A hurricane of email solicitations

My heart goes out to the people in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana and Mississippi. The devastation there is truly awful. I will make a gift to help with relief efforts - probably for long term rebuilding. But how's this for a sign of how fast technology changes things - in the last few hours I have received solicitations to give to hurricane relief funds from:

--- The Democratic Party
--- People for the American Way
--- The International Community Foundation
--- United Airlines

Not necessarily your usual cast of characters for something like this. I'm sure to hear from the Red Cross and others soon, but here's my question: at what point does this impressive degree of organizing and outreach turn into spam and disorganization? My answer - right about now.

Yes, we were all impressed with the amount of money raised online in mere hours for tsunami relief back in December. The interesting twist to that story was how quickly one of the major relief organizations (Doctors without Borders) reached a point where they actually said "Stop! No more!" (see my post of January 5 2005, "Stop - we can't take it anymore"). But this time we've already tipped to the point where before the giving can flow we are getting smothered in requests. Let us hope the flood of requests doesn't dry up a potential flood of gifts.

Eyes on the Prize returns

Those of you who've been following along know that intellectual property and philanthropy is a major concern of mine. I'm happy (?) to report that the archetypical example of why IP matters to philanthropy may be coming to conclusion. Monday's New York Times reported that Eyes on the Prize, the groundbreaking PBS documentary on the civil rights movement, may be about to move out of copyright purgatory and back to TV screens, perhaps as early as next year.

When the series was first made (first shown in 1987), with significant philanthropic support, permissions for much of the content were secured for a limited time and those rights expired. This has kept this classic documentary from being shown since 1993. Major gifts from the Ford Foundation and an individual donor, Richard Gilder, will allow the project's administrators to re-new their purchases of these permissions. Total cost? Somewhere north of $600,000. Imagine how those resources could have been used if the permissions could have been purchased once? Imagine what these kinds of costs will mean if they were incurred by every such project? Imagine what life would be like if no creative material could be developed, shown, or referenced without constantly paying someone to do so?

Thank you, Ford and Mr. Gilder. Your support will allow ours and future generations to learn lessons not only about the civil rights movement but about the need for a creative commons as well.

Whole lot of shakin' goin' on

Lots of changes in the foundation world this past week.

The Council on Foundations has a new President, Steven Gunderson, a former congressman. The official word is here. The unofficial word, according to Phil Anthropoid, is here.

In other moves, Elan Garonzik, longtime program officer for philanthropy at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is leaving Michigan for New York to become Program Director at the ELMA Philanthropies.

Michigan will not be down any numbers as far as philanthropists are concerned, however. Sterling Speirn, longtime head of the Peninsula Community Foundation will be leaving California for Battle Creek, where he will take over as head of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Bzzz! Honeybee goes from typewriter to pdf

The Honeybee Network is a 15-year old example of how knowledge sharing can be done on a large scale and respect cultural and linguistic diversity as well as the common and proprietary value of ideas. The forum provides a way for farmers and others - mostly in India and southeast Asia - to share grassroots agricultural innovations. The website is in English but the newsletters and magazines are available in Hindi, Tamil and several other languages.

It started with a typed newsletter - these can be accessed as pdf files for a fun romp through recent formatting history.

There is also a searchable database of innovations with more than 10,000 items - available for free. Makes you wonder - if this can be built at the grassroots for the grassroots - why isn't there more of it?

Techies do it again

Community Knowledge Works presents a really interesting model of how to streamline information gathering procedures that are routine parts of transactions between foundations and nonprofits and consultants. If a large enough user base began using the resources of TechAtlas we might eventually be able to get at field-wide answers to questions like "How does technology help nonprofits achieve their missions?"

Community philanthropy and online reputations

Well, here is one way that communities can use social networking software and reputational systems to guide their philanthropy. The Arts Commission of Vienna has invited 100 arts groups to help deploy a software platform called netznetz that will then involve those groups in advising funding decisions.

Intellectual property and community philanthropy

Warning - the following is an open-ended, free write, procrastination exercise because I'm not getting anywhere on this draft chapter I'm working on.

And, yes, I am back on this rant again - I won't get off this line of thinking until I get this new book done. Which is going to take awhile since all I have now is a huge pile of notes, a huge pile of reading to do, and several half-started chapters.

I continue to think about the ramifications for community philanthropy in this time of rapidly changing intellectual property laws. Why? Well, for one thing, the way we act on our community instincts is changing - from where we find and talk about movies to how we learn about world events to the ways my neighborhood organizes itself to get the dog park fixed. Mobile phone blogging, mobile phone activism and citizen journalism are all examples of how quickly we've come to rely on individuals with cell phones to provide us with news-worthy content.

