Wednesday, July 26, 2006

How should philanthropists think?

Stanford has a new School of Design, the Despite the ultra-hip lower case school name, there are some interesting things going on there, led by an important cross-discipline group of people. Right now you can check out some of the stuff in one of these new online conferences (that I love - no airport security involved!) called AlwaysOn.

David Kelley of IDEO is one of these folks, and this interview with Business Week shows what he's trying to do. I've excerpted the bit I think is most relevant to philanthropy:

Q: The D-school is still in formation, right?
A: ...The big difference is the faculty and students come from different departments: business, humanities, engineering, so forth. We all work on projects together. In the past, group projects would be done by a group of designers or a group of engineers. With engineers, whatever the problem is, a mechanism is probably the outcome. If it's all businesspeople, the answer is always a spreadsheet or a chart with 2 by 2 matrix. Now we have all these different disciplines, and it's not predictable where the innovation is going to go and that's what's exciting.

Q: Are you seeing any trends?
A: The solutions are more integrated, taking into account technology, business strategy, the user interface. I would say the solutions are more human. There's also an amazing discontinuity as far as what students are interested in. Ten years ago, most of my students wanted to be Bill Gates, do a startup, and become wealthy. They're still entrepreneurial, but they're in my office saying, "I want to do something that has social value."

Those student interests have driven our research agenda -- sustainability, superlow cost for the developing world, K-12 education, health and wellness, and medical stuff."

This kind of cross-discipline, cross-sector thinking is key. Its hard to find places to practice it. Maybe the could help. Its almost cool enough to make me want to go back to school. Almost.

Dealing with the real problems

Poor people pay more than those with resources for the most basic things. This is absurd. Their food is more expensive since poor neighborhoods often lack grocery stores. Home furnishings get paid for on credit - at exorbitant rates. They often rely on check cashing services and payday loan services instead of banks - so even their paychecks get slammed by interest rates.

Why don't community foundations or other locally-focused foundations address these issues? Grants to nonprofits aren't going to solve these problems. Program-related investments in local communities might make some impact. But why not use philanthropic capital to back a system of loans and credit that can actually help people get out of debt and have access to some of the credit and financial tools that are key to building wealth?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Another comment on Gates Foundation and Open Source

I'm a big fan of David Bollier's work on issues of the Commons. His blog posting on the Gates Foundation and open collaboration shows why. Bollier, who is one of the most articulate defenders of the commons (read more here) is graceful enough to recognize the value of (and irony) in the application of these principles to the critical philanthropic investments being made by the Gates Foundation.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Open Source Philanthropy is finally here

...and from all places its coming from the Gates Foundation. The Foundation's latest work on HIV is employing the practices of collaboration, shared data, and public ownership to accelerate research progress. All practices worth watching.

Thoughts provoked by the Buffett/Gates Gift

A recent NYT story about bloggers bashing each other in the business world started by raising the issues of whether reporting about Warren Buffett's recent gift to the Gates Foundation was going to cause unrest among Berkshire Hathaway investors. What was interesting to me in this whole exchange was this:

"[Mr. Mitchell (editor of The Audit]'s point...was... "There are two kinds of story," he wrote, "the whole story, and the incomplete story. A business story that doesn't reference the politics, a stock price story doesn't note the long-term growth strategy, a marketing story that doesn't outline the financial implications, they're all presenting incomplete pictures, and thereby somehow deluding the reader.

He also criticized newspapers for having separate sections, which he said serves only to skew information and news."

All of which got me to thinking about how philanthropy excels in framing "incomplete pictures." When we segment grantmaking and program initiatives into health, art, education or environment (etc. etc.) and then try to understand, influence, and improve or change those distinct areas without considering, reconsidering, and reconsidering - at every step - how these issues relate to and are shaped by the others. If we could have newspapers without sections, could we have foundations without program departments? Would it be any better?

