Philanthropy: Too Scared To Fail?

My latest piece is posted at Public Square Today, my blog at Washington Times Communities:

Philanthropy: Too Scared To Fail?

The paper of record for the charitable community, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, yesterday reported on a new study by the Cambridge-based Center for Effective Philanthropy. While the report itself focuses primarily on the ways foundations use strategic planning, the most dramatic finding has to do with how foundations evaluate whether their good works are working.

Ask foundations if they are having impact, and almost eight in ten (78%) foundation leaders say they are. Ask them if they actually have measures to determine whether this is true, and just 26% say they measure all of their work. (Thirty nine percent say they measure the effectiveness of some of their work.)

That’s bad enough. But push them a little harder and ask them to point to the specific measures they use to determine how effective their work is, and only 8% of foundation leaders can identify their metrics.

As a person who has managed grant-funded projects, I have watched the field of philanthropy actively embrace strategic planning and measurement. Every new grant proposal these days has to have a “logic model” (that is, a credible reason to think that it might work) and some way of assessing or proving impact. That latter gives community benefit organizations fits, because for many programs it’s hard to figure out what to measure. A soup kitchen can measure number of meals served, but what about a civic engagement effort? Just looking for an uptick in voter turnout is a ham handed approach.

Indeed, evaluation and assessment is the current Holy Grail throughout the independent sector. There have been very promising advances made in actually measuring the kinds of things that used to be seen as unmeasurable. (For instance, the National Conference on Citizenship has developed a very well-rounded measure of engagement.)

brokenmirror 012 by Flickr user Paul J Everett
brokenmirror 012 by Flickr user Paul J Everett

But it is disconcerting to learn that foundations, who are fundamentally beholden to no constituency and so ought to be able to take the most risks – are the most risk averse. So risk-averse, it seems, many would rather not look at the data to find out how well their programs are working. They don’t seem to want to look in the mirror.

Philanthropy philosopher Sean Stannard Stockton has written recently about how ironic this is in general, and has pointed out a few foundations that are bucking the trend: the James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation.

As a member in good standing of the nonprofit community, I urge foundations to apply the same metrics they demand of others to themselves – and, at the same time, to take on more risk. Foundations can withstand failure and they ought to embrace it. Nonprofit community benefit organizations, on the front lines and dependent on others for funding, cannot so well afford the same kinds of risks without a safety net.

It's An Extrovert's World, But Technology Allows Introverts A Toehold

My latest piece is posted at Public Square Today, my blog at Washington Times Communities:

It’s An Extrovert’s World, But Technology Allows Introverts A Toehold

I recently spent time in a group with a public leader who is very clearly an introvert. Whenever it was her turn to speak, she would pause to think about what to say. People would hang on each sentence, waiting to see what was said. It was clearly a struggle for some in the room not to jump in and interrupt.

dave with a megaphone by Flickr user NatalieHG
"dave with a megaphone" by Flickr user NatalieHG

This experience drove home to me the fact that we live in a world organized and run by extroverts. By “extrovert” I mean the term according to the definition used by the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a widely used psychological profiling tool. An extrovert is not necessarily loud and boorish – an extrovert gains their energy from interactions with others. (Here is a video about how this all works.)

By the same token, an introvert is not necessarily shy – an introvert gains their energy from being alone. Think of it this way: An extrovert recharges by being with people; an introvert recharges by seeking seclusion. Most studies I have read show that there are more extroverts than introverts in the world. Some peg the share of introverts at 25%. (To be fair, some studies say it’s more 50-50.)

Regardless of the numbers, extroverts have set the social norms in society. Jonathan Rauch has written the definitive column on this subject. Being outgoing is seen as friendly and positive. Being silent is seen as being “aloof” or arrogant. An outgoing extrovert has to cross a definite line before they are seen as irritating; whereas, for an introvert, not speaking creates a presumption of disinterest.

But, a major change is afoot. Social media has leveled the playing field somewhat. You don’t have to be an extrovert to be outgoing.

