Monday, February 21, 2011

President Obama's Failure of Imagine re American Competitiveness

Last week when President Obama traveled to the west coast to dine with technology entrepreneurs including Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg it was announced that the CEO of Intel, Paul Otellini, was being appointed to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness that was established in January and is chaired by GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

According to the White House “the Council will focus on finding new ways to promote growth by investing in American business to encourage hiring, to educate and train our workers to compete globally, and to attract the best jobs and businesses to the United States.”

President Obama will continue to appoint members in the weeks ahead. If his first choices are any indication the Council’s membership will be comprised mostly of business leaders. If so this would be an insufficiently narrow approach to competitiveness – and indeed a tragic failure of imagination on the part of the President.

Among the many reasons that America is not competing adequately on a global basis, another comes to light this week in our new national survey of public school teachers showing that 65% of teachers have children in their classroom who are coming to school hungry because they do not get enough to eat at home. 98% of teachers believe that breakfast is important to academic achievement.

We have much to learn from America’s most successful CEO’s and should be grateful to those willing to serve. But limiting the dialogue on competitiveness to them limits our exploration into the root causes of our economic and education challenges. Competitiveness must be understood expansively – and include all of the elements that enable future generations to compete – including the health and strength of their bodies and minds. To seek economic competitiveness without addressing childhood hunger and poverty, is like seeking military superiority without investing in the physical fitness of the troops.

So far the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness looks like many of its predecessors – and will probably produce the same limited results. Obama should act boldly to redefine competitiveness, recognizing it not as a one dimensional challenge of investing in technology and education, but instead as a three dimensional challenge of ensuring the workforce of the future is also fed, fit, healthy, and ready to learn. The membership of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness needs to include that perspective. Hopefully the President will act soon to ensure that it does.

Teacher Unity Rare - Except About Hunger in the Classroom!

Although they have sharp differences about unions, charter schools, tenure, and other controversial matters, there is at least one issue on which America’s teachers are in almost unanimous agreement: being well fed is critical to academic achievement. A new national survey by Lake Research shows that 98% of teachers believe there is a strong connection between eating a healthy breakfast and a student’s ability to concentrate, behave, and perform academically.

That statistic may not surprise you but here’s some that will: 65% of K-8 teachers have children in their classrooms who regularly come to school hungry because they have not had enough to eat at home, and 61% of these teachers use their own salaries each month to buy food supplies for the hungry children in their class. Overall, six in ten teachers say hunger in the classroom increased last year. So how did we get to this distressing point? Not by design, but by neglect.

In fact political leaders of an earlier era – Democrats and Republicans – worked together in precisely the kind of bipartisan fashion we long for today, to create school lunch and school breakfast programs, and summer meals for when the schools are closed, to ensure that low income children would not be too distracted by hunger to learn. The problem is that these programs are not being fully utilized today. In most states only 40% of the kids who get school lunch are also getting the school breakfast for which they are eligible and only 15% are enrolled in summer feeding programs. That’s not because children and families aren’t aware of the programs, it’s because school districts and communities have not set them up in ways conducive to their participation.

Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign is going state by state to identify barriers to participation and eliminate them. This is the most immediate and cost efficient way to reduce hunger and improve educational performance. President Obama has made investment in American competitiveness the hallmark of his economic plan and budget. That competitiveness in the global economy begins with children in your neighborhood starting their school day well fed and ready to learn.

Hopefully we are not so acclimated to political divisiveness that we fail to recognize political unity when it is right in front of us. On the rare occasion that a group as diverse and divided as America’s public school teachers come together with one voice, we should listen with special care. They see our children in all lights and all seasons: healthy and strong – but also vulnerable and voiceless. If we hope to hold teachers to higher and higher standards of accountability, the least we can do is keep the promise made generations ago to send them children who are fed, fit and healthy in body and mind.

