« 5 Things to Do Before Issuing an RFP: Advice From a Former Nonprofit Leader | Main | Mastering the Video Interview »

'Business of Giving': Brad Smith, President, Foundation Center, Chats With Denver Frederick

October 13, 2016

The following is the transcript of a conversation between Bradford K. Smith, president of Foundation Center, and Denver Frederick, host of "The Business of Giving." In their conversation, which aired September 18, Frederick and Smith talked about the next frontier of philanthropy — managing information and producing and sharing knowledge. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. "The Business of Giving" can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. on AM 970 The Answer in New York City and on I Heart Radio. For an audio version (running time: 45:38) of Denver and Brad's chat, hop on over to the BofG site.

Denver_fredericks_brad_smith_vertical (2)Denver Frederick: The rate of change is increasing in every field of endeavor, including philanthropy. And in order to be a true leader in the field, a person can't be 100 percent consumed with just the well-being and state of their own organization; one also must leave some space and time to contemplate what all these changes mean for the entire sector. One individual that fits that description perfectly is my next guest. He is Bradford K. Smith, president and CEO of the Foundation Center. Good evening, Brad, and welcome back to the Business of Giving.

Bradford K. Smith: It's great to be back.

DF: For those listeners that are not familiar with the Foundation Center, tell us about the work you do.

BKS: I think the easiest way to understand us is what Bloomberg does for the financial markets, we do for philanthropy!  Basically, we publish data and information about the transaction of philanthropy. In other words, these endowed foundations that make grants to support organizations in the social sector to make the world a better place — we track all that information. We put it out there in an unbiased way so that you can search it; you can find it; you can understand who's funding your cause, who's not funding your cause, what foundations are doing, and what they're not doing.

DF: Let's talk about foundations for a moment. When we look at philanthropy in the U.S., last year about $375 billion was made in contributions. What percentage of that comes from foundations?

BKS: It's roughly 16 to 17 percent,  and this is a common misunderstanding. A lot of people look at nonprofits in America, and they assume that their larger supporters are wealthy foundations and maybe individuals. But the largest source of income for American nonprofits in the aggregate is actually government. Foundation money is very important because it's one of the few sources of income that nonprofits have that usually is not earmarked; it's very flexible.

DF: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that. I think foundations are pretty abstract to most people. It's kind of a big idea out there, and I think you have a wonderful way of explaining it by talking about the sources of influence that they hold.  There are three of them, and let's pick up on each. I'm going to start with the one you just mentioned. The one that is obvious to everybody: money. But as you say, it's a very special kind of money, right?

BKS: Correct. Foundations have a really important role in American history and American society. Basically, our government has created a kind of social pact in which wealthy individuals are given a tax incentive for creating a charitable foundation. They make a donation of a portion of their assets to the foundation. They no longer control those assets. They can't take them back for personal use. They get a tax exemption in exchange for creating a stream of charitable giving in the future. Now, there are a lot of ways to look at the size of the philanthropic sector in the U.S. There are a lot of foundations. I  know when the Foundation Center was created in 1956, there weren't near as many. In fact, when the Foundation Center published the first print directory of American foundations, there were about four thousand foundations. And today there are well over eighty thousand foundations. And the assets they manage — their investments — surpass $800 billion. And it's the earnings on those investments, which are tax-free, that are used to actually fund grants and fulfill their charitable purpose.

DF: Right. The second source of influence that foundations have is "convening power."

BKS: Well, there are not a whole lot of people in this world whose job is to give away money. And people always were sort of perplexed about that. They said: "Gosh, how do you find the organizations to be worthy of getting the support of the foundation?" And I used to tell them: "Look, when you are in the business of giving away money, you don't have to go looking for people; they find you." So, one of the things that gives a foundation virtually a seat at any table is the fact that they're giving away money.

