Thursday, October 28, 2010

Make it easier to know than to not know

I've written a lot about data and data visualization. I believe that data are the new platform for change. I believe that data visualization should be about sense making not just the Wow! factor.

Of course, neither data nor data visualization are silver bullets. The data have to be good, clean, comparable, reliable, and open. The visualizations have to be accurate, credible, and contextual.
Even then, you have to be willing to use these tools and then change the way you work. For example, here's the latest whiz bang online tool - real time monitoring of water wells built by the group Water for The People. We can watch this cool app on our (android) phones to see which wells work and which ones don't. But what really matters is if Water for the People and its partners in Rwanda use the technology to keep the wells working.

See this wonderful piece by Clay Johnston on bad data visualization (he calls it "the lies visualizations tell.") Just because you have data doesn't mean you know anything. Just because you have a map doesn't mean you're an explorer. And just because you have data and cool visualization tools doesn't mean you'll make better decisions or be a more effective grantmaker.

For donors and foundation program officers, data and data visualizations have to meet an even higher threshold - they are going to have to make it easier to know something than to not know it. Right now, most of the structural incentives in philanthropy make it OK to not know what everyone else in your field is doing. Plus, it's hard to find out. Those two factors - making it necessary to know and making it easy to know - are big barriers to adopting these tools or changing the way foundations make decisions. Technology can make it easier to access data and easier to show the data in new ways. But unless the incentives for knowing and doing the work change, we'll have a lot of very cool tools that few will use.

A very nice new Strategy Landscape tool from The Center for Effective Philanthropy and The Monitor Institute proves this point. There's no magic in the pictures, no secret key in the data. What matters is the sense making - the collective effort to understand an issue in a new way, to know what your peers are doing, and to make funding decisions with that information at hand. The interactive demo lets you play with this very impressive visualization of data. You can "see" by foundation, by geography, by date and by strategy. Who funds energy efficiency in the Midwest? How much of the foundation's funding goes to that strategy? How do they define the strategy? These questions can all be answered by clicking and looking. No magic here - just good clean graphics and data that have been coded and categorized.

Let's talk about that last little bit. Cleaning and coding and categorizing data are tough things to do. They take time, money, expertise, and storage space. They require "definitional conversations" - what do you mean by "energy efficiency?" Doing this work to develop the Strategy Landscape tools means that Monitor consultants and staff from CEP will have to engage clusters of funders and help them through these conversations. This is not rocket science, but like all collaboration, it's not a walk in the park either. Some good comes from the process. People realize there are better terms for things and there is a way to avoid jargon. They find peers and potential collaborators. They may find an ally in making an argument for a certain approach that they've been failing to make before. That's all good. The Strategy Landscape tools will help with this.

Somewhat similar is a Social e-Valuator SROI tool being launched by the SVT group and an enterprise in the Netherlands known as Social Evaluator. The Social Evaluator Tool is a guided, online Theory-of-Change maker that yields common indicators and outcome measures and allows for the monetization of SROI. (Demo Video) Like the Strategy Landscape Tool it involves a cool website and some careful data coding and management. But mostly it involves thinking hard about what you're trying to achieve, identifying outcomes and indicators, and working together - as funders and grantees - to name, track, record, and report those things.

Both these tools show that 1) we have the data and 2) we have the visualizations. The hard part is changing how we work to share our data, think collectively, and put in the time and effort to hold ourselves accountable to outcomes.

There is another tricky part here. Public access to the data. The data that power the Strategy Landscape tools are foundation grants. These are publicly reported data. Anyone could download a lot of 990s and answer the questions that the Strategy Landscape tool answers for themselves if they the time and inclination. The tool makes it easy. But it needs to make it visible to those whose data is not yet included. It's a good first step for the foundations that provide the data to have access to the visualization, but what really matters is 1) letting others see it so they make strategic decisions from it and make their own visualizations, 2) let other data be added to it and 3) make the data storage solution accretive, so years from now you only need to fold in new data not do the whole thing all over again.

For the SROI tool, the data are different. They're subjective inputs from the funders and grantees involved. But these too should be public so that others can use them, improve and iterate on them. After all, if every group of funders needs to come up with its own proxy indicators for youth development outcomes what's the point? We need to get to a shared set of public measures, like the IRIS Standards.

Unfortunately, the default position on the data in both the Strategy Landscape tool and the SROI Tool is "not public." Those involved say they want the data to become transparent and open, but they can't start there. I think if they don't start there they won't get there.

