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Here’s a fun idea: randomly receive $100 with the sole purpose of giving it away in any way you choose. The only thing asked in return is to attend a “members only” party in January to share your experience with others who received the same mysterious money.

The coolest part? The Secret Society of Creative Philanthropy is doing just that.

Started by writer Courtney E. Martin, the entire purpose of this endeavor is to generate a spirit of giving and “passing it on”.

It’s so secret, that the only thing I could find on it was the original article that cued me in no matter how many Google searches I did.

Fun idea. Now how exactly does one receive an invitation…?

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The growing trend is for individuals to give directly to projects that most touch their hearts and minds. The traditional (eh, old) means of affecting change via checks to your favorite charity or nonprofit is so very passé.

And thus, I’m intrigued with this idea of micro-philanthropy. So when an interesting story by about a student with a new idea for micro-philanthropy came into my cluttered inbox from the SocialActions blog, I actually stopped to read it through.

Basically, Philippe Bradley, currently an undergraduate at Oxford, is putting together a new online social action platform that will allow regular people to create mini-prize philanthropy contests (think X Prize, but much smaller). Each contest creator can then invite their networks to fund the prize (a la justgiving.org) or act as contestants for the prize itself.

The prize would be awarded to the individual or organization that meets the unique standards established by the contest creator and wins amongst voting funders.

Understandably, individuals want more ways to give in small, meaningful ways and organizations are popping up just as quickly as they can to meet this ravenous demand. Kiva.org, Justgiving.org and DonorsChoose.org are examples of organizations in this line of business.

Though an intriguing idea, little red flags started going off in my head when I first read the SocialActions article. Admittedly – I am neither fully versed in this specific endeavor nor an expert in micro-philanthropy but I’m not convinced one needs to be either if one understands the structures from which it pulls: micro-philanthropy, prize philanthropy, and peer-to-peer networks.

Here’s my concern: without the background, training or experience to know what has already been tried, what works and what doesn’t, what causes unexpected consequences and or even the standards of (gasp) law and custom (cultural and institutional) are individuals properly qualified to decide what project, individual or organization deserves support?

I’m typically not one to stymie individual philanthropy or innovation but there are days when I worry that without the proper guidance by those who have actually worked in the field, studied the history and performed due diligence on development projects around the globe we, the good-hearted people, will be reopening issues that older organizations have already overcome. For are we not trying to solve the very problems organized, well funded organizations have been trying to solve for decades, if not centuries?

To address this issue, larger contests like the X Prize use advisors who are experts and professionals in the specific field to both design the contest and judge them. Foundations (ie “outsourcing” philanthropy) often use similar techniques to understand and then fund a solution. In general, there is an understanding that without the proper knowledge they could, in fact, cause more harm than good.

So with micro-philanthropy – this might be a nice time to use the rarely used pause button of progress. We should be asking: who is monitoring and eliminating the bad eggs from the good? What standards are we using and why? What are the reporting standards and what are we looking for in these reports and why?

All of these types of questions ought to be answered thoroughly before we unleash the power of the individual (and we are very mighty indeed!). As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt the power of small group of committed individuals to change the world…”. I say never doubt the collective power of the masses for, with our ingenuity, daring and the proper guidance, we are an unstoppable force for change.

With all the focus on the growth of the philanthropy sector both corporate and personal, urban and rural, retired persons and youth – one would think that “philanthropy” was becoming a common enough concept. But, in fact, I am reminded on a daily basis that uttering “philanthropy” causes a raise of the eyebrows, a clouding of the eyes, or a slight shuffle of the feet. I read these responses as general either complete boredom at the thought of philanthropy or a lack of understanding what philanthropy is and could be.

And on many levels, I understand exactly what these people are saying.

Let’s take a look at the word: philanthropy. If I didn’t know what it meant, I would think it sounded like a scientific study of something or other. Something stodgy, stuffy, boring.

According to old standards, philanthropy is boring. The image is often a bunch of rich folks writing out checks to museums and cultural events from their oak-lined, Persian carpeted offices. It’s of coiffed blue hair, diamonds hanging on thin fingers and overpriced cigars.

Even if hipsters like Bono, George Clooney and the Jolie and Pitt duo are challenging this image we are still left with the distinct feeling that philanthropy is for them, not little ‘ole me.

