Friday, October 30, 2009

The downsides of transparency

Once again, the readers of this blog have provided critical insights and resources for my learning. Thank you. Specifically, a comment on the Decoding the Future (1 of 3) post pointed me to this AidfInfo Wiki - a resource for open sharing of data on development aid. Thanks.

And I want to encourage everyone to read Larry Lessig's article in the October 21, 2009 issue of The New Republic. Lessig, a parent of the Creative Commons movement, a guru on technology and creativity and change, and a member of the advisory board to The Sunlight Foundation reaches off the newstand and grabs you as you walk by with just the title of his piece, "Against Transparency." The piece stirred up some important issues - and has led to a wonderful debate (which you should check out after you read his article) online at The New Republic.

Now, Lessig's piece does an incredible job of marrying his first professional passion, technology change and creativity, to his second professional commitment, campaign finance reform. In arranging these nuptuals, Lessig points out what he sees as techno-deterministic blinders worn by transparency advocates (and this is where his respondents come back in the debate). Since my interest is in transparency, data, and philanthropy I'm going to step away from the campaign finance part of Lessig's article and extrapolate to money and data.

Several of the points that Lessig makes really matter from my point of view:
  • Policy solutions or industry responses to technology that think we can go back in time are doomed to fail. As he points out, in about a decade the majority of Americans alive will not remember the "good old days" of the 20th century, before file sharing; instant, replicable digital copying, open data access, and absolutely whiz-bang data-driven info graphics as a distinguishing value of a news source.
  • Technology doesn't determine our future. Our institutions and norms and practices and applications and laws determine technology and then they all mush together (my term, not his), each advance offering a platform for more change.
  • Technology changes far faster than laws (see also Sascha Meinrath at New America Foundation and the Open Technology Initiative) on this point.
  • This last point is important to Lessig's argument because his solution to the dangers of transparency as he sees them is not to try to fix transparency laws or technology, but to address the role of money and politics, as it is at the root of our normative assumptions between money and politics. His article is about changing how we finance politics, not how we make data available or use technology.
So what does all that have to do with philanthropy? As a champion of efforts to share information and data more widely within philanthropy, I need to step back - as Lessig's article forces its readers to do - and ask, what are the downsides of transparency? Which of these are due to technology or existing legal frameworks, and which of them come from elsewhere, from our norms and assumptions about how giving works or what philanthropy is for? And what scenarios can we imagine from greater data sharing that we'd prefer to avoid?
Here is one small example. I was in a recent conversation about disclosure requirements on private foundations. We were discussing the fact that most of what is required has to do with financial accountability, and how that drives what we know (and don't know) about philanthropy. Someone posited the idea of expanding the disclosure requirements to cover more programmatic issues or actual accomplishments. And then it occured to us - one logical effect of increasing disclosure requirements on private foundations would be to drive more donors to use advised funds, where the disclosure requirements don't (and probably wouldn't) apply. That would be a predictable end-around - and wouldn't aid the cause of learning more from philanthropy.
That story covers the imagined unintended consequence of a regulatory change. What are the imagined unintended results of using technology to shed more light on what foundations do and on the data they have and could share? Given our normative association between money and influence (back to Lessig's article) will more transparency into data lead foundations or donors to take fewer risks? Or might they respond by demanding even more paperwork and making hoops even higher and smaller for applicants?

Those are a few, small "what ifs?" What really matters here is this: Can we collectively identify what the normative assumptions are about philanthropy and its roles in society, and then identify what the interaction of technology-enabled transparency and those assumptions might be? We can't go back to a pre-techno-transparent age. And we'd be fools to expect a solely positive, linear interaction between the new visibility that it provides and our existing philanthropic institutions and behaviors. So instead, if we assume "backlash" and unintended consequences, perhaps we can surface our assumptions about roles of public and private resources, money, power, public, private, leadership, and social change in such a way that we really do change the game.

I'd welcome your thoughts on Lessig's article and the conversation that it sparked over at The New Republic. Transparency is here to stay - how do we make sure it yields the good we want from it?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Huff Post Game Changers in Philanthropy

So there I was, minding my own business with friends in New Hampshire, watching the Yankees game (or what most of you call "The World Series") when I get a call - "You're on the front page of the Huffington Post!" So....I turn away from the TV (Yankees up 2-1)*, boot up laptop and find this:

"Current Status: Blogging the business of giving

Changing The Game By: Creating a conversation pit for the philanthropic sector with her blogsite Philanthropy 2173, an “accessible round-up and analysis of emerging trends.” The founder of Blueprint Research and Design, a strategic consulting firm for philanthropic organizations, Bernholz brings all the elements -- individual donors, foundations, trends and issues -- together in an effort to divine, and optimize, the future of generosity in a time of economic crisis.

