Executive choices and nonprofit ratings

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the "right ways" to review, rate, measure, and analyze nonprofit organizations. In the aftermath of January's devastating earthquake in Haiti both trade and mainstream blogs and the press were full of recommendations of nonprofits for donors' consideration.

Most of this type of analysis is based - loosely or not - on financial analysts reviews' of companies and industries. They review financial information, performance metrics, measures of social return (these last two being particularly subject to dispute), and others. How to review nonprofits is an emerging specialty, full of (important) methodological disagreement and debate.

Today, I received a press announcement of two new vice presidential appointments at The Foundation Center that made me realize one area that seems particularly weak when it comes to reviewing nonprofits - executive personnel. The Foundation Center announced the appointment of Anjula Duggal as its vice president for marketing and communications. Ms. Duggal's prior experience includes:

"...chief marketing & communications officer of the nonprofit Count Me In. Previously, she served as vice president for marketing & site operations at Retailer Networks Inc., oversaw the day-to-day marketing and operations for GiftandHomeChannel.com, and held marketing positions at both Sony Music and Universal Music. She has led web-based expansion initiatives and e-commerce operations, built online brands, provided business-to-business marketing solutions, and orchestrated small business membership programs."

All of this signals - fairly clearly, in my opinion - a clear commitment by The Foundation Center to get its products and services onto social networks, recognized in online channels, and to seek new, interesting partnerships. This is great news and reflects well on the Center's plans, projections and current leadership.

If nonprofits were really reviewed for competitive advantage the way companies are reviewed by equity analysts, those reviews would dive into executive leadership, transitions, succession plans, and what they say about current and future plans. I don't know if the rating agencies and reviewers are planning to go this way or not, but this announcement from The Foundation Center is the kind of signal we should be seeking from organizations.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I know several board members and executives at The Foundation Center. I do not know Ms. Duggal.

Clouds and Infostructure*

I'm not a professional techie, so I was honored to be asked for my thoughts on "clouds" and the social sector by the tech-smarties over at NTEN. Here's the piece they recently ran - alongside insights from folks at Microsoft and NetSquared - real techies. And while you're over there, check out their report on the Data Ecosystem. Good stuff (free to NTEN members, $50 for nonmembers) Or read Danah Boyd on data and the mess of publicity and privacy (which I found through NTEN).


Photo from VisualPanic, Flickr, Creative Commons

Once upon a time, just a little more than a century ago, every factory that wanted to run its systems on electricity had to build its own electrical generating system. Thomas Edison and a few other entrepreneurs put an end to this by building an electrical grid - so factory owners could focus on making shirts or chairs or widgets and not on running their own electrical plants.

Cloud computing offers us all the same freedom for our information infrastructure ("Infostructure"). Most of us now host all of our applications and our data and our email systems documents/spreadsheets, etc. on our own servers or desktops. In addition to running a youth organization or a job training program or an environmental advocacy campaign, you are also running an information and technology system on which you do your work. With cloud computing, you access your software applications over the Internet using a web browser. Chances are you probably already do this with Yahoo Mail or Google Docs or Flickr or Salesforce or Twitter or Facebook.

Some of the benefits of cloud computing are obvious - many of the programs noted above are free (that's good), version upgrades are instantaneous and don't require you to contact an IT department and you can access your files from any computer.

Some of the downsides are also fairly clear -- you may lose connectivity (and not be able to get to your stuff), the hosting company could go out of business (and you won't be able to get to your stuff), and you need to really think through the security options and offerings provided (so that someone you don't want to get to your stuff gets to your stuff). Hosted applications and platforms also require equitable access pathways, so while low cost hardware is available, it is broadband and mobile divides that are important.

Cloud computing on a broad scale will also fundamentally change how we work, where we work, and with whom we work. More importantly, over time we will see that the expectations that the cloud engenders have changed how we define what is worth working on. CrisisCamps are one example of how cloud computing lets us reimagine a problem and thus develop new solutions.

CrisisCamps took off after the earthquake in Haiti. CrisisCamps are independent, disbursed, volunteer efforts to develop lightweight technology solutions to help with disaster relief. CrisisCamps first emerged from a meeting in DC in 2009 in which several dozen local engineers, nonprofit executives, disaster coordinators, and public sector executives got together to brainstorm better, faster disaster coordination possibilities. From this frame and initial thinking (which was captured on www.crisiscommons.org) a network of eager volunteers was ready to be mobilized after the earthquake hit.

