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Philanthropy, Meet New Power

Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, was no small challenge in the late 1980s. Land locked from the rest of the world, my friends and I voraciously read Thrasher and Maximumrocknroll magazines, beacons of DIY youth culture. Those publications gave us license to dream of a new community and lifestyle created by us, contributing and making things for ourselves without permission or approval from the mainstream.

Over time, like-minded teens across our city found one another and formed bands, wrote zines, released records, hosted radio programs, booked punk shows, and sold hand-made merchandise. Our self-sustaining ‘scene’ grew to hundreds of kids, everyone contributing in some unique way, applying our individual talents and passions to sustain this new community. We espoused a heartfelt DIY ethos, ultimately defining a vibrant culture that was hands-on and participatory.

I and my friends and peers eventually moved on – to college, family, and careers. But I remain strongly influenced by my experience in that community that valued coming together to collectively define a new standard of self-sufficiency, free from the rules of established producers. I’m committed to sharing ideas freely, and collaborating with others who are like-hearted and share a passion to create something greater, together.

A few years back, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms wrote a seminal piece in the Harvard Business Review outlining the idea of New Power. Conceptually an evolution from Do It Yourself to Do It Ourselves, new power defines a model in which power is “enabled by peer coordination and the agency of the crowd.” New Power is created through peer-to-peer collective sharing and shaping and contributing and building. People come together, enabled by technology, to bypass the old power brokers, eschewing those institutions that direct our consumption. Instead, people work together as a current, creating a powerful force through a collective desire to create something new and disrupt the status quo. Examples abound: Etsy, Lyft, Occupy Wall Street, TaskRabbit, Couchsurfing, Kiva, Kickstarter, Airbnb. Each provides a new mechanism for ordinary people to bypass an established power, or rigid construct, through collective sharing and participation.

Extending New Power to philanthropy, one might assume that all social projects become crowdfunded by people like you and me contributing our dollars toward causes that resonate with our own heartstrings. And while this model has frequently proven effective, it’s not that simple. Crowdfunding may feel empowering, but it lacks the structure required to enact long-term social change. Organizations that get funded are often those that are first to market, or who put forth the most emotionally appealing message. Yet those same organizations may be far from the best sources to make a sustainable difference.

In a new power world, foundations play a critical role in solving complex social issues, but they should transform to facilitate more participation and engagement from ordinary people, and those they aim to serve. The work of foundations often doesn’t engage the general public, leading some to feel disconnected. We hear underwriting messages on National Public Radio, but the work itself may not resonate because the people have little knowledge of the programs, nor participation in them.

How much better and more impactful could the foundation be if it incorporated the talents and voices of the public? Foundations should aim to become more inclusive and participatory – finding opportunities to engage and partner with our families and neighbors and friends. People and foundations aligned together, shaping together, funding together, producing together, and making an impact together will be transformative.

From a technology perspective, we must look towards innovation that enables decentralization and empowers the people to join in. I recently wrote about Blockchain, an example of a technology that will democratize philanthropy data and make impact reporting inclusive and participatory. Software companies serving our sector must innovate to enable collaboration between people, nonprofits, and foundations. We have crowd-funding, but we need crowd-volunteering, and crowd-voting, and crowd-voicing. Our technology should enable we-the-people and our foundations to collectively ideate, express opinions, and solve social problems, together.

As we co-shape our foundations and programs and unleash the current that is New Power, we’ll see our collective impact tremendously amplified.

Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan is the Director of Technology and Data for the Walmart Foundation. He leads a team responsible for the software, data, and other technologies used to manage the Walmart Foundation's global philanthropy, analytics, reporting, employee giving and volunteerism activities. Their systems process 200,000 grant applications annually, support giving at 4500 facilities in 10 countries, and are used by more than 1.5 million associates around the world.

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