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A Few Things I Learned On My Great Cross-Country Adventure


When I first heard the suggestion I was skeptical.

My oldest son, Patrick, interned this summer at eBay and PayPal – both headquartered in San Jose – and when he first proposed that I drive home with him cross country to Washington D.C., all I could think about was all those miserable five hour cross-country plane rides. Why would someone voluntarily subject themselves to a six-day trip? But as we began to talk about sharing geography and history, experiencing food adventures, and having the opportunity to visit GuideStar’s community foundation partners in cities across the country, I was reminded of Paul Theroux’s advice to focus on the journey and not the destination, and so off we went.

It turned out to be one of the best things I did all summer and I would highly recommend doing it – at least once – if you can. We live in a big, amazing, incredibly diverse country and you really can’t appreciate it until you experience it. A few things I learned:

First, community foundations are interesting, creative, distinctive, and intensely local. In the course of the week I visited three of them.

• The Oklahoma City Community Foundation is housed in an interesting building in an up-and-coming arts and creative neighborhood, not too far from the sobering Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

Their primary business focus is on managing thousands of nonprofit and donor endowments. For donors, they administer a variety of funds including scholarships, advised funds and endowments, as well as unrestricted funds established by donors. Having now become the “endowment hub” for their community, they are considering whether our DonorEdge platform can help them become the “information hub.”

• The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis houses and maintains more than 950 charitable funds and makes nearly 6,400 grants annually to 1,600 charitable organizations. They frequently convene members of their community to address major issues, and they are exploring whether DonorEdge can help them become the knowledge center as well.

Thanks to local resident and friend Leo Arnoult, who I’ve gotten to know through the Giving Institute, of which I was previously a board member, we made sure to visit the local legend Rendezvous for their exceptional “dry ribs.”

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has been an active member of our DonorEdge Learning Community for many years and is doing an amazing job collecting data from the nonprofits in their community and sharing this data with others. More than 25 foundations in the greater Nashville area now rely on this data for their nonprofit work, thereby leveraging the power of data sharing and greatly reducing the amount of work for nonprofits.

Thanks to a DonorEdge community learning conference a few years ago, I was introduced to the amazing music scene in downtown Nashville and couldn’t wait to get back.

My second lesson had me thinking about the future of philanthropy. Although the trip helped me appreciate the different cities and geography of America, it also made me realize at the same time how connected we are today and how the digital world is changing what we do and how we do it. Consider these:

• I read the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post every day, but all on my iPad. I didn’t touch a newspaper the entire week.

• My son listened to music nearly non-stop, but never on radio. As a person who spent a good part of his career in radio, this saddened me since there is nothing like local radio for getting a flavor of a community, but truth be told, there wasn’t much good to listen to when I did squeeze in a few minutes of radio listening other than the news from National Public Radio.

• We relied entirely on, Trip Advisor and Yelp for our food selections and we never went wrong. They were all great – and all very local. This is a prime example of how good information, from experts and consumers alike, can help us all make informed decisions – about anything.

• I used TripIt so my assistant no longer needed to cut and paste and photocopy information. My trusty computer and iPad gave me all the information I needed to keep on being productive.

• I did not use any cash the entire trip.

None of these observations are particularly surprising, I realize. You probably do the same thing every day too, and you didn’t need to take a big trip to learn that. What I find interesting, though, is how much the Internet has transformed our lives in every way but how little has changed in the world of philanthropy and charitable giving. The digital transformation has taken hold of every facet of life, and it’s absolutely integral to what we do at GuideStar and leads me to a variety of questions:

• What institutions that now dominate the nonprofit sector will be disintermediated the way radio, TV, music, publishing and news media have been as we find new ways to deliver services?

• What new intermediaries will take their place? (I believe intermediaries will still be necessary – just not the same ones.)

• How can GuideStar (with services like Philanthropedia and Great NonProfits) speed up the process of helping donors be more information- and data-driven? What will that mean for nonprofits? And will it send more money to high-performing organizations?

• What more should GuideStar – and our community foundation partners – do to slash the frightful duplication of effort in gathering and disseminating important data about nonprofit organizations?

• Can GuideStar succeed with our foundation partners in cutting down on time-wasting efforts in submitting multiple grant requests to grantmakers?

• As community foundations transform themselves into knowledge centers, how will they transform community organizations and civic life?

I think the information revolution is still coming to the nonprofit sector. We have only seen the beginning so far. I’m proud that GuideStar is at the heart of this transformation, and with the launch of our new strategic plan, I’m excited to see what’s next. Let’s enjoy the journey.

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Just Because