Friday, May 30, 2008

How to build a field

I know a 14 year old in Contra Costa County who raises money to build soccer fields in South Africa. But I'm talking about building a field of practice - in this case Digital Media and Learning, an area of work we've been engaged in for several years now in support of the MacArthur Foundation. Here are some thoughts I posted recently on the program's blog.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The impact of a down economy

Last night the Robin Hood Foundation - which I use as my own informal indicator of economic ups and downs - raised $56.5 million for poverty-fighting efforts in NYC. Not bad for a night's work. Unless you compare it to the $71 million the group raised last year at this time - what difference does a year make? A drop of 21% ($14.5 million)

Extending our horizon another year back and we note that 2007 was a banner year for RHF - the $71 million raised in 2007 was a 36% increase over the $45 million it raised in 2006. And all of it is considerably more than the $700,000 raised back in 1990, RHF's first year.

By the way, if the 21% drop is applied to all individual giving, project a drop of +/- $47 Billion this year.* That is almost real money.

* Calculated off of the $223 billion in individual giving gave in 2006. (Source: Giving USA). This 2006 number is the most recent number I have - 2007 numbers expected from Giving USA in June.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Platforms for action

I founded the company I run to help people use data and information in making their philanthropic decisions. I'm a big fan of good information.

This interest is why I actually pay attention to technology, intellectual property, and graphic design. I think efforts like policymap and the Pakistan Earthquake 05 Wiki are worth checking out. It is why Senator Obama's promises about government data matter to me, specifically:
"Making government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities."
It is why this paper, Acting Wikily, from Gabriel Kasper and Diana Scearce is worth a read - though in my humble opinion they should have titled it "Working Wikily." (If you're going to make up jargon at least be alliterative about it!)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

NetSquared Year 3

The Third Annual NetSquared Conference is underway. Here are the 21 featured projects and below is a list of sites where you can follow the action:

Disclosure: I proudly served on the Board of CompuMentor/TechSoup/N2 until December 2007. I am a public advocate of NetSquared.

Stirred, not shaken

James Bond was known for preferring his martinis "shaken, not stirred." Stephanie Strom's article in Monday's Times on states' pursuits of taxes on presumed tax-exempt organizations raises some important questions about when things blur, rather than blend (or get shaken rather than stirred).

1. Here is the NYT article, "Tax Exemptions of Charities Raise New Challenges." It looks into a few cases of nonprofit organizations where the fee structure raised eyebrows at state regulators offices. Here are the three key issues, according to the piece:

"One issue is the growing confusion over what constitutes a charity at a time when nonprofit groups look more like businesses, charging fees and selling products and services to raise money, and state and local governments are under financial pressure because of lower tax revenues.

And there are others: Does a nonprofit hospital give enough charity care to earn a tax exemption? Is a wealthy university providing enough financial aid?"

The last two issues have been the objects of considerable scrutiny lately - as well as an op-ed in Sunday's edition of the Times. The broad questions raised by the piece are at the very crux of my professional interests - what is public, what is private, and who decides?

2. The second force mentioned in the article, the budget pressures on state and local governments, is a time-honored source of pressure on nonprofit regulators and tax systems. I've written frequently about the relationships between public budget pressures and the regulatory infrastructure for non profits and foundations.

3. The issues raised in the article are critical. Viewed more broadly than the few instances examined in the Times, the questions are:
  • What is a public good?
  • Are public goods and those who provide them deserving of special exemption and recognition? When?
  • Who should provide these goods?
  • How should these providers be structured?
  • How do we support and provide the right incentives for a sustainable mix of "public good" providers?
These issues are not unique to our times - debates and decisions about these very questions are why we have the tax structures and regulatory systems we have. However, they must be understood in today's context which includes the rise in corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, social ventures, and new governance structures for hybrid organizations - B Corporations and L3Cs, in particular.

Why does this context matter? Unrealistic expectations of sustainable revenue sources for nonprofits, or discussions of funders' exit strategies undervalue and push further to the margins organizations that serve essential purposes that will not be paid for by market mechanisms. At the same time, espying a devil in all earned revenue sources leaves critical service providers vulnerable to forces that are not only beyond their control, but that work at fundamentally cross purposes (witness the relationships between falling support for food banks at the same time that the need for their services increases).

As I am involved with the social enterprise movement, philanthropy, and social venture businesses I've come to see these actors as sharing a wide array of interrelated beliefs, which I summarize as 1) communities need a diversity of public goods providers, 2) businesses have many public responsibilities, 3) market forces can be harnessed for public good - though this requires deliberate structure and attention and should not be assumed, 4) public good providers need sustainable sources of funding, 5) governments alone can not be the sole providers of public goods.

There are other premises, and more eloquent articulations of them. However, I don't believe I've ever heard anyone participating in these discussions make a (serious) claim that we don't need independent civil society institutions, nor that social ventures can or will or should provide all public goods. When the discussions devolve into an "either/or" approach, I tend to tune out. Civil society organizations, "pure" nonprofits, hybrid organizations, and socially responsible businesses are here to stay. What the Times article makes clear is that we need public discussions and enforcement actions that consider what mix of actors can best serve broad public goals, knowledge of who does what well, what is known and what is experimental, and the kind of regulatory structure that promotes the best service and protects the most vulnerable.

Disclosure: My company, Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. is a founding B Corporation. We are members of Social Venture Network.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Social media for social change

Yesterday, I hit the 1000th post mark on this blog. Whew. (Anyone wondering why I haven't delivered those manuscripts to my publisher now knows the answer).

