Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why is philanthropic analysis so different?

I'm a bit of a geek. And I read a lot of tech blogs. one of my favorites is Read/Write Web.
The site provides funny, helpful, easy-to-read reviews of web 2.0 tools. Regular features include in-depth analysis and user-centered information on individual products and companies. Every few weeks or so it will roll these up into overviews of whole subsectors of web 2.0 - like this one on distance learning tools or this one on alternative search engines.

Why don't we do this for donors? What if we had a network of knowledgeable, credible analysts who regularly investigated and wrote about social issues - school reform, cancer research, AIDS interventions, clean water solutions, cultural innovation, environmental justice. The writers could provide overviews of the issues, updates on regulatory issues, new program launches, important collaborations, results and outcomes from certain interventions, new research, etc. There would also be regular reviews of new/existing organizations working on the issue - what they do well, who they compete against, what they excel at, where they fall short.

What am I talking about? Publicly accessible, independently developed reviews of organizations and social issues. They would blend the best of good program analysis and foundation strategy with the accessibility and good writing of specialty blogs such as Read/Write Web. They'd make recommendations. Conflicts or vested interests would be declared for all to see. Donors, foundations, the media, and others could use them. Or not. Those reviews that were no good would disappear into the blogosphere. No one would use them. Those that are helpful, credible, independent, supported with evidence would rise to the top, donors would use them for funding decisions, and the investment in high quality research would pay off by influencing lots of grant decisions, not just those of single organizations.

Yes, what I'm proposing would revolutionize the work of typical foundation program officers. In fact, if the system worked it would initiate a competitive marketplace for the highest quality analysis of issues and organizations. It might even lead to fewer program officer jobs (since there are only about 10,000 of these anyway its hardly a big blip in employment numbers). And I'm sure the idea seems utterly unimaginable within the context of many foundations.

But it barely qualifies as innovative when you think about other areas of our lives - like which magazines we read, the product reviews we rely on, financial investments we make, and restaurant/movie/book critics we respect. I'm not saying anyone can do this kind of critical analysis of core social issues and solutions well. In fact, I'm arguing for a market approach to the work that would separate the quality analysis from the rest. How would we know what was good? The same way we know what newspapers to trust, what web reviews to believe, and which financial adviser to hire to manage our 401K plans. When you really think about it, the only thing novel about the idea is that it isn't yet how we do this.


Holden said...


FYI, I believe that GiveWell will provide exactly what you're describing - albeit slowly (but then, there's no other way, given the number and complexity of the causes).

I wish we didn't have to. I wish this stuff were already out there for us to use. I've looked everywhere for well-organized, substantive discussions of how to help people. The charity blogosphere has been a big whiff in that department, with Beyond Philanthropy as somewhat of an exception (though still very much surface level). Still looking.

Anonymous said...

I think this is what's most exciting about New Philanthropy Capital in UK.

Anonymous said...

Lucy, Fastercures has grants from Gates and RWJ to provide an analysis of non profit medical research in global and domestic disease areas to aid philanthopists in creating a "diversified" portfolio of nmedical philanthopy. Would love to talk with you about it.
Greg Simon, President Fastercures