Monthly Archives: November 2015

Starz Series “Flesh and Bone” Illustrates how Little Hollywood Knows About Nonprofits

Between turkey and deadlines, I binge-watched the Starz series Flesh and Bone over the Thanksgiving weekend—on Jake’s recommendation. Like many modern cable shows it’s extremely titillating, but it also displays Hollywood’s misunderstanding of the nature of nonprofits.

Flesh and Bone is a mashup of Rocky, Flashdance, and The Black Swan. While nominally a drama about a newbie ballet dancer with a troubled past suddenly lifted to a starring role at a fictional NYC ballet company, Flesh and Bone provides numerous intentionally or unintentionally funny scenes. This is mostly due to the arch character stereotypes (e.g. tyrannical company director, ingenue with a dark secret, Russian mafia millionaire strip club owner with another dark secret, corrupt French businessman/major donor with yet another dark secret, and angelic homeless guy with still another dark secret), combined with scene-chewing overacting. The series could have been called “Flesh and Bone and Erotica and Dark Secrets.”

While both Jake and I found Flesh and Bone entertaining, I was struck by how the fictional nonprofit ballet company is portrayed—Hollywood simply doesn’t understand how nonprofits actually work. My reaction Flesh and Bone is probably similar to a real cop rolling her eyes at Law and Order and real emergency docs laughing at House MD.

In Flesh and Bone, the nonprofit is run by the megalomaniac artistic director/executive director Paul Grayson, with only vague allusions to “what will the board think?” tossed in every couple of episodes. Otherwise, Grayson runs the show. The rest of the staff and ballet dancers wring their hands and burst into tears at the director’s rants. In today’s world of sensitivity to hostile work environments and sexual harassment, backed up by stringent local, state, and federal laws and regulations, these kinds of outbursts would likely trigger lawsuits; the executive director would soon find himself as a defendant. Most arts nonprofits also have a dedicated cadre of volunteers and few executive directors would act like genius prima donnas in front of volunteers or—even worse—direct his ire at volunteers, no matter how pure or right his artistic vision.

The board chair is a French millionaire (perhaps an oxymoron in itself) and the ballet’s primary donor. This cartoonish figure is more interested in sleeping with ballerinas than art (which may be plausible) and he abandons ship when when our heroine finds a clever way to avoid a fate worse than death. This leaves the ballet company at the tender mercies of the Russian strip club owner, who is committed to the artistic integrity of ballet. He also runs a sex slave operation and turns out to not be quite so pure of heart. While real nonprofits often hope to find a whale, most aren’t beholden to one donor and are unlikely to seek financial salvation from a mobbed-up strip club owner. It’s hard to see Silvio Dante, owner of the Bada Bing strip club on The Sopranos, tossing a few hundred thousand in singles at the New York City Ballet.

A nonprofit ballet company, like most arts nonprofits, supports operations through a combination of donations, ticket sales, merchandising and grants. The word “grant” is never uttered in Flesh and Bone, and the ballet company’s financial travails could be ameliorated by good grant writer. Additionally, many donors actually funnel money to their favorite nonprofits through their family foundation or corporate giving program rather than pulling out their checkbook, as is implied in Flesh and Bone. Foundations and corporate giving programs mean “proposals,” which means somebody has to write the proposals.

Perhaps a knowledgeable reader can help me out, but I’ve never seen an accurate depiction of how nonprofits actually work in either film or television. It seems that screenwriters, producers and directors don’t know or want to learn about nonprofits. It is Hollywood, after all, and make-believe is Hollywood. As Peter’s O’Toole’s cynical director in one of my favorite movies, The Stunt Man, explains Hollywood to an incredulous Steve Railback, “Do you not know that King Kong the first was just three foot six inches tall? He only came up to Faye Wray’s belly button! If God could do the tricks that we can do he’d be a happy man!”

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama — Book Review

Everyone working in any facet of education and educational nonprofits needs to read Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology; put down whatever other books you’re reading—you are reading, right?—and get a copy of this one.

geek_HeresyIn it, Kentaro Toyama describes how computers and related technologies are not a panacea for education or any other social service fields. He writes that, “like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions.” Sound familiar? It should: we’ve written about “Computers and Education: An Example of Conventional Wisdom Being Wrong” and “How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse.” We’ve been writing grant proposals for programs that increase access to digital technologies since at least the late ’90s; for example, we’ve written numerous funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers proposals. Despite all that effort and all those billions of dollars spent, however, it would be polite to say that educational outcomes have not leapt forward.

As it turns out, the computers-in-education trope is part of a general pattern. After years in the field, Toyama eventually realized that technologically driven educational projects tend to follow stages: “the initial optimism that surrounds technology, the doubt as reality hits, the complexity of outcomes, and the unavoidable role of social forces.” That’s after Toyama describes his work in India, where he discovers that “In the course of five years, I oversaw at least ten different technology-for-education projects [. . .] Each time, we thought we were addressing a real problem. But while the designs varied, in the end it didn’t matter – technology never made up for a lack of good teachers or good principals.” Studies of the One Laptop Per Child project show similarly disappointing results.

