Monday, April 27, 2009

FasterCures Philanthropy Advisory Service

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I'm jammed for time so will have to make this quick - check out FasterCures Philanthropy Advisory Service. It launched today at the Milken Institute Global Conference.

I have had the great privilege of being in contact with these folks for several years about this work. Sometime in 2005/06 I received a call saying, essentially, "Hey, we read your book, we're working on something that we think aligns with your thinking, will you talk with us?" Last year I was honored to join their Organizational Review Board* and am continually impressed by the intensity and quality of their work. I've noted them on this blog several times. I think these kinds of information and advisory services are a huge part of the future of philanthropy and think that FasterCures is setting a great new standard with this approach. This is a beta launch - help them out, make it better, tell your friends, compare it to some of the other models out there (GiveWell, Charity Intelligence Canada, SASIX, etc)* and be part of the future.

*Full disclosure: As stated above I am on the Organization Review Board for this service. This requires my participation in several meetings per year to provide feedback to the staff on metrics, methodologies, ratings tools, and level/types of data and detail provided. Information on the ORB and other advisory groups is here. I used to be on the board of GiveWell and I know and work with the leaders of SASIX.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Metrics are good. Unless they're bad.

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So what happens when you measure the wrong thing? This is one of those issues that tends to either stop discussions in their tracks or lead us all down the path of rhetorical perfection that is in fact little more than the real-world version of a filibuster: "hey, I use a slightly different version of jargon than you do, so rather than actually hash out our differences and get on to making some decisions, we'll just keep the discussion going ad infinitum." This has happened in defining social enterprise, discussing the potential of metrics of social return, and on and on.

So, before I go one step further, let me say this: I believe that we can measure social and environmental impact and that we should. In fact, I'm on record (here and at least a zillion other places) opining that the problem is not that we can't measure these things, but that we have so many ways to measure them that we don't know which measures matter.

We will get measures wrong. Recently, two cases came to mind that show this. One has to do with an article in the Washington Post claiming that Facebook Causes had driven very little money to charity and was therefore a failure. The counter-argument - well worth consideration is that money is, at best, one metric - Causes and other similar tools are best for creating connections and awareness. You can follow this all here.

Here's the second case. Twitter lets a user easily re-tweet (read: "forward") really easily. So some have argued that the number of times you are re-tweeted (your comments passed on to others' networks) is a measure of your influence. Others say that the real measure is how many followers you have. And then others jump in and point out that both re-tweeting and automatic-following is so easy and so common (and so spam-automatable) that these measures don't matter. Here's one argument that the measure that matters is how often something that I tweet is marked as a "favorite" by others.

I don't know what the best measures are of Twitter, Causes, or most other social media tools. This isn't really my area - I usually wait for Beth or Allison or Katya or others to figure these things out and then decide if what they say aligns with my experience and makes sense to me. If not, I keep thinking about, asking about it, reading about and going to places like NTEN to learn more (If you couldn't get tickets to the sold-out conference #09NTC you can follow it here)

But the debate about these measures does matter. These discussions are out in the open, the sides are (mostly) cogently argued, and folks can contribute to the discussion, learn something, and move on. This is what matters. This is what we need to make sense of the hundreds of ways of measuring social and environmental progress. This is what I hope the Alliance for Effective Social Investing, the NPC "Valuing Impact" meeting, the GSIX, and the OECD -led Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies will move us toward. We may not reach universal agreement on any of these things* but let's get the debate, the evidence, the arguments for and against, and the determinations of what works for what out there. And keep moving forward.

*I think it is better if we don't reach universal agreement. There will not be one-size fits all to these issues. We can use lots of metrics, indices, and methodologies. AND we also need to know which ones are really methodologically sound, which ones are comparable to others, and which ones are being used by someone reporting a certain accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

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I don't think I have much that is original to add to all the conversation that will rage around today in celebration of Earth Day, but I certainly want to mark the occasion. I do think this piece by Elizabeth Kolbert in the April 27, 2009 issue of The New Yorker is worth a read. One comment I love in her piece:
“That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day,” [Senator Gaylord] Nelson later said. “It organized itself.”
The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970, and as Kolbert notes in her article, was marked by everything from dead fish being dragged through the streets of Manhattan to hand-dumped "oil spills" on the streets of Washington. An estimated 20 million people participated that April day. All that without cell phones, texting, Twitter, Facebook, GPS, or the Internet. Within a few months, President Nixon would create the EPA and NOAA. By the end of 1974 the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, the Pesticide Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act would all be law.

