Thursday, June 30, 2011

Buzzword 2011.1 - Social Impact Bond

It's June 30 - time to roll out some buzzwords.

Social Impact Bonds - (SIBs) these are a new type of financing for nonprofits that comes to us from the UK. These "bonds' involve guarantees for payments for services delivered effectively. There is one being test in the UK, the State of Massachusetts is experimenting with them, President Obama has endorsed them in his 2012 budget as "pay for success." The Nonprofit Finance Fund has a learning hub on SIBs and SocialFinanceUS is a new organization launched to help bring these to the social sector.

Keep an eye on these. We've reached a point in the development of the social economy that this kind of financial product innovation is going to take off. Especially as the relationships between state governments and charities becomes increasingly...difficult.

It's too soon to know how effective these bonds will be for drawing in more capital to the social economy. Regardless, I love this buzzword because the folks talking about them almost uniformly tell you about them and then say that "they're not really bonds." Perhaps there is a better name for them?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What I meant when I said "Data are new platform for change"

Four examples of what I meant when I said "data are new platform for change."

1. Safecast - a website populated with volunteer, crowdsourced data on radiation in Japan alongside data from official sources and experts. Started by a concered advertising executive in Denmark, this well-designed website is one of the most up-to-date, most referenced sources. As its founder, Marcelino Alvarez, says in this radio interview on The World:

“My background is actually not in physics or nuclear physics or science or radiation data, it’s actually in advertising,” Alvarez said. “So building websites, and doing product development.”
So he built a useful, well-designed site to which those with data and those looking for data could come.

2) The nascent #DataWithoutBorders (DataCorps) effort. Launched by a data scientist with the New York Times, this nascent idea is to match data visualization and analysis experts with nonprofit organizations to help them unlock what they know. The organizers explained it this way in the Guardian UK:
"The data world is a new and thorny place right now and we find that many groups don't even know what they don't know. We feel DWB has the potential to help organizations at all levels of competency, from NGOs with project-specific goals to non-profits who need someone to show them how to use data in ways they hadn't yet imagine."
I couldn't be more excited about DWB as it makes real an idea I shared at #PDF11 for "data circuit riders" - the 21st century equivalent of the do-gooder techies who helped put nonprofits online in the 1990s. DWB brings this kind of expertise together with organizations at the core of civil society to help unleash information we already have, to answer questions we're already asking, so we can all work together better. Who knows? Maybe we'll find answers we otherwise never would have known existed?

3) Data mashups that take government data and add to it the experiences of real people. Here's one - Don'tEat.At - use FourSquare to checkin to a restaurant and this App will ping you with health inspection info from the city database - might just keep you from getting sick. GovLoop has a nice story on how it came to be. Gives me hope for a request I posted recently on Twitter - can someone figure out a way to pull together hashtags from different conferences that are happening simultaneously and then play the role of "conference curator" - looping together discussions from the Millenial Donors Summit with new tools being launched at the Civic Media Summit (for example)? Literal network weaving, in real time?

4) Catching James "Whitey" Bulger by putting out an ad aimed at women who might have seen his girlfriend. Say what you want about the FBI and their 16 year manhunt - one hour after they aired an ad aimed at women the FBI got a tip that led to the Most Wanted Man on their list. What does this have to do with data? It's all about asking and listening - in this case, asking the same question "Have you seen this man?" of a previously unasked constituency - older women. A great example when you think about who knows what and where the expertise we need might be.

A few things to note about these data for change efforts:
  1. Data are anything that can be digitized - not just numbers, but ideas, stories, observations, questions, street smarts
  2. These mashups "listen" to people - pulling personal geiger counter data into a platform with data from the national sources on radiation.
  3. Data and stories - together - can make change.
  4. Sense making of data takes lots of skills - from data visualization to the wisdom of the person who lives in a neighborhood and knows who lives next door, which buses run on schedule, which stores carry fresh fruit, and who's had their "face done."
Note: none of the above are about complicated sets of numbers. Yes, numbers are data. And we need better quantitative data on lots of things. But data are much more than numbers. Think about Facebook. Everything on Facebook is data. And there's data on everything on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Looking Anew at What We Know

I've been on planes with some time to catch up on my magazines. Two pieces I read, along with a walk in Cambridge, Mass, really got me thinking.

George Soros, "My Philanthropy," The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011.

