Monday, December 23, 2013

Ending the year on data and transparency

Two posts I'd like to bring to your attention before the year gets away from us.

The Hewlett Foundation on their transparency efforts so far. This post points out that the foundation has begun sharing grant summaries as well as program officer memos to the board.

The video of a talk I gave at the Next Generation Evaluation conference in November. It's really easy for evaluators (and conference hosts) to talk the talk about respecting the data rights of the people and programs they evaluate. As I discuss in the video, talk is one thing - it's the  technicalities (terms of service, speaker release forms, embed codes (ahem), data collection protocols, etc.) that actually matter. There is potential in digital data, and peril. Proceed accordingly.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Ethics of Data

In my role at Stanford's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) I am having a great time organizing a conference on The Ethics of Data. Our event, which will happen in September 2014, is a joint effort with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the Brown Institute of the Columbia School of Journalism (and Stanford School of Engineering), and the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS.

We're going to be focusing on questions related to the ethical challenges and opportunities created by digital data use in a number of domains, each of which has a large civil society component. We're working on medical research, civic tech and citizen data, digital scholarship, and crisis response - but expect those domains to be fairly fluid during the planning. The sessions will include scholars, activists, technologists, funders, and policymakers - stay tuned!

We're deep in the planning now - website and details should go live in late January, early February. In the meantime, we're trying to connect with and keep track of others working on similar questions and issues. Two events to put on your radar screen : RightsCon and the Responsible Data Forum.

Folks at The Engine Room (one of the hosts of the Responsible Data Forum) are starting to collect and track resources also. Here's their working list. Please share other resources or events with which you think we should connect.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Measuring ourselves and perceptions of progress

The Center for Effective Philanthropy just released a survey of foundation CEOs that asks them about their sense of progress on the issues their organizations work on. I was honored to be asked for my thoughts on their findings - which are posted on the Center's blog. The process reminded me of my own efforts to learn about "How'm I doing?"*

How do I measure my work? How do I know if I'm making progress?

Since selling my consulting business and focusing now on writing, learning and teaching, my goals have changed. I'm focused on thinking hard about philanthropy, the social economy, digital civil society so I need to reflect on what I'm learning, who's talking about similar ideas, who's pushing back on these ideas, who disagrees with me and what can I learn from them?
  • At the lab we're also trying to frame new policy conversations - so we can track who and where those ideas are being discussed and what formal/informal recommendations they seem to be influencing.
  • We're also trying to understand the research landscape about these ideas - so we'll be able to compare types and amount of research over time.
  • Every year in the Blueprint I include a scorecard of how I did on the predictions I made the previous year. You can find the most recent Blueprint here - scorecard is on pages 19-20. Sometime soon I ought to go back through the five years of Blueprints and check on my overall "score."
  • I pay a lot of attention to the questions I get when I give speeches or that people send me via the blog or Twitter. How do those questions change over time? Do people seem more acquainted with my ideas - is there a general familiarity with the work or is it new, over and over again? (both are important - depth and breadth of reach) I also try to track who is writing to me, asking questions, inviting me to speak, debating my ideas - is the group expanding and diversifying or am I speaking to the same people over and over?
  • Because I'm trying to learn I also pay attention to whether I'm breaking new ground - reading new things, exploring new fields (I learned a lot about telecommunications security and surveillance in 2013. In the new year I plan to learn about biotechnologies and robotics. I'm also reading and re-reading a lot of American intellectual history from the revolutionary era). 
  • One thing I do "measure" every year or so is this diversity of what I'm reading. I've subscribed to certain periodicals for 32 years (Hint: they all have New York in their names). I subscribe to two periodicals with whose political slant I disagree (and I read them). I use the sources cited in those periodicals as a way to find new things to read. My goal here is to try to listen to the "other sides' opinions" in the "other sides' voices," not filtered through the pundits with whom I agree. What I'm trying to track here is the degree to which I'm hearing echos or finding new ideas.
  • And yes, I use web analytics, citations, and distribution numbers for all the digital idea sharing I do - but I learn more from the qualitative feedback then from raw numbers or percentages.
There's more (there's always more) but those are some ways I reflect on my work.

I wish I had a group of peers to reflect on this with me - to push me further, to tell me where they think I'm making progress, and where I'm falling behind. I do this informally with colleagues at Stanford and elsewhere but there's no single mechanism or place I can get the kind of feedback I want, so I have to piece it together. I'd welcome your ideas or thoughts on other ways for me to learn and improve and make a difference.

How do you measure your work? How do you know if you're making progress?

*Ed Koch, former NYC Mayor, lead quote in my CEP post

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Blueprint 2014 Now Available!

I'm thrilled to announce the release of Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2014.

Download yours for free from GrantCraft. It's fitting that I am in Annecy, France, at the annual meeting of the associations of French and Swiss Foundations, as this year's Blueprint includes a few thoughts on philanthropy and the social economy in Europe.

The focus of the Blueprint this year is on the idea of digital civil society - a concept I'm exploring at Stanford and in conversations with people around the globe. It also includes the annual buzzwords list (revealed today by the Chronicle of Philanthropy), predictions for the coming 12 months, my scorecard on past predictions, and a few wildcards.

