October 29, 2010
Chris Rock Swears for Charity
The Daily Tell reports that Chris Rock, the funny, foul-mouthed comedian, offered at a charity fundraiser to tell off the former lover of the highest bidder. After a woman pledged $20,000, Rock phoned her ex from the stage and unleashed a stream of profanities at him.
My question is, how much can she deduct, given that Rock provided a valuable service in exchange for her donation?
The LA Times picked up an AP story about a federal judge in New York who rejected a challenge to state election law brought by a group that opposes gay marriage and supports the Republican candidate for governor, Carl Paladino, who has made plain his feelings about gay rights.
The group, the National Organization for Marriage, planned to run television ads mocking gay rights and explicitly supporting Paladino. It sought what was in essence a declaratory judgment from the court stating that the group would not be required under New York law to list their donors. Although the article did not specify, I assume NOM is a 501(c)(4), which ordinarily would not be required to reveal its donors, but which would be forced to do so under New York law if New York's Board of Elections were to rule that NOM was a political committee. The group's legal theory was that being branded as a political committee and thus having to reveal its donors would "interfere with NOM's free speech rights by imposing so many burdens that it wouldn't be worth it to NOM to run the ads." That argument sounds like a loser on the merits, but the judge never got there, dismissing the suit as not ripe since the New York Board of Elections had not yet acted.
I leave it to Lloyd to educate us about how this story fits into the larger story of the use and abuse of nonprofit organizations in the political sphere.
October 28, 2010
Law School Clinic Under Attack
The Chronicle of Higher Education, along with many media outlets, reported recently that an appeals court in New Jersey ruled that anEnvironmental Law Clinic at Rutgers University must comply with open records laws. The ruling, which overturns the decision of a trial court, means that clinical programs (which generally view themselves as law firms that are based at law schools) at public law schools in New Jersey will have to turn over documents that normally would be considered privileged. The law suit was brought by the developer of an outlet mall whose development plans were delayed by opposition from a community group that the clinic represented. The developer seeks documents to prove that the community group received assistance from the owners of rival outlet malls.
If this ruling stands, it could have a huge impact on the future of clinical programs, particularly those based at public universities.
October 27, 2010
Gates Foundation Gives $1.45 Million for Improved Seed Production
The Gates Foundation recently granted $1.45 million to Iowa State University to explore ways to provide better access to improved seed varieties in Africa, according to an item in the The Daily Tell. This storycaught my attention because as a younger person I had a profoundly unhappy experience with a seed program in Africa.
The USAID program I was attached to in the Republic of Niger (for two years in the late '80s) had the goal of introducing "improved" millet seeds to Niger's farmers. Millet is Niger's staple crop. Scientists at a California university (I forget which one) had developed a strain of seeds that would grow to maturity quickly and would yield more per acre thantraditional Nigerien varieties, so long as the rains fell steadily and so long as the farmers followed a strict regimen of ploughing their soil and adding fertilizer. What the California scientists failed to recoginze is that 1) the rains almost never fall steadily in Niger, 2) farmers never plough their fields because the sand content of the soil is so high that if they do, it all blows away in the wind, 3) asking the subsistence farmers to take the financial risk of buying fertilizer on credit was ludicrous.
The short version is that the improved seed project in Nigerwas a disastrous, multimillion dollar failure, and that the failure was caused by the Western experts' ignorance of conditions on the ground. It turned me into a development skeptic and, eventually, launched me into an academic career in which I spend a good deal of my time explaining why development interventions, particularly law and development interventions do not work.
Questioning the Viability of the Hybrid Social Enterprise Model
Yesterday's New York Times reported the not-terribly-surprising news that many hybrid social ventures are failing. The article quotes the prominent social enterprise lawyer, Allen Bromberger, as claiming that the hybrid structures "allow social enterprises to tap conventional investors interested in making profits while continuing to pursue their social missions." But the balance of the article tells the story of several prominent social enterprises that failed to achieve social or financial returns. "Like Dr. Doolittle's pushmi-pullu, the animal had trouble moving because its two heads could not agree on a single direction . . .." Adding injury to insult, these failed social enterprises have been very difficult to wind down because of their hybrid structures. One wonders whether the Fourth Sector's overall track record would be better, and the Times would be writing hagiographies, if the domestic and global economy were stronger.
