In the August installment of our Social Velocity interview series, we are talking with Lucy Bernholz, founder and President of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. a strategy consulting firm for philanthropic institutions and individuals. She is also the author of many seminal books (including the prescient Creating Philanthropic Capital Markets), reports (like Disrupting Philanthropy) and her famous Philanthropy 2173 blog. Lucy is considered a visionary in the philanthropic world and is doing tremendous work to move philanthropy forward.
Nell: You have become increasingly interested in data sharing and crowd-sourcing for change. What are the risks in these new forms of social problem solving?
Lucy: Data are not objective – quantitative data is subjectively collected, categorized, sourced, and analyzed and its “reputation” as neutral is unearned. Using data well requires skills that most of us don’t have – statistical analysis, methods, etc.
That said, when I talk about data I mean “anything that can be digitized.” Stories. Video. Anecdotes. Numbers. We may not all have all the skills to make sense of every type of data, that is partly why crowds are important. For decades, only experts and the wealthy had access to data – so their subjective analyses dominated the discussion. Now, many of us – crowds – can have access, make sense of, add nuance, ask questions. That changes the “subjectivity” and changes the dynamic. Data are disruptive when access to them is broad, cheap, and easy.
We still need to be skeptical, ask questions, and think deeply about the biases behind both data collection and presentation. But, as computer programmers say, “many eyes make for shallow bugs.” Crowds and data are two sides of the same coin when it comes to disrupting the social sector.
Nell: In Disrupting Philanthropy you examine the long tails of donors (foundation and individual contributors of money for social change) and doers (nonprofits, social entrepreneurs receiving that money) and how information technology is connecting the two. But as a future teller, how and when do you see more conservative/fearful nonprofits and philanthropists embracing these new technologies? What is the tipping point?
Lucy: There are few pressures on endowed foundations to change their behavior. It is hard to force this change from the outside.
The drivers of change in this day and age include new expectations about information at a societal level, the government 2.0 movement, the skills of two to three generations of employees and managers in using online tools and finding information when they want it. These are the soft, cultural, and ultimately most meaningful drivers of change. Regulations that require more disclosure, new expectations of transparency, efforts such as The Foundation Centers Glasspockets.org, the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s assessments are other possible influencers of the timeline.
That said, don’t discount the inevitable backlash against transparency, which is coming. Recent online “revelations” that have been fueled by political agendas and resulted in “flash decision making” highlight the need for all of us to be careful about the pace of information, believing everything we read, and the need for thoughtful, investigative, well-referenced and fact checked information. As Craig Newmark says, the news business is the “immune system of democracy.” As the news business is caught in this wildly transformative moment, we must all consider where we get our information, how we use it, who provided it to us, and what its credibility is. There is no straight line to widespread adoption of new tools – it is episodic and includes strange diversions.
Nell: Where does government fit into the connection between donors and doers? What can/should government do to encourage use of data sharing, crowd-sourcing, etc.?
Lucy: The government 2.0 movement is way ahead of nonprofits and foundations in the open sharing of data. That said, most of this is a “supply side” effort at this point – cities, states, and federal agencies shoveling data over the wall into the public domain with little knowledge of what information communities want or need and even less support for communities to use the information well. Firehousing data into the public domain is one thing, but it is not enough (It can also work to distract – “You want data? Here have it all”)
As for nonprofits and foundations, the data disclosure requirements of the new 990 are small steps in the right direction. Most of what will happen as far as nonprofits and foundations sharing their data is likely to be voluntary, led by innovators, and taken up by others over time as communities and constituents learn to ask for what they want. The expanding ecosystem of nonprofit ratings/raters – from GiveWell to Greater Nonprofits to Philanthropedia to National Councils of Nonprofit Analysts, etc. will also spur this.
The proposed legislation, HR 5533, which calls for a national council on nonprofits and a central system for tracking nonprofits as funded by federal agencies is the wildcard here – if it passes, the data game on nonprofits and philanthropy will change. How so, and whether for the better, I can’t say at this time because I just don’t know enough (yet) about what is being proposed, how it is supposed to work, and how it will really work (if enacted).
Nell: As you mention in Disrupting Philanthropy, 10 years ago socially responsible investment was a small niche, but now it makes up 10% of professionally managed investment funds. How much bigger will it grow? How much can mission and money be blended in our economy?
Lucy: Socially responsible screened assets have been growing for more than a decade. This is a multi-decade trend that is growing mostly outside of the realm of the charitable and philanthropic sector and within the realm, incentives, and returns of the mutual fund business. Philanthropic efforts to connect to these assets and to promote Mission Related, Program Related spending are only now getting real traction and advocacy from within philanthropy.
Nell: Your focus is largely on philanthropy, but what do you think nonprofits should be doing to tap into these trends and take advantage of the long tails of donors and doers?
Lucy: Nonprofits are experimenting with every tool to reach the long tail that they can – from “donate now” buttons to text giving. For the most part, the process has been focused on marketing and fundraising. The exciting changes are happening where we see people developing solutions that take the digital connectivity and data as the starting point for the work they are trying to do – think about Ushahidi or CrisisCommons – their entire programs/projects/initiatives/governance models/organizations are built on deep understanding of the power of disbursed long tails. That is powerful.
Nell: Because you are such a proponent of data and measurement, what do you make of the emotional part of giving? Do you think we can ever get to a place where it’s all about the data? And should we want to?
Lucy: I have always said that philanthropy is a business of passion – it is largely emotional. The use of data, as Hope Neighbor’s recent report shows, is a small part of the process of philanthropic decision making. And it will always happen within the personal interests of donors. And please remember, when I say data, I don’t mean just numbers.
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