Download it, read it, share it and tell me what you think.

Thanks to my partners in producing the Blueprint, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and the leaders at GrantCraft from The Foundation Center and the European Foundation Centre. Special thanks to my editor, Anne Focke, who's been part of this annual experiment for each of its five years.

Philanthropy Buzzwords - Full list

The list of top ten buzzwords is intended to capture the gist of the jargon in the year gone by and serve as a guide to terms you’re likely to hear in the next twelve months. Some are meaningful; some are satirical. Some may have lasting implications and be a catchphrase that summarizes an important idea; others will pass by as quickly as they came.  (Reprinted from Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2014 - available for free download)

1. Privacy
Privacy gets my vote for the buzzword of the year – and it’s one with real sticking power. Edward Snowden put it on the front pages, our pervasive reliance on digital communications makes us all vulnerable, and the delicate balance between private and public that defines associational life makes us all stakeholders.

2. Performance Management
This is the next generation measurement buzzword. We’re still working on measuring outcomes, but in the meantime organizations of all sizes and shapes are working to improve their own operations. Hence, performance management tools and buzz. Don’t be surprised to find a management consulting firm (or two) with just the solution you need.

3. Peer-to-peer services
Peer-to-peer[af1]  is another name for the sharing economy. There is an deepening schism among enterprises that help people share cars, bikes, and couches. Some of them are still rooted in a resource-saving, sharing mentality while others, particularly those funded by venture capital, have taken on the growth expectations and business practices of big ticket commercial enterprises.

4. Constituent Feedback
Now that almost everyone on the planet has a mobile phone, the cost of speaking directly to constituents is within reach for almost any organization. Getting feedback from beneficiaries has never been less expensive, though it’s still not simple. Using the information one gathers is also hard. Expect more and more efforts such as the GlobalGiving Storytelling project, the YouthTruth project started by the Bill & Melinda[af2]  Gates Foundation, and Keystone’s Constituency Voice work.

5. Makers
One of the odd outcomes of the digital age is newfound interest in old-fashioned handmade goods, such as wooden birdhouses, knit sweaters, and other crafts. Libraries, museums, and independent workshops provide space and equipment for these Makers. There are frequent Maker Faires, a magazine, and an explosion in urban workshops to serve the crafting needs of DIY-ers (do-it-yourselfers) everywhere. Makers especially like to mix and match the digital with the analog: think remote control robot inside crocheted baby toy[af3]  or hand carved wooden drones.[i]

6. Bitcoin
Bitcoin is a digital, nation-less currency with a value that fluctuates at rates previously only seen during tulip-buying frenzies and dot-com booms. It’s popular with financial speculators and some nonprofits, including the Internet Archive and Sean’s Outpost, a homeless shelter and food bank in Florida that uses it to raise donations.[ii] Because it can be “harvested” by anyone with time on their hands and an Internet connection it recently drew attention as a new form of panhandling.[iii]  

7. Commons
Nothing has put the old-fashioned concept of resources held “in common” back on the front burner as powerfully as the metaphor of the Internet coupled with our collective fear of a warming planet. Thankfully, there’s Nobel-prize winning research behind these ideas and some efforts, such as a new approach to development being pioneered in Ecuador that could put some meat on the rhetorical bones.[iv]  

8. Metadata
This is the data about data. Once the purview of coders and librarians, metadata came to public attention when the American National Security Agency claimed it wasn’t storing all of the content of our emails and phone calls, just the metadata about them (in other words, who we emailed or called, when, and where they were). Metadata has also brought down many a philandering politician, scam-conducting executive, and lying schoolboy. Human rights activists are particularly careful about the metadata tracks they leave behind.

9. Randomista
The tongue-in-cheek derogatory term for an evaluator or social scientist who believes that the only meaningful evidence is that which comes from random control trials.

10. Solutionism
Evgeny Morozov coined this term to describe the digital innovators who think they can solve every community problem with an app. Solutions, as compared to progress or adaptation, run counter to the lessons from one of our 2013 buzzwords – resilience. PBS even ran a program on this - mixing sharing economy with solutionism

Bonus Buzzword – Hackers
Those who break into, remix, repurpose, and create software code. Some do it for good – think of all the hackathons, codejams, and data–mining events where software coders and social activists create new digital tools for organizing. The term, however, still retains it allure of the outlaw, malicious “black hat” even as the mindset and skills of hacking are recognized for the potential positive outcomes.

[iv] Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her research on the commons. In 2013 Ecuador announced a new development planning process to be led by Michael Baumens, founder of the P2P Foundation and a global proponent of commons-based governance.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Close the Loop - $10,000 for feedback ideas

One of the hallmarks of digital civil society is the low cost access to mobile conversations. This technology - mobile, SMS based - has the potential to disrupt how we think about evaluation and performance management. We - nonprofit leaders, activists, funders, residents, evaluators - can provide direct feedback and input on needs, capacities, program strengths, and problems.

  • How will we use these tools? 
  • How will organizations adapt to actually use the information gathered?
  • What are the privacy and ownership issues surrounding these kinds of interactions?

