Archives for category: civic engagement

I am asked to talk about what I think are some of the most important elements of public deliberation to different groups from time to time. Public deliberation is just one way of describing people working together to weigh options about what we should do about a difficult shared problem.

One aspect of this involves the question: What problem should we talk about? This shows up in different ways. For instance, groups that seek to work in civic engagement often have a problem on their minds that they believe the community must address. “How will we get people to come to such meetings?” they may wonder. Or in other cases a group thinking about fostering public dialogue has the sense that there is something that is bothering people throughout the community, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. “What do people think the problem is?” such groups may wonder.

These are all different ways of talking about naming. By that term, when applying it to public deliberation, I simply mean: What is the problem that we all agree we must talk about? If I want people to come to my meeting, I need to present a problem that everyone agrees is important to discuss.

But for groups trying to foster public deliberation, it doesn’t stop there. Not all such “shared problems” are actually suited to public deliberation. Why? Deliberating together is necessary for problems where collective (complementary) action is required in order to move forward. This isn’t the case for all problems — some problems, while widely seen as important, can be solved by one or two agencies or organizations, or the solution is clear and it is technical.

(Note that these aren’t the only important dimensions, but they are high on the list. Public deliberation is called for where the nature of the problem is in dispute, where solutions involve tensions between things held commonly valuable, and where any solution necessarily involves multiple actors. Some people refer to such problems as “wicked” problems.)

Evernote Camera Roll 20150225 200531I recently began thinking about different ways to convey the nature of problems that are suited to public deliberation, and I had an insight that I could draw a picture of those two different dimensions. I scrawled this down on a scrap of paper, but more recently I’ve tried to make it clearer. Below is what I came up with. Click it to see it larger and more legibly.

Notice that I have notionally spread out different kinds of “shared problems” to show how it works. You might dispute my placement. It’s really just illustrative — my point is that there is an important difference between the issue of “crime” and “pedestrian safety” in the minds of most people. Indeed, each dimension on the graph represents the broadly held sense in the community about the problem. (So it isn’t precise and isn’t meant to be.)

(click for full size in new tab)

Problems toward the upper right on these scales are more likely to require public deliberation — so groups seeking to support such public work will likely be best served by focusing on such problems.

What this means practically is that a group may think that the community needs to talk about, say, healthy school lunches. But it is easy to imagine that among community members there won’t be broad agreement that we MUST deal with this issue, nor broad agreement that working together is necessary to tackle it. During concern gathering where the group asks community members what concerns them about the issue, they may hear people talk about food deserts, difficulties in finding healthy food that families experience who are struggling, and worries that poor health is creating problems more broadly in the community. In listening carefully to such concerns, the organizing group may come to the conclusion that people in the community are more willing to believe that “obesity” is a problem we ought to or must deal with, and that progress will take many different people.

In a learning exchange where I recently discussed this way of looking at problems, a number of people suggested different dimensions, or making it three-dimensional. Those are valid ideas and I think the concept is worth playing with.

One terrific benefit of working in the philanthropic sector is the opportunity to attend the Council on Foundations’ annual meeting. This major event invariably brings together significant thinkers who share their learning and insights with foundations, which are a key part of the social sector and arguably one of the most important leverage points. This year we will be in San Francisco.

I had the good fortune this year to be invited to play a role in the planning of this conference, serving as a member of the “Civil Society Working Group.” I have no idea how I ended up with this group of people, which includes some real leaders in the field, mentors, and people I have admired for years.

We were tasked with developing a series of breakout sessions that focused on how civil society can more productively work and be supported by philanthropy.

I’m particularly excited to be moderating one of the sessions:

Philanthropy’s Role in Free Speech, Press, and Religion

2015-annual-civil-iconThe recent Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris reminded us across the globe of the democratic values we enjoy and must protect in a civil society. In addition, these events remind us of the ongoing need for civil discourse that allows disparate ideologies to have voice. What is philanthropy’s role to ensure open speech, inclusion of ideological and religious differences, privacy, and the right to assemble?

Discussants on this topic will be:

  • Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice
  • Eboo Patel, founder and president, Interfaith Youth Core
  • Abdi Soltani, executive director of ACLU NorCal

If you are coming to the meeting, join me at 11:15 am on Sunday, April 26 for this session! We will be in the Yerba Buena Ballroom, Salon 1/2, Lower B2 Level.