The financier and philanthropist discusses his inspiration and joy in philanthropy. The motivation for keeping the Open Society Foundations open after he dies, the role of risk taking, and how his thinking about rationality, markets, and human nature shape his "conceptual frame," which he calls reflexivity. There's a lot to consider in how Soros is wrestling with imperfections and market theory and the nature of human resistance to hard news, in thinking about philanthropy and the future of good. I was particularly taken by what I see as parallel reasoning about what Soros argues are limits of reason when applied to human nature (as compared to nature) and what I see as the complementary roles that passion and pragmatism play in defining our individual giving and the overall shape, contours and directions of the business of giving.

Adam Gopnik, "What I Learned When I Learned to Draw"(Subscription required) The New Yorker, June 27, 2011

My favorite observation in this article by Gopnik, a masterful writer and a terrible sketch artist (by his own admission) is this:
"Why was I so unable to do something so painfully simple? Whatever sense of professional competence we feel in adult life is less the sum of accomplishment than the absence of impossibility: it's really our relief at no longer having to do things we were never any good at doing in the first place -- relief at never again having to dissect a frog or memorize the periodic table."
Boy, that sure hit home. Almost as much as Gopnik's wry comments on how his expertise as an art history critic was challenged once he started trying to see like an artist.

After I was done reading I went for a walk. I was staying in Cambridge's Kendall Square, near MIT, in between my plane flights. If you've been there lately you know the stretch of Main Street near the T stop is now home to several fancy labs on cancer research, DNA and other genetic wonders. The names on the buildings are familiar to anyone in philanthropy (or any reader of The New Yorker who made Jane Mayer's 2010 article on the Koch brothers one of the most circulated stories around).

What is striking about the buildings is their glass facades with enormous, beautiful and engaging art displays about science. The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research is all about bringing together biologists and engineers - but it is the larger than life petri dish art in its windows that grabs the attention of passers by. If these 5 foot in diameter photos were somewhere else, you might imagine they were jellyfish or sunrises or simply abstract art. Because they are in the windows of a science lab the passer by immediately senses there is more to this art then beauty. It's striking to me how many layers of "language" there are in each of these circles - artistic, scientific, engineered, photographic. This little photo below doesn't do justice to how striking these images are.

(Image from - Photo by Pat Greenhouse for the Boston Globe)
Turns out the whole building gives art its due - right down to the cool, tile floors.

Across the street from the Koch Institute is the Broad Institute, an independent nonprofit affiliated with both MIT and Harvard. The lobby of this building is dominated by an interactive display of data on DNA. The display can be touched, poked, read, questioned, and stared at by those on the sidewalk. Both buildings use art and architecture to influence how the science inside gets done and how the public outside gets to "see" a little bit of the data, knowledge, and work as it happens.

Together, these articles, the buildings, the public data displays and the deliberate cross-expertise struggles depicted by Gopnik, pondered by Soros, and displayed on Main Street in Cambridge left me feeling unusually optimistic.

Earlier in the week I'd read that the world's great coral reefs could be dead by 2050. This horrified me. We are on track to kill off a major structural element of ocean and planetary health. In a time frame that is completely touchable - 2050 is no abstraction, it's around the corner. Usually this kind of news sends me into a trough of despair. Which, it had.

But something about the way we seem to be simultaneously reinventing how we learn - the patterns we seek, the ways we mix science and art - something about the mix of articles I read on the plane and the wonders that are on display all around us also made me think, "there's hope yet."

I found myself lifted out of the usual, oversimplified horror stories about how the web is making us stupid and our schools are failing our kids to wonder if maybe we are in the midst of a necessary renaissance in how we think. While scientists do their work in new ways in expensive endowed institutes our children are also learning many new disciplines that mix information in graphic and data form across many platforms. They are looking for patterns we'd never think to look for and asking new questions of new data.

So here's my uplifting hypothesis from all this reading and walking: Maybe we've reached pervasive mobile cognitive connectivity at precisely the same moment that our old practices have pushed the planet to its near limits - so that we now, when we need to, we can both think different and act different.

Now I'm rambling. If you've read this far, thanks for sticking with me as I ponder a few good reads and a lovely summer evening.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The person's choice award for foundation data presentation...

I spend a lot of time pleading with and goading foundations to share their data (see video). I'm delighted to be able to tip my hat to a job well done.

The winner of the first ever "Person's* Choice Award for Foundation Data Presentation" is the Knight Foundation for a new report on its News Challenge winners. Maybe the Council on Foundations will take over this award, update its current Wilmer Shields Rich Award for communications and start promoting and celebrating "best data sharing" practices. I'm happy to have them rename the award - the "People's Choice" would be much better (and there should be a category for Open Data sharing, not just great presentation design).

