Googley philanthropy

I’m getting ready for a talk this week at Philanthropy New York about giving and What Would Google Do? So I’d like your help on brainstorming what Googley philanthropy looks like. How would a transparent, networked, collaborative, even open-sourced, process-oriented, beta philanthropy as a platform operate?

Not being wealthy, I don’t know a lot about how philanthropies operate, though I have begun begging seeking funds in my new life at CUNY and so I am eager to learn more. That’s why I’m looking forward to the conversation and brainstorming at the event and here. So let’s examine a few of these notions.

A philanthropy is not about giving away money but about accomplishing goals and the internet and social connections give it new and more effective and efficient ways to do that. That’s why I think it makes sense for a charity to be transparent. In its challenge grants, the Knight Foundation urges applicants to open up their ideas to get more input. I’d think that even the MacArthur genius grants would benefit from open nominations. With transparency, givers open themselves up to getting more information, new ideas and suggestions, links to new and possibly better grantees from a public that will gather around them.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting for a second that philanthropy should become democratic. The philanthropist or foundation is responsible for the optimal use of its always-scarce resources and so it must decide where its money goes to meet is own goals and conditions. But I do think that – as with journalism, marketing, government, and most any industry – more information from interested people can only help. That’s why I’d like to see philanthropies open up their goals and processes using the web and social media: blogs, Facebook, Twitter (where I see a fair number of philanthropists and foundations already).

Once transparent, it’s a short step to becoming collaborative. The charity can ask the public for help in finding ways to meet a goal – and not just through seeking funding. It can use the internet to mobilize people to work together. Why will people go to the effort? For the same reason that the charities are giving money: because they care. Once more, I’ll call on the vision of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of time given to Wikipedia by people who care. This is what makes philanthropy ideal for online, I’d say.

Collaboration can take the form of ideas and the form of effort. Of course, it can also take the form of money. Challenge grants are common: At CUNY, we’re working to meet a $3 million challenge grant from the Tow Foundation right now; Knight does likewise for community foundations to encourage them to invest in local journalism; on every NPR fundraiser, there’s a matching challenge used to motivate the public to give more. Challenges work in some cases better than others but online presents a new opportunity to have grantees raise money from their publics when that’s helpful.

But even aside from challenges, there are advantages in collaborative fundraising online. A foundation can create an infrastructure that lets people piggyback onto its giving, structure, and management: ‘We gave $3 million to this effort and if you agree, you can give, too, and we’ll make sure your money is as well spent as ours.’ The charity becomes a mutual fund. In that sense, then, the foundation can extend its value not just with its money but with its expertise and structure. Except then, when the money comes from the public, the public becomes the boss and the charity merely helps organize and executes its desires.

Openness and collaboration at the start of the process – seeking and giving funds – can also extend to the end: sharing lessons learned, good and bad, from giving. About a year ago, one foundation I know sent out a report detailing its mistakes. I thought it was gutsy (though potentially a bit embarrassing for the grantees – that’s the risk). But that kind of openness about lessons learned can be valuable to others. So why wait until the end? What about being transparent during the process of a project, so adjustments can be made? That becomes beta philanthropy.

At the end, a foundation, charity, or philanthropy should act like a platform. They do now in the sense that they make good work possible with funding. But how else can they enable others to do the same good work and how can they thus extend their resources with knowledge, networking (from introductions to more formal structures), vetting, teaching, management, and more?

How do you think philanthropy can work differently given the tools of our new age?

: LATER: Here’s info on attending the talk Thursday morning. And here is Philanthropy New York’s blog.