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.


Anonymous said...

Lucy - thanks so much for this wrap up of your session. I was really wishing I was able to site in! I love the electricity analogy - expect me to quote you often. Looking forward to what you say next!

lnorvig said...

I really enjoyed this session. I came mostly to hear you, Lucy, since Beth Kanter hipped me to your expertise as someone knowledgeable of the foundation world. I also came because of my interst in cloud computing.

What I took away was a deeper understanding of the disconnect between old models and new, between walled silos and transparency. From the outside looking in it seems crazy that nonprofits with identical missions have to compete for funding and that this competition might make some hesitant to share data (that was one of the questions I did not have a chance to ask - how can we reassure nonprofits that sharing data benefits the masses and won't jeopardize their funding - fail openly and informatively!).

I was really impressed by the work that Lalitha presented and I hope the idea of simplifying and aggregating outcome measurement continues to grow.

I love the idea of a Freedom of Foundation Information Act!

Bijan said...

Lucy, my firm ( in Germany has been doing exactly this for financial and project management for years in the development cooperation field.

We use special software in decentralised ways to allow multinational NGOs to enter, manage, and evaluate their financial management and project-based data from anywhere in the world - everything's held in a data-centre. This is completely location-independent, and, since it's offered as a service, fully runs within a browser window. Pretty neat.

So, yes, I agree that the development is going in this direction and there are already quite a few management information systems available that help foundations and other major donors run their projects more efficiently on a global scale.