If these tools are going to get used, get traction, get better, and be useful the processes that they inform need to be open. The data need to be accessible, machine readable, and mixable. The data are public and the tools are commodities. It's the knowledge and decision making from the data and the tools that really matter - and in order to fuel real change these need to be open. Otherwise, it remains too easy to not know, to not ask the hard questions, and not to hold ourselves accountable.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Money Laundering in Nonprofits

My colleague from Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Professor Rob Reich, is a smart political theorist. He even makes tax incentives interesting. For a long time Rob has been asking whether the “blunt tool” of tax exemption is right for all charitable giving.

On a recent panel discussion with Rob I realized that the post Citizens United years may well give us the opportunity to revisit that structure. Rob said something akin to “After Citizens United was passed by the U.S. Supreme Court this January, we expected to see huge corporate dollars flow into politics. What we’re seeing is nonprofits playing the big funding role.”

I hadn’t seen it that way. To me, it’s corporate money that just happens to be flowing through nonprofits. The nonprofits are, in effect, laundering the corporate money. Yes, that’s strong language. Intentionally. Now that the law of the land allows corporations unlimited spending on campaigns, why else would they bother to move the money through nonprofits unless they want to mask their involvement? The lack of transparency around these organizations provides the donors with unfettered funding opportunities while letting them hide their identities (except when four intrepid reporters spend countless hours digging through document trails). When these nonprofits then spend 50% or more of their money on issue and political ads, it's hard to see them as anything but shills for that money. To me, that's money laundering.

When you think of money laundering, trust and integrity are not what comes to mind. Yet trust and integrity are the calling cards of nonprofits. This is just one reason everyone in the social sector needs to be thinking about what it means if 501c4s and 501c6s start gaining a reputation as fronts for company money. That’s not a reputation your local food bank or youth organization wants to have to live down, and talking tax code subtleties with the general public is not going to be an effective way to deal with this issue.

I'm working on a more nuanced, thoughtful, and less deliberately inflammatory sets of posts on the impact of Citizens United. There are a lot of strategies to consider - including changing the way broadcasters charge for political ads, since so much of the "money in politics" just winds up at TV and radio stations anyway. And there are other things to do as well, campaign finance reform, DISCLOSE Act, shareholder proxy voting - stay tuned, I'm going to try to get at all that.

As this is a partial thought (a Random Philanthropy Observation) I had posted it on my Tumblr blog but had some trouble with that technology so moved this post over here. Please bear with me.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Random Philanthropy Observations (RPOs)

I'm traveling a lot, writing like mad to meet the December 1 publication date for Blueprint 2011, and am close to final manuscript for a new book, so blogging is taking a bit of a backseat. I have a moment now and thought I'd orient you to the many nodes where you can find my writing.

I've just started a Tumblr connected to this blog ( This is supposed to be "great technology for short blog posts." It fits between a blog post and tweet. So that is where you'll find my Random Philanthropy Observations (RPOs).

This blog is connected to several other sites where I focus on specific sub-topics in "the business of giving." Here's what you'll find and where to look for it:

Here - philanthropy2173 - pretty much everything except Random Philanthropy Observations.

SSIR Blog - more academic blog posts, wonky book reviews, research related stuff

Huffington Post - general interest giving

Sneak announcement - I'll soon be blogging for the Guardian UK starting in mid November (11/11). I'm very excited for the official launch of their new site. I'll be writing about global trends in the social sector.

Tumblr - short stuff that needs to be held on to until later, random philanthropy observations (RPOs)
Twitter - @p2173 - curated links to cool things, really short thoughts

We also still have the philanthropy policy blog. I'm in talks with lots of people to create a project that will look at the many policy domains that influence and shape the social system, philanthropy, and social investing. As soon as this book manuscript goes to the publisher I'll be starting a book/project on the policy landscape. Look for this site to get more active when that happen.

As for publishing, Blueprint 2011 will be available in hard cover from, on Kindle via Amazon, and in other e-book formats probably on Scribd and/or Issuu. If there is another electronic format you want, please let me know.

I am working on two longer blog posts, possibly even a series of posts on Citizens United and the McCallum bill. Can't promise when I'll get to those - but I'll get there.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Get ready for 2011

Reading this post on the blog? Look over there to the top spot, right hand column. See the ad for last year's 2010 industry forecast, Philanthropy and Social Investing: Blueprint 2010.*

Now, get ready for 2011. Blueprint 2011 is coming soon! (Available for orders on December 1)

The forecast is the only independent, quick-read forecast of trends that covers the full spectrum from giving to social investing. It separates the buzz from the stuff that matters and makes sense of pending policy discussions that will matter in the year to come. It's perfect for donors, board members, end-of-year thank you gifts, financial advisors, and foundation staff. Available in bulk or customized with your organization's letter and logo, Blueprint 2011 will be available starting on December 1. You can pre-order yours today.

