Wednesday, January 31, 2007

For the Gates of art museums, 2006 was no fun at all

The J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles just had the kind of year that could cripple a smaller non-profit; as the richest art institution on the planet they certainly have the resources to stabilize things but do they have the will? They've hired a guy from my hometown of Chicago to take over the captain's chair and find out.

The Getty consists of two large museums and a large grantmaking foundation, all devoted to visual art; their endowment alone currently stands at about $6 billion and a lot of the artwork in those museums is literally priceless (never mind the prime real estate). Early in 2006 Barry Munitz resigned as head of all that, under a large public cloud of accusations about lavish personal spending of Getty funds, steering grants to friends, and excessive pay while ordering budget cuts. The apparent lack of effective governance had caused the Council on Foundations to take the highly-unusual (and highly public) step of suspending the Getty's membership, which they restored a couple months after Munitz was forced out and the Getty board adopted various internal reforms. Several other top Getty staffers also resigned during the first half of 2006.

Meanwhile the Getty is having all sorts of problems with the issue of looted antiquities, mainly from Italy and Greece. It's fairly clear that well into the 20th century a lot of sculpture from the ancient world was ending up in major museums via, let us say, 18th- or 19th-century methods.
After years of pressure, the Getty Museum during 2006 agreed to return four major pieces to Greece and in October 2006 agreed to return 26 pieces to Italy. The Italian government, though, isn't interested in settling for half a loaf and is prosecuting a former Getty curator in Rome for criminal theft of national treasures; some newspaper reports say that the Greek government is contemplating similar pressure. For the Italians the fate of two of the Getty's best-known items, the well-known ancient statue of Aphrodite and the so-called "Getty Bronze", have apparently become deal-breakers.

The current director of the Getty Museum, Michael Brand, has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal claiming that the Italian government has gone back on an agreement and now won't even talk to him. Whether his version of those events is right or not seems to miss the real point, which is that those nations and others are no longer willing to accept the status quo of priceless indigenous works of art being kept on display halfway around the world just because they were dug up when no one was looking. Perhaps at some point the Getty board will realize that these issues are not going away and will just keep damaging the institution's reputation, and that the Getty has the resources to rebuild from the loss of even content of that caliber.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The "Slate 60" sounds off

Ten years ago, Slate editor Michael Kinsley was inspired (by something Ted Turner said in an interview) to create the "Slate 60": the philanthropy version of the Forbes 400 annual list of America's richest people. Arguably Kinsley was a bit ahead of his time in 1996, which was before Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Gordon Moore started famously taking turns doing modern-day Andrew Carnegie impersonations. (For that matter so was Turner, who has a right to feel like he was doing billionaire philanthropy before it was cool.)

Anyway it was a good idea and the ten years worth of lists make for interesting reading; one can see things like the sources of vast new personal fortunes, what subjects and institutions have the attention of the super-rich, and of course the unprecedented new scale of individual philanthropy. (Despite personal wealth in the U.S. being vastly less concentrated today than in Carnegie's time Bill Gates has already given away in real dollars several times as much as either Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller did; and yet all the giving for a year by the entire Slate 60 is a small fraction of total American individual giving which is closing in on $300 billion per year.)

This past November, Slate gathered members of the Slate 60 from its first ten years for a public conversation. I like the NonProfit Times writeup which is both thorough and just a bit cheeky ("With their limos waiting outside, donors gathered at the conference to discuss..." Those would be hybrid limos staffed by salaried drivers receiving family health insurance, I trust?). For example their reporter quoted Bill Gates Sr. scoffing at the dot-commers' notion that philanthropy only just this second became entrepeneurial (he has a point in a generalized sense of that word, not so much if the narrow fiduciary sense of it is meant).

The Chronicle of Philanthropy writeup is drier, though probably does a better job of getting across the key messages of a couple of people like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Slate meanwhile posted video and audio from the conference itself. (The conference also included prominent philanthropists who haven't personally made the Slate 60, such as Bono.)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More direct giving services, and some caveats

In addition to DonorsChoose which I wrote about on Wednesday, there are at least a couple other examples of new organizations using the web to let donors choose exactly what project their small checks go to.

Modest Needs does the same thing with individual families that DonorsChoose does with teachers or students: families describe their immediate needs and donors pick and choose. The mission aim is what used to be called the "working poor" as well as folks with specific disabilities, so the lead goal expressed is "to prevent otherwise financially self-sufficient individuals and families from entering the cycle of poverty."

