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Revolutionizing Online Philanthropy: An Interview with Brian Sasscer

By Nell Edgington



brian-sasscerIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Brian Sasscer, Senior Vice President of Strategic Operations at The Case Foundation. Brian is responsible for the Case Foundation’s web presence strategy and overseeing the Foundation’s operations. His passion for his job is fueled by a desire to continually push new technologies and for-profit thinking into the nonprofit sector.

I wanted to talk to Brian because of the very exciting new Giving Graph project they announced last March at SXSW. The Giving Graph would help the social sector use data and technology to connect people to causes they are passionate about in a seamless way.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: When you presented about the Giving Graph at SXSW last March it was just an idea. Where does it stand now? Is the Case Foundation moving forward to execute on the concept?

Brian: The Case Foundation has been thrilled by the positive response we’ve received since introducing the concept of the Giving Graph in March. We’ve had multiple conversations with folks from the tech and social good community that have surfaced some exciting opportunities to help advance the project. For example, we were approached by Rayid Ghani, who served as Chief Data Scientist from the 2012 Obama for America campaign. He is spearheading The Erich & Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship program at the University of Chicago. This new program is bringing together 36 aspiring students in the fields of computer science, programming and statistics to seek out opportunities to use data science as a tool to solve complex social issues. The Giving Graph was selected as one of the projects collaborators and these students will experiment with over the summer.

Through conversations with other nonprofits, for-profits, foundations and technology companies, we’ve made great connections and relationships that have helped us understand the possibilities the graph could provide for a stronger infrastructure within the social good sector. Specifically, we have opened dialogue with the Gates Foundation, as well as Guidestar CEO Jacob Harold. Michael Lewkowitz of Igniter is another individual who has done an exceptional job of exploring the concept of an impact graph, and understanding the landscape of this data play in the social good sector.

We also reached out to other organizations such as Network for Good and Global Giving in an effort to survey the space and understand the big data players in social good data. There are a number of talented individuals who share our vision of helping to further develop a concept that supports and encourages growth in the social sector. As for the Graph itself, we will continue our discussions and experimentation with the University of Chicago fellows assigned to the project with a goal to produce key findings from the experiment sometime in the fall.

Nell: You have sought a good deal of public input on the concept of the Giving Graph. How has that input altered the initial concept?

Brian: We have received excellent feedback from the public related to the SXSW presentation and our blog post. The majority of the input we have received is from thought leaders, nonprofits and foundations, for-profits, and other individuals already working in the data space as it relates to the social sector. Their feedback has validated the need for a tool like this for the sector. The first part of the Giving Graph concept itself was focused on identifying the key players in the data space for social good, understanding the space, and analyzing data location in the social good sector. Through research and discussions with other organizations, we have concluded that our end vision and goal is aligned with the goals of numerous other projects.

We found one project that is working to reform the sector from an information infrastructure point of view, another is helping to facilitate data-sharing amongst organizations, and another is working to match social good opportunities to an individuals interests. Each project can support and build off the others, propagating the number of resources available for the social good sector. From our findings, we have validated our concept and identified different projects out there that satisfy different components of our vision. The hope is to bring these different initiatives together and see this concept come life.

Nell: Do you think something like the Giving Graph could cause an appreciable increase in the amount of philanthropic dollars available in the sector, or would it simply alter where philanthropic dollars get spent?

Brian: We think the Giving Graph concept has the potential to drive both outcomes – both shifting of philanthropic dollars, as well as increasing the overall dollars being given to philanthropic causes. We believe the Giving Graph could help identify new spaces for social good and new campaigns and programs to live in those spaces – leading to potential shifting of philanthropic dollars, as well as bringing in new audiences that would help bring more dollars to the space. And by leveraging data to more effectively connect individuals with causes and organizations that are relevant to them, we can increase the potential for both financial contributions as well as people to give back in other ways – whether spreading the word about a particular campaign or organization, or volunteering in some capacity.

Nell: A huge challenge of any new social media application is getting a critical mass of people to actually start using it. How do adoption rates factor into your plans?

Brian: That is absolutely correct – the Giving Graph concept will be a collaborative effort in many ways. One aspect is the data. In addition to tapping into different data sources, partnerships among additional organizations will be necessary. We need a series of nonprofits, for profits, cross-sector foundations, and other companies to contribute and share information into this graph to maximize the potential. This can be a challenging component, as data in today’s world is very valuable. Nevertheless, we have started conversations with various organizations about sharing data for the benefit of the graph and we’re optimistic. We’re at a turning point in data sharing, as organizations are becoming less reluctant to share than they have been in the past.

Another aspect of the project is end-users, and they appear in various ways. It could be a program manager at a nonprofit who is identifying a program to implement at her organization. In another instance, it is a college student trying to find out a local seminar to attend based on his charitable interests. For individuals, we are not going to put a front end on this database. The idea is that applications/platforms will be able to tap into this graph and ultimately provide users the ability to plug in their information, and for platforms to then integrate this information into the larger graph.

So absolutely, critical mass from both a data and usage point of view will play an important role in this project. It will take a lot of relationship building and trust, especially around data. The web is transforming into an experience that truly knows the end-users. The Giving Graph is unique because it not only represents another way for the web to understand end-users, it also provides the ability to give insight into and improve the entire social sector as well.

Nell: Why did the Case Foundation decide to spend time and resources on creating a new technology for the overall philanthropic sector? How does this effort fit into the Foundation’s larger and longer-term goals?

Brian: Our founders Steve and Jean Case were responsible for bringing America online decades ago. They believe in the potential of technology, and particularly the Internet, to connect people together to drive positive social change. The Case Foundation has a storied history of investing in and leveraging new technology platforms for social good – from our investments in online giving platforms like Network for Good, Causes and MissionFish, to programs like the Make it Your Own Awards and America’s Giving Challenge. Our intent is not to create the graph ourselves, but rather to seed the conversation and collaborate with our partners to provide the sector with a new tool in their tech for good arsenal. We think this Graph concept has the potential to change online philanthropy and revolutionize the sector, sparking innovation in ways akin to the commerce and entertainment industries.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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[...] Revolutionizing Online Philanthropy: An Interview with Brian Sasscer. By Nell Edgington. brian-sasscer In this month's Social Velocity blog interview, I'm talking with Brian Sasscer, Senior Vice President of Strategic Operations …  [...]

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