Monthly Archives: June 2010

Final thoughts

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

You probably couldn’t do it too often – five days on the trot is a long time for a conference, and it was a pretty exhausting experience – but the Foundation Week experiment seems to have been a success. Some of those with stands in the interactive fair expressed mild disappointment that more people hadn’t come to their stand, but there were plenty of people about early in the week before the EFC conference began. Many of the open day sessions were packed out – though inevitably the odd one was empty. Pretty well everyone I spoke to was positive about it.

The Alliance blogging experiment seems to have been pretty successful too. Of course there are things we could have done better, and we would still love to see more comments so please do post them on the articles you have read, but we assembled a wonderful team of bloggers, and every one of them delivered beyond expectations. While we saw the blog as allowing people who couldn’t come to Foundation Week to get some of the flavour of it, what I hadn’t anticipated was the way a blog can provide another layer of conversation among conference participants about the conference.

So thanks to all our blogging team, those who made comments and all those who have followed us throughout the week. I’m looking forward to the next time, whenever that might be.

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Learning to listen is good for cocktail parties and social media

David Drewery

David Drewery

Social media – A fad or the future?

Tweet, wall, post, feed. Chances are, if you have been using the internet in the last few years these words will have a different meaning to you now than they did before, but is there something substantial beneath the jargon? The numbers would suggest yes. With 400 million Facebook users worldwide, spending an average of 55 minutes per day on the site, and an estimated 260 million Twitter users by the end of 2010 it would appear that social media sites are here to stay. In fact 17% of all online time is spent on social networks, which are seeing growth across all age ranges, but does that mean they are of any value to organisations or are they all dominated by celebrity gossip and chat about the iPad?

Erste Foundation, the first presenters, has been using social media for three main purposes. Communication – of projects and values, Interaction – with online audiences and developing networks and Positioning – of the foundation as a dynamic modern institute with a presence in the online field. They have used various platforms such as Twitter, Vimeo and Flickr but have mainly focused on their Facebook page – pages they emphasised are vastly superior to old style Facebook groups because messages that are posted are automatically included in followers’ feeds; they do not have to actively check back for updates.

Erste Foundation have a news section on their website which in order for it to be read they would traditionally have to rely on people going to them, by adding the content to Facebook and signposting back to their website Erste Foundation are able to be where the conversation is already taking place. Nobody spends 55 minutes a day on an organisations website but by having a presence on Facebook you can access a piece of this time.

This is really the crux of social media for organisations, conversation is already happening and these tools allow you to be part of that. They allow you to go to where people already are talking rather than the traditional method of trying to bring those people to you. A good example of this was shared by Filiz

Bikmen, Sabanci Foundation, with their ‘Turkey’s changemakers’ project. The project was for people to nominate individuals who were doing amazing work in their communities across Turkey, some would be chosen from these nominations and they would film a piece about them that would be aired on CNN Turk to promote civil society changemakers and inspire the audience. The viewing figures for this were, by their own admission, disappointing and so they uploaded the videos (with English subtitles) to their own website and on Facebook. The results were impressive, in 8 months they had 50,000 visits and 92,000 views of videos as well as 6500 fans on Facebook.

A project that started out as primarily a TV campaign using social media as support turned out to be much more of a social media project because by moving their project to a domain where the audience already were they could gain much wider exposure, leading to the campaign getting picked up by Hurrynet – a large news network in Turkey.

Daniel Ben Horin, TechSoupGlobal, spoke about how social media is not a tool in the traditional sense, one that helps us work faster, but it is something that changes the way people interact. He argued that social media levels the playing field in that anybody can be involved in the conversation and has the great advantage that you can make mistakes in this field and its ok – as long as you are transparent. Its supporters think it is a must for modern foundations but there is a huge disadvantage to being half in, organisations need to carefully plan their online strategy so that they can approach it with a full commitment. This planning will allow organisations to find their place in the social media world.

