I hesitantly decided to become involved in philanthropy because I believe that civil society has an important role to play in bringing about a more sustainable, just, and well governed 21st century society. Businesses and governments have their fundamental roles as well, of course. Most of the comforts we enjoy — from the computer I’m typing on to the couch I’m sitting on to the airplane I will soon be flying on — have all come about thanks to the innovation and hard work of the private sector. However, without government regulation, our natural resources would be (even more) over-exploited by extractive industries, only the wealthy would be able to afford public security, and we would probably have to pay a separate toll for every road we drive down, every sidewalk we walk along.
Throughout my travels I have found that some societies give too much prominence to the role of government regulation while others give too much leeway to the private sector. While it is extremely difficult to strike the right balance, I am convinced that all societies need a strong civil society to serve as a bridge between citizens and the activities of government and the private sector.
I hope that citizens will increasingly recognize the value that civil society organizations play in improving their communities and countries by making regular donations to those organizations in support of their work. However, philanthropic giving from development agencies and private foundations will always be a major source of funding so that organizations can pay the rent, hire staff, build websites, convene their supporters, and advocate to governments and corporations.
So I became involved in philanthropy because it is exciting to work with the most innovative civil society organizations, and to support them. But I also wanted to work in philanthropy to help make the craft of grantmaking more transparent, open, participatory, and accountable. Having long worked for a non-profit myself, I felt that most grants were based more on personal relationships than a larger consensus about the quality and potential impact of the proposed project. Now I have the opportunity, in my role as a grantmaker within a relatively new and forward-thinking organization, to be as transparent, accessible, open, and held-to-account as possible.
It’s not easy work. First, I’ve had to learn to become better at saying no. (Not an easy task when living in Mexico, a country where no one ever says no to anything.) Yesterday afternoon I participated on a panel at the Center for International Media Assistance to describe our brand of grantmaking in the larger field of media development. The panel was followed by a reception; it was like being thrown to the lions. I was immediately approached by at least 25 individuals pitching me their projects for funding. Five years ago I would have been one of them, describing the importance of Rising Voices to enable under-represented communities to leverage digital media to make their voices heard and advocate for their needs. But we’re not a major funder in the field of media development, and one after another, I had to clearly communicate that their project falls outside of our scope and that we are not a candidate to fund them.
My hope is that as more international and more Silicon Valley billionaires become involved in philanthropy, there will be more resources for a wider range of civil society projects. My concerns are that 1) too frequently different donors fund nearly identical projects at different organizations and 2) many of the most talented young people I meet aspire to work in civil society, but not in government. We must be mindful that civil society’s increasing strength shouldn’t come at the expense of effective and innovative governance. Governments needs to reflect as to why young people tend to have negative perceptions about working in government.
I am currently working with my colleagues at Omidyar Network on process issues to ensure that I can keep the commitment I made here to always publish timely information about the grants I have worked on. Within the next two weeks I hope to publish the first three blog posts that describe the first three grants I worked on. For now, in abbreviated version, they were:
- A convening of Latin American transparency networks in Mexico City in March to discuss their engagement in the Open Government Partnership.
- Personal Democracy Media’s new WeGov section to deeply and critically tell the story of the rise of open government worldwide.
- A convening of parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) in Washington DC this week to share learnings and develop international norms for legislative transparency.
In the coming weeks I will publish much more detailed information about each of these grants, in addition to new, upcoming grants.
I will also continue to think about concrete tools and processes to help ensure that all aspects of our philanthropy — strategizing, proposal review, networking, capacity building, project evaluation, etc — are as open and participatory as possible, while still remaining efficient and agile. If this is a topic that interests you, or if you have any specific ideas, please do leave a comment below. I’d love to be in touch.