Advancing Philanthropy in the New Social Economy

The Florida Philanthropic Network’s 2012 Statewide Summit on Philanthropy is off to a fabulous start – inspiration, innovation and fresh approaches from some of the country’s leading philanthropic thinkers.

Perla Ni is the founder and president of Great Nonprofits. Her walk through the new social economy explained how new tools like social media, new structures and financial instruments, and new approaches are deploying innovations for public good.

Walls are coming down in every sector, as the information is flowing more freely. For example, farmers can follow others on Twitter to know exactly what’s going on over acres of land. At John Hopkins University, scientists studied 1.5 million health-related tweets to understand big misconceptions about flu treatments. And even the DMV in California is using Twitter for customer service and monitoring.

Ni gave several examples of how foundations are rethinking how the work in a new social economy where new tools and technologies are helping to spur a new culture of openness. The Peery Foundation received a donation from a funder in Virginia as a result of a YouTube video that the foundation posted on its Facebook page. This foundation also involves grantees in its strategy through blogging.

The Community Foundation of Birmingham crowdsourced a project called “The Next Big Thing,” inviting people to submit ideas for the redevelopment of a parking lot to transform it into something spectacular. A $50,000 prize was offered, yielding 3,000 contestants from 39 countries.

Grantmakers can be more effective in philanthropy by involving their beneficiaries. Listening and engaging with the community is key. This concept is referred to as human centered design; solutions are created in tight conjunction with the users and beneficiaries. It’s a fast and iterative process.

Ni urged grantmakers to ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you still intellectually curious?
  • Are you persuasive?
  • Are you engaging the community in the funding process?

Learn more about Perla Ni’s work at and follow her on Twitter at @perlani.

Following Perla’s comments, two additional leaders were added to a panel discussion, Leslie Lilly, President & CEO, Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, and Allison Fine, Co-Author of The Networked Nonprofit.  Mark Sedway, director of Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, moderated. Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Mark: What does it take for a foundation to stay relevant? How do you adapt?

Leslie: The challenge is “the how” of making philanthropy effective. There’s a lot of conventional wisdom that has created institutions that don’t work any longer.  Operations, governance and how you get money out the door are all important to examine. We’re not just cash machines. When you have diminished resources, you have to be more creative about getting things done. Leadership and knowledge of community are our value-added propositions. But the culture of your board and organization can’t remain stuck in a conventional place – not taking positions on issues, for example.

Mark: There’s a concern about making waves and not having the standard neutrality and therefore not being effective?

Leslie: It’s revisiting the mission, understanding and having clarity about our values, and having some guiding principles. We don’t want to be isolated in the community. It’s about building a constituency – conversations not just with the board but with your grantees, getting things done that government is no longer funding. It’s the voice of the community that should inform what we do. The grantees are also our best allies.

Mark: You’re talking about a new kind of conversation with grantees, board and community. It reminds me of Allison’s book “The Networked Nonprofit”. In that book you talk about culture. What is this new culture and what do foundations need to do to get there?

Allison: We’re in a moment of great upheaval and transition. We can look at it as upsetting or as a time to get reorganized. Whether you want to or not, we have to change. It’s not a new box on the org chart, a new program or a new service. Community foundations are a natural resource for being the centers of community. What we’ve seen over the last few years is not just an economic collapse, but a collapse of social capital.

What do we do?  Social media is a contact sport, not a spectator sport – it helps us move from a transactional measurement of scarcity to strengthening relationships. Weaving networks across geographic and mission areas is something we can lead.

Mark: Are foundations well-poised to do this work?

Allison: Maybe not well-poised now, and you certainly don’t have to live on those social media channels all the time. We hear the board of directors mentioned all the time. The boards are generally made up of people who don’t necessarily understand the problems in the community. They need to get education about re-humanizing our organization and serving as ambassadors.

Mark: Do you feel that foundations are open to being rated by beneficiaries like nonprofits on GreatNonprofits?

Perla: The first step is getting comfortable with listening to the feedback of people in communities you are serving. The second step is opening up to more feedback from the nonprofit grantees.

Leslie: You have to get your foundation staff out of the office. Foundations need to partner and leverage resources. The recession has forced us to consider discipline and intelligence in our work as very important.

Allison: If the foundation took just 5% of money to invest in the community and posed the question to constituents on Facebook about its use – that would be an amazing step.

Mark: What are some of the skills a professional needs to be successful at a foundation?

Allison: They need to be great facilitators and conveners. They need to be a good listener on social media channels, and they need an entrepreneurial, risk-taking spirit.

Perla: We have to counter the feeling that foundations are all about perpetuating themselves and that they don’t truly care about the community.

Mark: What’s a network weaver?

Allison: When you see successful online activism, you find a person behind it. They connect with a lot of people and get them organized around a certain cause or issue. The skills they have – they are good listeners, they are good at working though conversation, are transparent about what’s happening and moving the group toward a common goal.

Mark: This is about more than the tools – more than how to use the tools.

Allison: We are all living in these networks and no standalone organization can make change happen. Community Foundations will become an endangered species if we don’t get networked.

Many thanks to our panelists and moderator for moving us forward to succeed in this new social economy! What are thoughts to add to the conversation?

– Susie Bowie, Director, The Giving Partner, Community Foundation of Sarasota County

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