Sunday, May 31, 2009

The final word on embedded giving

Ah, yes, embedded giving. It may just be the buzzword with the greatest traction of all time. And widespread discussion of it is back, this time in a series on the concept sponsored by Telecom for Charity - you may have seen posts on Causewired, TacticalPhilanthropy, SocialEntrepreneurship on, SocialCitizens, ThePhilanthropicFamily, or GiveWell.

These fine bloggers have asked all the right questions - does it matter, does it add up, is the right metric awareness, not dollars? So what do I have to add to this? Here are a few thoughts on wither it all:
  1. Embedded giving is here to stay* - as long it keeps working for the merchants. It is not inherently new (we've been rounding up our phone bills for decades now), it won't disappear without either a massive scandal or regulatory prohibition, and it will get more technologically "embedded" - witness search engines for good, telecom for good, etc..
  2. Embedded giving has grown so much that it now comes in different stripes - (a) The first kind is really about building a brand around a cause and using commerce to raise funds. I'd put Product RED in this category and note that it is its own brand. It is one massive awareness raising and fundraising campaign that can (sort of) report out on products sold, dollars raised and donated. (b) At the other end of the spectrum are campaigns that are much more about adding a little "feel good" to expected purchases - these are the campaigns where a merchant asks you to add $1 to fight childhood diabetes, MS, or breast cancer. You either give or not, take your groceries, and that is pretty much the end of it in terms of your awareness, the merchant's reporting, and so on.
  3. Embedded giving is just one more example of the blurring of sectors and roles between commerce, philanthropy, and public good.
Looked at this way, embedded giving is one of those data points that may mark an important generational turn. Maybe today's teens and kids who have seen so much embedded giving will grow up to expect that every product and every service comes with a charitable affiliation. If this is true they may run their nonprofits differently, run their marketing campaigns as Fortune 500 CEO's differently, and have fundamentally different expectations and beliefs about the relationships between commerce and charity, corporations and social responsibility. CSR won't be a "new concept" for them, it will be basic management practice.

This would be one more ripple in the shifting expectations of sectors. Almost twenty percent of the 2009 Harvard Business School graduating class signed a voluntary ethics pledge that touches on corporate responsibility. This is the age of social enterprise, of American youth and teens with a heightened volunteer and service ethic, of the National Service Act, AmericaForward, Office of Social Innovation and predictions that "recession era" teens will focus their careers on public service jobs. If this is where we're headed, embedded giving is not the story, or even the end in and of itself, it is simply one more way in which we can see the world shift around us.

*There is at least one looming irony about embedded giving. As it becomes more embedded it may become less of a distinguishing factor for a merchant - at which point type 2(B) above may lose its point and cease to be everywhere. Remember, embedded giving is as much (if not more) of a merchandising tactic as a fund/awareness raising tactic. In this case, embedded giving could die out from its own "success."

**Links to organizations, companies or legislation in this post do not indicate endorsement.

This blog post is part of the Embedded Philanthropy Blog Series, sponsored by Telecom for Charity. The blog series was launched in May 2009 to highlight expert thinking and encourage discussions on the state of embedded philanthropy in today’s economy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

55 Ideas on Ideas

This is a wonderful set of quotes about ideas. Made me feel that I should work harder to come up with something.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Virtual world philanthropy

(photo from

Newspapers are getting hammered. With the possible exceptions of neighborhood and ethnic papers their business model has been unable to keep up with the Internet. This is common knowledge and the quest to find new business models for quality journalism and investigative reporting is of such import that the U.S. Senate has held hearings on it, major investors are convening roundtables, and the Internet itself is practically aglow with blogs and tweets and alternative proposals.

None of that is news. But what is interesting is that the first thing the Internet did to newspapers, in theory, was remove two of their biggest costs - paper and delivery. Had papers looked at it this way way back when - "hey, this new technology will allow us to reduce our two largest cost centers to close to zero, lets run with it!" - I wonder if we'd be in a different situation today?

With this bit of 20-20 hindsight, shouldn't "the rest of us" be asking ourselves how our organizations/businesses could look " if our costs went way down, our ability to reach globally went way up, we could be far more inclusive of outsiders's ideas, and so on and so on...?"

