I left Global Voices in May of last year and ever since have been cautiously dipping my toes in the world of philanthropy. For the past seven months I have been working as a full-time consultant for the Information and Latin America programs of Open Society Foundations, the private foundation of George Soros. I will continue to do so throughout this year, but unlike last year I am going to start writing about it.
One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in philanthropy is because I’ve so long been a critic of its outdated practices. However, I also understand that there is an important gap left by classic market failure and ineffective government bureaucracy that philanthropy is in a position to help fill. It is this frustrating dissonance between what philanthropy could achieve and what it actually does that has tempted me to try to reform the beast from within. However, I’m now worried that by focusing more of my attention and energy on internal strategy and process issues I might become disconnected from the real world. So this is the first in a new series of posts that looks at what philanthropy is, what it does well, where it falls short, and how it can improve. As usual there will be a lot of criticism and cynicism tempered by idealism and optimism. In addition to highlighting the problems in philanthropy, I will also emphasize what I believe is important work that is often ignored.
I believe that many of the shortfalls of philanthropic foundations are related to institutional culture, but others are structural. For example, why do foundations seem to suck so bad at innovation and entrepreneurialism? Why are they unable to effectively forecast the major issues that are five to ten years down the road?
In the business world, if you have a smart idea that is ignored by your boss then you have an incentive to leave your job and start your own business. To a certain extent, this is also true among non-profits. For example, if I had proposed an idea to my bosses at Global Voices that was ignored, then I would have simply started up my own non-profit and competed for grants. (Receiving a grant still has more to do with who you know than what your idea is.) But if you work for a private foundation and you have a great idea that is ignored, you’re only alternative is to engage in internal politics: competing for the attention of upper management. There is no “marketplace of ideas” in philanthropy, and there is always an undercurrent of personal relationship management that always affects the outcome of any discussion on strategy.
I don’t think that there are any easy solutions to what is an inherent, structural problem. I am doubtful that private foundations would co-fund participatory philanthropic challenges like the kinds I advocated for back in 2008, but maybe they will start to invite more public input into their strategizing processes.