But according to the American Heritage Dictionary, philanthropy is:

  1. The effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations.
  2. Love of humankind in general.

So essentially any joe or jane who has half a heart and desires a more positive future is, technically, a philanthropist. Somehow, somewhere along the way, by misfortune or by bad marketing, we have managed to sell off the concept of philanthropy to the less than 1% of the population that we classify as really, really rich.

But think of what we could accomplish if the other 99% (or, more precisely, the disputable 60% living above poverty) of the population was able to hop on the philanthropy bandwagon too. Some are. Most aren’t. And considering the seemingly regular reporting on the measurement and transparency foibles throughout the nonprofit sector, people certainly are being wooed none too seductively.

What must we do to undo the terrible mess we’ve made of the word philanthropy?
What can we do to take it back to ensure that all kind hearted do-gooders understand their philanthropic identity and actively promote others toward good old giving?

Citizens of Sherburn, Minnesota (population 1,082) are proving that philanthropy isn’t just for the wealthy urban set. They are actively redefining the boundaries of who gives and how they do so.

Though the claim that “rural areas have a ‘terrific philanthropic spirit'” is questionable – they certainly prove that people are capable of redefining giving despite traditionally restrictive circumstances. 

Keep a keen eye on this blog in the coming weeks: New Voices of Philanthropy. Essentially, it is providing a platform for a diversity of futuristic views for philanthropy. Called the Giving Carnival, they have a few “preview ideas” already posted. From the looks of it, the final result will be a melange of interesting ideas to springboard giving into the future.

I’ve been mulling over conversations from earlier this week that created a philosophical quandary with a philanthropic bent. Here’s the scenario:

Friend 1, who leans right (politically), gave me the typical lecture heard from politically conservative types that if the government got their sticky fingers off citizens’ money and discontinued their current ‘meddling’ in social affairs then collective individual and corporations’ naturally occurring altruism would have a chance to fix the world’s problems. In the current system, according to said friend, people/companies pay too many taxes to feel the impulse to give in a big way. So according to this theory, paying taxes = philanthropic stinginess. Or less money in your pocket means you are less likely to give away what you have.

Enter Friend 2.

Friend 2 tells me that in a recent 20/20 episode researchers examining the elemental composition of human happiness found that only 50% of happiness is attributed to genetic predisposition; 40% is controlled through daily thoughts and actions; and the remaining 10% is determined by our environment (i.e. how much money we have).

So what do these two things have in common? Well, for one the Danish are considered the happiest people in the world;
AND, the Danish are the highest-taxed people in the world (ie less money in the pocket);
AND, the Danish are top-notch philanthropists when it comes to corporate giving (ie more money given away).

Narrow scope of thought experiment aside, can we say there is there a linkage between money, happiness and giving?

Well, it seems that Friend 1 is dead wrong using the example of Danish company giving habits. So less money does not equal giving less. And we all know that money does not equal happiness. So does giving more equal happiness?

I don’t want to corner myself, but I have a hunch. Here is more fodder for thought: there is evidence that being kind can lead to happiness. So, using Friend 2’s 20/20 information, choosing to be kind in daily thought and actions holds up against other research.

Now, to stretch it further, could we say that being kind is also sharing resources (ie giving away money)? This is not necessarily “proven” (or I couldn’t find direct evidence on this online) but it seems that giving more is a rather happy endeavor. Could it be that if we all gave to our communities with our time, skills and dollars that we could see an increase in the happy quotient of our country?

I can just see the NYT headlines now: Surgeon General says charitable donation good for one’s health.

An explosive discovery related to a local philanthropy organization, GiveWell, has caused ripples through the progressive giving realm. Apparently, one of the founders, Holden Karnofsky, disguised himself on several websites to help drive people to GiveWell.net by posting questions asking where to find charity evaluation services while also providing an answer directing all fellow readers back to GiveWell.net. He did this without ever signifying that he was, well, co-founder and Executive Director of GiveWell.

All of this leads to some interesting questions about the ever-changing dynamics of progressive philanthropy such as:

  • If transparency is increasingly the key ethical element for a charitable organization, then what happens when an organization is exposed of deceptive practices? What practical repercussions should be expected?