I have no idea if that is what is behind the MacArthur Foundation's forays into Second Life but I can dream, can't I? Who knows what may come from Monday's "in world" discussion between Cory Ondrejka and Jonathan Fanton, President of MacArthur, but at least it shows a high willingness to experiment with global-reaching, low cost alternatives to the typical foundation press conference or in-house meeting. The discussion will be held in ways that people with lots of different types of internet access can participate - here are the details:
"For the URLs and login details for the webcast and the island, check this same page the morning of May 18, 2009. The hour-long event, scheduled to begin at 2pmPT/5pmET, will include Q&A in both Second Life and from the web using, and for those in Second Life, a 30-minute reception will follow."
Now Ondrejka, an early staff person at Linden Lab, the company that created Second Life and now an executive at EMI Music, has clearly considered the ways entire industries can be disrupted by technology. His blog is called "collapsing geography" - kind of a clue to what he sees technology doing, eh? Perhaps the MacArthur Foundation is asking these same questions about philanthropy. Tune in on Monday and maybe we'll find out a bit more.

*Full disclosure: My company works with the MacArthur Foundation, but we have not been involved with planning this meeting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Social Entrepreneurs - anywhere, everywhere

(Photo by Elsie Esq, Creative Commons Attribution, Flickr)

Social entrepreneurs are hot. Whether they're building new ways to get water to rural farmers, developing LED light sources for those who live too far from the grid, training inner city residents for jobs in sustainable energy, or organizing groups of young people from different faiths, these people seek big solutions to big problems.

And there are big networks behind them. Ashoka. Skoll. Avina. Echoing Green. PopTech. TED. Civic Ventures. While we tend to associate entrepreneurism with individuals, it turns out the networks are great at finding, supporting, scaling and mentoring them.

Now some of those networks - The Skoll Foundation, PopTech, ideablob, and Civic Ventures - are coming together, through the wonders of technology and with the support of the folks at SocialActions. This group has just announced the Social Entrepreneurs API - which is essentially an open database of social entrepreneurs that will open in July.

An API is tech talk for a little piece of code* that allows data on these fellows and fellowship programs to be pulled together into one place. This makes it easier for funders to find entrepreneurs. For entrepreneurs to find other entrepreneurs. For aspiring entrepreneurs to find mentors. For networks to bridge networks. For potential partnerships to be formed or common problems to be worked on collectively. For researchers to look for patterns or entrepreneurs to look for gaps in service or systems thinkers to consider the kind of networks and infrastructure that supports (or doesn't) these people.

The API takes the kind of small scale cross network promotion that Ashoka did with some of the Goldman Prize winners and makes it big. It's nothing short of putting philanthropic data in the cloud - which leaves it to all of us to figure out what cool things to do with it....Go ahead, think about it? What would you do with these data? SocialEdge is going to use it for a search engine. Dowser is going to use it to provide deeper information on social entrepreneurs. This kind of sharing is very cool - once you put all these data together the possibilities for seeing new patterns, finding new partners, and identifying new opportunities grows exponentially. How will you use tools like this?

*I'm told that techies call it "plumbing"

Monday, May 11, 2009

Philanthropy in the Cloud

I'm working on making more and more content available - so here is my presentation from the NTEN Conference. I was on a panel on philanthropy in the cloud convened by Steve Wright of The SalesForce.Com Foundation and with Lalitha Vaidyanathan of FSG-Social Impact Advisors.

Here is the description of the session from the #09NTC conference site.

"Cloud Computing: More than just IT plumbing in the sky

Cloud computing reduces IT infrastructure, reduces time spent on IT management and increases your return on investment for IT expenditures. This is nice. However, the cloud can also enable the social sector to collaborate in ways that have not been possible before. We are not corporations. While we are subject to a competitive funding marketplace, we are also participants in a more collaborative marketplace where we are working to drive social change. This session will discuss how the cloud can enable greater collaboration and, hopefully, increase our capacity to solve problems.