In honor of that, I'm simply going to use this post # 1001 to draw your attention to what the experts over at ReadWriteWeb are saying about How to use Social Media for Social Change. I'm tickled that many of the things they point to I've written about here. Some examples:

Previously covered on 2173:
Not covered on 2173:

Amazing to me that RWW doesn't look at social media, social change and games.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Virtual worlds meet prizes meet public good

Three of the topics I write about frequently - philanthropy and prizes, philanthropy and technology, and philanthropy as a single part of the revenue stream for public good - have all come together in Second Life. Procrastinating from writing, I was perusing my blog reader when I noticed Cory Ondrejka's post about the launch of Second Life and the Public Good: A Community Challenge. Here are some of the details:

"The USC Network Culture Project invites the residents of Second Life to imagine new ways that virtual worlds such as Second Life can be used to make a contribution to the public good.

We are currently accepting proposals from groups, organizations, or individuals for projects that show how Second Life can enhance, develop, or sustain the public good. The best submissions will be selected based on how well they demonstrate the significance of virtual worlds for making an impact on society or culture.

Up to three finalists will be selected by community vote. The finalists will be provided with a $100,000L per month building stipend (and land, if required) for three months to execute their proposal. The projects will be showcased in Second Life at the State of Play conference to be held in Chicago, October 2008.

Projects may address any social need and could include conservation, human rights and international justice, global peace and security, reproductive health, digital media and learning, or juvenile justice. Proposals should provide a clear description of how the project uses the abilities of Second Life to advance the project goals and should provide clear metrics for assessing the success of the project.

Proposals should include:
Proposals may be submitted to networkculture@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it by June 1, 2008 for consideration."
As I was writing about the things that make games successful, I realized that it comes down to "incentives" - prizes are one kind of motivator; feedback, fun and a challenge are others. These attributes - more than the actual mechanisms of prizes or games - strike me as key elements to consider as we try to understand how markets and philanthropy are blending. On a related note, I learned yesterday of another "paid incentive for social ideas" marketplace - check it out at bigcarrot. This fits in the realm of InnoCentive and social idea marketplaces.

Full Disclosure: Please see here for my relationships to MacArthur Digital Media Initiative, a funder of the USC Network. As part of this work, as well as through connections at CompuMentor/Tech Soup/NetSquared (on whose board I served until end 2007), I have met Cory Ondrejka and am a regular reader of his blog.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Share the wealth...

Share the wealth of information, that is. Here are Tactical Philanthropy's comments on my company's (Blueprint Research & Design, Inc.) standard business practice of generating public reports from all the work we do for foundation clients.

Answers to FAQs:
  • Why does Blueprint include this public report clause in its contracts? So that research on a social issue can be used by others who care about that issue.
  • How do the foundations react? Once we explain what we're trying to do, most of the foundations that we work with are very positive. In fact, most of them have welcomed the opportunity as a chance to discuss Intellectual Property issues. Some foundations won't use our contract - this is fine because it is a chance to change their standard contracting language. Sometimes there isn't anything in the work that either we or the foundation thinks will be of interest to the public. The clause gives us a chance to discuss this upfront with the foundation.
  • How can an advisory firm require something of a client? How can they not? Good working relationships are built on mutual trust and benefit. Our values are as important to us as are our clients' values - the contract negotiation stage of business development is one, of many, opportunities to express and stand by what we care about and are trying to make happen in the world. This is also why Blueprint is proud to be one of the nation's first B Corporations.
  • Have you ever lost business doing it this way? Sure. We've also built long term relationships with key foundations, influenced their contracting procedures, opened up the door a little bit on IP issues in philanthropy, influenced our consulting firm colleagues, and leveraged dollars to certain issues by sharing the research.
This kind of sharing is all good. It is also not enough. Most foundation research is site and topic specific, written for a professional audience, and requires patience and context to be useful in making grant decisions. We are actively addressing these problems with several ventures we have underway, all of which are designed to help make the best information on what works and what is known available to donors and philanthropic organizations so that they can improve their giving and achieve their missions. This is why I spend so much time monitoring developments in communications technology, social media, and intellectual property. This is why I care about the intersection of business practices and philanthropy. This is why I care about innovation, prizes, or buzzwords. This is why I write about philanthropic capital markets and social idea markets. This is why I write this blog and why I founded Blueprint - to help build better systems for using research to improve giving.

OK - I am stepping down off the informercial soapbox now. Thanks, Sean, for the post.

San Francisco Event - "Technology Empowers the Poorest"

"Technology Empowers the Poorest"
WEDNESDAY, May 21, 7:00 p.m.
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco
Sponsored by the Long Now Foundation

Iqbal Quadir is the legendary founder of GrameenPhone, which transformed his home country of Bangladesh in the 1990s and led the way for the cellphone revolution throughout the developing world. Currently Quadir heads the Legatum Center for Development and
at MIT and is building Emergence BioEnergy Inc., a project to develop electricity for the rural poor, using such devices as a fuel cell that runs on anaerobic bacteria. Linking new technology with the boundless resourcefulness of the poor drives innovation in surprising directions at surprising speed to surprising effect.

"Technology Empowers the Poorest," Iqbal Quadir, , 7pm, WEDNESDAY, May 21. The talk starts promptly at 7:30pm. Admission is free (a $10 donation is certainly welcome, not required).

Monday, May 19, 2008

Measuring failure

Two topics of frequent discussion in philanthropy - metrics and innovation - just came together in an interview I heard while listening to the radio. Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace spoke with A.G. Lafley, CEO of Proctor & Gamble and author of a book on innovation, The Game-Changer. You can read the transcript of the interview here or listen to it here. I perked up at this part of the interview:
Ryssdal: "You write in your book that about half of your product innovations fail."