Maybe you're still riding the intellectual high from #SoCAP10, The World Bank's Open Forum, #CommNet010, Tahoe Tech Talk, Health 2.0, or the Fall Retreat of the Environmental Grantmakers Association?

Or perhaps you are gearing up for The Feast, the Columbia Social Enterprise Conference, the Opportunity Collaboration, Net Impact, ASF, Opportunity Finance Network, South African Network for Impact Investing, European VPA, Investors' Circle, SVN, SVPI, Yale's SOM Philanthropy Conference, or focusing your attention on upcoming sessions at Grantmakers in the Arts, Pop!Tech or Independent Sector?

If so, you know all too well how hard it can be to carry great conference insights back to your office and focus on the year ahead. That's where Philanthropy and Social Investing: Blueprint 2011 comes in. Think of it as the best of those conference in a quick-read book form (or e-book - the Blueprint is available for Kindle!)

Don't just take my word for it. Bradford K. Smith of The Foundation Center notes how useful the forecast is:
“If you are trying to figure out what to do with your philanthropy in a fast changing environment and have time to read only one thing Blueprint 2010 is it. In a few brief pages Lucy Bernholz takes challenges that could be intimidating and makes them empowering. Philanthropy is about choices, and Blueprint 2011 will help you make the right ones.”
While Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Chair Emeritus of SV2 and Board Chair of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, recommends not just the forecast but also the seminar series:
"Lucy Bernholz's industry forecast, Philanthropy and Social Investing: Blueprint 2011, is an accessible and valuable resource for all of us in the sector (and especially those of us teaching about it!). The 2010 edition was one of my favorite gifts to give last year, and we look forward to doing deep-dive learning seminars with both SV2 and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society on this year's publication."
And Doug Kridler of The Columbus Foundation notes:
"Whether you read it and weep, or read it and cheer, Lucy’s Blueprint 2010 is the perfect relevance conversation starter for foundation staffs and boards. I am sure Blueprint 2011 will be just as important for the year to come."
You can pre-order bulk copies using this form. Individual copies will be available on and starting on December 1. Watch this space for more information or contact us by email at

* Since we're now in the fourth quarter of 2010, we've dropped the price of the Kindle version of Philanthropy and Social Investing: Blueprint 2010. Electronic versions are now only $4.99 - get yours here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Court side seats?

This story from Inc. Magazine provides a quick run down on five cases being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming session that "could change your business."

Does anyone do this from the perspective of nonprofits or philanthropy? Given the potential impact of the Citizens United case on donor transparency it would be great if there were a legal expert or two (or dozens), and/or some great journalists, who could point us lay folk to issues that might matter.

Here are some links I'm collecting on the Citizens United case. I also intend to speak to some nonprofit law specialists and some attorneys who specialize in campaign law to try to better understand all this. If you are such an attorney and would like to discuss this please email me.

  • Terry Gross, Fresh Air, speaking with Peter Stone, Ken Vogel, and Lee Fang.
  • The New York Times on Justice Thomas's wife's nonprofit activity;
  • The New York Times on Democracy 21's request for IRS investigation of Crossroads GPS
  • The NYT on political ad buying by nonprofits
And I follow ALL of the work that The Sunlight Foundation and its Reporting Group are doing. (If Sunlight has a groupie it's me!) They help me learn about the process of increasing transparency, they put forth some of the latest, coolest tools for making data meaningful, and they are really smart about the ins and outs of donor transparency in politics, which are not entirely the same as the questions of donor transparency in civil society.

If you know of anyone or any organization that does this, or even some way a layperson, non-lawyer, non-journalist blogger with a full-time job (i.e., yours truly) could do this, please let me - and the rest of us - know in the comments. I did find SCOTUS blog and SCOTUS wiki and will see if I can make sense of this incredible resource, but if you know others please send them on.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

This year's Giving Season Gimmick - Coupons for Charity

It's not even Halloween and I'm doubling down, ready for the onslaught of Giving Season Gimmicks. No way am I going to naively wait until November for this to start. Heck, I've been thinking about it since back-to-school shopping wrapped up. I just thought I'd let you wait a little longer.