(I wonder though if Modest Needs doesn't actually demonstrate the limitations of this philanthropic is a well-meaning individual donor supposed to tell which requests are truly authentic? Which donees are truly "willing to work but temporarily unable to do so"? The value-added of trained professional staffs to vet and prioritize needs might become more apparent to a donor who's tried Modest Needs.)

And then MissionFish is enabling charitable impulses on the part of eBay sellers. The challenge here might be how complex the process inherently is -- a program that requires a large flow chart to explain itself seems relatively unlikely to really catch on.

So neither of these two seems as likely to gain traction as DonorsChoose, for different reasons.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

University endowments are kicking the market's butt

News coverage of an annual report on U.S. university endowments (released this week) has tended to focus on either the gaudy totals, or the related news that Princeton has decided to freeze its tuition for a year. (It turns out that while a few other endowments are larger in total, Princeton has the most endowment dollars per student.)

The Economist wants to know how American universities are managing to invest better than even hot-shot hedge-fund managers? That's not a new or unusual outcome, apparently, and the schools aren't paying successful investment managers the same level of wild salaries and bonuses that for-profit firms do. (Though a few universities do pay their investment chiefs a lot more than their professors or even presidents, which has caused some public controversies that have in turn chased away some managers.)

The Economist thinks that the big university endowments represent "capitol [that] is extremely patient....unlike pension funds, they do not have to fret about matching assets with liabilities. This means endowments can tolerate lots of volatility, which in turn allows them to make, and stick to, contrarian bets....Perhaps they can stay solvent longer than the market can stay irrational." Hence "America's endowments were among the first to look beyond the staid mix of domestic equities, bonds and cash. The idea they helped develop in the 1970s and 1980s—deemed eccentric at the time—was to break the portfolio into a mix of standard and “alternative” assets, as uncorrelated with each other as possible so as to spread risk. This strategy is sometimes referred to as “portable alpha”. Their early moves into hedge funds, venture capital, private equity, property, distressed debt and the like brought outsized profits...."

University investment managers may also have identified a couple of interesting competitive advantages: " “Whereas pension trustees are naturally risk-averse, universities are all about innovating, financially as well as intellectually,” says James Walsh, who runs Cornell's $5 billion endowment. Investment constraints are kept to a minimum. Alumni with Wall Street experience are encouraged not only to donate money but also to sit on investment committees. Many are happy to oblige. “This gives us access to minds we couldn't otherwise afford,” says Mr Walsh." "

One thing I'd like to see some data on, which would help inform the current debate about mission-related investing of foundation endowments, is how university endowment returns have been correlating with divestment decisions. The NACUBO report doesn't address that, unfortunately.

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.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Women in higher education (including science)

The presidency of Harvard is something like a symbolic top of the heap in American higher education, and so the uproar that drove Lawrence Summers out of the job last year made national headlines. The authors of a new book on women in science recently made some interesting comments about that episode in the online magazine "Inside Higher Ed".

Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, professors at Cornell, report that "some scholars felt that they could not contribute (essays to the book) because their views were scorned, and had resulted in personal attacks against them on their campuses. If you read between the lines in several of the essays, you will detect this theme even among those who did contribute essays...." In other words, the professors re-discovered what Summers arguably should have known: that even wondering something like whether the gender imbalance in higher education might not be due to discrimination is a third rail on today's campuses. In a word, yecch.

Much more positive was the news (to me anyway) that women have in just the last decade or two become drastically more prominent at the top levels in higher education. Three Ivy League universities now have female presidents (Brown, Penn and Princeton) as do plenty of other well-known schools (hundreds of four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., according to one study). Actually Harvard's world-famous law school is now led by a woman (who is, according to the New York Times, on the short list for the university's top job). One might see progress, of a sort, in things like the female president of the University of New Hampshire being headhunted away by Temple, or the female president of the University of Colorado getting hounded from her job partly for being tonedeaf in much the same way Summers was (on a different topic). No glass ceiling here, for good and ill. (Including the ultimately tragic story of the chancellor of the University of California.)

