Thursday, August 30, 2012

Trying to solve problems

One of the unfortunate realities for foundations is that they don't have enough money to do what they want to do. I know, I know everyone on the fund seeking side of the table reads that sentence and thinks "Oh, cry me a river," about poor foundations, but it's true, foundations don't have enough money to go around.

One result of this, over time and across countless organizations, has been the evolution of the horrible application process with which we are all familiar. From the outside looking in, foundations appear to be making it as hard as possible to apply for funding. They all have their own forms. The language about what they seek to accomplish is jargon-riddled and as opaque as possible. Some won't take unsolicited proposals at all. Others require several steps of inquiry before agreeing to receive an application.

From the inside, well-meaning foundation leaders and staff try to make things easier. They streamline the process (How about answering "8 questions for a shot at $5 million"). They assess themselves on their responsiveness to applicants and make real efforts to be more available, visible, and helpful. 

Wouldn't it be better if the process were less adversarial? If foundation application procedures were designed to help them find the right projects and help applicants find the funding they need (even if it's not going to be from that foundation?) Or if applicants could get guidance and help to improve their proposals?

Atlantic Public Media hosts a site called Transom which offers a good example of what's possible. Transom is a place where the folks at APM - ever on the lookout for stories - help people with stories craft them into a form where they can be presented on the radio. It offers tools to improve the stories, to craft the telling and to submit them.  There's advice from senior writers, editors and producers from NPR and elsewhere. There are lists of recommendations about technology and editing.

Applying for funding and submitting a story for production are not the same thing.  For writers the process of submitting stories to publishers or producers can be as rejection filled as for nonprofits submitting funding proposals. Transom shows us that it's possible to make the interaction one of working together to get great stories produced and make great public radio programming.

Foundations have made big strides toward being more inviting - (open grantmaking challenges reflect the growing awareness that the best ideas may come from the unlikeliest places.) But there is plenty left to do to get to the place where foundations and nonprofits are working together - from idea generation through proposal, implementation and assessment - to actually solve problems.

Transom bills itself as a "Showcase and Workshop for New Public Radio." I think its time for a "showcase and workshop for social solutions"

Monday, August 20, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Data dividends

Have you heard of the design company Threadless? You may know it as a t-shirt company. Or the former home of the Obama campaign's current CTO, Harper Reed. Or you may never have heard of it. But if you work in foundations as a program officer, grants manager, communications director, evaluator or other executive, I think you should take a look.

Threadless is a company that prints designs (primarily on t-shirts and iPhone cases). The community suggests the designs. The community votes on the designs. The community buys the products. The products sell very well. The process repeats. Buyers, designers, voters - some people play all these roles, some play only one or two. But they're all part of the community.

Why should foundations pay attention to this? How many of you (raise your hand) have found a cool idea, funded a successful project, evaluated something, or photographed a great event and then said "we should share this information?" So you publish something - maybe a pdf or a blog post. (Maybe you tweet about it or you share it on scribd, tumblr,, or RebelMouse if you are really cutting edge)

And then you wonder, where did it go? Did anyone read it? What happened?

I had a conversation yesterday with two foundation executives about this problem. Their organization had funded three different projects over several years to the tune of many millions of dollars. They had information about what worked, a good handle on the communities that might be interested in this information, even funding partners interested in helping get the info to those communities. What they didn't know was "What did the communities want?" Threadless (and Kickstarter and IndieGoGo and others) never has this problem. It knows what the community wants. It only builds (prints) what the community wants. And it then provides it in a variety of forms that the community has already said it will use.

Why is this so important? Foundations have limited resources. They should use them really well. They typically spend a lot of time and talent making informed funding decisions. They take care with their money. I think they should think about the information sharing possibilities just as carefully and with the same expectation of some outcome. In fact, I think the careful building of networks and sharing of information can be seen as a "data dividend," from which a funder should be looking for some kind of return just as they expect some kind of result from their dollars. For $X million the foundation funded several demonstration projects. For a data dividend of $Y (where Y is going to be significantly less than X), they can spark, inform, catalyze, accelerate more of the kind of things they funded with X, if they do it right. If they get the right information to the right people at the right time in the right form.