Feedback Labs and Ashoka Changemakers are leading the efforts to experiment, learn, and inform us about these questions. They've opened a call for submissions:

"seeking innovative solutions that are helping feedback loops to empower people, drive better decisions, and put resources where they’ll make a difference."
 First call applications are due November 27. Nominate or apply here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Crowdfunding and philanthropy

A colleague at The Monitor Institute pointed me to this "research" on crowdfunding. Some of it just blew my mind.

(Photo from

If these numbers are even close to correct, "social causes" (undefined in the "research") accounted for 38% of 2012 crowdfunding, which totalled $2.7 billion in 2012. That puts global social cause crowdfunding last year at $1,026,000,000. And this undefined category of "social cause" doesn't include the performing arts, film, music, or environmental projects. This is notable since a review of categories of funding on Kickstarter noted that dance projects were the most successful.

With the strong caveat that this isn't academic research, it's self-interested marketing "research,"  that's a lot of money.

I am interested in learning more about:
  1. Where does institutional philanthropy fit in around these crowdfunded dollars? Are foundations funding projects before they raise money from the crowd, and then helping them raise those funds?
  2. Are foundations tracking crowdfunding campaigns in the proposals they receive from nonprofits?  What trends are they seeing? How are they thinking about this information as a signal about fundraising trends? Idea-testing trends?
  3. If there are foundations interested in sharing their data on question #2 above, I'd love to coordinate research on this at the Stanford Digital Civil Society Lab, possibly in partnership with the new crowdfunding lab at UC Berkeley. Contact me.
  4. I know of at least three start up consulting firms aimed at helping people run successful social good crowdfunding campaigns. There are probably 300 if not 3000 such firms. What do we know - what should we be tracking - about the emerging ecosystem around social cause crowdfunding?
  5. I expect crowdfunding campaigns will play an increasing role in raising funds for disasters such as the Philippine typhoon. Who/where will those data be tracked?
  6. My upcoming Blueprint 2014 (available December 4 at predicts a major crowdfunding scandal in 2014. So I'll be watching.
Here are two blog posts from the Knight Foundation on crowd funding and their grantees. Here's a post about the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation and Kickstarter. Please send me other examples of foundations and crowdfunding.

Here's the full infographic of the research findings. The report is available for sale.


Interactive tools for collective work

GrantCraft has launched a new interactive tool finder for funders interested in collective work. This grew out of research and analysis by the Monitor Institute (now part of Monitor Deloitte) and the Foundation Center and their report called Harnessing Collaborative Technologies.

The tool finder lets you search by type of need or type of tool (data gathering, project management, decision making, etc). It's one of those projects that was meant to be digital and interactive as the types of software being presented here proliferate, die or improve all the time.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dollars, Data, and Democracy

Thanks to Tom Watson at Forbes for this article on the new Digital Civil Society Lab I'm co-leading at Stanford.

He's exactly right - we're looking at dollars, data and democracy.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Get what you deserve when you give

I've been on a bit of break from my years of pointing out the foibles of #embeddedgiving - or what the industry calls cause marketing. Two things bring it back to my attention:

1. Amazon's gotten into the game. This is huge because Amazon is, well, Amazonian. Earlier this week the online retailing behemoth announced that it's AmazonSmile program would let shoppers donate 0.5% of their purchase price to the charities of their choice. That's nice. But why don't they just give you the discount, let you donate the money to the charity of your choice, and let you keep the warm glow, credit, and tax break for yourself? By funneling it through Amazon are you making your life easier or are you just letting Amazon take credit for your largess?

Why do you need an intermediary to give away your money? Just about any organization you want to support has a Donate Now button of their own.

When you take Amazon up on its 0.5% donation, guess who gets credit for the donation? Amazon. Credit for your spending your money. Hmmm. And the costs Amazon incurs to run this program? Where do you think they'll show up and to whom will they be passed on? What an irony  - call it a discount, take all the credit, and pass on any additional costs for running the program to customers somewhere else. This is what really happens with embedded giving.

2. Breast cancer awareness fatigue. Finally, this has been building for years and the pink-ization of everything is finally getting some of the backlash it's long deserved. See this article in The Guardian for a well-written commentary, there are many, many others.

Embedded giving runs directly counter to efforts to build strategic and effective philanthropy and more accountable nonprofits. It puts intermediaries where none are needed, complicates (if not obfuscates) feedback mechanisms, and is almost entirely unaccounted for and unaccountable.

Please, this holiday season, give. If you want to be part of something, be part of #GivingTuesday. But get what's yours when you give by giving directly to the organizations of your choice.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Inventing Digital Civil Society

Every time you text a donation, use open source maps to help inform disaster response, or donate blood samples for medical research you are helping to invent digital civil society. Civic technologists, nonprofits, foundations, open data and open government advocates, mobile phone-toring activists - we're all a part of it. The Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford will introduce our inaugural research about these activities - and is seeking your input on our research agenda, open experiments, and policy thinking.

Here's a TEDx talk I gave on this idea back in May. 

