Dog vs Cat: the Pleasures of Debate

Do you remember a time when arguing wasn’t a blood sport, an opportunity to be mean and forget everything we know about civility? When it was fun to have friends who believed different things than you do?  An exercise we did at our staff retreat last week brought that all back.

It was an exercise designed to exercise our flexibility and challenge muscles through debate. We did it, not because we are too acrimonious as a staff, but rather, too polite and careful sometimes, too much the same in our views.

I was assigned to be one of the demonstration debaters before we broke into small groups to practice debate. I was assigned the position: dogs are better pets than cats. This is a race I have absolutely no horse in, as I share my home with a dog, two cats, and an irrelevant rabbit.  And that is one of the things I loved about this exercise. It was fun to have to make the case for something in which I have no stake.  Being assigned a position to argue forced me to be flexible, to imagine how I could argue it. And debate was good for me in other ways.

First, it’s fun to do something one does all the time (talk) under the formal constraints and rules of a game. Two minutes to present; two minutes to rebut my opponent. Like the boundaries of a tennis court or the rules of scrabble, there’s joy at being let loose to play in a confined, agreed-upon structure.

Second, it forced me to think about evidence, and thus, my audience. What would be persuasive to them? And that, of course, made me think about who my audience was. What did I know about them? How diverse were they? How many different arguments and pieces of evidence would I need to persuade them?

Third, it forced me to imagine why my opponent would take the position he did. What case was he likely to make? Why might it be credible to others? How could it be countered?

The whole experience led me to think about what persuades. Let’s face it, we are not an evidence-based society. I knew I would have to make my evidence memorable by expressing it in clear themes. I knew that stories, humor, connection to my listeners, might be important, and that a cute picture of my dog and daughter lying on the ground with the exact same smile might be more convincing than anything I would say.

And, because I had to rebut, I had to listen, really listen to my opponent. That’s a good antidote to my natural tendancy to drift away and think about what I’m going to say next.

So an exercise that builds our sympathetic imagination and listening skills and makes our thinking more rigorous has got to be valuable.

Some staff members felt that the debate exercise made them  more fixed in their position. For me, it had theopposite effect. As I listened to my opponent (Heiner Baumann, our director of global giving), I found myself admiring and appreciating what I was hearing.  I had based much of my argument on dogs as pack animals and their great need for company. Heiner rebutted by saying that “cats teach us we must find our own happiness.” Wonderful point! I thought more, and more deeply, about this somewhat silly question than i would have otherwsie.

I saw the benefits of debate last summer when I visited one of our grantees. The Boston Debate League (check them out at brings after school debate clubs to Boston’s high schools. They also train teachers to use debate across the curriculum to build critical thinking and anlalytic skills. I got interested in debate when I saw a study of debate in Chicago’s urban high schools that found that students who participated in debate did better academically and were more likely to stay in school than their counterparts in a comparison group. This was particularly true for African American boys.

It was fun to visit BDL’s summer institute, where I saw kids who were debating for the first time and students who’d been in debate for one or two years. The difference in confidence, presentation skills, and quality of argument was remarkable.  After, I had a conversation with a wonderful young woman who was on her way to college in the fall. She told me that pre-debate, she only showed up at school most days for English class, because reading was the only thing that called to her. Debate made her want to show up for the whole day, and eventually, to put her whole self in, to school and to life.  Other kids talked about how debate had changed the culture of their high school so that smart was a little bit cooler. I watched English language learners struggle successfully to put together a polished argument. I left thinking that a little debate is good for everybody.





Ver. 1.3

Cutting back, doubling down

I am planning an exercise for our program officers that poses the following questions:

_ what if your portfolio’s budget was cut in half? What are you certain you’d keep? What might be discarded? How would you decide?

– what if it was doubled? What would you grow? What would you add? What would you deepen?

– in each of these scenarios, how would your job change? What would be important to do?

I have a feeling that asking these questions – whether about a grant program, a nonprofit, or personal finances – might yield some interesting insights about what is essential, what might be grown.

What do you think?


Ver. 1.3

Slumped on the imaginary sidewalk

There’s a yiddish proverb that goes “a man with money is smart, good looking…and he sings well too.”  When you go to work for a foundation, you become, no matter your ethnicity, gender, or life circumstances, a “man with money.” That’s why it’s always good to have an experience where you remember what it’s like to be marginalized.  And I had that a few weeks ago when I participated in Liftopolis, a brilliant “game” developed by LIFT.

LIFT is, in its own words:

“a growing movement to combat poverty and expand opportunity for all people in the United States. LIFT currently runs centers staffed by trained volunteers in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, to serve low-income individuals and families.

LIFT clients and volunteers work one-on-one to find jobs, secure safe and stable housing, make ends meet through public benefits and tax credits, and obtain quality referrals for services like childcare and healthcare. Simultaneously, the LIFT experience pushes volunteers to grapple with our country’s most challenging issues related to poverty, race, inequality, and policy. Since LIFT’s founding, over 6,000 volunteers have served more than 40,000 individuals and families.”

