Web 2.0 Media & Philanthropy

I’m a bad blogger. I don’t buy into all this Web 2.0 bubble talk that bloggers are going to replace the “mainstream media”. For me, the important element about blogs is the technology that allows for the information stream to run back and forth and around and around instead of simply being piped in one direction. This kind of technology is best suited to debating opinions, not revealing facts. For the most part bloggers debate the meaning of the facts rather than reporting them.

Last October, a survey was released that focused on how the wealthy practiced philanthropy. At 7:11am on the morning the news was reported, I posted my thoughts regarding the implications of the survey results. I think that this symbiotic relationship between bloggers and the mainstream media is the future.

To me, the importance of blogs to philanthropy is that most philanthropy reporting focuses on the size of a grant or the focus of the grant, but not the implications of various philanthropic actions. For instance, everyone read in the mainstream media about the fact that Bill Gates was going to work at his foundation full time. And they read about the dollar amount of the gift that Buffett made to The Gates Foundation. But what were the implications? Philanthropy doesn’t have magazines like The National Review or The Atlantic Monthly that provide a forum for deep analysis and opinion. With philanthropy still an area of niche interest, blogs provide an ideal forum for this deep analysis and opinion sharing to develop without the need for an economic model to support a mainstream media outlet.

During the Morphing Media session, I was struck by Maxwell King’s assertion that in an era of “dramatically increasing complexity”, it is not possible that there is not significant economic value to good information and analysis. I think he is exactly correct. However, I also think that philanthropy, unlike most other media spheres, doesn’t need a functioning economic model to finance the sharing of information and analysis. This is because the sharing of information and analysis about philanthropy, even without an economic return, produces large social returns. If a foundation CEO writes about the successes and failures of a new program, she will increase capital flows from other philanthropic entities towards the reported successes and away from the revealed failures. Since foundations and other philanthropic entities are not competing against each other, but instead can measure success by challenges jointly conquered, there already exists a functioning model to reward the sharing of good information and analysis.

Huffington’s diagnoses of attention deficit disorder in the mainstream media and obsessive-compulsive behavior among bloggers got a good laugh, but it also has some important implications for philanthropy. In a world where philanthropy is still of niche interest, it takes an obsessive-compulsive personality to write constantly about areas of interest to the philanthropic community. Look at NetSquared for a good example. To my knowledge, there has been no mainstream media coverage to date. But the Giving blogs have been talking about it constantly. This is of no small importance to philanthropy. According to CompuMentor/TechSoup the following foundations are going to be attending and/or sponsoring NetSquared:

  • Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
  • W.K. Kellogg Foundation
  • Ford Foundation
  • The Case Foundation
  • Surdna Foundation
  • The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
  • Google.org
  • Sunlight Foundation
  • California Emerging Technology Foundation
  • Schwab Charitable
  • Community Foundation Silicon Valley

And Mark Bolgiano, former Chief Information Officer of the Council on Foundations had this to say about NetSquared:

"I’m in awe. The projects, the energy, the votes, the outcome, and the people paying attention to flaws and suggesting improvements… all of it feels to me like something that will be looked back on with a "Wow.  I was there when it happened… when it got started"…

So what if this turns out to be a scale model of something bigger that turns philanthropy inside out?  What if we could do this with a just ONE TENTH OF ONE PERCENT of foundation grants next year?  That’s at least $20 million.  What if we involved folks outside our motivated/activist/subversive tribe, say only a million of the people who would love to weigh in on these proposals?  Best of all, what if this new way of doing things convinced a lot of new  people with good ideas to go for it…?

I’m serious.  It really could happen…"

All of this attention on what I believe is a groundbreaking moment for philanthropy and there’s been zero press coverage, but massive blog coverage. That’s why blogs are important to philanthropy. That’s why understanding the “morphing media” is key for foundations and why foundation executives and other philanthropic leaders need to be engaging the blog community.

There are real risks to blogging. The article I linked to earlier about the role of bloggers at the California State Convention was not a glowing story about blogs. It cited a lot of trends in political blogging that I personally find to be negative. But blogging is happening, the media is morphing. There’s no stopping change. But if philanthropy ignores the morphing media, then it loses the chance to effect the new media that emerges. If philanthropy doesn’t wake up quickly to the changes being wrought by information technology, than blogs like Inside Foundations and Don’t Tell The Donor will be the ones setting the agenda. Wouldn’t it be better if leaders, new comers and everyone in between discussed the issues at hand out in the open and let the most vibrant, robust ideas rise to the surface?


  1. It’s important to point out, as you do, the lack of press coverage for this “groundbreaking” moment in philanthropy. Do you think, though, that the press will be able to ignore it forever? Or will they just get to the story late and end up covering what foundations and nonprofits have accomplished? Will they go back and analyze what happened, lessons learned, and thus (and finally) create larger public awareness of what for most people continues to be invisible?

  2. I think the press will cover NetSquared. I’ve already been in touch with a couple of journalists who are interested. But my point is that bloggers represent, in the words of Huffington, an Obsessive-Compulsive approach to covering items of interest compared to the mainstream media’s ADD. Since philanthropy is still a topic of niche interest, the blogs are an important tool for highlighting issues of interest that the press will only cover intermittently.

  3. Interesting post, Sean. As we try to build out Net2, which certainly means trying to get traditional media to pay attention, I am struck (again) by the very “niche” nature of our field, from a mainstream media perspective, and, somewhat more ominously, how quickly media-seekers (us in this case) try to adapt their pitch to what they perceive as the necessary lowest common denominator.

    Bloggers’ posts about N2–whether enthusiastic like Mark Bolgiano’s or the critical ones that take the stand that nothing important has happened yet–do get at the guts and meaning of what we’re trying to do. But when we go after the mainstream we tend to play up the “American Idol” element…or the sheer volume of votes…or the money at stake. All those things are part of the mix, but they are really lagniappe compared to the real stuff of the event.

    I think we have to look at ourselves as well as at the media’s proclivities. I’m trying to get our hard working comm. team to tell the more complicated story on the grounds that if we’re not going to get covered, we might as well not get covered for the right reasons.

    But I think N2 will get covered. We’ll see which angle gets picked up…

    Meanwhile, thank goodness for the blogs.