Monday, January 31, 2011

How Poverty Has Disappeared from the National Dialogue

Last week, prior to the State of the Union, I wrote about my fear that President Obama would feel politically constrained to only give lip service to the fact that 48 million Americans now live in poverty. In retrospect, I would have settled for at least lip service.

In the New York Times over the weekend, columnist Charles Blow wrote a powerful op-ed about the president’s failure to advocate for the poor or disenfranchised. It can be found at According to Blow, this is only the second time in history that a Democratic president has failed to even mention poverty.

I think the president deserves some latitude given the multiple crises he’s had to confront. And along with most political pragmatists, I understand why the president feels compelled to keep the focus on education, economic growth, innovation, renewable energy, free trade, and platitudes about America winning the future. But it’s not just a coincidence that each of those issues affects constituencies who have enough economic or political power to project a voice loud enough to be heard in Washington. Or that those who live in poverty do not.

In fact beyond all of the political points that were won or lost in the competing analyses of the President’s remarks, the speech was also a window into a national culture that has become callous and indifferent to those so marginalized that they have literally disappeared from the national dialogue.

This is not the fault of President Obama – though he could probably help change it if he chose to. It is rather the inevitable result of a society whose worship of celebrity, success, material wealth, and political influence has reached heights previously unseen. That’s not something the President owns. We all do. And it will only change when each of us commits to listen and respond to not only the loudest voices, but the most silent as well.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"A powerful imagination generates the event"

Over the weekend I picked up one of the slim “Great Ideas” volumes published by Penguin Books. It was a collection of Michel De Montaigne’s writings from the mid-1500’s. One chapter begins: “Fortis imagination generat casum”: a powerful imagination generates the event.

It was wonderful to find a 500 year old antecedent to the themes I’ve tried to write about in THE IMAGINATIONS OF UNREASONABLE MEN, especially from one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance.

The deeper I dig into the extraordinary growth of Share Our Strength these past 18 months, and the more I study areas of transformative change, as in the field of global health, the more it affirms that most of the failures that hold individuals and organizations back from the advances they seek, are not failures of money or manpower, but failures of imagination.

Imagination – to not only feed children but to end childhood hunger, to not only treat malaria but to develop a vaccine to eradicate it, - can actually be cultivated in very specific ways that include:

 Constantly challenging conventional wisdom and longstanding assumptions

 Funding R&D as a necessity not a luxury

 Rewarding risk and not penalizing dreamers

 Asking hard questions about what is possible if the questions seem na├»ve

 Forcing leaders our from behind their desks and into places where imagination will be stimulated.

Montaigne makes clear that what we’ve known for hundreds of years but sometimes forget: the power of imagination makes it possible to envision and create a world which does not yet exist but is within our grasp to achieve.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hoping for some FDR in Obama State of the Union

The State of the Union speech tomorrow will be scrutinized and analyzed based on the President’s every word. But I am more concerned about what he doesn’t say. All indications are that he will focus on growth and competitiveness and job creation. As the nation struggles to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, one can’t argue with that. But why not marry that commitment to a commitment to those who are suffering the most profoundly – the 48 million Americans who live below the poverty line – and may not be able to wait until job growth reaches them?

When Franklin Roosevelt gave his State of the Union Speech on January 11, 1944 he said: “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.” And this was in the midst of the all-consuming Second World War! I’d be surprised if President Obama doesn’t make at least some mention of poverty and the toll it is taking. But the real question is whether he will back it up with an aggressive anti-poverty agenda as FDR did in the years before and after his speech. Unfortunately that seems unlikely.

The New York Times front page story today is on the battle lines being drawn between President Obama and the new Republican House Majority on budget decisions related to economic recovery. See

Most of it is speculation about how various issues like education, technology and infrastructure affect either party’s political positioning with the independents and centrists deemed so pivotal to electoral success. Because those who are poor don’t occupy that sacred political high ground –and remember that 19 million of our fellow Americans now live below one-half of poverty meaning under $11,000 a year - there is no mention of them or their needs by any of those quoted in the article, or by the reporter for that matter.

