Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Independent Press Association: A "Hard-Hearted Corporation"?

Where have I been?

Working!

What am I working on?

I'm helping the Institute for Southern Studies create a strategic plan for its publications program; raising money for Alternatives for Community and Environment; writing a business plan for Media Alliance's earned income programs; helping the Utne Institute design its programs; writing articles for AlterNet, Public Eye, Utne, and Mothering Magazine; and editing technical assistance manuals for the Independent Press Association.

Speaking of which, the IPA is the subject of a major investigative piece in this week's SF Weekly: "Pulp Friction: The Independent Press Association was founded to champion alternative magazines, but now its members say it has become the kind of hard-hearted corporation it once opposed."

The article - which covers the meltdown of IPA's newsstand service and a growing conflict over the identity of the organization - is very, very fair. I don't have any comment on how the Indy Press Newsstand Service disaster was handled; IPA members are the authority on how they have been treated as members - and to get a sense of that, you should read the article.

It's not just the IPA: for years non-profits have been pushed (and have pushed themselves) to start businesses and adopt a more business-like culture that includes financial incentives and high executive salaries - with very mixed results that have included massive scandals at once-trusted non-profits like the United Way and the Red Cross.

One aspect of the big picture here is that while there is a growing rhetorical commitment to helping non-profits develop social venture strategies to fund their work and accomplish their missions, the reality is that foundations and other sources of non-profit capital don't yet know how fund most creative social ventures: they lack patience and long-term commitment, and don't pay enough attention to developing management and infrastructure.

At the same time, social ventures tend to recruit from the corporate sector for management and leadership, when in trouble looking for a savior - only to find that such people often don't get the real mission or culture of the organization, or the difference between non-profit and for-profit goals. They solve some problems but create others, sometimes in the process betraying and disillusioning the very people they're supposed to serve.

What's the solution? It's too easy to reject the notion that non-profits might use the tools of the marketplace to accomplish their missions; indy magazines, no matter how left-wing, are fundamentally entrepreneurial entities, and organizations like the IPA need to get members into the marketplace in order to spread their ideas. What we really need is a "third culture" that combines patient capital and entrepreneurial sophistication with real commitment to social change as well as accountability to the people who depend on non-profits for services and a voice in public affairs. It's larger than any one organization; we need training, networks, and more. It's a system and an idea that will have to emerge over time and through trial and error.

P.S.: I still plan to report more on the purchase of Utne Magazine. Stay tuned.

7 Comments:

At 2:46 PM, Blogger Howard said...

Glad you blogged on this Jeremy. All the problems with IPA were always a mystery to me; the article and your comments are making it much clearer. I suppose the story is not finished yet.

 
At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

jeremy, you've hit the nail on the head with this very cogent nutshell explanation of the ipa's problems: "At the same time, social ventures tend to recruit from the corporate sector for management and leadership, when in trouble looking for a savior - only to find that such people often don't get the real mission or culture of the organization, or the difference between non-profit and for-profit goals. They solve some problems but create others, sometimes in the process betraying and disillusioning the very people they're supposed to serve."

i would add, though, that at the ipa specifically, the leadership has no clue of *how* they are going awry, no internal compass--and they are resistant to listening to the very folks who could help them out with that, as the (i agree, very very fair) sf weekly article showed.

i hear that the ipa exec director, who is a very very large part of this problem, has told his staff that the article is "no big deal," and that seems to be the end of it. i would love to know what the board is thinking right about now....

 
At 11:01 AM, Blogger Jeremy Adam Smith said...

The Board is probably frustrated. The inside perspective is that IPA is making enormous gains on some fronts -- such as finally closing the deal I sheparded with the Ford Foundation to expand the IPA loan fund -- while successfully mitigating the damage caused by former ED John Anner's "bad" decisions: namely, buying BigTop. Given that IPA was not able to secure a line of credit or capital for infrastructure, the Disticor deal represents progress, not a failure: the least of multiple evils.

So on many levels the IPA Board might be fairly happy with the way things are going and mystified as to why all these crazy members and disgruntled former employees and Board members are attacking them and Landry's leadership. To them it doubtless seems unfair; they probably feel misunderstood and misrepresented by unprofessional people who are motivated by grudges and secret agendas and whatnot.

I'm speculating, of course: I'm trying to help the reader see another perspective. Perhaps the article and the criticism is really provoking self-doubt and soul-searching; maybe even now the IPA's leadership is asking how it can heal the organization's wounds and fissures.

But I doubt it. As Anonymous says, there's no internal compass, no accountability. IPA right now is driven by this inability - born of insecurity and paranoia - to walk in another's shoes, to empathize and sympathize with others. IPA is in fact offering belated olive branches to the members, trying, for example, to organize a series of conference call Q&As with Landry, but I have yet to hear a positive response from the membership: the censorship on the IPA listserve has caused the members who care to distrust any forum controlled by the IPA.

 
At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

whatever..

 
At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 3:14 AM, Blogger julie said...

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