One of the things I like about LIFT is it’s “no wrong door” policy. They serve anyone who asks, regardless of whether they qualify for public assistance, are low income enough, homeless enough or meet other criteria often imposed by social service providers (which are, in turn, often imposed on them in order to receive government funding.  A LIFT volunteer  serves as a kind of concierge, linking a client to organizations or services that might help. Respect for the client, viewing him or her as a person with assets and strengths, is fundamental to LIFT’s work.

Another thing I like about LIFT is the dual mission: helping people, but also helping volunteers (many of whom as college students) really understand the damage and stress of living in poverty from the inside out.

One of the ways they do this is through a training exercise  based on an imaginary city called Liftopolis, that seeks to show how difficult it can be to navigate the current service system. After hearing about LIftopolis from the very able Maicharia Weir Lytle, head of its Boston office, I knew I wanted to try it. So together, we invited about 75 other funders, staff, and community leaders to a special Liftopolis session.

Liftopolis is elegantly simple: you enter a room, are handed a card that assigns you a role based on a real LIFT client (I was a 39 year-old,  mentally ill person with a substance abuse problem, living on the streets – the jackpot of hard-to -serve clients), and given a goal. Mine was to get off the streets somehow.  The room is set up with  about a dozen folding tables labeled “City Hall,” “Department of Transitional Assistance,” “x shelter,” “Housing Authority,” etc. You are set loose to wander with your peers,  spending the next two hours approaching the people seated at the tables and asking for help.

My first stop was a housing program, where the friendly woman behind the desk told me I couldn’t stay because I didn’t have proof I was homeless.  I then went to a job training program where I couldn’t be served unless I could show I was in substance abuse treatment.  Some of the providers tried to be helpful, but often they had incomplete information about where I should go next. Some were, just as in real life, passive, rude, and condescending. Some closed for “lunch” just as I got to the head of the line. A sheriff walked around the room, randomly stopping people and issuing chance cards that ranged from the great good fortune of landing a job to the catastrophe of jail. I tried to become a day laborer, but the guy hiring turned me down when he heard my hispanic last name.

A lot of the game was very much like real life. The problems I encountered, the attitude of providers, their narrow view of the rules, was a lot like the experiences I’ve had the few times I’ve tried to get homeless people into housing in the past.  But living it, while pretend, was powerful.

Within about ten minutes, I, completely in character,  realized I was trapped in an endless frustrating cycle of journeying from agency to agency.  It felt impossible to get off the street.   I became more an more belligerant in the face of smooth, faceless bureaucracy. Pretty soon, I was acting irrationally, distancing the people who wanted to help me even though some of them were sympathetic. I could feel my imaginary mental health problems incitingme to act out more and more. My rudeness triggered more rudeness from providers, an endless, escalating circle of disrespect. Finally, I spent some time slumped on the imaginary sidewalk, thinking “what’s the point?”

Eventually, I realized I needed papers, went to City Hall to get them, but failed because I didn’t know the right thing to ask for.  I sat outside yelling for a while, and then a nice guy (playing a homeless dad with a minimum wage job) came to my rescue by telling me what to ask for, and I learned all over again that when you’re down, a social network can be everything. And then I figured out I needed to lie about my substance use, swear I’d been sober six months, in order to get a room in a rooming house.

So I went from the streets to temporary housing, learning along the way that without my job in the eyes of the world I was nobody, that friends are important, and that the  line between seeing yourself as an honest person and lying and cheating to get a bed for the night is  thinner, more flimsy than the cheap sheets in a shelter. Not bad for a two hour exercise.

I should mention that the service providers in this exercise were not demonized. Rather, LIftopolis brings home how trapped they are in a web of rules and practice.  You leave seeing why the system  behaves the way it does, and why poor people do things that might not always appear to be in their best interest.

There are lots of very rich lessons in this experience.  I think every foundation executive and service provider should do something like this once in a while.  Don’t you?





Ver. 1.3

Work heartbreak

There is such a thing as work heartbreak, you know. It can happen when you’ve worked with others to build something beautiful and someone comes in and wrecks it, casual as kicking down a sand castle. It can happen when you know what the answer is to an issue, like putting funds into prevention and rapid rehousing instead of a burgeoning shelter system, and you pick up the paper and see there are still 1600 families in Massachusetts still in motel rooms without kitchens that cost the state $80 a night (think about the money these operators are making!).

It can happen to founders who find their organization has grown up around them and there is no place for their kind of leadership any more.  A crushing defeat, realizing you’re in the wrong job,  losing a hard-fought election campaign, a show closing, can all bring on a familiar desolation that lingers on. It affects your work – although you often don’t recognize that – and your optimism level, sometimes for a couple of years after.

The point is that heartbreak is heartbreak, at home or at work. It’s real, and no matter what else you have to be grateful for (it always could have been and was worse for someone somewhere), it hurts like any other heartbreak.I first realized this a few years ago when I found myself listening to Betty Lavette singing the wonderful Joan Armatrading tune Down to Zero, over and over again It begins:

Oh the feeling, when you’re reeling

You step lightly thinking you’re number one

Down to zero with a word, leaving

for another one.

Now you walk with your feet back on the ground, down to the ground, down to the ground.