I also did not know that women are now earning more than half of all bachelor's degrees, 43% of all master's degrees and more than a third of all doctorates in science and engineering in the U.S. If those trend lines continue up (the doctorate fraction has almost quintupled since 1966) then obviously that will filter up through academia (it's already led to sharp increases in the percentage of women employed in various scientific and engineering fields, in some cases to more than half.)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

More on foundation investment practices

The Wall Street Journal followed up yesterday with a small article about foundations which clarified for me that there are really three basic choices for foundations, not two as the L.A. Times portrayed it. (You can't read the Journal article unless you're a subscriber but a Chronicle of Philanthropy note on it is here, and Philanthropy 2173 has links to all the foundations mentioned in it.)

(If you're interested in this subject, go take Lucy Bernholz's online poll found on the right at the Philanthropy 2173 link above.)

The L.A. Times articles about the Gates Foundation talked about either letting mission-related issues influence decisions about buying stock, or deciding that getting the highest returns is all that matters. That's basically the same as the debate about whether Western nations should keep China at arm's length until it improves its human-rights practices, or have normal diplomatic relations so as to encourage change. (When I was in college the topical subject of that foreign-policy debate was South Africa.)

Buying stock in a corporation, though, is different: it's ownership. You get to actually vote on the policies of the thing you own part of, and to speak out loud at annual meetings where the management and all the other owners have to listen to you. Indeed if enough other owners feel the same way that you do about an issue like corporate practices, the company must follow your wishes. That's a whole different caliber of influence than any nation, even the U.S., gets by trading with China -- the U.S. State Department obviously does not get to speak, let alone vote, as a member of the Chinese Politburo or even the country's toothless parliament.

Upon reflection that's the path which seems to me to best leverage the latent power for change of big investment portfolios. So that's why I voted for option 4 on the online poll mentioned above. (I notice that the poll stacks the deck in its structure -- it lists three different flavors of the first strategic option and then just one version of the other two -- so there's little chance that anything but a version of "mission imperatives should change investment choices" will win.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A constitutional right to federal grants?

Public-health and human-services groups have celebrated two federal court rulings overturning a string that Congress placed onto federal grants for overseas work to combat HIV/AIDS, and a broad coalition is now working to defeat the Bush Administration's appeal. On the specific issue at hand I'm totally with them, but at another level this makes me uneasy.

A US law enacted in 2003 requires nongovernmental organizations to pledge their opposition to prostitution as a condition of receiving funds for international anti-AIDS work. The issue is that non-profits doing such work feel they must work with sex workers and that in order to gain trust they have to refrain from trying to talk folks out of being prostitutes. That's a policy-tactics choice which I'm fine with but a lot of folks in the U.S. Congress aren't, hence the idea of requiring signing that pledge in order to get federal funding.

The pledge, it's worth noting, does not stop anyone from working with prostitutes nor require anyone to specifically try to stop them from plying that trade, and United Nations-affiliated programs were specifically exempted from it. You can read it for yourself here in one of the court decisions, see page 12. Actually the feds' interpretation of the pledge, according the court ruling, has been more that it would prevent a group from advocating the legalization of prostitution.

Regardless, the plaintiffs successfully turned this into a free-speech issue; the government's counterargument is that it's just a contract issue (there's no constitutional right to a grant and anyone not wanting to sign the pledge can just decline to accept one on those terms). It turns out that the Supreme Court has previously concluded that when the federal government is the funder, speech-inhibiting grant requirements have a big enough impact that they can constitute an unreasonable infringement of the First Amendment right to free speech. (See the page of that court document numbered 56.) As one of the federal judges put it, “The Supreme Court has repeatedly found that speech, or an agreement not to speak, cannot be compelled or coerced as a condition of participation in a government program.”

That was news to me but as stated it sounds like the government can't require somebody to sign a loyalty oath as a condition of receiving an entitlement, like a Social Security check. An interpretation that it means the government can't place conditions on a discretionary optional it just me or does that slope sound rather slippery? Can't we imagine scenarios where such a right to federal grant money could lead to funding going to groups carrying out far-less-positive agendas? Is that really what the Supreme Court meant?

And do we really want corporations (albeit in this case not-for-profit ones) to be able to assert inalienable rights just like an individual person? I thought Teddy Roosevelt settled that point a while back in the negative and I've always been glad he did. I dunno, could be I'm just exposing my ignorance of constitutional law and theory, but...really not sure the forest isn't being lost for the sake of a tree here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Oprah's $40 million African school

There's been lots of commentary recently on Oprah Winfrey's funding of a $40 million prep school for girls in South Africa, in both the media and online. And online, and online, and's hard to decide how to feel about what she's done, on balance. For example buried deep in most media coverage was her comment about American inner-city kids, she basically did a Cosby on them by way of explanation for building her school overseas rather than here. Was that fair? Accurate? Smart? I dunno.

