Thursday, February 27, 2014

#NewsChallenge on Internet Freedom

The next #Knight Foundation #Newschallenge (in partnership with Mozilla Foundation and the Ford Foundation) will focus on internet freedom and privacy. I'm going to take this as a sign of recognition of digital civil society. After all, we're interested in all the ways our digital environment is changing how we use private resources for public benefit and the policy and practice issues we should address in order for civil society to thrive in the digital age.

The Ford Foundation posted a great blog about the issues, quoting Isaac Asimov, writing about that distant year in the future, 2014. Ford, by the way, has been supporting the work of Equal Future, a blog that launched last year (I think) and has become one of my very few must-reads. So thanks to them.

Here's how Jenny Toomey of The Ford Foundation poses the issues that the #newschallenge will address:
"Over these past years, the Internet has influenced the legal and policy landscape in ways that have transformed social, political, legal and economic environments. There is no escaping this change. So we can argue about whether access to the Internet is a “right” in itself, but there is no argument against the fact that access to the Internet is a precondition to accessing many of our important rights to speak, to learn, to access information and fully participate in society.

Today, the lack of clear protections for the public in this environment directly contributes to the denial of people’s rights."
This link has info on the challenge and how to apply

Monday, February 24, 2014

Civil Society and Big Data

The Dallas Museum has been overt in declaring the value of the data it collects from museum-goers - it exchanges membership for data. Most nonprofits are collecting data from their donors, the people they serve, people who attend their programs or sign up for information - but aren't acknowledging directly the value of that information to them.

All nonprofits are gathering information on us - but what are they doing with it?  

How do nonprofits collect, use, store, share, and retain data on the people with whom they interact? What information do they gather, what do they do with it, and what protections should they afford to the folks from whom they get this information? What, if anything, do we expect from nonprofits regarding their use of our data that might be different from what we expect from a commercial enterprise or government agency?

Here's one thought. America's charitable and philanthropic sector today is heavily shaped by a concept of donor intent. This has roots going back to 19th Century trust law and the development of the modern corporation (for profit and nonprofit). It focuses on the intent of the donor of financial resources. It shapes the activities of foundations after donors' die, the use of gifts by large and small nonprofits, and the entire multibillion sub-industry of donor advised funds.

What about data donor intent? The donors of data include all of us - financial supporters, program users, members, clients, users of the Facebook like button, retweeters of nonprofit tweets, and one-off visitors to many nonprofit websites.

I'm happy to to see that the White House, in partnership with several civil society organizations, including major universities, think tanks and advocacy organizations is hosting some public conversations on data and data privacy.

But what amazes me is that the agenda - even as the nonprofits host the discussion and have their leaders speak on the panels - neglects to consider the direct implications for civil society of our networked data age.

Are we to assume that government and business will be "upended," "revolutionized, " "disrupted" or some other exciting verb but nonprofits and civil society will remain unchanged? I don't think so. On the contrary, the implications of networked digital data for both addressing our shared social problems, and changing how we voluntarily act, how we associate with each other as independent citizens, how we organize for change or protest, are profound. Isn't it time for a real discussion of privacy, association, and autonomy - about civil society - in a networked data age?

HT to @kanter for bringing the OSTP/MIT conference to my attention.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Citizen U and SHARE Conferences

Citizen University, conference on citizenship and citizen problem solving, March 21, Seattle. WA. Register here.

Impact Investing + Sharing Economy = SHARE. New conference from Peers and SOCAP

May 13 and 14, 2014, San Francisco, CA. Information here.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Data Driven Philanthropic Strategy

The Knight Foundation and Stanford Social Innovation Review are hosting a free webinar on data driven strategy in the philanthropic sector

It will feature a discussion of the report done by Knight and Quid that used data analysis, networking, and visualization tools on investments to identify and frame the civic technology space. 

Date: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 Time: 11:00am–12 noon PST, 2:00pm–3:00pm EST 

Register here.

Speaking of data informed philanthropy, keep an eye on this new Powered By Data initiative out of Canada.*

*I am on advisory board. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Disruptive wealth hasn't yet disrupted philanthropic forms

My comments to Marketplace Radio on the Philanthropy 50 report are here.

Twitterers picked up on my observation that this big money was being used in traditional ways. It's true, but you get only so much in a Tweet  - or a 60 second radio interview. The fact that these big philanthropic gifts go to hunger programs, education, health, environmental issues is partly because those are complicated issues that take a long time to progress against. They also are the tax-incentive sanctioned areas for charitable giving.

My point was not on the focus areas of the philanthropy, but the vehicles through which it is being deployed. Foundations, community foundations, donor advised funds - these are 100 year old products for managing philanthropic giving. They have an enormous built-in advantage in the marketplace in the form of the tax deduction attached to these products. These products also benefit from an established sales channel of estate planners, lawyers, trust services, development officers, etc.

What you don't see on the Philanthropy 50 list is innovation in the form in which the giving is done. There are lots of folks at the other end of the giving spectrum foregoing tax deductions to give money through crowdfunding platforms. There are folks at the wealthiest end of the spectrum foregoing traditional foundation forms (and tax deductions) to use LLCs or who are outsourcing some of their research and program costs. There are a variety of ways to structure the giving - but you don't see them on the Philanthropy 50 list.