And the other thing is, they're giving away money that, unlike congressional money or city money, isn't earmarked by elected officials for their pet causes. It's very flexible, long-term, risk-taking money. But this also gives them the ability to "convene." And we find that the foundations that are having the greatest impact on the issues that are working — whether it's criminal justice reform, or climate change, or job creation — are not just giving away grants in a retail kind of way. They're actually creating tables to which policy makers, academics, activists, and others can come and really think about what the long-term solutions are to these serious problems that our society and world face.

DF: And it would seem, in an era of collaboration, they do have that special role. They don't have a dog in the fight; they're neutral….

BKS: Correct.

DF: They give money away, and they have an incredible ability to get everybody to come when they call a meeting.

BKS: Yeah. When I worked with the Ford Foundation, the two jokes they always tell you when you start to work there is that all your phone calls get returned. And immediately, it seems like all of your ideas are brilliant.

DF: That's right, and you also become a little funnier and better looking, too.

BKS: That's right. Two of the perks.

DF: And finally, and this is so important: the accumulated knowledge that foundations hold. Speak to that.

BKS: I think this is really the frontier for foundations. Roughly, I think we can say that — and I know you've had a lot of speakers come on this program — foundations have moved from the notion of just giving away money, a charity approach, to what a lot people call social investment. The idea that even though you're making a grant, you're investing in a solution, and you're expecting return in the form of impact.

But another way to look at foundations is — I gave a presentation on this recently, and I said: "When it comes to knowledge and information, foundations are like black holes, and they need to become supernovas."

So what do I mean by that? The average foundation receives hundreds, if not thousands, of proposals from nonprofit organizations — different kinds of social sector organizations filled with ideas about how to make the neighborhood, the community, the city, and the world a better place. Some portion of those get approved. As part of the process, the groups that get the grants provide written reports periodically — progress reports — full of information also. Then there's also the foundation staff themselves. When you’re sitting in a foundation, let's say you're working on early childhood issues, on any given day you probably talk to four or five different people who are the best in their field, who have fantastic ideas about how to solve all the issues around early childhood learning. And you accumulate all that knowledge; that knowledge is in your head; it's in your notes; it's on your hard drive. All these documentations are  flowing in to foundations. If we weren't philanthropy — if we were Google or we were Facebook — we would have data scientists crawling all over that stuff!

DF: Tagging everything.

BKS: Tagging everything, looking for correlations, trying to extract [information]. This is a tremendous source of potential knowledge about how we can make this world a better place. And I think the next frontier for philanthropy is going to be managing information, and producing and sharing knowledge.

DF: Let's talk a little bit about that frontier. A few years ago, the Foundation Center launched a site called Glasspockets.  The tagline was: "Bringing transparency to the world of philanthropy." And, when it comes to the world of foundation transparency, there is a [recent] development which you believe will have a profound effect: the machine-readable 990. Tell us what that is. And what is the significance of it?

BKS: I think that phrase, "machine-readable 990s" — if we went out onto Broadway here and we asked a bunch of people what they think about machine-readable 990s, we'd get a lot of blank stares.

First of all, the whole notion of transparency is in the DNA of the Foundation Center. We were created during McCarthyism when foundations were being investigated for support of un-American  activities. And a group of foundation leaders felt that the best way to deal with that kind of suspicion was to create a public information service about philanthropy. And part of that is, we're not an advocacy organization; we're not a membership organization. We're neutral.

But there is one thing we advocate for, and that is transparency; that's why we were created. And in fact, the name of the site, Glasspockets.org, comes from a quote that was used at the founding of the Foundation Center. "We think foundations should have 'glass pockets'."  That was coined by the chair of the Carnegie Foundation board at the time. So we've been promoting foundation transparency. And for years, the tax return that foundations file, which is called a 990-PF — it's what endowed foundations file in exchange for their tax exemption — has been open information. What that means, or what it has meant until very recently, is that that document, if you request it, should be available from the foundation itself and available from the Internal Revenue Service. 

Now, what a lot of people don't understand is that those documents, or some portion of them, are filed electronically online by foundations. But many of them are still filed in written form —

DF: The old-fashioned way...

