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Are foundations as innovative as they could/should be?

September 25, 2007

In case you missed it, a fascinating discussion has been unfolding over at Sean Stannard-Stockton's Tactical Philanthropy blog. Sean got things started when he interviewed Cheryl Dahle, employee number 24 at Fast Company magazine and a driving force behind the Fast Company Social Capitalist Awards. Smart, opinionated, and a long-time denizen of Silicon Valley, Cheryl had much to say in the interview and her replies to Sean and others' comments about the willingness of foundations to take risks and/or innovate, the mainstream media's tendency to view philanthropy almost exclusively through a wealth/celebrity lens, and what staff at foundations might do to change the equation. Here's Cheryl's (partial) reply to a comment posted by Bruce Trachtenberg, himself a long-time philanthropoid and now executive director of the Communications Network:

Ok, I'll admit to straying into a bit of a rant there. I do not mean to say that foundations do not play a worthwhile role or their work is not meaningful and worthwhile. What I'm saying is that foundations doing business as usual is a tough sell as a story. Business as usual means that the organization is giving away money and it's having an effect...that is the EXPECTED course. That makes it a tough sell, as the whole premise of newsworthiness is based on:

-- is it unexpected?
-- is it unique?
-- is is biggest or first?
-- are there famous or celebrity players involved (I hate this one, but is IS a lens)
-- is the impact greater/better/different?

That last one is the toughest to prove, which is why you'll see more reporters hanging stories on the other four criteria. (And, by the way, that is why the scandal story is the easiest sell. The counterintuitive hook of a "do-good" organization running afoul of ethics in some way is a slam dunk.)

As I said, a fascinating interview and discussion. Be sure to check it out.

Speaking of wealth/celebrity lenses, it's amazing what happens when the Former Leader of the Free World and a thousand global business leaders set up shop in the Media Capital of the Universe for three days of speeches and networking. I'm talking, of course, about the third annual Clinton Global Initiative, which kicks off tomorrow in midtown Manhattan and has already generated tons of buzz, including three articles in The Economist, a long piece in the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and a related cover story in this week's edition of Newsweek. Never one to swim against the tide, I'll be on-site at the event for the next three days (along, I'm sure, with a few hundred other journalists) to share my impressions and any news that breaks. Stay tuned.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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