Easily the most-interesting and most inspirational blog post I've seen in this context comes courtesy of a pointer from Harold Henderson ("World's First Blogger"). Cal Skinner, a former Republican state legislator in Illinois, posted a long well-illustrated account of school-building by an American Christian non-profit called RISE International. I'm not a member of their congregation either literally or politically but that's got nothing to do with forming an opinion about what they're doing and how they're doing it, as I bet a lot of desparately-poor folks in Angola would agree.

Monday, January 15, 2007

A thoughtful response from Gates

Thanks to reader Greg for a tip that the Gates Foundation has replaced the online announcement that replies to the L.A. Times articles. The new essay, still signed by Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Scott, is quite different from the one that was online for only half a day last week though it does still make the good point that Gates has been completely transparent about its investing.

The new essay makes a point of stating that "Bill and Melinda oversee the investment of the foundation's endowment", so it does look like they were annoyed that the previous posting and Scott's newspaper interview made it sound otherwise. It says that they give "guidance" to professional investment managers, which every non-profit watchdog would agree is the appropriate approach for a foundation board.

Perhaps the most-important substantive message of the new essay is that the Gates Foundation is not in the camp that says a foundation should seek only to maximize returns with its endowment. Rather, their reason for mostly declining to rank companies on moral grounds is the real-life complexity and contradictions inherent in that concept. "There are dozens of factors that could be considered...Many of the companies mentioned in the Los Angeles Times articles do a lot of work that some people like, as well as work some people do not like. Some activities might even be viewed positively by some people and negatively by others." They also note that some of the issues which the newspaper brought up as reasons not to invest in a company, such as lending laws or environmental regulation, are outside the foundation's charitable mission.

On the shareholder activism question they basically vote for reserving proxy voting for issues directly related to a company's carrying out its core mission, i.e. good management of the company itself. And they do note the one specific subject on which Bill and Melinda have thus far decided that the issues are clear-cut enough to decide not to invest at all: tobacco.

I don't personally agree with all of the above decisions but also don't find any of them to be out of the bounds of what reasonable people of good will might conclude. It does sound like the newspaper articles have provoked renewed focus on the subject over there, and that the Gates folks understand that its unique status in philanthropy inherently places some special obligations on them.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Are symphonies doomed?

I've noted here that some folks in the classical-music world think that the ongoing struggles of a lot of professional symphonies and opera companies are solveable, perhaps by looking harder at the field's conventional wisdom, but it's worth noting at least one expert in the field who thinks otherwise. Former Wall Street Journal music critic Greg Sandow, himself a trained singer and composer who is married to a New York Times critic, thinks that "reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over."

After a reader responded by noting the outstanding online sales results for classical pieces, Sandow replied that sales of recordings can't support the costs of producing the music. For me that reveals some shortsightedness in his thinking, but anyway some readers more knowledgeable than I posted some interesting thoughtful responses on that blog linked above. I learned of Sandow's writing from the Artful Manager, which I can't recommend highly enough to anyone with an interest in today's arts world.

Meanwhile I came across a couple of fun news items about innovation and creativity in the world of opera. The Metropolitan Opera in New York is doing some cool stuff like a free live simulcast of its opening night outdoors at the Lincoln Center. And in San Diego there are now several restaurants regularly holding opera open-mic nights which I'm guessing could be either fun or dreadful for patrons on any given night...but regardless it also seems like a good sign of grass-roots vitality for the art form.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Gates Fnd: she maybe shouldn't have said that out loud

It may be that Gates Foundation COO Cheryl Scott is in hot water today, and the reason can be read between the lines of today's news coverage.

The L.A. Times today has a followup article which is obviously based on that press release that appeared and then disappeared from the foundation website yesterday. The newspaper is spinning that announcement as being about the foundation newly reconsidering its investment practices in reaction to their articles. I didn't get that from what they had posted, particularly, but since I still can't find a copy I'm not sure. They secondhand-quote Scott saying that such internal discussion was already underway long before the recent articles, which is completely plausible to anyone working in major foundations because it's not at all a new subject in that world.

Nobody at Gates is talking to the L.A. Times but Scott on Tuesday did talk to their hometown paper, the Seattle Times. To them she said on the record that the foundation's current method of investing its assets is "not 100 percent effective," and she did apparently say to that paper that the foundation will now newly review its investment practices. She had also in that press release written that the foundation would "formalize the process by which Bill and Melinda Gates analyze and review these issues."