I walked the dog for days, humming “down to the ground, down to the ground,” before I suddenly asked myself why this song was resonating with me so much. I wasn’t, thankfully, experiencing difficulties in love or remembering the past. And I realized – it was work!  I had fallen – “down to the ground.” And though I’d gotten up, I was still living down there, viewing things from the floor, letting the action go on above me.

Realizing this, naming it work heartbreak, was the beginning of getting better. The repetitive lyric was like the incessant talking one needs to do after any disaster, repeating what happened, making it into a story, a song, so it becomes bearable, becomes, eventually, history.

So if you know someone who is experiencing work heartbreak, let them talk. Let them play and replay the sad song over and over. And remind them that it’s never too late to start over, to build again.



Ver. 1.3

Sometimes I feel like a hypnotized chicken

The NYT ran a piece a couple of years ago  “We have met the enemy and he is powerpoint” (, about the military’s overuse of PP. In it, General James Mattis asserts “powerpoint makes us stupid” because it oversimplifies and creates the illusion of understanding and mastery of an issue or situation.  In my work I’ve seen a lot of powerpoints that make too much sense: reduce a complicated wicked issue into something that can be magically solved with a simple intervention and some of the Foundation’s money.

But in this piece I also learned that about the practice of deliberately creating long , complex and boring powerpoints that take up most of the time in press briefings and leave reporters so paralyzingly bored that they won’t ask pesky questions. This kind of presentation is referred to as “hynotizing chickens.”

I’ve been put through a lot of both kinds of powerpoints –  some as simple as a Dick and Jane reader, others as dense as an Escher etching.  Sometimes I feel like a hynotized chicken when I am meeting with grant seekers. They come in with a deck of 20 to 30 slides and go through them,  often, forgetting I can read,  line by excruciating line. They show me logic models that make my eyes glaze over, org charts my non-visual brain can barely follow. They talk and talk about why their work is important, why it should be supported. They are so thorough that at the end, I am exhausted and can’t think of good questions. I feel  cranky, like I’ve been bludgeoned with goodness and have no right to complain because good has been done to me.

I feel like a jerk complaining about this. Don’t get me wrong: working for a foundation provides an extraordinary, wonderful window on countless worlds and enterprises. I feel lucky to get a glimpse of them in these meetings. I hear great stories and powerful data- an unbeatable combination -sometimes. But too many fund raisers diminish their organization in presentations; take the richness, complexity and uncertainties out of the work in order to make a better case for it. And I think that’s a shame.

Too often, the groups who come in to see me lead not with vision or purpose but mechanics. Activities and events are presented as if they were ends in themselves. To show they’ve read our website, they deliver all the reasons we should support this enterprise, parroting the  language of our website and guidelines. It all feels strenuous and formulaic.

The one-way nature of this kind of presentation makes the leader delivering it appear less dynamic and engaged with the world.  At its worst, it seems  as if, as Woody Allen once wrote about his mother’s cooking, the chicken has been put through the deflavorizer.

Often, more experienced  leaders have received some training that has taught them that building a relationship is important. So they tend to lead with a couple of questions in a painfully obvious effort to “connect.”  But instead of building my responses into a conversation, they quickly move to the deck and the endless monologue. Instead of the elevator speech, I feel I  am getting stuck on the elevator.

I understand why it happens.  There’s a lot we do as funders to create this dynamic. We  are always talking about how busy we are (trying to convince grant seekers how tough things are on this side of the table – as if!) It’s not easy to get time with us, so by the time you get a meeting it feels like your one and only shot. Often the only way to get a meeting is to pretend you are coming in for advice instead of asking for money.  And there’s a natural and earnest desire when the work is important, to show ’em everything you’ve got. I made the same mistake over and over again when I taught grad students. I was supposed to be the expert, and I desperately wanted to give value, so I talked way too much, cramming everything I knew into a rushed nonstop monologue during class. When I learned instead to frame things up and ask questions, encourage students to connect what I was talking about to their own experiences, things went better.

And some leaders do that when they present. A meeting with them is like an invitation to take a walk together, to look into their world. There’s a story to start maybe, one that tells us how and why this project was conceived, the hopes and dreams it represents. Sometimes there is an invitation to stand side by side and gaze at some difficult and discouraging data. Often there’s a deck, but it’s used like a map, taken out occasionally to illustrate something in the conversation; or its left behind as an artifact of the meeting.  The meeting itself, somehow, becomes a conversation.

There’s no blueprint for how to craft a presentation that does this. But for me, what the best leaders do is somehow convey what Harvard Physics Professor said when she talked about the work of science:

It’s how to ask the right questions, how to understand the questions we are asking. How to understand what our assumptions are. what are the uncertainties that go into these assumptions? What are the uncertainties about the predictions that we make?

When I have a conversation with a leader who is open to and about the questions presented by the work, willing to poke at them with me, I am wide awake and wanting more. And often, in the end, recommending the grant.


Ver. 1.3

Here’s to us!

This is a blog about changing practice – and practicing change – in the world of philanthropy and nonprofits.   Ideas, responses, arguments welcome.


Ver. 1.3