Monday, April 30, 2007

The philanthropic fault line

Why do foundations and nonprofits struggle with each other so much? Who is more dishonest with whom – foundations who raise unrealistic expectations about funding or nonprofits who promise unachieveable goals to get grants?

As the revenue markets for the social sector change, will some of these behaviors change? Social entrepreneurs, sustainability models, fees-for-service, corporate social responsibility and other forces are increasingly bringing market forces to bear on the social sector. But much of what the social sector works on is that which either markets have created or for which there is no commercial return. Markets, as George Soros has noted, are great for developing efficiencies. They bring feedback loops to bear. And, as Soros has also said, if you think markets can solve social problems, than you don’t understand markets.

Another key challenge to rationalizing the social sector is the degree to which it is passion driven. Givers give to what they care about. NGOs are started – often without regard to existing actors – by passionate leaders catalyzed by a cause. Market efficiencies go only so far in a world defined more by individual interests than by measurable outcomes.

A Studio Conversation on these issues, moderated by Diana Aviv of Independent Sector, was recorded at Seattle’s public broadcasting station, KCTS. It will be available as streaming video and on DVD (and, yes, I’ll try to get it on FORA.TV). The issues get addressed in many venues (see for example ,GEO listservs, Independent Sector conferences, and in response to Center for Effective Philanthropy publications)

But more important, this is not a one-conversation issue. People talk about these issues all the time, usually behind closed doors and only when they are sure that they are among like minded thinkers. That behavior has not changed the dynamic one bit, some say it has only worsened. Can we facilitate the discussion, informed by thoughtful provocation, open to anyone with an opinion, and moderated over time toward actual strategies for change? We’re not making any progress in the old manner of small, closed conversations that devolve into kvetching. Perhaps we can enhance the thought and practice by bringing video, blogs, written materials, comments, panel discussions and specific proposals for change to these issues – and shining some light on these closed door, “same old, same old” topics.

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