Thursday, February 28, 2013

Creative and Effective

What does an open source text message system have in common with a forum for policy wonks and academics to meet? How about an organization that stops destructive river dams from being built and a documentary film company?

One answer to what they have in common is that these are four of the thirteen grantees named by the MacArthur Foundation as "Creative and Effective Organizations." The text messages come from Ushahidi and The Tobin Project brings together academics and policy makers. International Rivers stops the dams and American Documentary makes the movies.

So, in an age of strategic philanthropy, focus, and outcomes - how does this program of rewarding such institutions make sense? Who picks these organizations and what criteria do they use?

The Foundation makes these grants to organizations it already funds. These are one-time grants, used to acknowledge and strengthen institutions that are seen by foundation staff as particularly important to the fields in which the Foundation works. 

In the language of the Foundation, these are institutional grants - they "enable long range organizational planning and greater financial stability." The Foundation says it looks for organizations within its portfolio that are at a critical moment in their development. The funds are most often used, according to the Foundation, to establish or add to an endowment or an operating reserve.

"Creative" and "Effective" are good descriptions of the organizations chosen. Long term, smart support would be a good name for the Foundation's strategy in choosing them. 

enable long-range organizational planning and greater financial stability. - See more at:
enable long-range organizational planning and greater financial stability. - See more at:
enable long-range organizational planning and greater financial stability. - See more at:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Data privacy and public trust

(Photo from

The distinguishing factor of nonprofits, legally, is not that they don't take in more revenue than they pay out in expenses, it's that they don't distribute those excesses (the profits) to any individual. This is the "non distribution" clause of the corporate code that classifies nonprofit organizations - profits must be re-invested in the work of the organization, in its mission.

That little bit of legal code has worked well and created a large class of organizations who use the financial resources they have to pursue their social mission. For the most part, nonprofits have earned the public's trust in terms of how they use these financial resources. We have dozens of ratings systems and reporting requirements that a cautious donor can use to find out just what the nonprofit organization is doing with her money. Ask any nonprofit - public trust is critical.

But what about data?

There's nothing in the current nonprofit corporate form that says "We'll use our data for our mission." As important, there is nothing in the current corporate form that says to the public "We'll use your data for our mission."

And nonprofits have lots of our data. Our email addresses, cell numbers, credit card numbers, physical addresses. If you've attended a gala they know whether you like chicken or fish. Bought something at a charitable auction? They know if you like art or red wine. Attended a community event? They know what kinds of speakers you like, what kind of music you prefer, what kind of environmental causes matter to you. Pledged a donation over time? They know a lot more about your financial situation than you may think they do. Stop for one second and think about your alma mater's development department and what they know about you. All that data.

When it comes to data, we're all donors. And when it comes to nonprofits, don't we deserve some information about what they're doing with all that data?

The non-distribution clause has worked well to ensure that money gets used for mission. We need a similar enterprise innovation to make sure that our data get used the way we expect.


This story about a French proposal to tax the collecting of data should put to rest any question of whether data have value. Work by Mozilla and others on Data Privacy icons hints at what I'm thinking about regarding nonprofits and data.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Rules: then and now

My observation on "then" and "now":

When we last wrote our rules about philanthropy and nonprofits, the most important asset was money and the places we assembled were publicly owned (schools, town halls, community centers). Today, the asset that matters is data, and the places we assemble (online) are owned by cable, cell, or social media companies.

I highly recommend reading Marvin Ammori's On Internet Freedom and Susan Crawford's Captive Audience.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reality revealed by a scorecard

I highly recommend reading Mark Rosenman's opinion piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy about the new College Scorecard. He argues that the scorecard is bad for all nonprofits because it represents an individualistic definition of value, not a societal one. As he writes:
"We seem to be falling for the idea that we should measure nonprofit programs only for how much good they do for individuals, not for how our larger society benefits. Colleges, hospitals, arts institutions, international aid groups, and others will be valued based on how much they better and enrich the relatively few people they serve, not society itself."
Especially in light of our recent #RecodingGood discussion on philanthropy in democracy, I think Rosenman raises an important issue - there is a value to the sector itself that is lost when we focus on the instrumental and individual outcomes of each enterprise. Colleges are an interesting example  - perhaps no other field has been as fraught with the need to "justify" its value than that of liberal arts education. At the same time, the most well endowed and longest lasting (i.e. sustainable, in today's philanthropic parlance) institutions in the U.S. are not-for-profit liberal arts colleges and universities. Colleges are also an interesting "test case" for this scorecard use of public data as there are countless other "Best of" lists of colleges, geared toward almost every conceivable point of view and measures of value.

