Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why I'm a philanthropy wonk

(Photo from ZD Net)

From 1990 to 1997 I worked on staff for a number of community foundations. This was the early days of email, the heyday of the Mosaic (then Netscape) Internet browser, and few of us had cell phones. The hip kids who did own mobile phones aspired to own a Motorola Razr. One community foundation CEO I know owned an Apple Newton and the PalmPilot was introduced toward the end of this period.

It was clear to me then that community foundations had more information on hand than they knew what to do with. My colleagues and I - both donor service and program folks - spent lots of time in community meetings. Our board included local activists, representatives of wealthy multi-generational cornerstone families, local newspaper officials, bankers, and public sector officials. They were involved in a wide swath of community life. Every day the mail came filled with proposals about what was going on, what needed to be going on, and who wanted to do what. We used all the data we gathered to make the best grant decisions we could and to connect and weave together all the projects, organizations and individuals we could. We did our best and at the end of every day it felt like we had been pushed back to shore by the incoming tide of information.

This professional experience was a second formative* step in my obsession with communities and information. In 1994 I published an article in the (now defunct) Foundation News and Commentary about the need for community foundations to structure themselves around their information role and coined the term "knowledge foundations." Little did I realize then I was off and running on the core issue of the next 16 years of my professional life.

Lots has changed since the early 1990s. Smart phones are everywhere, Netscape begot Mozilla, and email is yesterday's technology, replaced by IM, texting and Facebook.  Community foundations still have tons of information. Having roamed the halls of the annual community foundations meeting I can attest that these folks are now as iPad, smart phone enabled as the next set of conference goers. I'm also pleased to say many of these organizations are getting much better at organizing information, using it, sharing it, and directing it back to the communities from whence it came and to whom it is very useful. A few highlights:
The spreading use by community foundations of DonorEdge, Razoo, DonorBridge, and other online tools to share their data about community organizations and engage individuals in giving.  To my surprise, several community foundation friends came up to me in the halls of the conference hotel to ask "Did you know that they're marketing DonorEdge with direct references to your work On the Brink of New Promise?" (I guess this is one measure of having made an impact - finding out five years after publication that a vendor is using your conceptual work on the future to sell products to the market you wrote about.)

The Denver Foundation is actively involved in its region's open government efforts - helping the local agencies open up and share public data so that residents can use it. This partnership includes other foundations and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network. They're creating the Colorado Data Commons. (Hey Data Without Borders - check this out!)**

The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta is building an online data hub for local citizens to share their stories. It's called the Neighborhood Corner and is part of the foundation's neighborhood grantmaking strategy. (Hey Craigslist Foundation and LikeMinded - check this out!)*** 

The last two examples are funded by the Knight Community Information Challenge.

This is all good. There are no doubt many more examples of foundations using and sharing data and information as a core part of achieving their missions. There's a long way to go. But it's great to stop and appreciate the progress.

Why am I philanthropy wonk? Because private resources matter in solving public problems. Using data and information in better, more inclusive and scaled ways, organizing around it, and recognizing its unique properties as a currency are defining elements of how our world works now. We have tremendous opportunity to improve both the use of information and the use of private resources.

*Formative step number one - seeing this same paradox of information flow in the historical research for my dissertation, Private Foundations and Public Schools.
**I'm a big fan of DataWithoutBorders and have been evangelizing about their work for months. Jake Porway, founder, has just been named a Pop! Tech Fellow - Yay! (Update: 12:52 pm PDT 9/21/11 - I just joined their Advisory Committee. So excited!)
***I'm on the Board of Directors of Craigslist Foundation.


Lori Larson said...

Lucy, thanks for including GuideStar in your note. Your research and thought leadership from your publication, “On the Brink of New Promise” continues to play an active role in community foundation visioning, strategy, and decision-making. Our session at the COF conference, “From the Brink to the Edge: The Game Changing Potential of GuideStar DonorEdge," included panelists offour CEOs from the DonorEdge Learning Community: Lisa Adkins, Blue Grass Community Foundation; Mark Brewer, Community Foundation of Central Florida; William Ginsberg, Community Foundation for Greater New Haven; Jeff Pickering, Kern Community Foundation.

Your “On the Brink” work helped inform our sesssion, and was also mentioned during Tuesday’s thought-provoking breakfast plenary. GuideStar is a proud partner of supporting the shared vision of the DonorEdge Learning Community and the community foundation sector as a whole.

Warm regards,
Lori Larson
GuideStar USA, Inc.
Senior Director GuideStar DonorEdge

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks Lori - it's quite gratifying to see this work being referenced and used so often.


Jeff Pickering said...

Hi Lucy. For what it's worth, the ideas you advanced in "On the Brink" were key motivations for business model changes made at two of the community foundations I've been at (Central Florida, previously, and now Kern). It's taken guts to stick our necks out and embrace a different way of thinking about the future of our business, especially now while at a small, emerging community foundation . . . but a lot more fun in my opinion!

Lucy Bernholz said...


This is so nice to hear and quite humbling. "...the ideas you advanced in "On the Brink" were key motivations for business model changes made at two of the community foundations I've been at..."

To be able to see ideas and observations helping folks make bold choices, shape the way they talk about and do their work, and influence the tools they use - it's just extremely gratifying.

It makes me feel a little like the little kid on the old commercial for Shake and Bake - "And we helped"

Thank you so much - I was sorry not to be in your session, but excited to hear about it in the hallways.