Friday, July 31, 2009

Where change comes from-part 1.5

I've been working long hours, traveling and volunteering 5+ hours a day for the last many many weeks on an event that will take over San Francisco next week. I've been too fried to blog. I'm now stuck in JFK, which is usually very conducive to writing but my brain feels broken. All I have to share with you is this INCREDIBLE meditation, romp, historical picture poem on "problem solving" that comes courtesy of Maira Kalman.*

Note the emphasis on creative problem solving - not financing, organizational structure, metrics, performance, impact, outputs, or any other 21st century inside philanthropy discussion topics.

I hope to be blogging again by the end of next week.

*Whose work is beyond influential for me and my family. When she released her illustrated version of Strunk and White's Elements of Style I regained my faith in creativity.

BTW, I had a similar experience this week when I had a walking meeting with a foundation colleague on the new High Line. This park may just be the most impressive example of urban creativity and human scale spatial re-use that I've ever seen. It is incredible. Go there. Smell the flowers. Wonder at the stage, the seating, the scale and the attention to detail. Snoop in the neighbors' windows. Peek at the Statue of Liberty. Think big thoughts. Or, do as Thomas Edison would do and take a nap.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wither giving in 2009?

Everyone wants to know - will 2009 be better or worse than 2008 when it comes to philanthropy?

I had the opportunity to hear Brad Smith (The Foundation Center) and Bob Ottenhoff (Guidestar) talk about this yesterday. You can catch some of it here from twitter. The Guidestar report referenced is here. The Foundation Center advisory is here. Here is a story on it from the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

I'm one of 3 speakers on a national conference call this afternoon about this. Here's what I have to say about USA giving trends.

What we DO KNOW:
  1. Giving declined in 2008 over 2007. See Giving USA for data. Totals for 2008 were down 2% from the previous year, the first decline in current dollar giving since 1987, and only the second since 1956.
  2. 2008 giving totaled $307.65 billion. Individuals gave $229.8 billion. Foundations gave $45.6 billion. (bequests were $22.66 billion and corporate giving $14.5 billion)
  3. Stimulus dollars will get to some sectors/organizations in 2009 - this may be starting to show in first Q survey data of NPOs, 1/3 of which reported drops in their budgets and 1/3 reported increases. (Guidestar report)
  4. Governance changes and political scrutiny of nonprofits and foundations likely to increase in 2009 - result of scandal, Madoff, investment pressures, public budget pressures and the new 990 form
What is being PROJECTED:
  1. The Foundation Center and Guidestar are both projecting 2009 foundation and individual giving to drop between 9-13% each over 2008 and again 2010 over 2009.
  2. If foundation giving drops ~10% in 2009 that would mean ~$4.5 billion less for total of $41 billion in 2009. Another 10% drop in 2010 would mean loss of $4.1 billion for total of $37 billion.
  3. If individual giving drops at 10% each year, that would mean -$23 billion in 2009 for total of $206 billion; for 2010 the loss would be ~$20 billion for total of $186 billion.
  4. Guidestar report for March - May 2009 reported 52% of nonprofits surveyed showing a drop in giving over same time period in 2008.
What we DON'T KNOW:
  1. We don't know details of foundation giving in Q1 and Q2 2009 compared to 2008 (though I'm trying to find out)
  2. We don't know if gifts from Donor Advised Funds were exceptionally generous in late 2008 in response to crisis. If so, the 2008 drop in giving may have been less steep than it would otherwise have been. That said, anecdotal evidence shows that those DAFs are now "empty" and not being replenished at usual rate, so drop in 2009 could be steeper.
  3. We don't know how much smaller the nonprofit sector might be at end of 2009 or 2010. IRS is reporting that applications for 501 c 3 status continue apace, but anecdotal evidence points to nonprofits going out of business at faster than usual rates. Mergers don't seem to play big role, though they are happening. Some (Paul Light of NYU) have predicted a 10% overall decline in NPO numbers by 2009.
  4. We don't know what the impact of state budget cuts will be.

For data on giving trends within specific sectors (environment, education, health, etc) go to the Foundation Center, Giving USA, or Guidestar (which has some health and human service specific information).

That's the national story - what are you experiencing? One commenter on twitter yesterday noted that, where foundation grantmaking is concerned, "Flat may be the new up."

What is your foundation doing? What will your own individual giving look like in 2009? What data do you wish you had? Please chime in with your own organization's experiences, data that I'm missing, or other information that can help us all answer the question, "Whither giving in 2009?"

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

California budget - foundation dependent?