In the past, dishonesty and poor management practices were tracked by the now-grandfathers of accountability such as the Better Business Bureau and the IRS. Now, with whole organizations going online and pajama-managers on the rise, who is watching whom and to what end?

  • Because GiveWell was started and currently managed by ex-hedge fund professionals (read: private sector), are we just seeing some of the growing pains as people increasingly bridge careers between the two?

As one poster commented, “If Holden were pumping stocks, selling penis enlargement nostrums, or promoting Hot Women Looking To Meet You Tonite, I’d chalk it up to more of the same and not give it a second thought but he’s the founder of a charitable foundation that makes bold claims about honesty and transparency.”

Ok, so dicey practices in the private sector get a roll of the eyes and a knowing look but honesty is the only way to play in charitable organizations. For the sake of argument, the lines between the two are getting blurred and folks on either side of the line just can’t think straight. Think: social entrepreneurs, social enterprise, blended value and triple bottom lines, just to name a few. You get two gold stars if you can successfully identify the difference between them and how each relates to the nonprofit and private sector.

To be fair, there is ongoing debate on what the meaning of each is, exactly. So if we don’t know what it is, can we really know where the lines are?

  • With the growing power of online marketing and ever-clever strategies, what are the acceptable boundaries and how can one find existing rules to avoid an embarrassing faceplant in front of more savvy internet communities?

For instance, being a relative blogging newbie I had never heard of the terms “astroturfing” and “sock puppet” before this incident though, admittedly, we all know somewhere deep inside that hiding one’s identity to promote oneself for personal gain is a bit shifty. Rules of the game are difficult to navigate when nobody really tells you what they are. And considering the rapid expansion of online communication lines, I’m sure the rules are in flux as well.

The online community has been swift and fierce in its judgement. In response, GiveWell has posted a mea culpa. Through it all, the critique continues. And in the process, I’m still trying to process these events and understand what the real consequences of GiveWell’s actions will be.

What are your thoughts on this? How will this affect creative philanthropy and the progress of innovation within charities?

Referring back to a previous blog that discussed whether youth were increasingly involved in philanthropy, I want to share this article. Apparently, they are.

We can probably thank technology, the great democratizer, for fostering the upsurge of creativity in philanthropic styles and means, which has provided avenues for the younger set to learn about and participate in philanthropic activities.

A recent children’s penny-gathering campaign in New York City was rather impressive, in both creativity and visual display. Common Cents, an education nonprofit, holds an annual “Penny Harvest” that encourages children to collect pennies for philanthropic purposes. This year the NYC “harvest” gathered pennies from 850 neighborhoods throughout the five-borough New York area from October 22 to November 22.

The most amazing part? The kids raised 100 million pennies, or one million dollars, or 600,000 lbs of coins (whichever is most impressive for you). Also pretty neat is the fact that the kids will choose the charities they want their money to go to. In the meantime, their loot was displayed at the Rockefeller Center until the New Year for all who cared to see.

Many of us are in the post-holiday, consumption-glut coma. Each year we swear that the next will be different. But each year we repeat a similar pattern:

Frantic buzzing from store to store via foot or finger (world wide web) searching for that perfect gift for each person on our list without busting our budget. Then Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa (insert holiday here) arrives, wrapping paper flies about and we are left with a small pile of more stuff to call our own.

Then commences the inevitable sense of disappointment – the void that enters when we sense the holiday’s end. Finding myself in this state once again, I began to wonder, really wonder, if it was worth it.

When I was younger and several notches higher on the idealistic scale, I announced a “non-material holiday season” with the zeal only naïve youth can muster. In the end, this failed with miserable a miserable putter. It turned out that people had a need to give things as much as we wanted to receive them. By the next year, tail between my legs, armed with wrapped packages I dutifully added to each person’s new pile of stuff while gaining my own – mouth shut.

But I think I sense a turning point and my bruised idealistic younger self dares emit a celebratory yelp. With the surge of everything “green” from home building to beer making, it was an inevitable progression to consumption itself. Many critics are even questioning the corporate capitalization on the new green frenzy. They are leery of just shifting the ravenous consumption of stuff instead of actually stanching the appetite altogether.