BKS:  — and some of them — because we see this all the time — are still filled out in pencil. But until very recently, regardless of how they were filled out, the Internal Revenue Service was fulfilling its public information requirement by making them available as image files, something called a .tiff file. Probably the easiest way for people to understand it is that it's just like a .pdf.

But even if you file it digitally, anybody who requests it essentially gets a picture of it. Now if you've ever tried to edit a .pdf, or do anything with a .pdf — you can't do anything with it, right? It's not like a Word document. It's not digital. It's a picture; it's like a photograph. So, we and GuideStar and other organizations that work a lot with these tax returns in order to get information from them, basically had to create a pretty significant infrastructure to try to extract data from these documents — which is largely a manual process. But as of just a few months ago, the Internal Revenue Service surprised everyone by releasing all the tax returns — the 990-PFs  that have been digitally filed — as machine-readable open data.

So, what is machine-readable open data? What that means is, it's actually released in a form where it can be automatically harvested by a computer with no human intervention. Basically, if you think of the computer as like a vacuum cleaner — it sucks in all the information, and then using algorithms and other kinds of computer programs, you can manipulate and begin to do all sorts of things with that information. All of a sudden, the barriers to actually creating something useful out of information have been drastically lowered and made much cheaper.

DF: This only works for those 990-PFs that have been digitally filed.

BKS: Correct!

DF: Is the IRS thinking of making that mandatory down the road?

BKS: As I understand it, this being America, that would require an act of Congress.

Now, another shocking fact about foundations — which I find people are always aghast at when I ask them: "What percentage of foundations do you think have websites?" And it turns out that the answer is roughly 7 percent. And even the largest foundations, those that have over $100 million in assets — there's about a thousand of those — 30 percent of them do not have websites.

DF: That's pretty shocking.

BKS: A country like the Netherlands? By law, if you have a foundation, you have to have a website. So, there's no mandatory filing requirement for these tax returns. We downloaded all the ones that the IRS has released, and for 2014, roughly, there were around fifty thousand foundation tax returns included. So, no more than maybe 60 percent of the foundations were included, and these were because those documents were filed online and released in digital form.

So, what does this really mean? What it means is that the proverbial two kids in a garage with good programming skills —people that can create algorithms and maybe have big hard drives or cloud storage — can grab all this information and start doing things with it. Like what? They could search for part of that document, for example, the part where you have to list the names, titles, and salaries of the five highest-paid employees.

DF: Right.

BKS: So, you could basically take the CEO salaries. And if you don't know the field, and you basically just want to make a comparison, you can say: "Well, the president of the Gates Foundation makes X, and the president of the Bob and Betty Sue Foundation in Mississippi makes one-tenth of that. There ought to be a law." You could do the same with all the overhead expenses, travel, all that kind of stuff.

The grants, by law, part of that document is supposed to list all the grants you made, and the recipient [of the grant], and the amount.  You're supposed to have a description now, too, but a lot people don’t add the description. The good side [of all this] is that it could begin to force people to improve the information [they [provide]. The bad side is that people could extract a lot of information they don't understand. I think the other thing that is going to really surprise foundations is that they are required to attach to that tax return a list of all their investment holdings at the time of the filing. And it will be much easier for anyone to search through the investment portfolios of foundations to see what stocks and bonds they're holding. And again, if someone wants to make mischief, they could point out that, "Well, your mission is basically to improve healthcare, and you are heavily invested in tobacco companies." In the past, it's been very hard to get that information.

DF: It's all very interesting. I think it's going to change the nature of your work. You've been toiling to extract this information to make some sense of it, but it would seem that you're going to have a higher level of analysis now that machines are capable of doing it — probably faster and more comprehensively than people ever could.

