Very interesting to watch this thread unfold on Omidyar.net with commentary now from the Chronicle on Philanthropy. The story was picked up by Philanthropy News Digest, and was noted in an email today by Foundation Center Online. Alison Fine has blogged it, as has Lucy Bernholz. Ami Dar of Idealist.org expressed on the talking side of the Omidyar site his exasperation with the funding side. So far the only comment from Omidyar on the situation was a note to Dar telling him that his long-pending funding proposal was denied. All I want to say is that having an open conversation like this is healthy. I wish there were more places that the public, grant-seekers, and funders could interact in a human way, despite the vast differentials in wealth, power, and access. Giving Ami "the silent treatment" is ok for now; it speaks volumes; but as more and more people use the net to go public with the private transcripts of philanthropy, foundation wealth will increasingly have to answer to the public it serves, lest it seem imperious.
Phil, we've talked for a while about "getting the right people together on-line or face to face". Maybe the conversation at Omidyar.net and the way it's been picked up by others will draw some donors and foundation people into the online forums here or at Omidyar.net
If donors we're watching the discussions unfold at Omidyar.net, how many big visions that they find that they would want to fund? I'm reading the book about Bill Drayton's Ashoka Fellows, and it's full of passionate people building needed programs. I'm humbled when I read what some of these people have created.
I read the introductions that people post who join Omidyar. Many of these people introducing themselves at Omidyar.net have big visions and are part of great organizations, or are creating them, but I don't see lots of support from the community to the projects people bring with them to the forum. What's your opinion on that?
Posted by: Dan Bassill | February 13, 2007 at 11:24 PM
To give in more than a small way a donor has to be more than a donor. The whole concept that they are a "donor" is misquided. The partner, the fellow citizen, the legacy leader, has to be actively engaged as a co-creator. That gets you to talent, time, leadership. Rather than asking about how to raise money, think about how to collaborate. At least that is my irreversible commitment. I realize that those with money get dinged all the time, and pull away. They have to withdraw behind high walls. In fact that need is the genesis of the Foundation format, years ago during our first Gilded Age. Rich people hired others to read the bags and bags of begging letters they received daily. Foundations still play that role of protecting the wealthiest from the importunate. Still, big investments of money follow investments of passion and time.
At Omidyar, the top people came, looked around and left. Gresham's Law. Bad money drives out good. The best online conversation I know right now seems to be at xigi.net. But mostly the talk among funders happens offline, in secret, at invitation only conferences, in funder circles and networks, and through listservs and emails among funders who have known each other for years.
Parents keep little kids in the dark about many things. CEOs keep rank and file employees in the dark. Our government goes to great lengths to keep citizens in the dark. Knowledge is power. Funders keep nonprofits in the dark.
Ami is bucking the system, so am I. So are the Skolls and Omidyar's too, I think. But it is hard because for every Omidyar there are one billion people who want a piece of the money, and no one has enough hours to relate as a peer to one billion people with their hands out.
There have to be social filters, closed doors, gate-keepers, etc. And being excluded will always feel bad and will breed resentment. A network is a filter too. By extending our online networks and our face to face networks and connecting others as we wish to be connected - tactfully, graciously, with a real understanding of both parties needs - we can indeed "discover our own ability to make good things happen." But the connectivity has to be empathetic. You cannot expect Mr. Rich Guy to connect personally with 500,000 worthwhile people. He too can only maintain 50-100 friendships. So he has to rely on a pyramid or a network . What can you give? What can you give to the network? Think like that you will find yourself moving closer to the nodes with resources. Ask yourself what you can gain and you will be shunted to the periphery with the other 1 billion people who sing the song of myself.
Posted by: Phil | February 14, 2007 at 08:51 AM
Well said. I'm reading the book about Ashoka now and one observation about the people who are Ahoka fellows is a long-term vision rather than short term gains.
When I talk of maps I don't just mean the ones that show geographic boundaries, I also mean those that show the journey from start to finish. If we put your observations onto a brainstorming maps, what would be the places where we could have the greatest impact in creating the type of engagement and co-ownership that changes a donor to an owner?
In my thinking we've got to start with young people, perhaps school children, and teach them to look at maps and social issues, and to get involved, so that they can build their commitment to a cause as they build their success in a career.
When someone is young, or just starting a career, we don't know which ones will be the Gates or the Omidyars. However, if we can get people involved early, and keep them involved as they grow up, they already will be committed and contributing when they have power.
Posted by: Daniel F. Bassill | February 14, 2007 at 10:24 PM
Yes, education in service, leadership, giving in all it senses. School, house of worship, parental example, it does start young. As you say when you get a 35 year old, or 55 year old, billionaire with no prior history of giving, no family tradition of service, and no deeply rooted philosophy of service, the result will be suboptimal. The liberal arts were originally taught to kids, in Rome and England and in American upper crust prep schools as one way to address this issue.
Posted by: Phil | February 15, 2007 at 08:22 AM
Thanks for moving this conversation forward!
