26 September 2007

Innovation: Hacking Philanthropy Sessions, Hosted by Union Square Ventures

Imagine a room packed with a ton of brain power, knowledge, and expertise from the world of venture capital, technology, social change, and philanthropy and you've some idea what I walked into yesterday up at Columbia's Casa Italiana.

Brad Burnham, Fred Wilson, and Andrew Parker of Union Square Ventures -- the Three Tenors of New York's Silicon Alley -- brought together an illustrious gang for a day to talk about "Hacking Philanthropy," or how to bring philanthropic pursuits into the 21st century.

The participant roster was an all-star cast, including Charles Best from DonorsChoose.org, Premal Shah from Kiva.org, nattily attired Craig Newmark from Craig's List, Graham Hill of Treehugger.com, Red Hat and Lulu founder Bob Young, Dick Costolo, co-founder of Feed Burner, Victoria Vrana from Venture Philanthropy Partners, Tom Watson of Changing Our World, my new colleagues from Ashoka, Sushmita Ghosh and Leslie Crutchfield (whose new book, Forces for Good should do for non-profits what Jim Collins' Good to Great did for the private sector), Meetup.com Founder Scott Heiferman, Tom Reis from the estimable Kellogg Foundation (the only old guard institution represented), Jason Paez from the youth-centric start-up Party 4 A Purpose, Ashoka Fellow and Idealist founder Ami Dar, and even newly anointed MacArthur genius Saul Griffith of SQUID Labs. Quite a powerful group. (Not to mention we were joined at lunch by Maya Lin, who gave us an early look at her latest work in progress.)

The collective power of the group was exemplified by the conversation, which ranged from the potential for lightweight web services to increase the efficiency, reach, and effectiveness of philanthropy to wrestling with real-life business process issues. For eaxample, how to help Kiva close the gap between the numbers of on-line lenders versus certified microlending institutions in the field or why DonorsChoose, which currently focuses on putting school teachers in need with donors, could extend its reach to include other projects and pursuits.

For me, this event was timely. I have long been concerned about the state of philanthropy, among them: 1.) big institutions are so wedded to process and priority setting that they forget it's not about what we're selling to donor-investors but about what they are buying, 2.) that traditional philanthropy is still perceived as old fashioned, inefficient and stodgy, 3.) that, in fact, perception is reality, and 4.) that we risk losing the potential for catalyzing the network effect because we're focused on the wrong things. I could go on, and so could have this group.

It was a lively dialogue and, hopefully, just the beginning of an ongoing conversation among the participants. For now, kudos to the USV gang for bringing this group together. I have the impression it could be the start of something remarkable. Perhaps the full impact of our conversation yesterday will surface down the road and we'll be able to point to this session as a catalyst.


Unknown said...

Wish I was there! Sounds like an incredible group.

fred said...

thanks for coming scott and thanks for such a great post summing up the day

The Green Skeptic said...

For more on Hacking Philanthropy, see the USV blog: http://www.unionsquareventures.com/2007/09/union_square_se_2.html

and Fred Wilson's A VC Blog: http://avc.blogs.com/a_vc/2007/09/hacking-philant.html