Daniel also described social media as a “24hr cocktail party” – you get to choose the guests, someone will always say something interesting but because everybody is at lots of parties at the same time many people can share in that excitement. I think you can expand on this analogy to guide your organisations actions within social media:

  • If you were at a cocktail party and someone repeatedly asked you for money, you would soon stop talking to that person – social media has proved unsuccessful for direct fundraising but it can help to raise your profile and share your work.
  • If you were at a cocktail party and you talked only about yourself, people would soon stop listening – social media shouldn’t be a form of press release, it is a conversation, an interaction between you and them – organisations should try and speak with a more personal tone.
  • If you were at a cocktail party and people asked you questions and you ignored them, they would soon stop interacting – social media allows you the opportunity to listen to your audience, to find out what they think about you and about what they want and then respond in real time.

Use of social media has grown to such an extent that it should no longer be ignored or as the session title suggests be seen as a fad. It is not perfect; there is a staggering amount of nonsense shared on these platforms but just like in real life, you can chose who you listen to and who you don’t. I understand the reluctance of people to commit more time and resources to these platforms because they do seem to change so quickly (how many people are still using Friendster or even MySpace?) but if organisations view social media as primarily a listening device the cost in terms of both time and resources would be considerably less. Companies pay thousands of pounds in market research to see what people think of them, tools such as Twitter and Google Alerts allow you to get a sense of that absolutely free. Which NGO wouldn’t want to know what people think of their activities?

There will come a time when you will want to start speaking more, and this like any offline strategy should be carefully planned out, but I would urge any NGO that isn’t using social media to begin by simply listening. Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak, this is as true online as it is in real life.

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Philanthropic infrastructure – sexier than you think?

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

According to the EFC programme, the overall aim of this session, called ‘Building philanthropic infrastructure – sexier than you think’, was to prove that ‘funding infrastructure is in fact sexy’. Judging by the fact that the session was packed out, with standing room only, one can only conclude that EFC participants already think it’s a pretty sexy topic. However, as one speaker pointed out, it doesn’t need to be seen as sexy, just important.

Sexy or otherwise the topic may be, the sad fact is that there are ever fewer funders willing to fund philanthropic infrastructure. Unlike people in the business world, foundations largely don’t get the importance of the organizations that exist in order to make their work more professional and effective – at least not to the extent of being willing to help pay for them. Moderated in great style by David Emerson of the UK’s Association of Charitable Foundations, the session presented two foundations that do in fact fund philanthropic infrastructure and tried to get to the bottom of the question of why so few are willing to do so.

The first presenter was Karin Jestin of Fondation 1796, created by the partners of the oldest private bank in Geneva, which works on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, and helping to build the sector in Switzerland. Karin cited the need for cooperation among foundations as one reason for wanting to support philanthropy infrastructure. Another was the need to put philanthropy on the map: if they are not seen as relevant partners, she said, foundations will lose opportunities to have impact.

The second presenter was Pieter Stemerding of Adessium Foundation, a welcome newcomer to the small band of infrastructure funders (see Alliance interview with him at  Adessium’s decision to establish the Erasmus Centre for Philanthropy at Rotterdam University arose initially from their founder’s own difficulty in finding a place to get independent, useful advice about embarking on philanthropy.

Why do so few funders get engaged? Many different reasons were put forward. The most obvious is that there are so many causes foundations want to support, and infrastructure can’t compete with children, human rights, etc. There isn’t a level playing field. Another reason, put forward by Karin Jestin, is that it isn’t easy to find projects to support – you may have to put effort into mobilizing/finding the right project. While there is some truth in this, there is no shortage of existing infrastructure projects lacking support. A speaker from New Zealand suggested that sometimes foundation staff are ahead of trustees: if trustees don’t see the value, they won’t fund.