But the most interesting thing about the scorecard - in my opinion - is that it puts for-profits on the same footing as nonprofits and allows them to be compared on equivalent data. What could be a clearer acknowledgement that we are in fact operating in a social economy - in which every type of social good from education to healthcare to eldercare to cultural expression to volunteer mobilization - is available from either a nonprofit or a commercial enterprise or a hybrid of the two? This is the key "reality check" for nonprofits - in most cases they no longer are the sole purveyors of the "good" they provide. Rosenman argues that comparing nonprofits to each other on the basis of their individual outcomes is bad for colleges and bad for nonprofits - but his article misses the bigger picture - college education is not just a nonprofit "good" anymore (if it ever really was).

What is particularly notable about the scorecard is that it reflects the reality of higher education choices. Unlike any of the dozens of nonprofit comparison sites or ratings agencies that have emerged over the last decade, from GuideStar to GiveWell, the scorecard reflects the real choices we make when it comes to using our private resources for public good. We are choosing among different kinds of providers. Whether we are a potential college student or a large foundation seeking to decide whether to make a grant or an investment we are comparing enterprise options in pursuit of a mission.

The Scorecard's use of comparative data is what others are seeking when they ask, "Why can't we mashup impact investing flows with philanthropic grants, or see social enterprises and nonprofits on the same map?" The Department of Education accomplished this because it provides revenue  - student loans  and federal funding - to all providers. Those dollars then became the data that the Department used to reveal the real landscape of college choices. Health care, conservation, arts and culture, international aid - all can be shown this way (and probably will be, very soon).

More so even than Rosenman argues, this reality requires that we consider the value of an independent sector, an associational and expressive space. We use many types of institutions to support our desires to assemble and act as private citizens for a public interest, separate from the market and the government. It is no longer reality to describe this "space" as the nonprofit sector, for those shared public interests that have long been provided primarily by nonprofits are available from a mix of vendors. In some cases, the nonprofit vendors will be deemed to provide greater value (see my post on the College Scorecard comparing Yale (a nonprofit) to the University of Phoenix (a commercial college). In some cases, they may not.

But that won't answer our question - what is the purpose of this independent space? Does democracy need a space separate from the market and government where people do things together for their own definition of a public benefit? I think the answer is absolutely yes. But we shouldn't conflate the need itself with the most familiar provider of the need. We need ways to act together as individuals, free of market or government pressures, using our own resources in pursuit of shared public interests. While this has been the primary purview of philanthropy and nonprofits, it isn't anymore. It is the realm also of social enterprises and impact investors, crowdfunding and informal networks, B corporations and flash mobs.

The new constellation of actors providing these shared social goods already represent new forms of enterprise and new rules and regulations to guide the use of private resources for public good. I don't think we're done yet. We will see more enterprise forms emerge, we will need modifications of the forms (nonprofits) that we already have and we need, as Rosenman argues, to think about the value of the whole, not just the value of the pieces.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Philanthropy and Democracy

What role does philanthropy play in a democracy? Democratic values of pluralism provide both a practical and theoretical home for the associational and expressive role played by nonprofits and the participatory nature of small giving.  But the concentration of voice and influence held in large foundations - how does that fit with the theory and practice of democracy?

We explored this question, as well as its corollary - what role can philanthropy play in addressing the current needs of American democracy? - in our most recent Stanford PACS #recoding good charrette. The full notes are available at SSIR and are cross posted below.