I've been expecting this. Groupon, the social coupon clipping service has gone charitable.

In Cleveland, the Museum of Natural History offered discounted family memberships via Groupon - see this post from Musematic.

In San Francisco in April they offered a deal on membership in the Golden Gate National Parks Association.

In Chicago you can join The Art Institute; in Charlotte there are discounted memberships at The Light Factory (a museum of photography and film); and in Indiana you can join the State Science Center.My Twitter friends tell me this has been used at SF Conservatory of Flowers, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Asian Art Museum, and NYC's Whitney. Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 blog has some other great examples of how museums are working with Groupon.

Groupon isn't the only game in town - there is LivingSocial, Twongo, and SocialBuy as well. These offer discounted memberships at local organizations. Groupon also heavily promotes its G-Team corporate philanthropic efforts, which amounts to placing ads for nonprofits next to the daily deals. LivingSocial counters with LivingSocial Charities. Groupon and The Point come together to support nonprofits.

An alternative approach, that taken by CauseOn, is to offer coupons for products (as do the others) but 20% of the price goes to support a cause.

One more sign of the pervasive embeddedness of giving. And this is my guess for "Gimmick of Giving Season 2010" - watch for all kinds of cross promotions between charities, coupon sites, and merchandisers coming soon to a web browser, app store, and social network near you.

Regular readers, by now you know the questions I'm asking:

Membership coupons:
  • Who keeps the data on users? From what I was told the museums only get the data after someone who's bought the coupon takes the next step and signs up. Groupon keeps email and cell phone info?
  • How is discounted price split between museum and Groupon? One source told me its 50/50.
  • Do organizations get all the membership info they need from folks who use this to join?
  • To whom are the sites selling those data?
  • How do the costs of using these sites compare to direct mail costs for reaching potential new members?
  • What are retention rates for members who sign up this way? (Maybe too soon to tell?)
Advertising deals:
  • How much money actually gets to nonprofits? (for the ad click throughs)
  • How can we check up on the claims about where the money from ads clicked goes?

Monday, October 11, 2010

I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works by Nick Bilton

At the Environmental Grantmakers Association Fall Retreat last week I tried two "stage gimmicks" that I derived directly from reading Nick Bilton's new book, I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works.
First, since we were at Asilomar, I got a 10 gallon bucket and filled it with sand. I dribbled a few grains of sand into my hand and said:
  • "This is how much information an 18th Century professional would have dealt with in his lifetime."
  • I filled a small bag with sand and said, "This is how much information is contained in a week's worth of The New York Times."
  • I tilted the entire bucket toward the audience, and said "This is the amount - 4 exabytes (10^19 power) of unique information created each year nowadays."
Turns out I was wrong about that last bit - I should have used Bilton's quote about how "American households' collectively consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008" A zettabyte is, of course, 1000 exabytes.
That's why your head feels like it is going to explode after being at a conference nowadays.
Then I held up a paper roadmap of California. Pointed out that when you use one of these maps you have a clear picture of the roads in the state and the first thing you have to do is locate yourself in that picture. However, when you use a map online or on your phone the first thing the software does is zing a little pin onto the map. That pin shows you where you are. That pin is you. The map is oriented around you, not around the state of California.
The session at EGA was on "Tools that Move the Needle." We heard from Bradford Smith of The Foundation Center, Jon Cracknell of The JGM Foundation and Environmental Funders Network in the UK, Rachel Leon speaking on behalf of the Gulf Coast Fund, and Rick Reed talking about the REAMP project. These are great examples of using data and data visualization to make sense of existing information, using technology to see information in new ways, and using technology to involve new voices in decision making conversation. We saw the world premier of "Bridging the Gulf" a fabulous 3 minute short on the Gulf Coast Fund's community data project.

Here's another way of looking at the amount of data we deal with daily. (from GOOD Magazine)

Having milked Bilton's book for my role in moderating this panel, its only fair that I share some broader thoughts on the book. First, let me note that I'm writing this book review while watching Giants/Braves game #4, cooking dinner, and checking on the progress of the City's 4-day, 24-hour-a-day trolley track replacement project that is happening within 50 feet of my front door. I just finished Bilton's book, which, contrary to the research he cites on multi-tasking while pleasure reading I was able to finish with the ball game on.

