Thursday, April 26, 2007

From individuals to systems

This comes from Mark Bolgiano, former chief information officer for the Council on Foundations, in response to the Netsquared Innovation Fund process:

"So what if this turns out to be a scale model of something bigger that turns philanthropy inside out? What if we could do this with a just ONE TENTH OF ONE PERCENT of foundation grants next year? That's at least $20 million. What if we involved folks outside our motivated/activist/subversive tribe, say only a million of the people who would love to weigh in on these proposals? Best of all, what if this new way of doing things convinced a lot of new people with good ideas to go for it...?

I'm serious. It really could happen. And you were here when it started."

Movement to open up philanthropy and help it take into account the wisdom of those who do the work is a good thing. The Packard Foundation's experiment with wiki-informed decision making is another example of movement in this direction.

But more voices and greater input is only part of the change that's needed. We also need to make sure that philanthropy - at an individual, organizational, and industry-wide level, brings a systems-level understanding to what it is doing.

What systems, you ask? I've long argued for the need to consider the roles of the public sector, individual action, and commercial enterprise when developing philanthropic strategy. Recent announcements by the Gates and Broad Foundations to put $60 million into promoting education as an issue in the 2008 American Presidential campaign is one (huge) example of why donors need to consider where they fit in the systems in which they are funding. Same goes for the work that has happened over the last few years - with efforts by the Clinton Global Initiative, Bono, Rockefeller Foundations, Gates Foundation and scores of others - to change how pharmaceutical markets work.

Not every donor will be in the position to change markets or politics. But every donor's decisions - no matter the cause or the size - are shaped by the interaction between these vast systems. Involving a greater number of people in philanthropic decision making will bring new perspectives to the table, and, by extension, bring some broader systems issues to the fore.

However, effectively connecting individual knowledge with systems leverage should not be assumed. Rather, it should be a design feature of the structures for philanthropic decision making.

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