It's simply striking to me that the list of financial vehicles for philanthropy on a 2014 list looks not unlike such a list compiled in 1954 or 1914 (the year in which community foundations came into being). Perhaps there's room for innovation in form?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Twelve steps to transparency

Grantcraft* has a new guide for funders called "Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency." It actually offers many more than 12 steps for foundations trying to become more open about their processes, decisions, goals, accomplishments and failures, but I'm all in for alliteration.

Let's use the activities described by the F. B. Heron Foundation in my previous post, "the heroism of data entry," as one end of a spectrum. The open, warts-and-all, end of the spectrum.

The GrantCraft guide is designed for foundations at or near the other end of the spectrum. It's got lots of steps toward sharing information, a basic argument for why this is a good thing to do, a very subtle warning about the specter of government oversight, and really, an amazing number of resources, tips, tricks, and planning tools a foundation could use to get a little more out there.

The guide offers up several different approaches to transparency - from sharing grants data easily to getting down and dirty with what works and doesn't work. It links sharing information and being transparent to better relationships and greater effectiveness in a logical way with which I agree (though I'm not actually aware of any evidence to prove this.) The catalogue of tools to help foundations share information is itself impressive, especially to those of use who remember the world before Guidestar, pdfs, and the Foundation Directory Online. And that's not even including the three super-recent developments I mentioned in previous posts - Hewlett's "Work in Progress" blog, Inside Philanthropy, and the honest, hard, unsexy work described by Clara Miller. It does offer insight to one of the early really good experiments, the Packard Foundation's "Glass Filing Cabinet" approach to organizational effectiveness work.

Since the guide is trying to help funders become more transparent, it doesn't do two things. First, It doesn't harp on the arguments against sharing more of their work and, second, it doesn't raise any potential downsides of being more transparent. In the "arguments against" category, I was a bit surprised to see that the guide provides "persuasive reasons to use with staff who don't want to share" (my language, not theirs), but doesn't spend much time on "convincing the board that the world won't come to an end" if we do this. Or, more accurately probably, "the world won't camp out on your doorstep and harass you for money even more than you feel like they do now," if we do this. Board resistance to being more visible, more findable, more accessible is one of the most common reasons I've heard about why foundations don't want to have websites, don't want to share decision making policies, and don't want to do any more than the minimum required by law. I'm not sure the guide is going to change the minds of those who believe they 1) can do their best work out of the spotlight, 2) don't want any additional attention to their work, or 3) don't think there should be any public insight into the work of private philanthropy. This guide is not going to change those minds. But for those who think opening up more information is a good thing and are looking for ways to do it, the guide is full of ideas.

The second thing the guide doesn't do is push too hard. This is not a tool about open data, machine readable information, and participatory decision making. It doesn't go into privacy issues (What's in that data?), ownership issues (Who's data is it?), or the challenges of data retention plans, re-identification, or false promises of anonymity. Those are all really hard, important issues - and, yes, they sound like they'd make of a snoozer of a read.

And given how far most foundations have to go in terms of transparency (What percentage of American Foundations DO NOT have websites in 2014? It used to be about 70%), it's good that the guide doesn't go into these tougher issues. They're hard. They could scare anyone back into "opaque-land." And foundations shouldn't stay in that land or go back there. There's lots to be gained from more transparent philanthropy and this guide should help more funders take the steps to get those gains. We'll all benefit if they do.

*Yes, Grantcraft publishes my Blueprint.  I didn't have anything to do with the writing of this transparency guide, nor do I have anything to do with any other Grantcraft products or projects - just the Blueprint.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The heroism of data entry

Data science. Data visualization. Big data. Medium data.

What about data entry? Clara Miller, President of the F.B. Heron Foundation warned in her cover email that her annual president's letter was going to be about " and why we are changing operationally, with some pretty nerdy stories as a result." That's a fair warning - and I have plenty of things to read so I could have moved on to something else, but I clicked through to see what "nerdy stories" a foundation president would actually share with the public.


Even I was unprepared for the heroism of data entry. Or, as Miller puts it: "It’s the heroism of entering 7,700 separate positions into a database so we can track social and financial gains in real time in our equity portfolio." None of the cool data tricks listed in the first line of this blog are possible without clean, coherent, well-entered data. Even ambient data depends on behind-the-scenes structuring built into the algorithms (another topic altogether) in order to work. The hard work of making data useful is not usually fodder for a Foundation President's annual letter.

Yep, that's pretty nerdy. But Miller doesn't stop there.  She goes on to shout from the (proverbial) rooftops about audits. And tracking systems. And the Foundation's purchase of a Bloomberg terminal. (It's their first. How many other foundations - if any - have Bloomberg terminals? Of those that do, how many are not in the investment department? Jiminy - does Bloomberg Philanthropies even have Bloomberg Terminals for their program staff?)*

The letter goes on to note that the Foundation is hosting fellows from organizations it wants to work with (NFF and Kresge) and launched a weekly newsletter that I (and apparently others) actually read.