Bilton is the lead technology writer for the New York Times Bits column. He's engaging, funny, clear, and significantly less arrogantly tech-savvy then many in his position. His book is more than a book. Each chapter opens with a QR Code (that black and white box thingy at the top of this post) that leads you to online content, discussions, and other community oriented tools related to the book. This is cool, though not as cool as the book app that Stephen Elliot developed for his memoir, The Adderall Diaries or The McSweeney's App for the magazine. I read the book on the Kindle app, so theoretically you can read what I highlighted online here.*

His book, I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works, is one of those rarest of rarities these days - a business book that is a good story. Bilton takes us from the porn industry to classrooms, from Gutenberg to fMRI research, to surgical theaters and data visualization hubs. He has a penchant for making up terminology - consumnivore and technocondria are both self-explanatory and useful.

As he weaves together his observations from his own life, his work in the New York Times Research Labs, all sorts of other research (sociological, psychological, medical, and anthropological) he keeps an important perspective in place - technology changes things in accretive ways, we don't change as fast as technology does, and, "Paper is still gadget number one for reading content."

He also points out that it is experience we are after, not just content. Now that everything is digital, we may not even be aware of the original source of the information we're reading. I have Flipboard on my iPad and know just what he's talking about. Flipboard deliberately pulls tweets and blog posts, news stories, and Facebook posts all into one place and makes it all look good. The professionally curated, the amateur curated all swirls around me as I organize these feeds to include only what I want. This may be one of the snazzier tools with which to do it, but essentially we all do this all the time now when we set up a Feed reeder, Twitter lists, or iGoogle homepages.

The more the sources of the content fade to background, the more "I" get the ability to organize it all, and the more mashable content becomes, the more we seek a unique and powerful experience. The more we are relying on our own selected filters for information, whether that be the people we follow on Twitter or the editorial staff of The Wall Street Journal. Storytelling - using all of the tools at its disposal in whatever time period we find ourselves - still reigns supreme. In this moment, that storytelling needs to account for screens, click-away alternatives, video, other voices, game structure, and our ability to multitask.

After presenting a wide range of examples and scientific research about our brains on technology, Bilton flips the unexpected card and points out that "most of the scientists I've interviewed agree that the brain's thirst for stimulation drives the technological advances of each innovation." In other words, we're dopamine fiends bringing this rapid change on ourselves because we can. We can dream it, we can adapt to it, we can keep up with it. We always have.

While Bilton thrives on technology, he doesn't claim to read tea leaves. He won't predict the future of newspapers or other content providers. He does offer up some insights for the workplace of today and tomorrow:
  • Most of the generations that are fully native to digital environments have not yet joined the workforce. Watch out - the changes are just beginning.
  • People will do the right thing (pay for content and experience) if you make it easy for them. If you don't, they won't.
  • There's no going back.
  • Companies will have to take the leap of eating their seed corn in order to thrive. He points specifically to Apple's transformation from a computer company to a music distributor.
I think Bilton's insights are right on for every workplace. His insights about the malleability of data and the need for stories and filters (trust and anchor communities in his parlance) are as relevant to those in the social change/philanthropy sphere as they are to car salesmen, reporters, film makers, and fiction writers.

How do we know what we know?
How do we determine who will get to define the problem?
How does that, in turn, shape how we define the solution?
How do we interact with all the information around us?
These are key questions in shaping how philanthropy works. The technological infrastructure on which those questions are being answered and the cultural assumptions of the generations using today's digital technologies are fundamentally different than those of "command and control, broadcast television, movie theater" generations. The "future" Bilton describes explains the difference between Kickstarter and Network for Good, between Ushahidi and the AP and between The Extraordinaries and a Volunteer Center.

Read it.

BTW, the Giants just won and dinner was delicious. The track replacement project is proceeding apace. It actually looks like it will be done, on time, 4 am Tuesday.

*This public highlights feature is from Amazon and not limited to Bilton's book. It's actually kind of creepy to me, but I figured I'd give it a try once to see.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Embedded Giving - Bad for you, bad for change

New economic research shows that folks who buy green products may act more selfishly and less eco-consciously later on. Those who insulate their houses and use green building products are likely to then crank up the heat. These findings come from studies by the economist Nina Mazar at The Rotman School at the University of Toronto. It's early research, and a small study, but falls in line with what behavioral economists like Dan Ariely, Sendil Mullainathan, and the Freakonomics folks tell us about the not-always rational (actually, the "predictably irrational") ways we act.

So if you shop for good - as we all do and will do plenty of this giving season, no doubt - can we assume that we will then give less? The research doesn't show this, so we need research that will really look at this question. I am by no means unbiased on this question having asked it for years, but it sure seems likely that "giving at the checkout counter" will influence how you "give with your checkbook." Especially when times are tough.