1. Open Data: What is it, why do you want it and what are the implications for the social sector?
2. Philanthropic / Donation Marketplaces: What they are and what could they be?
3. Social Impact Metrics: How greater transparency and collaboration can help us move the needle?
4. Fancy pants are critical to a great presentation."

Now, loyal readers (both of you) now that I am no techie. So in preparation for the session I had to go figure out what the cloud was. The historian in me was immediately smitten by the analog I found in Nicholas Carr's book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison To Google. Carr details the development of electricity and the electrical grid from Edison's time (in which every business ran its own power plant) to the creation of the now-near-ubiquitous electricity grid (U.S. perspective). Nowadays, we flip a switch, the lights go on, we go about our business. Electrical power is something we pay for as we need it. Most of us today, however, still run computing power - managed on desktops and company-servers - in the equivalent manner to running our own power plants. The "cloud" - be it Google Apps, Amazon servers, or SalesForce solutions, allows us to "flip on" computing power - applications and our data - when we need it. In the same way that the creation of an electrical power grid pretty much "developed" the 20th century economy and social structures, some are positing that this "flip on computing power" may change the 21st.

Now, not being a techie, I don't know the details of how the cloud works. I do know something about how people and organizations work. One of the barriers to migrating lots of companies and data to the cloud has been concern about the safety and security of the data once it's up there. It is interesting that this is essentially the same concern that early electrical grid pioneers also faced - since business had always controlled their own source of power (be it a waterwheel, horses, serfs or what have you) it was a huge leap of faith to get companies to "outsource" their own power.* It doesn't seem far fetched to me to see data and applications as the "power source" of 21st century organizations. The rapidly accelerating success of cloud-based offerings show that this concern is being addressed - organizations are beginning to trust that their information will be reliably available, secure, and maintained, at lower cost and with fewer "off core competency" staff people needed in-house

If history is any guide, we may not be far from the day when managing your foundation's own data center, IT department, and desktop computers seems as quaint as having your own electrical supply. Online grants management, remote access to secure servers, easier team collaboration - seems to me that foundations and nonprofits that care about spending on mission and cutting administrative costs - might benefit from many of these possibilities.

Why might this matter to philanthropy? Perhaps only in that these tools might allow less money to be spent on managing IT departments and more to spent on mission. Or maybe there is more - sharing information - even something as simple as posting this presentation on SlideShare - matters to how we do things, where and when we do them, and with whom we do them. We can expand our imagination and our work commitment past the idea of giving a speech once or writing a paper for one-time use: they can live on, be amended, copied, re-used, packaged for sale, even serialized. Or not.

Things that are available from the cloud can be shared more easily - one organization or public agency can create a set of data collection tools and all their partners can use them, with the aggregation of data (to a funder, for example) becoming much simpler, cheaper, and automatic. Control over who can access the information remains in the hands of the creators or owners and can be shared widely or controlled tightly. The presence of all kinds of data also allows us to ask questions we'd never ask before (simply because we couldn't fathom answering them). Sites such as Gapminder show how disparate data sources, pulled together and made visually appealing and intuitive, allow us to ask questions like "How does South Africa's mortality rate compare to China's over the last 30 years and what might explain the differences?"

Now, a caveat is in order. We can't assume that putting information in the cloud equals easier, wider access. The very fact that concerns about control and security are so critical to developing the cloud-based business model should be enough to remind us that control matters, and the default position may not necessarily be "open." Data sharing, re-use, open access - these are no longer technological challenges as much as human and organizational culture challenges. That said, the technology is there and - again, with history as our guide - we are already seeing its availability change our expectations.

The power of data - readily accessible, easily seen, queried, and shared - is shaping everything around us. Essentially, it is this development that drives new social movements calling for open government and accountability from elected officials, the creation of news sites like TPM Muckraker, the full page ad on A9 of the national edition of today's New York Times which was paid for by "94,966 web users ... on the Korean web portal Daum," the changed business models of newspapers, recorded music, video games, and telephone companies, and the calls for a Truth Commission on torture under the Bush Administration.

