The Red Pill

Last month, we wrestled with the implications of the new book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, which has earned more buzz in our sector than we’ve seen in a long time. This month, we’re turning our focus to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, a book that won’t generate as much buzz in our sector (boring title!), but it should. We’ve been talking and writing about the seismic shifts that are shaking the foundations of our society and economy for years. 21 Lessons does a fantastic job of explaining the tectonic movements that are causing the shifts.

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The book’s author, the Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, isn’t an obscure academic. In addition to the fact that he’s given three popular TED Talks, all three of his books have gotten public kudos from Bill Gates. That’s because Harari is a brilliant thinker and a compelling writer. It’s incredible to us that this guy can write with such eloquence and wit in his second language!

Have you watched The Matrix? If you haven’t, you should. If you have, you’ll remember the pivotal scene in which the movie’s hero—a computer hacker who morphs into a postmodern combination of Bruce Lee, the Buddha, and Jesus—is given a choice of taking the red pill (the hard truth) or the blue one (ignorant bliss). If you choose to read 21 Lessons, you’re opting for the red pill.

Harari helps us see, with bracing clarity, why so many democratic societies are slipping back into angry tribalism and nationalism. The basic worldview embraced by such seemingly divergent politicians as George W. Bush and Barack Obama is under unprecedented assault from the left and right. Picking up a key theme from Winners Take All, Harari notes that many people “have concluded (rightly or wrongly) that [this worldview is] a huge racket empowering a tiny elite at the expense of the masses.” Others have a strong affinity “for the old hierarchical world, and they just don’t want to give up their racial, national, or gendered privileges.”

Donald Trump and like-minded politicians around the world aren’t the cause of these tectonic movements. What lies below the surface are rapid advances in AI, machine learning, blockchain, and biotech. In Harari’s view, these revolutions “could restructure not just economies and societies but our very bodies and minds,” allowing lucky elites to become literal superhumans and leaving the rest of humanity with increasing leisure time but greatly diminished power and relevance. Harari is in good company. A new collection of essays by Stephen Hawking published posthumously shows that the great physicist feared that “wealthy people will soon be able to choose to edit their own and their children’s DNA,” eventually leading to a new race of superhumans. The red pill is a bitter one.

Yes, infotech and biotech hold mindboggling potential, but we can’t fall prey to seeing only the upside. We must recognize unanticipated, unintended negative consequences are likely. A blatant example of this dichotomy recently came to light in the field of gene editing. While Bill Gates and other philanthropists have been investing in these technologies for eradicating the mosquitoes that spread malaria, the same technologies could easily be used to by governments or rogue actors to create terrifying bioweapons.

Maximizing the upside of technology isn’t enough. We also have to summon the courage to challenge basic assumptions about how our society assesses the ethical and moral implications of new technologies. We can’t leave these questions only to the private sector. As Mario learned during his career as a software entrepreneur, the right decision for customers and investors can be directly at odds with what’s best for society at large. And we can’t leave those fundamental questions to politicians. As Lowell learned during his time in government, even the most visionary elected officials have shockingly little leeway to address long-term challenges. This is why the Third Sector (and Fourth Estate) are so important!

We often joke that Mario is a “Bert” who always sees the glass half empty and Lowell is an “Ernie” who always sees it half full. Sorry, friends, but this time we’re both Berts. While we both have great appreciation for the abundance of opportunity ahead, we see the glass as half empty, cracked, and leaky. Whether you’re a Bert or Ernie, please check out Winners Take All and 21 Questions for the 21st Century. They’re both must-reads for any social-sector leader who wants to understand the changing context for almost every issue we care about.

Keep the faith (and reason),

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

Don’t just vote on November 6; mobilize your constituents too! As our trusted colleague Billy Shore reminds us, “November’s midterm congressional elections may be among the most consequential in American history and could have more impact on nonprofits and the people they serve than any in recent memory…. The reach and influence nonprofits have are valuable assets. Not to deploy them on behalf of a stronger civic society is not only counterproductive but also civically and morally irresponsible.”

We applaud New York Times columnist David Brooks for getting out into the community to understand the work of nonprofits banding together to restore our social fabric. His Ernie-channeling column “A Really Good Thing Happening in America” brings national attention to initiatives around the country that are coordinating services among many different nonprofits—rather than operating under the faulty premise that a single nonprofit can solve big problems on its own. “These collective impact approaches are exciting and potentially revolutionary,” Brooks writes. “Trust is built and the social fabric is repaired when people form local relationships around shared tasks.” This column covers the same territory as the forthcoming profile in the Leap Ambassadors’ “Funding Performance” series—a description of Venture Philanthropy Partners‘ networked investments in Prince George’s County, MD.

Last week, the Leap Ambassadors Community launched the Performance Practice, a much improved version of the resource formerly known by the awkward acronym “PIOSA.” This resource, which dovetails with and augments the Performance Imperative, has everything leaders need for engaging their teams in self-assessment, reflection, dialogue, and organizational improvement. To learn more about how you can make best use of the Performance Practice, please check out this brief video.

Our friends at the Hewlett Foundation have just partnered with SSIR to launch a new series on the Power of Feedback—one of the core principles of the Performance Imperative. Hewlett President Larry Kramer kicks off the series with his characteristically candid take on the practice of gathering feedback: “The case for [gathering, analyzing, and acting on feedback] seems screamingly obvious. How better to learn what works and what doesn’t than to ask those most directly affected? How better to seek out ways to improve? How better to learn about unintended consequences, galvanize demand and support for solutions, and know whether efforts are matching intentions?”

Mario recently responded to a post from Philanthropy Ohio seeking information about board-committee charters related to evaluation and outcomes. He, in turn, posted the request to the Leap Ambassadors Community—and that produced a lively exchange among ambassadors, including Ellen Bass, Gregg Behr, Chiku Bernardi, Chip Edelsberg, David Hunter, Joe McCannon, Woody McCutchen, and Terri Sorensen. If you’re interested in the same topic, please check out “Board Stewardship for Mission Effectiveness and Performance,” a compilation of the Ambassadors’ insights.

PropelNext, a performance-building initiative of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, just announced the nonprofits joining its newest cohort in California: Able Works, Bill Wilson Center, Braven, CollegeSpring, Enterprise for Youth, Generation Citizen, Oakland Leaf, Puente de la Costa Sur, Safe Passages, ScriptEd, Unity Care, and Youth Alliance. PropelNext will help these organizations enhance and sharpen their program models, implement strong performance-management systems, and develop organizational mastery for ongoing learning and improvement.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

October 29 and 31 – Online
Mastering Effective Communications for Causes” e-certification program; SSIR

Oct 29-Nov 3 — Cleveland, OH
Evaluation 2018“; American Evaluation Association’s (AEA) annual conference

Nov 14-16 — Los Angeles, CA
Upswell 2018” annual conference; Independent Sector

Nov 15-17 — Austin, TX
From Relief to Resilience: How Philanthropy, Nonprofits and Volunteers Bridge the Gap Between Crisis and Sustainability” conference; ARNOVA