Aggregating, Ampfliying and Accelerating


(Opening Plenary, Skoll World Forum, Thursday, March 31, 2011)

On Friday I'm participating in a session at the Skoll World Forum called "Crowds, Clouds and Social Change." I'm honored to be joined by Patrick Meier of Ushahidi, Chris Gebhardt of TakePart and Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation. It's like a "Best Of..." from Pop!Tech

Having had the incredible honor of listening to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Peter Gabriel, Rebecca Onie, Ned Breslin, Baaba Maal and many others today, I'm going to frame the session around Aggregating, Amplifying, and Accelerating Change.

Ned Breslin, in describing his work with Water For People told us of tonight about listening to the "roar of the crowd" in a Rwandan village when the commitment was made to bring water to everyone. Archbishop Tutu claims to receive accolades only because he "is carried on the shoulders of the crowd."

Roaring crowds. That's what always on, affordable mobile technology allows us to do - on a global scale. Hear the voices of the voters, the protestors, the earthquake victims, the mothers of sick children, the health promoters, the witnesses.

We can hear what people say, aggregate it to a message, and act with the people whose lives are at stake. The tools can make everyone an activist. The tools can amplify the voices of the unheard, help us find our allies, and deliver a message.

Listening to the roar of the crowd requires us to change how we act. Social entrepreneurs need to listen to what they hear if they ask for it. The only thing worse than never listening is giving a voter, an activist, a dad, a schoolkid, a consumer, a mom a chance to voice their opinion and then ignoring it. New forms of organizations - large scale volunteer networks, mobile monitors of water wells, and "tech swarms" are all made possible by these technologies. For the most part, the actions required by each participant are still small - one text message, one phone call, one uploaded video. It is the aggregate impact that accelerates each small step - that "loosely couples many small pieces" into a global network of change.

They require us to listen differently and organize differently. This is not always easy. It might bring new results. The people to be heard are likely to be the very source of the social change that social entrepreneurs are trying to make happen. Aggregating, amplifying and accelerating their efforts is the next step in large scale change.



In a place like Oxford...

"In a place like Oxford, simple things are complicated. We study justice, health, equality, happiness, truth....The scope of what we have not yet imagined is vast." These are paraphrases from Stephan Chambers' opening remarks at the Skoll World Forum.

I was quite struck by this line, "The scope of what we have not yet imagined is vast." Oxford is the birthplace of Alice in Wonderland and Dr Seuss studied here, so clearly there are some powerful imaginations in town.

In addition to Chambers, Jeff Skoll spoke - shouting out his support for Muhammed Yunus and reminding us that "We;ve made these problems, we must make the solutions."

This 8th annual conference on social entrepreneurship opened with a speech from an Government professor. Thank goodness. It's reassuring to see the realization that policy matters. That in making "large scale change" (the theme of this year's conference) it's going to take creative, persistent, diverse resources - in other words, all of us - governments, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, businesses, people.

Here's what I took down as Professor Ngaire Woods 5 things governments and social enterprise have in common:

  1. Participatory - global multilaterals now include the people to be affected on their boards - e.g. GAVI
  2. They have a task focus - one problem, not whole system
  3. New ways of working with the beneficiaries and users
  4. Demand driven approach to problem selection
  5. Results based legitimacy
Here are three things we need to be cautious about as government starts to learn from social enterpreneurship
  1. Including the constituencies in the leadership makes them stakeholders in the status quo, they lose their key role as external rebels/account holders
  2. Task focus raises problems of priorities. Who is choosing the tasks and which ones are being left out?
  3. The demand focus and market approach can us to underinvest in watchdog functions - who oversees food systems, nuclear industry, financial services if we don't invest in government to do this separate from corporate interests?
In introducing the panel on Microfinance, Chambers reminded us that "There's always a however in Oxford." Microfinance is the poster child of social enterprise. Its poster child, Muhummad Yunus, is part of a "political witch hunt." MFIs are being called out for the issue of overindebtedness (see this Tumblr post on this panel.) It's a calling to account moment for social enterprise. I'm curious and excited to see how this proceeds.

