Hewlett Foundation Blogging Discussion

Yesterday I sat on a panel at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation with Lucy Bernholz, Perla Ni (founder of Stanford Social Innovation Review and GreatNonprofits), Tim Ogden, and Peter Panepento (one of authors of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Give & Take). The topic of conversation was an overview of philanthropy blogging. Tim, who moderated the discussion, asked each of us “Why do you blog?” In going through the discussion and answering questions from the audience, it became clear to me why foundations should blog. I’ve encouraged foundation employees to blog or comment on this blog, but I’ve never really given a solid argument for they should.

The problem is the question is wrong. It is not “why should foundations blog,” it is “why should foundations enter into a discussion with a cross-disciplinary group of people who share their interest?” Blogging is just a technology. Conversations are as old as humankind. What blogging technology does is make it really easy for Paul Brest, who runs the Hewlett Foundation, to have a conversation with intelligent people who share his interests and goals (or for that matter, disagree with his interests and goals). One of Tim’s other questions was “Is blogging just an echo chamber where people who already talk to each other talk even more?” The answer is no. Foundations talk to foundations, nonprofits talk to nonprofits, financial experts talk to financial experts. That’s what conferences; industry participants talking to each other. That’s great but remember the quote I keep repeating:

“I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in those places.”

Anne Fadiman
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

In the most recent Hewlett annual report, Paul Brest wrote a fascinating essay titled, “Creating an Online Information Marketplace for Giving”. In the essay, he talks about the lack of impact data available to donors and compares the state of affairs to the vast amount of information available to investors in the for-profit world. This theme has been a recurring point of discussion on this blog and others. Brest may not want to discuss his ideas with other people. But if he does, a blog would provide an extremely low cost vehicle for that conversation to unfold.

In the stock market, there is a concept of “efficient markets”. The idea is that all available information about a company is reflected in the price of its stock because investors who have the information will act on it. This thesis is believe to be true to varying degrees in different situations, but it is clear to everyone that markets are less efficient in situations where information about a company is difficult to come by. I think that philanthropy represents a vastly inefficient market. Money does not flow to the best places because information is so limited. If foundations begin to engage in a conversation with stakeholders of all types, information would flow more freely. Personally, I believe that there is too much money flowing to low-impact nonprofits and too little going to high-impact nonprofits. While large foundations may have varying degrees of skill in allocating capital to high-impact nonprofits, the fact is they have a vast body of information about giving. While Brest’s essay focuses on making information about nonprofits available, an efficient online marketplace for philanthropists requires a robust conversation between participants. Marketplaces are not just transactions occurring, they are people interacting with each other.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from the conversations we have on this blog. And readers tell me they learn a lot too. I think that we could all learn from foundations if they would willingly enter the conversation and I would suggest that they might learn a bit as well.


  1. Tidy Sum says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your observations about the value of these conversations — in technical terms, is a no brainer.

    But do you sense a resistance to participating and extending this dialogue?

    I’m surprised at how relatively few philanthropoids are even aware of these discussions.

    I bet noboby in my office can name a single blog on your blogroll, but everyone knows that J-Lo may be having twins.

  2. I don’t really think there is a resistance to the dialogue (Hewlett did after all invite us to their campus, the CoF invited bloggers to their conference, the Chronicle of Philanthropy launched Give & Take, etc) so much as there is a resistance to things that are new. Most people, inside and outside of philanthropy, barely use blogs and when they do, tend to be passive readers.

    It would be great if everyone in the country was a active philanthropy blog reader, but I think the field wasn’t even taken seriously until this year so it is no surprise to me that people are just beginning to pay attention.

  3. I agree with you entirely; a “blog” is a technology platform; it can promote activities with inherent value, but is not itself an activity with intrinsic value.

    The obvious extension to this argument is to question whether blogging is, therefore, a good way to “…enter into a discussion with a cross-disciplinary group of people who share their interest?”. Based on my reading (and occasional writing) here and elsewhere, I would conclude that it is, but this conclusion needs to be made to the philanthropy world as an argument.

    While most would agree that entering that discussion is important, I think the task at hand is convincing them that blogging is a good way to do so; perhaps a qualitative way would be to describe the successes of this blog in bringing people together for dialog?

  4. Dave, I spoke during the panel about some of the ways that this blog has been useful to me, but maybe there is a broader sense in which this could be accomplished. Lucy Bernholz also commented on how valuable she found blogging to be. Maybe the next Giving Carnival should be “Why do you blog?”