If, as Vice President Al Gore remarked to the audience at The Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony on Monday, "This year is Gettysburg for the environment," then we had all better get busy. Small and big actions will matter. GlobalGiving will match donations to green projects by 50% through April 28. TakePart lists 10 "don't miss" Earth Day actions you can take. SocialActions has lots of things to do. Reform Jews are leading a door-to-door (L'Dor va Dor - its a Hebrew joke) earth day campaign. Amy Sample Ward has good ideas and resources on her blog. The EarthDay Network will help you find things to do - including calling your Congressional Rep to voice support for the Markey Waxman Climate Bill, while others want you to push for stronger legislation.

Go ahead, do something good for the earth today. And tomorrow also. And right up to (and beyond) The Copenhagen Climate Conference. If 20 million people could participate in 1970, brought together by "good old fashioned community organizing" and major legislation and new government agencies could result, imagine what we should be able to do with tech-enabled community organizing, a global commitment, and a new U.S. Administration.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Three Technologies for Change

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Last night, on a stage in San Francisco, before a packed house, S. Hugo Jabini, a lawyer and Saramaka Maroon from Suriname, told the assembled about the three most important technologies for protecting the rain forest, his community, and the rights of indigenous people around the globe. What tools did he mention? Not Google, which has partnered with The Goldman Foundation to create a truly cool virtual tour using Google Earth. Certainly not Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. Not the Internet, which powers Global Greengrants, a wonderful new partner to Goldman that now enables you and me to add our own financial contributions to these world-changers.

No, the tools Jabini referenced were GPS, aerial photography, and oral history. Jabini's words remind us, more succinctly than I ever could, that technology needs people. Global change is local. The future depends on the past. Memories matter as much as mapping. His work to protect the forest rights of his own community, spread across tens of thousands of square kilometers of rain forest in 100+ small villages, has resulted in international legal protection for indigenous people throughout South America. What he and his colleagues started to do was save their own way of life. This is true of his co-winners from Gabon and Appalachia. What resulted is systemic shifts in power that saved the lives of people throughout their lands.

The winners from Bangladesh, Bali, and Russia took different approaches - using the law to protect land and labor, co-designing with the urban poor water, waste and compost systems that work for them and all of us on the planet, and building global networks of activists to reduce toxin use and pollution. All seven winners focused on what they knew, where they lived, and what was possible - even if they faced formidable, even life threatening, odds and opponents. As they have for 20 years, the Goldman Prizes emphasize the ability of "ordinary people to do extraordinary things."

The challenge of trying to capture the power, feeling, and potential of the Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony is there is too much from which to choose.The stories and words of each of the seven 2009 recipients, who join 133 predecessors from the last 19 years, can and should be heard. Because the folks behind the prize know that media outreach and education about these award recipients is critically important to leveraging the prizes themselves, you can hear them in their own voices, even if you couldn't get a seat at the Opera House. Videos, biographies, links to their work, interviews - it is all here.

The event works. It inspires. It provokes. Adults and kids alike leave feeling awed. My son and my colleague's son listened rapt for two hours and then the questions gushered out for the next two hours. What did she mean, "every time you flip the switch your contribute to the destruction of the land, air and water where I live"? Why did the medicine from his mom work when the doctors couldn't fix his knee? What does a "choice between exploitation and unemployment" mean? How come the people in Bali don't have clean water? How is it possible that pollution in one place can be so dangerous to people in other places? Why was he sent to jail?

These are tough questions. All the celebrity that could be mustered - Vice President Al Gore, Robert Redford, Tracy Chapman*, Christiane Amanpour - can not answer these questions. But the prize winners can. Not with words but with their lives' work. They are not only answering hard questions, they are asking harder ones and re-shaping the entire discussion. About what matters, what global means, and, yes, what technology is needed.

*Tracy Chapman played "Talkin bout a revolution" and then, in what she called "an upbeat environmental song," she covered Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi." As Chapman herself noted, there is an opportunity for the writing of upbeat environmental songs. As my seatmate noted, only Chapman would label Mitchell's anthem to 'paving paradise' "upbeat."**

**Added comment on April 23, 2009 - See Leah Garchik's observation on this same point - here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Conferences that matter

This is a tough year for conferences. Businesses are taking a 4th and 5th look at every expense on the books, and many potential participants are just staying home. It's so bad out there that travel planners, the hotel and hospitality industries, and even the private jet industry are hard at work lobbying policymakers and the public that they are not the bad guys in this economic mess. Despite all that, some conferences are very much worth attending. Here are three (+ an extra credit event).

Next week in DC the Global Philanthropy Forum* will hold its 8th annual conference. Featured speakers include, as always, an impressive group of notables from Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan to His Highness the Aga Khan and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Nobel Prize winner Muhammed Yunus also will address the crowd. But in the case of GPF, as with the TED conference, it is the crowd that matters as much as the keynoters. Among the assembled donors and social investors will be dozens of social entrepreneurs from around the world. The winners of the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Challenge will be announced at GPF on Thursday evening. This is one of those gatherings in which the afterlife of the ideas - spread through twitter, blogs, press, and videos - will gain momentum and it is still important to be there in person.