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Disrupting Philanthropy - London Version

I spoke this morning on Disrupting Philanthropy at the very modest Somerset House in London, courtesy of NCVO, BigSocietyNetwork, the Guardian UK , the European Association for Philanthropy and Gicing, and many other kind hosts. One of the examples I used is about how Andy Carvin (@acarvin) influenced how many of us in the U.S. learned about the protests in Tunisia. Andy used Storify to curate Twitter, find eyewitnesses, check their information, and tell the story in real time from half a world away. It added a whole new dimension to news coverage. You can read about it here.

I know this is a meaningful example of using digital tools for storytelling and news gathering because John Bracken also mentioned it when I joined him on a recent panel at the Jewish Funders Network.

Now I've been storified. This link to the Guardian will give you a curated list of tweets, audio interview, and some photos. This link will give you the slide deck. The conversation was quite "delightful" (For you, @steve4good) - as the UK is right in the midst of making policy "sense" about giving. This is a big deal. Changing the rules of philanthropy is what stands to either accelerate or decelerate the evolutionary changes we've been experiencing for the last decade. Without changing the rules, all we've seen so far will remain evolutionary. Rule change could be revolutionary.

I'm now at the Skoll World Forum which will include some amazing discussions on the brain, the future, massive social change, and leadership. I also hope to pop in to #OxfordJam where social entrepreneurs are talking design for social impact, "Banking on Yunus", and Digital Gift Economies.

Philanthropy, Innovation, Technology, Policy

Twitter is amazing. As I'm sitting on O'Hare's tarmac I learn about the March 26 austerity protests in London. Which is where I'm headed (with stops in Philadelphia and DC). It seems fitting to try to learn about the public responses to government budget changes as I'm headed to the UK to discuss philanthropy, technology and policy. They are all linked.

Before I get to the UK I'm honored to be speaking at the Jewish Funders Network conference about funding social media and innovation. This is great food for thought for an upcoming article on "Evaluating Innovation." Look for it - the fifth and final paper in the MacArthur Field Building Series - next month.

I'm honored to be hosted by The Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, NCVO, The Big Society Network, The European Association for Philanthropy and Giving, Steve Bridger and several others at this event in London on March 30. Hashtag #disruptphil

And I'm thrilled to be joining Patrick Meier of Ushahidi, Chris Gebhardt of TakePart and Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation in this discussion on "Clouds, Crowds and Social Change" at the 2011 Skoll World Forum. Hashtag #skollwf11

I'm studying up for my week in London and Oxford. What we in the U.S. call "white papers" the UK calls "Green Papers." Here are links to Her Majesty's Government's recent Giving Green Paper and several responses. (I love government services that make it this easy to find this kind of information.)



Patchwork philanthropy

Northern California Grantmakers, a regional association of foundations, corporate giving programs and donors, held its annual meeting today. The Green Room at San Francisco's War Memorial Building played host to the participants. With its soaring ceilings and balcony overlooking City Hall, this is a public space that roars with civic pride. Any gathering in the space takes on a certain solemnity.

Today in San Francisco, with the unspoken knowledge that what happened in Japan could just as easily happen here, was no different. NCG members are generally a jovial and diverse bunch with a common bond as stewards of philanthropic resources. They came together to hear from Dante Chinni, the author of Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about The "Real" America.

Chinni's work is wonderful. Blending his skills as a journalist with those of a political geographer colleague, they set out in search of the nuance that underlies the oversimplified "red" and "blue" divides. The result is best told in this interactive map. Click on the dots up top to see those communities on the map.

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The data assert that we're not a red/blue nation. The income divide that has been expanding since 1980 (among other factors) has driven us into more meaningful tribes, such as Tractor Country, Minority Central, and Immigration Nation. These community types are drawn from shared experiences and realities, not from oversimplified analyses of political behavior.

The NCG members are based in regions that Chinni's work says includes 6 of the 12 communities - tractor country, service worker centers, campus and careers, boom towns, immigration nation and monied burbs. We are not our own stereotypes, Chinni's maps show. What do we do with this information?

I have to admit, there's something comforting in thinking that we know our communities. There's a reason that the red/blue oversimplification has been so pervasive. We like dichotomies. We're comfortable with two choices. If we're trying to help communities create jobs, protect their environment, express themselves culturally and artistically, or get access to health care or better schools, it helps to think we know "who" we're working with. The level of complexity that Chinni presents is 600% greater than the red/blue divide AND we know it is not the full story. Communities are complex, dynamic, moving things that are shaped by economics, religion, culture, race, gender, age, job stability - a range of factors. Organized philanthropy needs to be able to see, hear, feel, reflect and make use of those attributes for the selfish reasons of achieving their own missions. It's even more true if the goal is to be useful in light of shifting public and private sector priorities and capacities.

