Thursday, December 19, 2002

What were we thinking?

There's no better time than the think about the immediate past. Three major search engines Google, Yahoo, and Lycos have all published their year-end stats on what we searched for in 2002. You can find these amazing sites at,, and

Go ahead, look back at what the web-searching world cared about in 2002. Draw your own conclusions.
Grantmaking in real time

What is the right time frame for foundations and other philanthropists to use when determining the impact of their giving? If its $10 for a meal, the result is immediate. If its $10 million for improving public schools, the result may be...later.

Since most American foundations have "in perpetuity" somewhere in their charters, they are well-positioned to work with very long term horizons. Long term to most foundations seems to be about ten years. Sure, ten years is better than "three years and your out," but why ten? Ten years in school reform is too short - its not even as long as your child will spend in the K-12 system. In medical research, on the other hand, two years can be a lifetime - quite literally, when you consider the pace of research advances regarding some terminal illnesses.

Perhaps philanthropic investments should be made - and results sought - in line with the issue at hand, and not with regard to organizational policy, the ease of collecting evaluation data, or the convenience of the reporting cycle. This is one way to rethink how giving is done - perhaps pooling funds across individuals and organizations to focus on common issues and desired improvements, and jointly setting realistic benchmarks and timeframes for achieving results. Lets put the dollars where the impact is (or can be) and view our work in real time - the time it takes for real change to happen.

Friday, December 13, 2002

Standards of quality

Philanthropic foundations and nonprofits are too polite. They hate to say no, they don't like to criticize others' work, and they try to operate all "under the big tent" more often than not. There are many reasons for this, and it has many effects. One effect is to make judging quality very difficult. The industry lacks performance ratings, metrics of quality, even commonly held operating standards for assessing operations . None of the existing players wants to put a stake in the ground and say " these are our criteria for quality, this is how we assess it, this is what currently qualifies and what doesn't, and we'll be back to assess again in 6 months or a year." Of course, just because foundations, grantmakers, and nonprofits won't speak the above sentence, doesn't mean they don't employ criteria and pass value judgements all the time.

By acting as if the creation of meaningful, public standards was a bad thing, the industry does itself a disservice. New entrants into philanthropy can't turn to independent ratings services, indices of performance, or credible media sources as standard bearers. Philanthropy lacks these industry supports partly because of its long-standing refusal to admit to the role of competition in the field. Ironically, the result of the resistance to independent standards and monitors may just be purely market-based decisions.