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.”
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.