It was social entrepreneur day at Stanford University on two Sundays ago as part of “Entrepreneurship Week” at Stanford. I wanted to go for a number of reasons. Global Voices is in the process of incorporating into its own Non-Governmental Organization. There are lots of NGO’s with weblogs, but I think we’re probably the first weblog to turn into an NGO [Update: nevermind]. And because we’re [almost] the first, we don’t have any other examples to look at for guidance as we form our bylaws and put together a board of directors.
Global Voices started as a project of the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School. Other funders included HIVOS, the MacArthur Foundation, and our main funder, Reuters. Each of those grants that keep the project going had to go through the messy bureaucracy of Harvard University which takes a small cut for “administrative” fees. We decided to roll out from the Berkman Center and become our own Non-Profit Organization so that we would have more flexibility in how we are funded and more structure in terms of how we are organized.
Like all non-profits, we discovered at the last Global Voices Summit that we have an abundance of great ideas and a lack of collective funding and personal time to get them done.
And so I arrived at the main hall of Stanford’s country club-like campus just in time for the “Financing Social Enterprises” panel with representatives from the Skoll Foundation, Good Capital, and the Draper Richards Foundation, all three funders of what they call “social entrepreneurs.” Behind the panelists, projected onto a giant screen, was Wikipedia’s definition of social entrepreneurship:
A social entrepreneur is someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change. Whereas business entrepreneurs typically measure performance in profit and return, social entrepreneurs assess their success in terms of the impact they have on society. While social entrepreneurs often work through nonprofits and citizen groups, many work in the private and governmental sectors.
And all three panelists kept repeating the same philanthropy buzz phrases:
- large scale impact
- organizational and operational excellence
- long-term sustainability
It’s the last one that was met with a sigh every time a panelist muttered it. Funders these days want to cover the overhead costs of an organization. Then it’s up to the organization to find a way to pay its staff, cover its operational costs, P.R., and travel expenses. For Global Voices, sustainability means becoming a highly profitable blog. Here are some of the most profitable weblogs out there:
All of those blogs are from the Gawker Media network. They focus mostly on technology, gossip, and sex. The other profitable network of weblogs is Weblogs, Inc., which is more widely known for it’s $25 million purchase by AOL than any of its actual blogs. Still, if you look down the list, you’ll see they’re almost all related to technology or finance. And then of course there’s Boing Boing, “the world’s most popular weblog.” They are also profitable. And also focused on technology, gossip, and sex.
The obvious question is: can a blog focused on something other than technology, gossip, and sex support itself? And, for that matter, can international news support itself without the subsidies of front page headlines about X Celebrity’s Latest Affair? Most people think that Reuters as a highly profitable news agency. In fact, it’s an investor information company that uses its profits to subsidize money-losing ventures like Alertnet. The same is true at newspapers and magazines around the United States. Everyone agrees that international coverage is “important”, but that doesn’t mean people actually read it and it sure doesn’t mean that advertisers want to place their products nearby.
Most non-profits are exactly that (not for profit) because they provide a service that everyone agrees is useful and important, but that no one is willing to pay for. Which is why they depend on the gift economy and why the “self-sustainable non-profit” is an oxymoron.
Here’s a list of what I see as Global Voices’ options when it comes to funding other than grants. Please leave a comment if you can think of any other alternative(s):
- Ads (most the internet)
- Paid Archives (NYT)
- Subscriptions (Salon.com)
- Select Content (NYT Select)
- “Sponsors” (NPR)
- Donation (Wikipedia)