November 2, 2007 7:50 pm

Networking for the benefit of others

Dilkhwaz Ahmed, a San Diego-based Iraqi refugee, has a plan to help women tackle violence and injustice. She wants to create the Azadi Centre, a safe space where women from immigrant communities can meet to discuss the problems they face. In the past, to finance such a centre she might have had to wait for a large foundation to assess her proposal and then hope it would grant her the funds. Today, she is using the internet.

Ahmed is one of the 100 semi-finalists in the Make It Your Own Awards, a competition launched in June by the Case Foundation, an organisation created by Steve and Jean Case in 1997. The contest – which uses the internet to generate what the foundation calls a “citizen-centred” approach to solving community problems – is an example of an increasingly common “open source” approach to philanthropy.

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Outside the philanthropic community, the Linux operating system and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, are the most prominent examples of the open source method of knowledge sharing and innovation. The approach has also been embraced by companies such as Proctor & Gamble, whose Connect + Develop portal solicits business ideas and technologies based on the company’s list of needs and technology briefs.

However, this means of tapping into innovation is starting to become more prevalent in the non-profit world, too, as a new generation of philanthropists recognises that solving the world’s biggest problems will require collective thinking and more cross-sector partnerships.

The Case competition has similarities to the P&G initiative. The foundation invited individuals or groups of people to submit their ideas for philanthropic projects via its website. From the almost 5,000 entries received (the foundation had originally hoped for about 1,000), the top 20 finalists will each receive a grant of $10,000.

But the foundation has taken the democratic approach one step further. The top four finalists – who will each receive $25,000 – will be chosen by Americans via an online voting system.

“We want to involve more people in how it feels to be part of giving and making a decision to help us direct our assets,” says Michael Smith, social investment manager at the Case Foundation. “It gives people an opportunity to read these wonderful stories and hopefully it will inspire them to take action on their own.”

Smith believes this approach can revitalise the community involvement Alexis de Tocqueville noticed on his travels across the US in the 19th century. “It’s about partnerships, rather than institutions on high constantly telling citizens how things should be done,” he says. “And what we’ve seen is that this doesn’t work. People don’t respond to that.”

Others are also looking to the open source strat-egies used by the corporate world for inspiration. Changemakers.net, a non-profit website focusing on social innovation, is also launching a contest to stimulate ideas.

But competitions are not the only means through which non-profits, charities and foundations are seeking new solutions to difficult problems. Taking a leaf out of the corporate world’s book, the Rockefeller Foundation has formed a partnership with InnoCentive, a website established by Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical group, on which companies post their research problems and offer rewards to anyone who can solve them.

The idea behind the partnership is to adapt the InnoCentive model to the identification of solutions to development obstacles such as lack of access to energy and water. In August, the Rockefeller Foundation announced the provision of a grant to GlobalGiving to sponsor its use of InnoCentive’s website.

Other web-based resources are emerging. On Kiva.org users make online loans – of as little as a few dollars – to small businesses in the developing world. Micro-finance institutions vet the borrowers who then post their profiles on the website for potential lenders to view. During the course of the loan, the lender can receive e-mail updates from their borrower.

“Things like Kiva.org are not just vehicles for giving – they’re about creating a community among the givers and that’s an added twist,” says Beth Cohen, director of the Global Philanthropists Circle at Synergos, a non-profit group that brings people together to address the underlying causes of poverty.

But while the internet is a powerful tool in facilitating this kind of philanthropy, the open source approach is not only about the use of web tools. It also encompasses the wave of knowledge sharing and collaboration that is sweeping through non-profit organisations and charities.

“Open source is about bringing the right people together in a collaborative way to break down some of the barriers and to break through some of the bottlenecks,” says Cohen. “In some camps, philanthropy is about putting your name on something, getting the credit and doing it alone. This is about how to combine your assets with someone else’s to really make a difference.”

The idea of sharing resources has been gaining momentum partly as a result of developments in the business world. As companies have embraced the concept of corporate responsibility, they have formed partnerships with charities and non-governmental organisations to help realise their environmental and social programmes.

The growth of “donor collaboratives” and “giving circles” is another manifestation of the co-operative spirit. These groups of philanthropists pool their money and then get together to learn about the issues relevant to their community and jointly decide where to allocate the funds.

At the same time, more knowledge and experience is being exchanged among established philanthropic organisations. “An increasing number of networks are sharing information, developing knowledge centres and finding new ways to communicate,” says Peter Karoff, founder of the Philanthropic Initiative and author of The World We Want: New Dimensions in Philanthropy and Social Change. “That kind of sharing of information, which has never been normative in philanthropy, is increasing.”

In some respects, the open source approach goes against a model of philanthropy that is common in the US in which wealthy donors, often with the help of private banks, establish private or family foundations based on their own specific interests.

Yet even this more traditional type of philanthropy is being exposed to new ideas through a growing number of networking groups and seminars. UBS, the Swiss bank, is among those promoting the exchange of knowledge at events across the world at which its wealthy clients meet non-profit specialists and other philanthropists.

Robin Murphy, head of communications at the World Resources Institute, welcomes the new era of openness. “Philanthropy in the US has been a bit of a closed circuit with the non-profits on the one side and the foundations on the other,” he says. “And you can get a slight dependency syndrome with a tango going on between them. The Case [Foundation] model is more like a square dance where everybody participates.”

Many people believe technology will help drive this more collaborative approach to giving. If Match.com can connect potential partners and Ebay can bring together buyers and sellers, the web should be the perfect matchmaker between those who need problems fixed and solution providers.

Smith at the Case Foundation certainly thinks so. “We’re seeing that new technologies can begin to connect people in ways they’ve never been able to before,” he says.

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