It’s one thing to be on the losing side of a great debate. It’s another to not even be included in the debate in the first place. Our nation’s poorest are likely to remain voiceless except to the extent that those of us not constrained by the short-term and short-sighted imperatives of partisan politics, can help their voices be heard. That is the challenge we must embrace in the difficult days ahead.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

An economic and political climate that calls out for creating community wealth

A recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article ( about the economic peril facing most nonprofits begins as below and essentially makes the case for why nonprofits need CWV in the current economic and political climate.

“The year 2011 is shaping up to be even more difficult than 2010 for many charities. While donations from individuals seem to be rising as the economy improves, foundation giving remains flat, and corporate contributions have yet to rebound. Federal stimulus money will soon come to an end, and many charities have already tapped their rainy-day funds to respond to increased demand for their services and to stave off significant cutbacks.”

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that while our work is always important, it is even more relevant, if not absolutely critical now. An increasingly important part of our job going forward to is to help individual nonprofits as well as foundations and philanthropic institutions to see clearly the short term investments that are necessary to navigate what is surely a painful and long-term disruption to traditional sources of revenue.

Community Wealth Ventures by itself is of course not a panacea for all of the challenges nonprofits face. But our focus on sustainability strategies that range from earned income ventures to talent management has never been more on target.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Keynoting The Haiti Fund lunch

I had the great honor on Friday of keynoting a lunch at the Parker House Hotel in Boston to commemorate the dedication of those working to help and heal Haiti since the earthquake more than a year ago. The lunch was sponsored by The Haiti Fund set up at The Boston Foundation by Karen and Jim Ansara.

After joking about my five year old son Nate’s challenges with impulse control, I argued that impulse control is also an issue for adults, in exactly the opposite way – most of us have impulses we control too much. They are impulses of compassion, idealism, social justice, activism and love. And one of the few positive things to come from the earthquake in Haiti is that it helped many people overcome their impulse control issues and instead act on their impulses.

Doctors from around the U.S. and around the world dropped what they were doing and found a way to get to Haiti to save lives. So did engineers, and architects, and firefighters, and EMT’s. So did therapists and bootmakers, athletes and actors. Post earthquake Haiti was a place of horrible and searing images, but it was also a place that showed us what is possible when good people act on their impulses.

Because of the amazing work of those supporting The Haiti Fund the first steps in meeting Haiti’s needs have been taken. But only the first steps. We all know that there is a long, long way to go. And perhaps most important, the underlying issue will not go away in Haiti, or here, or in many places around the globe because it is a fundamental political issue: how do you solve problems that affect people so vulnerable and voiceless that there are no markets – no economic markets or political markets – for solving them? That is why most nonprofit and philanthropic efforts come about in the first place, to fill that gap.

Today I want suggest at least four of the necessary ingredients for doing our work of healing and community building more powerfully – in Haiti especially, but elsewhere as well.

The first is what I call the power of bearing witness. It is something of which each of us are capable. To me it means simply going to see, feel, and share what you’ve felt. I went to Haiti not with a sense that I could effect change, but that I would be changed by what I experienced there.

When something affects us powerfully we often say we have been moved. The literal implication is having started out in one place and ending up in another. In this way being moved means being transformed and personal transformation is what powers social change. It’s what Gandhi meant when he said “be the change you want to see in the world.”

Second is understanding that most failures are failures of imagination. When we fail at something we almost always find an external source to point at: a failure of money, time, strategy or talent, but most failures are failures of imagination. Whether we are dealing with Haiti or hunger or malaria, we must insist on exchanging incremental progress for transformational change. It is not enough to feed children or treat malaria or clear rubble. Instead we must have the imagination to assert that we can end hunger, eradicate malaria, and build back better.

Third is to remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King who said: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it ebbs. The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on.”

These have always been more than just eloquent words to me. The spark for starting Share Our Strength was the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and at the onset of the next famine in 2000 I traveled there, and again in 2002, and at a school met a beautiful 13 year old girl named Alima. Alima Dari. Share Our Strength was helping to fund the school and to build a hospital next door. Alima spoke beautiful English and we had some immediate connection, probably because she was about my daughter’s age at the time, and we talked and stayed in touch, and sent letters and photos, and then one day my colleague Chuck Scofield went to Ethiopia and I gave him a letter to give to her.