In a warm, electrically-lit setting on one edge of the North American tectonic plate, keeping in mind the devastation on it's far other edge, these are important questions for us as philanthropists and neighbors. What holds our communities together? What do we share in common? What defines us a community? How do we help each other? That's plenty of food for thought.



Public/Private and Who Decides?


(#biblionews conference logo)

Regular readers of this blog know that my guiding intellectual question is "What's public, what's private, and who decides?" This question sent me to grad school. It defined my dissertation. It guided me into philanthropy. It informs my daily work.

Earlier today I was reading about computational research and the social sciences. Were I working on my PhD today, I might be focused on social networks and not philanthropy. Today mobile phones, Facebook, and YouTube are the places to think about what's public and what's private - in general and as they relate to social change.

So - OF COURSE - I'm interested in the Beyond Books conference on libraries, journalism, and their shared missions of information transparency and civic engagement. Now, how do I go about getting myself there when I need to be somewhere else?

PS: Happy #piday
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The Awesome Foundation



Giving circles have been around for a long time. Probably millenia. In the last decade they've gotten a lot of attention because of the formal structure of Social Venture Partners and increased research and expansion efforts.

I think the Awesome Foundation is something different. I first found the Foundation through their Twitter feed @AwesomeFound. They also live on Facebook and are fond of meetups. They were celebrating some of the first grants made by the Foundation's inaugural members back in Boston. Several months ago I reached out to founder Tim Hwang - he of ROFLcon and Web Ecology fame - to learn more. I'm writing a book (yes, still) and was drafting a chapter in which I hoped to focus on young, not-enormously-wealthy, digitally native activists. The folks at The Awesome Foundation are all that.

Here's what The Awesome Foundation says about itself:

"The Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences is an ever-growing, worldwide network of people devoted to forwarding the interest of awesomeness in the universe.

Created in the long hot summer days of 2009 in Boston, the Foundation distributes a series of monthly $1,000 grants to projects and their creators. The money is given upfront in cash, check, or gold doubloons by groups of ten or so self-organizing “micro-trustees,” who form autonomous chapters around geographic areas or topics of interest.

The Foundation provides these grants with no strings attached and claims no ownership over the projects it supports. It is, in the words of one of our trustees, a micro-genius grant for flashes of micro-brilliance."

When I talked with Tim there were six active chapters, in Boston, San Francisco, Ottawa, London, New York and Providence, RI. The website now lists 14 chapters. Most are geographically defined, but one chapter is focused on food.

Much of what The Awesome Foundation espouses runs counter to current trends in organized philanthropy. It funds "awesome" things - they know them when they see them. It's members are not rich. They each contribute $100 a month. That adds up to $1000 grants that are distributed monthly, "no strings attached." There is no weight given to whether an idea is coming from a nonprofit or commercial enterprise - it just needs to be awesome. The online application form has two required questions - 1) describe yourself and your project and 2) how will you use the money. (OK, OK, you do have to fill out some contact information also) You apply once and all the chapters can access the idea (Apply once, reach 14 funders)

Most of the growth has been through word of mouth. Because the Foundation's organizational infrastructure lives on the web it's easy to find it, find the funders, copy it, riff on it, improve it. Tim's original idea was to keep the infrastructure as lightweight as possible. He was inspired to start the foundation when he realized how much work it was to apply for even a little money. Nerd that he is, he wanted to align the amount of work necessary with the amount of money available. Especially since, as he noted in our conversation over tacos, "so many really cool ideas need only a tiny bit of money these days."

Here are some of the things that Awesome chapters have funded:

  • The Toronto Chapter recently supported the Connect the T-Dots project, an art projects that connects the real world with Google Maps and turns the whole city into an interactive puzzle.
  • A distributed mobile phone project that will help rural communities connect via radio waves. Check out The Serval Project.
  • "A handheld cotton candy cannon that can “coat a rotating human in a cotton candy cocoon in one-three minutes."
  • A "Fab Lab" in DC, modeled after such a site at MIT. The "Fab Lab DC will create a high-tech, fabrication laboratory/community workshop in the heart of the Nation’s Capital to advance creativity, innovation, and collaborative projects."