This is a real question for all of us. Cone marketing studies show that more than 80% of want to make purchases from companies that support a cause. There is no doubt about it - cause marketing influences what we buy and from whom.

There is nothing but doubt, however, that the money that is raised this way goes where it is supposed to, serves who it is intended for, or serves the longer term relationship building process between consumers and causes (it seems to serve the relationship building process between consumer and product brands). We do not track these dollars, companies don't need to report them (nor even identify the organization to which they are giving them), no one is required to report them in aggregate form or any other way, and there is not, at this time, any way to know for sure that the money is going for good.

It seems likely that our shopping dollars are destined to challenge our donation dollars in the revenue chain for good. If so, shouldn't we at least have some sense that not only did we get a nice new t-shirt but that cancer research got funded, vaccines got delivered, seals got saved, and kids got insulin?

Read more in Scientific America MIND, "Green and Mean: Eco-Shopping Has a Side Effect"

Thursday, October 07, 2010

World Bank #OpenData Open Forum

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Where am I?

I'm in San Francisco, participating in two conversations in DC that are happening in two different auditoriums at World Bank. In one of the auditoriums in DC, Hans Rosling is participating via video stream. (Twitter is not working at this exact moment so my effort to live tweet this was thwarted.) There is live video stream, two roundtables, and an online chat.

Live site is here:
There are several good resources hanging off the site underneath the live video.

Announcement: World Bank Data will be available in Google Search in 34 languages.

Some quotes:
"#OpenData are the roads of the 21st Century."
Check Twitter stream #opendata and #wbmeets

Historical perspective: Tim O'Reilly talking about how #opendata movement started - All started with Carl Malumud in 1993, put SEC EDGAR database on the web. Did it with volunteers, ran it for a year and half, then donated it to the SEC.
"What else is going to become valuable?
(Tim O'Reilly, thinking back to 1990s)
Incredible resources and examples from #apps4africa and others.

Good discussion of the power dynamics for governments and empowering citizens. There need to be demands from the bottom up and the right to the data need to be protected by law. Right to Information Act in India - these are key parts of the story.

Some folks now refer to World Bank as Data Bank.

"Anyone can be a think tank" - analysis is as important as are apps and maps.
"Open Solutions in Open Development" - Bank provides the data but the world does the analysis and asks/answers the questions.

"Data are the fuel of the new economy."

Remember - mobile phones don't just let people access data, it lets them create data.

This was a fabulous event. The many interviews, the two auditorium features, Tim O'Reilly interviews, "man on the street interviews," tweeting, etc. all the technology was amazing. More important, the Bank's efforts with Open Data are fantastic. I hope the Bank will keep the resources, video archive, stream available. Check the conversation and resource lists here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010 - keeping the conversation going

A few days ago I wrote "Speeches, listening and learning" about how I try to integrate the many sources of information out there and weave together various conversations and data sources. Some suggested that in doing this I am playing the network weaver role. Many folks emailed me about this post, probably because of the great Maira Kalman slides, so it seemed to strike a chord. If so, I hope its useful.

Here's another great example of how this works when it works. I'm not "attending" #SoCAP10 this year for a variety of reasons. Not "attending" in the traditional sense that is, meaning I'm not at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

But I've followed along on Twitter, have spoken or met with several folks who are attending, know that there is video being streamed (and archived?) and have kept up at least 5 daily IM/texting chats with folks at Fort Mason over the last 2 days. Twitter often serves as a my own disbursed network of reference librarians, people find and tweet things of interest to them and I use them as filters for my interests.

By not being at the conference I've actually got 5 or 50 of me there - all in different rooms, hearing different things, conveying them to me (and lots of others). I'm "listening across the venue" for the tidbits and insights that I need. When more than one person says, "Hey, so and so has a great presentation," I crank out an email to so and so and ask for her slides.

When I reached out to Brian Walsh of Liquidnet to get his slides he sent me back a note saying - "Better yet, here's the blog we set up to share the information." So - here's the blog they set up to share the information, Since it's a blog, you can comment, tweet about it, read the slides, and participate in this continuation of the conversation. Well done, Brian, et al.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

$500,000 dollars for Jewish Interactive Media

Three of the nation's largest Jewish foundations - the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation have put out a challenge to the entire Jewish community - especially folks who are part of it but don't identify as such: Show us how new media works and we'll show you the money!

