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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.

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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.

 

 

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…?

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.

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