We all have something to learn from our kid's teachers

We think of teachers as playing a vital role in educating our children but a new national survey shows that all of us have something important to learn from those who bear witness first hand to the health and happiness of our kids. A new national survey to be released this week ( reveals that two-thirds of K-8 public school teachers see kids coming to school hungry because they don’t get enough to eat at home. And programs like school breakfast don’t include many of the students who are eligible.

Teachers are remarkably diverse and vigorously disagree on charter schools, unions, tenure and other issues. But 98% agree that eating breakfast affects classroom performance. It’s not only our kids that need to listen to their teachers. We all need to.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Where the rubber meets the road: CSR and shareholder value

Where does the rubber meet the road when it comes to corporate social responsibility versus maximizing shareholder value?
The current Forbes on-line column about entrepreneurship features an interview with Paul Herrling who heads corporate research at Novartis and chairs their Institute for Tropical Diseases – a $200 million Institute for developing drugs for dengue fever, tuberculosis, malaria. See: When asked to respond to those who say $200 million is a small percentage of Novartis’ $7.5 billion dollar R&D budget, Herrling replies:

“We are a commercial organization and we are responsible to shareholders. We also believe that one of our missions is contributing new medicines to society, which is horrendously expensive. There is a limit to what we can do if we want to maintain profitability as a company. It cannot be a commercial organization’s responsibility to solve access to medicine problems where there is no market.…We would go out of business if we tried to address this problem on our own.”

Herrling restates what we already know: there are constraints on how much corporations, especially publicly traded corporations, can invest in community. But his comment about not bearing responsibility to solve problems “where there is no market” begs the question: where does that responsibility lie?

That’s a fundamental question I seek to explore in The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men – seeking the answer at the intersection where science, philanthropy and entrepreneurship are beginning to converge in unprecedented ways. Join the discussion at

rising food prices push millions into extreme poverty

When hundreds of thousands of Egyptian protestors push unto Tahrir Square it makes for dramatic media coverage. But when tens of millions of the world’s most oppressed people are pushed into extreme poverty by rising food prices, according to a just released report by the World Bank, the news is posted somewhere on-line and just as quickly forgotten. See:

Sometimes journalists, activist and political leaders have to make sure that the news stories that aren’t naturally accompanied by dramatic visuals are prominently portrayed and thoroughly explained. The long term consequences to political stability and national security are every bit as great.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Linking Hunger and Global Health

 The Web Site L.A. Observed is reporting that global health is the new hot Hollywood ticket and the guests at a Thursday night discussion with Bill Gates, Michael Milliken, included Share Our Strength supporters: Wendy Gruel, city controller, and Alice Waters! See the article at:

Alice Waters was our first donor from the culinary community more than 25 years ago, so it feels like poetic justice that she shares an interest in the global health issues I tried to tackle in The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men. And while I haven’t discussed it with her, I suspect that in her case it has less to do with this being one of the flavors of the month in Hollywood right now, and more to do with a long commitment to solving problems that affect those most vulnerable and voiceless, the same commitment that brought her to Share Our Strength in the first place.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bread and Protest: connecting hunger, the voiceless, global health, and Egyptian Revolution

Today’s New York Times, includes a link to one of the best articulations of the connections between, hunger, the voiceless, global health, political instability, and the revolution in Egypt, the world's largest wheat importer at a time of record high prices. Laurie Garrett at the Council on Foreign Relations explains the role of rising wheat prices in the unrest. See

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Getting Off the Sidelines and Into the Game

In anticipation of President Obama’s announcement of his 2012 budget proposal on Monday, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an article on Friday speculating about the impact that proposed budget cuts will have on the nonprofit sector. See

The White House has already signaled that it wants to cut Community Service Block Grants and Community Development Block Grants which fund many nonprofits and anti-poverty programs – and House Republicans have said they want to reduce spending on community health programs, family planning, and maternal and child health programs, as well as arts and legal services.

Nonprofits and community organizations can be expected of course to oppose such cuts, but that’s tantamount to opposing the results of the last election. The real question is whether nonprofits will have the vision and courage to go beyond merely opposing, and to proposing policy alternatives instead, while also diversifying their own revenues to reduce their dependence on such politically fragile funding.