(photo by Jeff Keen, Flickr, Creative Commons)

I live in California. In the 19 years I've lived here the state has been late in approving a budget more times than not. Developing a state budget is a game - literally - you can play it here on the LA Times's website. Our Governor is offering up signed state-owned tchotchkes at a "California Garage Sale" to raise money. Of course, it is not a game. California is the world's 10th largest economy. Lives depend on the state budget.

And in the last year we set a new (low) standard in budgeting practices. The State has been issuing IOUs since July 1. Only last night (July 20) was a budget agreement reached. That is better than nothing - but this sentence in a New York Times story about the agreement nearly made me spit out my coffee this morning:
"While the state’s health insurance program for children, Healthy Families, remains, it was cut by $144 million, meaning thousands of children will probably be on a waiting list for the program unless a private foundation makes up the balance, as the Democratic-controlled Legislature hopes. (my emphasis added)"
How can we expect to run a state on hope? For all the important opportunities there are for public problem solvers, private corporations, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs to work together to address our shared challenges, what kind of democracy depends on philanthropy? The irony here is too rich - good foundation program officers will redline a nonprofit applicant's budget if they include a "line item for hope" - and now the state is using a placeholder marked "foundations" to provide health insurance to children?

I was planning on posting a piece today about the dynamics between philanthropy and the press - a topic I've written about before and which has been getting more and more attention since my-admittedly-beloved The New York Times announced it had discussed seeking foundation-sponsorship for certain pieces. This is a practice already in place at The Atlantic and The Washington Monthly, and as we increasingly rely on independent investigative journalism outfits such as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting - and maybe new models like - it will likely continue. Given how often Nicholas Kristof and Tom Friedman of the NY Times now write about NGOs it seemed clear that philanthropic communications officers (if not yet philanthropic dollars) had already gotten through to the press. Needless to say, I have lots of questions about the press and philanthropy.

But state government budgeting based on hoped-for philanthropic support? That should be raising lots of questions from lots of people.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Buzzword 2009.7 Taxonomy

(photo by Flickr, creative commons)

I am honored to announce the wonkiest buzzword ever. Taxonomy. For those of you who don't traffic in test-prep vocabulary, a taxonomy is "the practice and science of classification," or, as I like to think of it, a taxonomy is a way of organizing stuff. Some taxonomies we use all the time and don't think about them. (Who did put the alphabet in alphabetical order?) Others need to be created, modified, crowdsourced, and monitored.

Why would such a deep down, tactical-to- the-bone-level word ever rise to the level of buzz?

Because of metrics. And standards. And maps. And networks. And ratings. And giving portfolios.
And mashups. And online searchable databases of volunteering opportunities. In other words, without taxonomies, none of the other big ideas - measuring, aggregating, timing, ranking, diversifying, collaborating - that might improve social action and philanthropy are possible.

Once we start trying to measure, rank, list, search or find we realize we need categories. Some taxonomies have been around for a long time - The Urban Instititute's NTEE codes, The IRS and The Foundation Center for example have been classifying social sector activities for decades.

And now we have data everywhere. And all kinds of tools for mashing it together into maps, or lists, or ranking systems, or twitter streams. These tools could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of who is doing what and what really works on various social issues. But we can't connect the maps to the data without taxonomical agreement. And we can't efficiently and effectively search multiple databases without knowing what taxonomy to use. And we can't see all the activity in a certain region or rate one nonprofit against a sector or rate one organization against another or compare one foundation to another, without agreeing on what we're going to call apples and what we are going to call oranges.

Taxonomies are labor intensive, and tactical, and operate, literally, at the "code" level - but without them (and agreement on them) we can't see the bigger picture. Those who are working away on taxonomies - from the IRIS-Standards and Pulse folks, to the Foundation Center experts for Philanthropy Insight, to the Grants Managers Network whose members seem to live and die by taxonomies - are setting the stage for aggregation of data that matters.

We might (soon) be able to search online for organizations that can provide evidence that their programs improve graduation rates in inner city schools - but not without an underlying taxonomy that connects work on metrics to work on programs to databases of nonprofit organizations to a zip code directory. In other words, not without a shared taxonomy. And we may one day be able to see how much money from philanthropy, political contributions, corporate sponsors, and the public sector is going into research on various health care reform proposals - but not without functioning taxonomies that can be connected across data centers.

The buzz about taxonomies has ebbed and flowed over time. It is building again now because of the widespread availability of computing power that makes data crunching possible, the adoption of cloud based data centers that allow info to be pulled across platforms, the migration of data wonks into philanthropy and the social sector,* the general expectation that if the data exist we should be able to find them (thank you search engines), and the hard work of organizations as varied as IssueLab, GuideStar, NeighborWorks America, GivingUSA, SoCap, GreaterGood South Africa, the Opportunity Finance Fund, Kiva, MyC4, TechSoup, The Sunlight Foundation, and New Philanthropy Capital who have been trying to find, organize and use data on nonprofits and/or social enterprises for years now.

