Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cross-platform philanthropy

Yesterday I pondered the relationships between philanthropy and public broadcasting. I got on a mental roll after I'd posted the post and wound up going back to edit - those of you who read this in email or a reader may not got the fully-edited version. Below is the final paragraph of that edited version:

"Just as a radio program or tv show must now be developed with an eye toward its other media platforms and outlets, our public/philanthropic financing of these ventures need to be considered within these "cross sector" financing opportunities. We need to think of philanthropic funding strategies - and the public goods they support - as cross-platform. Public goods are now provided by private firms, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and social enterprises. They are funded by public dollars, charitable donations, fees for service, corporate sponsorship, licenses, social investments, sales, and search engine/ad revenue. Oh, I like this metaphor - I'm gonna have to expand on it --- next post."

So here is the completion (for now) of this metaphor. Just as media content is now developed with an eye toward all of the many platforms (tv, radio, internet, video, podcast, videogame) that might be used to distribute it, we should recognize that this same dynamic applies to the delivery and financing of public goods.

Some public goods are still very much the purview of the public sector - public transportation systems and fire departments come to mind. I don't have to look any further than out my window to recognize that these public systems are augmented by private or volunteer systems - in my neighborhood, there are carshare organizations (both nonprofit and commercial) to help you get where you want to go, in Paris and elsewhere you can bikeshare, there is still a jitney service that parallels the Market Street to Caltrain Muni service, and all San Franciscans have learned to deal with the parallel bus systems that Google, Genentech, Charles Schwab and other companies run through our neighborhoods and past our offices. Speaking of public transit - San Francisco outsourced its 511 service (public transit info) to Google recently. There is also widespread, self-organized carpooling or ridesharing (known in DC as slugging).

To continue my highly-localized examples here, many fire departments also rely on volunteers - some communities only have volunteer fire departments, and during this out-of-control fire season many California communities have depended on volunteers supplementing the professionals.

And some public goods no longer resemble anything like a public system resource - we have become accustomed to private providers of public goods - everything from prison management to k-12 education to military personnel can be bought somewhere. Throw in some nonprofits and some social enterprises and I think you'll agree - these services - schooling, fire protection, transit, security (and so on) are cross-platform. And so is their financing - taxes, fees for services, purchase, license, charitable donations, investment capital - you name it, I'll bet it has a cross-platform mix of financing.

So how should we be thinking about this? If public goods can be delivered by any platform, and all of these platforms have multiple sources of funding, that gives us lots of variable to sort through. Just for starters:
  1. What is the mix that affects the work you are doing, either as service provider or funder?
  2. What is the best (most efficient? most effective? most sustainable?) mix for your services?
  3. What does best mean in your situation (see number #2 above)
  4. Where do you fit in the mix?
  5. Who else is in the mix that you care about? How do you work with them? How does your success link to theirs?
And I thought developing a radio show, blog, website, podcast and twitter feed, and financing it with public broadcasting funds was tough. Turns out, this is how we do everything now...

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