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Communications Reflections: Web 2.0 at GEO

A week out from the GEO conference, I’ve been mulling over all I heard about Web 2.0 and the implications for foundation communications. The Web 2.0 sessions buzzed with a mix of excitement, skepticism, a-has and, yes, anxiety. There was excitement about the ability to engage more directly with a broader swath of stakeholders than ever before. A mix of skepticism and a-has about whether and how these approaches really work. And anxiety about the major shift in internal resources and mindsets required to launch and manage it all.

It was great to hear discussions about things like social networks, wikis and blogs take place in a setting not solely dedicated to communications, as such tools and trends have implications for work across multiple foundation departments. But more often than not, inquiring minds show up on the doorstep of the communications department looking for insight into the possibilities of Web 2.0.

At the conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Bruce Trachtenberg, executive director of the Communications Network (of which I am a member). Eager to hear a fellow communicator’s perspective on how we can help our organizations explore some of these trends, I emailed Bruce last Thursday to glean his takeaways from the conference. He was kind enough to share the following “internet-time” responses.

What do you see as the role of communications staff members like me in helping our foundations explore these trends?

I think as a communications person, we have to do everything we can to explore the potential benefits of the new communications tools and also ask questions (or do the necessary kinds of followup and assessments) to ensure these new tools add and extend the communications contributions to foundation work. While on one hand I’m delighted at the opportunities the web in all its forms (and releases) offer in terms of helping us make information, stories, whatever, available to broader audiences, we also have to remember there’s a lot of competition. To me, that means we have to discipline ourselves not to be lulled thinking that the ease at which we can create, post or disseminate electronically automatically means everything we have to say is important and relevant.

From a communications standpoint, what were your key takeaways from the GEO conference?

The major takeaway for me is that there is an eagerness among the group to make foundation work and accomplishments more transparent…to find ways to engage more people in the work that foundations do…and a willingness to keep learning.

Was there anything you learned or observed at GEO that will influence the content for the Communications Network conference this September?

I think if Web 2.0 is a major topic of discussion at a non-communications group’s conference, it puts the pressure on us at the Network to delve even deeper into that topic.

I do indeed feel a healthy pressure to help cultivate a better understanding of the Web 2.0 phenomenon and how it applies to the work of foundations. The biggest hurdle for me has been finding a manageable way to get started. How can foundations efficiently and strategically explore these tools? Do we begin by experimenting internally in a “safe” way that allows staff to experience first-hand the possibilities and limitations of these tools? How can we holistically examine our communications and grant-making objectives to determine whether and how we should be integrating these tools?

Web 2.0 and other new media strategies may not make sense for all foundations. But if a foundation seeks to be a leader in transparency and accountability, if a foundation is serious about minimizing its carbon footprint, if a foundation truly seeks to collaborate and learn from the fields it supports, tools like blogs, wikis, social networks, open-source approaches, mash-ups and content that is “portable” across multiple and increasingly mobile platforms could very well open up new opportunities for impact.


GEO Conference Continued: Catch Phrases and Web 2.0

The GEO conference has certainly given me a lot of food for thought, not only for my work but also for this blog. Future posts will delve further into some of the concepts and examples I learned about, but I wanted to offer two additional items for now:

During the flight home this morning, several catch phrases kept ringing in my ears, including “sticky ideas” (a la Chip and Dan Heath), “American Idol philanthropy” and “working wikily.” Stay tuned for more on these.

I also reviewed the copious notes I took during the “Web 2.0 for Grantmakers” session, which was led by Amy Luckey of Blueprint Research & Design, Suki O’Kane of Northern California Grantmakers, and Eric Nee of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. But in true Web 2.0 spirit, the panel posted all their materials and additional resources online at, so I didn’t have to work too hard to decipher my handwriting. Thanks, guys! Great session.

Technology Tidbits from GEO Conference

I’m in San Francisco for the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations 2008 national conference. During the opening sessions on Monday, I found myself scribbling notes on a few intriguing examples of foundations using technology in new ways. I am eager to explore each further, but here’s a quick download:

  • The Packard Foundation has undertaken several pilot projects to inform its grant-making, including a “Nitrogen Wiki” and social network mapping;
  • The Case Foundation launched the 2007 Giving Challenge and Make It Your Own Awards to test the idea of “citizen-centered philanthropy” (also see Citizens at the Center white paper);
  • Several foundations working in Milwaukee are supporting, a program of the Nonprofit Management Fund that seeks to increase the involvement in and strengthen the capability of nonprofit boards through various services, including a bi-weekly podcast series.