BKS: We deal very heavily with the grants information, because one of the main consumers of our information are nonprofits that are trying to figure out which foundations might be willing to give them a grant. So we produce large, searchable databases that you can search by cause — environment, health, arts, or whatever — and then narrow it down to exactly the foundations that may fund in your geographic area, your particular kind of work, and then see actual examples of grants. So we work a lot with the grants. Historically, we've only extracted, coded, sorted, and put into databases about two hundred and fifty to three hundred thousand grants a year. Because we were actually manually extracting those, and then hand coding them! We had people looking at them and saying, "Okay, this must be arts, and for arts it must be sculpture, and it's for the state of such and such, and is to such and such organization." But we saw this coming. Actually in 2012, we started rebuilding our core databases to be able to ingest information that was coming in directly from computers. And we built them to code two to five million grants a year. Already this year, with the new system, in the first five or six months of operation we've coded over one million grants.

DF: That's great.

BKS: And we've automated the coding of them as well, which is a very geeky process that I'd be glad to explain, but maybe I'll spare your listeners.

DF: Well, it's a real challenge with so much data out there, it's so difficult for anybody to make heads or tails of it. So the premium on the classification of data really has to be one of your major objectives.

BKS: I honestly think that open data in general, there's more good than bad to it. It's easy for people to think of the embarrassing things that might be extracted from a tax return. But part of the theory of open data is that when it's open,  and more people are using it, there's lots of innovation. People create new products and services, new sources of knowledge. And the heavier use of that information improves the care and accuracy that people use in filling those forms out. So, that's good. The complicated thing is that it makes it possible for people to reach rapid conclusions based on a little bit of data they really don't understand. As you said, we've toiled in this field for years to try to help the public understand philanthropy, but most people don’t understand philanthropy. They don't understand foundations. So, people will grab this data; they can make crazy conclusions. And I think this is going to place, as you said, a much higher premium on "sense making" and people that really understand the field.

The Foundation Center actually created — together with the Urban Institute and the Internal Revenue Service years ago — something called the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities. So, when a nonprofit applies for a charitable status, they're given an activity or subject code by the IRS. And [that code] is from this taxonomy.  We built on top of that a philanthropy classification system. So when we see a grant from a foundation on a tax return, or directly transmitted to us by the foundation, we tag it, in today's parlance, for the subject of the grant: education, health, whatever. We tag it for the population groups served — either the whole world or LGBTQ, or women, or men, or low-income, or whatever. We tag it for the strategy used by the foundation: "Is this grant for capacity building? Is it for capital support?" We tag it for the type of organization. And then we geo-tag it for the geographic location of the benefit.

DF: Well, you know when a treasure trove of information like this becomes available, or potentially available, there's going to be a whole new set of actors who are going to be coming into the fray — whether they be start-ups or new businesses. You hope they are well-intentioned, but some of them are not going to be steeped in the history of philanthropy, and they're going to be sending out this information, so I know you're prepared for that.

BKS: Yeah, I think open data brings in a lot of people, and if you study the cycle of disruption, what usually happens in any field — in publishing, online information — and in some ways organizations like the Foundation Center and GuideStar are nonprofit information businesses that are subject to the same kinds of disruptive cycles as the New York Times and LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters. So, basically what happens is the data becomes open or becomes virtually open because it becomes so cheap. You get new entrants that require less infrastructure. They produce something which the incumbents feel isn't very good, isn’t up to [standards], but some portion of the market decides: "Well, it's good enough." And what happens, of course, they get a little bit of income. Then most of them die off and go away or lose interest, but some of them get better. And if they get good enough, then they basically [disrupt]the  industry. I was reading the other day about how Craigslist basically overturned the entire industry of print advertising. And Craigslist, if you look at it, it's not very elegant, it's not really sophisticated, right?

DF: It's like 1996.