The Jewish New Media Innovation Fund intends to support interactive, digital efforts that engage Jews and Judaism. Old traditions, new media. New traditions, new media. Social traditions, social media.

Individuals, nonprofits, commercial ventures, techies, Torah studiers, media machers, mensches and mavens are all invited to apply.

All the details and the application form are here. Deadline is November 22, 2010. Funding decisions will be made in February, 2011.

Half a million dollars can fund a lot of good ideas - if you've got one (a good idea, that is) apply now! If you know someone with a good idea, tell them all about it. Help spread the word and show the funders just what Jewish New Media Innovation can really look like.

You can apply online here.
Follow on Twitter @jewishnewmedia
Read more about it here.

Full disclosure: My colleagues and I at Blueprint are helping the funders with this initiative.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Speeches, listening, and learning

 (From Maira Kalman, Next Stop Grand Central)

I give a lot of speeches. From an efficiency standpoint, I'm really bad at them. I refuse to package up a set of slides and repeat my canned comments, anywhere to anyone. That's the way to be an efficient speechmaker. I'm pretty much only interested in giving a speech as a means to getting a conversation started. Given this, fitting the material to the audience, adjusting to whatever else is on their agenda, and generally customizing what I know to who they are and what they are talking about only makes sense. Plus, I get bored listening to myself so I have to change what I say.

Last week I gave a talk at the Communications Network conference (slides) and this week I'm off to the Environmental Grantmakers Association. I'm skipping the in-person trip to SoCAP10. I've spoken at the previous two and work with the social media team so I know full well that I can follow along via twitter and livestream.  It was the first SoCAP that got me on twitter, it's only fitting that I attend virtually this time around.

I'm thinking about all this because of how hard it is to pull together all the many streams from which we get information. The number of sources only increases. My ability to weave connections between speeches, conversations, primary research, links, tweet conversations, compelling videos, and secondary literature is not keeping up.

One of my art heroes Maira Kalman, claims "she has no imagination." She says she just "paints what she sees." I've been in Grand Central Terminal 50,000 times and have never seen it the way she does. When she showed it to all of us, first with her remarkable scaffold art during its renovations in the 1990s and then with her remarkable book, Next Stop Grand Central, this wonderful train station in all its glory took on a whole new meaning.

Now, I'll never be Kalman. But in my work I try to make something new and useful from the data that are all around us. She makes magic from how she sees the world, draws together a million different daily ordinary sightings into a new, extraordinary illustration. I'm trying to see patterns in the chaos, connections between the dots, and links between the conversations. If I can find meaning from the rivers of ideas and offer insights then I can help others navigate the multiplying choices.

In the Communications Network slides you will see that I included a twitter discussion that happened the day before I arrived at the meeting. It was directly relevant to what I wanted to talk about (how technology and markets are reshaping the social sector). I had participated in the tweet discussion during James Surowiecki's speech on Thursday. I cut and pasted the twitter posts into the slides and talked about them on Friday. Someone asked a question about it during our general discussion. We had a few minutes to continue the exchange.

So I'll continue the discussion here - it has to do with whether or not the wisdom of crowds can change the existing power dynamic in philanthropy. Here are some other folks' thoughts from the conversation.

My premise is this - these tools won't do anything by themselves, it's how we use them, and toward what end, that matters. As Surowiecki notes, crowds are wise when they're diverse. If foundations reach out to different people to ask different questions they should get different answers and different data. If they do something with this, then crowdsourcing and crowd wisdom will have influenced the work of the foundations. Will it overturn the power imbalance between those with financial resources and those without? No. But can the tools help foundations reach out for different ideas and engage different audiences then the ones they always have? Yes. Is this a good thing. Yes. But for established foundations the change comes from the intent, not just the tools.

(For new enterprises, such as KickstarterCrowdflower Fund, HubCap Fund - there is a new dynamic in giving or investing that puts the power of the funding in the hands of many. But #commnet010 was attended primarily by foundation executives)

Here are some more specific points from the conversation at #CommNet010:

  • Tweeting a link to a pdf and posting your annual report on Facebook is not change. 
  • Having a communications staff broadcast your message through all the new social media tools is not change. 
  • Listening differently to different people, and using what you hear to shape your funding strategies could lead to change.
  • Get used to being behind the 8 ball when it comes to technology. It changes so fast, as Kevin Kelly notes, we'll always be beginners.  The corollary of this strikes me as well - if you're starting to feel like an expert in technology, you're missing something.
  • Communications staff should spend as much time helping the rest of the Foundation listen and learn as they do broadcasting the message of the Foundation. That would be change. 
  • The options for achieving social goods - market based, nonprofit, individual, and networked - are so numerous that any foundation needs as many "ears on the ground" as they can get. Every funder is now choosing between market-based and non-profit solutions. Whether or not they know it is a different story.
  • Are you a foundation with data and analysis you want people to read? Post them on Amazon. After all, even people like me who buy as much as we can from independent bookstores use Amazon as our reference librarian in the cloud. Put your stuff where people look for stuff. MacArthur and Knight Foundation (and probably others already do this).