Voting Begins for Nonprofit Video Awards

The finalists for the second annual DoGooder TV Nonprofit Video Awards were announced today. Sponsored by NTEN and See3 Communications, the contest seeks to “highlight the ways nonprofit organizations are using technology to inspire and ignite social change.”  Vote for Best PSA, Best Short Video, Best Long Video and Best Overall Video or read more about the contest. Winners will be announced at NTEN’s 2008 Nonprofit Technology Conference in New Orleans, March 19-21. I look forward to checking out this year’s finalists, particularly given this year’s theme: From the Ground Up: Using Technology to Engage Constituents and Make the World a Better Place. Also check out See3 Communications CEO Michael Hoffman’s helpful comment on my earlier post about whether online videos are helping nonprofits advance their missions and how you measure a video’s impact.

Nonprofit Leaders-to-Be Redux

After mulling over various angles for last night’s post (Re-Districting of Nonprofit Boundaries and Migration of Leaders-to-Be), I was eager to read thoughts from the field on the Ready to Lead? report. So far I am struck by the following themes (see round-up of initial reactions at the end of this post):

  • Although the report’s findings ring painfully true, there seems to be frustration among nonprofit professionals that this news is nothing new;
  • The report’s recommendations about what can be done seem to be getting only cursory mentions (and the lack of focus on concrete solutions seems to be fueling heated venting and pleas for action);
  • Using the lens of technology to search for fresh and out-of-the-box solutions seems to be missing from the discussion… so far. 

Philanthropy’s end of the bargain seems to be pretty clear: ante up, don’t forsake overhead, support your grantees in addressing succession issues. Now, I am certainly no expert on new media and Web 2.0 technologies (as clearly evidenced by this blog), but I find myself next turning to questions like: Are there low-cost opportunities for nonprofits to embrace online technologies to facilitate mentoring or networking? Are there ways that technology can be deployed to increase operational, fundraising or communications efficiencies that would in turn free up resources for salaries or staff development? Do leaders-to-be already have ideas for using technology in new ways to re-invent how their nonprofits work, but just aren’t being heard?

I may be misguided in my attraction to technology as a potential panacea for some of these challenges. But as someone deeply committed to the nonprofit ethos and a career in the sector, I will be eager to learn of leaders and organizations successfully preparing for the generational hand-off – whether their methods are grounded in technology or not!

Round-Up of Initial Reactions to Ready to Lead?

Re-Districting of Nonprofit Boundaries and Migration of Leaders-to-Be

In my second post (The New Philanthropists), I explored how some philanthropists are using technology to re-imagine philanthropy. Technology also seems to be fueling social-change efforts that transcend the boundaries between the non-profit and for-profit worlds. 

Take Advanta’s Ideablob, for example, which is a monthly competition where entrepreneurs and small business owners can submit their business ideas for a chance to win $10,000. The Ideablob community votes on the best ideas. Anyone can register and participate. A surprising number of entries are for nonprofits or nonprofit-minded ideas, ranging from community services to arts-centric activism to youth engagement and beyond.

Entrepreneurs who either seek to affect social change or structure their businesses in a way that does less (or no) harm to the world are becoming more prevalent and more prominent. People are becoming less accepting of the notion that making money and doing good are mutually exclusive – and thus the boundaries between for-profit and non-profit are beginning to blur.

As I read this morning’s Washington Post article about a report that examines the looming leadership crisis for nonprofits, I was struck by the following quote by Patrick Corvington, a co-author of the report: “Next-generation leaders are finding ways to get involved in social change and do good work. But they’re finding ways to do that outside of the sector.”

Technology seems to be a common denominator in this phenomenon. The new scales of collaboration, transparency, participation and efficiency made possible by new technologies are expanding the options available to young leaders looking to shape the world in positive ways.

To what extent is the blurring of boundaries between non-profit and for-profit feeding the impending leadership crisis for nonprofits? Are there ways that nonprofits can use technology to re-imagine how they operate so they can better nurture and support the leaders-to-be in their midst? What role can foundations play in exploring these issues?

Shared-Access Models

While catching up on news for my blog, I read a Financial Times article that I bookmarked last week. Dated February 21, “A fair division of the spoils of charity” describes how nonprofits and businesses are approaching open-access issues in their joint ventures. Some examples involved technology, others did not. They all reflected the tension between the nonprofit desire to do the greatest good and the for-profit desire to maintain a competitive edge. A sidebar summarized three models for “dividing the spoils” – spin-off benefits, consultancy services, open-source obligation – which helped expand my thinking on how elements of open-access approaches are being applied in the nonprofit realm (see previous post on Open Philanthropy?).