That last part may be what ticked off one or more people named Gates. In effect Scott told the world that Bill and Melinda, personally, have not been paying much attention to or thought about the issue of where the foundation invests its huge endowment. Whether that is or isn't a fair characterization I dunno, but I can hazard a guess as to how well it was received by a guy who quit college at age 20 and built from scratch a huge global business and fortune.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Moore learned something, and Gates is being silly

I sat down this evening to write some complimentary things about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation based on an "announcement" from the Chief Operating Officer that was posted on their website a few hours ago. Cheryl Scott made, I thought, some good counterpoints to the nasty L.A. Times articles as well as pointing out how notably transparent the foundation is with both its grantmaking and its investing, which is true and they deserve credit for. Broadly Scott pointed out that choosing pure investments is a lot harder in practice than it seems to people who've never tried to do it, which I have no doubt is true, but I won't try to re-create her words. That doesn't make the issue of investing being aligned with mission go away, nor did Scott suggest that it does.

But now that reply has vanished from their website, gone without a trace. I can't find any cached copies of it online either, wish I'd thought to save it -- if anyone sees a copy, a pointer would be welcome here. This was, earlier today, the URL.

I suppose some public relations expert convinced somebody atop that food chain that any public response to the slanted newspaper articles simply dignifies the latter, or maybe somebody whose last name starts with a G didn't like what Scott said? If so then I think they're wrong but it's their party and they can cry if they want to. Seems a shame though, why not be the adults in contrast to the L.A. Times' adolescent cheap shots?

Regardless of that, I spent some time on their website and confirmed that they are more overtly transparent than almost any other foundation around. They not only have their entire list of grants on the web (which a fair number of foundations are now doing including the one I work for) with annual summary statistics, plus all the basic financials (ditto), they also put their full detailed tax return with all schedules up there -- meaning the complete list of their endowment investments. Which in their case is literally thousands of pages (big PDF files) and not a quick or easy read, but the point is, it's there in full. That's a standard of transparency everyone in this sector should aspire to.

Down the West Coast a ways, fellow dot-com billionaire Gordon Moore has by his own admission had some humbling experiences with his big new foundation. Like Warren Buffett and many others he has learned firsthand that doing philanthropy well is not nearly as easy as successful businessfolk often assume, and he says he's found religion with regard to transparency. Benefit Magazine's writeup is fairly long but worth the read.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Gates learns that being a poster child cuts both ways

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has just been placed squarely in the bulls-eye of what has been a quietly-growing debate in the foundations world about mission-related investing of those big endowments. It's the same set of choices that hit home a while back for universities: is the highest investment duty to maximize returns and hence resources for the non-profit mission, or to accept lower returns (or higher risk) in exchange for the investing itself advancing the mission? Or at least not actively violating it?

The two long articles linked above appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times yesterday and today and are being picked up far and wide by newspapers owned by their parent Tribune Company. Many readers will be appalled to learn how many examples there are of Gates money going into stock of companies which are helping cause the very problems that the foundation is attempting to ameliorate with grants.

I have little doubt that most of the specific facts as presented are correct, and I'm not one of those who thinks that trying to balance investment success and mission purity has to mean "doing neither of them well." However the lead human-interest example of the second story is oddly unconvincing (a middle-class couple who got ripped off by a fast-talking mortgage salesman because they couldn't be bothered to read the loan documents they signed). And the newspaper committed several fairness and logic violations.

For example it is obviously just sensationalism to repeatedly list the Gates Foundation's asset value as $67 billion with a footnote that this figure includes the future expected Warren Buffett contributions (whereas the other endowments they compare Gates to are listed at present value). They mix and match examples which are obviously not comparable on merit. Also when rattling off horrible-sounding corporate behavior that Gates money has helped enable they seem to have completely lost track of that pesky distinction between being charged and being convicted (which some musty historical document or other mentions in passing right before some silliness about freedom of the press).

But for all that the core issue is real and foundations need to deal with it. And being by far the biggest such venture in world history, whatever its correct endowment total right now, means that Gates can't just ignore this kind of question. Hopefully someone who has their ear is explaining that right now to Bill, Melinda and Warren.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Fundraising in the buff addendum

OK so the volunteers-posing-almost-nude-for-the-fundraising-calendar thing is officially no longer just a big-city concept, if it ever was. In fact for at least one photographer it's a specialty. In fact now there's a website (naturally) tracking the whole trend. This is either a fun example of the grass-roots dynamism of today's non-profit sector or one more sign of the West's slide into decadent indolence. Your call.

