Saturday, April 28, 2007

Huffington's Heroes

I had the chance to interview Arianna Huffington, eponymous media mogul of The Huffington Post, prior to her upcoming special panel discussion on new media and philanthropy at the Council on Foundations conference.

The Huffington Post, which started publishing on May 9, 2005 is a compelling example of new media - regular reporters, syndicated columnists, an impressive list of blogs, lots of reader interaction, all online and only online. One of the top 500 most read sites in the US, and in top 3000 globally, Huffington's paper shows how quickly media is changing, the power of a brand, and the rate of new "institutional" development - the site is not yet two years old.

I asked Ms. Huffington why she chose to address the Council and what she thinks new media have to do with philanthropy?

"My heroes are the men and women working up-close and personal -- sometime wrenchingly so -- to turn lives around. They are the role models I’ve exposed my daughters to. ... I think the changing media landscape provides tremendous opportunities to philanthropic foundations. The Internet is an unbelievably powerful tool that can help charities attract volunteers, raise money, and create a greater connection between foundations and potential donors."

The power of brand and the rate of change are critical components for any new venture. As Huffington noted, "... today you can build a brand in 1 year -- which is what happened with us. New philanthropic ventures can harness the power of the Internet to establish themselves and begin to quickly make an impact."

Individual donors or foundations need to understand how personal these brands are and the how personal is the communication on the Internet. They should be creative about using these tools, she suggests:

"...blogging, which is very intimate, very raw, very passionate, and very immediate. Foundations can make great use of this intimacy to personalize the charitable experience, to put flesh-and-blood to the raw data. To give us stories to go along with the statistics."

Even with these new tools, however, foundations have a unique role to play, vis-a-vis global crises and in partnership with the public and commercial sectors. As far as addressing crises such as global warming, Huffington recommends foundations stick with their knitting and not rush out to "begin funding the building of arks. [Global warming] is a major crisis, for sure, but it shouldn’t cause us to take our eye off the tens of million who are in need, both around the world and right here at home."

And this work, Huffington states assuredly, needs:

"...a concerted effort on the part of both government and philanthropic foundations to deal with the ongoing problems facing our society -- especially the need to care for the least among us. At one time, I thought that the private sector -- especially conservative multibillionaires who want less government -- would rise to the occasion and provide the funding needed to replicate the programs that work, sustain them, and bring them to market. But I came to realize that the task of overcoming problems such as poverty, disparities in education, and worldwide health and medical crises were too monumental to be achieved without the raw power of government. At the same time, I fervently believe that government dollars will never mend broken lives without charitable and citizen engagement."

Where do philanthropy and new media meet? Based on these initial ideas from Huffington, those of us heading into the COF conference this year can be looking for the best combinations of getting out fast and then staying in it for the long haul. in other interviews, in her blog and in the comments page on HuffPo, Huffington has been a leader in admitting mistakes, fixing them and moving on. She is well-known for changing her political perspectives and beliefs with time and circumstances, and standing by those changes.

As someone who goes to a lot of conferences, and always approaches them with a little bit of "show me" skepticism, here's what I take from all this. In the political realm, learning from mistakes and changing one's mind is dismissed as "flip-flopping." In economic circles, its known as "entrepreneurial initiative." In the media world, its become an imperative - mistakes can and should be fixed more quickly as we've seen with the rise of wikipedia or blogging. Bringing experiences in all three sectors together and remaining open to the opportunities brought by change strike me as valuable institutional lessons as philanthropists come together to consider the Four Major Challenges that provide the thematic structure for this conference (poverty, environmental issues, health, and disaster recovery).

I'll ask her more on Sunday morning.

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