Here's what I realized in preparing for and talking at the NTEN session - There is an important and interesting confluence of factors underway:
  1. Data and applications in the cloud +
  2. Efforts to really share public data and publicly funded research +
  3. New partnerships between the public and philanthropic sectors, e.g. the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and the U.S. State Department's Global Partnership Initiative.
What does all this bode for philanthropic open-ness? Stay tuned for an upcoming post, in which I revisit an idea I often used to provoke discussion in the 1990s - The Freedom of Foundation Information Act.

*Of course, there is a beautiful irony in the patterns of history. Just as it hard to believe anyone would want to have to run their own power plant we see an increasing interest in solar energy and taking our homes and businesses "off the grid." Perhaps the adoption cycles of independent/shared electricity systems and those for data will not be completely analogous, but there are still some wonderful parallels worth considering.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Institutional isomorphism

(Photo: 416Style, Creative Commons, Flickr)

It is always nice when ideas from this blog get picked up elsewhere. My last two posts, on breaking new boxes and considering alternatives, came from my reflections as I begin research on the possibility that technology has led to fundamental changes in philanthropic behavior. They are my attempts to ask "why do we do the things we do?" The post, "Consider the alternatives" got picked up and picked apart, and that's a nice thing. It is sometimes a bit surprising to me which posts get picked up and discussed. But what was not surprising to me was that perpetuity, one of about 50 ideas floated in the piece, is the one that seemed to get the most traction in terms of discussion. It got twittered, and blogged, and re-blogged and all of that is good. Perpetuity and payout - folks love to talk about those two pieces of the puzzle.

But perpetuity is only part of the picture. Really, why do foundations do any of the things they do? Why do foundations in 2009 - all 70-odd-thousand of them - look so much alike structurally? Yes, I know the old trope, "You've seen one foundation and you've seen one foundation." That may be true at some level, but it is also true that if you've seen one foundation you've probably seen 1/3 - 1/4 of the prevalent models. The differences will all be in the trimmings, not in the underlying structures, norms, practices, or expectations.

Even more puzzling, why do those structures all look so much like the original model, 1913 Rockefeller Foundation? Why do they have endowments, grant departments, finance functionaries, proprietary software, offices, and various levels of management? Why do board-run foundations, or those with no staff members, operate so much like their 55,000 peers - with deadlines or quarterly meetings or 5% payout limits? And foundations with staff, why are the departmental lines so similar and the job titles and descriptions so interchangeable (regardless of foundation interests, size, or location)?

Given how much everyone - inside foundations and outside - complains about how slow they are, or how unwieldy their processes, or how unwelcoming their applications, or duplicative their due diligence, or blah blah blah - why do they do these things? It doesn't seem possible that these practices survive because they work well, please the customers, or even please the board and staff who choose them and re-create them. Institutional isomorphism is one of those graduate school concepts that is not only fun to say, but true to life - organizations mimic like organizations, even when it doesn't necessarily serve their purposes.

Now, I don't intend to take the easy road here. It is not enough for me to just criticize, I want to point to real change and use the examples I can find to spark iterative, and perhaps, eventually, rapid and widespread change (one can hope). So please don't read this post or the previous two as just jabs to the gut of foundations. I'm posting my real-time reflections from my daily work and from a research project I'm working on looking for real transformations in how philanthropy functions now compared to in the past, and where it might go in the future.

I spend a lot of time writing about the changes all around foundations - in the philanthropic marketplace, the social sector, the financial systems, global information sharing, etc. etc. And I do have examples of philanthropic foundations that are different (and new practices that matter) which I will include in the article. But as I do the research it is the isolated nature of these "change cases" that stares back at me. Sure, I can find examples, but why are they still just examples?

Why hasn't something done to foundations what Craigslist did for job hunters, GE did to individual power plants, eBay did for garage sales, the Internet and bad management are doing to newspapers, iTunes did to the music business, water treatment systems did for public health, Obama did to political fundraising, telephones did to the telegraph, cool new laptops did to secretarial pools, television did to the drive-in, the PDF did for document sharing, or Alice Waters did for sustainable agriculture? That is, why hasn't something either inside or outside organized philanthropy fundamentally altered recognizably and admittedly bad institutional practices and replaced them with something better?