You can join the conversation by answering two questions - check out our #2Q4 conversation (Two Questions for...) You can send us your insights on how you are inventing digital civil society and offer thoughts on the work of the lab. We're also collecting stories about civil society and big or open data - please add your thoughts on this wiki - generously hosted by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation as part of my role there as a Visiting Scholar.

The Case Foundation is generously hosting two workshops on the work of the Digital Civil Society Lab on October 29th.
One will take place from 10am - 12 Noon
The second will run from 3:00 - 5:00 pm.  
Please RSVP for only one session.
Space is limited for each session.

Our research papers are available here.

The Digital Civil Society Lab is a research project of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Stanford PACS is a research center for students, scholars and practitioners to explore and share ideas that create social change. Its primary participants are Stanford faculty, visiting scholars, postdoctoral scholars, graduate and undergraduate students, and nonprofit and foundation practitioners. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Metadata for #Good - the Digital Public Library of America

Libraries are core institutions of communities, of societies, of democracies. I had the great pleasure of spending the last two days at a festival hosted by the Digital Public Library of America ( - one of the many efforts that I see as being at the very heart of digital civil society.

What is There's an official mission statement - written 3 years ago by 40 people and still going strong today. Here's some of what I'm thinking as I wait to go home:
  • It's a portal, a platform and principle - 
  • It's a set of community tools for making library and curated community content (Americana) from across the country findable and visible, for free, everywhere, by anyone.  
  • It's civil society designed from the data up. And it's all about the people.
  • It's a way for people to build tools that matter to them
  • It's metadata used for good
  • It's a constantly evolving experiment (I learned that some schools can't access because its weird URL is blocked by IT filters. Even techies make mistakes!)
  • It's a policy advocate - see the proposal to the FCC about e-rates
  • It could feed an app that could help me find the scholars doing work that interests me
  • It could feed an app that would help all of us improve our searching capacities by learning to "think like a reference librarian" - or search laterally, as I heard today
  • It's a force for democracy and justice
  • It's a force for open access and fair use - and librarians have a great sense of humor. One proposal I heard was to create "fair use zones" - #FUZones - on the #internet to complement "Aaron Swartz Reading Rooms" in physical spaces. 
  • It needs to be multilingual
  • It's can be a force for training local librarians (and other community members) in digital technologies
  • Can it be a force for combining civic tech communities with librarians?
    •  #open311 + dpla = national connective tissue on community problems and solutions?
  • It's the data source powering the serendipomatic

Here's a #vizthink capturing some of the ideas from today's opening session made by @willowb100.

The events in Boston this week had originally been scheduled to take place in April and were postponed in response to the bombings at the Boston Marathon. At that time Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of DPLA, wrote these words:
"I see the building of a new library as one of the greatest examples of what humans can do together to extend the light against the darkness. In due time, we will let that light shine through."
The dpla  - its communities of activists, scholars, supporters, coders - truly shone this week.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Data-informed resiliency

I grew up in New York. Every time the weather man predicted a hurricane my mom would order us to "fill the bathtubs." On a few memorable occasions during my childhood that action proved useful as the tubs became our only source of flushable water. Most of the time the danger passed and we just emptied the tubs.

The first night I arrived in the Bay Area I was woken up around 4:00 am by the subway going underneath my grad student apartment. Except it wasn't the subway, it was an earthquake. Not big enough to wake the locals (especially just after the Loma Prieta quake in 1989) but it rocked this transplant.

One thing I immediately learned to respect about California cities was their overt attention to  emergency advice. NERTs (Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams) have regular sign-ups. The local fire station was happy to advise on earthquake preparedness kits. The city is dotted with billboards asking "Do you have a plan?"

The other day a colleague and I were discussing the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Initiative. As it happens, the colleague works for Palantir, which has made a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to help cities integrate data systems to improve their disaster response - a critical part of anyone's definition of resilience. I started thinking - what would data-informed resiliency look like?

Pictures of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, bombed Madrid trains, chemically-attacked Damascus suburbs and Sandy-smashed New York came quickly to mind. Food, shelter, water, health care, evacuation routes, power.

What data do cities already collect that, with the proper foresight and integration, could be useful in disasters? And how can they collect, use, and share the data in ways that protect personal privacy and that best serve the poor, infirm, and elderly (as opposed to discriminating against them)?
  • Can building permits be used to map wind and solar generators that would work post-natural disasters?
  • Can restaurant and grocery store business licenses, plus Yelp data, be shown to map commercial kitchens or food prep?
  • What data do cities collect on  suppliers that might be useful to map and identify useful redundancies in the food supply chain?
  • Remember all those maps of gas stations that popped up post-Sandy? Can those be opensourced in advance, so that live updates from tweets and cellphones are easier?
  • What data are in Open311 systems that might inform planning for medical or elderly care?
  • What about all those Facebook networks of volunteer animal rescuers? Can they be used to mobilize networks in disasters?
  • Convention bureau data on hotel rooms plus AirBnB data - helpful information on shelter?
  • Park department resources + neighborhood watches = disaster meeting points?
  • Evacuation routes and ways out - do car rental and car sharing help here?
  • The popup sites like [nameyourcityhere] - what might be done with those data in advance to plan for next time?
  • Business permits and licenses for nursing homes and home health aides - can this information be used, while respecting individual privacy, to help reach the elderly and infirm?
  • Data on in-home daycare sites - how might this be useful to aid in rescue of toddlers?
  • If folks can use #nextdoor to map halloween candy routes, can we use it for more serious purposes also?
I'm not an expert in disaster relief (obviously). But there seems to be lots of potential for using existing government data to power rescue and response efforts.

