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I have been reading a lot about “Project Streamline”, the proliferation of non-profit “labs”, and the recent announcement by Pew to rent office space to non-profits in the DC area.  These developments, along with the increase of coworking spaces, beg the question, what would happen if a number of philanthropic foundations shared office space?  Such a set-up may create a dynamic “lab” in the philanthropic world and may temper some of the redundancy, inefficiency and silo-ization present in the philanthropic sector.

Imagine 5, 10, 20 (!) foundations sharing office space.  Each foundation keeps its own mission, goals and portfolio, of course.  But there is a commitment to getting to know colleagues from “neighboring” foundations, sharing ideas, asking for feedback, and maybe even collaborating on projects.

Such a “lab” may be a win for foundations and for grantees.

For foundations (especially those with small staffs) a shared office space may foster an atmosphere of collegiality, knowledge sharing and diversity.  Working in a small foundation, I oftentimes feel isolated from colleagues in the field and need to make a concerted effort to network with other foundation professionals in order to keep up with trends and issues in the sector.

For grantees a shared office space may mitigate some of the confusing/time-consuming aspects of the grantmaking process.  One location – i.e. one address – may provide grantees with access ro a larger network of foundations.  What’s more, perhaps the foundations in this “lab” will be open to using similar grantmaking processes.  Such a step may lead to a “streamlining” of certain bureaucratic steps in the application process.

With the steep increase in small foundations and family foundations rising, a “lab” of small foundations would be an interesting experiment.  It would have to include a mindful, clearly laid out process but a fascinating one, to be sure!  Any takers?

Gali is Chair of VPF’s Grants Committee.

Recently, VPF members elected the environment as the topic we will focus on in 2008 – meaning that our Grants Committee team is currently hard at work developing an RFP to actively seek out New York City’s most innovative, emerging social entrepreneurs that are tackling local environmental issues.

Appropriately, I had a discussion this morning with the Advisory Council about how we can best frame the environmental topic and differentiate ourselves from all the other funders focusing on the exact same thing. I was worried that we would be buried beneath the deluge of money currently being invested into environmental organizations and related projects. I envisioned two months of waiting for our first grant application going by with no biters because of massive wealth to be found elsewhere.

Then, to my utter surprise, I learned that though the environment is showing the largest gains in funding, it still is one of the least funded subject areas overall. For instance, in 2005 education ranked first (of 10 categories) in share of grant dollars claiming 24% of the funding, while the environment ranked sixth and gathered only 6%. Even when looking at the number of total grants given, the environment still came in sixth place (of 10), claiming only  8,195 grants from a total of 130,961 given in 2005. (Click here to see a full report from the Foundation Center 2007 Giving Trends report).

It’s a disappointment to learn this on Earth Day, of all days. But it provides more fuel for the engine – environmentally-friendly, non-polluting, fuel that is.

I found a great post detailing a very intelligent and relatively easy way for a donor to evaluate a nonprofits. So while the effectiveness knot is being worked out within the philanthropy world, an individual can take it upon themselves to use these very clever points to dig deeper.

A recent entry by Sean Stannard-Stockton on Tactical Philanthropy discusses some interesting and perplexing trends we are seeing throughout philanthropy. It’s worth a read.

Gwyneth at Gucci/Unicef eventBasically, philanthropy’s popularity is growing thanks to celebrities and super star-studded events that attract attention (example: pictures of Gucci-Unicef event). But, the amount of philanthropy is not directly correlated to its effectiveness and it’s here that we find the crux of a messy matter (or the cause for the mild, constant headache amongstDrew Barrymore at Gucci/Unicef event philanthropy professionals…) : people give money because they want to help solve an issue but they want their money to be a vehicle towards an effective solution. But, the measurement of effectiveness is Gordian knot unto itself .

Stannard-Stockton rightly points to philanthropic institutions themselves as the bearer of this burden. I have heard all too many times that donors should be responsible for researching, monitoring and ultimately correctly judging the effectiveness of the institution they give their money to. But when was the last time you wrote a check after studying impact measurement graphs? There really is a very good reason why pictures of hungry African children produce more donations than ROI/SROI reports.

The “global philanthropic marketplace” is an interesting idea but 1) I am not convinced that this is a solution to ensuring that the bulk of dollars goes to the best organizations and 2) this puts the bulk of the work and responsibility back in the hands of the donors.

Ultimately, giving will always be what giving is: an emotional practice based on a desire to take care of our fellow humans and the planet we live on. No matter the brilliant structures built to guide funds into the correct pot – we will loosen our pocketbooks for a good story or a kind face over a sound, rational model of impact and effectiveness any day.

Ideally, the responsibility falls onto philanthropic institutions to ensure that money is well spent on effective projects and programs. But with collaboration between organizations gamely limping along, a lack of standardized measurement across institutions, and a growing percentage of individual donations coming from the anonymous, online environment – you begin to sink into the center of that Gordian knot and it becomes ever more understandable why responsibility is being shrugged off and given to the donors.

The good news is that people are talking about it and actively pursuing solutions. And my guess is that, like most great ideas these days, the answer lies somewhere in between.

 

 

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