Lafley: "There is a museum in up-state New York that is full of failed consumer products, and we have our fair share there. So, I think we know we're in a game where you fail a lot. Innovation is that kind of a game, and what we are trying to do is improve our success rate. And what we are also trying to do is fail earlier, fail faster and reallocate the resources from the failures . . . the humans, the human capital and the financial capital, so we can put the money against innovations that have a chance [at] success."
So there it is, a metric for innovation. At least half your attempts should fail. As usual, I have some questions:

  • With all the philanthropic attention on innovation do you think this metric should translate over to philanthropic strategies?
  • Is this an acceptable rate of failure? Too high? Too low?
  • Do foundations and philanthropists and activists and social entrepreneurs know how "fail earlier, fail faster and reallocate the resources from the failures?"
By the way, when I search for "museum product failure new york" I get a link to the site of a product development consulting group. Seems that the company bought a 60,000 piece consumer product collection from Robert McMath, who had organized it as The New Products Showcase and Learning Center. Anyone know if this is the museum in question?

Game Changers

Reposted from The Huffington Post

The Wii Fit is not the only game changer in town. As everyone knows, the Wii - the motion sensor-enabled video game console that gets players up and moving - is the hottest thing around. The core set of Wii games including tennis, bowling, and boxing are a big hit with women, girls, elders and others - a wide (and profitable) demographic that never really found their thrill in Grand Theft Auto and its ilk.

But commercial platforms such as the Wii are not the only place you can find game changing action. Activists have slowly been moving their social change agendas onto various game platforms. Issues from hunger to genocide, HIV awareness, obesity, and the making of the federal budget have all been 'modded' into game formats - with the brains (and funders) behind them hoping to ride on the interactivity, fun, and step-by-step feedback loops that make games so absorbing as a way of engaging people in the issues.

A new game making game, called GameStar Mechanic is "innovative educational software that will teach junior high through university students about game design by letting them create and modify games." This effort, which partners researchers, game makers, and youth organizations is funded by The MacArthur Foundation as part of its Digital Media and Learning program.*

Other funders are also in the game - The Kaiser Family Foundation and others just launched PosorNot (a play on Hot or not) which is aimed at debunking myths about HIV. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a large supporter of GamesforHealth. Hopelab created RE:Mission and the Ruckus Nation game contest. I'm on the board* of GamesForChange which receives funding from MicroSoft, MacArthur, and others (especially for its annual festival, coming up in NYC June 2-5). In April (just in time for tax season), American Public Media, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting launched BudgetHero, a game in which players get to allocate the federal budget. You can get the game widget here.

Data on the effectiveness of these games is still being collected - HopeLab has done several very cool studies of information retention, brain scans, and patient behavior regarding their drug protocols. Bringing games together with social agendas is not simple. There is still a lot to learn about how and why and when games work to help people learn. And, as every parent knows, stuffing education and information into a game isn't going to fool the kids for long - it is sort of the equivalent of trying to hide the peas in the french fries. But we are beginning to understand how interactive, engaging platforms can be structured as learning environments, as well as public message systems. As more and more gamers grow into decision-makers and more and more of us spend more and more time on the web, on our mobiles, and on games, it makes sense to get the info where the attention is.

*Full Disclosure: I am on the board of GamesForChange and my company, Blueprint Research & Design, advises the MacArthur Foundation on its Digital Media and Learning program and has consulted with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I served as a (volunteer) judge for HopeLab's Ruckus Nation. I do not own a Wii but I do play games on my cell phone. I am a regular NPR/APM listener (and a supporter of my local public radio stations).

Friday, May 16, 2008

More improvements for social idea markets

This post on improving markets for social ideas mentioned InnoCentive - an online marketplace connecting people with ideas to institutions that can make them real (in both social and commercial spheres). The CEO of InnoCentive just added a comment, which you can read here, but he notes two things they are working on:

"First, in the next few months, we will be introducing flexible discussion boards to some of public areas of our marketplace, including the ares that serve Foundation challenges. We would actually encourage you and the community to utilize the discussion boards to discuss and make known needs and resources. While not exactly a "Craigslist" taliored to your need, feel free to use the boards to the extent it is helpful.

Second, we have been thinking through models that have the potential to match funding sources with ideas with "solver" community. No promises here, but within a few months we should have a stronger position on this."

This is exciting and I'll try to keep an eye out for more as this develops. I just read of another such marketplace coming online, called Planet Eureka. This looks purely commercial for now. And don't forget other related resource, including socialedge, Kluster,* and Social Innovation Camp. Still not quite the fiscal agency matchmaking service I was thinking about, but now there are plenty of platforms to use to match your great social idea with an existing organization that can make it real.

*Kluster just launched a KlusterNews site. You can see the Kluster founder explain the lessons learned, "Seven weeks in and a million dollars down the drain, we know what works," founder Ben Kaufman said in a video he posted to YouTube." Quoted on CNET.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gay marriage upheld by California Supreme Court

Congratulations and thank you to all the activists, philanthropists, lawyers, politicians, individuals and families who made this happen!

Legal opinion is here.

It's a pen, it's a pledge card, it's a cell phone!

Everything about the panel set up looked familiar - four chairs on a raised dais, clip on mics, water glasses. It wasn't until the moderator of this particular discussion opened it up to the audience for questions that I realized I was truly among a different group than those to whom I often speak. The moderator pointed to the whiteboard behind us, where earlier he had written a phone number. "So text me your questions and I'll compile those, and we'll take some from the floor as well. Yes, you in the blue shirt...."

The moderator then went on to scroll through texts on his cell, organizing similar queries into a single question for us, the panelists, while simultaneously facilitating discussion from the group and among the panelists.

Remember index cards and pens? So last generation. Texts to cell phone is how this happens now. Why? Perhaps more people in the room had mobiles than had pens? No need to remember index cards? Better for the environment? Essentially free, since everyone has flat fee text plans? Or just because texting is how 8+ year olds communicate nowadays.

Which is why text-based mobile donations are the next key component to nonprofits' fundraising plans. Five years ago it was the "Donate Now" button. Today it is a plan with Mgive, similar to this one with the United Way that launched the service with a ten second 2008 Super Bowl Spot.