It has been almost 100 years since the modern foundation was born. We've seen every one of the changes listed above in that century, plus literally countless others (space exploration, the end of Apartheid, satellite TV, charter schools, the creation of the EU, streaming video, etc. etc.) Quite a few things have changed in that time. What is amazing to me, truly amazing, is how little foundations have changed.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Buzzword 2009.1 - "move the needle"

Here's the first buzzword of 2009 - and it was sent in, via twitter, from the #cof09 conference. To quote @QuixoteTilts:
"Move the needle," official cliché of #cof09. Replaces "sea change" after a record-breaking run."
Need I say anything more? Except to note that a shift from sea change to needle moving might be read as the downsizing of expectations....or at least hyperbole.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Consider the alternatives

(Photo from Flickr: Creative Commons, I_Yudai)

It is always easier to tear down what exists than build something new. It is just plain simpler to point out all that is wrong with what is than actually to imagine, let alone create, viable alternatives.

In response to my post about breaking new boxes I was reminded by one friendly reader that I should remember we might recycle those containers and use them for new purposes. This morning I had a great conversation with a foundation staff member who has given a lot of thought to the challenges of existing foundation practice. We also had the opportunity to brainstorm some alternatives. Here are some of those:
  • The challenges of grant makers picking a few "potential winners." Sure, limited resources require choices. But as foundations focus on picking the best organizations to accomplish their goals, they are operating on an assumption that organizations - even great ones - can succeed in isolation. When success is predicated on solving, or even alleviating, complex social challenges, this type of "great organization" success seems unlikely. If we think about organizations in systems, than maybe there are two reasons to spread your bets - first you cover more bases and second you inherently invest in the ecosystem of organizations that might be necessary to the success of any particular one. One possible alternative approach - use some funds for deliberately smaller grants to lots of organizations doing work on related issues so that the funds support both the organizations and the ecosystem they collectively represent. We couldn't think of specific examples but parallels exist in this new grantmaking by the Gates Foundation and in the Buckminster Fuller Institute's IdeaIndex.
  • The costs of duplicated due diligence. As we speak, there are probably dozens of foundation program officers doing similar due diligence on the same organizations. This costs a lot of money, and the results of each officer's work is limited in its impact - it will likely only influence the funds of the foundation for whom the officer works. Two alternatives - funder challenges where the program officers' products (docket write ups, recommendations, budget analyses) would be in direct, blind competition - the funds would follow the one selected as best by a group of funders. Over time, this could improve the quality of due diligence and limit the redundancy impact on nonprofits. Another alternative, already in widespread practice, community funds that do the due diligence and try to influence "other people's money" or 'outsourced program officers like those at InvestingForGood or Charity Intelligence Canada. Business models are tricky here, but there is experimentation with the premise of foundation proprietary due diligence.
  • Getting good feedback. Some foundations try for this, others don't even bother. What are the potential listening posts foundations could turn to that might offer nuanced, informed, and truthful input to foundations about the work they fund and the way they do their work? Is there metadata that might be found by looking for citation searches of foundation funded publications (insight into how useful these documents might really be)? Can we learn anything from looking for trends or connections between how individual donors use the information, metrics, and feedback loops of a GlobalGiving or Kiva and how foundation decision makers seek info, metrics and feedback? Are ombudsmen possible?
  • Why create a foundation in the first place? If an individual cares about a social issue, is an endowed pile of money a useful tool for the job? What about creating media platforms, loan funds for advocacy campaigns, or innovation hubs within public agencies - might some other structure work better? After 100 years do we still need organizations modeled after the nation's first foundation or might we create independent networks of analysts who might seek deliberately cross-sector solutions to issues of concern to the "donor?"
I was reminded of all this because I think we sometimes forget our own assumptions. Our assumptions are so familiar to us we are blind to them. Do we need an endowment, a staff, or grant program? Are we most likely to make the difference we seek if we work alone or with others? Might a loan program work better than grants or investments? Might it be better to fund something through taxes than try to fund it philanthropically? Maybe we should just change the law? Is perpetuity part of a strategy or a default position? Is strategic really better than responsive (assuming those are the proper dichotomous choices, which is debatable)? Do we really know all the right solutions or best choices? Really?