The Awesome Foundation is one manifestation of these community based microgrants programs. I wrote about Soup and FEAST in this post on CO- as a buzzword. Elements of crowdfunding (another 2010 buzzword) are also at work. Other examples include 5x5 nights, and the 25 site, international dinner party network Sunday Soup. The Future of Art has a microgrant program. Platforms like Kickstarter and 33Needs make it ever easier to manage the money raising, communities anywhere can use those sites.

What is coming together here? Digitally native assumptions (lightweight, low cost, online, easily spread, networked). Community and sharing economies. Crowdfunding. Microgrants. Worth keeping an eye on.


Innovations in information industries

Most of what I read on a daily basis has to do with publishing, the news, technology, and social change. The evolution to revolution to evolution cycle in the news business and in publishing - driven by cycles of technology, behavior change, expectation setting, technology innovation, repeat - are fascinating to me. Not just because I've always wanted to be a writer and I've always read the news. But because the cycles are visible in those industries but relevant and related to all other industries.

Here are some innovations in publishing and news that I think are relevant to the other information industries (including philanthropy).

Seth Godin and Amazon's The Domino Project.
Godin is a master marketer. Amazon is providing the platform for short, inexpensive books/videos on "ideas worth spreading."Domino calls them manifestos. The project deliberately plays with pricing - there are several options for format, price, etc. Godin also recruited a community of evangelists about the project - as much as a new form of publishing, The Domino Project has all the characteristics of a digitally-native, social network approach to sharing information.

And, yes, ideas worth spreading is TED's tagline. And yes, TED just announced its own series of TED books. Together, The Domino Project and TED Books are two of the highest profile, multimedia "idea" publication innovations. TED is interesting because first it hosted a conference, then it built a community, then it expanded the size and shape of that community by facilitating self-organized offshoots and then it decided to publish books. I like both of these projects because they fit the medium to the idea, not the other way around.

Amazon Singles - this is another effort to match the format to the idea. Amazon singles are essentially stand-alone long magazine articles. They're priced at $2 or $3. On iTunes you can buy just the single song you want, no need to buy a whole album. Amazon singles lets you do this with writing - buy just an article, not a whole magazine (and no advertising). Of course, the intent is that writers will write intentional singles and sell them as such, skipping the magazine altogether. Amazon singles are only available electronically - there is no paper version. One Singles author is selling more than 100,000 copies of her novels per month at $1-$3 each.

(Related but different - Kevin Kelly asks if the actual Kindle, the device itself, might be free by November 2011. That would certainly be an interesting sign about the business models in publishing.)

All of the above involve Amazon. Indie book stores are offering electronic books in partnership with Google Books, offering unbelievable speakers series, printing books on demand, and working with authors, and innovating like mad.

Push Pop Press - software that will make it easier for digital books to use all the cool capacity of being digital.

Byliner - a website that will let you track and follow your favorite writers' writing on the web. In development.

The Atavist - a publisher of long form nonfiction for electronic readers.

Lulu, Blurb, scribd, slideshare, issuu and other self-publishers. I also like the format that underlies this paper on storytelling and community from the Orton Family Foundation - allowing for easy reading and easy commenting.

The Rumpus.net - Writer Stephen Elliot started the Rumpus as an online magazine of culture. It's expanded into a publishing house, book group, community, book review site, and general phenomenon. A remarkable nonprofit start up publishing community. There are all sorts of book-related web communities - FiveChapters posts one short story per week, The Awl is an amazing online magazine, and longform curates article-length fiction and nonfiction.

McSweeeny's, 826 National and ScholarMatch. Dave Eggers and friends launched a magazine, a publishing house, a literacy program (with its own pirate store!), and scholarship program. A hybrid nonprofit/commercial community-based, grassroots publishing "empire."

Flipboard - this iPad application pulls feeds together (Twitter, Facebook, and a curated list of blogs and other sites) into a magazine format. On "page" after "page" on your device you get a mix of personal updates, edited nonfiction from major magazines, short blast updates from major newspapers, and anything else you've subscribed to. Everything is a click away from being reposted to your own twitter feed, Facebook page, Instapaper account, or email. You get to be your own curating editor. It is a signal of what's to come.

O'Reilly Tools of Change conference on the Future of Publishing - O'Reilly Media is a publishing house that has become a center for future thinking. Tim O'Reilly is a leading thinker about both the future of government and the future of publishing. The Tools of Change conference is a good place to see the edge of publishing.