How private giving can contribute to the needs of American democracy.
What role does philanthropy play in a democracy? And what role ought philanthropy play in a democracy?
These are old questions made new again through the confluence of several powerful trends in the United States:
• Rigid political polarization in US politics
• A growing interest in and experimentation with online civic and political engagement, including open government and civic crowdfunding
• Community organizations threatened by decades of federal and state budget crises
• Record low levels of public confidence in Congress
• In the wake of Citizens United, increasing concern about the expanded role of nonprofits in electoral politics
Such trends call into question the appropriate role of civil society and philanthropy in democracies. The topic is especially pressing in light of the new efforts of prominent foundations—such as Hewlett Foundation and Democracy Fund—engaging in grantmaking for revitalizing our democratic institutions.

It is within this context that the fifth in our series of ReCoding Good charrettes addressed philanthropy’s role in democracy. A small gathering of scholars and foundation executives, as well as advocates for the nonprofit sector and those who work on advocacy from within nonprofits, came together to consider the question in two parts: First, as above, what ought to be philanthropy’s role in a democracy? Second, recognizing the deep imperfections in our current democratic institutions, should philanthropy play new and expanded roles? Can philanthropy help repair democracy?
Much of the discussion about philanthropy’s various roles centered on the nature of majority rule and pluralism. If a requirement of democracy is that all citizens have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard, then we must find ways to help that happen. A longstanding argument on the role of civil society is that it should do two related but somewhat opposite things: 1) serve as a means for bringing forward new ideas that with the support of the majority are put forward into government, and 2) serve as a place to support the ideas and interests of multiple minorities.
Philanthropic organizations thus serve as a pipeline into democratic engagement, and as an incubator and home for ideas and communities that are still emerging or may not have found awareness or favor with the voting majority. In doing so, these organizations should be able to foster both innovation and pluralism.

Concerns about this role come into play when the reality of unequal wealth and potential for unequal voice are factored in. In particular, endowed foundations, which create an exclusive perch for our wealthiest citizens, superficially seem like a mechanism for privileging plutocratic over civic voice. In this respect, some charrette participants expressed their fear that foundations, with their deficit of public accountability, may threaten democracy by channeling inequalities of political influence. Others noted that—given the many dysfunctions of our current political system—foundations may be well positioned to play a role in repairing, rather than undermining, democracy. Foundations can and do play an important role, both in supporting “orphan” or unpopular issues, and in funding—without expectation of financial reward or electoral payback—community and civic organizations committed to democratic ideals, and minority views and communities. While foundations, as “plutocratic” institutions, may seem at odds with the theoretical ideal of a democracy of equal voices, we might also view the combined 80,000 foundations and 1.2 million nonprofits in the US as pluralistic contributors and, most importantly, counterweights to the majority rule nature of American democracy. These institutions, with their strategic risk capital, can serve as a catalyst and driver of social change.

The trappings of philanthropic institutions—their practices, regulatory structures, and industry norms—provided a good transition point to the question of how these institutions can address the dysfunctions of our current democracy. Democracy or governance reform as an area for philanthropic support is experiencing a moment in the sun. Very rough estimates of $30-$40 million per year in funding for government, civic engagement, and election process reform, and to address the issue of money in politics were put forward as starting points for foundations thinking about potential strategies. One of the challenges facing the small group of funders who identify themselves as active on these issues is their diverse range of interests. Some are committed to fixing the democratic process without regard to short-term outcomes; others are interested in process reforms that would benefit a particular partisan perspective. This diversity tends to fractionalize the possible impact of foundations and reduce their effectiveness. Further, all of these funders are concerned that their involvement raises reputational concerns and may threaten the overall effectiveness of the programs they support. One foundation proffered as a working set of desired outcomes: “more moderation in political votes, or what used to be called compromise and political leadership.”

The scope of the challenges to democratic systems—including institutional reform, broad access, and credible information—are difficult for foundations to address because of the large-scale dimension of the problems and the long time horizon necessary to engage to make a difference. Moreover, for foundations seeking long-term, nonpartisan process reform, being cast as partisan can have a damaging ripple effect. Backlash may limit necessary relationships or crossover into other program areas. Some foundations handle pushback well; others don’t. Most participants agreed that foundations that deal with it well expect pushback, prepare for it, and are staffed with the experience and expertise needed to fund advocacy efforts for the long-term.