This is opening up public leadership to new people. Success does not need to come with schmoozing and glad-handing, it can come through effective sharing and diligently working online networks.

It will not work for everybody, but it is already beginning to work for some.

We've All Got Our Smartphones At The Ready

My latest piece is posted at Public Square Today, my blog at Washington Times Communities:

We’ve All Got Our Smartphones At The Ready

Last night, walking through a restaurant, as I passed by about ten tables I noticed six where the diners had their smartphones sitting on the table as they ate. Some were deep in texting someone, others just had them out there, at the ready. Outside, there was a pair of people standing next to one another, clearly together, yet each busy texting someone else.

It reminded me of a piece I wrote about five years ago about those tiny screens we carry with us everywhere we go:

Skating over the holidays at New York’s Rockefeller Center, America’s skating rink, one can’t help noticing in the crowd of tourists and locals that everywhere someone is peering into a little screen in a gloved hand. A boy waiting in line one switchback ahead plays a Game Boy, pumping his fist after each tiny victory. Fellow tourists, armed with digital cameras, ask my group to take pictures of them with the gigantic New York City Christmas tree and the statue of Prometheus in the background.

Down on the ice, there is a dangerous clot of people obstructing traffic. Skating abandoned, they, too, are after shots of the tree. They stand shakily, arms outstretched, tiny viewscreens glowing. Skaters notice the hazard at the last moment. Some duck. Many slip, fall, or collide with other skaters. Everybody has a tiny helper, a gadget to enhance or capture the experience.

Does it help? Are people having more fun?

Texting by Flickr user kiwanja
"Texting" by Flickr user kiwanja

Since that time, the ubiquity of our tiny helpers, these screens, has increased. Everywhere we go, we have them by our side, at the ready. They used to be poised to capture the moment. Now they are ready for us to communicate with people we are not now with. It’s like every dinner party is really two conversations – the one I have with you, in front of me, and the one I am having, or ready to have, with my “peeps,” who are scattered far and wide.

I am as much a culprit of this as anyone else. And, it is important to note the upsides of this ubiquitous connection-to-elsewhere. At any given time, there can be a wide-ranging conversation going on, no matter where I am.

But, as with ubiquitous photo-taking, it’s easy to use our online connections to take us away from our present situation — to get out. There’s no bright line when it comes to that. At what point does a quick text at the table become ignoring your dinner date?

I try to have rules for myself. Not at the table. Not if I am in a one-on-one conversation. Not unless I ask first. These help, but still, sometimes they don’t seem like enough.

However, like most, I am not prepared to completely give up these constant connections. Modern social norms will simply have to catch up, which they have not yet done.

Over the next five years or so, I am certain we will see social norms and etiquette catch up. We’ll know when it is OK and when it is not. For now, though, it’s like the Wild West.

Facebook And Faculty

My friend Ed Sirianno recently drew my attention to a post at Inigral (maker of the Schools Facebook app) with ten tips for getting faculty involved in using Facebook on campus.

While it is focused on higher education, the ideas apply to getting any reluctant group of people involved in Facebook. For online community managers, this can be a daunting proposition. While it is relatively easy to evangelize to people who already have dipped their toes in the water, it is sometimes excruciating to try to make the case for engagement through social media to intelligent skeptics who listen politely and then go about their business, chuckling to themselves about how silly you are.

Indeed, in  one community content initiative I am involved with, we recently suggested to our constituents that it was critical for them to use Facebook to generate interest in the work. Some of the responses I got back made me wonder what year I was in. Typical (paraphrased) response: “I set up a profile last year when my nephew visited me from college, but it seemed silly then and still does. I don’t want to see photos of what he ate for lunch.”

A community manager who is in charge of a public institutions social media and Facebook page might justifiably throw up their hands. But the failure is with the evangelists, not with the skeptics. We may make a good case for using Facebook (for instance, higher education people take note that 90% of college students are on Facebook), we need to make it engaging in an ongoing, day-to-day way for all the groups we hope will connect with it.

