Hewlett Foundation Employee Comments on Idealist Debate

Jacob Harold, a program officer in the Hewlett Foundation’s philanthropy program, has chimed in on today’s posts (see part 1 and part 2) about Idealist:

Jacob writes:

I applaud Ami for his forthrightness and am rooting for Idealist; they’ve played a critical role in the nonprofit world for years now. (Just as I loved Kjerstin’s courage and impact-orientation.)

But I couldn’t help thinking that there are no fewer than 54 different online philanthropy, volunteering, and social investment platforms (see note below). They are built on the same premise as Idealist: let’s use the Internet to match resources and needs.

Each of these websites has huge potential. For some (like Idealist) that potential has been realized, at least in part. But I’m not sure the sector can support so many different platforms. By having so many, we thinly spread our limited resources (money and users) across many platforms — forcing everyone to struggle.

I think the time has come for us to discuss how to transform this (extraordinary!) decentralized innovation into an open, coherent & sustainable system that can serve our shared needs over the long run.

Jacob Harold
Hewlett Foundation

See research on this topic (which the Hewlett Foundation supported) here.


  1. Jacob’s comment caught my eye, too, and I’m glad to see it carried into this post. Social Actions maintains a list of online philanthropy platforms of all shapes and sizes. It’s up to 200+ and continues to grow: http://bit,ly/actionsourceslist.

    Like Ami in the previous comment thread, I applaud Jacob’s suggestion to “transform this (extraordinary!) decentralized innovation into an open, coherent & sustainable system that can serve our shared needs over the long run.” It begs the question: what would that require? What characteristics define a “coherent and sustainable system” and what steps can be taken to generate such a thing?

    From my understanding of systems and network theories, healthy systems of the kind we’re looking at here — online networks dedicated to resource-sharing whether that resource is information, money, our volunteer time, etc. — share the following characteristics:

    * Diversity — in other words, it is OK to see a list of 200+ platforms and know the list is growing. Problematizing the number and variety of these sites, and calling for measures to reduce their proliferation would be counter-productive IF the goal is the system’s sustainability.

    * Redundancy — in other words, it is OK to see similarities among each of the 200+ platforms. Having multiple, even similar ways for resources to travel from point A to point B via an online philanthropy platform is OK. (Again, if the goal is to shrink the system because we’re carrying concepts about efficiency from other models into this one, that’s also a completely different list).

    * Strong connections between the points in this decentralized network — in other words, aggregators like Social Actions drawing attention to them collectively, and groups outside of the network studying and analyzing it, might be worthwhile (we think so!) but they don’t directly contribute to a sustainable system. In order for this collection of platforms to adopt that the platforms themselves must be connected, learning from and working with each other in some way.

    These first two characteristics point to things we don’t want to do. The third points to a possible course of action (and corresponding investment): creating opportunities for online philanthropy platforms to work together. This isn’t a new idea (Tom Watson’s been calling for it ever since he wrote CauseWired) and it’s one that’s been played out to a limited extent on small, invite-only stages for a handful of platforms from time to time. The role of the sector, to borrow Jacob’s term, would be to fund those opportunities, online and offline, as lightly facilitated and orchestrated as possible, devoting primary attention to promoting connections between platforms.

    If that’s a direction we can move in together, add our name to the list after Ami’s. 🙂

  2. p.s. One more thought — I completely forgot to give a thumbs up to the call to bring coherence to this system of resources. Consider this idea — a detailed directory of online platforms as one way to do that, which could itself be an open data API for others to connect with and build off of. Would love to find partners and resources to bring this to life:


  3. Christine,
    I agree with much of Jacob’s views on the emergent philanthropic capital market. But I don’t agree with his publicly stated preference for a single platform (ie. Guidestar) to emerge as the one platform to rule them all.

    To the extent we can look to traditional financial markets, we see the most functional markets operate with the duplication that you point to as a positive. The last thing we want is for a philanthropic information platform to emerge that is “too big to fail.”

  4. Ben Sheldon says:

    I want to echo Sean’s comments: I don’t think a single platform is the solution.

    The reason we got to having such redundant capacity is that different foundations fund different things and donors give for different reasons. Which they should, since different people have different priorities and different values. Process is often equivalent to outcome.

    When Jacob speaks of “us” and “the sector” does he mean the philanthropic sector or the nonprofit sector? While intertwined, they are different and there is fear that the differences are becoming even more pronounced. The Nonprofit Quarterly’s Study on Nonprofit and Philanthropic Infrastructure notes the ‘penchant among some foundations “to bypass nonprofits altogether in trying to achieve their goals.”’

    I would love to see those 54 different online nonprofit service providers just get in the same room together. Will that be funded?

  5. Jacob Harold says:

    Very interesting and thoughtful comments here.

    SocialActions has proved that it is possible to organize nonprofit websites in a way that allows for a single access point while maintaining diversity. I’d even argue that SocialActions has actually enhanced that diversity because it has allowed users to easily compare sites to each other. Standardization can reveal diversity.

    And I’d agree that most complex systems (ecoystems, the human body, etc) have redundancy and that it’s important for those systems to work well. But we have two kidneys, not 54. Looking at the “system” of philanthropy, I believe that we have more redundancy than the nonprofit sector can afford.

    That’s why we have provided significant support to Guidestar–so that there can be one place that gathers information about nonprofits in one place (both from and for all stakeholders). In the medium term, it will probably be “one place” not “the only place”–but for us to get to a world with multiple hubs, we need one first. SocialActions has done it for actions, we hope that Guidestar can do it for nonprofit data.

    (Though I have to admit that I was amused by Sean’s reference to “one platform to rule them all!”)