And now, for my broken record moment* - We give online. We give with our cell phones. We can give at ATMs. Can we please get better, faster, complete, and real time-ish data on where we give and how much? Please?

*Ah, the delightful irony of using the idiom "broken record," in a post on mobile giving. Now I know my real generational affiliation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Disaster aid updates

The Chronicle of Philanthropy* did some quick addition and has identified $8 million in donations to humanitarian groups for recovery from the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. The Chronicle's totals are summarized here:
  • "Save the Children has won more than $3-million in pledges and gifts, including $1-million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also gave $1-million each to CARE and World Vision. Not on Our Watch, a charity established by actors George Clooney and Don Cheadle, among others, to end mass atrocities around the world, has pledged up to $500,000.
  • World Vision has received more than $2.75-million, including the grant from the Gates foundation.
  • Donors have contributed or pledged $1.375-million to the International Rescue Committee.
  • Mercy Corps has received nearly $1-million, including $150,000 from Chevron.
  • Donations to AmeriCares total $300,000.
  • The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has raised nearly $115,000. Most donors have contributed gifts between $500 and $1,000 to the relief response."
There are other interesting comments and discussions about this coming from the donor-NGO call about Myanmar aid that was held on Monday May 12 (another one is scheduled for May 16) - transcript and information are here, and a commentary on the call from GiveWell founder* is here.

Another thoughtful post on the possibilities for collaboration in times of disaster can be found here, on the Hauser Center's blog, written by Tony Pipa, a very thoughtful philanthropy scholar/consultant, former foundation president, and activist involved in Louisiana disaster recovery.* Tony's two posts looks at models for disaster collaboration and readiness funds (a topic/idea that I believe several community foundations investigated sometime ago - did it go anywhere?)

Here's what I still find surprising - the Chronicle noted large grants to large nonprofits. We still have no running ticker of online gifts through the myriad online giving sites - globalgiving, NetworkforGood, Google's Myanmar cyclone site, or any of the sites buying adwords placements for myanmar disaster relief. Even if we don't get a "ticker" of these gifts, isn't it ironic that the best info we have comes from the Chronicle making phone calls to the big nonprofits and we still don't have any faster, easier, reliable sense of what giving is going where? We can give instantly, but we still can't track that giving.....

Note also that my inquiry regarding Google Checkout and placement for Google searches yielded this comment over on the Nonprofit Tech Blog. Here's the note:

"Check out While I’ve touted Google Checkout for Nonprofits in the past (heck I even use it over at socialmarkets), I believe this is a pretty blatant signal that one should adopt Google Checkout if you want premium placement. That said, Google is matching up to $1 million in donations."

*Fullest disclosures: I've had the honor of presenting at workshops with Tony Pipa and consider him a friend. I subscribe to, read, and occasionally contribute to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. I am on GiveWell's Board.

Monday, May 12, 2008

New Head of Gates Foundation

The Gates Foundation has announced its new CEO, Jeff Raikes. Announcement is here.

Reminder: Myanmar disaster relief call

An emergency teleconference to brief donors about relief and recovery needs and effective philanthropic strategies in response to the crisis in Myanmar is being organized for Monday, May 12th at 3:00 ET.

Relief NGO, governmental and multilateral leaders on the ground in Myanmar will provide an up-to-date status report from ground zero. And experts in disaster philanthropy will reflect on lessons learned from past disasters as participants consider their own approach to assistance. An updated agenda and list of speakers will be posted as details become available.

Dial in information is below.

Monday, May 12
Call in number: 1-866-228-9900
Passcode: 166406#

For donors unable to join the call, information on how to access a free recording will be available by 6 PM ET on Monday, May 12.

Improving marketplace(s) for social ideas

I recently participated in a discussion about risk and innovation in Jewish philanthropy at the JFN iJew conference. I also serve on the advisory board of a project called the Jewish Professional Co-op - which is in the ever-familiar stage of transitioning from pilot to reality, from project to organization. What is interesting to me about the JPC (which is also re-branding and changing its name) is its purpose - to support new ideas for engaging Jews in Jewish life. -It is in the business of finding and supporting new ideas and is itself facing some of the most common challenges of turning those ideas into action. Here are some of the questions we face at JPC and which the JFN panel also addressed:
  • Where do you find innovation/innovators?
  • How can you nurture it/them, support it/them, take risks on innovators?
  • Must innovators and innovation always come from the edge, or can they be connected - in mutually beneficial ways - to existing organizations.
  • Can you sustain innovation without "institutionalizing" it? Perhaps there a different question to be asked - about sustaining and institutionalizing innovation and risk taking?
All of these questions and the people asking them inspired me to go looking for analogs. One of interest to me is InnoCentive, originally designed as a site where entrepreneurs, inventors, problem solvers and companies could bring together new ideas. The basic idea - provide incentives to innovators to share their ideas, "crowdsource" some of the R & D needs of big companies, and bring ideas to market faster and at lower cost.

Everyone brings what he or she has - intellectual resources, human resources, financial resources - and the jigsaw puzzles assemble themselves. I think the site was originally launched out of a corporate R & D initiative (I think it came out of Eli Lilly and Co.)

Here, in its own words, is Innocentive's mission:

"InnoCentive will change the world and influence the lives of people everywhere by applying our planet’s human creativity and intelligence to solving the most important challenges facing commercial, governmental, and humanitarian organizations today. By combining technology, economic incentives, and human ingenuity, we will address and resolve these problems better, faster, and cheaper than ever before possible."

Notice the inclusion of "humanitarian organizations." Through a partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation (and maybe others?), InnoCentive has built out its focus on problems in the public sphere. You can download the nonprofit fact sheet here. You can check out some of the posted requests for ideas here and here is the site's Public Health page.