BKS: Right. But, it's just an example of what can happen. So, yeah, I think there will be more people getting into this. And I think there will be two types: there will be the sort of startups who just want to play with this data and see if they can create something that the world will use or buy. But we're also seeing that there are large data analytics companies with names like Palantir and RelSci. These are very sophisticated companies that use a lot of technology, which actually comes from contracts they have with governments, a lot of times around security issues or defense or what not. But like most enterprises in today's world, they also are looking to develop a kind of CSR (corporate social responsibility). And they're looking to get into the philanthropic space by basically promising to use all their big data technology to measure impact. The real obstacle for them is they're getting into it thinking that the space is occupied by lots of Gates-size foundations. There's only one Gates Foundation.

DF: Right.

BKS: And if you look at the eighty-seven thousand foundations in the U.S., as I said earlier, just 7 percent have websites, but only about nine hundred — I think it's nine hundred and seventy-six — have assets of more than $100 million. And 76 percent of them have four staff members or less. So a foundation that has no staff, or two staff members, is probably not going to be signing a contract with a sophisticated data analytics company.

DF: You're so right. Sticking with data and classification, you have helped lead a cohort of like-minded colleagues around contributions that foundations are making to help the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, as they are called, with a target date of 2030. Refresh our listeners as to exactly what the SDGs are, what you have created, and what kind of platform [you've developed] to track the work of foundations toward helping make them happen?

BKS: Well, in the year 2000, the United Nations came up with something called the Millennium Development Goals. These were fifteen-year goals to try to inspire the world to improve health, education, and other kinds of social indicators for the poorest of the poor, especially in the developing world. Those expired at the end of 2015; a lot of progress was made but there is still a lot to be done. And the UN embarked on a very long and sophisticated process that all UN members participated in. About a hundred and ninety countries. But also, over eight million people participated directly online through "The World We Want" campaign. It was the start of the largest participatory exercise I know of in human history — to try to come up with what the new fifteen-year global development agenda should be.

One thing that's really interesting is that they came up with an agenda that actually is for the whole world. The Millennium Development Goals were only for the so-called developing countries — poor countries in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia. This is for the whole world, so they're designed to address economic, environmental, and social disparities — and not only between nations, but within nations. So, what's really powerful about [the SDGs] is that they are as relevant in Detroit and Toledo as they are in Maputo and Jakarta.

DF: Every country, every city has skin in the game.

BKS: Right. And a lot of people will look at the UN with sort of a jaundiced eye and say, "Oh, my gosh, there are seventeen goals. That's way too many. And there are one hundred and sixty-nine targets, and there are two hundred-plus indicators." And one of the things I say to people is, "Well, there were one hundred and ninety nations that agreed on this. Think of the organizations we work for, foundations. If you put one hundred and ninety foundations in a room, do you think they could agree on seventeen goals?" It's a pretty incredible achievement. And they're very ambitious, but they do, for the first time, cover the world. And the previous Millennium Development Goals really didn’t deal much with environment.

DF: That’s right.

BKS: The SDGs deal with water quality, with climate, and we feel foundations have an important role to play in this. So, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Foundation Center have something called the SDG Philanthropic Partnership, which is basically to help foundations understand this global framework, see how they're already participating in it and how they can actually increase their participation, and make it easier for them to forge the kind of partnerships with each other — and with government and the private sector — to achieve these goals and targets.

DF: And you have a separate website around that, right?

BKS: Yes. We have a website called sdgfunders.org. We've actually done a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on what we already know about what foundations are doing today — all the data that we have in our database is about American philanthropy, but also a growing body of philanthropy in other countries — and we estimate that, very conservatively,  foundations will spend, over the next fifteen years, about $364 billion in grant money toward the realization of these objectives.

DF: People estimate that it is going to take about about $3.5 trillion. So it’s a pretty sizable slice.

BKS: It's a sizable slice, and...the leverage that this money can produce is tremendous precisely because of its low level of bureaucracy and its high degree of flexibility. There's just not a lot of flexibility in the world. I remember years and years ago when I was with another foundation, a government-sponsored foundation actually, we were starting to get invited to the World Bank for conversations about how to collaborate. And we were all dreaming that the World Bank would take all of our cherished little projects and causes and put hundreds of millions of dollars into them. And after two years of conversations, basically the World Bank staff turned around and asked us for grants. We learned a lot, because what we saw was that they have hundred of millions of dollars, but it's all tied up. It's all earmarked —

DF: ...not liquid.