One inspiring example of the role foundations can take in a broken democracy is California Forward, a joint effort by several foundations in California, maintained over several years, that has helped take the legislative redistricting process out of the hands of the legislature itself, return the state budgeting process to one of simple majority rule (rather than a supermajority), and introduce online voter registration.
Our conversation took place in the context of other interesting and relevant events, including a seminar on Philanthropy and Political Polarization at The Hewlett Foundation and an NYU conference on Philanthropy and Money in Politics; the release of a report on the intersection of the open government movement and charitable sector data, and a new national ranking of state’s election management efforts; a conference of State Charity Regulators at Columbia University; and a hearing about the charitable sector by the Committee on House Ways and Means. It’s clear that we are in a moment when philanthropy has chosen to examine democracy just as democracy is examining philanthropy.

This discussion on democracy is essential to the broader project on Philanthropy, Policy and Technology. A theme throughout the day was the difference between the reality of how our political institutions actually function and the inherent value of a diverse, disbursed, and locally controlled associational sector for a flourishing democracy. The group was hard pressed to find examples of where changes in news, media, and online organizing were helping to bridge the extremes, soften the furthest edges of debate, or even provide common ground. If technological trends are not, of their own design, enhancing the civic values on which our independent sector rests, and if policy frames and institutional norms have morphed over time in ways that no longer reflect either the needs of present day institutions or the historical values they were meant to preserve, then we have an opportunity—perhaps an obligation—to consider and reshape the role of philanthropy and civil society in our democracy.

All materials from and information about the project can be found at ReCoding Good and Stanford PACS. We invite you to join our email list, talk with us on Twitter (#ReCodeGood), and to share your thoughts with us.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

2013 philanthropy buzzword predictions

I have a half-drafted post on 3D printing - which I was going to upload as the first Philanthropy Buzzword of the year. President Obama's mention of the technology in his #SOTU certainly caught my attention.

But I think privacy is actually going to be the bigger theme of 2013 - data privacy, online personal privacy, privacy policies on websites and about data usage. I think we're going to all start wondering "Why don't I own my own data? And why aren't I in charge of what happens with it?" (There are plenty of privacy issues associated with 3D printing)

So, for something new and different this year, I'm asking you to chime in on which of these two concepts you think we'll all be talking about, experimenting with, reading about, possibly funding, possibly failing to comprehend in 2013 -
  • 3D printing and its accompanying "tangible data" implications OR
  • Privacy, personal, online, data-related
Chime in in the comments or tweet me at @p2173. Both concepts will, no doubt, make the final 2013 philanthropy buzzword list but which should come first?

I'd also welcome your thoughts on why they matter to philanthropy and civil society. And, sure, go ahead, suggest some other buzzwords for the year while you're at it. Thanks.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Transparency. Sounds real good if you say it real fast.

I had a colleague years ago who used to respond to every new big idea in school reform with "Sounds real good if you say it real fast." The point being that the devil is in the details on doing anything new.

I have a feeling a few foundation leaders may be feeling this way about transparency right about now.

Yesterday I saw this tweet go by from Daniel Silverman at The James Irvine Foundation:

So, I clicked through and read Jim's post - which is titled Transparency 2.0. In it, he makes reference to several bloggers who've written about the Foundation's new arts strategy. This is what he says:
"Whether people agree or disagree with the choices we have made, we are now discussing it, publicly, intelligently and forthrightly. I admire those who have stepped forward to criticize aspects of our strategy, whether they believe it is wrong on its merits or they view it as yet another example of “strategic philanthropy” gone awry, where we are dictating and imposing our solutions upon the field."
He links directly in his post to the bloggers' posts:  Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, Clay Lord and Barry Hessenius. I then saw this tweet from an arts program officer at Irvine, Ted Russell:

Which didn't add any content to what I could see happening, but gave it some useful context and reminded me of something it's easy to forget when reading tweets and blogs - there are people having all kinds of face to face discussions that matter to the little stream we access on social media. (Full disclosure: Ted is a college friend of mine and I've known Jim and Daniel for years)

Yesterday morning, I, like many readers of the New York Times, opened the Arts Section to find this provocatively headlined little article: (photo cuts off the story, click link for full piece)