When was the last time a foundation released an evaluation report that made an outsider write a whole blog post about their "favorite slide."? I'm not sure that has ever happened before. But it happened today, when Jeff Stanger of the Center for Digital Information responded to a tweet I sent about a new report released by the Knight Foundation with his choice of "favorite slide."

Here's the slide Jeff liked so much:

(source: Knight Foundation Report designed by Kiss me I'm Polish, online at

You can find the full study and report from Knight here.

You can read Jeff's full post here.

Wouldn't it be nice if more foundation data and findings were released in ways that people used them? Commented on them? Shared them?

The 2011 Knight News Challenge winners will be announced tomorrow, June 22, 2011 at the MIT Civic Media Conference.

* The Person's Choice Award is made up. By me. I'm the person. Go ahead - crowdsource this, let it loose, take it over - make it a "People's Choice Award." That would be great. Make sure you have categories beyond just design -- for machine readable, interoperable, extractable data (i.e. open data).

Monday, June 13, 2011

The new social economy

Rob Reich, Associate Professor of Political Science at Stanford, gave the "Class Day Last Lecture" to Stanford's Class of 2011 - a university tradition in which Maples Pavilion, home of the Stanford Basketball team, becomes a lecture hall for one, last lecture. If the video above is too small to read use this link.

Here is the video of Rob's giving the talk - start at 28 minutes in.

The graduating class chose Rob to give the lecture - a well-deserved honor for a fabulous professor. Embedded above is the presentation he gave - On The New Social Economy. This is a topic so near to my heart it's shapes the project Rob and I will be working on together this Fall at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Here's a writeup of the speech - I'll make the full video available as soon as I can get it.

There are few degrees of separation in this world. The presentation Rob used was designed by the same Irene Nelson who designs the Philanthropy and Social Investing: Blueprint Series.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Evaluating innovation is not an oxymoron

Evaluating Innovation is the fifth and final paper in the MacArthur Foundation Series on Field Building. All five papers are available here. If you are reading this on the blog, scroll down on the right side until you get to the "Scribd" widget - that has direct links to all five papers.

Evaluating Innovation provides a framework for thinking about evaluating efforts at innovation, presents examples from the Knight, MacArthur, and a joint effort of the Schusterman, Jim Joseph and Righteous Persons Foundations, and introduces some of the ways that communications innovations are changing evaluation.

All five papers in the series are free and available for download.

Contact me if you'd like to learn how other funders are using them or to organize a conversation within your foundation around these issues.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Open Philanthropy at #pdf11

Below is the text from my speech at Personal Democracy Forum - and here's the video.

Watch live streaming video from pdf2011 at


I am a philanthropy wonk.

I am oddly obsessed with the rules and regulations that guide how we use private resources for public good.

So you might be wondering what I’m doing here in a room full of tech geeks and politics nerds.

I’m here to ask for your help. I'm here to convert you to philanthropy wonkdom.

The future of good depends on it.

I need your help to open up philanthropy.

To bring foundations – and their vast repositories of information on who is doing what in the social economy – out into the open.

First, let’s look at the business of giving.

Foundations in America are big business. They give away more than $40 billion each year.

As big as that is, it is only 1/6 as large as the total giving that you and I do. Of course, we do it in small increments - $50 here, $100 there. But those gifts add up. More than $240 billion each year.

Looked at this way, philanthropy is a typical long tail industry – lots of small givers giving to – and sustaining – the 1.5 million nonprofits in the US.

In the last decade, technology has made our jobs as small givers much more efficient. We can now use any one of a number of online platforms to make a donation.

How many of you have used Kiva?

  • Kickstarter?
  • Donors Choose?
  • Checked a nonprofit on Guidestar?
  • Charity Navigator?
  • Great Nonprofits?

So you know what it is like to search for projects or organizations that have been vetted, due diligence has been conducted, giving opportunities are posted, you can get feedback directly from the recipient organization, see what other donors are doing, see what kind of feedback is available, and add your own insights to the data available on that organization. This is an efficient use of data and due diligence – collect it once, share it often, and build it publicly.

Now how many of you have ever applied for funding to a foundation?

The process is a little different. Instead of posting the opportunities and letting the money find them (as happens on Kiva, for example) every foundation applicant needs to produce a customized proposal, fill in the background research, present the evidence, and make their case. And the foundation receives this information, invests time and money into vetting the proposal, and then files the information. Whether or not they make a grant, the information about the community or the issue disappears into their vaults forever.

In a best-case scenario, the due diligence by each funder unleashes one grant.

In the usual scenario, the due diligence results in no grant and no information sharing on what was proposed.

Imagine being able to unlock the vaults on what the Carnegie Corporation, literally the grand daddy of American foundations, knows about after school programs in your community?