BKS:  — and $50,000 in flexible money could basically unlock the potential of hundreds of millions.

DF: Let me move on to something else. We had Clara Miller, the president of the F.B. Heron Foundation, on the show earlier this year.  I think it's fair to say that they are the poster child for mission-related investing. And, as you know, they have committed by the end of 2017 to have all of their assets deployed toward mission. That includes their endowment, which will all be invested in either nonprofit or for-profit companies– that can help them achieve their mission: helping people lift themselves out of poverty. Do you see this catching on with other foundations? Or do you think it's going to be a long time coming?

BKS: If you'd asked me this five years ago — and you might have, actually — I would have probably had a more skeptical answer than I have today. I'm sort of fascinated by the life cycle of ideas. Impact investing, or mission investing — sometimes they're used interchangeably — was an idea that started out with a lot of hype —

DF: ...it sure did.

BKS: There were sort of evangelicals for it. The skeptics were saying, "That's all great, but you can't get anywhere near market returns with these kinds of investments. There are not enough investment vehicles out there to absorb the amount of money that is in foundations and in the capital markets." Because remember, impact investors are also trying to influence the  trillions of dollars that are in the capital markets.

DF: That's exactly right. That's the whole name of the game.

BKS: But, what's happened, of course, is that there is a market. And because there's a market, instruments and investment vehicles were going to get created. There are a lot more options today for mission investing, and a lot more sophistication about it, and a lot more opportunities to do it. And what we're seeing is that, in an earlier period, a number of foundations began to do what was called "negative screening." They  were trying to make sure there wasn't anything toxic or embarrassing in their investment portfolio, something that was totally contrary to their mission. Then they sort of thought, "Well, can we put money in social investment funds, like mutual funds, which promised not to do anything bad." 

But now there are a growing number of foundations that are saying, "Well, can we take all  or part of our endowment and proactively make equity investments in nonprofit or for-profit enterprises that are actually furthering our mission." For example, you're an environmental funder; you're using grants to fund really early-stage causes for which there's no market solution. You're using something called program-related investments, which are essentially subsidized loans for charitable purposes that are permitted by the IRS for things for which there is something of a market but not a full-blown market. And then you're making straight-on equity investments in things like alternative energy, and this is all related to your mission. So I think there's actually a lot of potential. We've done some surveys on this. Sixty percent of the foundations we surveyed said they had not done mission investing — and had no plans to. So, the orthodoxy is still church and state. You have an investment team that invests your resources, and their job is to maximize the returns with which you fulfill your charitable purpose. They're almost like two separate entities residing within the foundation.

DF: What Heron did is, they broke down those walls and made everyone part of one team. And I think that cycle you talked about, it's called the Gartner Cycle. And this happens in so many different cases. It first happened with Internet shopping, where everybody thought people would go to the Internet and nobody would go to department stores. Of course, that's not what happened. But then we look ten to fifteen years later, and that's exactly what has happened.

It's also happened in online education. I remember Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation was on the show. When she was the president of the University of Pennsylvania, she said they were all terrified [the Internet] was going to put them out of business. But after a couple years, she realized that wasn't going to happen. But now you look and you say, "My goodness, online education really is going to change the face of education in this country."

