FORGE & New Philanthropy Advisors

A few days ago, Sara Hall of New Philanthropy Advisors contacted me to share her opinion of FORGE. I facilitated a conversation between Sara and Kjerstin and they have agreed to allow me to post Sara’s thoughts here.

Sara Hall is a partner at New Philanthropy Advisors where she connects foundations and individual donors to high quality non-profit organizations. Just over a year ago she was instrumental in bringing key funding to Forge for the development of its new social marketing website. She joins the conversation to give her thoughts from the funding perspective.

By Sara Hall

Though I am heartened by the extraordinary interest Forge has received in the last three weeks and applaud Sean, Curtis, Rich, and the many others who have pledged to help, I am troubled by the online community’s lack of focus on what seems to me to be obvious. In celebrating Kjerstin’s “radical transparency” about Forge’s fiscal crisis while failing to look closely at the state of Forge’s fundraising efforts, information available to anyone visiting its website, we seem to be saying that an organization’s transparency is a higher objective than the quality of its operations.

Many months ago, Forge made the decision to shift funding sources. Instead of relying on student volunteers and their friends and families to provide funding for camp projects, Forge decided to create a social marketing website similar to Kiva, DonorsChoose, and GlobalGiving, which have attracted thousands of donors and substantial buzz. The decision was well thought out and the fit appeared to be excellent. Forge offers a portfolio of projects where aggregated small donations could change the lives of many disempowered individuals with compelling stories. Forge’s past and present staffers and former volunteers are young tech-savvy social networkers with a wide web of friends and supporters who would want to be part of the Forge community. Kjerstin made a compelling case for the new website which would become an important component of Forge’s operation and the sole source of funding for Forge’s raison d’être–the camp projects..

The Forge website was completely revamped over a number of months and, after delays, launched in June of this year. As of November 8th, nearly six months after launch, twenty-five fundable projects are posted and described on the Forge Website. Here’s the discouraging news: of those twenty-five projects eight show no contributions whatsoever, and seventeen are funded or partially funded, but the funders for those seventeen projects are almost exclusively Forge staff, and overwhelmingly Forge’s Director of Development, whose donations of approximately $10 per project seem to be made to get the ball rolling. Out of the total of thirty-four contributions listed, twenty-three were from Forge or its three current paid staff members, and only eleven were from outside contributors.

First a question, then a proposal for what we can do to help. Question: where was Forge’s board in the almost six months since the site was launched? Why hasn’t every single member of the Forge board made a donation online, and each member found at least ten friends to make a donation? After all, donations start at $5. Is Forge’s board committed to Forge’s success? How are they demonstrating that commitment? And where are Forge’s former volunteers, the “alumni” listed on their website? Out of over sixty, have any, other than current staffers, pledged even $5? Not only have they apparently failed to pledge, they have clearly failed to tell their friends about Forge, an organization where, presumably, they learned important lessons, had formative experiences. If each of the more than sixty alumni had told at least ten friends, I’m guessing that the website’s project page would radiate a whole new energy.

Forge has risked everything on the social marketing fundraising model, yet the people who most should be stepping up out of obligation (the board), or enthusiasm (the alumni) are almost entirely absent as donors, and, incidentally, as participants in the public dialogue on how to help Forge get out of its fiscal crisis. Why? Is it because they weren’t asked to participate? Is it because the mission now fails to compel them? Is it because the “ask” on the website doesn’t stimulate the kind of enthusiasm necessary to move potential donors to action (both in terms of funding, and in terms of spreading the word about Forge to their own social networks)? We can’t know the answers to these questions, but I believe Forge should make it a priority find out.

Now the proposal. If hundreds, maybe thousands of online readers are following Forge’s unfolding drama, described by blogger Marie Deatherage of Meyer Memorial Trust as “something really exciting happening on the Internet that …deserves the rapt attention all nonprofit organizations, foundations and donors,” then each reader will do Forge a service by going on the Forge website and practicing what is as useful a form of transparency as Kjerstin’s blog posting on October 17th: give Kjerstin your unvarnished feedback. If, after exploring the website you haven’t been moved to pledge at least $5, take ten minutes to figure out what didn’t work and TELL KJERSTIN WHAT YOU THINK. If you didn’t make a donation, go to Kiva, DonorsChoose, or GlobalGiving and see what they’re doing. How are the projects presented? How is the “ask” structured? If you’re engaged, what about the site engages you and encourages you to spread the word to your social network? If the Forge site didn’t engage you enough to open your wallet, how can it be made more engaging? Above all, don’t “make nice” in your feedback to Kjerstin. Don’t be the kid in class who says the other kid’s speech is great because you don’t want to hurt her feelings.

Kjerstin deserves your honesty; Forge deserves your honesty; all the refugees waiting for funding so they can live better lives deserve your honesty. If the site is great, then get out your credit card and dedicate all your holiday gift money to giving your friends and family gifts of Forge project support (way more gratifying than another decorative candle or pair of gloves). If it doesn’t move you, if you haven’t whipped out your credit card and told at least five of your friends about this cool organization, tell Kjerstin why and make specific recommendations. And once your recommendations are in evidence on the site, tell everyone you know about Forge. Put your social network where your mouth is.

I hope we’ll do more than simply tune into the blog exchange as if it were an exciting tennis match or, as Marie Deatherage said of the postings, “way better than reality TV.” I also hope that we’ll see that “radical transparency” though laudable, should not divert our attention from issues of good management. Kjerstin’s blog of October 17th should be seen as a cry for guidance from the non-profit community, which has responded with interest and compassion. From the funding side, however, any potential major donor moved enough by Forge’s plight to visit the website will likely be deterred by what they see there: Forge’s board, past supporters, and current friends seem to have abandoned the mission and left the refugees depending on Forge waiting, waiting, waiting. Haven’t they had enough waiting in their lives? Let’s not only watch the unfolding drama, let’s help Kjerstin give it a happy ending.