The buzz is is also building because of the cycles of technology and information use in the nonprofit world. First we have no data. Then we have too much data. Then we find ways to make sense of what we have. Then we need more data. Which means we don't have data. Until we have too much data. And then we'll find ways to make sense of the data we have. And repeat. Don't get me wrong - this cycle is a good thing. Over the years the problem underneath the cycle has influenced the founding of the Foundation Center, GuideStar, and Kiva, among others. It has driven individuals to smoosh together maps with databases and databases with network analysis software. And it will soon lead us to smoosh data with data and data with pictures and data with who-knows-what else if it will help us understand the world a little better. All of it is about sense-making. And all of it requires taxonomies.

*An undervalued contribution of the Obama administration and tech fortunes, IMHO.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Buzzword (buzz tool?) 2009.6 Maps

(Photo by Annie Mole, Flickr Creative Commons license)

(I posted this on July 14 and edited it slightly on July 15, 2009)

In the last few months maps of grant data have started popping up everywhere. Here are a few - launched and in process. I'd appreciate your help in locating more.
  • Philanthropy Insight - shows grant and foundation data from The Foundation Center on easy-to-use map interface. 1.6 million grants and 90,000 foundations - it is a heckuva data set. (Now live, paid subscription needed)
  • Charity Navigator - lets you click on a country to find US based Charity Navigator rated nonprofits doing work there. (Live, free)
  • Changemakers - will be posting maps soon - something more than this world map that lets you find Ashoka items, issues, projects, and competitions by place. (Live, free)
  • SocialActions map - this won the grand prize in the ChangeTheWeb contest and was part of NetSquared also. (Not yet live)
  • GlobalGiving - uses a map interface as one way to find a project (live, free)
  • Kiva - lets you map lenders, lenders can embed maps of their portfolio in their blog or social network page, and KivaFriends have several discussion boards about maps and mapping tools. (Live, Free to Kiva lenders)
  • Tides Center Project Maps (Live, free)
  • Others (please add in the comments section)
This is some distance from where we were in 2007 when maps of change were much harder to come by. Have maps proliferated because we finally have large enough data sets to make mashing them up worthwhile? Have we reached such a point of data overload that any data visualization tool is helpful?

Now that we have them, how will you use them? Do geographic maps of funders or grants data help you do your work better? (If so, I'd love to know what you are doing and how they are helpful). Are geographic maps of raw data the most useful? Do tools like GapMinder - which maps data by time, place and issue - fill the same need in a different way? Fill a different need? Provide a fun distraction but don't really help you do your work?

Can we guess what will come next once we get used to seeing and using data presented in this form? What else do you need? What's next beyond maps...GPS?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sense Making in the New Data-Scape

An edited version of this post is available on the SSIR Opinion Blog. The version below is unedited.

Some things are so obvious they are hard to see. For example, why do we make change organizations go looking for funders instead of having funders go look for change organizations? Now, wait just a minute, I hear you saying, funders do go looking for change organizations. Foundations hire professionals to do this. When they develop strategies and write papers, hire consultants to do environmental scans and needs assessments, post guidelines, accept applications and do site visits, that is exactly what all those folks are doing - looking for organizations to fund. And you’re right, that is what all those people are doing.

On the other hand, individual donors, small and large (and some foundations) go online, type in search terms on any one of a variety of sites and can find loans to make (Kiva), actions to volunteer for (allforgood), petitions to sign (Care2), projects to fund (NetworkForGood, GlobalGiving), teachers to support (DonorsChoose), grants to match (PowerPhilanthropy, DonorEdge), social entrepreneurs to support (socialenterprise API, coming soon) or all of the above (socialactions). In these cases organizations, enterprises, entrepreneurs, teachers, activists have filled out a form, tagged it correctly, the information has been vetted, and is posted for anyone interested to search for and find.

In the foundation case, many of the same steps are being taken, but the information is done in a series of “one-offs.” Foundation A does research, develops a strategy, posts guidelines, seeks applicants, rejects many, and funds a few. File. Revise. Rinse. Repeat.

With very few exceptions, Foundations B and C and D, individual donors X and Y, donor advisers Q and W, and corporate funders E, F, G – all of whom are interested in the same issues and goals as Foundation A each repeat some variation on the same work that Foundation A did. And the organizations within this sphere of work revise and re-calibrate their applications as best they can guess for A, B, C, D, E, F, G, Q, W, X, and Y.