"Men of Mortuaries"? Gah, if you keep the website photo on your screen their shirts melt away. No I'm not kidding, wish I was....In Wisconsin people got naked with their family dogs to raise money for the local animal shelter. Ah but the cat people are in on it too.

In Louisville it's local restaurant chefs (thankfully that guy posed with a trout in his lap not a perch). For breast-cancer research this idea has perhaps already become a cliche. The U.K. apparently has enough "lady jockeys" to fill a whole year. And they have un-shy farmers too. A local Lion's Club, sure why not. But Rotarians?? FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE NOT THE ROTARIANS!!!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Shining a light on foundations

Transparency may be the reform theme of our time regarding the booming non-profit sector -- it keeps coming up both generally and specifically and is the primary driving impulse of new watchdog efforts like Charity Navigator. Now a well-known veteran of the institutional-philanthropy realm is focusing the transparency spotlight onto foundations.

Joel Fleishman in his about-to-be-published book argues that "although foundations play a vital role in the country's civic life, they must act quickly to mend their arrogant and secretive ways or risk increased public skepticism and government regulation....The only way for foundations to protect the freedom, creativity, and flexibility they now enjoy — and which they need if they are to serve society to their fullest potential — is to open their doors and windows to the world so that all can see what they are doing and how they are doing it."

That quote is from a Chronicle of Philanthropy article; Fleishman also did a live online chat with foundation and non-profit staff members which mostly seemed to find agreement with his thesis. It will be interesting to find out whether his prediction of agreement from industry-trade groups like the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector turns out to be correct. It does seem logical that the spate of foundation-related front-page news recently will attract or enable more attention from Capitol Hill for good or ill. (And some stories which are primarily about other issues include an element of questionable foundation practices, such as the big Princeton donor-intent lawsuit.)

Fleishman's prediction of full-on federal legislation aimed at foundations seems at least premature and I haven't found any actual political pros who expect it. But the overall direction seems clearly right; his specific ideas sound mostly sensible and if anything overdue. As Elizabeth Keating of Harvard notes when talking about non-profit overhead reporting, broadly the concepts on the table amount to simply requiring of tax-exempt entities the same sort of transparency which is the price of forming a legal for-profit corporation in this country.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

addendum on massive archives

Turns out that the Internet Archive and like-minded groups, including at least one major foundation, see Google's book-scanning project as dangerous and hope to match it in a more-public, not-for-profit form. That Associated Press article does a good job of summing up the disagreement and the various parties' motivations.

P.S. I note that the "Open Content Alliance" includes Google competitors Yahoo and MSN (i.e. Microsoft) as well as Adobe. So it has an element of alliance of convenience, though mostly it's major universities and libraries.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Information Age nonprofits

We may soon need to add a new entry to the standard categories of not-for-profit organization (arts, social service, education, environment, religious, museums, etc.), one which this era's defining technology is enabling: non-profits devoted to exhaustively and permanently recording information and making available universal searching of it by anyone. Or as one group's mission statement puts it, "Universal access to human knowledge."

The key impulses distinguishing these efforts from libraries and history museums would be the "exhaustive" part and the "practicable searching" part -- maybe the category name would be something like "macro archive"? (Yecch, maybe not.) History museums do not attempt to house every single iota of information from an era no matter how trivial; and even in the greatest most comprehensive library in the world you can't easily search within all the texts it holds.

One obvious example is Wikipedia. Another is the Internet Archive, which recently got some press (2,300 storage servers and growing!). Project Gutenberg was an early significant step in this direction and remains a growing and vital resource. A targeted non-profit application of the impulse is the Mormons' vast and growing archive of family-tree information (which I can attest from personal experience is truly offered free to one and all without any questions about religious affiliation or intention).

Google's controversial archiving project represents the same impulse but in a for-profit form, as does Bill Gates' photos company called Corbis. Actually Google has for several years been making freely available a narrow but deep slice of the Internet Archive's turf, a complete searchable archive of "newsgroups", which were the dominant online forums for years before the World Wide Web became the Internet's front end (use their "advanced groups search" link.)

There may be more such efforts underway or in the works, these are just the ones I've noticed.