Or the knowledge that the Ford Foundation or Open Society Institute has about voting rights organizations?

Or what we could learn from the Gates Foundation about improving libraries or distributing vaccines.

There was a time when the financial resources of endowed foundations were their most precious assets. Today, in an era of deep data mining, pattern recognition, network analysis, and open government, open source code, and web scraping their most valuable resources are their data. Sure you'll take their money, but we need to make change are their data. Here’s a short list of the data that is going largely unharvested in foundations:

· Who is doing what?

· What is needed in specific communities?

· How much does it cost to provide certain community services?

Where does this information live? In application forms, proposals and research studies, evaluation reports and situation analyses. It is submitted by applicants seeking money, used once by the foundation officers, and then – usually – put aside once a decision is made. Submitted many times, used once - this is data waste!

To their credit some foundations are starting to do this. We need more efforts like that of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which feeds all of its grants out in an RSS feed as well as on twitter.

Or the Pew Research Centers which share live, machine readable versions of their data sets on public attitudes, internet use, and the state of the media.

Or the Packard Foundation’s Goldmine project, which is sharing 10+ years worth of grants data about funding organizational effectiveness.

Or the Hewlett Foundation – which opened up for public perusal the grant applications it received for Open Educational Resources – realizing that sharing knowledge with people who were trying to change the world by sharing knowledge only made sense.

How many of you are familiar with the Ouroborus – the ancient Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail? This is what we need to do with the long tail market of donors – we need the innovation and efficiency of the long tail to unlock the knowledge and data at the head of the beast.

Some of the platforms out there offer great models for how this might happen. DonorsChoose is currently hosting a hackathon – inviting techies to mine its dataset for trend information on what classroom teachers are asking for in their classrooms. That’s great information. Now imagine if we could see it in the context of what large foundations are funding in terms of school reform AND what the US Department of Education is supporting with Race to the Top money. Heck, we might begin to understand what’s going in on our schools.

In another case, Jumo, offers an open platform for anyone to post data. What if we could get the grants stream from The Foundation Center – which is right up the street here and has 40 years of grants information – streamed through Jumo so when you go to read about a certain project you can also see what foundations have funded it? Make your own decision and provide feedback on both the organization and the foundation funder?

We need more funders to share the information they glean from the proposals they receive. The Buckminster Fuller Institute presents one option – after its annual funding competitions it posts the “unfunded proposals” on an online Idea Index. This gives a second and third life to these ideas – allows partnerships to form – and may even result in the funding that the ideas need.

How do we get more foundations to share the critical information they collect? This is tricky – foundations are neither rational market actors nor subject to the pressure of the electoral cycle. We need strategies that mix demand with use with pride plus ambition.

We need public demand to unlock foundation data, a public movement of donors (all of us) - on other platforms - looking for vetted, credible info on what works and doesn't. What’s our collective interest in this? We’re the sustaining support for most of the things foundations fund – without us, as both donors and taxpayers – no foundation-funded program is going to keep going.

Here are three easy things you can do to help unlock foundation information.

Ask them for it. You know the old adage, when you want money ask for advice? When you’re asking foundations for money, also ask them for the data they have on an issue. As you use online giving platforms ask for data from foundations. If you use a foundation’s grants list as a resource in your own giving – let them know that and share that information online.

Give them permission to share your information. Proactively suggest to foundations that it’s OK with you for them to share your proposal with other funders. Encourage them to seek partners on your behalf.

Show them what their data look like. Show them what we know. Here’s where we need Data hackathons that include foundation data, apps that mix private funding sources with public data streams, and trend analyses – such as Donors Choose is asking for – that make sense of the information the funders are sitting on. Go to The Foundation Center’s website, which hosts The Glasspockets site with information on the open sharing practices of foundations, and map that data with your public datasets – show them what is possible.

Let's create a “data circuit riders” program.

Let’s create a philanthropic version of “peer to patent.”

We need to hold foundations – which hold private resources in trust for the public good – accountable to that public good. Right now foundations are held accountable only to how much money they spend. There is no accountability for how they share what they learn or how they use the data they create in service of those public goods.

As Dan Singer said yesterday - There are two ways we can change this. The first is through public demand. By asking, giving, using and showing them their data in context we can show foundations the value of their data. And putting it into context with other information - we might even reframe problems and develop new solutions.

If that fails, we can always wield the blunt cudgel of regulation. If we can’t get foundations to share their information by showing them how to do it and how we’ll use it – well, then I’ll be back to ask for your support of the Freedom of Foundation Information Act.

Thanks for your help in opening up philanthropy.