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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!

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.

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.

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?

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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