This was a kinder piece than what ran in Gawker and elsewhere - all covering the Knight Foundation's hosting of Lehrer at their Media Learning Seminar (Full disclosure: I led a breakout session at the seminar the day before the speech. I was not paid to do so.). This morning, a link in TechPresident's (highly recommended) daily newsletter, FIRST POST, took me to this post from the Knight Foundation:

The text of the post, which is unsigned, includes this paragraph:
"We try to be as transparent as possible about our work. When asked, we released the amount of the speaker’s fee. The fee was not unusual for a well-known author to address a large conference. But it was simply not something Knight Foundation, given our values, should have paid. We continue to support journalism excellence in the digital age. And we do not want our foundation partners to think that journalism controversies are too hot for them to handle. Instead, we want to send the message that when things go wrong the best action is to admit the error and get back to work."
And the comments, which numbered about two dozen when I went to read them, were appalled, angry, and self-righteously nasty about the irony of such a mistake on the part of the Foundation. At least one of the commenters railed about how could no one inside the foundation have pushed back on the decision to invite Lehrer before the event? From a few hallway conversations I had at the seminar (before the speech occurred, as soon as I saw it noted on the agenda) it seems to me that many of them did.  It may have been a wrong decision, it may have been a risky decision, but I doubt it was an unconsidered decision.

There's a saying about marriages - you can never really tell what is going on in anyone else's. We don't know what happened at Ted Russell's lunch or in the meeting rooms at the Knight Foundation in which inviting Lehrer to speak and agreeing to pay him was discussed. Twitter and blogs give us some - mediated - sense of both these events and it's easy to push for more.

I found myself considering these two events from a few steps further back. We criticize foundations for being opaque, and mostly they are.  Steps toward transparency aren't going to be easy (sounds real good if you say it real fast). Both of these examples involve foundations actually in conversation with publics they could (easily, legally, and rather comfortably) ignore. The more important question for all us may be - why is that the case?

Public discussion is a step forward for foundation transparency. Even as I write this, I'm steeling myself for backlash. Past experience tells me I'll get nasty comments and I'll end up wishing I'd kept my mouth shut on the whole thing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The #SOTU and measuring the marigolds

Listening to President Obama's State of the Union (#SOTU in twitterese) address last night, I had several reactions. I won't share most of them with you, though as someone who has played an insignificant role - mostly as a learner - as foundations in California and local community groups in San Francisco work to build support for early childhood education, his call for national access to pre-K got a big shoutout in my home.

One response I will share was this, "Does any American President ever talk about other forms of opportunity besides economic?" As someone who proudly holds three degrees in American history, I should know the answer to this, but I don't. I do, however, know how to find out. I plan, eventually, to go read all the #SOTUs and see what I can learn. Or perhaps I can use Google Ngram and find out that way (a great opportunity to play "digital humanities scholar").  Anyway....

Whether or not Presidents talk about it, other people define opportunity in a variety of ways. In response to a tweet, Victoria Vrana pointed me to this "Opportunity Index," put out by Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, a project of the Social Sciences Research Council. It looks at economic opportunity, but also opportunities for education, health, voting access, and community cohesion. These data are collected at the community level, and there are great possibilities for using this information locally.

Speaking of measuring, the President's announcement that his administration would release a college scorecard, rating higher education institutions on value, received a much more skeptical reception.  "Really? How? With what data?" And "Who will do analysis?" And, "What does US News and World Report have to say about that? And, "Watch out, my beloved alma maters."

Here's what I could find on the new College Scorecard. It has a nice interface, clearly targeting potential students and their families. It's actually called the "College Affordability and Transparency Center College Scorecard" - and it analyzes "value" along criteria such as cost, graduation rate, loan default rate, and median borrowing. It will eventually have information on jobs held by graduates, but for both Yale University and the University of Phoenix, (the two I checked*) it didn't have this information yet. If you search for it, you can find the link that will let you download the data sets in either excel or CSV format (link is at bottom of page on each university result). All the data come from the US Department of Education (US ED). When you click on the More Information link on each page a pop-up appears with the data sources and calculations for each of the criteria listed.