I've been impressed for a long time with the collaboration among data and tech activists across communities. TechPresident alerted me to a new portal on GitHub highlighting government-citizen code collaboration and the recent CodeForAmerica Summit in San Francisco had coders in from cities all over the country. The Open311 project seems like a good model - build it and share the code across cities.  Whatever type of natural disaster your city is prone to (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods), we're all prone to the same man-made disasters. We'll all have similar needs in those first 72 hours - food, water, medical care, power, evacuation. Resiliency is a good framework in which to think about these issues - if for no other reason than to do a "equity check" on the data our cities actually collect.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Feedback - Driving Real Change in Philanthropy

(Crossposted from


Feedback. If we can create real relationships between "donors" "doers" and "beneficiaries" we can reinvent philanthropy. Direct, credible, honest feedback - on what's working, what's needed, what's problematic.

A great group of innovators has started working on this through a self-initiated effort called Feedback Labs. Check it out. I'll be writing more - much more - on this.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A few questions about the data

I heard some great presentations at a conference on crowdfunding today. Made me think about where the data come from. It wasn't scientific, but by my ear it seemed most of the researchers were using Kickstarter data. How did they get it? Under what terms of use? What other crowdfunding platforms will make their data available to researchers? I tweeted the question and got this answer:

Does every researcher need to negotiate their own deal with the platforms? Are there any standards or expectations about these data being available for research? Where do these type of data - generated by crowds, aggregated by private companies or nonprofits, fall into #open data conversations?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Designing Change from the Data Up

I'm excited to work with some great data innovators on this upcoming session for #AweSummit.  You should be there if you can.

Designing Change from the Data Up
The act of giving generates a lot of data. Who’s collecting it, and who should have access to it? How do we manage this delicate personal data respectfully but transparently? What does it mean to design social change from the data up?
Facilitator: Lucy Bernholz, Digital Civil Society Lab, Stanford University
I'm also planning a different iteration of this for an event in February at the Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar. These public workshops all draw from the workshops at Stanford's Digital Civil Society Lab.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Write the Future (Rockefeller Foundation will turn it into art)

This is a great centennial-celebrating project from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Take a few minutes, add your thoughts about the future and meaning of philanthropy, and on October 14, 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation will unveil the artistic presentation of a globe's worth of ideas.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Good (and not so good?)

Huzzah to Brad Smith for this post on the Brave New World of Good. Stop. Go read it. Then come back here. (Please)

Brad does an important job of describing the new "sandbox" of good. The tag line could read: "Good: It's not just nonprofits and philanthropy anymore." It's also social enterprise, impact investing, open government and data, and political giving....This is the point I've been arguing in the last few years worth of Blueprints in which I describe it as the social economy. This is the term we've adopted at Stanford for describing all the ways we use private resources for public benefit.

Brad's absolutely right - the world of good is diversifying and expanding I can add one more item to Brad's list it that crossed my twitter feed today - market research on shoppers who "love shopping AND want responsible consumerism" (italics intend irony, which is mine). This is the extreme example of wanting it all.

But, surprising me, Brad stops short of pointing out the tradeoffs, ironies, limits, or mutually-exclusive intersections within this complicated sandbox of players. Here's the thing - each of the different things in this social economy or sandbox of good may be individually "good." But it's the interactions between them that matter. In some cases those interactions are not so good and may lead to meaningful, negative consequences.
  • Want an example? Supporting political issues through social welfare organizations has put anonymous charitable giving on a crash course with norms of political transparency.
  • Want another? Open data that is used to threaten personal privacy or safety.
  • Another? Market-based incentives that devalue long-term community building or policy focused work.
  • Another? State financing of nonprofit organizations that effectively make those theoretically-independent organizations less accountable distribution channels for public funds. 
  • Another? When philanthropic dollars release public agencies from using public funds for public purposes. 
With my colleagues Rob Reich and Chiara Cordelli I've written about some of the tradeoffs of "all this good." The paper, Good Fences: The Importance of Institutional Boundaries in the Social Economy, is one of a series from the #ReCodingGood Project and the new Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford.

We're also trying to lay out the new policy issues - where the tradeoffs lie - that this new reality brings forth. That work is outlined in the Social Economy Policy Forecast 2013. I'd welcome your responses and suggestions to any or all of this work and hope you'll help us think it through.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Flu Near You

The effects of the government shutdown are not just short-term. Things not getting done this week may matter months, and years, from now. One government function not being met in the short term that we know will matter over time is tracking the spread of the influenza virus.

Usually the purview of the Centers for Disease Control flu tracking is critical to health care in the immediate term. It also matters for long term planning, particularly for developing vaccines for next year's flu strains.

This is where a hospital, a public health association, and a funder have stepped in. Healthmap of Boston Children’s Hospital, the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund have created FluNearYou - an interactive map of flu reports (it also has information on vaccine availability). Video below.

