On June 22, 2007 The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will become the first foundation to leave behind the limitations of physical space and fly into virtual worlds. The Foundation will take the bold step of exploring philanthropy in ‘worlds’ without government, where money grows on trees, and where all participation is voluntary.
Foundation President Jonathan Fanton kicks off a series of explorations and events in conversation with Phillip Rosedale, CEO of LindenLab, the company that makes SecondLife. You can read President Fanton’s comments on the Foundation’s Spotlight blog (!)
So what? After all, nonprofits have been in SecondLife for months. TechSoup’s Nonprofit Commons, facilitated by the incomparable Susan Tenby and omni-techie Beth Kanter (and others from around the world) is live and active. Its also supported by a philanthropic gift from the first SecondLife millionaire, Anshe Chung, who donated the space for the commons. This allows Tech Soup to make space available to other nonprofits for the unbeatable price of ---free!
Well, so this. Virtual worlds allow us to create our institutions, systems, mores, governance structures, economies, and communities from scratch. SecondLife has a robust market economy, self-enforced behavior standards, a culture of voluntarism, and trees that grow money. So, what does philanthropy look like in such a place? Let us hope it is not an edifice with impressively framed photographs of past generations of generous family members.
Here's how President Fanton explains the Foundation's as intentions with the experiment:
"Last year, we [MacArthur] launched a $50 million initiative to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. Answers are critical to developing educational and other social institutions that can meet the needs of this and future generations.
Recently, we have been introduced to virtual worlds such as Second Life and There.com. I believe that the importance of virtual worlds may be less about their growth as economies, and more about their capacity for collaboration and human development. Activities in virtual worlds already are supported by MacArthur and other foundations, but we have much to discover about the right role for philanthropy itself in virtual worlds."
Nobody asked me, but here are some things I hope we see as the Foundation and its partners at USC role out in this experiment:
- Inclusive decision-making by avatars;
- Avatars with time-limited decision making power (so they have to switch roles);
- Resource support that aligns with, and remains true until, the identified goals of the work are achieved;
- Allocation decisions and offerings that can rise above a lot of noise in order to attract attention; offer inherent value; be flexible enough to adapt to unfiltered ideas and criticism; and fun and engaging, regardless of how serious they also are, to maintain the interests of avatars who can not only ‘vote with their feet,’ these folks can simply fly away.
- It would also be a great way to test out the virtual philanthropy simulator ideas I wrote about earlier; or
- Even a place to bring together Google and SalesForce to create a virtual social-enterprise AppExchange, as I pondered here. (It would be called SecondGoogForce. Or maybe GoogForceLife...)
What would failure look like for the Foundation? I can’t speak for them. However, I'd guess that part of the experiment is to learn about how virtual worlds shift discourse and decision making. To see which functions communities ‘assign’ to their voluntary sector and which to a ‘public role,’ if they get to build from scratch. It will also be interesting to see how resource allocation works in a land of virtual real estate. What about property ownership – for real and intellectual and design property? Are virtual worlds viable, even perhaps necessary, platforms for first world nonprofits and fundraisers? Or are they a passing fancy?
Thanks to the MacArthur Foundation, and its explorations into this new turf, we may soon know some of the answers to these questions. Stay tuned. And get In World on June 22.