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Philanthropy University? It Really May Be the Next Big Thing…

October 23, 2015

Especially here in Silicon Valley, there are many who believe technology is a silver bullet for social problems large and small. In the Valley, technology is looked to as THE source of innovation and the key to making solutions better, faster, cheaper. Sometimes that is in fact the case; most of the time it is not.

Take the example of PlayPumps, a technology that was designed with children in mind and was supposed to make pumping water in remote villages in the developing world easy and fun. Instead, today, in many villages, the pumps sit broken and idle. Or the soccer ball that was supposed to generate energy when kicked, serving double duty as a toy and a lamp for households without electricity. The balls, praised as ingenious when they first appeared, soon proved to be a bust. And the list goes on.

Sometimes, however, technology can provide exactly the right tool for the job. Philanthropy University would seem to be such a case. In partnership with the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, Philanthropy University offers free online courses taught by top instructors. In the process, it greatly expands access to the knowledge, wisdom, and best practices social sector leaders need in order to improve human and social service delivery around the globe. (Full disclosure, I serve on Phil U’s curriculum advisory committee.)

There is growing global recognition of the essential role played by nonprofits in our lives — whether they are working to meet basic human needs, repair social or environmental damage caused by market failures, or drive innovative solutions to urgent challenges. Indeed, recent decades have seen the launch of many initiatives focused on strengthening nonprofit sector capacity in important ways. There are master's degree programs dedicated to nonprofit management, high-quality journals showcasing promising practices and state-of-the-art research, executive education courses targeting nonprofit leaders and practitioners.

All are important elements of a flourishing ecosystem and help to demonstrate the maturing of the nonprofit field. Philanthropy University aims to take this professional development to the next level by convening some of the best minds in the social sector and, through the power of technology, giving them a platform from which they can share their experience and wisdom with others.

Philanthropy University is the brainchild of Amr al-Dabbagh, a Saudi businessman and philanthropist committed to using his wealth for social good. His ambition is to use technology to strengthen nonprofit organizations on the front lines of service delivery and human engagement. It's a bold vision — to improve the lives of a hundred million people by improving the practices and programs of NGOs around the globe. And he just might pull it off. To learn some of his secrets, you can take his Phil U course, Leadership: Ten Rules for Impact and Meaning.

Phil U's course catalogue will grow over time, but if the initial offerings are any indication, the future of the project is bright. They include Paul Brest, former president of the Hewlett Foundation, teaching Essentials of Nonprofit Strategy; Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva, teaching Global Social Entrepreneurship; Doug Scott, a senior expert at McKinsey & Co. and a former partner at the New Teacher Project, teaching Organizational Capacity: Assessment to Action; and Erik Simanis, head of the Emerging and Frontier Markets Initiative at Cornell University, teaching Financial Modeling for the Social Sector.

No more trudging to school in the snow. No more dusty statistics books to pour over in a vain attempt to find inspiration. And, most importantly, no financial barriers to keep you from receiving the kind of quality management education that used to cost a fortune. Philanthropy University? It's a whole new ballgame.

Headshot_fay_twerskyCourses have begun and are free and open to all. To learn more or register, visit philanthropyu.org.

Fay Twersky is director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Previously, she worked in Jerusalem advising the Rothschild Family Foundation and also served for four years as director and a member of the leadership team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she launched the Impact Planning & Improvement division.

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