I didn’t hear from Chuck for days on end. Which was very unusual. Then he e-mailed “I hate like hell to tell you this but Alima died from cerebral malaria.” They had misdiagnosed it as TB and by the time they realized it was too late. And so I learned anew that there is such a thing as being too late. The hospital we were helping to build was not finished. Alima was taken to a hospital much farther away. She didn’t make it. But you don’t have to go to Ethiopia to find your Alima. She is here in Boston, or Haiti, or Denver, or D.C. And her short life was long enough to remind us that there are consequences to our action and inaction.

The fourth is that everyone has a strength to share. That has been the entire history of Share Our Strength. Each of us has something to give.

The great African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks once wrote:

We are each other’s harvest.

We are each others business.

We are each other’s magnitude

And bond.

Whether we are bankers in Boston or bakers in the south end, we are each other’s harvest.

Whether we are doctors at MGH or day laborers in Port au Prince, we are each other’s harvest.

Whether we are funders, or donors, or writers, or rock stars, we are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude, and bond.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Deep Poverty" is deeper than we thought

After writing the previous post about the failure of our political leaders to address poverty,  I asked our friend and colleague Stacy Dean, at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities for a fact check on the number of Americans living below half of the poverty line. As you’ll see from her note below, it is actually worse than I even conveyed. The 17 million living under $11,000 a year was a 2008 statistic The 2009 number is 19 million! I’m circulating the e-mail that she sent to me because it has some very useful links to data about poverty and “deep poverty” that you might want to keep as a resource.  Thanks to Stacy and her colleague Danilo Trisi for their always amazing responsiveness and quality work.

From: Danilo Trisi

Sent: Monday, January 10, 2011 2:10 PM

To: Stacy Dean; Arloc Sherman

Subject: RE: fact check

The latest available data shows that 19 million Americans lived below half the poverty line in 2009. (17 million Americans lived below half the poverty line in 2008.)

The numbers for 2009 are a record in terms of number of people and the percent of people below half the poverty line with data going back to 1975.

You can find the historical excel table here:

(Linked to from Table 22 in this page:

You might also find of interest our blog post on deep poverty which includes state by state numbers:

Sunday, January 9, 2011

More Poverty, Less Concern

Bob Herbert’s column in Saturday’s NY Times about the increase in poverty America but the decrease in concern about it is written almost as if Herbert can’t believe what he is hearing. ( His sense of moral outrage is rare, especially in politics and in mainstream journalism today.

Not only do recent estimates of 48 million Americans living in poverty get routinely ignored, but our political leaders on both sides of the aisle declare that it is the business community, not the impoverished, that needs and deserves our help. President Obama’s choice of investment banker and former Secretary of Commerce Bill Daley as chief-of-staff served to reinforce this for Herbert and others.

With unemployment projected to remain high for at least several more years, there is a legitimate case to be made for creating jobs by helping business. But politicians of both parties used to also at least give lip service to the goal of alleviating the suffering of those below the poverty line. No more. Now, even with 17 million Americans living under $11,000 a year, which is half of the official poverty line, their suffering is in silence, not just metaphorically unimaginable, but literally so. (Try thinking about surviving on under $11,000 a year and see how quickly you give up and think about something easier instead.)

The reason that America’s poor are ignored of course is that being poor also makes them voiceless. They are equipped with none of the tools so essential for building political will in our nation: no Hollywood celebrities, no lobbyists, no political action committees, and no consumer power. This in turn means no media coverage, no Congressional hearings, no Presidential commissions, no poverty czars, and no concerted government action.

Instead the prevailing conventional wisdom is that the focus of all political messaging and action must be squarely on behalf of business and the middle class. And our leaders lack the courage, or perhaps the moral imagination, to represent Americans who have the misfortune of being outside of those politically juicy sweet spots.

Solving poverty has always been a daunting prospect. The causes are complex and often deeply rooted. Solutions can be expensive, require greater shared sacrifice, and don’t always work out as planned. But the essential first step is leadership willing to at least establish poverty reduction as a goal.