Two other gatherings coming up are sadly in direct conflict with each other. NetSquared is now in its fourth year, and has become a must-attend showcase for technology innovation in the nonprofit/philanthropic space. This year, the hip-monikered N2Y4 is also hosting a mobile challenge - you can check out the mission-advancing, mobile-tech-enabled entrants here. N2Y4 is also hosting the ChangeTheWeb Challenge - check out the 24 finalists in this effort to find ways that the Internet in its entirety could become as much a platform for change as it is a platform for commerce and communication. The N2Y4 conference is taking place in San Jose, May 26-27 and is a project of TechSoupGlobal.*

Also scheduled for May 27-29 (but on the other coast - NYC) is the 6th annual Games4Change Festival.* Professionals in fields as diverse as journalism, design, healthcare, education, environment, energy, human rights advocacy, food security, and national security now recognize the inherent value of games and gaming as pedagogical platforms, engagement mechanisms, and community building supports. Last year, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor launched her civics curriculum, Our Courts, at the Festival. This year will feature the winners of The Knight Foundation's News Game Challenge.

All three of these conferences are rooted in defining principles of work, change, and society in 2009. The topics, presenters, methods, and tools that are at the core of these conferences are, in my opinion, "must-understands" for funders and policy makers trying to develop, implement, and evaluate their work. Why? Because both N2Y4 and G4C are rooted in digital environments and expectations. These are the communities, methods, organizing and learning principles that now shape every element of society. Both N2Y4 and G4C focus on community innovation and technology innovators focused on social change. GPF, on the other hand, is rooted in the pervasive global realities of our social economy. Donors, social investors, nonprofits, public agencies, multilateral organizations, social entrepreneurs, elected and appointed officials - these are the core participants at GPF. Their conversations about how to work together, partner across sectors, balance competing strengths, and reckon with cultural similarities and differences are fundamental characteristics of our times.

It is tough to get to conferences these days. These three offer in-depth learning and networking experiences about the global, digital, technology-enhanced, cross-sector realities in which philanthropy and social investing now happen. It will be tougher to do your work if you don't understand these developments.

And, just for fun, one of philanthropy's great award events is coming up on Monday, April 20th. I can't encourage you to go because I know its completely sold out. But I'm honored and delighted to have tickets for the 20th annual Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony in San Francisco and will be twittering away (assuming I can get a cell signal at the Opera House). You can check out their website for previous winners and keep an eye on PBS which has been known to use the (Robert Redford-produced) videos from the ceremony as part of its environmental programming.

*Full disclosure: I have attended 3 GPF conferences, and will be attending this year as well. My firm has worked with GPF and I've covered these conferences as an unpaid blogger. I used to be on the board of TechSoupGlobal which hosts N2Y4. I am on the Board of Games4Change. I have no professional relationship to the Goldman Environmental Prize but have been a fortunate recipient of tickets to the ceremony for the last few years.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mapping the social economy

One of my favorite magazines is Next American City, a quarterly publication that looks at the best that cities have to offer and the challenges to achieving those bests. It relies on the intersections of geography, culture, demography, urban planning, markets, climate, science, government, civil society, art, housing, and good writing.

Two stories in the most recent edition caught my attention as particularly relevant to current philanthropy discussions. The first is an interview with Roope Mokka, a Dutch social scientist interested in the question “what will cities look like in 2050?” The second is called “Riding the Imaginary Rails: Map Enthusiasts and Transit Advocacy.” My chance to read the issue came on a recent flight. My 8 year old was sitting next to me as I flipped through the magazine, a practice I developed years ago and that still defines the need for paperbound copies of magazines; cool as my Kindle is, I cannot flip through it willy-nilly, stopping to read at whatever point catches my eye. It was my kid who cried “stop!” as the flipping briefly revealed the ever-familiar DC Metro map. Except it wasn’t the Metro at all, it was an imagined map of the expanding DC bus system developed by an independent computer programmer in the area.

We don’t live in DC, so the Metro map shouldn’t have been all that familiar. We do live in a city with a subway, however, and so the red, blue, yellow, orange and green spider’s web was instantly recognizable as a transit map, even if the city and form of transit were not. It probably helps that my kid had spent the previous day drawing his own bus system onto a map of our city. Turns out, my kid’s behavior was the essence of both stories in Next American City. The DC story was one of several in which local residents got directly involved as transit advocates and made their points to various policy makers by drawing their own maps. They live there, they use the rails and buses, they know where current problems exist and they know where they need to go – why not let them design the system?

This, it turns out, is exactly Roope Mokka’s approach. Faced with his question about the future shape of cities he turned to the people who live in them. Using the same community generated knowledge approach that underlies Wikipedia, Milka built Wikicity to engage the public in designing cities they want to inhabit.