So here is a suggestion (unsolicited) for this kind of marketplace. How about a similar service, localized along the lines of Craigslist, that would allow people with great new ideas for public good projects to find existing organizations (nonprofits, social enterprises or public agencies) that could host the idea and make it real? This would help established organizations access new ideas, help idea-bearers get to work on their idea and avoid the distraction of setting up a new organization, and stimulate exchanges and idea iteration. This could be an add-on service for current fiscal agency and intermediary organizations (such as Tides or the San Francisco Foundation's Community Innovation Funds). It is an iteration (I suppose) of the kind of thinking that led to the PakistanWiki after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake - that wiki provided a central online place for donations, stories, relief needs and connections. Innocentive is a marketplace for ideas and funding. What I have in mind is an exchange (or marketplace) for ideas and implementors.

I guess the best thing for me to do with this idea is post it over at InnoCentive....unless someone knows of a site that already does this....?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Big Ideas on Giving Channel

Here is a new video on the Giving Channel Philanthropy Today: Big Ideas, Big Gifts, Big Impact

This is from The New School's fourth annual Big Ideas, Big Gifts, Big Impact: A Conversation with Today's Philanthropists. It features Andrea Soros Colombel, president of Trace Foundation; Abigail E. Disney, president of the Daphne Foundation; and Peter G. Peterson, senior chairman and co-founder of The Blackstone Group.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Silent commentary

I've posted two pieces in the last few days that seem to have struck some nerves. And those whose nerves were struck seem to be too nervous to post their comments.

The first such post was this one, called Google Recommends, in which I noted that Google was sending searchers who typed in "Myanmar relief" directly to a page with two nonprofits, Google Checkout-assisted donation services, on it. This changed within a day or so, but I used the post to ask the following questions (among many others):
  • How many hits did that site get?
  • How many clicks went through to those organizations?
  • How much money was given?
  • How did Google pick those two organizations?
  • Does using Google Checkout influence where your organization appears in Google search lists?
  • Does work with on creating opportunities like this? On picking the featured aid partners?
Several people wrote in to my email alerting me to the fact that they had noticed the same thing, had wondered the same things and, by the way, could I let them know what I learned about how this works? All of those who emailed me directly did so either from email addresses associated with other relief agencies or noted in their email that they were associated with other relief agencies.

My read: They don't want to draw attention to their organizations while asking these questions.

The second post to catalyze this kind of "silent commentary" was this one, titled A Must Read, in which I highly recommend Raj Patel's book Stuffed and Starved but mostly share my own disgust and disgrace at the recent venue for the Council on Foundation's Philanthropy Summit. Here is an excerpt of why I found the venue choice so upsetting:

"...I've done little but complain about my own sense of hypocrisy of holding this event at a venue clearly designed to exacerbate sprawl, to divert business from inner city communities, and to serve as a spectator venue for one of the eastern sea board's biggest traffic bottlenecks, the Woodrow Wilson bridge. To stand in a four story tall open space and observe the outdoors through a glass wall the size of a football field while lighted fountains waste water and power for the sake of amusement, the air conditioning runs at full tilt, and security guards stand at every elevator entrance was an assault on my senses, which I shared with everyone I spoke to. To then attempt to hold meaningful discussions about global warming or community development was excruciating to me."
Again, several emails came in from people, most of whom I know to have been at the conference, agreeing with me, cheering the post and so on. But they email me so as not to put a public comment out there - even anonymously.

Guy Kawasaki recently wrote a magazine article titled "Blog-A-Thon" for which the 24 point font pullout quote reads: "If you can't speak your mind on your own blog, you might as well give up and stay on the porch."

So let me say to all of you who have quietly joined me on the porch, about either or both of these posts - I'll keep your identities to myself (I get it, really I do). Please feel free to comment here or on the other posts with your name, anonymously, or with a pseudonym. Or go ahead, join me here on the porch.

A must read

Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel is a must read. Here is the book. Here is the blog.

The author is married to a friend of my partner and that is how I first learned of the book, back when it was still being published only in Canada (There's the disclosure, though I have not met him yet). Here's why I needed to read it.....

I left the recent conference at the National Harbor disgraced with myself and my professional community. Why? The venue for this conference, 3200+ people, ran counter to many of the values that I hold dear. Here's what was compromised (a nice word for how I really feel):
  • Using fewer nonrenewable resources.
  • Investing in local communities.
  • Using public transportation.
  • Shopping locally. Eating local food.
  • Multiculturalism.
  • Discussing environmental degradation as if we might try to do something about it.
  • Preserving and understanding local history and culture (Historic Williamsburg under glass does not count)
  • and so on....
While I was there and since I've come home I've done little but complain about my own sense of hyprocisy of holding this event at a venue clearly designed to exacerbate sprawl, to divert business from inner city communities, and to serve as a spectator venue for one of the eastern sea board's biggest traffic bottlenecks, the Woodrow Wilson bridge. To stand in a four story tall open space and observe the outdoors through a glass wall the size of a football field while lighted fountains waste water and power for the sake of amusement, the air conditioning runs at full tilt, and security guards stand at every elevator entrance was an assault on my senses, which I shared with everyone I spoke to. To then attempt to hold meaningful discussions about global warming or community development was excruciating to me.

So Stuffed And Starved - the simple title that points out the paradox and hypocrisy of our times - caught my attention. We live in a time and in cities where some people starve to death and others die of complications from obesity and diabetes. Where food shortages leave 10% of the world's people hungry and our governments pay farmers not to farm. We need to understand the connections and systemic alignments/misalignments between what we do and how it shapes the world for others, and we need to change. Each of us and all of us.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Myanmar Disaster Relief Advisory Call

I posted this information at the bottom of the last post - but in case you don't make it to the end of that post I'll put it here also.

An emergency teleconference to brief donors about relief and recovery needs and effective philanthropic strategies in response to the crisis in Myanmar is being organized for Monday, May 12th at 3:00 ET.