And if they do it right, the math is really exciting (because of the economics of information). It may cost $X to get a few demo programs running or to build a few prototypes or to conduct an evaluation. If the process of gathering the information and the plan for distributing it after the funding is built in from the start and the information is designed to 1) help someone get something done and 2) take advantage of in-person and online sharing systems then the return on the $Y data dividend could be even higher. Suppose you spend $3 million on a school program and $250,000 documenting, learning from, and building a community of two dozen other school professionals who have said they want to learn from that original program. Where $3m gets one school program the $250K might spark change in two dozen others. And the nature of (well structured) information is that it can keep being used, reused, shared, re-applied. Think of it this way - well structured data and networks for sharing it extend the value of the grant dollars - you get more bang for the buck. That's the data dividend.

How can foundations do this better? They need to ask their potential customers what they want before they start paying to evaluate, document, convene or create toolkits. The network of potential "info users" knows far better than the foundation does what it can use to learn. Is it a case study? A seminar? A site visit? Online access to an open data set? Professional development and worksheets? All of the above? None of the above?  A foundation's network of arts organizations and artists might want videos and site visits and it's partners in school reform might want curriculum for existing professional development networks. Different networks will use information differently - which is one of the reasons designing digital information upfront is so important, it gives you the most flexibility down the road.

The Threadless community has made it clear over time - they buy t-shirts and iPhone cases. Threadless knows the format in which to provide the information, and it lets the community then suggest and promote the actual designs. Threadless knows it has buyers for its designs from before they print anything, because the buyers tell them (Again, this is the same principle at work with Kickstarter). If foundations planned for their data dividend from the beginning of a grant they would get better and better at knowing which communities use what form of information. They'd get better at knowing what information those communities need. They'd involve that "end user" community early in the conversation so they can get the most bang for the "publication buck" and not spend a lot of time and money documenting something that no one can find, use, or care about.

Foundations with communications officers, evaluation experts, program officers and grants managers have all the talent they need to work toward "data dividends" but they need to re-allocate the way those folks spend their time and blur the boundaries between who does what when. Grants managers can be vital partners in helping program officers map the landscape of organizations working on an issue. They can help identify the potential community of users for foundation data. Communications professionals can (and many are) already at work trying to connect the foundation to the right networks to accelerate the institutions mission - here's a great "tweet" example of one step in that network building:

The key to this is building the network first, then using it to use information. Foundations have a great source of information to build these networks - the proposals and inquiries they get from people in communities trying to make the world a better place.

Evaluators will have (some of) the data that will be useful to the end users, and need to be part of the early conversations so they can help both the funded (and evaluated) programs and format the information so it can be useful to that broader network. And program officers setting strategy and selecting grantees can also be thinking about, from the beginning, what happens with what gets learned from this grant? What happens with the data it produces and how can I get the greatest dividend on it?

In this way each grant is not just part of a program portfolio but it's also a step toward a network of informed peer organizations, sharing information and working toward shared goals. What is learned from and produced from each grant should be available for others to put to use - this is what's exciting about data philanthropy. Given the economics of "one-off" grants compared to multi-use data and information, the potential benefits of working this way are worth the costs of change. A foundation doesn't need to have all of those staff people I just described (it might be easier if you don't) but it does need to have a mindset of working in networks and using both its money and the data that flow through it to achieve its mission.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Give to candidates, not to nonprofits

"I'm not giving any more money to nonprofits this year. I'm not volunteering for nonprofits anymore this year. Instead, in this very, very crucial election year, I'm giving as much money as I can to candidates I support, and as much time as I have volunteering on political campaigns.
Because I believe that who wins the U.S. presidential election this year will have an enormous impact on the causes I believe in: freedom, prosperity, economic equity, civil rights, international fairness, environmental protection."