What does this have to do with philanthropy? Well, for one thing, design is a big buzzword in philanthropy these days. Too often, however, I think it is equated with good graphic design or iconic product design. What really matters is the design process – the manner in which designers work. Here’s where Milka’s approach of including those who live in the city becomes so important. It’s also why a new book and set of maps called An Atlas of Radical Cartography kept me so busy on my recent vacation. This set of essays and maps is a powerful jumpstarter to thinking differently about whatever it is you do.

More than just making maps upside down, radical cartography maps the unmappable, puts mapping tools in the hands of those usually left off of maps, and maps the in-between parts. It is sort of like a narrative and pictorial users-guide to what I think M.C. Escher’s brain must have been like.

The really useful thing about these urban planner magazines or radical maps is not the end product, but the process of deciding what to include, what to omit, how to show connections, how to depict value, and how to measure meaning. Those are the questions good philanthropists and social investors seem to be asking as well. And it may be just about time for new maps that show how these pieces of the social economy - development entrepreneurism, development aid, philanthropy, investing, social investing, social enterprise, charity, nonprofits - fit together. Or not.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The search for shared measures

I posted an update on the state of philanthropic and social capital markets the other day in which I made this comment:
"Where it gets tricky is in the calculation of the social or environmental return. How to calculate the extent of these impacts is a thorny problem no matter where on the financial spectrum you participate. Figuring out the relationship between those returns and financial returns makes it even more complicated. Does a -100% donation (a grant) guarantee a 100% social/environmental impact? Does return of capital (a no interest loan) correspond to more or less social/environmental impact? Does pursuit of a financial return automatically reduce the possible social/environmental impact?

I don’t have an easy answer to the calculation of social/environmental return question, though I’ve been told there are at least 240 methods for measuring it.** The OECD is hosting a global project to measure social progress, they can point you to another few hundred measures. And how the social impact floats in relation to the financial impact, well, lets just leave that to another blog post."
I had pretty much just hit the "post" button when I received an email pointing me to this new article at Alliance Magazine. The article synthesizes reflections from Paul Brest, President, Hewlett Foundation, Jed Emerson, Managing Director of Integrated Performance, Uhuru Capital Management, Katherina Rosqueta, Executive Director, Center for High Impact Philanthropy, Brian Trelstad, Chief Investment Officer, Acumen Fund, Fay Twersky, Director of Impact Planning and Improvement, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Michael Weinstein of the Robin Hood Foundation to the recent publication by Melinda Tuan on "Measuring and/or estimating Social Value Creation"
The article is worth reading in full, as is the report. Here's what struck me, given the context of my earlier post - all those interviewed were focused on the areas of congruence, the move toward shared metrics and comparability, and the enormous progress that is being made in the field. This is incredible news. Those interviewed are doing some of the most sophisticated and well-resourced work on these issues, they are making independent progress, and they see the enormous potential for a shared set of methods, benchmarks and practices.

At the other end of the resource spectrum - but by no means less sophisticated - is the work that socialactions is doing on shared data across online platforms. I've blogged about this work before, but for the latest and most complete update on it I suggest listening to this Google Talk featuring Social Actions' intrepid leaders @peterdeitz and @christineegger. (It is a video but I just played it in the background and listened. The presentation is great and the questions are also well considered, though beware, it is a tad techy). Peter and Christine are working on the same set of possibilities as those interviewed by Alliance - what can we do with a set of tags or common typology that allow us to mash up opportunities to get activities, share them across media and platforms, and track data on inputs and results? They are talking about the evolution not just of the microphilanthropy sector but of the entire "economy of social good." SocialActions is notable, in my mind, because they recognize the multiple roles that we all play in this economy - donors, doers, speakers, activists, etc. They also mention the fine work of Grantsfire and hgrant - another effort well worth watching, now indexing grants data from 10 foundations.

The immediate comparison between SocialActions and the Measuring Social Impact report might not be clear. Let me add two more pieces to the mix and then clarify - in my earlier post I had mentioned the Global Project on Measuring Social Progress. This OECD-hosted effort is, among other things, using wiki-principles to help communities of interest narrow in on shared measures of success. They are building out compendia of indices and measures, allowing communities to comment on them and add to them, using panels of experts to make the different methods and databases comparable and integrable, and sharing all of what they do. It is an impressive, multi-layered, international effort at figuring out what matters, how to measure it, and using the results to change policy and improve communities. I met with the leader of the OECD effort recently on behalf of GSIX, an emerging global federation of social investment exchanges, yet another effort to support diverse, individual efforts that share common goals.

All these examples - the Alliance interviewees and their individual efforts, the socialactions platform, Grantsfire, the Global Project, and GSIX are different approaches with the same assumption and end goal - solving real world problems requires us to realize the potential of sharable and shared information. What is exciting is that these efforts have moved well beyond rhetoric toward real change.