I’ve been writing about information as the currency of change for a long time. Everything I have seen in philanthropic innovation in the last two decades is predicated on this simple observation—there are two kinds of philanthropy products: financial products and information products. They used to be bundled together, in the form of foundation staff, personal advisors, or community foundation program officers. In these forms a donor got both services—a place to manage the financial assets that fueled their philanthropy and professional advice on strategy, grants, and outcomes.
In the early 1990s the advent of national donor advised funds showed that a huge market existed for unbundled products—donors would eagerly purchase the financial product by itself. Several billions of dollars in charitable assets were soon being managed through Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard and others who provide best-in-class financial accountability, responsiveness, and transaction processing, with no promises of strategic advice, support or other types of information products. The market worked—we’ve had two decades of new innovations, new customers, and new financial products for donors.
Nowadays, some of the same technological advances that led to scalable efficiencies in transaction processing are beginning to shape the landscape for information products and service providers. First, the broad and deep adoption of broadband access and a decade plus of online banking, travel booking, emailing and searching have changed our collective expectations about where information lives, how to get it, and whom to trust. Second, the massive storage and searching capacities that underlie systems like GuideStar now make it a commonplace assumption that basic information on nonprofit organizations should be only a “click away.”
From these “expectational starting points” new behaviors begin to sprout, leading to the possibility of new products. If financial information is a click away, why not more nuanced information? This leads to systems like DonorEdge or Blackbaud’s Nonprofit Central. If there is “professional vetted information available,” why not the insights of customers or volunteers, leading to innovations such as GreatNonprofits or Keystone’s constituent response work. And if I can get information on one nonprofit, why can’t I find lots of options for action in one place (SocialActions.org) or compare the work of multiple efforts (New Philanthropy Capital’s reports or Acumen’s Pulse system)?
These are exciting developments. And they are built around data—data that can be found, compared, searched, mashed up, re-purposed, questioned, and applied. The data are the currency of change.
And rest assured, today’s data systems and information products are just the beginning. How we use these products, build off these services, interact with them as individual donors or change makers, or iterate entire new organizational forms on top of them is what the future holds. The information products for better giving are not as good as they will be, we have not yet seen all of the forms they will take, nor are they widely deployed or integrated into other financial management tools. Yet.
But we’re getting there. In which case the landscape for philanthropic giving—the structures and tools that donors use to organize, aggregate, learn, give, and bank (literally) their philanthropic financial resources will change yet again. This might explain why we’ve seen a notable rise in independent philanthropic advisory firms (SeaChange Capital Partners, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors) in the last five years, why online giving markets (such as GlobalGiving and Kiva) have taken off, or why the never-ending stream of new social media tools are all quickly unleashed for giving-related purposes (Facebook Causes, Twitter fundraising, and blog/badge challenges). And it might be inciting new forms from familiar ones—new roles for community foundations or new services from donor advised fund vendors.
We should also plan on this changing landscape of information being full of the seeds of new forms. If you imagine that any donor, anywhere, has quick, easy access to meaningful, comparable, useful data on organizations they could support and issues they care about, what kind of philanthropic entity, service provider, financial tool, public/private partnership, broker, deal platform or relationship builder would you build? That is the question we all need to ask, no matter where we work in philanthropy now, because that is the well-seeded field on which all existing philanthropic enterprises are now playing. And that is the question that some innovator, somewhere, is working on, right now, in the proverbial garage.
Lucy Bernholz is the Founder and President of Blueprint Research & Design, Inc, a strategy consulting firm that helps philanthropic individuals and institutions achieve their missions. She is the publisher of Philanthropy2173, an award winning blog about the business of giving and serves as Executive Producer of The Giving Channel on Fora.tv.