Those are the words of Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits. You can read her full statement here.*

Since January 2010 and the Citizens United decision I've been talking to foundations and donor advisors about how Americans make choices between giving to nonprofits and giving to candidates. No matter how big or small your individual budget is you have this choice. If you happen to have tens of millions of dollars to give to campaigns or to electioneering efforts by independent organizations you can now do it - and there's been a good deal of attention to the disclosures by these organizations, a lot of data crunching about their expenditures, and a growing amount of discussion about the difference between anonymous charitable giving and anonymous political giving.

Many of us make choices about charitable giving separate from our choices about politics. This is obvious from aggregate data - more than 75% of Americans make charitable donations; less than 1% of us give more than $200 to candidates. Heck, most of us don't even show up to vote - since 1948 no Presidential election has attracted even 65% of the electorate. Usually, the turnout rate is much lower than that.  

The real question is whether giving to politics and charity is complementary or whether one is a replacement or substitute for the other. Is greater giving to candidates, SuperPACS, and c4s going to take away from people's charitable giving? Because of the poor quality and timing of data on these two types of giving we don't know the answer to that question - and may not for several years. Anecdotally, I know of donors (big and small) making this choice. I even created a decision tree graphic in the toolkit Navigating the New Social Economy to show the thought process that leads to this choice.

Jan is making the case, with which I agree, that the political environment in which direct service organizations operate matters to their success. Political activism, advocacy, and individual engagement in making our society a better place to live can be accomplished through politics and civil society organizations.

Masaoka is encouraging us to align our political support with the values we enact through our charitable giving.  My hunch is that giving to one may well come at the expense of the other, which Masaoka surely understands. We each have limited time and money and so we're making choices between options (sometimes consciously, otherwise less so). Our single dollar can't go to two places; it's politics or nonprofits, not both.  It's quite a statement, coming from the head of an association of nonprofits, to say "choose politics."

*Including her closing footnote where she says she'll still give to and volunteer for nonprofits.

A bevy of buzzwords - Impact Investing


With acronyms like that it's clear there is room for a helpful glossary of terms focused on impact investing and the "conscious economy." This came to me via a #SOCAP email

Below is an excerpt - the full list is online here. The glossary was assembled by Beth Busenhart and Charlie Kuhn of App-X.

"Blended Value
Introduced in 2000 by impact investing thought leader Jed Emerson, blended value represents a broader way of thinking about the nature of value creation by organizations, whether for-profit, nonprofit or hybrid, and through the application of capital. ....

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

CSR is a form of corporate self-regulation that is integrated into the business model and takes into account not only shareholders but also stakeholders such as employees and customers. ....
The term "corporate social responsibility" came into common use in the late 1960s and early 1970s after many multinational corporations formed the term to describe any group that is impacted by a company’s activities. ...

Double Bottom Line

A business term used in socially responsible enterprise and investment to refer to both the conventional bottom line, a measure of fiscal performance, and the second bottom line, a measure of Cannibals with Forks: John Elkingtonpositive social impact.

Triple Bottom Line (TBL)

Coined by John Elkington, founder and chairman of SustainAbility, in his 1997 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, the term refers to the three prongs of financial, social and environmental accountability. ...."

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

How do foundations learn?

Here's a sample of conversations I've had in the last five days:

