Some Thoughts After a Summer of Reading & Watching Films

Numbers Not Words: Towards the end of the film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) quizzes his team on the likelihood of Osama Bin Laden being in hiding in the Pakistani town of Abbotabad.  “Is he there or is he not f–––––– there?” he asks. Analysts offer probabilities between 60% and 80%, until the protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain), chimes in: “A hundred percent he’s there,” she says. “OK, fine, 95%, because I know certainty freaks you guys out. But it’s a hundred!”


The scene is notable for the numbers, not the words. Completely unremarked, each person offers a numerical percentage estimate.  This is no accident.  After the 2nd Iraq war, the US Intelligence Community undertook an enormous cross-departmental excercise to improve the quality of its forecasting, which was recognised after the (hugely expensive) war to have been poor at best.  One of the recommendations was to do away with vague, textual predictions (“quite likely”, “probably will happen”, “may not take place”) and forecast using only percentages.  Another outcome of the excercise was the establishment by the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) of a forecasting tournament pitting teams of experts against one another in a test of forecasting ability.  The shock winner was the Good Judgement Project (GJP), a team of enthusiastic amateur forecasters marshalled by Professor Phillip Tetlock and his team.  Professor Tetlock’s book Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It?  How Can We Know? caused a sensation some years earlier by showing that political pundit ‘experts’ have less forecasting ability than would a monkey throwing darts at a board, ie. that their predictions were worse than random guesses would be.  Professor Tetlock has said that the landmark 20-year study underlying Expert Political Judgement was inspired by a comment from Noble Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman that most experts were no better forecasters than the average New York Times reader.  The GJP team easily beat their higher-paid, better-resourced Government opponents, who have now enlisted Tetlock and his associates to teach them how to forecast future events.

The upshot: anyone with any interest in forecasting should read the Tetlock/GJP work, starting with his most recent, Superforecasting.  The next major gift may just be round the corner, but there are lots of corners and it helps to know which one to take to find it.

Occupy Philanthropy: Malcolm Gladwell’s priceless tweet got me thinking about inequality and not-for-profits.  There is surely a thesis to be written on the fact that the British charities sector is one where 0.36% of organisations raise half all funds, while half of all charities raise 0.57% (chart below is from the NCVOs Financial Sustainability Review).  How can we speak with a united voice with such stark divisions?  And when 62 individuals hold as much wealth as half the world’s entire population, how can causes not popular with the (very) wealthy thrive?

NCVO chart charity size_income

The Curious Case of Building 20:  During World War Two, American Universities were required to join the war effort.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was no different, only they had a problem: after all the major departments had been assigned office space in their re-worked campus, an assortment of smaller, less established departments were left.  These included Linguistics, Electrical Engineering various branches of Military Studies and even a piano repair facility.  Eventually, a ramshackle temporary wooden building was constructed to house the departments, designed to last “until the end of the war + six months”.

But a funny thing happened.  ‘Building 20′, as it came to be known, left a remarkable legacy.  Because it was never considered prime real estate on campus, occupants were free to modify the cheap building at will, making the space more comfortable and useful.  The eclectic departments and oddly distributed seating plan meant academics from unrelated disciplines sat close by and were free to share ideas and listen in to their colleagues’ meetings, and the randomised floorplan and single-storey structure made chance conversations with academics from random departments almost impossible to avoid.  Even a walk to the bathroom gave opportunities to bump into colleagues from completely unrelated disciplines, and for new and unexpected connections to be made between subjects, and people.  “Scientists working there pioneered a stunning list of breakthroughs, from advances in high-speed photography to the development of the physics behind microwaves. Building 20 served as an incubator for the Bose Corporation. It gave rise to the first video game and to Chomskyan linguistics”.  By the time it was finally demolished in 1998, the building was legendary for the extraordinary number of inventions and innovations whose origins lay in the shabby building.

Chance encounters between people with radically different skill sets can be hugely valuable, and are almost free for organisations to engineer.  Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Conviviality: How can not-for-profits help their employees be convivial, learn about one another, and turn the walls built by the working world into bridges?  Theodore Zeldin’s recent book is a reminder that work can and must be about more than a trade-off between ‘real’ life and something called “work” we need to “balance” against.  What if charities not only used donations and grants to deliver services, but  connected their supporters with one another, and their employees, building a mass-movement of people with shared interests and outlooks?  The imperative for this was clear as I looked at a poster in Barcelona of a Catalan charity asking for 3 to help an older person escape grinding loneliness.  While whole global businesses were built in the 20th century to fill houses with furniture, driveways with cars and planes with passengers, the third ‘revolution’ (following those in agriculture and industry) may be to fill far more lives with meaningful relationships, and to facilitate the creation of such links (Zeldin’s ‘conversation dinners‘ are one suggestion ).  This in turn could be a chance for charities (and organisations more widely) to evolve to provide not only more meaningful work, but also a solution to some of the biggest societal challenges of the 21st century, including isolation and poor mental health. Karl Wilding’s comment to the Lords Select Committee on Charities that some charities are reimagining themselves as social movements may prove to be very prescient, and not only because charities are seeking greater social proof of their causes.  The post-war model of donations for services is creaking loudly; movements funded and lead by coalition-networks of the interested, willing and able may be the future.  Am I wrong to think that’s an exciting prospect?

A Future To Believe In?: Bernie Sanders has had a busy year.  Two of his notable achievements (other than breaking the internet with a sparrow) were raising almost $230m from 8m donors with an average donation amount of $27, and, in doing so, soundly disproving the notion that low-value fundraising is old news.  Though his tilt at the Democratic Presidential nomination was ultimately unsuccessful, (not entirely due to consummate HRC campaigning), Senator Sanders moved the terms of the political debate by financing his campaign through small contributions from individuals.  This allowed him both to run on previously neglected issues of inequality, healthcare and police reform, political campaign finance and media biases in a way that would have been difficult or impossible had he appealed for major gifts from wealthier constituencies.  He also got political traction against his opponent in painting her as a creature of the Wall Street elite.



Charities take note, especially of Sanders’ teams use of online fundraising, through which they raised the majority of the funds used in his Presidential nomination campaign.  The Sanders case demonstrates that a principled, urgent call to action delivered intelligently to a receptive audience who are asked to support a discrete goal works as well now as it ever did.  It also lends weight to the argument that small donations can have a big impact – a year ago relatively few people outside Vermont had heard of Bernie Sanders; he is now one of the best-known politicians in the US.  Fundraisers can learn much from his innovative, disciplined campaign.

Lastly: States collect revenue through taxes, not gifts; indeed, states who rely on gifts to function are said to have been “captured” by “special interests”, called clientelistic, or even labelled as “failed”.  As James C. Scott’s seminal Seeing Like a State makes clear, states (ie the frequently coercive bureaucratic infrastructures of authority on which nations are built) do this as it is the worst way to collect revenue, except all the others.  Is there enough discussion of the downsides of donations?

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