Everyone in my community is capable of snapping the photo, recording the audio, and wirelessly emailing it to the news station - helpful in a disaster, yes, but what about the crazy old lady around the corner who just likes to rat on her neighbors? We can all help each other out, we can also all turn each other in.

Trust and reputation matter in the P2P world in powerful ways - how are trust and reputation changing on the neighbor to neighbor level? How does this influence how we create, find, support and leave communities?

And what about property and philanthropy? In talking about how philanthropic foundations act on their values, a colleague of mine recently commented that "the relationship between how great wealth is created and the problems that great wealth creation creates is philanthropy's great paradox."* It often reveals itself in differing value systems between board members and staff, but it runs much deeper than that. So deep, that most foundations simply start by accepting the paradox, after all what can they do about it?

This makes it hard to talk about private versus community ownership. This makes it hard to talk about property. This makes it a real problem to think about intellectual property, private use and rights, and community use and rights at a time when everything from baby names to phrases like "freedom of expression" are being trademarked or copyrighted and entire businesses exist to do nothing but file patents for business processes and sue those who don't pay license fees. But why should this matter to philanthropy? Well, for one thing, ideas matter to philanthropy. Who owns and who can use those ideas should matter to philanthropy. Who decides what ideas get heard where and when should matter to philanthropy. How can progress on environmental issues, artistic creation, education, health care, human rights, scientific inquiry, playground design or anything else philanthropy supports actually be achieved if ideas and strategies need to be run past a patent attorney to make sure their available for use?

Philanthropy needs to care about intellectual property, private ownership, and community use. But it seems to care about them in the same way it cares about regulatory systems, economic injustice, and advocacy as a change strategy - which is to say episodically and reluctantly. Which is too bad. Because I think private philanthropy is well positioned to make a huge difference on these issues, for the betterment of fair use and community rights.

*This may apply to many foundations, though perhaps not those at the conservative political end of the spectrum (for whom there is no paradox) or for those on the far liberal, social justice end who have deliberately organized themselves to put decisions and wealth in the hands of activists.

Kintera buys Collaborative Standards

Most of you already know this by now, but since I've been commenting on the likelihood of such mergers and purchases since last Fall, I figured I'd better post the final conclusion. This purchase makes me more convinced that the technology underpinnings of how giving happens are set to change dramatically in the next few years.

If you take a wander through Kintera's annual report, you see some outlines of how the company views the puzzle pieces of giving. The 2004 report notes the acquisition of workplace giving firms, fundraising and advocacy consultants (notably the firm that advised Howard Dean's web campaign), prospect research firms, volunteer management, special events, and now, with the purchase of Collaborative Standards, they've brought grant making in house. They also offer customer relationship management, email coordination, major gift solicitation and co-branded donor advised funds.

Kintera is a one stop shop. Or at least wants to be. Political donations, workplace giving, event management, advised funds, major gifts, capital campaigns, friends asking friends* for money (*a process the company has filed patents on) - every transactional piece of giving or raising funds is within the company's line of sight.

Time will tell if the company can pull this off, but at this point it is crystal clear that these folks see the pieces of giving and fundraising and doing as a set of relationships ripe for realignment. Where traditional foundations, nonprofits, United Ways, and others focus on their differences, Kintera seems focused on what they all have in common. If Kintera succeeds in shifting these common functions to their Internet platform, the differences between the land-based entities might become even harder to hang a hat on.

The trouble with infrastructure

Today's New York Times has a depressing story about the state of nonprofit infrastructure. In his piece on the demise of America Coming Together, Glen Justice quotes one donor, Agnes Varis, as saying, "Everybody is ready to give money, but there are so many ideas.... Democrats always do that. They just spawn groups. It takes a while to figure out where to do it [give money]." What an absurd - yet real - problem - lots of willing supporters but no for them to make sense of the whole.

Without going into the politics of this, it is striking that a nonprofit network built in record time and for huge amounts of money just a few years ago, would be coming apart so soon. When the groups identified in the article shut down they will leave a hole to be filled from scratch for the next election.

This cycle plays out too often, in all realms - not just electoral politics. We need to deliberately build organizations and networks that can maintain relevance in the 'between' times so they can leap into action in times of crisis, opportunity, election, or recall (as the case may be). This lesson applies in all walks of civic life now, from the need for emergency responders to the potentially lifesaving powers of an always on, ever-accessible public communications network to the community vitality that comes from knowing your neighbors in good times lest you need them or they you in bad times.

Nonprofits, political and community organizers, and volunteers are the infrastructure of civic life. This is the trouble with infrastructure - we need to invest it when we would prefer not to think about it so we can rely on it when we need it.