Relief NGO, governmental and multilateral leaders on the ground in Myanmar will provide an up-to-date status report from ground zero. And experts in disaster philanthropy will reflect on lessons learned from past disasters as participants consider their own approach to assistance. An updated agenda and list of speakers will be posted as details become available.

Dial in information is below.

Monday, May 12
Call in number: 1-866-228-9900
Passcode: 166406#

For donors unable to join the call, information on how to access a free recording will be available by 6 PM ET on Monday, May 12.

Satellite imagery of the area can be found here and here.

Google recommends....

Yesterday (May 7) when I typed "Myanmar relief" into my Google search box I was taken directly to a page that gave me the option of giving to Unicef or DirectRelief. This wasn't a bunch of links, sponsored and otherwise, as it is today. This was a direct link to a Google checkout assisted giving page. Some questions:
  • How many hits did that site get?
  • How many clicks went through to those organizations?
  • How much money was given?
  • How did Google pick those two organizations?

Today (Thursday, May 8) if you type Myanmar relief into the Google box you come to this page. - several sponsored links, lots of news links, lots of giving options. Given the specific horrors of this catastrophe and the political machinations that are going to result in many more horrors than those caused just by the storm surge/cyclone (sound familiar?) it seems as important we learn some things from the past**:
  • How can we mobilize aid and know that it will get where needed?
  • How can generous individuals have faith that their gifts will be put to use?
  • How can we stick around for longer term needs, once the tv/youtube pictures fade away?
  • Can we get and listen to information from aid and disaster specialists on the ground, instead of mediated sources with political agendas?
I noticed in the links on the above page that the two organizations from yesterday, Unicef and DirectRelief, appeared 2nd and 3rd in the right hand column list. (The first link is for globalgiving). Unicef and DirectRelief both use Google Checkout. Some more questions:
  • Does using Google Checkout influence where your organization appears in Google search lists?
  • Does work with on creating opportunities like this? On picking the featured aid partners?
In addition to all the other things I've got going on, I teach a class at Stanford. Yesterday I received an email from a Stanford student in another class on nonprofit governance. She asked me:
  • To whom is currently accountable (shareholders, Google Inc, the public, regulatory bodies, its nonprofit peers)?
  • To whom should be accountable?
  • How transparent is How transparent should it be?
  • How should measure its success?
Until yesterday when I had that search experience, I mostly have been interested in as an example of changing structures for making change. I place it in the same category as The Omidyar Network, B Corporations, L3Cs, social investors, socially responsible investing, mission related/program related investing, and so on. In other words, my interest is in (surprise, surprise) philanthropic capital markets.

Now I have more questions than answers. If you can inform me on any of the questions above, I'd appreciate it. There are at least four different categories of questions here:
  1. Role of Google Checkout and Google's own recommendation power/process
  2. Real time information on fundraising using online systems - can we find out how much money is moving through online giving and where it is going in anything approaching real time - perhaps someone can mashup an online fundraising stock ticker?....(hint hint....)
  3. Disaster relief, political agendas, and the near and longer term need for support - can we learn from hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes of the recent past?
  4. Accountability and transparency issue as they relate to these hybrid sources of social investment.
Insight and comments on any and all are welcome.

**While I was writing this post I received the following information:

An emergency teleconference to brief donors about relief and recovery needs and effective philanthropic strategies in response to the crisis in Myanmar is being organized for Monday, May 12th at 3:00 ET.

Relief NGO, governmental and multilateral leaders on the ground in Myanmar will provide an up-to-date status report from ground zero. And experts in disaster philanthropy will reflect on lessons learned from past disasters as participants consider their own approach to assistance. An updated agenda and list of speakers will be posted as details become available.

Dial in information is below.

Monday, May 12
Call in number: 1-866-228-9900
Passcode: 166406#

For donors unable to join the call, information on how to access a free recording will be available by 6 PM ET on Monday, May 12.

Pattern recognition at Investors Circle

There is a community supported agriculture program in Denmark in which 150 co-worker farmers serve 50,000 homes with organic produce brought direct from field to house. It is believed to be the largest such effort anywhere in the world. In community supported agriculture the customers are also investors - they buy shares in the farms. Thomas Harttung, the farmer, investor, entrepreneur behind the effort, called Aarstiderne, is a regular participant at Investors Circle, my third conference in four days.

This single example presents some of the key themes and opportunities for the Investors Circle community, and I would argue, most everyone else.
  • Where does our food come from?
  • What is capital for?
  • What and who is in my community?
  • Will the planet survive?
One session at the conference focused on Slow Money, in which the challenges of trying to invest in sustainable food systems is discussed as running counter to investing in clean tech. For example, slow food requires small scale, locality, eco-principles and long investing horizons. Clean tech, like most tech, turns on questions of rapid scalability, global reach, technology as solution, and quicker returns. So the question becomes, if you care about the planet and want to invent or invest in line with your values, what do you and how do you do it? Clearly alternative energy sources are needed and they need (and are getting) investment capital.

This moment in time, unlike any other I'm aware, is being defined by simultaneous global rises in prices of food and gasoline. But the solutions to the two problems may or may not be similar, they may or may not be linked, and the ways we invest capital (environmental, financial, human, and intellectual) and the returns we seek may or may not be the same.

It is hard, intellectually and emotionally, to simultaneously consider the relationships between the headlines. How do we think about all of these issues - global warming, food shortages, water crises, calamitous weather damage, political isolationism - and the ways they relate to each other? How can we separate out realistic strategies that take into account the complex systems in which both the problems emerge and the solutions must be implemented?

These are the kinds of questions I can depend on Investors Circle to raise. There is enough commonality and diversity of participants and topics so that patterns emerge and new ideas are generated. I always learn something I simply did not know before I came. The 300 or so people gathered here question the assumptions of plenary speakers, challenge the powerpoint presentations at breakout sessions, and debate the key points during and after each formal talk. The conference attracts foundations, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and investors - most with at least two bottom lines in mind.

