Making Philanthropy More Participatory

Note: This is a cross posting. The original post was written for the Communications Network and can be found here.

Last week I attended the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum. The event, which is held every year in New York City, is one of the leading conferences dedicated to exploring technology’s impact on politics, government, and society. Individual presentations, conversations, and panel discussions focus on different ways technology is (or should be) opening government, electoral politics -- and even the nonprofit world -- to provide more opportunities for citizen participation.

A Friday afternoon session, “Philanthropy 2.0: How Foundations are Opening Up and Innovating,” explored how some foundations, especially newer ones, are making efforts to engage more of the public, as well as their grantees, in their work. The panel featured Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, (full disclosure, she’s my mother) Kari Saratovsky, vice president of Social Innovation at The Case Foundation and Stacy Donohue, director of investments at Omidyar Network (ON). It was also moderated by Chris Gates, executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement.

Because it's such a new term, Philanthropy 2.0 may not be that well understood (yet) by many in the philanthropic community, so this panel provided a great opportunity to begin introducing it to a wider audience. For those who haven’t heard of this before, I’ll run down some of the basics. In its simplest terms, Philanthropy 2.0 refers to the “democratization of philanthropy,” including providing opportunities for individuals to participate in decisions about how foundations allocate resources. The term also underscores a belief in and commitment to increased transparency and a desire for greater partnerships among foundations themselves and the organizations in which they invest.

Each of the presenters talked about some of the ways their organizations were implementing elements of Philanthropy 2.0. For example, Sunlight publishes all its grant awards and provides information about organizations it receives funding from on the foundation's website. The Case Foundation's Saratovsky discussed how foundations can democratize philanthropy through challenges, competitions, and what also might be called "crowd sourcing." ON's Donohue told the audience that Omidyar regards the organizations its supports more as “partners" than grantees. As a result, along with its grantmaking, the foundation focuses on the sustainability, value and scale of these partner organizations.

After the panel, it hit me: Philanthropy 2.0 is all about communication. Whether it's how foundations can be more open with the public, or with the organizations they support, communication is key to doing those things well. It also became obvious to me that you cannot have Philanthropy 2.0 unless your communications are clear, effective, and honest. Thus, as foundation communicators, we have a central role to play in ensuring the Philanthropy 2.0 becomes the norm in our organizations. We can also play an important role helping implement new communications technologies that make it easier for foundations to operate more openly and to invite more people to participate in their work. And while we might find it easy to use these tools, we have to be sensitive that some of our non-communications colleagues may need a little more time to get used to them and figure out how they can best apply them to their work.

None of this is will be accomplished fast or easily. As one audience member asked during the question and answer session: "How do established foundations see Philanthropy 2.0, and how likely are they to begin adopting this new way of thinking and acting?" The ultimate answer to that question depends to some degree on what we, as communicators, do to help keep the spotlight on the benefits of working in these new ways and encouraging more discussion about this topic within our organizations.

I'm ready for Philanthropy 2.0. How about you?