Discussion with Mary Ellen Capek and Molly Mead, authors of the MIT Press book Effective Philanthropy: Organizational Success through Deep Diversity and Gender Equality

So tell us what this book is really about.

This book is about successful organizations, organizations that have learned to be effective, organizations that have learned to tap all their resources, both inside and outside their doors. They've figured out how to become agile "learning organizations," able to respond quickly to change and able to move effectively in diverse communities and markets.

Why "philanthropy"? What is philanthropy, and why is it important today?

Although philanthropy is increasingly common in many countries, the U.S. has the most institutionalized history of philanthropy-driven at least in part by federal income-tax exemptions for contributions to organizations that are certified "charitable" or "nonprofit" by state governments. This book is about "organized" philanthropy in the United States, philanthropy by foundations: tax-exempt charitable organizations created by individuals, families, and corporations with gifts of money, stock, or other resources invested to generate income used to make grants. In 2004, more than 66,000 foundations with over $476.7 billion in assets gave an estimated $32.4 billion in grants to nonprofit organizations to support a variety of activities, including research, health, education, arts, and culture as well as both systemic and charitable efforts to alleviate poverty and improve people's lives. Foundation resources are money that would otherwise be added to federal and state treasuries, money otherwise taxed and used for public benefit.

For this reason alone, the public should know more about how foundations are managed. By virtue of their "power of the purse" as well as more subtle forms of influence, these foundations are key players in U.S. social, economic, and public policy and are also increasingly influential internationally. So for all these reasons, philanthropy is important to know more about. And when foundations learn to function effectively, the potential for public benefit is tremendous.

Your book is called Effective Philanthropy. What do you mean by "effective" philanthropy? Did you write the book because you think most philanthropy is ineffective? Just what makes philanthropy effective?

Many foundations are elite institutions, classic examples of organizations with little actual public accountability beyond the narrow constraints of federal and state tax laws. In many instances, foundations have self-perpetuating boards, and they "market" to clients-nonprofit organizations-- who for all intents and purposes are captive customers. While many foundations, especially larger, professionally staffed foundations, work responsibly, collegially, and for "the common good," many more-an estimated five out of six U.S. foundations-are unstaffed and, for want of a better word, idiosyncratic because they are influenced by family members on their boards or financial advisors who may or may not have "the common good" as part of their portfolio.

All of which is why foundations make such an interesting subject for a book about organizational success. Given their inherently elite status with so few outside pressures to change, foundations are the least likely organizations to model cutting-edge effectiveness initiatives. As one of our seasoned CEO respondents observed, "Trying to move the philanthropic sector is like trying to herd cats." While we focus throughout the book on philanthropy itself and provide examples specific to foundations' primary work-giving away money-our analyses, case studies, and benchmarks work for any organizations that aspire to be effective and have impact.

So "effective" philanthropy is philanthropy that has impact. It is philanthropy that succeeds at amassing, managing, then allocating financial and human resources in ways that have the greatest positive impact in the sectors that foundations choose to fund. To allocate resources effectively, foundations must have vision and strategies for their grant making that allow them to analyze issues and concerns they want to influence, identifying both challenges and potential resources. They must be able to find the nonprofit organizations most likely to produce the results they intend. They must be able to structure their grants in ways that will be most useful to their grantees. And they must evaluate what they do to ensure they are having the intended impacts.

So how do foundations have impact, and what makes them effective? The most important findings from our research-and the central theme of this book-are the links between foundation effectiveness and institutionalizing nuanced understandings of diversity, what in the book we call "deep diversity," including gender.

What is "deep diversity" all about, why the emphasis on "deep"?

The term "diversity" is commonly understood to refer to race and ethnicity more than it is to gender or class. But focusing on race or class apart from gender creates false dichotomies. In fact, women and girls are part of every racial and ethnic group from the most privileged to the least: women and girls are included in all economic classes, sexual orientations, disabilities, age groups, and other diversities. And understanding gender also means understanding how men and boys of all races and classes are adversely affected by "gender conformity"-the head counselor in an inner city after-school career program, for example, who discourages a Hispanic boy who wants to be a nursery school teacher; a welfare-to-work initiative that offers parenting classes for mothers but not for fathers; or a large nonprofit legal resource agency that offers "family leave" for both men and women but whose woman CEO through teasing and decisions about promotion implicitly discourages men from making use of the policy.

Diversity also works to democratize boards and staffs of organizations. More diverse boards and staffs have a better shot at being effective. Understanding gender in the context of other diversities like race, class, and culture-which also means understanding the insidious, often subtle and unacknowledged preference for "normal"-is essential for building healthier institutions. Philanthropic and nonprofit leaders interviewed for our book emphasized the need for new language to capture this understanding, so throughout our book, we use the term "deep diversity" to describe an institutionalized understanding of diversity that goes wide as well as deep: wide to include the breadth and web of differences that weave through most modern organizations and deep into an organization's DNA, its institutional history and culture.

What do you mean by "unacknowledged preference for 'normal'," which in your book you call "naming Norm." Why is "naming Norm" important to organizations?

