"Open up philanthropy": Lucy Bernholz at PdF 2011

Last week I got to attend the annual Personal Democracy Forum (PdF), a conference that crams two days full of nearly 40 talks and panels that explore technology’s impact on politics and government.

This is the first of a few posts about PdF11 takeaways that might be of of particular interest to our community. This one is about Lucy Bernholz; watch the video of her talk here.


Lucy Bernholz blogs at philanthropy.blogspot.com

“I need your help to open up philanthropy,” said self-described philanthropy wonk Lucy Bernholz. How many of us, Bernholz asked, have researched a nonprofit on GreatNonprofits or GuideStar, backed a project on Kickstarter, or made a loan through Kiva? Thanks to sites like these, we can access vetted information about the causes we care about, feel confident that diligence has been done, and add our own testimonials so that others can do the same.

Contrast that, Bernholz said, with the experience of applying for a grant. We spend hours on end researching, editing, and laying out our ideas and plans to do something specific in hopes of making our communities better. At long last, we submit the application and – then what?

From Bernholz’s transcript:

In a best-case scenario, the due diligence by each funder unleashes one grant.

In the usual scenario, the due diligence results in no grant and no information sharing on what was proposed.

Imagine being able to unlock the vaults on what the Carnegie Corporation, literally the grand daddy of American foundations, knows about after school programs […] or what we could learn from the Gates Foundation about improving libraries or distributing vaccines.

But how do we get foundations to share this information? Bernholz pointed out that several foundations and organizations are already leading by example: from the DonorsChoose hackathon supported by Bing to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, “which feeds all of its grants out in an RSS feed as well as on Twitter.” She implored the crowd at PdF11 (mostly tech geeks) to do three things: ask foundations to share the data they have about what’s been proposed and what works; give them permission to share your information when you apply for grants; and show them what their data can look like. If we do this, we can give communities and planners access to a vast amount of information about good ideas and good projects – the ones that are funded as well as those that aren’t.

Do you work in philanthropy? Or do you rely on foundations to run your programs? I’d love to hear what you think of Bernholz’s talk, specifically:

  • Why aren’t more foundations already sharing data like this? What are the main barriers and challenges?
  • Do you believe, as Bernholz does, that “we need to hold foundations – which hold private resources in trust for the public good – accountable to that public good”?
  • Do you have a favorite example of a foundation’s transparency leading to positive change in a community or around an issue?

The full transcript and video are here.

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