2011-06-16 / Community

Plugging in and using global information crucial for philanthropy

President and CEO of the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties

Like much of the world these days, philanthropy is in a state of change and transformation. Staying abreast of the trends requires a wide net be cast across many aspects of the charitable sector. Nonprofits and foundations are profoundly affected by the state of the economy, investments, regulatory environment, competing charitable interests and a host of other issues, including the accountability, transparency and effectiveness of nonprofits. An organization with a mission and purpose that sounds great, but delivers little and at too high a cost, is in a death spiral. There is much at stake and doing good is becoming increasingly complicated. There are also plenty of informational resources that can help donors, grantmakers and nonprofit leaders keep a finger on the pulse of change and mind their interests. But knowing does not always lead to understanding — and being perplexed, confused, or clueless is an occupational hazard.

Assessing what changes mean, up close and personal, to the charitable community is a bit like seeing through a glass darkly: the outline of the change might be evident but without greater illumination provided through historical experience, data and analysis, the ability to anticipate and see that change clearly is often elusive. It is easy to get stuck in sustaining a course based on what once was, rather than to reposition for the future. Standing “pat” can be a risky, if not a futile exercise, in the longer term.

What comes to mind in describing the dilemma and our challenge is this: the post office once moved mail by train, in mail cars, where distribution of thousands of letters and parcels was managed by railway postal clerks. The clerks would sort the mail by community zip, bag it up in sturdy leather bags, and dump it off the train at a local destination and point of transfer, as the mail car speeded by the local burgs at 50 or 60 mph. Miss the pitch or the catch and the town missed its mail. Accomplishing this two-way pass-off was no small task. Close only counts in horseshoes.

So it is that, these days, access to current news, events and thinking out loud are of optimum value. Advances in digital technology are keys to the kingdom. My favorite listserves include numerous bloggers but my favorite is an especially provocative and futuristic thinker. A self-described philanthropy wonk, you can find Lucy Bernholz at philanthropy.blogspot.com. Ms. Bernholz focuses on the business of giving, and then on what happens, post charitable transaction, when the payoff of the charitable investment is in play. Her recent blog observed that philanthropy in the United States is a very big business. Foundation giving — while formidable at $40 billion or so a year — is a modest one-sixth of the giving being done by individuals. All those smaller gifts turn into a steamroller of cash of $240 billion annually. That has a wow factor. Says Ms. Bernholz, “Looked at this way, philanthropy is a typical long tail industry — lots of small givers giving to — and sustaining — the 1.5 million nonprofits in the US.”

In the context of millions of donors, technology is a huge lever to promote, encourage and enable giving. Your smart phone or your laptop becomes your grants administrator. You inventory options for giving, perform nonprofit assessments and serve as your own “grant officer.” You check out what other donors say or have learned, probe deeply into the financial and programmatic performances of specific agencies. Technology has unleashed a torrent of data, information and intelligence that is collected by one, shared often with the many and posted for global use by the community.

Says Ms. Bernholz, “Imagine offering a unique opportunity on E-bay and letting the dollars find you versus every grantseeker seeking the same pot of money, making their own unique case, and the foundation choosing the grant recipient. The information gathering by the foundation does not migrate as data into an encyclopedic fount of community information available to all. The intelligence gathering, assessment, and analysis of projects or issues, for all practical purposes, evaporate like steam, never to be seen again.” Ms. Bernholz’s point? A grant may result but the intelligence gathered through the foundation’s due diligence process is not typically recycled nor broadly shared for the benefit of a virtual commonwealth. In the new social economy, Ms. Bernholz observes, “sharing knowledge with community leaders trying to change the world can only make sense.” Sounds right to me. 

— As one of Florida’s largest community foundations, the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties advances quality of life, citizen engagement and regional vitality through its promotion of philanthropy. Last year, the foundation awarded more than $3.4 million in grants and led initiatives to address critical issues including hunger, homelessness, affordable housing, and the conservation and protection of water resources. For more information see yourcommunityfoundation.org.

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