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Reflecting on Peter Buffett's Challenge

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When the son of one of America's biggest philanthropists takes to the New York Times to denounce this country's "charitable-industrial complex," you would assume that a certain amount of fur is going to fly -- mostly mink and sable, in this case. Sure enough, Peter Buffett ignited a firestorm of controversy by attacking the "conscience laundering" of deep-pocketed philanthropists who give money to sleep better at night without examining their own role in perpetuating systemic inequality.

If you haven't been following the conversation, try Googling Peter Buffett's name. It won't take long to get up to speed, and the debate will prove inherently interesting to anyone in the nonprofit realm who has ever had to ask a funder for money.

Personally, I objected to several aspects of Mr. Buffett's piece, especially his propensity to question the motives of people who are trying to do good things. But at the end of the day, Mr. Buffett also raised some serious questions in an honest and courageous way. Those of us in the nonprofit sector would do well to consider whether our role in the "charitable-industrial complex" is making the world a better place -- or merely perpetuating "conscience laundering."

This actually touches on a deeply personal concern I have carried for many years. Each year, the Communities In Schools (CIS) Network raises and expends approximately $220 million to ensure that 1.2 million of some of the poorest K-12 students in America have the academic and nonacademic supports they need to be successful in school. In terms of budget and scale, we are a quintessential example of the "charitable industrial complex," with approximately 65 percent of our resources garnered from local, state and federal government, while the remaining 35 percent comes from thousands of private individuals, foundations and corporations.

Over the years I have often asked myself, "Is Communities In Schools truly contributing to the development of public education by helping to make it even more equitable, or are we are merely offering a palliative response to the fundamentally flawed institution of public education?" To put it in Mr. Buffett's frame: Does CIS keep "the existing structure of inequality in place" or are we truly creating "greater prosperity for all"?

Interestingly, it is the "charitable-industrial complex" that has enabled us to wrestle with this very question with rigor, honesty, and transparency. The Knight Foundation, The Robertson Foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation have made significant investments and often worked extremely closely with CIS' leadership from across the network to develop the most rigorous and acute understanding of our work. Together with our evaluation partners -- ICF International, MDRC, and EMSI -- we have wrestled with building an understanding of CIS' effectiveness and a clear sense of what we were doing to achieve those results in a cost-effective way.

In other words, at CIS we know for a fact that our programs help kids stay in school and that those programs work on a massive scale, but that's not the whole point of Mr. Buffett's challenge. He doesn't just want to see the right answers; he wants to make sure we're asking the right questions. He calls on the nonprofit sector to adopt a higher standard of success: Demonstrate that our work can truly create "prosperity for all." And I think Mr. Buffett is spot-on right in holding all of us to this standard.

Specifically what does this mean for CIS? Our national board (all members of the charitable-industrial complex, incidentally) wrestled with this very question a couple of months ago during a two-day retreat. We affirmed that public education is the best institution for overcoming socioeconomic barriers and creating prosperity for all. We also affirmed that without student supports integrated into the very design of public education, public education is compromised in creating prosperity for all. But despite CIS' scale, there are still millions of K-12 students in need of essential supports to be academically successful. I wish we had an easy answer to this challenge. We do know that public policy is critically important. We do know that ensuring quality implementation of an evidence-based model is critically important. And we do know that a cost effective scale strategy for integrated student supports (not necessarily our organization) is critically important. But driving this kind of social change is an extraordinary challenge.

Mr. Buffett is right in challenging us (our board and professional staff) not to be enticed by the illusion that mere adoption of business practices will guide us through this quagmire toward driving "prosperity for all." However, our own hard won experience has demonstrated that it is in fact the "charitable-industrial complex" that has been utterly essential in getting us to the brink of meaningful impact, i.e., disproportionately contributing to "prosperity for all." Our greatest hope is the continued tapping of this complex's best thinking, financial and human resources, and deeply held values and aspirations will guide us to the answer of how our work can create a more prosperous and equitable world.