Its fitting that the story above came up in the context of the Buffett/Gates gift. The parties involved in that exchange have noted that now - with increased resources - the Gates Foundation's work on health, which has existed in a "fight poverty" frame - might be expanded to include other contributing factors to poverty besides health. Perhaps the "incomplete story" and its "real story" will both be addressed.

Functioning communities

What is a healthy community? One that treats people equitably, values all its members, provides opportunities for all, reconciles with the faults of its present and its past, educates, enlightens, and engages the minds, bodies and spirits of its young and its old. (just some thoughts - I'm sure I left some things out)

Learning, books, and media matter to such communities. Education. Jobs. Diverse opinions, values, and beliefs and mechanisms for working together to find what is common. Health care. Art. Leisure and recreation. Outdoor space and clean air & water. (and more, no doubt)

The institutions Americans have built to provide the above components of healthy communities were mostly designed at least a century ago, during the great institution building of the late 19th Century and early Progressive Era of the 20th. Think about - schools, libraries, newspapers, museums, hospitals, elder care, mental health, public parks.

So if we want to nurture and create healthy communities now, it doesn't seem wise to focus on changing one institution at a time, but to look at the whole menu of attributes and - at least in our imaginations - give ourselves the creative room to re-puzzle all the pieces. Perhaps libraries, newspapers, and community wikis are best thought of as one thing - sites of community information. How about museums, mural programs, digital media companies, hiking trails, and schools - aren't they each about some form of learning? Why do we separate facilities for the elderly from those for infants and toddlers when the two complement each other so well? What about our legal structures and the boundaries they use to include and exclude - do they fit the realities of who we are today and where we live or come from? What if we could completely redesign the public spaces in our places - how might they change to accommodate our recreation, health, environmental and transportation needs?

All of these questions ask us to reconsider what we want, what we need, and who provides it. They are fundamentally questions of public and private responsibility in communities. Every institution in our communities - from the bodes on the corner to the public schools, from the community foundation to the HQ of a multinational corporation - depends on these decisions and has a stake in them.

These questions - of public and private, of justice and equity, of communal and individual - are what I think should matter most to philanthropy. Too bad we're hung up on questions of outcome measurements and payout requirements.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A thought from the mountains

I'm 8000' above sea level so the altitude may be responsible for this.

Spent some time with some very wise, very experienced community foundation colleagues recently. One of them commented about another foundation, "They're a really good community foundation. Totally counter-cultural in their place, but a great community foundation." My thought - why the "but?" At this point in time, greatness in community foundations may require being counter-cultural: counter status quo, counter exclusivity, counter elitism, counter institutional heft.

In business and in nonprofits we value those who "think different" and create the next new thing or zag right when everyone else heads to the left. Why not with community philanthropy?

Friday, July 14, 2006

The irony of ego

I've avoided writing about the gift from Warren Buffett to the Gates Foundation. Certainly, there has been no shortage of opinions expressed - thousands of news stories have been published around the world. I've even received a handful of email pieces from different philanthropy advisors touting their own quotations in the press about the gift - in other words, public relations about the press relations that got published as part of the news coverage of a press release. But that's not my point.

My point has to do with the irony of ego. Much of the public oohing and aahing about Mr. Buffett's gift to the Gates Foundation has had to do with the way his act debunks the assumption that big donors are all about ego. The news stories and professional commentary have been full of wonder that Mr. Buffett would forego his own name on the building (so to speak) in order to put his money to what he thinks is the best use.

The irony? Buffett's act of non-ego driven giving has received more press, more discussion, more analysis, and more pats on the ego than any other philanthropic act I can recall. Mr. Buffett - who seems to value value over all else (in his work and his philanthropy) is being credited with creating a whole new way of doing philanthropy, even as he modestly laughs and wonders why everyone is so surprised that he would choose to work with what works.

Mr. Buffett's ego-less philanthropy has probably won him more praise and attention than any kind of named giving might have done.