By the way, The Dragonfly Effect, which I reviewed on Sunday, has very good practical information on how to use social media tools to nudge action.

So where there is intent to change, listen, and engage social media tools are remarkably powerful. And when I get the time to weave all the streams of information together, and a little time to reflect, I can actually distinguish signal from noise. But I don't seem to be able to do it efficiently.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Dragonfly Effect - Book Review

My favorite thing to do is read fiction. Left to my own devices, I'd walk the dogs and read novels for most of my waking hours (leaving time to try to change the world for the better also, of course). For the last few months I've been a member of an online book club - The Rumpus Book Club - that provides members with new fiction one month in advance of general release and interviews with the authors. But its best feature is an online discussion group that is a weird hybrid of the best literature seminar I took in college, a global conversation about babies, beer, and bad T-shirts, and the conversation at the cafe that you can't help but eavesdrop on.

This is all by way of saying that I'm a bit of a literary snob. Reading business books may just be the death of me. Once upon a time their thoroughly scripted format might have helped convey the messages they contained, but now the formula is so familiar as to be hackneyed and obstructive. Who decided that all good ideas must  be simplified into bullet point lists to which a cute name can be applied? Or that smart insights about the changing nature of nonprofits and commerce need to be set aside in a text box? Or that the reader will not be able to understand a concept unless the author includes a 2 x 2 matrix to explain it? Really, no one interested in changing the world is so overtaxed as to need this many "scanning" devices. I understand the pressure - you write a 200 page book knowing that your reader is likely to skim it quickly at best. Give them lots of visuals, lots of catchy nicknames, and then hope the ideas stick - don't worry about prose or storytelling.*

In the case of The Dragonfly Effect the weight of the business book format holds back the ideas. There are some important insights about how social media works and the difference between different platforms for different messages.  The authors, a marketing professor at Stanford and her consultant co-author/husband, know their stuff. The examples of how various campaigns are managed, the staff resources required, and the learned differences between tools (twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs) offer really useful information. Plus, they tell the truth about social media gone bad.

The authors are also smart about the similarities and differences between social media strategies for marketing and for social causes. They lay out tactics, reasonable expectations and the use of metrics for manageable the campaigns. In other words The Dragonfly Effect is useful. Its cute name comes from the fact that dragonflies can move in any directions as long as all of their four wings are moving in concert. They use the metaphor well - integrating tools and tactics, be clear on the direction you want to go, and make sure each individual piece (wing) is functioning and social media can help you get there. (Regardless of what Malcolm Gladwell thinks).

So maybe it's unfair to be so cranky about the required business book format of The Dragonfly Effect. And maybe I should just be glad to have so much fiction stored on my bookshelves that I can always escape there for good prose and a decent story. And, no doubt, a lot of this crankiness is a result of my own multiple writing projects - all of which have me in a funk that will be familiar to any writer anywhere. OK, I'll cop to that.

I think The Dragonfly Effect could be so much better if it had burst the bounds of this form, lived life as a really compelling set of blog posts, lectures, workshops, and/or slide decks. Because the ideas in the book matter. The tactics matter to anyone trying to use these tools to make something happen. The authors do a really good job of simplifying the research. They offer up the "why" behind certain tactics and give well documented reasons in answer to the "what tools when" question. The Dragonfly Effect represents a step beyond the "should we or shouldn't we" literature on using social media. It goes right to the "how do we accomplish our goals" question.

Good stories, well told. That's what helps move change along. No matter the media - see the movies and teams being developed at GoodPitch, for example. The Dragonfly Effect has lots of these stories. 

*I'm nearly finished with a book manuscript. I am guilty of all of the above - essentially turning blog posts and slide decks into some kind of book-esque collection of information. Editors and publishers tell me I'm supposed to hope that lots of people skim it as compared to worrying about the narrative flow and prose. OK. OK. I get it. But I will always prefer good writing to handy bullet point lists.