According to a post on Community Organizer 2.0, PresenTense, an organization focused on building the Jewish community’s next generation of pioneers and innovators, open sources much of its programming and advisory roles. Community Organizer 2.0 quotes PresenTense’s founder @ArielBeery as saying:

The PresenTense Group calls itself an “open source organization.” Co-founder Ariel Beery defines an Open Source Organization as one that “enables all members to add to it, change it, modify it and improve it. Everyone benefits from the intellectual property of the organization’s members. The whole point is to make it as collaborative and idea-generated as possible.

PresenTense also posts quarterly reports (annual reports are so web 1.0). The example of PresenTense dovetails nicely with the dashboard examples @Kanter shares in this post, including the work of the Indianapolis Art Museum. Christine Egger (@cdegger) has done a nice job of tracking several related conversations about data, transparency, and open organizations in this post on the SocialActions blog. From comments across these links I get the strong sense that both SocialActions and NTEN are thinking hard about these issues - in terms of developing actual standards, developing tools for best practice, and for prompting real thought about the roles of nonprofit organizations in helping make sense of all the data we can now access.

This is exciting. We may have moved past rhetoric and hypothesis to real examples we can discuss and learn from. We can also ask some big questions about the future, like those on this must-read post from Scott Hartley on SSIR. I’m sure that someone is tracking examples of nonprofits and foundations sharing data in new and interesting ways (right? someone?) - I’d love to see that slideshow. Here are some contributions to the list:

And while we’re at it, lets also consider some of the possible downsides of transparency. Not necessarily related to the examples above, what happens when all the data in all the world is available to all with the right database, broadband, and visualization tools? I’d encourage everyone to read Larry Lessig’s article in the October 21, 2009 issue of The New Republic. Lessig, a parent of the Creative Commons movement, a guru on technology and creativity and change, and a member of the advisory board to The Sunlight Foundation reaches off the newstand and grabs you as you walk by with just the title of his piece, “Against Transparency.” The piece stirred up some important issues - and has led to a wonderful debate (which you should check out after you read his article) online at The New Republic.
Now, Lessig’s piece does an incredible job of marrying his first professional passion, technology change and creativity, to his second professional commitment, campaign finance reform. In arranging these nuptuals, Lessig points out what he sees as techno-deterministic blinders worn by transparency advocates (and this is where his respondents come back in the debate). Since my interest is in transparency, data, and philanthropy I’m going to step away from the campaign finance part of Lessig’s article and extrapolate to money and data.

Several of the points that Lessig makes really matter from my point of view:

  • Policy solutions or industry responses to technology that think we can go back in time are doomed to fail. As he points out, in about a decade the majority of Americans alive will not remember the “good old days” of the 20th century, before file sharing; instant, replicable digital copying, open data access, and absolutely whiz-bang data-driven info graphics as a distinguishing value of a news source.
  • Technology doesn’t determine our future. Our institutions and norms and practices and applications and laws determine technology and then they all mush together (my term, not his), each advance offering a platform for more change.
  • Technology changes far faster than laws (see also Sascha Meinrath at New America Foundation and the Open Technology Initiative) on this point.

This last point is important to Lessig’s argument because his solution to the dangers of transparency as he sees them is not to try to fix transparency laws or technology, but to address the role of money and politics, as it is at the root of our normative assumptions between money and politics. His article is about changing how we finance politics, not how we make data available or use technology.

So what does all that have to do with philanthropy? As a champion of efforts to share information and data more widely within philanthropy, I need to step back - as Lessig’s article forces its readers to do - and ask, what are the downsides of transparency? Which of these are due to technology or existing legal frameworks, and which of them come from elsewhere, from our norms and assumptions about how giving works or what philanthropy is for? And what scenarios can we imagine from greater data sharing that we’d prefer to avoid?

Here is one small example. I was in a recent conversation about disclosure requirements on private foundations. We were discussing the fact that most of what is required has to do with financial accountability, and how that drives what we know (and don’t know) about philanthropy. Someone posited the idea of expanding the disclosure requirements to cover more programmatic issues or actual accomplishments. And then it occured to us - one logical effect of increasing disclosure requirements on private foundations would be to drive more donors to use advised funds, where the disclosure requirements don’t (and probably wouldn’t) apply. That would be a predictable end-around - and wouldn’t aid the cause of learning more from philanthropy.

That story covers the imagined unintended consequence of a regulatory change. What are the imagined unintended results of using technology to shed more light on what foundations do and on the data they have and could share? Given our normative association between money and influence (back to Lessig’s article) will more transparency into data lead foundations or donors to take fewer risks? Or might they respond by demanding even more paperwork and making hoops even higher and smaller for applicants?

Those are a few, small “what ifs?” What really matters here is this: Can we collectively identify what the normative assumptions are about philanthropy and its roles in society, and then identify what the interaction of technology-enabled transparency and those assumptions might be? We can’t go back to a pre-techno-transparent age. And we’d be fools to expect a solely positive, linear interaction between the new visibility that it provides and our existing philanthropic institutions and behaviors. So instead, if we assume “backlash” and unintended consequences, perhaps we can surface our assumptions about roles of public and private resources, money, power, public, private, leadership, and social change in such a way that we really do change the game.

I’d welcome your thoughts on Lessig’s article and the conversation that it sparked over at The New Republic. Transparency is here to stay - how do we make sure it yields the good we want from it?

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