I’m excited to announce the newest report from the Kettering Foundation, Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums. It’s a handbook for anyone interested in creating materials to support deliberative conversations on difficult public issues.

30813.inddThis report has been a long time coming. It was one of the first things I was asked to complete when I came on staff at Kettering.

Our aim was to collect what we have been learning about “issue framing” and make it accessible to people so it didn’t seem like such a mystery. Throughout the dialogue field, people often talk about issue framing as some kind of specialized skill that only certain people can do — or that takes huge amounts of money, people, time, and other resources. But we’ve learned that it is relatively straightforward and really just takes a careful attentiveness to a few principles and key ideas.

Developing Materials is available here on the Kettering Foundation web site, or you can download it here: Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums

It’s also available for free in hard copy! Just drop me a line at and let me know you’d like a copy.

Here is an excerpt:

When issues are named and framed in public terms, we can identify the problem that we need to talk about (naming) and the critical options and drawbacks for deciding what to do about that problem (framing). . . .

A framework that will prompt public deliberation should make clear the options that are available for addressing the problem and the tensions at stake in facing it. It should lay bare what is at issue in readily understandable terms.

Three key questions drive the development of a framework for public deliberation:

  • What concerns you about this issue?
  • Given those concerns, what would you do about it?
  • If that worked to ease your concern, what are the downsides or trade-offs you might then have to accept?

Responses to these questions, together, can generate a framework that makes clear the drawbacks of different people’s favored options. Facing these drawbacks and coming to a sound decision about what to do is the ultimate concern of deliberation.


I’m delighted to announce the publication of a new report, a joint effort by the Kettering Foundation and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), of which I am the author. Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: A Relationship of Respect and Clarity explores how the field of organized philanthropy might think about responding to a growing movement for accountability and transparency.

Philanthropy_and_the_Limits_of_Accountability_FINAL_pdf__page_1_of_20_The report is available as a free PDF download from PACE, where the paper is described like this: “The paper grew out of a conversation we began with PACE members over year ago about how the issues of transparency and accountability might soon impact the field of philanthropy. PACE and Kettering convened three roundtables of philanthropic and non-profit leaders, and talked to dozens more one-on-one. This report is a distillation of what we heard and the issues that were raised.”

I am proud to have worked on this important research. An early preview of our findings, published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy a few weeks ago in an article by me and PACE executive director Chris Gates, outlines the main points:

    • Philanthropy is at a crossroads as it experiences increased pressure from all sides to solve public problems and to be more accountable for outcomes.
    • Transparency may be a necessary component of accountability, but it is not sufficient and too often may be obfuscating.
    • Strategic philanthropy may paradoxically tend to make philanthropic organizations seem less accountable and more risk averse.
    • Accountability isn’t just about data transparency. It’s also about relationships.

Download Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability here.


In partnership with Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), the Kettering Foundation has been working for the past year or so on a report looking at the civic dimensions of the “accountability movement” as it relates to organized philanthropy. I have been the main researcher in this work, which has involved a series of conversations with leaders in the social sector. That report, Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: a Relationship of Respect and Clarity, will be released very soon and will be available at the PACE website.

For now, though, I am delighted to announce a preview of the findings that appears in the form of an article that I co-wrote with my good friend and PACE executive director, Chris Gates, which appears in the most recent Chronicle of Philanthropy. They were kind enough to take it out from behind the subscriber paywall so it is available for the public to read.

Here’s a quick excerpt, edited down from the article:

Foundations Must Rethink Their Ideas of Strategic Giving and Accountability

For decades, foundations have done their work with little pressure to make their operations more open and understandable. Boards have been free to make decisions behind closed doors about what areas they will focus on and what projects and organizations they will fund. . . . But that . . . has been changing. Pressures for increased accountability—the same ones that have affected so many other sectors and to which philanthropy has so far seemed immune—are increasing. . . .

Here are the main findings from our forthcoming report, which will be released this spring . . . .

    • Philanthropy is at a crossroads as it experiences increased pressure from all sides to solve public problems and to be more accountable for outcomes.
    • Transparency may be a necessary component of accountability, but it is not sufficient and too often may be obfuscating.
    • Strategic philanthropy may paradoxically tend to make philanthropic organizations seem less accountable and more risk averse.
    • Accountability isn’t just about data transparency. It’s also about relationships.

* * * * *

We go into greater depth on these findings in the article (and even more in the paper), so please click over and take a read. If you find it interesting, we encourage you to comment on the Chronicle website. We would like to get a discussion going.