If there’s a value in what infrastructure offers, foundations will fund it, said Fernando Rossetti from GIFE in Brazil (GIFE is the Brazilian funders’ association). This seems to me optimistic. Perhaps the proof will be in the pudding. Foundations are not good at being self-critical, said UK consultant David Carrington. If investing in infrastructure fosters self-criticism, this will help effectiveness and demonstrate the value of infrastructure. The trouble with this particular pudding is that demonstrating its value is not easy or straightforward.

Several speakers suggested that it should be seen as the responsibility of every foundation as a good citizen to support their own ecosystem and make sure it’s sufficiently visible to the rest of society. Seen in this light, funding infrastructure could be seen as a ‘self-imposed tax system’.

With all tax systems, payers tend to dislike non-payers. In this case, however, there was little evidence of much dislike of free riding. Certainly neither panellist saw the free rider issue as a problem. Gina Anderson of Philanthropy Australia commented that many new, small foundations may never join Philanthropy Australia, ‘and that’s OK’.

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Foundation Endowments: Focus on risk

Andrew Milner

Andrew Milner

In view of my abysmal ignorance of the higher finance and its terms, I am probably not the best person to report on this session. Although I understood most of the words used, when they were put together in the way they were, I suddenly felt like the stupidest person in the world. Or possibly the second stupidest – Jon Edwards was keen to dispute this questionable distinction with me after the session. This is a pity, since I’m convinced from the reaction of many other participants, that had I known my VARs from my asset classes, I would have found it rewarding.

Let me set down what did emerge for me from the mist. The organizations represented by the two presenters, Wellcome Trust by Sarah Fromson and Compagnia di San Paulo by Piero Gastaldo, had very different stances on risk chiefly because of some fundamental distinctions in the way the two organisations were set up. While Wellcome was able to diversify more or less as it chose to offset some elements of risk, the Compagnia – and others, pointed out Piero Gastaldo – could not because they had a very large single stock position. This made their attitude to risk slightly more cautious. They were aided in this by the fact that, unlike US foundations, they had no 5 per cent payout requirement, and they adopted a more modest policy of spending 2.5 per cent of the market value of their endowment. This allowed them to build up reserves of equivalent to at least two years of spending, so that, even with no income, they would be able to maintain levels of payout for two years.

Another somewhat less significant difference between the two was that while Wellcome had its own investment team responsible for analysing risk, San Paulo had – to use an odious but intelligible term – outsourced it, though not to a completely independent firm. In conjunction with four other Italian foundations, it had set up an organisation called Fondaco who provided the expertise in this area. However, in both cases, it was the board who had ultimate responsibility to determine the shape and content of the portfolio and as Sarah Fromson suggested it was the responsibility of Wellcome’s investment committee and investment executive to make the foundation’s board understand the risks to which investment exposed the organization.

Given that staff on the investment side were paid differently from programme staff – that is, there was an incentive scheme in the latter case – was there no tension between the two? Sarah Fromson acknowledged that it could a problem. However, on the one side, while Wellcome offered what she called a competitive package related to performance, it was clear that working at there would never pay as much as working in say an asset management firm, so there was no jaw-dropping disparity. On the other, she thought, you had to work hard to make programme staff that the money they paid out depended on what the investment side could earn. For Piero Gastaldo, the matter didn’t arise to the same extent, he suggested, however, that there was an ethical, as well as material element to the decision to work in investment for a foundation, rather than commercial firm.

As regards mission related investing, Piero Gastaldo said that 4 per cent of San Paulo’s assets were currently invested in this area and they were considering the idea of not investing in certain areas. Wellcome had one such class – tobacco. Apart from this, Sarah Fromson was clear that her investment department’s job was to maximize returns from a given level of risk. When sustainable investments demonstrably brought in the same level of return, she said, ‘we’ll do it’. That wasn’t to say that Wellcome wasn’t actively looking for investments in areas that might produce social and environmental benefits – it was. There portfolio had a number of themes and one of these was scarcity. Wellcome looked across all asset classes for such investments and stressed, ‘we do take this seriously.’

