Next week I’ll be completely offline in the middle of a desert. This Week in Civic Innovation will be back on September 6 with a look at how some organizations are using open data to improve school performance.
While city governments talk about the importance of innovation and participatory urbanism, few mayors have committed the resources necessary to bring participation initiatives to scale. The mainstay of civic innovation is still funded by private philanthropy.
Previously there was little criticism of philanthropy, as academics and journalists tend to be wary of criticizing the same institutions that fund (or may fund) much of their work. However, over the past couple of weeks, a number of critical articles have made a splash in the press — especially Peter Buffet’s New York Times op-ed, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” Buffet was drawn into philanthropy when his father, billionaire investor Warren Buffet, pledged to give the vast majority of his estimated $62 billion to the Gates Foundation, and another billion or so to each of his children so that they can run their own philanthropic foundations. According to his son, Peter: “early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism.” That is, philanthropic leaders set out to solve problems in communities that they are unfamiliar with as a way to wash the guilt from the activities that led to their personal fortunes. He doesn’t offer concrete solutions, but claims that we are suffering from a crisis of imagination and that, beyond funding specific interventions backed up by theories of change, we need to promote a new, global humanism.
There are echoes of Peter Buffet’s argument in another criticism of philanthropy published by Bill Schambra of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal who has long been calling for community-focused philanthropy to bring about local change rather than global initiatives that lose touch with the people who ultimately should benefit. Recently the Hewlett Foundation, which works on big, global initiatives that are backed up by research and logic models, invited Schambra to speak and offer his criticism of their approach. Hewlett stands out among philanthropic foundations in their encouragement of both external and internal criticism of their philanthropic approach. According to Schambra, the sort of “strategic philanthropy” practiced by Hewlett is arrogant in its assumption that donors know better than local NGOs how they should operate their activities. Rather than spending so much money on logic models, research, and evaluations, he argues, foundations should trust their local partners and simply visit their projects to get an intuitive feel for their impact.
In a response, also published at the Nonprofit Quarterly, former Hewlett President Paul Brest — a vocal advocate for strategic philanthropy — points to the 1854 London cholera outbreak to illustrate that local NGOs are sometimes so focused on meeting the immediate needs of their constituents that they aren’t able to step back and see the larger picture in order to address a problem at its root. During the cholera outbreak, London community organizations assumed that cholera was caused by either “bad air” or divine intervention. It wasn’t until John Snow, one of those “herbal-tea-drinking, arrogant experts” in the language of Schambra, identified the root of the outbreak as fecal contamination of a key water source. While the community foundations were focused on providing care to the sickly and masks to everyone else, it wasn’t until Snow removed the pump to the well that the outbreak subsided. Sometimes you need outside experts to dig through the data and provide direction to the local community organizations, Brest argues. (And if you’re interested in learning more about Snow’s diagnosis of the cholera outbreak, don’t miss Steven Johnson’s related TED talk.)
John Snow’s 19th century Ushahidi map of Cholera cases in London
Much like Hewlett Foundation’s current president, Larry Kramer, I am convinced by parts of both men’s arguments, though ultimately I come down on the side of Paul Brest. True, philanthropic foundations need to do a much better job of learning from the local knowledge of the groups they support. But I believe that we also have a privileged viewpoint that stems from seeing so many projects and reading so many proposals and evaluations. It would be irresponsible for us not to share those learnings with others so that the entire field of civil society advances more rapidly.
Also in the news last week related to philanthropy: the New York Times published a fascinating exposé of the internal operations of the Clinton Foundation as it attempts to build a significant endowment while navigating potential conflicts of interest with Bill Clinton’s consulting business, Hillary Clinton’s political ambitions, and Chelsea Clinton’s growing involvement in the foundation. A few month’s back the Boston Review published a debate about philanthropy and plutocracy in America. Even if you don’t read the entire debate, I highly recommend Reob Reich’s lead essay. On a related note, the Chronicle of Higher Education, which receives funding from the Gates Foundation, published an in-depth special report on the foundation’s disproportionate influence in American education policy:
In higher education, many leaders and faculty members voice concerns about the Gates foundation’s growing and disproportionate impact. Many private-college presidents, in particular, feel shut out of discussions about reform. Yet few of those critics speak out in public, and some higher-education leaders, researchers, and lobbyists were reluctant to talk on the record for this article. The reason? They didn’t want to scotch their chances of winning Gates grants.
Two final links: an interesting discussion on Google+ about what can be done to make philanthropy more effective. The discussion was provoked by a response to Peter Buffet by development worker and technology specialist Wayan Vota. And Mayur Patel of the Knight Foundation has published a report on six lessons on designing philanthropic prizes for impact.
- Speaking of the Knight Foundation, their latest $2 million News Challenge has opened with an “inspiration phase” and the addition of $200,000 in prizes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the California HealthCare Foundation.
- Ethan Zuckerman users Michael Schudson’s 1999 book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life to examine the evolution of our understanding of citizenship and how it is changing again in the 21st century.
- If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, the the Data and Democracy Initiative and Institute of Government Studies will host a one day conference on the relationships between data and governance at the University of California at Berkeley. The full program is here. [via Lucy Bernholz]
- Socrata has published its first “Open Data in the News” digest including news of India’s new open data portal and and Newark’s release of stop and frisk data.
- Recently I covered the rise of mentoring programs for civic technology groups. Now there’s another. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative has launched a call for participants who would like to get “some advice on overcoming challenges in implementing technology projects.”
- A few links about Code for America: another thoughtful post from Panthea Lee of Reboot — this time about Code for America’s global expansion of their civic fellowship program. Speaking of their fellowship program, it will soon be coming to San Antonio, Texas after an interesting debate by city council members. And, Code for America’s international director, Catherine Bracy, offers an update following her visit to their partner project, Code for the Caribbean.
- Juan Sebastian Arias of Living Cities on how neighborhood data can improve low-income neighborhoods.
- Lastly, participatory budgeting. Hollie Gilman publishes her thesis about the rise of participatory budgeting in the US and Stephanie McNulty examines the link between participatory budgeting in Peru and improvements in local governance. She finds that, though participants approve important “pro-poor” projects, but they are not always executed. “Until Peruvian politicians make a concerted effort to move beyond politics as usual, results will continue to be limited.”
Other Civic Innovation Digests
If you can’t get enough news about open government and civic innovation, then you’ll surely enjoy GovLab’s weekly Editiorial Meeting Links, Nancy Scola’s Rise and Shine daily report at Next City, Sunlight Foundation’s daily 2Day in #OpenGov digest, Opening Parliament’s weekly news update, and TechPresident’s weekly WeGov newsletter.
- Sept 16 – 18 — OK Festival, Geneva
- Sept 25 – 27 — Ciudades Digitales, Ecuador
- Oct 7 – 9 — CityLab, New York
- Oct 12 – 16 Global Investigative Journalism Conference, Rio de Janeiro
- Oct 30 – Nov 1 — OGP, London