates to fill out their forms. It is now a rare candidate who takes them up on their offer of posting their positions (not even the Dean campaign did).

Now, even in its demise, the Dean campaign is seen as validating the democratically transformative effects of the Internet. In this case, the hype is based on the fact that the campaign had a “weblog” (which in reality was a way for the campaign to continually update what it said about itself); and employed a field-based approach to organizing in which local cells of support had a fair degree of what seemed like autonomy. People across the country are avid and self-referential about how “first” they are, or were. A recent technology conference featuring ousted Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi became the functional equivalent of Comdex, and weblogs are abuzz with parsings of what Trippi said and didn’t — and what needs to happen for the Internet to continue to take over politics.

But, the real reason the Dean campaign is the first “real” Internet campaign has nothing to do with the uses made of the Internet for political purposes. No, the Dean campaign was able to create the simulation of widespread support by clever use of Internet-based (i.e., “narrowcast”) marketing tools. People thought they had a “relationship” with the Dean campaign the same way my bank wants me to think I have a “relationship” to it.

The Dean campaign was the first to simulate a real campaign, just as simulated a real business and the AOL-TimeWarner merger simulated real strategy. The Dean campaign looked exactly like a successful campaign — only it wasn’t.

This found perhaps its most perfect expression when the campaign found itself to be very successful and sent out an email suggesting that it was wrestling with a tough decision about whether to forego public financing. The “interactive” nature of this missive was touted by many at the time as yet another example of the Internettiness of the campaign. The campaign used the sense of intimacy brought about by the Internet to make people feel as if they had been asked an important question. “Hey!” thought people at home. “The campaign cares what I think!”

But it was hollow. The decision was a foregone conclusion. Dean was going to go where the money was.

Ultimately, what the Dean campaign showed us (reminded us) is what real grassroots political organizers have long known: political “transactions” are fundamentally different from commercial transactions. It is easier to get my money than my civic time. What the Dean campaign forgot, or more precisely what the hype about the Dean campaign forgot, was that the appearance of a network and message of hope is far different from the real thing.

And it’s the real thing in which people place their trust.

The field has winnowed and the retail politics of January has given way to the wholesale politics of the rest of the year. Turnout has been up, especially among younger people. Since Iowa, opinion pages have been awash with cautious optimism that civic engagement is on the rise.

But forgive me if I don’t unwrap my party hat just yet. The reports of the death of youth disengagement are, as were the stories of Samuel Clemens’s demise, greatly exaggerated. Indeed, in a recent survey by the Council for Excellence in Government and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth are twelve percent less likely to trust government than they were two years ago, and only thirty-five percent say most people can be trusted. The divide between the people and political leaders — indeed, between people and each other — remains as deep as ever.

Meanwhile, the stalwart “civic engagement” industry — the many nonprofit groups and other organizations that mount voter registration drive after voter registration drive and create massive get-out-the-vote campaigns — lumbers on with seemingly less and less effect.

The problem is the very means that are used to promote participation in the first place. Young people are asked to “raise their voice” and “be heard” through voting. They are told that whether or not they vote “matters,” that their vote “counts” (all disingenuous propositions). They are exhorted to “send a message on election day” to political leaders.

This is the rise of the marketing-based approach to public life. But citizenship cannot be sold. It is telling that this very rhetoric appears in an advertisement for Coca-Cola that was making the rounds in movie theaters recently. In a mythic place called “Football Town,” one fan proudly proclaims, “I know I can make a difference!”

Such messages work if participation is a decision akin to making a purchase — an economic decision. But citizens are neither customers nor fans. Here in the longest-running experiment in self-governance on the planet, citizens are those who have voluntarily adopted the obligations of self-rule.

However, the model that is too-often used to think and talk about civic participation relies on self-interest and not on other-interest. It denies that there is any real moral consequence to staying home on PTA night, to keeping quiet when fellow citizens bash those “politicians,” and taking a Mulligan on election day.

Needed is an honest approach. Citizens ought not to participate simply because they may get something out of it, or because their “voice” might be “heard.” Americans need to be reminded of their civic duty, not pandered to with proposals of election-day holidays and EZ absentee ballot forms.

But, I am pessimistic that this will come to pass any time soon. Such a movement would not be popular. It would require sacrifice — not the dramatic sacrifice of the rescuer or soldier, but the ordinary, noble sacrifice of the citizen. It would require attendance at community meetings rather than relaxing at home after a hard day’s work or study. It would require actively learning about current events rather than keeping up with Entertainment Tonight. It would require giving up weekends in favor of volunteering on a political campaign. It would require writing a letter to the editor of the newspaper rather than complaining at the dinner table. It would require voting on election day, rather than complaining about being stuck in traffic.

The civic machinery of youth participation is gunning its engine, as it does every four years, but it will continue to remain stuck on the ice for as long as it misrepresents the point of citizenship.

When it comes time to buy, I fear the newest potential customers of democracy will continue to patronize other, more exciting shops, while they wait in vain for an honest invitation to join public life.