Posted by: Ami | February 15, 2007 at 11:35 AM
The power relationships between funder and fundee are inherent; one has the power to decide much of the future of the other. On the other hand, Omidyar.net is a social network that potentially levels the playing field, but it's like the Bill Gates question. when he walks into a bar, the average net worth of all the people inside skyrockets. it's hard to have a conversation that doesn't take that into account. All the efforts on transparency that venture philanthropy funds try to bring to the table address transparency around impact and efficiency on their impact; the investee side. But what about transparency on the capital sources.
Omidyar is spending his own money and is perhaps more transparent than many foundations. But unless a funder has as it's fiduciary responsibility giving money back to investors to do good with again, what are the incentives that force transparency around decisions or performance within the funding vehicle, whether foundation or social venture fund?
What would move the meter on this issue? How could philanthropy be re-envisioned or re-engineered bring in some of the transparency that is built into the traditional capital market?
Posted by: Kevin Jones | February 15, 2007 at 03:01 PM
Good questions, Kevin. Should foundations have discussion boards in public in which they field questions from all comers and engage in conversation within limits about where grants were made, where denied, and why? Would that be good, or a recipe for diaster? Do applicants want that laundry done in public? "We denied applicant X because a background check uncovered a drinking problem and possible accounting irregulatiries at her organization." I mean, is transparency an unmixed good? Confidentiality and respect for the privacy of certain information is also a good thing in certain circumstances.
Maybe the key thing is clear rules and procedures along with timely execution, and courtesy all around?
Posted by: Phil | February 15, 2007 at 05:31 PM
Thank you for initiating the conversation and for stopping by, let alone for your work at Idealist.
Posted by: Phil | February 15, 2007 at 05:32 PM
If you recall the last election, someone created a 'fact checker' that reported the accuracy of the claimes made in debates.
I envision the use of GIS mapping systems to map donations showing where they went, and who made them. Since a GIS layers data on a map overlay, such maps could show all of the business/foundation/government donations going to a certain issue in a specific zip code, or could provide specific layers of information, such as the donations of specific donors in specific areas.
Such maps would be neutral, neither praising or condeming. They would show facts. The people who look at the information can make their own decisions based on what they see.
If anyone is already doing this, it would be great to see. We demonstrate the potential to map data, in the Program Locator at http://www.tutormentorconnection.org
Posted by: Dan Bassill | February 15, 2007 at 07:00 PM
Dan, good comment but not on topic. Off topic pitches for tutor mentor kill the conversation. We know and admire tutor mentor but we discuss many things here. Using every comment to pitch tutor mentor make the comments look like highly customized spam. The Ami Dar discussion raises many important issues about traditional foundations and how they will operate under the changing cultural ethos instilled by the internet. I hope to keep that conversation going and to attract others to it. Thanks for helping me keep each thread on its own topic. From time to time we can talk about tutor mentor and maps too.
Posted by: Phil | February 15, 2007 at 10:36 PM
Good point, Phil. obviously, unmixed transparency is not always a good thing. on the other hand, I have a friend who make a business of helping sales people understand why they won and lost sales. That's much harder to do when working with foundations; the criteria are often more opaque; you often don't know why you lost, so you may not improve. What do you think would work to address the problem Ami brought up?
Posted by: Kevin Jones | February 16, 2007 at 02:00 AM
Transparency must always be balanced with respect for privacy. A negative evaluation is hard enough to receive privately without having to deal with the public shadow of having a mistake whether ours or the evaluator's revealed. As Kevin says, without the information there is no way to improve, but that doesn't mean it has to be public knowledge. In some cases, scrubbing identities will allow for transparency without compromising privacy, but this has to be done with great care.
Posted by: Gerry | February 16, 2007 at 06:43 AM
Ami could speak for himself here better than I for him, but clear rules, quick turn around time on funding requests, clear indications of why a proposal is accepted or rejected, courtesy and mutual respect would seem essential.
In a public forum, it might be best to deal with "issues" without names and "best practices" with names. That is, present common problems without tying them to individuals, but then praise certain individuals for best practices. That format is one that I use in my work, and could be adapted to foundations and grant seekers.
So, rather than using Omidyar as an example of worst practices, it might be better to talk of common issues among many foundations, and hold up some other foundation as evidencing best practices. Then maybe in private circle back to Omidyar, best practices in hand, and ask them to consider points of divergence or improvement.
Posted by: Phil | February 16, 2007 at 08:24 AM
Sorry if you feel I'm pushing tutor/mentor. If you can point to other examples of using GIS to show where a donor, or the government, is providing funding, please do.
If we're talking transparency, then until we have a public tool, such as provided by the fact checker, to show where money is going, then the donor gets credit for his generosity, but the public does not have a tool to know if the generosity is directed in the places where it is most needed.
In many cases donors set up foundations because of tax incentives, and foundations are required to give a certain perecent each year. Wouldn't it be great if there were some tool that the public could use to give recognition to donors who are more innovative in where or how they distribute their funds?
If someone were doing this, and I was aware of it, I'd point to it. To encourage that practice, I point to what I'm doing.
Posted by: Daniel F. Bassill | February 18, 2007 at 04:36 PM
I understand and applaud the interest in maps and transparency. I hope your work, Dan, will find a wide audience and many collaborators.
Posted by: Phil | February 19, 2007 at 06:32 PM