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Digital philanthropy: Part 7 – Natural selection – Fulfilling tech’s promise

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By Todd Cohen

Technology is the story of promise unfilled. Technology aims to connect people, but many don’t have it or can’t use it. It aims to simplify, but can simply confuse. It has created great wealth, but yielded relatively little philanthropy.

What’s to be done?

The new economy is Darwinian. The fittest will indeed survive and the unfit won’t. That’s a tough challenge for philanthropy, which is in business to deliver resources to those who need them. Yet nonprofits themselves are in need of resources.

What’s more, the nonprofit world has tended to view the glass as half empty. That kind of thinking has to change.

Today’s economy is being created by high-tech inventors and pioneers who scout out markets, create products, establish brands and do deals. Like their spiritual ancestors in the Old West, they make their own rules about what works and what doesn’t.

Philanthropy can learn a lot from the new economy. Nonprofits need to see the glass as half full, always on the lookout for possibilities.

Serving people in an increasingly competitive marketplace requires financial self-sufficiency. Nonprofits must recognize what businesses have long understood: Survival requires marketing, risk-taking and partnerships.

Marketplace skills are being provided to nonprofits in a growing number of communities by “social venture” funds created by high-tech entrepreneurs, such as Social Venture Partners in Seattle, and by nonprofit management centers and graduate programs in such disciplines as philanthropy, nonprofit management, public policy and business.

Entrepreneurial strategies can be controversial in philanthropy. Many nonprofits avoid and even look down on anything that smacks of commercial enterprise.

And while it’s fashionable to pay lip service to collaboration, many nonprofits are reluctant to share control over decision-making or hard-won turf – even though sharing is critical to making collaboration work.

To survive and thrive in the new economy, however, nonprofits will have to plug in and take care of business

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