I wrote yesterday about the Demonstrating Impact session here at the Council on Foundations conference and the concept of transparency as a way to improve the field of philanthropy rather than a public accountability issue. Today I want to show you a radical experiment in transparency being tried by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
The Nitrogen Collaborative Strategy Forum uses a wiki and discussion forum to solicit input from anyone who wants to contribute (a wiki is an online collaboration tool that lets any user add or edit content). The goal of the project is to develop strategies for reducing nitrogen pollution. Walt Reid, Director of Packard’s Conservation and Science Program, says this about the program:
Foundations regularly use grantmaking strategies to orient their philanthropic investments. These strategies are typically developed by foundation staff, by “philanthropic intermediaries,” or by consulting firms. Through this Wiki site, we would like to experiment with an alternative to these models for strategy development. We are concerned that the existing models for strategy development cast far too narrow a net in their search for creative solutions. They are unable to benefit from the wisdom, experience, and expertise present within civil society, private sector, and academic institutions. They lack the transparency and opportunity for critical review that could aid in their development and that could help grantees to determine whether they might play a role in implementing the strategy. And, they tend to reinforce networks involving individuals and institutions with existing relationships to the foundation without providing opportunities for the creation of new networks and partnerships between donors and possible grant recipients.
Through this website, the Packard Foundation would like to bring the “wisdom of crowds” to bear on its development of a possible grantmaking strategy. Our hope is that this will help to improve the goals and elements of any such strategy while also helping the Foundation to identify individuals, institutions, and projects that could play a role in carrying it out. If successful, we also believe that the Wiki site could help to inform the work of other organizations and the grantmaking strategies of other Foundations.
Diana Scearce of the Monitor Institute is the project manager and she emailed me an update on how the project is working so far:
At this point, interest level among participants has been roughly consistent with our expectations, while interest in the site as a model for philanthropic strategy development has exceeded our expectations…
There are currently about 140 people registered on the site – coming mostly from the scientific, NGO and philanthropic communities. Of the 140, about 40 have contributed to the forum in some way; and of that 40, a subset of 12 or so participants are making regular contributions. Before we launched the site, we were told by a leader in the social software world that once a dozen people are active on the site it will be self-sustaining; these dozen or so will be the core surrounded by another couple dozen irregular contributors. This advice has proved to be spot-on.
Although the conversations and editing on the wiki site are still underway, it is clear that the ideas generated on nitrogen.packard.org will significantly influence the nitrogen strategy proposed to the Packard trustees. What is not yet clear is the indirect impact of the forum. What is the community of observers taking away? How might the ideas developed on site influence researchers and activists working in the field? How will relationships developed on the site evolve over time? Has the process of working together on nitrogen.packard.org resulted in connections that will extend to collaboration outside of Packard sponsored activity? What is the potential for the emergent nitrogen network?
These are just a few thoughts midway through the process. The story is still unfolding. Packard will be doing an evaluation of strategy forum that will be captured in a narrative account of lessons learned. This report will be made available on the Packard Foundation’s website and the archived wiki site, nitrogen.packard.org.
So why should foundations be thinking about transparency at the program development stage as well as the program review stage? Because what Packard has done is used an ultra low cost tool to gather experts in the field who are contributing their thoughts, for free, to develop the program strategy. People who care about philanthropy are willing to share valuable information for free because of the huge social return that is produced. This gets back to my post regarding the Morphing Media session. Social media tools allow for easy sharing of valuable information and analysis. In the for profit world, there is a critical need to redesign economic models to create better incentives around information distribution. But philanthropy has the unique advantage of social returns already being produced under current models. The knowledge is out there, the incentive exists for it to be shared, foundations and other philanthropic entities just have to set up the technological infrastructure to capture and use this latent knowledge.