BKS: But I’ll tell you, there's something I still worry about with impact investing. And actually this came back to me  when Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced the creation of their LLC. We got a lot of press calls on this, and the press calls were really interesting because the angle the press were taking was, they're just doing the LLC because it's a better tax deal. None of them seemed to be focusing on what I find potentially the most perplexing or troublesome about LLCs, about impact investing, and that is the lack of transparency.  Because the way an LLC works is, it doesn't have the same disclosure requirements as a private foundation. So, all you have to do on the tax return for an LLC is have a line that has the gross number for your charitable expenses, and you don't actually have to break them down by each individual grant you made. What that means is that what we know about Mark Zuckerberg's philanthropy will be precisely what he chooses to tell us. And [it applies to] impact investing, too — there are no disclosure requirements for impact investing, there's no way for you to look at the tax return of a foundation and determine which of those investments in their investment portfolio were impact or mission related and which were not. They don't have to tell you that.

DF: That's right.

BKS: I think the potential is quite high for PR and hype around all these claims that ultimately are not verifiable because you don't have an independent data source. And the irony I find about this is when you look at Mark Zuckerberg and the Silicon Valley breed of philanthropist and impact investors, these are people that, to do their job and make their fortunes, rely on incredible access to data and information. But they show relatively little concern about providing data and information about their own philanthropy.

DF: I also find one of the paradoxes with impact investing is that you're trying to get both a social return and a financial return. But if you're trying to get a social return, you would want to take whatever you're doing and make it open source and share it with everybody. But if you share it with everybody, that would eat into your financial return. So almost embedded [in impact investing] is a conflict that is very, very difficult to resolve.

BKS: When I first started working in this field — I actually started with the international division of the YMCA of the USA — I remember the guy who interviewed me said, "Well, the one thing I really have to understand about you is whether you comfortable living with ambiguity?" And I think the whole field of philanthropy and social investment is fraught with ambiguity and contradictions. Somebody once told me, "Look, nobody really got to be a billionaire by being a nice guy." So the way that these fortunes have been accumulated, in some ways, is in pretty sharp contrast to the wonderful things these foundations are doing in the world. And there are contradictions in impact investing.  The highly competitive, secretive nature of the investment world and Silicon Valley does sort of go against this. We all labor under the illusion that we have access to all this wonderful free open information through Apple devices and Google and all, but Google itself is a remarkably un-transparent corporation.

DF: You have to worry about stuff like that. I know that Facebook just started this big effort with nonprofits to raise money on their Facebook pages. But you'll be doing that fundraising on their platform, not your platform. I don't think a lot of nonprofits can turn their backs on the opportunity, but that information is going to be controlled by Facebook, not by your organization. And they can change the rules any time they want.

BKS: We have a very good partner in China called the China Foundation Center. They’re not formally connected to us, but we have a relationship. And there's a raft of new charity laws in China. One of them actually has language that would require nonprofits who are raising money online to only use government-approved online giving platforms. So, we like to think how different China is from the U.S., but basically you've got the Chinese government in China, and you've got Facebook in the U.S.

DF: There you go, that might be our lead! Let me ask you about one last initiative at the Foundation Center, one that you launched this summer.  It's a website dedicated to budding young philanthropists. Tell us about youthgiving.org.

BKS: This is a great project, actually. It came to us from a wonderfully inspiring family foundation, the Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation, and some other partners that are really actively trying to promote the involvement of young people — in some cases, as young as eight years old — in becoming philanthropists. A lot of this [interest] comes from family foundations that are dealing with successive generations in the family, and they're really wrestling with the problem. It's one thing for the founder and maybe the next generation to be dedicated to the foundation. But how do you keep successive generations involved? And the folks at the Fox Family Foundation said, "There is a movement, and we would like to explore this movement. We'd like to see how big it really is and create an information platform to connect all the different initiatives around the world on youth giving and also grow the amount of youth giving that's going on."

So, we developed the platform with a number of partners, youth giving foundations, and coalitions of youth giving efforts. And we were quite surprised; we found a much wider universe of youth giving programs out there that are really inspiring, really exciting. As well, as you would expect from anything with the word "youth" in it, an enormous amount of energy. Actually, the initial name of the platform and the project was going to be "youth philanthropy," but when we did the user groups in the design process, we found that very few young people relate to the word "philanthropy."

DF: Interesting.