What you don't get is a single place to compare Yale to UPhoenix side-by-side. When you download the excel file you do get all the info on 3990 universities, listed alphabetically within States. If you are so inclined you can do your own side-by-side analysis (of the selected data points). You can also take these data and plug them in somewhere else (like Many Eyes, and play with visualizations). When you click on the link provided for more information on "median borrowing" on the Yale page, it takes you to Yale's Office of Financial Aid, which features a "net price calculator" on its home page. When you click on the equivalent link on the U of Phoenix page it takes you to the US Department of Education's page on "repaying your loan."

I realize most users may not run the same search I did, but the site needs to be more helpful to users in comparing the information that is provided school by school.** It should allow users to compare schools side by side, or by specific criteria across several schools. That said, in the end I was impressed that US ED had put this site together and was sharing the information in this way. It's a good example of putting public data (all the data comes from US ED) to work for the people (that is, for us).

Both the College Scorecard and the Opportunity Index show the power of accessible data. I hope these tools are useful for their intended purposes. I also appreciate how they represent our changing relationships to large data sets, how we can ask new questions, how quickly we can plug datasets from one site into another, and how we can begin to look at our individual organizations in much greater context, using shared data sets.

I learned a lot about these possibilities from the participants in my breakout session on "data as a public good" at the Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar. Being able to see your own organization and your own work in broader context is not the future, it's the present. I believe, as I've said many times and written in the Blueprint series, this ability will change how we define problems and opportunities. It will shift what we ask and when we ask it, what answers we seek and the measures with which we seek to answer them. It can help us shift who is part of asking these questions and implementing the solutions (but we need to be deliberate about this). It's a big part of what I've called "data-first philanthropy" (video link). It's why I'm thrilled to be on the advisory board of DataKind, which I think can help us get past "data first philanthropy" to something closer to "open source philanthropy," and, even more important, to collective problem solving.

In the end, I realized that the #SOTU gave a shout-out to early childhood education, but the College Scorecard is a demonstration of the potential of open data.

*The former is my undergraduate alma mater. The latter is the first for-profit college that came to my mind.

**Last week I emailed a friend of mine, also an alum, to enlist her support in writing a letter to Mother Yale about the news that the University (and Penn) had filed suit against alums who had defaulted on their Perkins loans. So don't take this as an unmitigated "Boola Boola" post.

Friday, February 01, 2013

The people affected by the problem have to help define the solution

I posted earlier this week about the Hewlett Foundation's report and Seven Principles of Evaluation. (Check out comments to that post for another foundation report on evaluation, that one from the Gates Foundation)

Since then, I've had several conversations and given a few speeches to groups as diverse as GirlGeeks (here's a video of the speech) and community foundations, a local giving circle and within a single foundation board room. I'm also preparing for an upcoming Stanford #recodinggood charrette on Democracy and Philanthropy.

So participation is on my mind.

The headline of this post is a shorter version of something I say all the time. One thing we know about addressing community problems and making long term change is that those who will have to live with the solution have to be a part of putting it into place. Not just a part of defining the problem, but designing and implementing the solutions. Otherwise it is, at best, a band-aid.

Outside funders think they're being "inclusive" when they involve community members in meetings and brainstorms. Flip this on its head - communities can and should be inclusive about having funders and outside experts participate in their local efforts. Inclusivity cuts both ways and solutions need both insiders and outsiders.

The Declaration Initiative has a wonderfully clear statement about this on its website. More important, the approach is built into TDI's work. Here's how TDI talks about its evaluation principles:

"We have confirmed that if a project will affect a whole neighborhood or community, the participation of community members is key to developing strategies to address problems. Community residents must address questions about evaluating impact along with staff from nonprofits and government agencies, as well as donors.
A critical part of the process of ending poverty in the US must involve greatly expanding our notion of who must be engaged; what should be observed and measured; and how long the period of evaluation of long-term social change should last."
 And, as long as we're talking about inclusivity - here's a speech I gave on Data First Philanthropy in which (I hope) I make the case that such a shift is about much more than data, it's about inclusivity of ideas and people. Such shifts can start with data - imagine if program evaluators shared their data on Figshare so others could access it, think about it, and inform the analysis?