Thursday, May 05, 2005

A month's worth of musings...

I haven't written in a while because there is a lot going on. Here's a quick recap of some of the many things I'm trying to make sense of these days:

1) What do the death of environmentalism, the state of the commons, media reform activism, the future of community philanthropy, new financial tools for sustainable development, digital media, and the history of philanthropy and k-12 education all have in common? That is, not including the fact that this is only a subset of the really cool issues I work on every day?

Well, at least in part, each of these involve stories of shifting power dynamics from institutions to individuals or vice versa; they all require a better sense of historical evolution of industries than most of us bring to our considerations of policy or strategic decisions; they are all at least partly shaped by global changes in where and how work gets done; and they are all issues that philanthropists are involved in. Philanthropy - soemthing for everyone!

2) If the definition of a mature industry is one in which competition is widespread, prices have dropped to their lowest possible stable level, and innovation is abounding outside the formal edges of the industry, is philanthropy there?* *(With apologies to Michael Porter for paraphrasing his work beyond recognition).

3) As technologies have changed the pace at which information is shared, the places where work is done, and the costs of communicating around the globe, and all media share common elements like creation processes, distribution needs, and licensing requirements - doesn't it make sense that our currently separate distribution and creation structures and the ownership/copyright/distribution laws for cable television, broadcast television and radio, satellite radio, print media, podcasting, blogging, are all about to crash into each other? Do we have any guiding principles that are being espoused, protected, and used to frame new structures and laws for all these media?

4) The crashing together of these different media, with their different business models, nonprofit players, and public subsidies is somehow (operative word) instructive for what appears to be happening between financial service firms, nonprofit philanthropy purveyors, and technology companies that specialize in transactions and data around giving.

Once separate spheres are edging toward each other, in some cases swallowing each other whole (e.g. financial firm buys nonprofit created data management and donor services software, see ChesterCAP LLC Purchases Dot.Che ) and rearranging the chairs around the dance floor, but no one seems to be paying a whole lot of attention to underlying principles about what is in the public interest, what does the market do best, where do nongovernmental agencies reign supreme and what principles might or should guide how the dance unfolds or how people make choices among potential dance partners.

So, there you have it. That's what I need to make sense of today. Any and all thoughts or advice welcome. Please comment.

1 comment:

David Geilhufe said...

I'm not sure you can make sense of what is going on. There are big, in fact massive, changes going in technology, the economy and society that go straight to the heart of issues of social justice, equality of opportunity, political participation, and many other social issues.

Those changes (intellectual property, information originating from individuals rather than corporate media, open source, power at the edge of the network, etc.) tend to be complex and very difficult for the philanthropic/ nonprofit sector to understand, much less assimilate.

Heck, the philanthropic/ nonprofit sector is just understanding what a database is and why its important. Microedge's GIFTS, prehistoric and clunky technology, is and will remain into the foreseable future, the market leader.

The danger is that the third sector is missing an historic opportunity to leverage some amazing technologies and trends before corporate consumer capitalism co-opts them into quarterly profits. (, out on the bleeding edge of technology and trends has venture capital financing. In a few years, the transformative nature of that technology will have been harnessed to drive quarterly revenues through data mining and advertising revenues. But how many philanthropists have heard of or can even understand the transformative nature of unstructured knowledge tagged by individuals and shared openly throughout the community?

This is why the new breed of philanthropic organizations (Omidyar, Google Foundation) are structured to invest in for profit firms... the nonprofit sector is pecieved to be bereft of innovation, creativity or significant impact.

And this is because the philanthropic community doesn't spend enough time understanding the ever changing environment, identifying and understanding trends, and investing accordingly.

If the for-profit sector (even with the nice name of "social enterprise") becomes the new vehicle for doing good in the world, I fear for the values we will have lost along the way.