This might have made some sense 95 years ago when foundations first structured themselves. But now we have multiple databases of information – GuideStar, the TechSoup International Exempt Equivalent Repository (needs a new name!), NFG, GlobalGiving, GreatNonprofits, Cultural Data Project, GFEM Media database, the Foundation Center, the IRS, the Urban Institute, as well as the internal grants databases of every foundation and countless public agencies. Together these resources hold information on just about every organization and enterprise, every project and funded entrepreneur, and every strategy.

We have a long way to go before these get pulled together and are cross searchable, but progress is moving quickly on that front. National networked databases of comparable information on projects and organizations will soon exist if DonorEdge gets launched through every community foundation, if Blackbaud’s nonprofit central tools take off, if GuideStar’s partnership with GreatNonprofits reaches its promise, if some of the government2.0 public data access movement is successful in opening up the IRS database of exempt organizations, if sites like MIX Market and GreaterGood South Africa and MyC4 keep growing, and or takes off, and/or if the socialentrepreneur API gets public traction. The groundwork is in place that makes it easy to imagine a time when publicly accessible, comparable, searchable data on fundable enterprises, programs and people is readily (and cheaply) available.

So then what? How will donors access and organize and synthesize that information? Might foundations use algorithms instead of (in addition to?) program officers? Might donors rely on crowd sourced recommendations? Might they search first for co-funders, then for organizational partners, and then develop large, leveraged strategies? Might there be connections between well-researched, evidence-based and independently evaluated strategies for change and the multiple organizations that carry out that work?

There are a lot of possibilities out there. Given how soon the landscape of information sources will change we still don’t know much about how the landscape of information-users will change. Data on change organizations is becoming centrally available, at low cost, in comparable searchable ways. We know what this change in data availability did for how colleges are selected and applied to (commonapp), insurance is sold (esurance), how restaurants are reviewed (yelp), how services are purchased (elance), bank accounts are set up (smartypig), apartments are rented (craigslist), stocks are traded (scottrade), friends are found (facebook), coupons are used (cellfire) and textbooks acquired (chegg).

We’ve seen how new organizations, products, tools and services emerge to help us find and maybe make sense of ubiquitous data (Google, WolframAlpha, gapminder). We’ve also seen how the organizations that used to do the sense making for us have struggled to keep up (see newspapers, book publishing, record companies, phone books for examples). What we are also seeing, in the development of universal applications for funding (commonuse), data on outcomes for large-scale donors (pulse), standard reporting systems and metrics (IRIS and GIIRS) crowd-sourcing, and even some of the prize platforms are early sightings of emerging organizational forms for sense-making around social sector data. We’ll see more because with all these data shifts being able to make sense just makes sense.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Where does change come from?

Where does positive social change come from? My answer to this question is that it can come from potentially anywhere and everywhere.

That potential - for positive social change to come from individuals, non-governmental organizations, communities, businesses, worship groups - is why the changes in the philanthropic capital markets, development of real social capital markets, and the government 2.0 movement are so interesting to me. Think of the roles played by restaurants, food policy groups, individual farmers, co-ops, nonprofit associations, and consumers play in the organic food movement. Or the ways that consumer product companies, government agencies, local ad campaigns, professional associations, and scientists played in efforts to fluoridate water - advancing health across the U.S. Or the roles played by philanthropic foundations and public agencies in building public health departments or emergency response (911) systems across the country. Change is hard, can come from anywhere, and often needs help from lots of different factions.

This reality is why this article in the Christian Science Monitor, which posits that Twitter might be deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in facilitating worldwide awareness of "hope, heroism and horror in Iran" is really important in my mind. I'm not talking about this particular example of Twitter, but of the larger principle that achieving huge social goals such as peace will require contributions from all sectors and groups. Real change may come from anywhere.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

What are we not doing?

This question - what are we not doing? - may be the most important question any strategist, funder, program officer, or board member can ask. It contextualizes the choices that are being made. It sheds light on how well you (or your staff) have scanned the landscape. It will help you think about what might come next. It may nudge you to reconsider ideas or plans that you had previously put aside. It requires you to explain, contextualize, justify, position the things you are doing.

Next time you are developing a funding strategy, considering a grant portfolio, thinking through evaluation, or doing due diligence with a potential grantee, ask yourself: What we are we not doing? (and why?)

Speaking of strategic planning here is a nice example of openness in the process - check out this "twitter conversation" and Presentation on Philanthropy's Tensions from the Peery Foundation's strategic planning process.