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Hi! It’s Chris Cardona, Chair of VPF’s Advisory Council. I’m delighted to be contributing to VPF’s blog.

I attended part of the Council on Foundations philanthropy mega-conference earlier this week representing VPF. I blogged about the experience – and got the word out about VPF to a broader audience – on Tactical Philanthropy, here, here, and here. My VPF colleagues Gali, Lauren, and Leslie were in the house as well.
The Council on Foundations is the trade association for organized philanthropy. Its annual conference generally draws about 2,000 people. Given that there are maybe 10,000 foundation staff in the whole country, this is a big number. CoF also holds sector conferences for family foundations, community foundations, and corporate foundations. This year, it combined them all into one big event. It also made a conscious, if not entirely successful, effort to attract more funders from abroad. As a result, the attendance this year was in the neighborhood of 3,500.
For broad and deep coverage of the conference, including detailed summaries of VPF-relevant sessions on social entrepreneurship, venture philanthropy, and funding climate change, check out the following blogs:
After a few days back home, here are some reflections:
  • Institutional philanthropy is in the midst of a full-fledged identity crisis. There was almost as much discussion at the conference of why we do what we do as what we do. And the calls for “more” were legion: Philanthropy should be more global, more proactive, more communicative, more willing to embrace human rights, more willing to support advocacy. Practically no one said, we’re doing a pretty good job, and we should stay the course in the midst of tough times. That’s the sign of a field in flux.
  • The “next gen” is the place to be. Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, 21/64, and Resource Generation co-sponsored a wildly successful “Next Gen” track that was the talk of the conference. But now that a space has really been opened, what do we do with it? EPIP’s involvement in the Social Justice Philanthropy Collaborative is a good sign that we can start answering the questions, what does the next gen want, and what will it do differently?
  • We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of engagement with our counterparts in other countries. The opening plenary featured leaders of counterparts of the Council of Foundations from Canada, Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In the brief time they had, each shared fascinating glimpses into the challenges of promoting philanthropy in areas with no legal incentives in the tax code and traditions of charitable – as opposed to strategic – giving.
  • Strategic philanthropy is important, but don’t underestimate charity. Susan Berresford, former head of the Ford Foundation, made this point on Sunday, and the tragic news from Myanmar this week reminds us that sometimes the best thing we can do is to get people in dire need the very basics right away. Speaking of which, Myanmar relief options are here, here, and here. I especially like the approach of the last one.
  • It’s not clear to me that most foundations are ready to engage with giving circles in a meaningful way. A terrific panel on this very topic was woefully underattended. VPF has a lot of work to do – let’s get to it!

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 by posting questions asking where to find charity evaluation services while also providing an answer directing all fellow readers back to 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.

In an interesting (and a bit older) article, “The Future of Philanthropy: Innovation, Networks, Thought Leaders and the Fringe” from, 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?

So today I was talking to a colleague about VPF’s upcoming Launch Party (Feb. ’08). We were admitting to one another that it often takes at least two attempts to clearly articulate what VPF does. Two attempts being on the low end. And everybody knows that this doesn’t make the ideal elevator speech.

What is the connection between social entrepreneurism and philanthropy?

Social entrepreneurs (SE) – in short definition – are visionary individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. Ambitious and persistent, they tackle major social issues by changing systems, spreading solutions, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps to enact sustainable social change.

The genius of SE’s, as originally identified by Ashoka, is their identification of an existing “gap” in a given community and turning it into an opportunity to change the entire system. They don’t just plug the hole, they knock down the entire wall and rebuild it so no hole exists at all – plugged or otherwise.

But after taking a look around this growing sector, I also realized that SE’s of the non-profit variety often lack one or more of the following resources:

1) Money : start-up money, general operations money and, maybe most importantly, longer term money

2) Skills : administrative and operational, legal, financial, managerial, public relations, sales and marketing, human resources, and the list goes on…

3) Networks : cross industry, cross cultural, multi-geographical

Philanthropically, it serves a community well to offer their support to these unique individuals. One option is to give to a charity that plugs a hole into infinitum, the other is to provide philanthropic charity to a struggling SE and change the system altogether.

April 2018
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