The plot so far:
Ed Skloot of the Duke University Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society and I and other colleagues are working on a project that considers if and how technology (specifically Internet and mobile enabled communications and social technologies) is changing philanthropy.The story continues:
The project started with interviews, research, a paper and a wiki, rolls up to include discussions with invited experts and thoughtful challengers, continues to identify practical points for more experimentation and observation, and rolls out with your continued input and wisdom through this blog, in online conversation with key thinkers, and through as many other avenues as we can engage. One goal is to include as many insights as possible from the known gurus of technology and philanthropy and those whose expertise may seem further afield (legal underpinnings of the networked information economy; commons experts; engineering, design and production tinkerers; public space policy wonks and so on)
Draft 1.5 of the paper will be shared with readers who request it (email me, please, firstname.lastname@example.org) in early October (Thanks to all who've emailed so far, we're tracking and will send out all at once) We're also using this forum to try out some ideas and get your input - thanks to all who've strengthened the work so far.
So, here's where we left off.
- Data are the new platform for change.
- The changes are not about the digital technologies that allow access, or about the data themselves. They are about the expectations and behaviors they unleash.
- These changes, coupled with changes in the public and private sectors, are pushing a transition to a "social economy" made up of interdependent public, private and philanthropic capital and creators of social goods.
- All of these changes are not an end of a story, they are simply the beginning.
- Philanthropy is an industry of passion and volunteerism in which collusion should be encouraged. It may not change in the same way, at the same speed, or driven by the same forces as the newspaper or music industries or the public sector.
- cloud technology and
- peer to peer philanthropic networks.
So what? Well, there are two main reasons this kind of shift matters to philanthropy. First, donors and foundations and nonprofits tend not to be expert in managing software and hardware. One of the great promises of cloud computing is that individuals and organizations don't need to manage as much of that stuff as they do when all the data and applications are hosted on their own servers. Nick Carr's comparison is useful here - the difference between cloud computing and our current IT setup is the difference between switching on the lights for electricity from a central utility and every organization having to maintain their own power plant. There are significant concerns still about security of data in the cloud, and this post should not be read as an endorsement for any of the companies or services mentioned so far. That said, the shift to remote software use (that allows you to access anything from anywhere you happen to be, with your mobile phone, laptop, netbook, desktop, and soon, no doubt, your refrigerator) does matter.
Not only because it can save organizations a lot of money (though that will help and will drive the adoption of these tools) and allow them to allocate human resources differently. But because of the behavioral changes that cloud computing facilitates. When I can access my data from anywhere I can choose to share it with anyone else anywhere anytime also. And that allows us to work together, create new things together, improve them together, and share them with others.
What might we create that matters to philanthropy? How about a single shared session form for substance abuse counselors that stores the information they need to work with individual clients but that is also anonymized and aggregated instantly to produce quarterly and final reports to funders? Or a set of housing standards that different community development organizations can contribute to, use regularly in their daily work, and benchmark themselves against their peers? Or real-time disaster information texted in from proximal locations so that responders can track the path of hurricane damage? Or a national effort to change how states report nonprofit data, built entirely by volunteers and managed remotely with free software and free conference calling tools? Or insights from site visits that peer networks of donors can contribute to, add research links around, discuss, and use to guide their individual as well as collective grantmaking?
Those are all real examples, by the way. There are dozens - if not hundreds or thousands - more. (Should I begin building a list? Has anyone already started one? Where in the cloud will I find it?) And whatever examples we can find, we know they are only the beginning. As Holly Ross of NTEN notes, what the cloud really helps with is "sense-making in the new data-scape," or as Holly puts it:
"Making sense of all this data is going to be our key challenge as a sector as we move forward. But the cloud is going to help us in this regard, because the cloud makes it exponentially easier for us to move data around.
In the cloud, we can share client service data with other organizations and map it against the need demonstrated by census data. In the cloud, we can create visualizations of our data that make those multi-colored spreadsheets finally make REAL sense. In the cloud, we'll be able to record even more of the ways our constituents interact with us, and interpret what that means."
If you'd like to see Holly's slides on this subject, they are available on Slideshare (Cloud).
The second area of change is the rise of peer networks, of donors and do-ers. Sometimes these networks are separate - just donors or just activists - and sometimes they are one and the same. That in and of itself is a change from the past, where those who donate and those who do the work are publicly, consistently, and productively working together. Why is this happening? Lots of reasons, but for one the social network tools that each group uses don't filter the way conference organizers used to. As conference organizers open up panels and Q + A sessions to those not in attendance the conversations diversify and change.
More to the point, however, is the rise of these networks in general. Peer networks of donors, of program officers, of nonprofit ceos, of board members are all 1) easier to organize now because of technology, 2) more useful to their members because they can more easily share data and insights through the networks, and 3) changing how we think about expertise. Professionals who run foundations and nonprofits are used to accessing their peers in other organizations, and the tools to do so (conferences, listservs, affinity groups, funding collaboratives) have long been part of the infrastructure of their workplace.
What is new is the development of a similar infrastructure for the volunteers who fill the sector - especially donors, board members and activists. Technologies that connect people - by interest area and with robust access to shared data sources - are readily available. Just as environmental program officers in large foundations have a peer group of other environmental program officers at other foundations, environmentally focused donors are now connecting directly with their peers. Same thing with regionally-focused donors, or activists interested in public data access, individuals who share a diaspora experience or those committed to global giving. The Acumen Fund shows how a data-driven portfolio approach can be used to attract donors to new forms of investing; the Global Impact Investing Network's Investors Council, SeaChange Capital Partners, Growth Philanthropy Network, are all examples of new networks for donors and social investors.
We've seen the rapid growth of organizations such as Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors that provide shared staff to multiple donors. We've seen the rebirth - as its own entity - of The Philanthropy Workshop West, an independent network of donors and family foundations. And, of course, we've seen a decade of expansion from giving circles and Social Venture Partners.
These peer networks represent two things, one we can point to for sure and one we can speculate about. First, they show just how the market is rebundling financial products and knowledge products in philanthropy - the donors are doing it themselves. As peers find peers, and peer networks find data, the role of the professional changes. Staffing a single foundation may cease to make sense. Professional advisers will need new skills.
Second, these peer-supported, data-informed, passion-activated, and technology-enabled networks may just represent a whole new structural form in philanthropy. In 1913 John D. Rockefeller established the first American foundation. He needed an institution that could provide financial and knowledge services for his philanthropy for the long term. The re-bundling of data by peers hints at new needs. Network weaving and just-in-time data matter more, and the structures that support them will need to be as flexible, scalable, and portable as the networks they will serve. On the cusp of the first American foundation's centennial, we may be looking at the dawn of a new complementary form.
So, what do you think? Do you have more cloud-based examples of new approaches to giving or social change? Do you know of an online list (cloud-based) that I could access and reference? Am I nuts to think networks might matter as much as institutions going forward? Will program officers really become passe? Can peer networks replace professional advisers?
I welcome your comments, here and on twitter [@p2173]. We'll do our best to incorporate the ideas and suggestions into the paper and the project, and please believe me when I say, the discussions you and I are having on this blog, email and in twitter matter to this work. Thanks for all your help and please keep chiming in.
Stay tuned for Part Three: is there a conflict between the marketization of philanthropy as an industry and the real trajectory of a "networked information economy?"
*I highly recommend Nicholas Carr's book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, 2009 on the topic of cloud computing and thank him for the electricity analog.