Recently I have had the pleasure of talking with two major foundations about why I believe blogging is important to philanthropy and why foundations in particular need to begin blogging. So why should foundations blog? It seems to me that the imperative is not for them to embrace technology so much as it is for foundations to join and begin to drive the online philanthropy conversation.
In the most recent Hewlett Foundation annual report, Paul Brest wrote a fascinating essay titled, “Creating an Online Information Marketplace for Giving”. In the essay, he talks about the lack of impact data available to donors and contrasts the state of affairs to the vast amount of information available to investors in the for-profit world. The need for an information marketplace, where data on nonprofit impact and social investment opportunities flows freely, is critical to the creation of “efficient markets” in philanthropy. But it is not enough.
Marketplaces are not just a collection of transactions. They are a swarm of interpersonal interaction between people. Real people with opinions and beliefs, who haggle with each other and trade “market information” as much or more than they trade products and services. There once was a time when financial markets were physical locations. Where people knew each other by sight and gathered to engage in trade. Today, financial markets are virtual, but no less human. Philanthropy is making this same transition as we head full tilt towards a fast moving global stream of social investments benefiting high-impact social enterprises with both nonprofit and for-profit status. This transition does not just require data; it requires conversation.
Philanthropy needs a robust, cross-disciplinary conversation for a philanthropic marketplace to thrive. That conversation must include funders. What makes the concept of Web 2.0 special is the two-way communication aspect. Information does not just flow from a centralized location to the masses, it also flows back to the center and bypasses the hierarchical structure altogether. As we seek to build the “online information marketplace” that Brest suggests, we must also build an “online conversation”. Blogs are one vehicle for facilitating that conversation and currently the best. But it is the two-way flow of information that blogs encourage that is important, not blogs themselves. For instance, blogs that are one-way mechanisms to pump information out, but not let any in, are not part of the conversation. The only way to learn is to listen and the only way to improve is to learn.
As this philanthropic marketplace emerges, foundation communication efforts will need to move away from disseminating information out from the foundation to managing the flow of information into and out of the foundation. I think it is no coincidence that foundation communication employees were early readers of my blog and regularly leave comments and send me emails.
Conversations are key to the next leg of growth in philanthropy and blogs are the best existing platform for this conversation. My blog, Tactical Philanthropy, has already played host to the ideas of Jed Emerson, Charles Collier, Tracy Gary, Peter Karoff, Clara Miller, Daniel Ben-Horin, Paul Shoemaker, Bill Schambra, Jim Canales, Nancy Roob, and Phil Buchanan among many others. Blogs are not a cutting-edge technology anymore. But they are where the conversation is emerging. So join the conversation. Launch a blog or simply begin reading and interacting with the ones already in place.
Sean Stannard-Stockton is a principal and director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital Management. Ensemble Capital provides families both traditional investment management and philanthropic planning. He is the author of the blog Tactical Philanthropy and writes the column On Philanthropy for the Financial Times.