One of the oldest strategic lessons in the book is that you can’t fight something with nothing. We saw this in 2010 when the anti-hunger community found itself powerless to prevent cuts in future SNAP (food stamp) benefits because we confined our role to shouting objections from the sidelines, rather than joining the fray by proposing alternative offsets to federal spending. The rationale at the time: “proposing offsets is not our responsibility … that’s the job of Congress and the White House.” The result: a vacuum of leadership filled instead by those willing to take advantage of the most vulnerable and voiceless SNAP recipients.

The lives of too many Americans are so dependent on the health of the nonprofit sector that we can no longer allow budgets and the policies they represent to be something that just happen to us. We need to build capacity to influence policy as surely as we need to build capacity to deliver the highest quality human services. This means making investments in research, staff, and advocacy that may not pay off until the long-term.

And as the many clients of Community Wealth Ventures can attest, nonprofits need to do more than wait for wealth to be redistributed in their direction, they need to create their own wealth, community wealth, that will go directly back into the communities they serve. This too requires specific actions: auditing assets, recasting the culture of an organization to embrace market forces, a more expansive of vision of what’s possible, including nonprofits making profit. It’s more than coincidence that Share Our Strength, which has long embraced such actions, has grown dramatically even in the face of the national economic downturn that has created challenges for so many of our colleagues.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

New York Review of Books on The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men

The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men is reviewed in the Feb 24, 2011 New York Review of Books (NYRB).

Though I’ve written three other books that have received decent enough publicity, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men is the only one to have been formally reviewed, first by the Wall Street Journal at the end of last year and now by NYRB. Perhaps best of all, the reviewer it was assigned to was Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, a British medical journal that is one of the world’s most important global health publications.

What I wanted for this book, more than agreement necessarily on my thoughts about failures of imagination and the entrepreneurial strategies needed to solve problems there are no markets for solving, was for the book to be a catalyst for much broader discussion about how we imagine a future that may not yet exist but is within our grasp to achieve. I wanted it to include ideas others thought worth arguing about.

Indeed Mr. Horton does not agree with or share the enthusiasm for malaria eradication that Bill and Melinda Gates, and Steve Hoffman advocate, and which I tried to convey, or for the necessity of market strategies for which I make the case. He see’s greater opportunity in eliminating malaria in countries where that is most feasible, rather than in eradicating it entirely. But his review is thoughtful, serious, balanced and comprehensive – fully airing my ideas and arguments – really all that anyone could ask for.

Trying to project a voice on behalf of those who are so vulnerable that their own voices are seldom heard is fraught with risk. Others similarly engaged in such efforts, often having spent long stretches alone in the trenches, will have strong and differing opinions. But when the NYRB and the editor of The Lancet help to amplify such voices and add their own, the result is a great plus for so many of the issues about which you and I care most, and for those we hope to serve.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Party Celebrating Global Health Entrepreneur Steve Hoffman

Tuesday will be a wonderful opportunity to meet global health entrepreneur Steve Hoffman, who developed the malaria vaccine on which Bill Gates bet more than $30 million. Steve will be joining me for a book party for The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men that is being generously hosted by the law firm Reed Smith, at 1301 K Street, Suite 1100 – East Tower, Washington DC, at 5:00 p.m.

In the short time since the book was finished, Steve has traveled widely, secured additional funding, and entered into new partnerships to advance his vaccine candidate. But even after following Steve for more than five years, it is the nature of scientific discovery, and the imperatives of clinical trials, that the end of this story, upon which the lives of almost a million children a year depends, cannot be known or written yet.

Even so, Steve’s work illustrates many of the necessary entreprenuerial strategies required for solving the toughest problems of all – those that affect people so vulnerable and voiceless that there are no markets for solving them. Come join us as we celebrate and discuss his powerful ideas. You can RSVP to Alice Pennington at