Killer Quote: “Necessity is the mother of social innovation.”

Fun Fact: The blogsite takes its name from Woody Allen’s Sleeper, which was set 200 years in the future, because the 1973 film “helps us realize that so much of what we think is true may not be.”

Must Click Link: Philanthropy 2173
The list of 10 game changers is really humbling - founders of some of the most significant innovations in philanthropy in our time, from Ashoka to Kiva, from big givers to the big change that micro makes happen. I'm flattered and astonished to be listed among them.

Thank you, Arianna Huffington and HuffPo for including an idea person in this esteemed crowd. Thanks to all of you readers who have helped shape the ideas on this blog over the past several years. And thanks to all of you are changing the game in philanthropy - we all benefit from the good that you do.

*Don't hate me for being a Yankee fan, I was born into it. And to add to the confusion my mom was a Red Sox fan - it's lucky I made it this far. And yes, I'm rooting (quietly and behind closed doors) for the NYY in New England.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crowdsourcing ideas

There are at least three efforts underway that I am aware of that could serve as useful, crowdsourced idea lists for funders and or policymakers interested in leveraging someone else's due diligence. In my mind, these are good examples of being able to "listen in on" the criteria, legwork, and due diligence of grant makers PLUS get some crowd wisdom.

First, the Google 10^100 project - 16 "ideas that can change the world" and an open voting platform to let anyone register their opinion. These are big ideas - from socially conscious tax policy frameworks to scaling social enterprise to better banking tools for everyone.

Second, the Purpose Prize. If you are planning on getting older (and really, consider the alternative) then this is a group to watch. Each year a $100,000 Purpose Prize and several $50,000 grants are given out to individuals who have made major social contributions in their "Encore Careers." This video is a tease - the winner will be announced on October 26.

Third, The Buckminster Fuller Institute Challenge. This is one of my favorites - my dad is a huge Bucky Fuller fan. This prize goes to "support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. Entries are now being accepted and the deadline is midnight, Eastern Time on October 30, 2009." I love the ideas they get and I love the IdeaIndex that they share with everyone. (and this year @sashadicter of @acumen fund is a jury member!)
Other prize platforms -NetSquared, Ashoka's Changemakers, the HASTAC Digital Media Competition, - also share their entries. In my opinion, as I've written before, this is the real power of good prize philanthropy - the ecosystem of ideas and innovators that they attract. If you are looking for good ideas, wondering what people think is important, or looking for ways to piggyback on someone else's strategy - these tools make it easy to do.

Prizes aren't the only way to share this kind of information. The Cloud helps. In response to my post "why don't foundations build a document cloud?" I was reminded of ConnectiPedia, an initiative of the Meyer Memorial Trust in Oregon which does share a lot of information that the foundation has organized for anyone to use and share. This falls more in line with online resources such as the Pennsylvania Cultural Data Project, the Repository of Equivalency Determined Organizations (hey @TechSoup - got a new name yet?), the Media Database of Grantmakers for Film and Electronic Media, or Global Philanthropy Forum's International Resources Database (actually a list of organizations).

Friday, October 16, 2009

Networks that made change happen

(Photo by Noah Sussman, Creative Commons license on Flickr)
I'm looking for examples of networks that have made some kind of positive social change happen. Ideally these are networks that:
  • Consist of unaffiliated individuals, not coalitions or alliances of existing nonprofits
  • Made something concrete, and socially positive, happen
  • Continue to exist after making a change - so they are more than "just" a protest group (this is the hardest one to find)
I want to be able to (oversimply) describe the impact like this:
"The X network made Y happen."
Here are some examples I know of or that folks have shared with me - along with my parenthetical questions about them.
  • David Pogue led a twitter campaign - "Take Back the Beep" - that changed how cell phone companies charge for accessing your voicemail. (but was it just a protest network?)
  • Beth Kanter's network of friends raised enough money to send a Cambodian woman to college (Do members of Beth's network know they are in something together or does only Beth know them all?)
  • The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines got international treaty signed and won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its work (But it is more of a coalition of NGOs then an example of the definition I used above)
  • The Coalition for Airline Passengers Bill of Rights got NY State law changed in only 8 months (I don't know enough about their org structure to stand behind this example yet)
  • Twitter Vote Report monitored the 2008 U.S Presidential Election, sharing info on wait times and reporting on voting problems (See case study here
  • The Peanut Butter Plan has more than 2300 individual members in its Facebook group and feeds homeless people in several cities one night per month. (There are pros and cons to this kind of volunteerism)
  • A network of environmental activists made Verizon apologize for sponsoring an anti-climate event on its Facebook Wall (protest and...?)
Thanks to everyone who shared those examples.

