“What you are will show in what you do.” —Thomas Edison
When I think of innovation, three definitions come to mind. First, the introduction of something new (Merriam Webster); second, the process of renewing something that already exists (from the Latin innovare); and third, new ways of thinking about or carrying out existing processes or activities. All three could be applied to today’s philanthropic landscape.
In the past decade, we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of innovation taking place in philanthropy. Thousands of new organizations, ideas, approaches, and giving models have been created. New ways of doing things have evolved and existing processes have been re-engineered—all of which can make our giving more meaningful and help us make a bigger impact. Philanthropic entrepreneurship and creativity has never been more exciting. This changes everything.
Countless, intractable social problems surround us. Globally, 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation. Nationally, one in eight Americans received emergency food assistance. And, here in California from where I write, one in four children live in poverty.
The way we are currently giving is not making a big enough dent in these problems. We give with our heart, our most powerful engine for action. However, this engine alone is not enough—it needs fuel and that fuel is innovation. We must strive to make every gift, regardless of its size or form, create the greatest possible impact. So when I talk about innovation, it’s something that should not be taking place only in the structures and systems for giving—you should be thinking about how to be innovative in your giving, too. Are you doing enough research before you make a gift? Are you considering whether your dollars are reaching the right organization?
The answer is not always obvious. Take the issue of children living in poverty. Is it more effective to give to a sponsor-a-child program or to fund the operational costs of a large nonprofit organization working to improve life for a whole community of children? Without doing some research, it’s hard to know which to choose. They may both feel good, but do they both do good?
The options for giving today are almost endless and are changing all the time. Technology innovation is driving a lot of that change. Online, you can become much more than a reactive donor—you can become a proactive, strategic, collaborative philanthropist, improving your giving every day by tapping into the wealth of philanthropic resources available at the tap of a keyboard or the click of a mouse.
Just think—five years ago, few would have considered that 140 character messages would have been able to drive awareness about the need for access to clean water in developing countries. But today, 1.3 million Twitter followers listen to what Charity: Water, a nonprofit, has to say. Three years ago, we did not live in a world where buying discount coupons could help make a difference to education. But last year Groupon invited its subscribers to purchase gift-credits to DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that pairs individual givers with public school projects. As these grants were 50 percent off (through a Pershing Square Foundation matching grant), the promotion raised over $130,000 for classroom projects across the country. Once upon a time, the ING New York Marathon might never have imagined that it could raised more than $30 million through the web. But in 2010, it raised this amount for high-impact nonprofits through its partnership with Crowdrise, an online fundraising platform based on users’ own social networks.
Importantly, none of these online philanthropic phenomena facilitate individuals giving necessarily large sums of money—these organizations are not basing their “business models” on bequests from millionaires. But what they do is foster the aggregation of small amounts of time, creativity, and money.
Going online to give is one way you can move from making isolated, one-off gifts (a scattershot approach) to being a driving force in significant collective action (raising awareness, pooling dollars, and engaging volunteers). In the new web-enabled era, some donations are even traceable, giving you the kind of accountability—with even the smallest gifts—that was once available only to very large donors.
It’s very different from the days when to give in such small amounts you had to put your dollars into the collection boxes rattled by charity fundraisers on the street—and you’d have only the vaguest idea about what would happen to your money afterwards.
You can also research the organizations you consider funding or create a giving portfolio that mirrors those of highly staffed, professional philanthropic foundations (thus not reinventing the due diligence wheel). Yes, this involves a bit of work. But shouldn’t you put the same amount of effort into your giving as you might for your for-profit investments? After all, philanthropy is an investment, and one in which lives¬–not profits–are at stake.
Here are five things to try out in the next week:
Take $100 (or a dollar amount that works in your budget) and create your own online giving portfolio.
Try investing at least 10 percent of your annual giving resources into specific giving “products” (such as funding books for a classroom in New Orleans) whose results you could measure (check out Jolkona Foundation or DonorsChoose.org).
Commit an hour this weekend to learning about a social issue by doing some online research.
Try using your social network (such as through a Crowdrise campaign, a Facebook status update or Twitter account) to educate yourself, build awareness, and fundraise for your favorite cause.
If you live on your iPhone or Blackberry, find a way to incorporate your giving life (donations, research, tracking, and so on) into your mobile life.
Everyone has the power to try out new models, explore new opportunities, and apply entrepreneurial thinking to what they do philanthropically—whether through technology or otherwise. By discovering different, better ways of giving and melding those with traditional best practices, you’ll get greater satisfaction from your giving because you’ll discover how to amplify your impact.
Being innovative in your philanthropy allows you to stride forward in your giving journey; you can marry your mind and heart to turn charity into lasting impact; and you can become more ambitious in your giving. Learn from what you see around you; borrow, and adapt everything, and your giving will become a dynamic, living entity—something that’s constantly growing and evolving, and critically, something that’s doing much more to transform people’s lives for the better.