The toughest problems to solve are always those that affect people so voiceless there are no markets for solving them. Nonprofit and philanthropic institutions can bridge the gap, but any success they may have can only be sustained by purposefully and simultaneously building political will to scale and sustain the most effective solutions. Social entrepreneurship without political will and improved public policy simply pushes a boulder up a hill that is destined to slide down again.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

When Non-Profits Are Their Own Worst Enemy

Today’s New York Times has a prominent article in the business section ( featuring nonprofit complaints that the Pepsi Refresh on-line fundraising contest is being manipulated and that worthy nonprofits were being cheated out of a “win” by fraudulent voting.

Obviously Pepsi has an obligation to ensure the integrity of such an effort. But what’s left unsaid is that this is an example of how nonprofits can be their own worst enemies by becoming reliant on both wishful thinking and sources of funding that are entirely unsustainable in the long run.

Ultimately there is no substitute for nonprofits learning how to create their own wealth, the kind of community wealth that makes the charitable pie grow, rather than always fighting for their share of a finite pie, if they want to see good ideas and programs get to scale and be sustained.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A New Year Marked by Boldness and Accountability

We spent the last days of 2010 at Goose Rocks Beach in Maine where we aspired to be as lazy as the big grey seals that snooze sprawled across the rocks until the rising tide forces them back into the water.

I spent some time reading and reflecting, looking for lessons from others that might be valuable to our work. For example, on the day after Christmas, there was an interview in the New York Times with departing New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. (

New York’s public schools deal with challenges of wide scale poverty. That makes the Chancellor’s job one of the more visible anti-poverty platforms in the country. Because the task is seen as nearly impossible, receives intense scrutiny, and because Klein was one of the city’s longest serving chancellors, I thought there might be some learning’s applicable to our work at Share Our Strength.

Klein made several comments in closing out his tenure that are worth pondering as we begin a new year and new decade.

Referring to regrets, he didn’t single out any of the failures or political controversies that go with the job. Instead, the only regrets he identified were: “I wasn’t impatient enough….We weren’t bold enough….”

Klein also addressed the challenge of creating and embracing a culture of accountability and “owning” outcomes even when tackling very long odds. ‘It’s a lot easier for the school system to say we graduated 45% of our kids because our kids had lots of problems and there’s only so much education you can do. It’s a lot harder to say we graduated 45% of our kids because we blew it; we didn’t do the job that we needed to do. That kind of ownership is a major kind of transformation.”

“Boldness” and “accountability”- not bad watchwords for the days ahead.

As we head into the new year, on the heels of a 2010 in which we enjoyed unprecedented progress, we risk our very success lulling us into the seductive, comforting illusion that we should merely keep doing what we’ve been doing. That prescription might work in a world that stands perfectly still, but the dynamic change we are witnessing in the economy, political landscape, media and other sectors all but guarantees that what made us successful in 2010 will not, by itself, be enough to keep us succeeding going forward.

Rather we must build on what we’ve accomplished and tackle head-on the even tougher challenges we’ve identified, such as

- Making a stronger connection between nutrition education and childhood hunger

- Measuring and communicating even more compelling proof of concept of our state-based strategy

- Building greater and more sustained national awareness of childhood hunger

- Influencing public policy to advance our No Kid Hungry strategy.

This list is by no means an all inclusive, but meant to suggest that we embrace not just the hard tasks, but the hardest. That is what it will take to actually end childhood hunger. Whether a year hence, or five or ten, I don’t want Joel Klein’s sentiment that “we weren’t bold enough” to be echoing in our ears.

So now, after a relaxing, restful lull, the rising tide of e-mails is once again nudging me back into motion, just as surely as the rising ocean tide does the seals outside my window at Goose Rocks Beach. As they ease off their rocky perch to skim and bob and frolic, they seem newly energized, oblivious to everything except Nature’s unalterable rhythms. Here’s hoping that 2011 is filled with energy, fun, and boldness of purpose that leads to the “major kind of transformation” Joel Klein alluded to above. Welcome back!