The partners say it's their intention to "demonstrate ... utility for multiple sectors who must work together for pandemic preparedness if data is openly shared. The information on the site will be available to public health officials, researchers, disaster planning organizations and anyone else who may find this information useful."

This is essentially crowdsourcing information on behalf of public health. We're also seeing citizen crowdfund for city services that aren't available through tax revenue - see this story on security in Oakland. What we need to ensure is that these types of actions work with government and each extends the other. If we get to the point where we are relying on crowds to fund core public services, our democracy will be in even more trouble than it is now. But if we can use the crowd platforms to engage people, to partner with the public sector, to expand and complement civic responsibility than we'll be that much the better for it. Understanding these forms of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing as political acts - and designing them for maximum public benefit - is a big opportunity.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Guess the next in the series

So....what color comes next....?

....Do you remember your color wheel from grade school?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Digital Civil Society Lab

We've reached a point where all of our civil society actions have digital components or counterparts. We can organize, petition, volunteer, donate, associate, raise funds, raise awareness, protest and serve our communities using digital tools. Some things we will do digitally and offline, other actions, such as creating a voluntary global encyclopedia, signing petitions, and crowdfunding will rely ever more on digital tools.
This raises a few questions:
  • How will we assure our ability to freely and privately volunteer and associate with others, when our digital communications are being stored and tracked by companies and governments?
  • What practices for doing good digitally really work?
  • What data from the nonprofit and philanthropic sector should be open?
  • How should nonprofit organizations collect, manage, use, and protect data in ethically responsible ways?
  • What should individuals expect from nonprofits in terms of how they use data about us?
  • Can I, as a person or a company, donate data for social good?
  • What are philanthropic foundations doing with all the digital data they collect? How could it be used as a public resource?
  • Do corporate or government data policies violate an individuals' Constitutional right to "peaceable assembly?"
  • If I donate my DNA sample to a nonprofit organization, can I be sure they'll use it in accordance with my wishes, the way they would if I were donating money?

Clearly, we've all moved beyond the superficial choices (should I use Twitter?) to substantive questions about how we as private citizens come together to benefit our broader communities in a digital age. We are inventing digital civil society by our everyday actions. We need to be deliberate about the practices and rules we develop to guide this work.

This is what we're working on at Stanford's Digital Civil Society Lab. We're thinking about these questions in three ways:
  • practical experiments with NGOs to help them and help us learn from the real world,
  • scholarly research in many disciplines, and 
  • policy thinking to preserve our right to use private (digital) resources for public benefit.
We've been learning from other scholars - MIT Media Lab, MIT Center for Civic Media, NYU's GovLab, Harvard's Berkman Center, Columbia School of Journalism's Brown Institute, Oxford Internet Institute, the Pew Center on the Internet and American Life and hope to continue to expand our networks. We're also working directly with activists and NGOs, tech companies and funders, learning from their real world challenges.

Our first research papers are now available for download. We'll be discussing the policy briefs at the Independent Sector Conference on Saturday. The full set of papers includes:
The Emergence of Digital Civil Society 
Social Economy Policy Forecast 2013
The Shifting Ground Beneath Us: Framing Nonprofit Policy for the Next Century
Please follow us on Twitter at @DigCIvSoc and online at





Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Act like an artist

Back in March of 2012 I commented on the similarities between artists and social enterpreneurs. Artists, it seems to me, have always walk the lines between commerce and nonprofit, between individuals and institutions, between forms. Artists will do whatever it takes to make their art, to have it seen or heard, to share it, and to make more. I encouraged folks to "act like artists."

Laura Callanan, formerly of McKinsey's Social Sector Office and now at NYU/Wagner and The Foundation Center, knows a lot about artists and a lot about social innovation. So I was quite struck when I heard she was investigating the similarities between the two, and talking about them at SoCap (video). Take a listen to what Laura's got to say about "The Surprise Social Entrepreneur." It's good stuff. Laura will be sharing much more of her thinking about these ideas - keep an eye out.

Monday, September 16, 2013

990s one step closer to being useful

We're still waiting for the open data movement to take hold within the IRS and for the annual tax forms from nonprofits and foundations (known as 990s and 990PFs) to be made machine readable, searchable, and downloadable.

Until we get there, The Foundation Center has given us a very useful interim tool - FDOFree - which allows you to run a free, keyword search across all 990PFs in The Foundation Center's (massive) database.

Here's how: 
  • Go to
  • Click on top right - "Search 990s"
  • Enter your search phrase, in quotation marks, in the search box.
  • Up pops a list of grantmaking foundation - click on the name of any foundation and you will be redirected to a digital copy of their 990 form. The form itself has information on grants, contact information, assets and expenditures, and financial holdings. 

I tried several test cases, including "transitional justice," "chinese music" "tea party," and "Luis Ubinas." The first case delivered 29 foundations, "chinese music" delivered the names of 7 foundations, "tea party" identified 31 funders, and the last test brought up just the Ford Foundation, from which Mr. Ubinas recently retired.

