What are friends for?

Well, Netflix thinks they're for helping you find the movies you like. Netflix has built in a feature that lets you comment on and rate movies and share your opinions with a group of friends. In return, you can see what your buddies had to say about something you were thinking about renting. This is, with a few bells and whistles, the old fashioned way of learning about a movie. Friends are how we learn about books, clothes, art, restaurants, cars, dates, and causes (among other things). We trust the opinions of those we know. We join boards when asked by friends (or colleagues), we give money when asked by friends, we attend rallies when our friends are going, we turn to our friends to support the things we care about.

So why don't more foundations use their friends? Why don't foundations that care about certain issues try to get their friends to care also? Why is endorsing an issue, an organization, a strategy, or a cause the purview of individuals and DVD rental companies, but not the norm for philanthropic organizations?

More reasons to worry about intellectual property

I've been talking for a long time about the influence of changing intellectual property laws on philanthropy. I've noted the rise in patents being filed for philanthropic tools, such as the Donor Managed Investment, a new financial form for giving a gift and retaining the ability to manage it.

Kintera has filed papers to patent its "Friends Asking Friends" technology This service allows nonprofits to unite websites and email lists to help raise money. Now, the technology may be new, but there is nothing older in philanthropy than friends asking friends. Every fundraiser worth her salt knows the first rule of raising money is to ask, ask, ask.

So, when Kintera gets its patent, which it expects early in 2005, how pervasively will it enforce it? Just licensing the software? Or will it go looking for revenue everytime a nonprofit tries to raise money or awareness of a cause by providing a quick link to "email your friends"? How about every time a Board of Directors develops a list of likely contributors and asks the Board members to make the asks?

If the technology that underpinned the hyperlink had been patented and license revenue sought out, the World Wide Web would have never grown the way it has. We should be similarly concerned about how far we go in patenting technology that underpins this most basic element of philanthropy.

The best thing I've read lately...

...at least in the realm of professional reading, is Andrew Blau's great new piece, The Future of Independent Media. Available on Global Business Network's web site, the paper provokes us to think about the rapidly changing interplay of commercial and noncommercial sectors, the varying understandings of these differences by generation, the challenge to philanthropic support if the costs of producing new work becomes minuscule while the costs and challenges of getting visibility for new work become enormous, and the need for all who interact with media (makers, users, funders, marketers) to redefine success.

I'm sure there is even more to this paper for those who work in media. As one who read it for its implications for philanthropy, I have to ask, "Is media the coal mine canary for all areas of philanthropic support? Aren't the dynamics of markets and new definitions of success going to be important in their own way in education, health care, environmental issues, and so on?"

In his focus on independent media, Blau does a fantastic job of explaining how technological shifts are fundamentally changing the who, how and why of media production - from a system of scarcity to one of superabundance. The shift is from a few audiences for big hits to countless audiences for small niche pieces. In turn, the funding needs move from creation to visibility, and the whole adds up to profoundly different set of operating assumptions for the role of philanthropic support.

Certainly, given the effects of globalization, demographic changes, technological acceleration, and public priority changes, the ground is shifting with the same seismic intensity (though, no doubt, for different reasons or in different directions) for philanthropic support of higher education, social services, land preservation, intergalactic exploration, agricultural innovation, and so on and so on. But do those philanthropists know it? Probably not as well as those who will be direct beneficiaries of Blau's piece on the media.

Important opportunity on copyright

The US Copyright Office is looking for input on how to deal with orphan works - those copyrighted pieces whose owners are unknown are can't be found. Read and comment on this issues at Public Knowledge

And speaking of copyright, the Creative Commons Blog is a great source of news on these new forms of rights and licenses for intellectual property. Its exciting to read the blog feed and see how this is spreading around the globe and across disciplines and media.