Analog Computer by Flickr user Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M
"Analog Computer" by Flickr user Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M

Here are some of the key ideas from Inigral, along with some of my comments:

  • Polls: With well-crafted questions that eschew hype, you can give people a reason to visit and interact with your page.
  • Photos: Post and tag — sharing and tagging of photos remains one of the easiest ways to engage people in creating content together.
  • Sports Info: One-stop shareable hub of school sports results and other info.
  • Office Hours: Virtual office hours (like Stanford does — Stanford is the “rock star” of colleges on Facebook with more than 45,000 fans).
  • Announcements: Key departmental and other announcements — since they allow interaction through comments, this can become an important interaction area for faculty, many of whom are deeply invested in the organizational politics of their institutions.
  • Students: In my view the most important reason for faculty to want to interact with Facebook on a daily basis is that this is where students are. If a community manager were to be intentional about creating a space for interactions between faculty and students, the early adopter faculty would begin to use it and demonstrate value to their colleagues.

Replace the word “student” with “citizen,” “customer,” “constituent,” or “fan” and you can see how this can translate into many other public-facing institutions.

Thanks, Ed, for sharing! I urge you to read the full Inigral post.

The Emerging Market In Virtual Goods: Public Leaders Take Note

My latest piece is posted at Public Square Today, my blog at Washington Times Communities:

The Emerging Market In Virtual Goods: Public Leaders Take Note

If you listen to the people who are at the cutting edge of online popular culture, the future of the Web is being written in tiny micropayments, some amounting to fractions of a cent.

At Second Life's Hair Fair, a brand new hairstyle.
At Second Life's Hair Fair, a brand new hairstyle.

This is the world of “virtual goods,” items that are purchased and used in online social games, such as Zynga’s Farmville on the Facebook social platform. Indeed, Zynga’s CEO and founder, Mark Pincus, recently said, “with the popularity of virtual goods today, we are in the early stages of a new economy that could grow and shape the future of the Web.”

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Public leaders should take note for two reasons.

First, this is a tangible demonstration of the fact that, more and more, the borders between physical life and online life are crumbling. People spend real money to improve online-only experiences. They see their interactions in this space as just as real as their interactions face-to-face. Yet, public institutions and community benefit organizations too often discount what happens online as ephemeral. At a recent speech about innovating online that I gave to a national gathering of city officials, one big theme running through the comments was a skepticism that online sites were good for anything beyond message-delivery. Public leaders simply must get over this attitude.

Second, the power of the virtual goods market shows the potency of the shift our society has undergone. We live in a citizen-centric world in which the ability to customize is taken for granted. It is so fundamental to people’s expectations, that whole markets emerge and thrive based on the idea.

The public leaders and community benefit organizations who can harness these forces will survive and thrive. Look, for example at the Hair Fair, which takes place in the online virtual world Second Life. It’s like an online festival where users can purchase and compare new hairstyles. The most recent one earned its organizers over $8,000, and included a “bandana day” where all users removed their hair and instead wore bandanas in support of the charity Locks of Love.

As more charities and public leaders begin to understand this new space, we will see more of these kinds of partnerships. It may feel cutting edge, but it is already here.

Public life needs to catch up.

Go here to read the whole article, with more detail.

Photo: moggs oceanlane (Flickr)

Researching eGov2.0: Take Part In An Academic Survey

Colleagues across the Pond shared the following with me:

Used a Fed web site? Take the survey!
Used a Fed web site? Take the survey!

The Kogod School of Business at American University and the National University of Ireland, Galway are collaborating on a research project that investigates the value of Federal Government web sites.

Leading the project are Professors Murray Scott and William DeLone who are particularly interested in studying recent initiatives designed to promote citizen engagement and participation.

The researchers would very much appreciate your support by following the link below and completing the survey. The survey should not take any longer than 15 minutes of your time and can be found here.

The researchers can be contacted with any questions or comments at ( or ) and thank you for your participation.

If you have ever used a Federal government web site, I urge you to take part!