Sunday, February 22, 2009

Philanthropic networks

In the 2 previous posts I've been talking about philanthropists as if they were synonymous with foundations. In this post I'd like to deconstruct and reconstruct the notions of who is a philanthropist.

We have been blessed in this country (U.S.A.) to have many many foundations. However, these foundations, as was the case for businesses and government agencies as well, adopted organizational structures that were hierarchical and generally operated in isolation from other organizations. For the last decade, though, many entrepreneurial individuals and businesses have moved to an ecosystem model: they have vast relationships with other businesses of many types and sizes as well as with 'customers,' and they often operate through an ever-changing ensemble of of collaborative projects with others in their ecosystem. New product ideas, for example, are as likely to come from a customer or a microbusiness in another part of the world as from internal staff. Staff are often continually engaging with "non-staff" in a wide range of FTF and online venues.

Kiva.org is an example of how philanthropy can operate in this new ecosystem world. The site draws in new philanthropists (who are mostly individuals who have never considered themselves as philanthropists before) mainly through friendship networks, and links people directly to individuals who need loans. It is this direct connection - knowing something about the person to whom you are lending money - that draws so many people in who never donated money to an abstract cause. How could foundations see themselves as builders of networks that create these kinds of direct connections and engage many more people in philanthropic activities?

Kiva.org also has set up a structure to support the self-organizing of lender interest groups. More than 3000 teams help build relationships among the new philanthropists, expanding their understanding of and commitment to the larger initiative, thus setting up viral expansion pathways. In addition, kiva.org offers an internship program that engages individuals in tracking success and further weaving the network.

How could foundations and other more traditionally organized philanthropists see their role as supporting the development of a complex philanthropic ecosystem?

2 comments:

Chris Thompson said...

My employer, the Fund for Our Economic Future is an experiment in philanthropic networks. Many of the philanthropic organizations that are part of the Fund don't do "economic development." But they are comfortable making grants in "eonomic development" through the Fund's network. Key to making it work is the trust they've developed through an unusual membership model: 1 member, 1 vote. All members get a single vote on how to deploy assets -- regardless of the amount contributed to the network. So the $100,000 contributor is on the same level as the $1 million plus contributor. Many members of the network had nominal connections before the network was built, now most have very strong connections that extend well beyond their work on economic development.

June Holley said...

Thanks, Chris, for sharing this information. How did people in the network develop those strong connections?