Once you are have the 990 on your screen, you can download it to your desktop and search within it, using whatever program you generally use to search a pdf.  I tried this with one sample from each of the test categories above, and, sure enough, the coding was accurate and I found what I was looking for within the text of the 990s.

One more important step in the right direction toward making these forms actually useful. Thanks, Foundation Center.

Friday, August 30, 2013

SoCap and CoCap

By now you've heard of the SoCap conference. Started in 2008 (the very week Lehman Brothers went belly up) SoCAP is all about social finance, impact investing, social returns - everything related to social capital markets. From somewhat humble beginnings it's grown into pretty much a "must attend" for social investors, social enterprises, and lots of philanthropists.

So they're launching something new. This year the CoCAP conference precedes SoCAP. What's CoCAP you ask? Community Capital. Tongue-in-cheek it's social capital for the 99%. Or, as the organizers put it:
"A hundred years ago, individuals invested in their own community. It was really common for you as a businessperson to own an interest in 5-10 businesses in your town," says John Katovich, President of Cutting Edge Capital. "It was a strengthening of common bonds - a vote of confidence in each other. But slowly we lost that. We're bringing it back."

The problem faced by ordinary investors is what financial reformers call "Investment Apartheid." Under the law, companies can only easily offer investment opportunities to "accredited investors" - those with a net worth beyond a million dollars and $200,000 in annual income. To offer the same investment to someone with less than a million dollars in net worth is illegal.

But pioneers of the Community Capital movement are bringing together both non-accredited investors, who demand the right to invest, and entrepreneurs, who are seeking new ways of raising funds. Financial innovators are using old and new laws that are giving everyone more financial freedom."
The conference will feature the launch of a new "online investment platform called CuttingEdgeX (CEX)" and includes breakout discussions on:
  • Beyond Crowdfunding: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Raising Community Capital
  • Main Street Markets: The Investor's Playbook for Local Opportunities
  • Capital for Communities: A Leader's Roadmap to Growing Local Economies
The event is hosted by
Cutting Edge Capital, the Local Investing Resource Center, HUB Oakland, Sustainable Business Alliance (a network of BALLE - Business Alliance for Local Living Economies), and Springboard Innovation. (That any investors are holding a conference on Labor Day is perhaps more than a little ironic, but maybe that's just me) I can't be there but am eager to hear how it goes. Drop me a comment if you attend.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Updates on Open Gov, Data Policies, Philanthropy and the Body, and Social Media

Open Government Data and Innovation
1. I wrote about Marc Joffe and his one-man effort to develop and map municipal credit ratings last week. It's a great example of what individuals can do with open data, and it also exemplifies the challenge of keeping something like this going as a lone ranger. I'm thrilled to announce that the Sunlight Foundation made an OpenGov Grant to Marc (announced a few days after the blog post - but timing was coincidental) to help him expand the site and his efforts. Congratulations!

2. Data Policies
Digital data stored online are regenerative. They can be used, reused, and applied to purposes beyond those for they were originally collected. This is a basic feature that distinguishes the economics of digital resources. It's also why we see tweets like this:
This is why data policies matter - not just where the data are, who owns them, who has internal access them, how long they will be stored. But with whom will the data be shared? Sold? We're learning more every day about which data corporations and governments collect on us as individuals. Nonprofits need to think about how they manage our data and how and what they communicate to us about it. And we, as individuals, need to think about what we want each of these enterprises to have, to hold, to use, to store, to sell, to conduct research on, to integrate with other data sets.....

The link to the story in the tweet above is here - the story about data gathering, collecting and sharing across government agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Security Agency and the Internal Revenue Service, reads like a modern-day crime caper with outcomes that are likely to remind us of how Al Capone was eventually busted for tax evasion.

3. Philanthropy and the Body
I found this book review of "The Ethics of Transplants: Why Careless Thought Costs Lives" quite interesting. Haven't read the book yet, but this set of ideas was right in line with our recent "Philanthropy and the Body" Charrette.

4. LinkedIn
I'm also blogging over on LinkedIn - in their Social Impact Influencer series. Here are my posts so far:
5. Contagious Magazine
CORRECTION: I had posted an excerpt from the current issue of Contagious Magazine (a UK publication for marketing industry professionals) that looks at philanthropy and social media. The Magazine asked me to remove it, so I have. The content is available only to subscribers - subscribe here Contagious Magazine.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Can "open data" improve democratic governance?

On September 12th the Data and Democracy Initiative and Institute of Government Studies will host a one day conference on the relationships between data and governance at the University of California at Berkeley. The full program is here. Registration information is here.

The conference features sessions on public/private sector relationships around data, making sense of all the data, data and civic engagement, and data and its discontents. Given how the pendulum of public discourse seems to have swung from "more data, more good" to "who's got my data?" informed discussions such as this one strike me as timely and important. Several of the participants in the event have informed my thinking at Stanford, including speakers from Sunlight Foundation,, and Steven Berlin Johnson. Michael Gurstein's work on community informatics was just recommended to me. I'm particularly interested in the session on the ethics of data, as this is an area I'm looking into more closely at the Digital Civil Society Lab and the next phase of the #ReCodingGood Project.

