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Online Conversations Help Promote “Information Marketplace” Idea

It’s a concern every foundation faces: How do we ensure that our report or study gets the attention it deserves, generates useful conversation, and helps advance the featured issue or cause?

That was certainly the question for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as it prepared to release The Non-Profit Marketplace: Bridging the Information Gap in Philanthropy, a report that advocates for a “marketplace of information” as a way to promote more effective charitable giving.

In an effort to spark an honest conversation about the issues and recommendations of the report, the foundation launched an online forum and began inviting people to post comments and reactions to the report.

Today anyone can visit the website to download the report and join in the conversation. People are free to comment on, criticize or share their perspectives on the report’s findings and recommendations.

In addition to generating interest and discussion, “it was important to have our process reflect the system (for philanthropy) that we sought – one that is much more open and transparent,” said program officer Jacob Harold, who wrote the report along with Hewlett CEO Paul Brest and McKinsey & Company’s Maisie O’Flanagan.

An online forum was a strong fit with the project’s goals, said Eric Brown, communications director.

“The whole idea of the Philanthropy Program [at Hewlett] is to get people to work together to improve philanthropy,”  Brown said.  “We have to open this up… We want to know what people think.”

To Harold and Brown, the online forum is a useful and convenient way to bring people together from across the philanthropic spectrum so they can engage in conversations about how to “build a system that works better for all players–nonprofits, individual donors, banks, search engines, advisors, software firms, and foundations.”

So far, the discussion so far has been “sophisticated” and “very thoughtful,” said Harold. It has featured commentary from people such as Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Blueprint Research and Design’s Lucy Bernholtz, who also writes the Philanthropy 2173 blog, and Sean Stannard-Stockton, a philanthropy advisor, columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and who writes the Tactical Philanthropy blog.

The conversations online have been a mix of ones started by Hewlett and ones by forum members. A thread seeking general feedback sparked a conversation about the limits of comparing nonprofit marketplaces to for-profit ones, and in return, Harold offered the metaphor of a farmer’s market for the nonprofit marketplace: “simple infrastructure, honest conversation, open information.”

In another thread, a participant questioned data about the concentrations of revenues in the hands of a tiny number of nonprofits, and, after reviewing it and a discussion as to how the number was calculated, Hewlett revised its statistics.

For the most part, the online conversation is focused on the two key questions at the heart of the The Non-Profit Marketplace report:

  • What do donors need to make smart decisions about giving?
  • How can the philanthropic world ensure that the strongest, most effective nonprofits get the resources they need?

Hewlett considered a variety of options for generating conversation and attracting attention for the report – including creating a wiki or starting a blog – before deciding on the online forums.

This approach “struck the right balance,” said Harold. It allows the foundation to proactively promote its point of view while also creating opportunities “to learn from other voices.”

Hewlett used a multi-stage strategy to roll-out its report and begin discussions.

In the first phase, before Hewlett made the report public, it invited grantees, partners and friends – people the foundation works with and knows well – to read the study and leave findings on the forum. This allowed critical stakeholders to weigh in on the report’s findings, and recommendations and to serve as an early sounding board that provided the foundation some idea of how others might react once it was fully distributed.

“We reached out to smart people who’d have something to say,” Brown said. “It  doesn’t do us any good if they don’t tell us the truth.”

In subsequent phases, the foundation released the report to a larger circle of people working in philanthropy, the general public, and then the  business community.

Both Brown and Harold note that the forum has reached people Hewlett would not have initially thought to target with their outreach.

Among the measures the foundation is using to evaluate the effectiveness of its dissemination effort are these:

  • Number of comments
  • Affiliation of the participants (were commentators speaking for themselves or on behalf of an organization or institution?)
  • Percent of comments that reflect the language and framework identified in the report

Brown and Harold’s advice for others seeking to start a conversation tied to the the release of a report is to line up people who are willing to take part from the start.

They also say it’s important to make sure grantees feel they can comment truthfully, knowing their comments are being heard by the funders. To do so, organizations need to post the constructive criticism they get, providing an example of welcoming feedback, Brown said.

Brown also encourages communications staff to consider online forums, which can be low-cost, fast and “not difficult” to implement (in Hewlett’s case, around four weeks to plan the strategy and a few days to launch the forum).
Trying to get feedback is worth the effort, even if it doesn’t always succeed.

“Foundations should be willing to try things like this, but it does require that you have some level of confidence,” Brown said. “It requires that you don’t mind if might not be 100 percent complimentary.”

–Emily Culbertson


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