Philanthropy’s Period of Rapid Innovation

InnovationOne of the defining characteristics of a blog, that sets it apart from historical publishing models, is the conversational focus of the medium. If a “blog” just publishes items that talk about the author or their organization each day, that’s really just a newsletter. But when blog authors write about what other authors are discussing, they build a broader conversation. To me, this conversation is what makes blogging interesting.

While philanthropy focused blogs have exploded in number in the past few years, I’ve been struck by the fact that of the 32 blogs I list in my blogroll, not a single one is written by a foundation. While many foundations have launched blogs in recent years, they are almost uniformly newsletters about the foundation that are published on the web using blogging software.

The major exception was the short lived blog authored by Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest for four months in late 2008 to early 2009. Paul’s posts immediately engaged the broader philanthropic blogosphere. His 16 posts commented on items authored by Nathaniel Whittemore of the Social Entrepreneurship blog, reviewed the book Philanthrocapitalism, engaged the elusive “Madmunk” blogger, discussed Michael Edward’s book Just Another Emperor, psychoanalyzed the motivations behind corporate philanthropy, offered a scathing critique of NCRP’s Criteria for Philanthropy, and engaged in a running debate with me on varying approaches to grantmaking.

Now we have an interesting new example of a major foundation blog engaging in this kind of conversational format and the author is none other than Melinda Gates.

Back in October, Mitch Nauffts of the Foundation Center who writes the Philantopic blog posed a series of questions to Mrs. Gates after he was disappointed with the line of questioning featured in a New York Times Q&A with her. Then, last week, Mrs. Gates (who frequently posts to the Gates Foundation blog) wrote:

“I’ve received a lot of comments about [the NY Times Q&A], but this post from the PhilanTopic blog stood out.

The author, Mitch Nauffts, responded to the piece with a list of his own. Then, he invited his readers to submit more. I appreciate the sentiment in Mr. Nauffts’ post, so I thought I’d answer a few of his questions.”

She then provided answers to questions about the current boom in philanthropy, whether the Gates Foundation has too much influence, and who she and her husband Bill talk with to stay grounded and seek wisdom.

In an email sent to Mitch, the Gates Foundation director of media relations said that Melinda’s post was “part of a larger effort by the foundation to be "more responsive online." With all the talk about the need for foundations to be more transparent, I think that this distinction between newsletter type blogs and conversational blogs is important.

The former is an example of an accountability approach to transparency. It seeks to reveal to the public more about the inner workings of the foundation, but probably does little to actually help the foundation improve.

The latter however, a conversational blog, is an example of impact focused transparency. Engaging with the world around you is key to constant development and improvement. In fact, one of Mitch’s questions was about how Melinda stays grounded and seeks wisdom. Her response was that she and Bill traveled a lot to visit beneficiaries and that this approach to staying in touch was “some of the most important time Bill and I spend working on behalf of the foundation.”

When I looked back on the Exploring the Edge concept I developed for finding Big Ideas, the reason I decided it didn’t work was because Big Ideas don’t come fully formed from one person. They don’t appear as a sort of newsletter-style notification of their existence. Instead, Big Ideas are developed through a process of conversation.

I showed this video about Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From:

(Click here to view video if you are reading this via email).

In the video Johnson argues that good ideas do not spring forth from any one person or at any one time, but instead are the output of a dynamic process of refinement of other ideas and our own ideas. The video also points to various periods of rapid innovation and says that each period was supported by some sort of mechanism which assisted in the acceleration of idea exchange.

I wonder if blogs, Twitter and the array of philanthropy focused online communication formats are laying the groundwork for philanthropy’s own period of rapid innovation. Our field doesn’t have a geographic focus like Silicon Valley, it doesn’t have a cultural focus point like the coffee houses of the Enlightenment.

When I think back on the history of this blog, I find that the first major catalyst that gave rise to the Tactical Philanthropy community and laid the basis for the dynamic conversations and debates we have here, was the Giving Carnival.

The Giving Carnival was an organized effort on my part to rope the small number of philanthropy blogs that wrote regularly in late 2006 and early 2007 into an ongoing conversation. At the time I had no idea of the ramifications of the process or the distinction between newsletter style blogs and conversational blogs. But I knew that the most interesting blog posts were those that debated, supported or refined the arguments made by other bloggers.

On a monthly basis, for the better part of a year, most of the major philanthropy blogs at the time would weigh in on a common issue. For me, it was a tremendous learning experience to see a number of smart people offer up varying views and unexpected takes on issues I was passionate about.

I know that I am personally the biggest beneficiary of this blog because I learn so much from the many readers who comment and email to challenge me, reinforce my thinking or offer up twists I hadn’t thought of.

I hope that Melinda felt that she got something out of Mitch’s questions the process of writing her response. I hope that she’ll wade back into the conversation again.

Social media and the push toward transparency is important in a number of different ways. But I think the most interesting ramification could be the development of a far more dynamic conversation about philanthropy that gives rise to our own period of rapid innovation.


  1. Adin Miller says:

    Interesting post Sean. Collectively, we’ve been using a number of descriptors to name this moment in philanthropy (I keep applying Lucy’s “disruption” term, for instance). What strikes me are several factors as play: the democratization of thought, the huge growth and ease by which people react to ideas online (which you reflect on above), and the ease in which individuals can now self-publish.

    In a sense, I think we’re reliving aspects of the Enlightenment, which saw the printing press as an agent of change (see Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book on the subject:, In this case, the significant exchange of thought, new ideas, and collective reasoning and debate are all being enabled by the internet. It’s certainly an exciting time to be involved in what really is a significant upheaval.

    Out of curiosity, how many of the authors in your blog roll previously worked at foundations?

    • I don’t know all their bios well enough to say re: former foundation employees.

      I think everything you’ve written here is correct. I guess one additional element that makes the conditions particularly important for philanthropy is the lack of a shared geography/culture in philanthropy. While political blogs have been important, political players have always had DC the same way techies have had Silicon Valley. Philanthropy seems to benefit especially from social media’s ability to allow communication across geographies.

      • Adin Miller says:

        Excellent point Sean. I do think there are some different aspects to philanthropy in California, New York, DC, New Orleans, Ghana, and the UK (to name a few) but there is not a single epicenter to our discussions as you mention. And as an online field we have a tremendous blending of ideas that sort of negate the need for a geographic base. I wonder if that lack of geographic center is a reflection of the major pilanthropic institutions’ failure to claim ownership of philanthropic blogsphere.

        • “the major pilanthropic institutions’ failure to claim ownership of philanthropic blogsphere.”… I think this is a fascinating concept. The “private” nature of foundations may mean they lose influence over the philanthropic center. Note that for-profits and nonprofits, entities that are intrinsically more public, are all over the web.

  2. Interesting post! What you describe in the distinction between a newsletter blog and a conversational blog really parallels the shift we’re seeing in media generally away from a top-down “broadcast” model to a more participatory view of media, where the “people formerly known as the audience” are also media makers, commenters and critics themselves.

    Let’s remember that the democratic nature of the Internet provides the infrastructure that allows this shift to take place — and that our infrastructure needs protecting! Telecom corporations are lobbying for rules that would allow them the ability to block or charge more for varied Internet content, and there is a real threat against our open and conversational Internet.

    Check out this Scientific American piece from Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the world wide web:

    Let’s keep our Internet open and accessible so this period of rapid innovation can continue!