Finally...wait for it...the Foundation stopped requiring grant recipients to write/format/stick-camels through-needles-for/send grant reports specific to the foundation - yes, you read that correctly - no more Heron-only grant reports.

I don't know folks. Between this letter from Clara Miller, the Hewlett Foundation's transparency blog, and the new website Inside Philanthropy - foundations might actually be...listening.

That's almost as heroic as entering 7,700 data points into a database.

*Uh oh, will "Bloomberg terminals purchased" might become a new annual metric for foundations that claim interest in impact investing...

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Unbundling the buzzwords

Seventy-one. Born in 2007. Featured on Marketplace for three years and now "revealed" each December in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Philanthropy Buzzwords lists that I've been keeping (with help from many of you) for all these years was the subject of a discussion at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation on Monday. My colleagues there had the chance to vote on buzzwords from past years and suggest their own for 2014 and 2015. One observant program leader noticed that my buzzword list is heavy on nouns - there are almost no verbs. I'd never noticed this. We've (jokingly) decided to cluster future buzzwords by grammatical category.

We had a good discussion of which of these terms are meaningful and which are pure jargon. We also talked about buzzwords that are so embedded in our work - engage and collaborate come to mind - that they don't make the annual list, they're become perennials.

Here's the full list and the raw voting data.

My incredible colleague Katherine Murtha, made quick work of sorting and cutting through the raw data for some insights. Here's what she found:

2   25 words were strictly seen as meaningful* and 10 were strictly seen as jargon**

·       The five top vote-getting buzzwords were viewed (by most) as meaningful:
o   Privacy, Infographics, Bitcoin, Evidence-Based, and Storytelling

·       Highest overall vote-getters split opinions somewhat:
o   Privacy, bitcoin, and evidence-based each received 8 or 9 votes for meaningful but 1 vote for jargon
o   Storytelling got 8 votes for meaningful and 2 for jargon

These buzzwords were largely seen as meaningful but received zero or a few jargon votes
Biggest Gaps In Favor Of Meaningful
Most Popular Adds Meaning
Votes Meaningful
Votes Jargon


These buzzwords were largely seen as jargon but received “adds meaning” votes too
Most Popular Jargon Buzzwords
Just Jargon
Adds Mean-ing
flash mob philanthropy
peer-to-peer services

Half the people who voted on these words felt they were jargon and half felt they were meaningful:
Even Splits
Votes for Both Meaning and Jargon
markets for good
good gifting

The Foundation staff also suggested buzzwords - which you are always invited to do by leaving them in the comments here or tweeting them to me @p2173. Those that make the list are given due credit and are awarded the title of Buzzword Ambassador - you'll be in good company: 

The Foundation staff also made predictions about philanthropy and their areas of program work - those will be revealed internally in January 2015.  Buzzwords and predictions are fun ways to focus on what we do and don't know. We used them as entry points into a discussion of where and how we get the information we use in our work, how we can diversify and check those sources for bias, and what makes a good buzzword or prediction. I encourage you to chime in!

*25 words were strictly seen as meaningful
8 votes: infographics ,7 votes: scale, 6 votes: metadata, 5 votes: data and crowdfunding, 4 votes: commons, charitable tax reform, and networked; 3 votes: NextGen and aligned investing; 2 votes: -giving pledge, pipeline, impact investing, mobile giving, and social capital; 1 vote: "move the needle," charity challenge, maps, taxonomy, B Corporations, design, micro- (endowment, philanthropy, finance, franchise, consignment), charitable gift cards, microfranchising, and open philanthropy

** 10 were strictly seen as jargon
4 votes: solutionism and curator; 3 votes: charity washing and philanthrocapitalism; 2 votes: endorsement philanthropy, and Philanthropy 2.0; 1 vote: “X”, outsourced program advising, microphilanthropy, and embedded giving

Opening up DonorsChoose Data

(photo from

DonorsChoose - one of the most established crowdfunding platforms - has opened up its data. And there's a lot of it - in 2013 alone the data set includes 130,000 school projects, more than 300,000 donors, and $60 million in donations.

DonorsChoose is making the data available (more than 20 million records) in partnership with a company called Looker so that scholars, policymakers, journalists, parents, kids - well, really, anybody - can visualize the data. You do have to request access to the data - you can do that here.  You can access the data API, download the data, or just scroll through several prepared visualizations - all as part of the HackingEducation initiative. 

This is an important model as crowdfunding platforms like DonorsChoose proliferate. We need to be able to understand, differentiate, study, and monitor these platforms if, as they predict, they succeed in becoming a bigger and bigger part of the funding landscape. Visibility into their data is one way to do this - hats off to DonorsChoose for taking this step.  

*Blueprint2014 includes the prediction of a crowdfunding scandal in 2014. Given the investments that have been made in building these platforms, passing regulations about them, testing them, and promoting them there is a vested interest of crowdfunding supporters to both prevent scandals and, if/when they happen, distract us from them. Visibility into the data about money flow, deals done, promotions promised, etc. etc. will help keep these kinds of platforms - which in any other day and age would be referred to as marketplaces - trustworthy.