But the real meaning of this is only just beginning to permeate philanthropy. So here's a historical parallel that may draw some attention.
Go back in time with me to America, circa 1913 - John D. Rockefeller, the world's richest man endows the Rockefeller Foundation, the first such institution in the US. The Progressive Era is in full swing, federated forms of philanthropy and new public welfare institutions are spreading across major cities. The 16th Amendment to the US Constitution (allowing an income tax) is ratified. The gap between rich and poor is a political issue. Woodrow Wilson is inaugurated as President, after a shakeup election with a major third party candidate. His election brings the first change in party control of that office in the 20th Century. Labor conditions around the US are garnering attention, spurred by strikes and retaliation in Colorado mines, the creation of the Federal Commission on Industrial Relations, and an investigation into many major industries and industrialists, including John D. Rockefeller. Working conditions in factories, mines, and slaughterhouses are deemed inhumane. What do we see here? Tremendous industrial shifts, regulatory change, a changing public mindset about public good and the role of the state, and philanthropic innovation.
Fast forward to 2007 - what do we see? Let me cut to the chase - a presidential election that is being hailed as "breakthrough," regardless of who wins, with economic upheaval serving as background. There is widespread concern about the widening gap between between rich and poor, political calls for reform in housing, healthcare, and education financing, and philanthropic innovation centered around use of the Internet and global giving, as well as the creation of issue and identity-based community funds. Congress and regulators are reviewing estate taxes, there are widely publicized legal challenges to the income tax, and much ado about patent law. Industries from real estate to recording are in upheaval caused by technological innovation and changes in intellectual property practice. Working conditions around the world and the effects of industry and human activity on the environment are on everyone's minds.
What do we see here? Tremendous industrial shifts, regulatory change, a changing public mindset about public good and the role of the state, and philanthropic innovation.
My point? The external conditions for philanthropic innovation now are similar to the era that gave us both private and community foundations.
In 1913, philanthropic invention focused on the core asset of the day - financial wealth. I'm going to predict that we will see philanthropic innovation in the 21st century doing the same - this time, though, the asset is knowledge. Here's the key event in this "future history" - the creation of the Eco-Patent Commons at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
What is it? A nonprofit organization designed to manage patents by major global corporations. The patents will be made available for commercial and noncommercial innovation. All of the patents cover environmentally-friendly "technologies" - from gadget re-use to more sustainable packaging. It represents the tax-beneficial, public-opinion-improving donation of assets by global corporations "to protect the planet." It is being created at a time of regulatory uncertainty for these corporations. It involves the public, private and independent sectors.
Time will tell if I'm on to something. Just as we mark 1913 as a beginning for foundations, I am marking this as the beginning of a new kind of knowledge-based philanthropy.