Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The long tail of philanthropy is called

My hometown newspaper recently put on its front page, because for no obvious reason Chicago is the young organization's biggest market thus far. It belatedly occurs to me that we may all one day look back and see that DonorsChoose is to the staffed non-profit organizations as Napster was to the record labels: the specific vanguard of technology empowering customer demand that had until now been kept bottled up. In other words, the long tail phenomenon.

DonorsChoose is a service that matches up individual public-school needs (of a student or of a teacher) with individual donors. Charitably-minded individuals browse the site and if a specific need catches their eye they can donate to it right then. Students and teachers and principals post their unmet needs or projects at no cost; DonorsChoose is basically just being a highly-efficient middleman like eBay. That skips the whole vetting and sorting service for donors that is now provided by professional staffs of large non-profits and of foundations.

Whether that is overall a good or bad thing will quickly resemble the debate over whether citizens seeking news are better served with or without the sorting and ranking service provided by newspaper editors. At a minimum technology empowering such direct donor control might represent a new level of competition for the empowered donor's dollar which, frankly, a good number of current non-profits are not prepared for. On balance I'm all for this but anyone who doesn't think it could get real messy along the way might want to go talk to those record labels whose CD sales have crashed, or the Napster guys who they sued from here to eternity rather than figure out how to evolve their companies' business models to meet what their customer actually wanted.


Harold Henderson said...

Thanks, Paul. This is why I should read even more blogs -- my eye slid right over that story in the paper, and I'm not sure I would have grasped the interesting and unsettling implications in any case.

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