In cities across America, Canada, Europe, the UK and South America, local networks of techies, marketers, project managers, storytellers, and others got together, identified problems and projects, shared those ideas across the network with other camps, assigned teams, built prototypes, shared and tested and launched several applications. These included an English-Creole dictionary phone app, tools for tagging photographs of displaced people, texting tools that could be coordinated with the Ushahidi text alert system, and several tagging and updating efforts of satellite imagery and maps.

Project teams shared their progress with each other through a wiki, volunteers were recruited through twitter and texts, and tools could be worked on by a project team in one place and then "handed off" virtually to teams in other regions. The basic protocols and roles of successful camps were documented in real time and shared in the cloud. Volunteers in one region could follow the twitter stream or hashtags from other groups and iterate off their progress almost as if they were all in one room.

By using cloud-based tools, these disbursed teams were working remotely and together on one shared system. There was one database of projects, one set of guidelines for project management and shared progress-tracking system across boundaries, time zones, and domains of expertise. The work of the CrisisCamps was indeed both global and local -- and the cloud infrastructure made it possible.

CrisisCamps is not a rogue example. At the 2009 NTEN conference session on cloud computing, we heard examples of shared evaluation tools, databases of indicators that are being shared across networks of organizations, and cloud-hosted client intake forms that allow addiction programs to store their intake documents and aggregated reporting data in one place. This doesn't just cut down on "form filling." Frontline social workers are finding that this repository of data has put them in touch with colleagues' expertise and helped them improve their work.

Even as we wrestle with questions about migrating data and applications from our servers to the cloud, the cloud is the norm for our mobile computing selves. The proliferation of smart phones and the apps they run means that we are working in the cloud more than we may even realize. The combination of these forces -- the reach of the cloud and the "anywhere access" of mobile phones -- takes us beyond boundary-shifting work spaces to fundamentally rethinking where solutions might come from. We will see more innovation along the lines of The Extraordinaries, which puts the power of volunteering into the hands of mobile phone users and reconfigures the relationships between organizations and individuals.

As we build the assumptions of the cloud and mobile apps into our work processes, we will find that we see problems differently and shape solutions in new ways. As the CrisisCamps example shows, disbursed teams of volunteers can be engaged, coordinated and productive over time zones, national borders, and several weeks of work. At the moment we are in transition from hosted applications to mobile access to the cloud. As such, what we are seeing are early experiments in new ways of working. We can't predict which experiments will work, but we can look to the new behaviors, new problem boundaries, and new sources of expertise that define these experiments, for therein we will find our path to the future.


*Infostructure = information + infrastructure. Since writing Disrupting Philanthropy and making the point that data are the new platform for change, I've learned a lot from a number of experts about the importance not just of open data but of open data structuring. I may have just coined this new term, infostructure, or I may be late to the game on this portmanteau, but I like it.


More on the manifesto

Thanks to everyone who has added to and improved (and voted on) ideas in my "Modest Manifesto for Open Philanthropy."

A few more thoughts from me (which I also will go back and post into original)

  1. Data on embedded giving (affiliate marketing, cause-related giving - whatever you want to call it) needs to be open and accessible. This would include how much each company "give at the cash register" effort raises, how much is donated, and to what organizations. These efforts should be tracked and revealed in common visible way.*
  2. How we give is rapidly changing. We need data systems, and open protocols for sharing info on:
  • Text donations.
  • Embedded giving is already the MOST COMMON form of giving (according to recent Convio report).
  • Mobile phones will become the standard platform for organizing, volunteering, and giving - Ushahidi and The Extraordinaries are the tip of an iceberg for how we are shifting to P2P philanthropy (See Tim Ogden in March 2010 Alliance Magazine (subscription req'd)
  • Giving in games and virtual worlds.
Our systems for tracking, revealing, and sharing data on these trends need to account for these revolutions and those to come. Otherwise we face the same disconnect between "data collected" and "actions taken" that we've had for years because we track foundation giving but not that from donor advised funds.