Please send me your sentences - I'll buy you a cup of coffee if I use them in the piece I'm writing (assuming you live somewhere in Bay Area or somewhere I travel to frequently. And assuming you drink coffee. Otherwise, I'll owe you one!)

Independent Sector: FutureLab

Here's some info on Independent Sector's FutureLab - a worthwhile and intriguing experiment about the future of the sector. If you participate it will be that much more worthwhile and intriguing.

I've joined in and have been reading and learning from the comments on technology for the technology paper. Next I'll be diving into - and sharing my thoughts - in their section on policy, as it directly relates to the Policy Project on the Social Economy.

Hats off to IS for going this very inclusive route about these critical questions.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Decoding the Future - part 3

(photo from NASA -

This post begins with an apology. To all those who requested draft 1.5 of the technology and philanthropy paper, and to whom it was scheduled to be sent on October 9 - apologies. Simply put - it is not ready yet. We're working on it. We got so much great information and feedback from folks on draft v 1.0 and so much feedback to the blog posts here and here - (and here, here and here) - well, we've got a lot of work to do. Our internal timeline for revisions, edits, revisions etc. put us into the middle of November. If you already requested it, you are on the list - we will send it to you when it is ready to go. Again, our apologies.

That said, here's some insight into what we're working on. (and here and here are the back posts that give you the story so far) - which can be summed up as:
  1. "Data are the new platform for change.
  2. The changes are not about the digital technologies that allow access, or about the data themselves. They are about the expectations and behaviors they unleash.
  3. These changes, coupled with changes in the public and private sectors, are pushing a transition to a "social economy" made up of interdependent public, private and philanthropic capital and creators of social goods.
  4. All of these changes are not an end of a story, they are simply the beginning.
  5. Philanthropy is an industry of passion and volunteerism in which collusion should be encouraged. It may not change in the same way, at the same speed, or driven by the same forces as the newspaper or music industries or the public sector.
We are also looking at cloud technology and peer to peer philanthropic networks. Finally, the rising interest in networks - both for doing work and donating to work (do-ers and donors) - raises fascinating questions about governance and enterprise structures for change going forward. Yesterday there was an interesting discussion of funding in networks that was captured on twitter (Hashtag #netfunders). The Annie E Casey Foundation offers several useful case studies on this, and Working Wikily is chock-full of insights.

Also relevant here, and the topic of one of my books in progress - The Giving Commons - is the re-emergent understanding of the commons as a framework for governance in and around social change. Once the purview of shared agricultural resources, the commons has come to provide a frame for understanding the ways we interact around shared information resources. Elinor Ostrom, who was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work in this area, describes it as such:
"There appears to have been a spontaneous explosion of "Ah ha" moments when multiple users on the Internet one day sat up, probably in frustration, and said, "Hey! This is a shared resource!" People started to notice behaviors and conditions on the web - congestion, free riding, conflict, overuse, and "pollution" - that had long been identifed with other types of commons. They began to notice that this new conduit of distributing information was neither a private nor strictly a public resource."*
In addition to the emergent commons awareness around the Internet, climate change has also re-catalyzed interest in the commons. Those of us old enough to remember the Whole Earth Catalogue are familiar with the impact of that very first photo of earth from space which made the beauty and limits of this shared resource starkly visible.