Since I've been to three conferences in four days let me make a few comments about conferences:
  • I am more likely to actually learn something when there are multiple perspectives and different opinions being actively discussed. This requires people coming from different positions in a system (entrepreneurs and investors/funders and grantees, at the very least).
  • Smaller is better for finding people you might actually work with over time.
  • Larger is good for meeting people in the halls and seeing such a variety of vendors and exhibitors that you might actually question the choices you've made about how to do your work. Do I need a donor advised fund or a private foundation? Do I want to bank in line with my values as well as invest? Why are there attorneys here, what questions did I forget to ask?
  • Content that draws in and involves people from different countries and cultures is more interesting than panels on "the international fill-in-the-blank."
  • Small groups that give people a place to participate as both audience and panelist are great as long as they also find ways to bring in new voices.
  • I hope that I never have to organize a conference and I appreciate the efforts of those who do.
I'm off the conference treadmill for about two weeks. Then I head to Vietnam for the Asian Pacific Philanthropy Consortium conference on diaspora giving. It is a smaller gathering on a focused topic of great interest and immediate relevance for me, in a place I have always wanted to visit, with scholars and presenters I respect. I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Buzzwords decoded

I’ll be upfront with you – I started the buzzwords list as a cheap way to look for trends. But everyone keeps asking me about it – are they good or bad? How do you find them? What do they mean?

So, in the spirit of “please don’t take this as science” here is what I know about buzzwording:

1. There are three kinds of buzzwords:
a. Buzzwords that help identify patterns among seemingly dissimilar activities, coming in over the horizon, or being brought into the field of philanthropy from another domain. include things like “prototyping,” "labs,” and “hyperlocal.” Sometimes these follow the path of buzzword → practice → jargon. But not always.

b. Buzzwords that put a name to an issue that everyone is discussing, but not necessarily doing. Given enough space, these buzzwords can actually help tilt the field from discussion to action. Examples would be the 2004 Future of Philanthropy Report’s focus on collaboration and partnership, which came to life in examples at the 2008 COF conference. Another example is the focus on community leadership sparked by the 2005 On the Brink of New Promise Report and put into play by CF Leads in 2007-8.

c. Buzzwords that give name to the unnamed, therefore making it visible. The most prominent example of this is embedded giving, which simply named a phenomenon that was already pervasive, but that needed a name so it could be discussed.

2. Good or bad is up to you, and what you “use” the buzzword for.

3. Some buzzwords do have lasting meaning. Others never will. Others shouldn’t.

What do you think? Should the buzzword list be made into bingo cards and handed out at major philanthropy conferences? Does something become old hat the minute I declare it a buzzword? Have buzzwords ever been useful to you in any real way?

And keep those buzzword suggestions coming in - the first entries for 2008 are coming up soon....

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

More gen crossing

At the Global Philanthropy Forum the featured group was The Elders.

At the Council on Foundations the biggest splash came from the Next Gen organizers (EPIP, Resource Generation, Changemakers, 21/64, etc). Should we assume from this n of 2 that:

• Foundations are run by old folks so younger people are the next new thing?
• Social enterprise and entrepreneurship is the purview of the young, and so older mentors are the invited voices?

Monday, May 05, 2008

der Trans Gen

(Photos by G Kasper, courtesy of Resource Generation. The sign says "Equity for All" and was part of a posterboard titled "The Future of Philanthropy" with dozens of photos of COF participants holding signs of what they wanted to make that future look like.)

What does der Trans Gen mean? The hottest COF conference item was from the Next Gen groups, yellow or green stickers that said either "I am the next gen" or "I support the next gen." Of course, there were those ageless few (whom I won't name) wearing both. Others were playfully arguing about whether they are "in" the next gen or "supportive" of it. Some of us were ruing the fact that we never got be a next gen, because there wasn't really a generation of us. And those of us who live our lives crossing categories and fighting against stasis decided we were simply trans gen. With a nod to the conference's attempted inclusiveness and internationalism, Auf deutsch der Trans Gen. As Martha would say, its all good.

Good things are happening when there is music, crowds are gathering around laptop demos, and there are too many people in one room trying to see what others are doing, actively shmoozing, and shouting to be heard. (Not surprisingly, alcohol also helps). Good things are happening when you attend a conference for the 12th or 13th time and actually feel like something different is afoot. Good things are happening when you walk into a room at a conference you've attended for 12 or 13 years and see a lot of people you don't know, but might like to meet. And good things are happening when people you know and respect get the recognition they deserve.

Hats off to EPIP, Resource Generation, 21/64 and their partners* in making the next generation element of the COF conference a good party and much more. For making the conversations different, for challenging assumptions, for being there in large numbers, for emphasizing "next" in a way that is optimistic and up-for-the challenge, that presents a counterweight to arrogance and inwardness, and that is tech-enabled, diverse, inquisitive, and energetic by nature, not by session title. It was the best and most hopeful part of any COF conference I've ever attended. Thanks for making it happen.

Of course, this wouldn't be me if I didn't file one complaint. I keep hoping that philanthropy 2.0 will die as a buzzword, so I cringe whenever I see it. Even more reason to celebrate and assist the next gen moving into leadership roles - they will be the ones to dump the phrase.

*The Case Foundation, American Express, and others.

Failure Nau

The social business Nau is closing down. Why? It could not raise the capital it needed to keep growing. As the founders write in their going away letter:

"Just as we could not have predicted the sudden groundswell of environmental consciousness that blossomed at the time we launched our business, we did not foresee the current crisis in the capital markets."

