My session on Wednesday about Knowledge Sharing at the Center for Effective Philanthropy Conference went over well. It seemed that many of the people in the audience were receptive to the idea that sharing their knowledge with other grantmakers could increase their impact.
Just prior to the session, I asked my Twitter followers what they would say if they were at the session. New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom (@ssstrom) warned me, “Getting foundations to "share" anything is a challenge, as most honest foundation executives will tell you.” Bruce Trachtenberg (@bsttrach) also gave me a warning of sorts saying, “I hope you’ll be clear about what you mean by "knowledge." The term is too ill-defined and gets a lot of lip-service.”
Bruce’s comment was important because it highlighted the fact that when people talk about foundations sharing information, the immediate critique is that sharing info about grantees could hurt the grantee. So I took this idea on at the start of the session. My point was two fold:
- A funders allegiance should be to impact, not individual grantees. If sharing information about a grantee will increase system wide impact (such as warning other funders to not give money to an inept nonprofit) then it should be shared even if it hurts the grantee. But if hurting a grantee might lower impact (such as if the info might scare other funders away from what is otherwise a high impact nonprofit) than the information may be rightly withheld.
- Foundations knowledge about philanthropy is much, much larger than simply which grantees are any good. Imagine you had an opportunity to have lunch with Warren Buffett to talk about investing. If Warren refused to give you any specific stock tips would you think the lunch was worthless? Of course not, the wisdom of investing and the wisdom of grantmaking is much larger than simply the organizations that should be funded.
So what is that knowledge and how should we know what to share? A member of the audience offered a guiding principal that was much better than anything I had to say:
Communicate unto others that which you would want others to communicate unto you.
The golden rule of knowledge sharing in philanthropy!
At the lunchtime plenary just before my session, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and an expert on what makes great organizations, was the speaker and asked the audience, “what is the one thing that you should or must do to take advantage of this moment in time?” His point was that with great upheaval comes great opportunity.
I think that embracing a culture of knowledge sharing, both between funders and between sectors, is the key to philanthropy taking advantage of this moment in time. Even as private sector resources are down, the amount of government money flowing in the system is off the charts. If we want to ensure that money spent (in every sector) on social good is used wisely, we need to commit to sharing what we know about what works.