Advisers’ perspectives – Missing – the power of peer networks

Lucy Bernholz

Alliance’s September 2010 issue on philanthropy advisers lays out the case for the formalization and growth of the services they offer. Articles by Melissa Berman, Felicitas von Peter and Olga Alexeeva tell of new structures and standards of practice and raise important issues for the industry and the clients it serves. But I think the issue missed a key part of the story. As philanthropy advice becomes institutionalized and more professional, it is also spiralling through its next iteration as a peer-based activity.

Credit Jeff TurnerThe trends that I have seen reshape philanthropy over the last decade were missing from the stories being told about the advisers. There was little coverage of online tools, almost no mention of the role of data, and no real sense of the interests and passions of the people being served. Philanthropy is personal, human and irrational. It evolves in odd ways and I think services to donors will do so, too. It won’t be as neat a tale of service industry evolution as the Alliance articles suggest.

Philanthropy is becoming ever more relationship-based. The internet helps us find issues and projects we might not have found before. Sites like Kiva and Kickstarter make it easier for us to call together our friends to support a cause or meet new friends from within the existing pool of funders or lenders. They help us give with others.

One of the oddly underestimated elements of the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge is the way it demonstrated what we have always known about giving: when a peer, a friend or a family member asks you to give, you give. The Giving Pledge simply brought this to a new level.

One of the few big American gifts last year – Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million to Startup:Education – was a classic case of peer-to-peer philanthropy advising. Zuckerberg asked his Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, for advice and she turned to her networks to find something that met the donor’s interests. More formal versions of these peer advisory networks include the programmes of TPW-W, Synergos, Social Venture Partners and the Global Philanthropy Forum. There are service providers, evaluation vendors and professional advisers in the mix, but the ideas and partnerships come through these peer networks.

The growth of independent data sources on giving is another key development of the last decade. The likes of New Philanthropy Capital and Techsoup Global have become important resources for informed giving. Initially it seemed that such data might replace the advice of friends, but exactly the opposite is happening. The data stimulates joint thinking and feedback on collective action – a product of peer relationships, not a replacement for them. Consider the role that mobile phones play in information-sharing after disasters. We text updates, make gifts and pass on Twitter feeds – each of us becoming part of a peer-to-peer news network. We use data from outsiders but share it among our friends.

Peer-to-peer philanthropy advising is what is being built through social networks, many-to-many communications strategies and globally connected datasets. Philanthropy advising should evolve alongside these data and peer networks. It will be these networks of peers that professional advisers – whether they are selling a bank’s services or independent evaluation or research – need to serve (and learn from) in the future.

The advisory firms featured in Alliance are maturing. The rest of the field is still a scatter plot of providers, practices, tools and products. Small foundations and people with portfolios on Kiva are shaking up the long tail of philanthropy. They have knowledge and information about local projects, small organizations and unaffiliated social entrepreneurs that big organizations at the top cannot see. Networks can generate more ideas, vet more ideas and provide a more robust feedback process than any single adviser. They can make sense of data in ways that individuals never will. The biggest opportunity that I see for philanthropy advising is in cross-stitching and constantly invigorating networks – big and small, local and global – with expertise and resources.

Lucy Bernholz is a fellow in philanthropy at the New America Foundation and a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Email

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