Chucking technology at people problems does not automatically improve the people or solve the problem: “Even in a world of abundant technology, there is no social change without change in people.” Change in people is really hard, slow, and expensive. It can be hastened by wide and deep reading, but most Americans don’t read much: TV, Facebook, and the other usual suspects feel easier in the short term. Everyone who thinks about it knows that computers are incredibly useful for creating, expressing, and disseminating knowledge. But they’re also incredibly useful for wasting time. Because of the way computers can waste time and drain precious attention, I actually ban laptops and phones from my classrooms. Computers and phones don’t help with reading comprehension and writing skill development. That primarily happens between the ears, not on the screen.

Problems with laptops in classrooms became apparent to me during my one year of law school (I fortunately dropped out of the program). All students were required to use laptops. During class, some used computers for the ends imagined by administrators. Most used them to gossip, check sports scores, send and receive nude photos of classmates, etc. And those were law students, who’d already been selected for having decent discipline and foresight. What hope do the rest of us have? Laptops were not the limiting factor in my classes and they aren’t the limiting factor for most people in most places:

Anyone can learn to Tweet. But forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium requires thinking, writing, and communication skills. While those skills are increasingly expressed through text messaging, PowerPoint, and email, they are not taught by them. Similarly, it’s easy to learn to ‘use’ a computer, but the underlying math skills necessary for accounting or engineering require solid preparation that only comes from doing problem sets—readily accomplished with or without a computer.

Problem sets are often boring, but they’re also important. I tell my college students that they need to memorize major comma rules. They generally don’t want to, but they have to memorize some rules in order to know how to deploy those rules—and how to break them effectively, as opposed to inadvertently. Computers don’t help with that. They don’t help with more than you think:

Economist Leigh Linden at the University of Texas at Austin conducted experimental trials in India and Colombia. He found that, on average, students exposed to computer-based instruction learned no more than control groups without computers. His conclusion? While PCs can supplement good instruction, they don’t substitute for time with real teachers.

The obvious counterpoint to this is “yet.” Still, those of us who have computers and Internet connections are probably sensitive to how much time we spend doing stuff that might qualify as “work” versus time spent on YouTube or games or innumerable other distractions (pornography sites are allegedly among the largest sites, measured by megabytes delivered, on the Internet).

Moreover, the poorer the school districts or communities, the harder it was to setup and maintain the equipment (another challenge many of us are familiar with: Don’t ask me about the fiasco that upgrading from OS X 10.6 to 10.10 entailed).

In addition, Toyama points out that there is a long history of believing that technology in and of itself will ameliorate human problems:

We were hardly the first to think our inventions would transform education. Larry Cuban, a veteran inner-city teacher and an emeritus professor at Stanford, has chronicled the technology fads of the past century. As his examples show, the idea that technology can cure the ills of society is nothing new. As early as 1913, Thomas Edison believed that ‘the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system.’ Edison estimated that we only learned 2 percent of the material we read in books, but that we could absorb 100 percent of what we saw on film. He was certain that textbooks were becoming obsolete.

Oops. Radio, TV, filmstrips, overhead projectors and other technologies were heralded with similar promise. The problem is that technology is much easier than motivation, concentration, conscientiousness, and perspicacity.

Some quotes should remind you of points we’ve made. For example, Toyama says, “Measurement undoubtedly helps us verify progress. There’s a danger, though, of worshipping the measurable at the expensive of other key qualities.” That’s true of many grant proposals and is consilient with our post on why evaluations are hard to do. Measuring what’s easy to measure is usually much easier than measuring what matters, and funding authorities rarely care in a deep way about the latter.

In his chapter on “Nurturing Change,” Toyama notes that individuals have to aspire to do more and to do better in order for a group or culture to see mass change. This is close to Robert Pirsig’s point in Lila’s Child: An Inquiry Into Quality, which extols the pleasure and importance of of craftsmanship. Defined broadly, “craftsmanship” might mean doing the best work you can regardless of who’s watching or what the expected consequences of that work might be.

Geek Heresy is not perfect. Toyama repeats the dubious calumny that the poverty rate “decreased steadily [in the United States] until 1970. Around 1970, though, the decline stopped. Since then, the poverty rate has held steady at a stubborn 12 to 13 percent [. . . .]” But the official rate is likely bogus: “If you look at income after taxes and transfers you see that the shape of American public policy has become much friendlier to the poor during this period.” Or consider this reading of the data, which finds the “Adjusted percent poor in 2013 [is] 4.8%.” This also probably jibes with what many of our older readers have actually experience: Most manufactured goods are far, far cheaper than they used to be, and official definitions of poverty rarely account for those. On a non-financial level, far more and better medical treatments are available. In 1970 there was no chickenpox or HPV vaccine, regardless of how wealthy you were.