October 26, 2010
Microlending in the USA
For years, social entrepreneurs in the U.S. have applauded microlending programs as tools for wealth generation in poor countries. The programs, generlly based on the model established by Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, provide small loans to entrepreneurs who ordinarily do not qualify for bank financing. Until recently, microloan programs were confined primarily to the poorest nations.
Recently, the Community Development Law Clinic that I supervise in North Carolina has received requests from local groups wishing to form microloan programs in their communities. And it appears that microloan programs' migration to the US is not confined to my home state. The Wall Street Journalreported recently that Kiva, a nonprofit known for helping foreign entrepreneurs receive microloans, is beginning to do business along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Kiva is the best known of the so-called "crowdfunding" organizations that act as a portal, matching donors who want to loan to microentrepreneurs with low income people who need capital to start businesses.
Abuse of "Green" Labeling
Not long ago I wrote a law review article about the emerging Social Enterprise/Fourth sector in the United States. One of many challenges that social entrepreneurs face is distinguishing their double or triple bottom line philosophy from practitioners of mere Corporate Social Responsibility ("CSR"). According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, social entrepreneurs have yet more reason to distance themselves from CSR. The Journal says that the phenomenon of "greenwashing" is rampant in the corporate world. That is, many, many corporations in the U.S. claim that their products are environmentally responsible, or "green," when in fact there is absolutely no evidence to support the "green" claims. In fact, more than 95% of consumer products examined in a recent study committed at least one "greenwashing" offense. Interestingly, the article mentions that there are two firms that offer to provide third-party "green certification" for corporations that make green claims. Such firms could provide CSR practitioners the same sort of seal of approval that B-Lab purports to provide for social enterprise organizations.
October 25, 2010
Chamber of Commerce Controversy
Several media outlets in recent days, including the NY Times, have reported on controversy surrounding the legislative and political activities of the US Chamber of Commerce. In brief, the controversy includes the facts that 1) tens of millions of dollars are being spent on political issue campaign advertisements, mostly on behalf of Republican candidates, 2) a significant percentage of the Chamber'sfunds are coming from a handful of huge corporations, 3) the Chamber is not required to divulge its donors, so long as the donations are not specifically earmarked for ads aimed at a particular candidate, 4) the Chamber appears to be spending the money for purposes dictated by the corporations while doing back flips to ensure that the contributed funds have not been "earmarked;" 5) some of the donated funds are coming from overseas corporations and being intermingled with domestic contributions and spent on the advertising, in apparent contravention of US law. The Times obtained details about corporate donations, not through the Chamber's records, but by combing through the public financial documents, corporate filings, and annual reports of some of the large donors.
From the Oops Department
From my own neck of the woods, the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina recently reported that staffers and students at Winston-Salem State University received university-generated emails urging them to take advantage of early voting and to help the Democratic Party. After complaints from the local Republican Party, the University agreed to 1) send out a retraction (six hours after the original email went out), 2) send out an email to the same list urging them to help the Republican Party and 3) then, six hours later, retract the second email. It appears that two wrongs do make a right.
Governing Civil Society Symposium
Several regular contributors to this blog attended a symposium last Friday at Brooklyn Law School on Governing Civil Society: NGO Accountability, Legitimacy, and Influence. Brooklyn's International Law Journal will be collecting and publishing the papers (next spring)? My paper, "Wait! That's Not What We Meant by Civil Society: Questioning the NGO Orthodoxy in West Africa," described how Western efforts to engender civil society in several West African nations has produced unintended consequences as Islamic religious organizations have flooded into (and as often as not taken over) civil society. One problem with the nascent civil society organizations promoted by the West is that they tend to be run by Western-oriented elites whose interests diverge from those of grassroots citizens and groups. This is one of the reasons that Islamic organizations have had so much success. The paper argues that there is not much that we (i.e., the U.S.) can or should do about the situation. All of the papers were thought provoking, but I particularly enjoyed Gary Jenkins' remarks. He pointed out that Western insistence on NGO best administrative practices might have the effect of exacerbating the elitism of host country NGOs, rendering them illegitimate in the eyes of the ordinary citizens. (Gary, sorry if I misstated your argument.)