Have we considered all the alternatives?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Breaking new boxes

Photo by Cheryl Senter for The New York Times

I'm trained as an historian so I like to put things into time boxes - the sixties, the 1300s, etc. Anthropologists put things into cultural boxes, sociologists into institutional or network boxes, statisticians into percentages, engineers into problem statements, medical doctors into diseases, and so on. How we learn and how we live shape, and are shaped by, how we think and how we make sense of the world. So statements such as this one "The lines between the sectors have blurred, I’m reminded, and it’s the IRS that forces incorporated entities into nonprofit and for-profit boxes. " from Al Ruesga on the new blog Re: Philanthropy should not be taken lightly.

Not just because I completely agree with Al, and have said so for, well, forever, but because these are not simple things. Breaking down the boxes that we use to make sense of the world is a big, scary thing. The "fact" that people of different ages or different backgrounds see things in different boxes can both explain some significant changes (e.g. a major zeitgeist shift between the 1960s and the 2000s regarding the idea that markets can be used for positive social purposes). These differences can also heighten tension between groups, and make it harder to find common ground, not easier. It is not just the boxes we use to explain things, or the boxes that develop as part of our tax code. Our boxes of time, place, and access are also shifting.

For example, As I write this I am listening to the MP3 from a conference call that ASHOKA led for bloggers with two recent winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. I attended the Goldman award ceremony, but I still tried to participate in this conference call. However, I was in a session at the Global Philanthropy Forum when the call occurred. So here I am, a week later, listening to a recording of the call. So my "time box" for the call is different - I have my insights from the original awards ceremonies, the framework from the GPF, and the insights from the callers on the recording all running through my head.

Of course, there are even more immediate questions about "boxes" raised by this call. The Goldman Prize winners come from NGOs - one who worked successfully with government and one who struggled against government to be successful. Other questions come to mind - such as how can the ASHOKA network benefit (and benefit from) the Goldman Prize winners? Or how might the Global Philanthropy Forum benefit from these various fellows programs or prize winners? Can we connect these various individuals and entities in ways that multiplies their impact or will connecting the known groups simply exacerbate the exclusion of others?

Some of our mental and literal boxes aren't just being broken - they are being blown apart. When TheExtraordinaries reconfigures volunteering so you can make a difference while standing on line for the bus it is not just creating a cool phone app, it is building something new to match our "blown apart" senses of place, time and commitment. When NeighborWorks America creates shared impact measures and an online hosted system to collect the data, it is not just developing a revenue stream for its operations but it is fundamentally altering the role of information as a tool to improve communities. The World Digital Library is one of those ever- more-common virtual creations whose very title requires me re-define each word in it - what is a library? where is it located? When I was asked to join a panel about "philanthropy in the cloud" I realized I'd run up smack into my own limits. Thankfully, the participants at #09ntc knew all about the possibilities of remotely-hosted information and applications. The futures we collectively imagined were, indeed, box-breaking.

Our boxes - definitions, expectations, time - just don't work the way they once did. Some of this might cause us to want to sit down because our heads are spinning. A good dog walk helps at times like this. So can reading snippets from, or all of, the new book by Mark Constantine, called Wit and Wisdom which presents thoughtful reflections from philanthropic leaders across the country and across time. The book reminded me (as I noted in my blurb for it) that "... change comes when hard work, patience, and pain meet vision, a commitment to justice, and the humor and humility of episodic progress.” Much of the talk about Justice Souter's retirement from the Supreme Court has made him sound a bit odd for needing to escape from Washington in order to think. Personally, I think he's on to something. My challenge is figuring out how to sit and think while still employed, since retirement is far off at best - it may well be another example of a mental box that has broken.

The big changes can be too big for sense-making on a regular basis. My work is driven by my interest in the question, "What is public and what is private, who decides, and how is that changing?" But I can't consider that question in its entirety every day. Instead I try to make sense of "phone-enabled volunteering," "B Corporations," or the "White House Office of Social Innovation." I consider the different expectations that my 80 year old mother had about the role of the government and those that my 8 year old son might be developing. And I try to question my own assumptions about what is fixed, what can be changed, and which boxes might be breaking before my very eyes.