Organizations that institutionalize deep diversity have learned to challenge norms. In our book, we define capital "N" Norm as the insidious, often subtle and unacknowledged tyranny of "normal." Webster's Third defines norm as "an ideal standard binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behavior"-an innocuous enough definition describing a fundamental building block of civil society. Like HDL and LDL cholesterol, however, there are good norms and bad norms. High-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol, protects against heart attacks. But too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL) circulating in our blood forms plaque, a thick, hard deposit that clogs arteries. Bad norms get in the way of our health and the health of our relationships and organizations. So the key questions about Norm are: Who gets to decide "proper and acceptable behavior"? Who decides who looks "normal"? Why do these controls and guides so often become blind spots that get in the way of effective organizations?

At its most extreme, Norm becomes racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, transgender phobia, classism, fundamentalism, egotism, ableism, ageism, and xenophobia, and abuse of social, economic, and political power. Most organizations have learned to avoid at least the appearance of these egregious manifestations of Norm. But it is the hidden assumptions, the unspoken expectations, and unyielding attitudes that make Norm so dangerous for deep diversity. Norm assumes the face of neutrality, the appearance of "universal"-generic, genderless, objective, colorblind, classless-in determining policies, procedures, and informal cultural interactions and assumed values that in fact are neither neutral nor universal. We wrote this book to help foundations, nonprofits, and a wide range of other organizations recognize Norm, the arbiter of "proper and acceptable behavior" that too often becomes an unnamed, undiscussable elephant on the table, the invisible dead center of organizations, and we wrote this book to help organizations learn to dismantle Norm-to learn to spot and avoid the pressures of convention, those "normal" organizational imperatives that reproduce "the way it's always been done" conventions, the ruts in the brain, over-and-over-and-over-again preferences, styles, and comfort zones instead of reaching for innovative and effective governance, staffing, and collaborative partnerships.

Of all "normal" group identities, gender is perhaps the most familiar. For better or for worse, in virtually all modern societies, people are identified as males or females, men or women, boys or girls. So understanding gender and gender identity becomes a key strategy in this book for understanding differences, deep diversity, and Norm knowledge. Understanding how unexamined assumptions about gender in fact structure relationships and expectations of what's normal and what's rewarded in organizations is key to achieving effective philanthropy. Throughout this book, we use examples of the social construction of gender and gender identity to document how Norm undermines innovation and effectiveness, both in foundations and in their grantees. And how understanding gender enhances and strengthens innovation, especially an understanding of gender framed within deep diversity, the complex textures of people's lives and cultures and an understanding of the cultures of their organizations.

You say in your book that some foundations do better jobs providing money to women's organizations in other parts of the world than they do in the United States. Why is that? What did you learn from looking at funding for women's organizations outside the U.S.? What do international funders need to learn from your work?

Foundations that do international grantmaking have a history of acknowledging gender differences. For decades, they have recognized that women and men have different workforce participation (both types of employment and pay rates), different levels of responsibility for raising children and different roles in building stronger communities. Thus, until recently, international funders would not dream of making grants without thinking about the impact of gender differences in the area they are funding. Somehow, in the United States, that clarity of vision never took hold, or at least got blurred. We want to think that we are beyond gender differences in this country, so foundations try to ignore them, to the detriment of effective philanthropy. Funders in this country could learn a lot by looking at the history of international giving for women's issues.

Unfortunately-with some significant exceptions like the Gates Foundation-recent research documents that international funding trends toward "gender mainstreaming" have begun to mimic universal funding in the United States. Instead of U.S. foundations learning from the international funders' more sophisticated frameworks for analyzing gender differences, international funders are "declaring victory" in the gender wars instead of looking deeper at the erosion of women's rights around the world. As we argue throughout our book, so-called "gender-blind" mainstreaming or universal funding strategies run the risk of women's needs, concerns, and rights being rendered invisible unless funders do the serious work to name Norm.

You say in your book that ignoring gender doesn't work in youth programs. Can you explain what you mean? Are you advocating that we roll back the clock to a day when all youth programs were single sex? Do we want all youth programs to be like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts?

Youth programs often make one of two common mistakes: they assume boys and girls are born different from each other and must be treated dramatically differently, or they assume they are exactly the same and must be treated exactly the same. Neither is true. Boys and girls are not inevitably different, but they are socialized to have different experiences and, sometimes, interests. Youth programs, for example, should not assume that girls don't like to use computers and deny them the opportunity because, somehow, girls' brains just aren't "hard-wired" to understand computer technology. On the other hand, they have to recognize that many girls won't compete to sit at the computer terminal if there are boys trying to get there first. Bottom line: the program should provide opportunities to use computers to both boys and girls but address use in a way that ensures the girls won't have to shove the boys aside.

If you had just one key idea you wanted listeners/readers to remember, what would that be?

It is OK to acknowledge diversity; in fact, it is essential to acknowledge diversity. Not in ways that divide and separate us but in ways that acknowledge different experiences and opportunities-that celebrate and take full advantage of the different experiences and opportunities we have because we are women or men; black, white, Asian or Latino; gay or straight; low income or upper middle class. All organizations work better when they learn to acknowledge diversity, when they learn to "name Norm" and learn to institutionalize deep diversity. "Shallow diversity" organizations are seldom effective. This is especially true for philanthropic organizations but applies to any organization striving to be agile, responsive, and effective.