Nau is an example of a new breed of business. Its business charter incorporated social and public responsibility, it produced green clothing which it sold in webfronts, donated more than $200,000 in its first year of business and used its "collective" to capture and share stories of others trying similar things. It worried about and took action about its carbon load, sustainable fabrics, global sourcing, and LEED certification.

Now is a chance to learn what can work in this new space where business meets good. It is a chance to think about parallels and bumps in capital markets on the social side and in the commercial sector. And it is a chance to consider the dimensions of success and of failure as business and social good try to come together. It is also a chance to buy really cool clothes at 50% off.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The whole world gathers

May 10 is Pangea Day.
If you think the COF is big, check this out.
You can go to the movies with the whole world.

Considering measurements and measurers

Who are you? How do you know?

Psychologists love questions of identity and all its multiple dimensions - from attitudes to behavior. Geneticists are also ready to weigh in, from different perspectives and with different data. Demographers will chime in - disaggregating you along various dimensions and then adding you into many cohorts. Historians or biographers may even have something to say, cross-referencing what others will say about you with the written record and whatever paper trail you may leave. Religious communities and traditions also may claim part of you, sometimes regardless of whether or not you claim them. You may identify with a single race or with many of them, and this may shift over time or remain steadfast for your lifetime. Gender identity - though aligned and singular for many - is more fluid or inconsistent for others. Answers to the questions "Who are you and how do you know?" may vary depending on when and by whom you are asked.

Why am I talking about this? Today I went to two conferences. First, the Jewish Funders Network, where questions and discussions revolved around funding Jewish identity. Everyone seemed to agree that there are multiple ways to identify as Jewish and multiple ways people come to those identities. The conference was held at Sixth & I, a 100 year-old synagogue that, like so many in big cities, spent decades as an African Methodist Church. It has recently been renovated back into a synagogue. It now thrives in its role as Jewish cultural hub and house of worship for Jews of every denomination. It sits in DC's Chinatown, across the street from an empty lot.

Then I took 2 subways and a cab ride to the National Harbor. This is a brand new, man made city that emerges on the horizon south of DC the way OZ rose over the poppy fields. It includes a conference center that encases a fake mini village with a glass wall several stories tall and a football field (or more in length) overlooking the Potomac. There, the Council on Foundation's Philanthropy Summit - with its 2900+ people from 40 countries, three hip hop groups, two gospel choirs, and one Chinese lion dance - was just getting underway. As I checked in for the conference I watched the Council's staff members apply banner flags to the nametags - you know, the multicolored ribbon thingies that say "foundation board member," "moderator," "presenter," "newcomer" and so on. There were at least 12 different such ribbons and I wondered if anyone was wearing a foot long name tag with all of these identifiers attached. These ribbons - so clearly intended to mark you for the benefit of others - bring up another aspect of identity, that which is assumed, assigned, or placed on you by the outside world, by the setting in which you find yourself, or the context in which someone meets you.

So what for philanthropy? My point is this - even the simplest question - "who are you?" has many possible answers. There are many measures and dimensions, many measurers, and many interpretations of the data. Kevin Phillips, author of Bad Money, has an article in the May issue of Harpers called "Numbers Racket: why the economy is worse than we know." In it he lays out in painful detail the many ways administrators and administrations have fudged economic data and benchmarks over the years. These are benchmarks and data points that most of us think are fairly reliable - little things like unemployment rates and gross domestic product. Turns out that they may not be as standardized or longitudinal or reliable as you might want to think.

As we embark on three days and nights of discussing programs, data, measures, returns, and effectiveness, perhaps it is worth acknowledging the dynamism, uncertainty, and relativity of our endeavors. This is not intended to thwart anyone's gusto for good work. On the contrary, questioning our assumptions, probing the data, considering the sources, and re-calibrating our measures are vital to learning and making progress.

For session-level coverage of the COF conference check out both Tactical Philanthropy and the Chronicle of Philanthropy's blog.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Crowdsourced buzzes and communities

I've been asked a few times lately - where are the 2008 buzzwords? The answer is: we're working on them. We've turned to crowdsourcing them this year so please feel free to email me/post a comment with the philanthropic buzzwords you've been noticing. Two things I've realized about buzzwords since the 2007 list took off:
  1. Buzzwords may become jargon, or they may start as jargon from another field that then gets applied to philanthropy, and
  2. Buzzword watching is a cheap and easy way to look for patterns and trends - try it at home!
I'm going to three conferences over the next five days so there will be plenty of buzzing to capture. And those of you at COF please use the COF2008 tag so we can follow your feeds.

Here is a crowdsourced list of ideas about little things we can do everyday to make our communities a better place - feel free to add yours. Note, we approached this from the perspective that community is more about making connections and sharing experiences - which everyone can do. Contributing money can help, but it is a means, not an end. Also assume that we have (at least) two kinds of communities - home and work:

-- save your daily pocket change and donate it at end of month to community center or library
-- eat lunch with a different work colleague every day.
-- sit on your stoop and talk to your neighbors
-- sweep the sidewalk in front of your house and chat with passerby

- take public transit to capture a snapshot of your community's residents and help the environment
- pick up litter you see on the street
- read a local blog or article on community issues/news (and comment on it)
- turn off your cell phone or don't answer it in public places. Or, at the very least, say "Excuse me, please" to those you are with before you answer it!
- Make sure your child and every other child in your community goes to school every day starting in kindergarten..

- organize your neighbors or participate in neighborhood meetings
- grow fruit and vegetables in whatever patch of soil you can find for that purpose
- Shop at farmers markets
- Get to know your local shopkeepers
- subscribe to listservs that offer information on community activities and/or freecycling
- encourage your local police department to set up an online group with daily updates, email the chief with questions, encourage the police to hold community meetings
- ask yourself what makes your community special and what you can do to keep it that way for the future. Then do that.

Finally, Prediction markets and nonprofits were recently covered in Financial Times, yours truly quoted. Link is here.