Thursday, December 03, 2009

A little bit on a lot of things

I've been at the FasterCures PartneringForCures* meeting since Tuesday (with a side trip to DC) and even with free inflight wifi I can't keep up. So this blog post is going to romp across several things that have crossed my mind in the last few days.

First - FasterCures' PartneringForCures conference - this is a first ever meeting of all of the financial players that influence medical disease research - individual donors, foundations, nonprofits, several government agencies from a few countries, universities, researchers, biotech, pharmaceutical companies. It was a matchmaking-fest, an idea-mosh pit and the biggest complaint I heard was "not enough time." What I think is important about these organizations is that no one fits in one box - the foundation may well be seeking to invest funds from its endowment in the biotech company, the company may be looking for academic researchers with the next big idea, and the individuals are being pitched by everyone - foundations, nonprofits, VC firms, you name it. It's money chasing ideas chasing money chasing results. Chaotic yes, but also full of great information, current events (health care reform anyone? OK how about breaking news on cancer screening recommendations?) and scrappy startups talking to eminence grise docs and researchers.

I've been involved with FasterCures for several years now and have learned an extraordinary amount from the medical disease foundations. The primary sense I pick up whenever I am around these folks is their sense of urgency - their work does focus on life or death issues, even as they engage in funding risky research that could be 20 years from "academic bench to pharmacy shelf." The cross-sector deliberations here, the hallways meetings, the partnering opportunities, the pitch sessions, the mix of capital providers and idea people - this was a conference with an energy rush that wasn't coming from the bottomless coffee pots but from the participants and the panelists. It may be a formula for other sectors to try.

Second - My role at PartneringForCures was to speak on a panel about return on philanthropy. Lucky me, I got to do this the day the the conversation about high hanging metrics finally changed. As GiveWell, Charity Navigator, GuideStar, GreatNonprofits and Philanthropedia urged the public to forego their reliance on the low hanging and "meaningless" overhead cost ratio, Philanthropy Action summed up the opportunity to be smarter about charitable choices.

Meanwhile, my panel of foundation executives, venture capitalists, and donors talked about the current wave in metrics. Has anyone else noticed that we've shifted dramatically from a conversation about "should we measure" to "how to measure" to "which portfolio of metrics matters most in our case?" Whether its Acumen Fund's BACO ratio, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy's Cost per Impact, REDF's SROI, Keystone's Constituency Voice tools, or J-PAL's economic studies or any of the tools and methods now listed in the Foundation Center's TRASI database - the tools are out there. The shift away from overhead cost is made possible because we reached beyond it - to more nuanced metrics - developed by nonprofits and funders - that measure multiple meaningful actions. It may still be a challenge to make them widely known, expand their use, and move toward common frameworks or benchmarks - but it is no longer a case of "should we measure and, if so, how?"

Third - it is not a coincidence that we've moved toward these higher order tools as large data sets have moved online and into public access spaces, as technology and info graphics have made data geeks of us all, and as market-based investing moves ever more dramatically into financing the production and distribution of social goods. My December 1 Marketplace interview highlighted 3 philanthropy buzzwords of 2009 - impact investing, B Corporations, and mergers. All of which reveal the breadth of market thinking in philanthropic circles.

That we've reached this place where we are having fundamentally different conversations about metrics than we were just a few years ago shows how iterative these forces are - technology lets us store and access more data. Market innovation calls for more data. Transparency advocates call for more data. More data lets us ask harder questions of the data and deploy more technological solutions (data visualization anyone?) of the data we have, which in turn begets more calls for more data. Many months ago I was convinced that data are the new platform for change. I'm even more convinced now.

Fourth - thanks to everyone who has commented on the crowdsourcing idea I offered up for gathering community input into the nonprofit approval process. The comments are well worth the read, and the conversation was continued on at least one other blog, The Artful Manager. What I love about the discussion is the real feedback - some argue with the idea, some have extended it much further than I had originally, and others offered up existing analogs from the Phillippines and Belgium. I'm still most interested in thinking about if, and how, crowdsourcing expertise about community needs could be used at the front end of the nonprofit approval process. Could panels of human service providers from the west coast provide comment on a "needs statement" amendment to the 501c3 application from a proposed new organization on the east coast? Could local donors, foundations, community foundations, and government funders share their databases of local organizations with nonprofit-to-be startups in some useful way? Could community needs "reviews" be one factor among several that would be considered necessary for proposing a new organization, extending the IRS's reach to include community voice and support somehow? I've learned lots from all the commenters and twitterers - thanks for jumping in!

Finally, the above "idea" - or at least the problem and its possible solutions - is one of many things I plan to be thinking through at length in both of my new very exciting gigs. I'll be working at Stanford University as a Visiting Scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, hoping to make the idea for a global policy network into reality. I'm also working on a new book (one of two) as part of my fellowship with the New America Foundation.

The book feeds the policy project in terms of illuminating some of the complexity of how this now happens and the policy project will feed the book. My continued work at Blueprint and your feedback on ideas on this blog feed all of it. With New America and Stanford we will plan several events/salons/discussions/mashups of these ideas as they progress - so please send me ideas, forums where it might help to include this work, or resources that might be useful to this kind of thinking. I'll make sure to announce the public discussions on the blog so you can join us if you are in the area (Bay Area or DC, most likely) and interested.

*I serve on the organizational review board for FasterCures Philanthropy Advisory Service.


Melinda Lewis said...

I wasn't sure if you were still monitoring comments on the crowdsourcing/NPO approval process post, but I read it and all of the comments and think it's tremendously exciting. It's disheartening to talk with young people, in particular, and to so often hear that their idea is to start a new nonprofit...often without an understanding of WHY they're pursuing that. This is connected, I think, to Dan Pallotta's recent discussion of the need for scale in combating our collective social challenges, and the only way we can get there is by being really strategic with our sector's resources. Some way to channel that through a process as you outline is one of those brilliant things that one (at least, I!) never thinks of until someone suggests it, when it seems so obvious. I think Sean's concerns about not discouraging innovation are certainly critical, but, with that ideal at the forefront, it can definitely be worked around.

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks for this. I am indeed still monitoring these posts - in fact I am hopeful that a local NPR station radio show next week will re-ignite this very discussion.