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Community Foundations on the Cusp of a Revolution

Last week I spent several days in Columbus, Ohio, at the DonorEdge 2.0 conference. You can find out more about the conference here. DonorEdge is a partnership between GuideStar and a growing number of community foundations committed to the proposition that, armed with better data and tools, donors will make better decisions and nonprofits will be more effective and efficient. Laura McKnight from the Greater Kansas City Foundation blogged about the conference, and we have more information on DonorEdge on the GuideStar site.

Community foundations find themselves at an interesting inflection point. Their model is in flux, and what worked in an earlier era of philanthropy is not working as well today. In his introductory comments, Columbus Foundation president Doug Kridler said foundations need to speed up the transformation of their roles and business models. He likened the community foundation situation to the old question about railroads: are we about trains or transportation?

Members of the DonorEdge community don’t seem to be waiting for the picture to clear but are pushing ahead, harnessing technology to help create new business models that rely on cutting-edge technology to connect with people in new ways. Kridler and his DonorEdge colleagues see themselves as being at the hub of their communities, both literally and virtually—acting as the connectors between a variety of professional and individual donors and the needs and interests of their nonprofit communities. More like a “community knowledge specialist.”

I like the fact that community foundations get to see and touch donors up close in practical ways, often managing hundreds of donor-advised funds, as well as working with most of the private foundations in their communities. So much talk today is theoretical about the “needs of the donor.” Community foundations actually meet with them and learn about what they need. Now they are using DonorEdge as a platform to create an interactive giving and research tool. In several discussions, Mark Brewer, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Central Florida, shared how he and his colleagues are using DonorEdge to transform the foundation’s work, in part because of fascinating research he has done in understanding how different generations are donating to charity differently and how they are using technology in different ways.

Lucy Bernholz gave a provocative opening speech at the conference that worked neatly to remind the community foundations about what it takes to be successful connectors. You can read her comments on the conference here and see her presentation here. She reminded us that connecting to others really can’t happen unless we pay attention to the individual links that create our communities:

  • Demographics matter
  • Groups matter
  • Ownership matters
  • Mobility matters
  • Forms matter
  • Markets matter
  • Alignment matters

I liked her recent blog on “ecosystems” even more. She predicts that the “landscape for philanthropic giving—the structures and tools that donors use to organize, aggregate, learn, give, and bank (literally) their philanthropic financial resources will change yet again.” I think she’s right. Which is why I plan to spend a lot of my time with the presidents of the community foundations. They are leaders in helping to create the next model.

P.S. There was one amusing moment at the conference. Matthew Bishop, co-author of Philanthrocapitalism and New York bureau chief for the Economist, was talking about his book and the growing trend for more data on which to make decisions. “Just last week in London,” he said, “the president of GuideStar said the charity ratings offered by his organization are invalid and harmful to the sector.” There was an uneasy silence in the room until Doug Kridler, president of the Columbus Community Foundation, blurted out, “Did you mean to say Charity Navigator?” A blushing Bishop admitted that was what he had meant. Afterwards, I had a chance to introduce myself and we have agreed to get together soon. I hope I can convince him to do a guest blog for us.

Topics: Events