I was able to glean this much from the session because apart from excursions into water much too deep for me, both presenters did an excellent job of explaining their respective foundation’s positions and answering questions as briefly as possible and to the point. On a slightly facetious closing note, I might add that I now know that VAR stands for value at risk. I’m still slightly hazy about what this means, but I think it means using past performance to predict what a given groups of assets are likely to do in the future in order to assess risk – anyone able to shine further light into my darkness?

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Unintended consequences

Daniel Ben-Horin

Daniel Ben-Horin

What a rich conference this has been. I had a lot of fun organizing my “punch at your own weight” thoughts on social media and philanthropy for a Wednesday panel and was immensely gratified at the response received. I’ll be writing up my remarks and offering a link to them.

For now, though, I would like to point you all at where I think you will find an intriguing example of how social media is not a tool but a dynamic process with all kinds of unintended and often wonderful consequences.This link takes you to the blog of Guidestar International with whom my own organization, TechSoup Global, has very recently combined.

The content I am pointing you at is our various combined staff’s summaries of many great sessions from the week (with more to come, so watch that space.)We asked our reporters to talk about the session and also to add their thoughts about implications for our combined organization.

So the first point I¹d make is that “content is (still) king”. I mean: you can use every widget and tool imaginable but if what you have to say is rubbish, it doesn’t matter. And  we did get some great and very new ideas about what we should do as an organization.So please enjoy. Comment. Be in conversation with us.

And speaking of unintended consequences, a big shoutout to Anna Piotrovskaya E.D. Of The Dmitry Zimin <<Dynasty>> Foundation who has promised to introduce me to one of my literary idols, Boris Akunin, if I can get myself to Moscow, which I will. I mention this because this is the kind of accidental conversation you only have when you meet someone in person, preferably with a glass of wine in your hand, which reminds me that we should never get so infatuated with online tools that we don’t make the trouble to meet each other face to face.

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We should embrace the IT without forgetting the C

David Drewery

David Drewery

Leading the charge: Innovative uses of technology and information to connect funders to communities

Daniel Ben-Horin, founder of TechSoup Global, opened the session by highlighting an interesting difference between US and European attitudes towards the use of technology. In the US they lead with the technology, coming up with a great idea for an ‘app’ and then thinking about how this can be used to change the world. In Europe they indentify a social problem and then try and work out how technology can be used to solve that problem.

The social problem being addressed by Gyula Vamosi of Kaskosan, the first speaker, is that of engagement with the Roma people. Gyula argued that there are no roma people in the roma movement, NGOs are doing good work on their behalf but the top down, international approach has led to a lack of engagement at a local level. Kaskosan, named after a traditional roma greeting, was created with the aim of trying to reposition the movement through the use of internet technology, which is being used to create a platform to connect people and share romanipe (roma culture) and articulate a common identity. This website allows people to create social networks made up of individuals and groups where they can share music and videos across a multi-language platform which is key in connecting such a diverse group.

The large number of members the site has and the visits it receives are testament to the fact that the internet has proved successful in connecting roma people all across Europe, because it too is not constrained by geography.

Another speaker, Gabriel Rissola, Dynamic Organization Thinking, talked about the problems faced by female migrants across Europe. He spoke of the ‘double exclusion’ they faced in the form of the language barrier and the fact that qualifications gained in one country are not always recognized in another. This had lead to a lot of these women being unemployed or employed in minimum wage positions. ICT is helping to tackle this issue in a number of ways. Their study found that communication was the number one use of the internet amongst this group, and whilst the majority of this was with family back home a significant proportion was to new people in the local area; thus improving the level of social inclusion. It also found that the second most common use of the internet was for job searching – which is enabling these women to apply for a wider range of positions.

