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 livestream.com


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.


Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE said...

I am so, so with you on this and have been suggesting to every foundation person I meet over the last few years exactly what you are writing about.
All that knowledge stored in file cabinets and unavailable to our sector makes me cringe. Throw it open to data mining. Think what we might find not just in any particular sector, but looking cross sector or within communities about the role of particular organizations, or cumulative investment, or the lifepath of various leaders who move among nonprofits. What may look in a snapshot to be unsuccessful, may turn out over time to have a dramatic impact, intended or not. And vice versa.
Yes, open up foundation philanthropy. Open source grant reporting and grant seeking, for the benefit of all of us.

Bradford Smith said...


This is a great and impassioned plea for philanthropy to enter the digital age. You are careful to highlight those who are leading by example while reserving the stick for the field at large, which, as we know, is populated by the Gates Foundation at one extreme and a husband, a wife and a checkbook at the other.

No arguments with the bulk of what you say. As more and more foundations adopt online application and reporting systems, they are, indeed, sitting on growing stores of digitized information about social issues, nonprofit organizations, etc. This is a potential treasure trove for data mining such that knowledge management will become the new frontier for foundations, especially the larger, staffed ones. Nonetheless as a study done the Foundation Center of 63 such online reporting and application forms shows, the different kinds of information being requested by foundations varies widely. And there is little proportionality between the amount of information requested and the size of the grant.

There is one category of information, however, that foundations will not want to share openly and that is internal documentation pertaining to the rationale to fund or not fund a specific project. I have heard foundation openness advocates demand that this information be made available, but I cannot really see any good purpose to be served by its release. At the end of the day, for every grant foundations approve they have to say "no" to at least 12 more. As hard as it is to be on the receiving end of rejection letter, as nonprofits we need to chalk it up to the nature of fundraising and move on to the next request. Around other types of information (like certain evaluation reports) there are privacy concerns but foundations with archives like Ford have long experience with developing relevant policies. By the way, some great books have been written because of the access granted by Ford to those files.

The other issue left out of your blog is the difference between raw data and knowledge. The raw data, much of which are found in the 990 and 990-PF tax returns are widely available. But with something on the order of 900,000 active nonprofits and 76,000 independent foundations in the U.S. that is a big haystack in which to find the needle that answers your particular question. Cleaning, patching, and organizing all that data and providing reliable user interfaces costs money and somebody has to pay for it. At the Foundation Center we do that work for foundation data and provide free access at 460 locations around the country and around the world as well. We are also providing a growing body of data that is both open and free through RSS feeds and in other forms. But we know we can do more.

Last, there is the glamorous front end of all this work--open data, data mining, mashups, hackathons, etc.--and the gritty back end of creating data standards, taxonomy bridges and, in general, getting the data to the point where the can front end folks have something to put on the colorful maps and inside the dancing bubbles.

Philanthropy by its very nature (funder vs. doer) will never be on the cutting edge of all this, but we can close the gap.

Thanks for packing so much thought into one powerful post.


Lucy Bernholz said...

Here's what I'm beginning to think about - the Ouroboros metaphor that I use in the #pdf11 speech is even more apt than I first thought. Through sweat, innovation, a little philanthropic investment and a fair amount of commercial investment, the "long tail of giving" has brought the key "customers" for foundation information right up to the door of that data. Foundations, who worry about distribution of their ideas and their information, ought to look out their metaphorical windows at sites like Crowdrise and Jumo etc and see the 21st century equivalent of a distribution channel for knowledge.

If foundations could begin to see themselves as useful intersections in the flow of community and issue specific information then we can get somewhere. The Foundation Center has been playing the (Critical) role of data gatherer, clearner, sorter, owner and distributor for some decades now. We will still need those roles. But the numbers of ways they can be filled has grown and diversified.

As important, the "What is Data?" question really matters here. Everything that can be digitized is data. Everything on Facebook is data. And the deeper data - the stuff that organizes those drunk photos and links them to your buying preferences - that's where the money is. So, in the social economy, the data that foundations take in, use, and put back out is much much more than their grants data.

What might be most useful to community members and individual donors may very well be what is going IN to foundations, not what is coming OUT. This is not a plea for internal decision making documents - given the (legitimate) idiosyncracies of foundations I'd place that info last or close to last in terms of utility to anyone else.

Oh, but what goes in. Community needs assessments, lit reviews, situation analyses, scans of who is doing what, raw ideas and innovation proposals.

Yes, there is much value in the grants data that comes out, and value to be extracted from the reports and analyses foundations release. But it's the mindset that needs to change - where do they sit in the "info value chain," What value do they add, what info do they have, and how can it be put to use by other donors and other doers?

That's what drives this philanthropy wonk.

Thanks for writing in