Many of us are familiar with the Creative Commons, the open licensing system launched by Larry Lessig with signifcant financial support from the MacArthur Foundation, among others (and the licensing system that I use for this blog, by the way). Other visible commons-related efforts that matter to philanthropy include the Public Library of Science, the Science Commons, and efforts to make public data freely available, searchable and usable (Obama's Open Government Initiative, the work of the Sunlight Foundation, the work of the Internet Archive, OntheCommons - the list goes on and on.) Ironically, a recent study by the Berkman Center at Harvard noted that, despite the involvement of foundations and philanthropy in developing Creative Commons and other open content licensing systems, few of them actually use them as part of their own knowledge production and sharing policies.** Open content licensing and open access is now cool enough to warrant its own week of activity and activism - next week, October 19-23 marks Open Access Week.

So as we continue writing about the future of philanthropy and technology, these big issues - networks + network governance, the commons, cloud technology - are front and center. We've got a lot to make sense of - I better leave this here and get back to work.

*Hess and Ostrom (eds) Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, p. 4

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Structure Labs on hybrid ventures

I've written a lot about hybrid organizational forms for social change - from L3Cs to B Corporations to social enterprises. I want to draw your attention to a series of workshops for entrepreneurs and others thinking about these forms.

Here's the blurb from Criterion Ventures, which is leading these workshops (Structure Labs):

"New corporate forms are blurring the boundaries between for profits and nonprofits. Entrepreneurs and established organizations alike are bending the marketplace to meet multiple bottom lines including a return on social capital. While some nimbly explore the space between for profit and nonprofit, many more are struggling to make sense of the new landscape of social change.

... As the world of social enterprise matures, Criterion is helping to create the methodology that can make it more accessible. Criterion has spent the past year creating an easy to engage process to understand how new forms are structured and how they might work to support the efforts of social change agents."

The Packard Foundation is funding the work behind these workshops. They will be held in San Francisco (Nov 4, Nov 5), Minneapolis (Nov 12) and New York City (Nov 19). You can register for them here.

These new enterprise forms - and the possibilities they represent for drawing more and different capital to social good production, as well as the new regulatory and policy implications they raise - are key to understanding how the social sector is moving forward. I'm glad to see a major foundation providing support for this, and of having a firm like Criterion - and several law firm partners - put on these workshops.

*In keeping with FTC regulations on public disclosure, I am not affiliated with Criterion Ventures, though I am familiar with their work. My firm has worked with The Packard Foundation. I would attend one of these sessions if my calendar permitted. I was not materially compensated for this post.

Friday, October 09, 2009

More maps of the sector

Here are two more sets of maps to add to our growing atlas of the social sector. These were created and shared by the folks noted below - they were kind enough to share, please give them credit if you use their work.

First, thanks to Lisa Richter of GPS Capital Partners for her maps of social capital. Lisa and I recently published Equity Advancing Equity - a review of community philanthropy, mission investing and social equity. Three of Lisa's excellent maps are attached:
  1. A comparison of foundation resources to US government and capital markets;
  2. A segmented look at the MRI supply by issue area
  3. A map of an efficient social capital marketplace

Second, McKinsey and Co., led by Laura Callanan, has been making sense of the universe of tools and approaches for social impact assessment. Their work includes the building of a publicly accessible database of these tools that will be hosted by The Foundation Center. In addition to the database, they've drawn these maps of two elements of that landscape:
  1. Landscape of tools
  2. Landscape of common standards

You can get more information on McKinsey's work here.

These maps join the others on the Flickr page. Thanks folks, I'm still trying to figure out how to redo the original doers and donors maps - I welcome your continued input and your map examples.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Why don't foundations build a DocumentCloud?

(photo from

I tweeted this question yesterday and quite a few people passed it on - Why don't foundations build a document cloud? What is a document cloud, you ask? DocumentCloud is an online resource of source documents for investigative reporters - you can check it out here.

The site, which has received funding from the Knight News Challenge and has content partners such as The Atlantic, New York Times, TPM, and The New Yorker, is still in development but, once it goes live, it is intended to serve as a shared storage and search file cabinet for all the stuff reporters use to research and write their stories. As described in the New York Observer:
"DocumentCloud's software, once its fully built, will take all those papers that reporters, bloggers and civic groups usually stack in their bottom drawers or computer desktop folders at the end of their investigations, and extract all the information so that it's findable, shareable and searchable on the Web."
OK. Now apply this analogy to philanthropy. Imagine if the world's foundations shared their applications, due diligence reports, evaluation findings, and commissioned issue reports....Close your eyes, and imagine this.....

