The Early Adopters in Philanthropy

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Darin McKeever of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

By Darin McKeever

image I have been looking forward to the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference in Pittsburgh for some time.  I joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the spring of 2008 — just a few months after the most recent conference.  For me, waiting for this gathering was an exercise in delayed gratification.  Part of the reason why I wanted to work in philanthropy is because of GEO members I came to know in my prior job at Heads Up, people from organizations like Nonprofit Finance Fund, Venture Philanthropy Partners, Echoing Green Foundation, and the Meyer Foundation.

I’ve often thought of these and other members of GEO as the “early adopters” of the philanthropic community.  So I appreciated the convenient timing of Rob Walker’s article in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday.   Walker describes early adopters as “the shock troops of trendiness,” or less colorfully, “people who try new stuff before you do.”  (I won’t mention the product he uses as a launching “pad” to discuss the phenomenon.)

I think Walker’s description of “early adopters” applies well to the dynamism of GEO’s members I’ve come to admire.  Among the list of this year’s attendees are pioneers of PRIs, social media mavens, co-funding collaborators, and social innovators working at the boundaries between public and private.  As a late entrant to the blogging community (and a guest blogger at that), I worried that I would feel distinctly behind the curve at the gathering.

At the same time, I sense that GEO as an organization and many of GEO’s members are not content to be early adopters.  They share a certain evangelism about their innovations and attitudes.  I think this explains why the community gathers every two years — it reinforces within each of us a need to see these ideas gathering steam.

But what if they’re not gathering steam?  Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy suggested as much in his recent post, “Has Anything Really Changed in Philanthropy?” when he wrote: “the movement is less dramatic than many of us would hope.”  He was referring to foundations adopting clear goals and strategies, getting and acting on feedback from stakeholders, and other practices CEP and GEO promote.

For these feelings of disappointment, Rob Walker has an answer.  To early adopters, he writes: “If you’re intrinsically curious and have a high need for novelty, the truth is you probably don’t care whether whatever it is you’re testing out this week succeeds or fails with the masses.”

How does that answer suit you?  Do we measure this community’s success  by our scale or by our innovation?  Are GEO members early adopters truly without a care for whether PRIs, GPRs, or SEGUEs spread widely as practices within the sector?  I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.