Tribes in Philanthropy

I imagine that having books by marketing guru Seth Godin in my philanthropy bookstore seems a little odd to some people. But Seth Godin understands how ideas spread and I believe that spreading ideas is an important tool for philanthropy.

While this idea might not be mainstream, the TED conference has become something that philanthropy pays attention to. In fact, when I wrote about the lack of “rock stars” speaking at the Council on Foundations conference, the person behind the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Twitter account suggested that it might be because all the philanthropy rock stars were at the TED conference.

The tag line of the TED conference? “Ideas Worth Spreading”.

I’ll let Seth Godin take it from here. In this newly released video from Seth’s TED talk, he examines the impact of “tribes” on spreading ideas. (Tribes is the name and theme of Seth’s newest book). Is it relevant to philanthropy? One of Seth’s first examples looks at the San Francisco SPCA’s successful attempt to spread a new idea. In fact the talk is full of how “change happens”.

You can check out the video here:


  1. Jeff Trexler says:

    The tribes meme strikes me as a McLuhan retread in the weakest sense–and I say that as a self-professed McLuhan fanatic.

    When McL wrote about tribes and tribalism in the 1960s, it resonated because he was using a term that fit what people were seeing on their TVs– namely, phenomena such as hippies and Woodstock, with people who manifestly exhibited a fundamental form of communal primitivism. McL extrapolated from that, of course, to describe more general expressions of group allegiance, but at base the metaphor worked because it also matched what people sensed was a norm among the younger generation.

    Now, not so much. The word “tribes” seems to come out of left field, which could limit the scope of its spread beyond the realm of early adopters.

    This is an instance where I have an alternative, which I’m in the process of writing about at greater length!

  2. I look forward to seeing your alternative. I’m not familiar with McLuhan so I don’t have much to add, but I would say that a “tribe” is not defined by how people look (ie. your suggestion that hippies “looked like” our cultural expectations of ancient “tribes”). I actually think that there is much more tribal behavior online today (as Godin explains) compared to the 60’s when only a tiny percentage of people were part of the “hippie tribe” or any other tribe.

  3. Jeff Trexler says:

    Oh, I definitely agree re more tribal behavior–McLuhan’s basic point has spun out pretty much as he said it would. I was merely focusing on the utility of the tribal metaphor as a means of propagating the core idea. Some metaphors hold–Baudrillard & Toffler, for example, built entire careers riffing off of such McLuhan memes as “television war” and “future shock”–but others have less power over time.

    McL didn’t equate tribalism with the way people looked either, but popular style shaped his choice of imagery–he was by his own admission an observer, not a prophet! In fact, that approach is one reason I’m stepping back for a bit to think about alternatives to philanthropy; I want to immerse myself in the rhetorical world of those who react against it–not just the professional world, but things like educational culture, entertainment, decoration and dress. Important clues all.