Studies have shown that across all sections of society greater eSkills has led to greater employability, so the work being done by NGOs to educate people in computer use is, in the words of Microsoft’s commitment, “enabling people throughout the world to realize their full potential.”

There were concerns raised that ICT can be a double edge sword, it can connect people or be a tool to help people reach their potential but it is inferior to face to face communications, with many key decision makers interested in dealing with the top 50 people in a given field not the thousands that can come with online projects. There was also the concern that the increasing use of ICT is having a negative effect on traditional civil society, such as protests and town hall meetings. All of these are valid concerns, ICT will not address all of an organization’s needs, but that is ok because it should never be used exclusively. The work being done online should compliment and supplement the work being done offline rather than replace it.

I feel that online and offline can really benefit each other, if the balance is maintained. ICT can be used to forge new relationships and strengthen old ones, between people and between institutions, but this can be as precursor to or follow up from more traditional meetings or conferences (although I do like the idea of more e-conferences to save on both costs and carbon emissions). The people who traditionally attended public protests can also protest online, and people who are engaged online can be inspired to real action – look at the effect of public mobilization through Facebook. Gyula pointed to NGOs who have connected with individuals via his site, seen them in person and then ultimately found them employment – a great example of online action leading to offline change.

I believe this kind of balance is possible because communication and interaction is the core of what people do in both the online and offline world. There is a certain reluctance people feel in moving more towards technology but I think it is because we focus too much on the technology itself and not enough on the ideal behind it. There is a harmony that can be reached if we embrace the IT without forgetting the C!

David Drewery is the Publishing Officer at Alliance magazine.

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How to stop a disaster within a disaster

Andrew Milner

Andrew Milner

Beyond the emergency: lessons from disaster response

Public attention for disasters is short-lived and the funds raised for them are not always well spent, said Rien van Gendt, who chaired this session. Do foundations have a different role in responding to disasters than relief agencies and if so what is it? He outlined five rules from the book produced by the Foundation Center last year on disaster grantmaking: stop, look and listen; don’t act in isolation; think beyond the current emergency; use the expertise of local organisations; and be accountable to those you are trying to help.

Most of the two presenters’ (Joia Mukherjee of Partners in Health and Nicholas Borsinger of Pro Victimis Foundation) remarks naturally focused on the Haiti earthquake, but both also spoke from their experience of other disasters. Both broadly agreed that Haiti relief efforts had almost amounted to what Joia called a disaster within a disaster: the UN’s cluster system had been exclusive, bureaucratic and counter-productive, and relief efforts had by-passed what Haiti public authorities remained and had, in some cases undermined existing and very effective programmes.

It didn’t have to be like this. Not everyone, said Nicholas Borsinger, had the right to intervene in the wake of a disaster. It was time that the government in question and/or the international community took a tougher line and established a priority system for relief agencies who could do essential work. Gina Anderson from Philanthropy Australia, echoed both this and Rien van Gendt’s opening axiom to stop, look and listen. Following bush fires in Australia, her first response had been to convene a meeting of members – to stop them reacting in a way that would have been a hindrance, not a help, to relief efforts.

Accompaniment was the term Joia Mukherjee used to describe the way PiH works with both local communities and public sector authorities to strengthen their hand. We need to be able to fund and to assist the grassroots and to work with public authorities so that both governments and communities could build a society that works. We need to stop what she described as the ‘NGO-ification of what should be rights’ and we needed to empower the public sector to do so, not take a patronising, neo-colonial view of their competence. The absence of this in Haiti and in other disaster regions had made calamities infinitely worse.

We also need to be more radical in tracking the money raised for disaster relief, she urged, and to be accountable for the waste of money (too much overhead, too many people for whom it’s a racket). Is there particular role for philanthropy, as Rien asked at the beginning of the session? For one thing, said Suzanne Siskel of the Ford Foundation, we need to take a long-term approach. As Rien had also noted, the attention of the world also faded quickly and it was only too clear that rebuilding Haiti would take years.

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