I'm excited about the burgeoning field of civic tech, especially as research is beginning to learn from, inform, and move forward with practice. I recently attended #FridayNightHack in which coders from various Jewish communities worked across national borders and time zones (San Francisco and Tel Aviv) to expand some of the open data efforts underway in Israel. There I met a guy named Marc Joffe, a former Moody's analyst, who has built a credit rating system for cities. His work is incredibly important - and amply demonstrates how much a smart, skilled analyst can do with the right data. Not only has Marc created a new way of thinking about credit and the financial health of cities, he's shared his work and his analysis openly. He was at the hackathon to contribute some of his skills, to see if his system would work with Israeli data and for Israel cities and investors, and to find partners who can help him continue his work. His is a great story of what individuals can do, and why we still need institutions - the tools that he's built need to be used, maintained, and expanded on beyond the capacity of a single person.

I was also pleased to find this recent case study by Susan Crawford on Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics - providing insights about how that civic tech initiative works and bringing some academic expertise to the folks at City Hall.

We've been experimenting with data, digital tools, and governance for several years now. In my efforts to inform and learn about digital civil society, I'm drawing a great deal from these related efforts.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Review - Ethan Zuckerman's Rewire

Reprinted from Stanford Social Innovation Review. This review appears in the upcoming print issue (now online)

Ethan Zuckerman
Not many people who write about the future frame their argument in the context of rabbinical teachings from the first century AD. But in the closing pages of Rewire, Ethan Zuckerman quotes Rabbi Tarfon: “It’s not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.”

Zuckerman, director of the Civic Media Lab at MIT and founder of the widely read website Global Voices, clearly recognizes the rhythm of history. In that way, Rewire marks a refreshing shift in tone from most other books in the futurist genre, which tend to read as if time had only just started and as if the issues that we face today had never before confronted humankind.

Zuckerman’s argument is simple: Now that we can all connect via low-cost global communications tools, we must use those tools to achieve positive change. That’s what Zuckerman has aimed to do with Global Voices, an online service that provides news and opinion about more than 100 countries around the globe. The site, which offers content produced by in-country volunteers, grew out of his concern about the parochial nature of most print and broadcast news.

Since launching Global Voices in 2004, Zuckerman has learned a humbling lesson: Just because we can gather information from every corner of the earth faster and more easily than ever before doesn’t mean that anyone will pay attention to that information. Internet technologies won’t make people care about world events if they aren’t already prone to do so. “I had hoped Global Voices would influence agenda setting. … I believed that by providing coverage of events that other media outlets had missed, we would help challenge the imbalance in attention,” Zuckerman writes. In fact, he notes, journalists today use the site for purposes that don’t always reflect his lofty goal: “It means that Global Voices offers reporters a way to get quotes from countries experiencing sudden turmoil, rather than using us to find important unreported stories before they break.”

Rewire is at its best when it focuses on the dynamic interaction between digital tools and those who use them. Zuckerman observes how the choices that engineers make can facilitate serendipity or ease the process of making new connections. One important contribution that the book makes is to help nontechnical readers truly see the way that sites do (or do not) respect their wisdom and their needs. Zuckerman cites Jane Jacobs’s views on city planning, and his book resembles her work in its focus on helping ordinary residents of the “digital city," as he calls it, better understand how their surroundings—digital surroundings, in this case—shape their behavior.

But in paying homage to Jacobs, Zuckerman doesn’t go far enough. He stops short of directly challenging the wisdom of the new digital-city planners. Jacobs didn’t play nice with Robert Moses, the legendary New York City “master builder” who became her nemesis. She organized take-to-the-street confrontations to stop him. In her books, she didn’t mince words. When she thought that the big shots were wrong, she said so—and offered strong arguments to counter their top-down approaches.

Zuckerman, by contrast, seems more intent on persuading Web designers and online managers to do the right thing—to “curate,” “translate,” and “contextualize,” as he puts it. He doesn’t ask the reader to consider the structural impediments, the competing motivations, or the basic power struggles that might stand in the way of individuals’ use of Internet tools to foster greater engagement or activism.
Such faith in the goodwill of engineers and designers doesn’t seem adequate. Zuckerman nods to the power of manifestos (including the one that launched Global Voices), but in the end his message is not one of revolution. Instead, he merely calls for a more deliberate application of the lessons that we’ve learned over the past two decades. That’s a good idea, to be sure: All of us who shop on, get news from, seek a job through, or connect with friends via the Web should have a better understanding of how design choices shape our behavior. Yet we’ll need more than mere understanding if we are going to rewire our own behavior, and not just have it rewired for us.


In a twitter conversation with the author following the posting of this review on SSIR, I noted my frustration with the last chapter of the book. To me, that chapter reads like it was written by an editor - suddenly Zuckerman's personal voice is lost and we're given bulleted lists of things businesses could do to follow his advice. He noted that, yes, that last chapter was shaped in such a way to appeal specifically to business book readers. I laughed to myself about this - I am so tired of lists, 2 x 2s,  sidebars, and icons in books, a structure so common in  "business books" it's hard to find actual paragraphs anymore. I could go on about this but I won't. My advice - read Zuckerman's book up to the last chapter.