Grantmaking in the Shallows

I just finished reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Fascinating read for anyone interacting with the web (you, perhaps?), and particularly engaging for those raising future generations whose brains are rapidly being remapped. The book provides a stimulating romp through the history of information technology and discusses how our current intellectual ethic is not only being transmitted via the internet into our individual minds, but this combo is also restructuring our environment and changing the rules that create and maintain our culture. The internet is not merely a tool, a conduit for content, it is the content; and interacting with this tool is rewiring how we see the world. Although this is true of all tools that humans have created, there is a subtle difference in the ways we are changing through internet usage. Our current intellectual (from the above link) “ethic is the ethic of the industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption — and now the Net is remaking us in its own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.”

So, of course, this all made me think about grantmaking. The process many foundations are going through to maximize their impact closely resembles this current intellectual ethic and it’s interesting to consider how it might be tied to the rise of our internet culture. I was struck by Carr’s correlation between Google and Taylorism, an -ism I hadn’t given much thought to since my graduate studies. Carr states: “Google holds to its Taylorist belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized … In Google’s world, which is the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the pensive stillness of deep reading or the fuzzy indirection of the contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.” How often in meetings did I remind volunteers and staff members that grantmaking was a mix of science and art, that there rarely was a ‘right’ answer when the question was which agency should receive funding. Yet, wasn’t it me that was leading the charge to create systems that would help show us the big picture in order to prove our community was ‘getting better’? What about ambiguity as an opening for insight? What about that fuzzy indirection of contemplation? Part of the challenge of grantmaking is that real world problems can’t wait – there isn’t a lot of time to be introspective and still when attempting to keep the lights on at the homeless shelter. Yet, it is the introspection and stillness that allows space for insight and genius to emerge.

After being out of the grantmaking trenches for 2 years I’ve had a bit of that introspection. The quiet of thinking and reading about grantmaking removed from the mechanical process of grantmaking has given me some new insight. I believe more than ever that grantmaking is about relationships and just, … well, just giving the money away. Get to know the smart people in your community, the ones that are connectors and entrepreneurs and thought leaders, and give them money to make it happen. And, although this “internet culture” might be adding to the frenzy over how we quantify and monetize our grantmaking, it is also creating a culture of connection and relationship (though sites like Kiva and Donors Choose). So how do we maintain that balance when we’re making grants? How do we keep from over thinking and over working the process? How do we, as grantmakers, hold the whole community in mind while discussing the intricacies of one issue, without isolating that issue from its interdependency on everything else?

Grantmaking, like the internet, is a powerful tool. And as long as we maintain a healthy skepticism about that power, we might be able to use the good (illuminating the musty corners of a community that need further exploration; promoting great new ideas that solve entrenched problems) while keeping the bad (over reliance on data; placing more faith in the measurements of success than individual success) in perspective. I also think it has a great deal to do with scale: being able to make system wide changes for the long term while also ensuring individuals live better today.

And finally, I think of the beautiful chaos of nature and how humans continually try to impose order. Perhaps the “bug to be fixed” is actually something that needs to remain messy. Maybe the homeless shelters are our real world fuzzy indirections, meant to slow us down and provide reflection. Perhaps if we were to “fix the problem” of homelessness, hunger, domestic abuse, we’d complete our transformation from contemplative human beings to pixels in an optimized Net.

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