On Friday, June 22, Jonathan Fanton, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, and Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Labs, will come in-world for a conversation on the role of philanthropy in virtual worlds. Given the enormous investment that MacArthur is making towards all sorts of research and innovation in the use of new media for social good ($50 million over the next five years), this may represent an important shift in the funding community.
Imagine if MacArthur, the Pew Charitable Trust, Ford Foundation, the Soros Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and lots of the small family foundations started integrating virtual worlds into their funding strategies? We could see the blossoming of a new dimension in civil society / non-profit activity.
I have been on both sides of the fence as both the non-profit applicant
for funding and the funder of other non-profit work for the past 15
years. And I’ve been active in virtual worlds and non-profit activities on the web for awhile. So naturally I’ve got some thoughts on this.
Non-profits struggle with how to apply for funds in a way that is meeting the criteria of the funder without compromising on their basic mission. Often they have difficulty, in an uncertain environment, promising specific and verifiable results in a short period of time. Meanwhile, funders seek to invest their resources among a wide range of projects that hopefully will lead to larger systemic changes. They want their funding to go towards work that is likely to result in deliverable products that fulfill the funder’s mission in concrete ways. And the funder usually doesn’t want to be stuck with the bill forever, hoping that the non-profit has a longer term, sustainable support model.
Hypothetically, web2.0 technologies and social networking applications can play a role in mitigating these misunderstandings and increasing knowledge of the other sector’s perspective. But that hasn’t really happened, partly due to the wide open nature of the web and sensitive nature of these concerns.
What might be more helpful would be to create a safer, moderated space for funders, non-profits, and engaged citizens to talk honestly about their concerns, priorities, and plans, and then let new conversations, relationships and projects bloom out of that more organically. Something like the NetSquared open call for projects that happened last month, but mapped to a virtual world.
Funders often aren’t in a good place to know who already is doing what in the issue areas they care about. But if there was a space for a variety of groups working in a similar area to report on the work they are doing, their plans, and their needs for the future, that might be a good way for a foundation to identify how their limited grant budget might be best spent. And if other funders were in the room, they could talk amongst themselves about their plans, to ensure that projects aren’t duplicating efforts, or working at cross-purposes.
This happens less formally via various physical conferences, closed-door funder briefings, email listservs, and person-to-person connections. That isn’t going to change. But a managed, virtual environment where these kinds of roundtables could occur might help open up the space in new and productive ways.
Some key components of how this might work:
- An open call to various actors working in a particular issue area — say migration, HIV/AIDS, or telecentres in sub-saharan Africa — to come together for a two-day event in-world
- An open "unconference" framework for multi-sector groups to gather around shared concerns
- A larger convening where the sub-groups could report back to the whole
- Smaller, private spaces for spontaneous conversations that could be initiated by a funder or a non-profit
- A set of trained moderators to keep a positive discussion flowing, ensure that quiet voices are heard, and summarize where appropriate
- An open exhibition where groups unveiling new project can present their work and get feedback
Virtual worlds right now can make this happen. As the cost of computing goes down and broadband access gets cheaper and more widespread, this will be even more viable as an option to expensive conventions in major urban centers. It won’t totally eliminate the competitive advantage that networked groups based in the DC beltway, Geneva, and Manhattan have. But it might open up the door a bit for new actors to get their foot in, and funders to get a better handle on how their limited investments can best be applied to meet real human needs.