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Upsetting the Foundation Apple Cart


Guest Post: Larry Blumenthal

This is another in a series of blog entries being posted from the Communications Network Annual Conference in Los Angeles.

A member of the audience posed an interesting question to Lucy Bernholz near the end of a session at the Communications Network annual meeting.

Will the use of crowd sourcing by foundations upset the existing power structure?

The question referred to the earlier presentation by James Surowiecki. Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, argues that under the right conditions the intelligence of a large group will almost always trump the smarts of any individual in the group. It is an argument that naturally pushes foundations toward finding ways to open their processes to broader input—early and more often. A challenge that turns much of the typical closed foundation grantmaking process on its head.

Bernholz, president of Blueprint Research and Design and author of the Philanthropy 2173 blog, offered an interesting answer. Yes, she said, this will upset the existing power structure, but only if the people doing the crowd sourcing actually listen to the crowd and act on what they hear. A wonderful point.

All social media tools, whether it be Twitter, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, forums, online communities, idea competitions or some other form, are aimed at creating a community of people with a shared interest who learn from each other. They are most effective when used for that purpose.

“It is a conversation,” Bernholz says.

Social media requires a shift in approach from broadcasting (your organization telling the world about itself) to conversation (your organization joining in the discussion and giving as much as it gets back.) Much of the power of Twitter comes from the ability to listen and pose questions. The power of blogs comes from the ability to get people talking about a topic. Facebook is about strengthening networks by keeping people informed and inviting them to join the discussion. Online communities thrive when the people work together and learn from each other. And so on.

Conversation means you spend at least half of the time listening. If foundations spend more time in conversation and listening to the wisdom of others working on the same issues, that may upset the current decision-making process, as Bernholz says. But if that leads to more informed decisions and program work that is more on target and relevant, then that doesn’t seem like such a bad path.

Larry Blumenthal is Web and Social Media Strategist, Open Road Advisors

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