Maybe grant applications would get approved faster because research could be done more quickly. Maybe more funders would collaborate, once they realized how often they were funding the same things. Maybe the quality of funder due diligence would improve, as certain program staff members research and write ups were frequently accessed and began to be seen as a "quality standard." Maybe some siloed program areas would break down, as funders realized they were using the same source information to look at different issues, or were each funding the same organization but one was working from a health vantage point and the other from an environmental justice lens.

Maybe nonprofits would be able to gain the kind of mezzanine view of their issue area that program officers now have, and put that intelligence to work on the ground. Maybe they would find real collaborators, not just "marriages of funder-driven convenience." Maybe the paperwork for applications would decrease, because nonprofits could point new potential funders to the "cloud" where their information was already available (and had already been vetted).
You can open your eyes now.

So why not? DocumentCloud is moving into full swing development mode for less than $800,000. The contributing news agencies include commercial newspapers and nonprofit investigative outfits such as ProPublica. They include competing newspapers, news magazines, the Sunlight Foundation, WNYC, Amazon Web Services, OpenCalais, and PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer. During the early days only organizations that contribute documents will be able to access the source, but once it is all up and built the information will be available to any reporter, blogger or interested party.

And the best part? Once the code is written and the site is functioning, it will all be open source - other developers will be able to work from the code and adapt it to different markets. Like philanthropy. So, why don't foundations build a document cloud?

Monday, October 05, 2009

More maps of Do-ers And Donors V 3

Wow - this map thing is taking off. I should have started here - with the great maps from the Skoll SocialEdge, SocialActions session at #SoCap09. At this rate we're going to have to plan a gallery tour of "maps of the social sector." If you have more, please send them in - we'll get 'em all posted - for now, here's the Flickr set.

Jill Finlayson's posts from the session - accessible here, here and here - give some background on the maps and their purpose. I'll be trying to fold these data into my maps - and again, thanks everyone for sharing maps, suggestions, and improvements - please keep the insights coming!

Do-ers and Donors v 2

Your comments on the first version of my map of the social sector are fabulous - check it all out here. And special thanks to Tim Ogden, who shared his version of this idea from some years ago. It is below. If you have other versions that you'd like me to share, please send 'em along.

I am working on the improvements you've been suggesting - will post a revision as soon as I can.

Equity Advancing Equity

Impact Investing is a growth field. It builds from socially responsible investing, double bottom line approaches, mission/program related investing, and drives, potentially, lots more capital to the production of social good.

Some of the roots of impact investing come from efforts to redress inequities in access to capital. The history of mission and program related investing as practiced by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in the 1960s through the development of community development finance and all the way to last week's $400 million announcement by the Gates Foundation, is one of trying to make capital available to communities and issues where it has been scarce.

I am thrilled to announce the publication of the final Future Matters report - Equity Advancing Equity: Community Philanthropy, Social Equity and Mission Investing. The report focuses on how community philanthropies - community foundations, loan funds, and others - are using mission investing to address these fundamental inequities in their communities. The social inequities shaped by race, ethnicity, class, and gender and sexual orientation are exacerbated by inequitable access to capital. Success stories abound of community driven efforts to redress these challenges - many of which start locally and become national models. The report chronicles these successes, offers resources and guidance for incorporating these strategies into your portfolio, and provides sample measures of impact.

This paper, which marks the official conclusion of the Future of Community Philanthropy Project - five years of work funded by the Ford and Mott Foundations with final support from The Bank of America and led by my firm, Blueprint Research & Design in partnership first with The Monitor Institute and now with Lisa Richter of GPS Capital Partners - produced On the Brink of New Promise: The Future of US Community Foundations, (OBNP) 8 Future Matter reports over 2 years, and a toolkit of materials to help community foundations use this information. We've conducted several dozen consulting engagements based on the work, presented the materials at countless conferences, incorporated crowdsourced improvements into the tools, and heard from thousands of community philanthropists - in the U.S and abroad - about the importance of this work.

This current moment is one of great potential and challenge to community foundations. Much of what was outlined in OBNP has come true, some of the drivers of change are accelerating, and innovation in business models, impact measures, resource allocation, and vision are valuable currency among community philanthropists. I hope Equity Advancing Equity can contribute to shaping the near and long term futures of all our communities.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Donors and do-ers

What do you think of this as a way of visualizing the landscape of capital providers and enterprises in the social sector? Is it helpful? Can you help me improve it? Thanks.