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?

1 comment:

Brett said...

In regards to your first point, we can provide a great example here in Oregon of private and public investors who invest in both organizations and ecosystems. We're (the Deschutes River Conservancy) one of several organizations focused on restoring anadromous fish habitat in Oregon's Deschutes Basin. We all use different tools to achieve the same broad goals. Private and public funders such as the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Bella Vista Foundation, and the National Forest Foundation have supported the work of multiple restoration partners here in the Deschutes Basin. They've targeted their investments in one region across multiple organizations, ensuring that they get results.