The flaws in Geek Heresy are minor. The important point is that technology will not automatically solve all of our problems and that you should be wary of those who think it will. Until we understand this—and understand the history of attempting to use technology to solve all of our problems—we won’t be able to make real progress in educational achievement.

Links: The digital revolution, NIMBYs and your paycheck, flu shots, batteries, details, Texas is our future, and more!

* “The Limits Of The Digital Revolution: Why Our Washing Machines Won’t Go To The Moon:” On the future of work and why innovation may be slowing.

* How NIMBYs make your paycheck smaller.

* “For God’s Sake, Go Get a Flu Shot.” This may be the most immediately actionable piece you read today.

* “Why San Francisco’s way of doing business beat Los Angeles’.”

* The invisible device that powers everything you do, on lithium-ion batteries and John Goodenough, who is responsible for more of the modern world than is commonly realized.

* “Inside the lab: Why Apple still sweats the details on iMac,” a fascinating story; Apple also updated iMacs on October 13. The 5K iMac is an amazing machine. If you order, make sure you get the Fusion drive upgrade.

* Europe’s love affair with diesel cars has been a disaster. Also: Car dealers are awful. It’s time to kill the dumb laws that keep them in business.

* “What’s Really Killing Digital Health Startups.” See also our post on FQHCs and EMRs.

* “Why Texas Is Our Future,” and why so many people are moving there.

* “The 2016 Chevy Volt: An energy-efficient car that doesn’t drive like one.”

* Why high-speed rail doesn’t work in the U.S., from someone who actually works on rail projects.

* “What [If Anything] We’re Buying With $1 Trillion in Student Loans.” I propose that all further articles about higher education, cost, and access must use the phrase or at least concept “Diminishing marginal utility” or “Diminishing marginal returns.” As noted here and elsewhere, treating “college” as if it’s one big, identical thing is crazy.

* “‘Guilty until proven innocent’: life after a false rape accusation: A growing group of men are calling for changes in the law around sexual assault to protect those who are the victims of false accusations.”

* Why nuclear energy is our best option at the moment: shout it from the rooftops. Most international political problems are really energy problems in disguise.

* A penny for your books, making a point I’ve long reiterated.

Great Foundation Grant Concept: A Mashup of Food Deserts, Mass Transit, Farmers Markets, and Poor Folks

Everyone from the Department of Agriculture to Michelle Obama to national hunger advocacy groups have embraced the concept of “food deserts” in recent years as one way of explaining the conundrum of why poor folks in the US are both obese and food insecure at the same time. Since we often reference food deserts in varied human services proposals in urban areas (and have written posts on the subject), I know that there’s a debate in the literature about whether food deserts actually exist. Faithful readers know that reality matters little in grant writing, so we take the food desert concept at face value to build our “end of the world” arguments in needs assessments.

While cruising around LA last week, I heard a radio piece about how the City of Dayton is addressing its food deserts. Like most economically disadvantaged urban communities of color, Dayton concluded it has a food desert problem. While this is no surprise, their solution is an amazing example of how to structure a winning project concept for foundation funding.

The City formed a partnership with the mass transit agency, a local human services nonprofit and local farmers to operate a small farmers market in the City’s transit hub. The idea is that poor folks can pick up salad stuff on the way to work (thereby avoiding being super-sized at lunch by McDonald’s) or a sack of veggies on the way home, so that they can make a stir-fry instead of calling Domino’s. At the same time, the nonprofit offers nutrition classes and recipes, while Farmer Caitlin has an outlet for her baby arugula. The only thing missing is to have homeless folks pick the produce.

Like the mythical Project NUTRIA I wrote about years ago, Dayton has hit the foundation grant jackpot with this idea. Steal it.

Deadlines can be your friend because they force a decision

Many of us have been in romantic circumstances with a wishy-washy or indecisive person (maybe we’ve even been that person). That can be frustrating because the potential romantic partner always seems on the verge of making a commitment, only to pull back, vacillate, introduce a rival, dither, consult with clueless or inept “friends,” and so on.

In the grant world, applying for foundation and government grants is a largely similar process. But the differences count too. Almost all government grants have a hard decision deadline—you’re in or out at a specific point. You have to be ready to submit proposal by the deadline or you can’t get the grant. Although everyone complains about deadlines at one point or another, they’re useful because they make you do things (or not do them). You can’t have an infinite number of meetings spread over months or years. The deadlines force a decision, and forcing a decision is valuable.

There are other advantages to deadline-based government grants: they’re usually for larger amounts of money and longer project periods than foundation funding—unless the foundation really, really loves you (which you won’t know and can’t find out until you apply).

Foundation grants, however, often have simpler applications and will usually fund a wider array of projects. We’ve seen numerous clients get funded for foundation projects that didn’t quite fit government programs. The one thing that foundation clients have in common, though, is that they decide to apply and complete the application process.

Sometimes we get hired in part because we provide an external structure to ensure that the job gets done, rather than waiting until an eternal tomorrow to finish it. In this respect, and to return to the metaphor in the first paragraph, we’re like a dating coach who provides the support and motivation necessary to get out there and make things happen.