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What can Uber teach philanthropists?

By Plum Lomax 31 March 2015

I was delighted to be invited to speak at the Jewish Funders Network International Conference in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, one of the largest gatherings of Jewish foundations from around the world. It was an interesting experience to spend some time with this group of international funders, but also to be in Israel on the day of the elections, where the majority of people I spoke to were hoping for a shift in power.

Power, indeed, was one of the overriding themes of the conference, initiated by a fascinating keynote speech from Jeremy Heimans, co-founder and CEO of Purpose, the movement-building social business.

Heimans and Henry Timms have created a model, launched in December’s Harvard Business Review,  to explain the shift in global power from old power (‘enabled by what people own, know or control that nobody else does’) to new power (‘models enabled by peer coordination and the agency of the crowd’), mainly being played out in the private sector. He described the rise of new companies such as Airbnb or Uber, disrupting current market practices by bringing power to the masses, with a single piece of software enabling individuals to each become their own bosses, whether through offering their homes for rent or driving people in their cars.

Heimans’ question to the conference delegates: ‘How can philanthropists harness this trend towards new power in their work?’ Is it just a private sector phenomenon or does it have implications for the non-profit world?  Heimans’ own organisation, Purpose, exemplifies this read-across through its use of  technology to harness the power of participation, mainly through civic action. Heimans gave the example of Michael Bloomberg’s campaign against  gun violence in the US. The former New York Mayor spent time funding traditional methods without much success. Then, with the help of Purpose, Bloomberg switched to using new power to oppose the powerful National Rifle Association, building his own movement and empowering constituents across the US to combat gun laws.

Much of this discussion was echoed in my own talk later on the day. The topic of my panel session was ‘Philanthropy in the 21st century; understanding big data’. Heimans had outlined the values rewarded by new power models such as collaboration, accountability and transparency—after all, an Airbnb host is unlikely to get new customers if they tell lies about the state of their shower.

These new power values are precisely what can bring so much benefit to the foundation world, and the explosion of big and open data is facilitating this trend. We picked this up in our report last year, 10 Innovations in global philanthropy, where many of the new approaches we highlighted were driven by a quest for greater collaboration, impact and transparency. As well as showcasing some of these innovations, I talked about how foundations can use data to their best advantage—to better understand needs, to share information about or find effective grantees, to understand the impact of projects they fund and indeed their own impact as a funder and to benchmark themselves against other foundations.

Fortunately for foundations, there are now a multitude of tools, datasets and platforms available to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their work. What is often missing is the resources, skills, capacity or incentives to implement new data-driven processes, but foundations are in an a good position to help grantees navigate this complex world of data.

I am optimistic that the much needed progress and change for the non-profit sector will be powered by data. At NPC, data is a growing focus and we hope that initiatives like our data labs turn into the sector’s answer to Uber.