And then there’s Buy(less) Crap. Aaah…finally a catchy campaign after my own heart. With it’s punchy, unapologetic marketing it hits at the exact cross-section between being good to the earth and being good to your fellow human beings. If I knew who did this, I’d probably kiss them.

It’s not about buying more, it’s about giving more. Brilliant! Maybe there is a non-material holiday in my future after all…

In an interesting (and a bit older) article, “The Future of Philanthropy: Innovation, Networks, Thought Leaders and the Fringe” from Worldchanging.com, a key question is asked: if the innovative solutions are coming from the fringe but the majority of foundations and funding are mainstream, how do we fund and encourage innovation?

Basically, the author is addressing the fact that there is a large (and growing) amount of money amongst the cadre of foundation and funds – all earmarked for donation. However, most of these funders do not know how to interpret or react to the kinds of needs that they are now seeing in the field.

To properly respond to this dilemma, there are five questions we need to consider:

1) How do we find and encourage innovation?

2) We live in an era where change is powered by networks but we don’t yet live in an era where networks are funded by philanthropists. So, how do we connect the two?

3) Why have traditional activist NGO groups been aging so rapidly? Or, why are there so few young activists formally joining groups and engaging in philanthropy?

4) How do we support people who are really changing the world?

5) Where and how do we find our allies?

When asking yourself how to contribute real change to the world or where to put that $50 donation you’ve been meaning to send out to somebody (just can’t figure out who yet), these are certainly great questions to ask.

In fact, answers to these questions are already being tackled by various folks in some of the most curious and leading edge ways. Have we reached a place where we can put these questions aside? Absolutely not. Rather, we are entering into the heart of the matter where good ideas, big and small, quirky and mainstream are beginning to pop up to fill in the gaps we see amongst these five questions.

To give you an idea of some of the percolations among us:

1) How do we find and encourage innovation?

Look for organizations that encourage social entrepreneurism. A new “hot topic”, social entrepreneurism is cropping up in many unexpected corners. A general sketch includes organizations like Ashoka; foundations like the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Skoll Foundation; and educational institutions like the NYU Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship and the Stanford Center for Social Innovation. Even private companies like Good Capital are getting in on the game. There are but a few and just to get the ideas rollin’.

2) We live in an era where change is powered by networks but we don’t yet live in an era where networks are funded by philanthropists. So, how do we connect the two?

Though I am wary of Google’s ever increasing authority in the internet domination game, they do provide an effective and free option for networking. Not to mention the power of Facebook, Razoo, and Just Means, among others. Just these tools alone prove that networks or the process of networking need not be funded. And for the skeptics out there, consider that there is a growing number of people using these online networks to meet people in real life too. Maybe this doesn’t solve the problem entirely, but it certainly brings us closer.

3) Why have traditional activist NGO groups been aging so rapidly? Or, why are there so few young activists formally joining groups and engaging in philanthropy?

Have they been aging so quickly? I’m not entirely convinced of this though there is evidence that suggests that Generation X and Y are politically apathetic. But with the emergence of new organizations, formal and informal, run by these younger folks I think we’ll see greater numbers engaging in philanthropy into the future.
4) How do we support people who are really changing the world?

This topic warrants its own article. There are so many new ways to use small amounts of money to affect big change.

Though I am biased towards the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund, there are other options if you are not NYC-based. For one, there are over 400 donor circles throughout the United States and likely one in every major city. These groups donate large sums to democratically chosen nonprofits using the pooled resources of group members.

Also, if you’re keen on affecting international change check out Kiva or Global Giving.

5) Where and how do we find our allies?

This is probably the trickiest question – I suspect it has to do with traditional, grassroots style networking: cocktail parties and open houses, or if you prefer a more modern take: Meetups and Facebook groups. But no matter how many friends or connections one might have online, nothing beats the face-to-face connection between two people. There is no ally like the one you’ve worked beside.

People are finding each other, creating networks and encouraging innovation in the most innovative ways yet. We are using networks whether it be in school, at work, or online to seek out and connect with other like minded folks who feel the current system of giving isn’t working.

I by no means have all the answers to these questions. The items I present here are intended as a springboard for thought and discussion. And real solutions are being driven by dialogue between and amongst all sectors – without this, we stagnate.

So what are your answers to these questions? How do we get ourselves out of the funding bind and towards greater solutions?

January 2008
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