There are tax reporting implications from #2 above. Right now nonprofit organizations and tax forms from people who itemize and data streams from transaction processors are primary sources of giving information. This system has always missed real giving numbers from the long tail of donors who do not itemize on their taxes.

The complexity of these issues should not be underestimated. Donor privacy is important, subject to multiple levels of oversight, and not an easy thing to protect on the internet. But giving data is just one piece of the data streams about public good that we, as the public subsidizing these gifts, have both a right to and a use for. This is why The Public Online Information Act is a critical piece to this puzzle. As philanthropy, social enterprise, corporate social responsibility and impact investing all blend together and public/private partnerships grow, we should be considering ways to share data and protect privacy within the larger context of public and private norms and goods, rather than creating (or worse, not creating) a parallel system for philanthropy.

*Laura Starita of Philanthropy Action has more detailed thoughts on this. Check them out.

The Public Online Information Act

Yesterday I blogged a "Modest Manifesto for Open Philanthropy." As I mentioned in the post, I actually hit the "post" button sooner than I intended (fate?) and so a draft went live - I've refined it since then, so you might take another look. More importantly, several people have chimed in on the comments - and so we really are making the ideas better together.

And today's there's even bigger news. Representative Steve Israel from New York has introduced legislation to create the Public Online Information Act. The act will require "Executive Branch agencies to publish all publicly available information on the Internet in a timely fashion and in user-friendly formats. It also creates an advisory committee to help develop government-wide Internet publication policies."

(Email subscribers: Video from Sunlight Foundation YouTube follows. Available here and here)




If this act becomes law, it is one giant step closer to realizing the intent behind several of the ideas introduced in the Manifesto on Open Philanthropy, including the "Freedom of Foundation Information Act." As the realization that public agencies hold public data and should make them available becomes common practice ("public means online") then the logic for doing the same with publicly subsidized (e.g. tax exempt) organizations and their data is that much clearer.*

The advisory group function of #ThePOIA is also important - as it will bring together public and private sector actors to coordinate disclosure policies. By bringing expertise in from across the sectors we will take an important step toward considering interoperability of data across sectors - which will put us that much closer to being able to share information, track similar data, and work across sectors to make a positive difference.

Thanks to The Sunlight Foundation for their efforts on behalf of the Public Online Information Act. Here is a list of other organization supporting the effort. Oh, and Happy Sunlight Week to you! Please continue to add your thoughts to the Manifesto, and let the good folks in congress and @SunFoundation know of your interest and support for #thepoia.



*Not that logic and policy necessarily go hand in hand, but still.

Open Philanthropy: A Modest Manifesto

I've been reading Beth Simone Noveck's book, Wiki Government, which is one outcome of a "modest proposal" for peer-to-patent that Noveck posted to her blog back when she was a law professor at New York Law School. Now she is the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government at the White House. Peer-to-patent is real. Open government is a practical manner of working for many municipalities, states, and national governments - in the US and elsewhere. Those are pretty impressive outcomes from a "modest proposal."

At the same time, I've noticed that manifestos appear to be all the rage. Here's one on innovation, here's one on the internet (and the future of journalism), here's one on "awesomeness," and here's one on philanthrocapitalism. One thing I noticed and appreciated about these manifestos is their generous use of bullet points - so herewith, my modest manifesto on open philanthropy:

  1. Open sharing of ideas in philanthropy serves us all as we seek to solve shared problems.
  2. We need a Freedom of Foundation and Nonprofit Information Act. These organizations are tax-privileged data repositories. As such, their tax privileges should be linked to the degree they openly share and contribute the information, data, and knowledge that they produce for the public good.
  3. Openness extends to the interoperability of data - ours and others. Efforts to open government reporting, data sharing from municipalities and states, and open access to public records on donations, nonprofit filings, and public funding sources are all in the best interest of solving social problems.
  4. Experimenting with openness will show us what works. The Sunlight Foundation's recent "datajams" and Sunlight Live coverage of the health care reform discussions are a great working example of what information matters to whom, about what, and when. Their explanation of how they did it is fascinating - and further demonstration of "what open looks like" in practice.
  5. The ability to be open and our expectations of it are changing. These new expectations will change what transparency really looks like and how it works (Here's one version - the Cycle of Transparency). Philanthropy can guide this or react to it but it can not ignore it. Some leaders among large foundations are helping to shape the Glasspockets site from The Foundation Center, and the Center for Effective Philanthropy broke ground in this space. However, the most significant change is still to come - as the tools of transparency are now in the hands of the "viewers" not just those to be "viewed."
  6. Open matters to communities. Given the tools of today, we should consider at least the following possibilities:
  • Crowdsourced peer reviews of tax exempt entities (e.g. nonprofits);
  • Crowdsourced community needs and recommendations on social sector infrastructure;
  • Mandatory online filing of nonprofit and foundation tax forms;
  • Real-time data feeds from state attorneys general on nonprofit openings and closures;
  • Real time data feeds of foundation grants (that can be mashed up with similar feeds from public agencies and other grantmaking bodies);
  • Aggregated analysis of giving and loans from online giving marketplaces to show trends from the long tail. APIs and interoperable data structuring to allow these data and foundation data to be mashed up;
  • Use of external expertise for developing and assessing giving strategies (peer-to-philanthropy model, adapted from peer-to-patent);
  • Interoperable data streams from online games that generate social activism;
  • Standardized privacy protections developed, agreed to, and used by public and philanthropic data sources to protect individuals' identity while providing access to aggregate data;
  • Statements of usage and ownership for intellectual property that align with the nonprofit or philanthropic entities' missions, rather than the default use of copyright protection. Use of alternative and open content licensing where appropriate.
  • The kinds of data and information sharing strategies that underlie efforts like CrisisCamps or Ushahidi should be understood and considered in all domains.
(Section in quotes below was ADDED ON March 18 2010 - see this post also)
"A few more thoughts from me (which I also will go back and post into original)
  1. Data on embedded giving (affiliate marketing, cause-related giving - whatever you want to call it) needs to be open and accessible. This would include how much each company "give at the cash register" effort raises, how much is donated, and to what organizations. These efforts should be tracked and revealed in common visible way.*
  2. How we give is rapidly changing. We need data systems, and open protocols for sharing info on:
  • Text donations.
  • Embedded giving is already the MOST COMMON form of giving (according to recent Convio report).
  • Mobile phones will become the standard platform for organizing, volunteering, and giving - Ushahidi and The Extraordinaries are the tip of an iceberg for how we are shifting to P2P philanthropy (See Tim Ogden in March 2010 Alliance Magazine (subscription req'd)
  • Giving in games and virtual worlds.
Our systems for tracking, revealing, and sharing data on these trends need to account for these revolutions and those to come. Otherwise we face the same disconnect between "data collected" and "actions taken" that we've had for years because we track foundation giving but not that from donor advised funds."


One of the things we've learned from the open source software movement is that codes of professional practice matter - the early licensing efforts to create code that developers could access, use, improve, and share again are critical to how software development happens. We need similar codes of professional conduct and practice in philanthropy.

While the capacity to reach out to and incorporate community and expert input is all around us, the organizational impetus is to act otherwise. This is ever more so as the universe of social good producers diversifies to include nonprofits, social enterprises, social businesses, and corporate social responsibility efforts - each type of enterprise has different incentives for sharing their information openly, and we can not assume that greater openness will be the natural choice for all.

Several years ago I offered these seven building blocks of open philanthropy:
1. Facilitate adaptation, don’t hinder it
2. Design for interoperability, local specificity will follow
3. Build for the poorest
4. Assume upward adaptability
5. Creativity and control will happen locally
6. Diversity is essential
7. Complex problems require hybrid solutions
The tools we have today for gathering input, sharing data, exchanging ideas with attribution while encouraging reuse and remixing, creating sustainable enterprises dedicated to social change, and engaging multiple communities over time have exploded in number and pervasive use since I first offered those building blocks. Now is the time to consider en toto the systems and tools of giving so that they deploy fully the tools, norms, and expectations of our times. This will position them to work most successfully in relation to the public and commercial sectors and increase our chances of making lasting change.

NOTE: I accidentally pushed the "publish post" button instead of the "save draft" button. So now, since some version of this has already gone live, I am pushing this out there and acknowledging that this is thinking "in progress." I'll continue to refine and edit.

Please add to the list, "Vote" on those that make most sense to you, or upload the list to a voting system or turn it into a survey monkey and spread it around. The best manifesto for better philanthropy will come from the input of the many.