There is also setting a new standard for "fast books." OR Books published Micah Sifry's book on Wikileaks in February 2011 - only months after the organization rose to worldwide fame (infamy). On March 3 I learned OR was publishing a book on the tweets related to the Egyptian Revolution (which began on January 25) - from revolution to book in under 6 weeks.

Digital Book World (conference for the industry) has lots more information on where digital publishing is going. The American Library Association and the universe of fabulous librarian blogs and tweeters have much to offer on what these digital innovations mean for libraries and sharing. Did you know there is a Digital Public Library of America. (#DPLA) Lendle.me is trying to foster a community of readers who share Amazon Kindle books. The Screen Publishers Meetup is a community for those of us trying to figure out how to publish online.

Why does any of this matter to philanthropy? Foundations have a lot of information to share.

  • On a tactical level these publishing changes make it easier for non-publisher publishers to share their ideas.
  • On a strategic level, everyone who uses information and ideas to shape their philanthropy can benefit from considering the drivers of change in publishing and asking "What do these drivers mean for me?"
  • On an industry level, many changemakers (funders, investors, donors, activists) are already imagining new mechanisms for change that capitalize on the digital, individualized, networked, low cost, customizable approaches to information that underlie the publishing innovation above. Each of us will improve our own work if we better understand the changing landscape in which we work.

We're disrupting philanthropy again


I'm excited to join Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project and my colleague Rob Reich from Stanford on March 10 for a discussion about Philanthropy, Technology and Policy in the 21st Century. If you're in the Bay Area please join us for this conversation at Stanford, Thursday March 10, at 5 pm in Encina Hall. You can download the flyer here and register here.

Twitter hashtag: #sempacs




The meaning of social capital

In 2004 I published Creating Philanthropic Capital Markets: The Deliberate Evolution. The book offers ideas on ways to rationalize funding streams for social good. I chose to use the term "philanthropic capital" to describe the capital markets for social good. I picked it instead of "social capital" because the term "social capital" was already understood to mean "connections between people and networks." This is what social capital means in sociology, in best sellers like Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone," and in the academic world.

Then along came the social finance, social capital, impact investing movements. The Social Capital Markets conference, which launched in 2008, made me realize I'd made a mistake. The term, social capital, was being used to describe the revenue sources for social good. It's become a term of art for these revenue sources.

Then a funny thing happened. Social networks took off. Since 2008 the term social capital has taken on yet another meaning - closer to the original one - that refers to people's reputational capital online. How much "social capital" you have refers (again) to the value, size, and heft of your relationships. There are businesses out there that will help you track, grow, and manage this capital. As the "sharing economy" continues to grow, this kind of capital is increasingly important.

Just to confuse the matter, I've seen the term used to mean "online currency used in social networks" - such as Facebook credits. I thought of these when I saw a tweet from the recent "Future of Money" Conference predicting Facebook's rise as one the world's largest banks.


No, this post is not my attempt to revitalize the recently retired "On Language" column from The New York Times Magazine. It's to note these multiple, somewhat overlapping and somewhat exclusive uses of the term and to wonder what the rapidity of these definitional changes mean about technology, finance, and social good.

Alliance Magazine Articles

I'm delighted to link to two articles just published in Alliance Magazine.

In this piece, Missing: The Power of Peer Networks, I elaborate on comments I made earlier regarding the Magazine's feature section on the future of philanthropy advising. This piece emphasizes the roles of peers as a source of advice.

Legacy Venture, a Palo Alto based peer network of philanthropists, is one of the most interesting models I know. It is a venture capital fund of funds. The original concept was to give donors access to some of the highest performing venture capital funds. In return, the donors use their financial gains to support their philanthropic goals. Over time, LV has nurtured several overlapping circles of donors who rely on their peers' expertise and interests far more often than the original model anticipated. One LV partner even coined a term - "Return on Relationship." The aim of ROR is to understand and maximize the value of both peer relationships and funder/nonprofit relationships.

The March issue of Alliance also includes a review of my most recent publication, Philanthropy and Social Investing: Blueprint 2011. Thank you Marta Rey-Garcia for your kind words. Anyone interested in the seminars that accompany the book should check this information.

Subscribers can read both articles at Alliance.

Here are reprints, courtesy of Alliance Magazine, of Missing and Marta Rey-Garcia's review.