- A call with a potential client about developing a network knowledge strategy for their grantees
- Discussions with a foundation about their strategic planning RFP
- Exchange with a magazine editor about a book review to be written
- Exchange with a different magazine editor about an article already written
- Respondent to a strategic communications firm's interview about a philanthropy infrastructure organization's message
- Interview about knowledge management in corporate philanthropy
- Participation in a 2 day seminar with foundation CEOs, other consulting firm leaders, and senior program staff about transparency in philanthropy
- An intranet discussion about a webinar and video presentation
- A call with a financial services firm about their company philanthropy
- Phone discussion with a colleague about communities using philanthropic information
- A call with a different financial services firm about their philanthropic services to clients
- A call with foundation executives about documenting some of their funding models
- A discussion about the role of grants managers in foundation knowledge strategies
- A planning conversation about a philanthropy and civic technology gathering
- Several calls with several foundation about using their data to inform philanthropic peers
- An interview with a radio reporter about transparency in philanthropy as compared to transparency in politcal giving - focus was on reporting requirements for different kinds of contributions
- Discussion about future Stanford ReCoding Good charrettes
- Logistics/publication planning for Blueprint 2013
- Planning to teach a session of a graduate level class on strategic philanthropy
- A discussion about how donors use (or don't use) performance data
- Client discussion about a proposed knowledge sharing strategy
- Reflected on the fact that my hard copy Wilson Quarterly subscription is being switched to Pacific Standard and paged through recently received issues of Innovations (MIT Journal) including most recent issue on Unleashing Ideas. 
- Several exchanges about speaking gigs at assorted philanthropy conferences
- Conversations with a few peers about where community engagement, knowledge management, digital information, human-centered design and other "hot" topics in philanthropy are all talking about the same thing (and where they are not)

All of which leads me to ask, how do foundations learn from one another? In almost every conversation I found myself asking/reminding us of "who are we trying to reach?" and "why?" From the sample list above there are several different "who" and "why" answers. In some cases the focus is new product development, otherwise it's sharing something that's been learned, sometimes it's about capacity building, some of the discussions focused on provoking new ideas. Most of the times (given what I do) the "who" was foundation professionals and/or donors. But those are hardly monolithic groups.

And as you can see just from the list above (which omits names and content for obvious reasons) the "how" varies - email, face to face, books, articles, speeches, conferences, classes, seminars, hackathons, workshops, webinars, videos, database analysis....

With all that they have at their disposal (money, expertise, networks, flexible time horizons, and reputation) foundations have a great opportunity to try lots of different ways to share information.  It's not as simple as having a publications arm or a communications officer or a learning office or a knowledge management strategy but it's about using whichever of the above means/mechanisms fits the "who" and the "why." What is the right information and who is the right community/audience/partners with whom you want to share it (and when is the right time)?  I doubt that there is one, constant set of answers to these key questions for any given foundation. In some cases, the potential users of a foundation's information are few, but those few may be very influential. In such a case the strategy for sharing the foundation's information can be hands-on, personalized, ongoing, and direct. Other times  that's not the case. Sometimes more data is more. Sometimes more analysis and discussion will be more.

(I think I'll write a part two on this, about why this range of options means how we think about data and information at the front end is important. But right now I have to get back on the phone).

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Interactive information

Three little thoughts on interacting with information about communities, philanthropy, CSR, doing good -

1. Intel's Corporate Social Responsibility department lets you log onto their website and create your own report of their activities. Check it out at You can get info on their corporate charitable contributions, political contributions, supply chain and other measures. This is cool - it shows that the company is tracking key measures and that it recognizes that we, the users, will want this info in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, you get a static pdf of the data (perhaps machine readable will be next...?)

2. NPR wants to hear from you about who's doing good in your community. Check out their Participation Nation project and send in your 100 word ideas and stories by the end of August. You can email them at participationnation at npr dot org.

3. Stranded in an airport last night, I picked up a copy of Pacific Standard. This magazine, which just changed its name from Miller-McCune, publishes intriguing stories about public policy, data and research (yes, it is possible to make such stories intriguing.) I particularly like the new feature - "Who Funded That" -  in which they provide, citation style, the funding sources of the studies mentioned throughout the articles or from which certain facts are drawn. I wasn't able to find a link to the section online, sadly, so I'm including instead a picture I took of a sample item on the page.

In the digital version of the magazine articles there are links directly to the cited research.  I can provide you this link to information about the publisher of the magazine, The Miller McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy.