We appear to be reaching a tipping point of interest and activity around “new philanthropy” that is worth some examination. In particular, the efforts of the MacArthur Foundation to dip their toe into Second Life and the Case Foundation to fund individuals working to shift power locally between citizens and government are causing stirs.
In the case of MacArthur, one of the most venerated, and previously traditional, grantmaking institutions, has taken a bold leap into the virtual world of Second Life. And it’s not just that MacArthur stepped in but how that’s so impressive. There was Jonathan Fanton, the president of the foundation, himself (well, you know, his avatar) participating in the first event answering questions from two hundred avatars. It was a pretty standard give and take conversation between Fanton, a representative of Lindon and the audience. Of course, the phalanx of social media tools also spread the event far beyond Second Life via BlogTV, instant messaging, blogs and, of course, old fashioned email – and even the New York Times in old economy time the next day. It was the openness of the event that set it apart from business as usual in philanthropy world. Lucy Bernzholz has an outstanding analysis of it here. Lucy’s use of the phrase “a platform for individuals” for this use of Second life illuminates its potential power to allow many more people to participate and shape policy and social change efforts.
The Case Foundation’s effort are solidly on land and not on line, however there is connective tissue between their efforts and MacArthur’s. The Make it Your Own Awards Program is a grantmaking efforts based on a terrific paper that Cindy Gibson wrote last year called Citizens at the Center. The paper makes the case for a shift in power away from governmental institutions and even public policy makers to citizens and individuals. In other words, realiging who is working for whom. From the Case website, putting citizens at the center is important because, “Shifting to an approach that puts citizens at the center can be a powerful way to help ordinary people take action on the problems that are most important to them, and in the ways they choose.”
The grant program is intending to leverage the ideas in the paper and provide support to individuals in communities across the country implementing citizen-led efforts.
Apart these efforts are interesting, together they’re potentially ground shifting for several reasons. First, both efforts signal a realization by foundations that they must work fundamentally differently in the future. A foundation president does not spend significant time and his own capital participating in an experimental of this scope and public notice unless he thinks is signaling the importance that the institution is placing on this new way of working. And this is the first time that Case is has shaped a grant program with this much input from others on the front end and with an emphasis on individual over organizational grantees.
Which is the second point, both efforts emphasize participation by individuals over institutions indicates their understanding that continuing to assume that organizations are best suited to spark and implement social change efforts in communities is out of step with the reality that most of the explosive efforts in recent years have been extra organizational in origin. It also reflects that reality that with inexpensive social media tools the role of organizations has moved from being primary to being secondary. The second important parallel is that amount of transparency each brings to the foundation’s thinking and actions. As a reminder, dear reader, foundations are not required to share any information about their efforts but their tax returns. These two foundations have gone out of their way to let people in, to help shape the effort on the front end and to listen to them as their efforts have unfolded.
These efforts are hopeful signs for us idealists that the days of omnipotent, opaque foundations as the norm may be coming to an end.