BKS: They relate to the giving; that's what it's about. So we changed it to "youth giving."

DF: You listened.

BKS: We listened; we learned a lot. I think that's part of the problem with our field. We're wedded to our terminology. When you think about it, what philanthropy is about, it's about giving!

DF: It really is. Let me close on this, Brad. In this world of philanthropy, is there anything that really concerns you that we're not paying enough attention to?

BKS: Yeah. To get back to a theme that's been laced through our entire conversation, I do worry about the lack of transparency, and the lack of transparency around new forms of philanthropy and impact investing. Because I think the ability to turn that into hype and self-promotion — especially in a world where self-promotion is the new modesty — is real. We see too many examples of people who do not really want to be transparent about their philanthropic activities. And when they get in trouble in their business or personal lives, they try to pull the rabbit out of the hat — the great grant they made for a cause. But it's too little, too late. That's one thing.  

The other thing I worry about is that if we look at philanthropy as an industry — and it is an industry, $800 billion-plus in assets is real money; if you look at Europe, there are over a hundred and forty thousand of what they call "public benefit foundations" whose assets collectively probably surpass those of the U.S. and whose charitable expenses are roughly the same; China, our partner there, has uncovered more than three thousand of what they consider to be foundations in China; we have partners in Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, all over the world — it is a growing, hot industry. That's great, but it is an underperforming and inefficient industry. And I do think it's incumbent upon the field to get its act together on information, on sharing knowledge, reducing duplication, and looking before we leap.

When you’re a newly-minted philanthropist and you decide you're going to save the world through charter schools, it's a safe bet you’re not the first person who has ever done it. To make it easier, think about lowering the transaction cost: find out who else is funding what you're interested in and learn what they already know. That's something this field needs to do [more of] to really begin to punch above its weight.

DF: Absolutely. So what do you have for us at foundationcenter.org and some of your other websites?

BKS: Lots of stuff, probably too much stuff — we have fertile minds and active programmers and great staff. We have lots of websites and lots of sub-websites, and we've mentioned some of them today, sdgfunders.org, youthgiving.org, glasspockets.org. But if you just go to foundationcenter.org, which we just redesigned and relaunched, what you'll see at the top of should look very familiar; it's a search bar. And what we've allowed you to do through some very ingenious data science on the back-end is to type anything in that search bar and search all the content at the Foundation Center. You're searching more that five million grants; you’re searching more than a hundred and forty thousand foundations; you’re searching twenty years of digested news stories about philanthropy; you're searching an open archive of over twenty thousand pieces of research funded or published by foundations; you're searching everything that's on all these websites we talked about, and you get to see it all in ranked order. So, if you want a quick fix, that will take you where you need to go, and you can go right to the other sources.

DF: And the one I go to every single day of my life is philanthropynewsdigest.org. I just love it. Beside your website, Brad, do you have physical locations here in New York City and around the country?

BKS: We sure do. You can come to our office. It's at 32 Old Slip, which is down in the financial district of Manhattan, Tuesday through Friday, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. We have an open library; you can search our databases for free; you can look at books — remember what those are? — and we have staff there that can help you find how to fund your dream cause.

DF: Great. Well, Brad Smith, president and CEO of the Foundation Center, thanks so much for being on the program this evening. There's an awful lot going on in the world of philanthropy, and, as always, the Foundation Center is at the center of it all. It was a real pleasure having you here.

BKS: Thank you very much.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Contributors

Quote of the Week

  • "[W]hat struck me was the startled awareness that one day something, whatever it might be, was going to interrupt my leisurely progress. It sounds trite, yet I can only say that I realized for the first time that I don't have forever...."

    — Anatole Broyard, book critic/editor/essayist (1920-1990)

Subscribe to Philantopic

Contributors

Guest Contributors

  • Laura Cronin
  • Derrick Feldmann
  • Thaler Pekar
  • Kathryn Pyle
  • Nick Scott
  • Allison Shirk

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »

Other Blogs

Tags