"If you Want an Answer, ask Everyone:" The Rise of Crowd-Source Grantmaking

Crowd-sourcing is No. 1 in Mashable.com's "5 Trends Shaping the Future of Social Good." And one prominent nonprofit author/blogger calls it the No. 1 benefit for foundations in making more use of social media.

Have you engaged crowds yet in your grantmaking?

Several foundations are experimenting with crowd-sourcing, which nonprofit technology experts and bloggers Beth Kanter and Allison Fine define as "the process of organizing many people to participate in a joint project, often in small ways, producing results that are greater than an individual or organization could have accomplished alone." In their recent book on the rise of more open and transparent nonprofit organizations, "The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change," Kanter and Fine write that crowd-sourcing is a powerful way to build relationships with people outside an organization, helping them flex their own creativity and talents. At the time of the book's release during the summer, Fine told the Philanthropy Journal that crowd-sourcing is "the No. 1 benefit" for foundations in using social media. Specifically, she said it can help foundations uncover ideas to fund, learning about opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have heard about.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy is developing a crowd-sourcing approach modeled after its groundbreaking Grantee Perception Reports. As Phil Buchanan describes in recent posts to the Center's blog, the Beneficiary Perception Reports seek ideas and feedback from beneficiaries, or those whose lives funders seek to improve, offering a critical perspective often left out of the process. The Center is currently experimenting with the approach in its Gates-funded YouthTruth initiative, in which it is surveying students at high schools where foundation-funded reform is underway.

Then there is the Case Foundation, which promotes the use of prizes and open grantmaking to leverage philanthropy and improve government by tapping into knowledge beyond one organization's walls. Last spring, Case co-hosted a conference on the subject with the White House, reported upon in Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking. And, the foundation just released a new report analyzing the results of its Make It Your Own Award program, an open-grantmaking effort -- a variant of what it calls "participatory philanthropy" -- that sought to increase civic engagement in locations throughout the country by involving the public in the decision-making process. The public helped determine the grant guidelines and judging criteria, helped review the applications and helped vote on the winners, explains Citizen-Centered Solutions: Lessons in Leveraging Public Participation from the Make It Your Own Awards. As a result of the work, for example, residents in several Florida neighborhoods are working together to identify and take action in addressing environmental problems. And a youth-led initiative in Philadelphia is helping young people in the juvenile justice and foster care systems to reintegrate into their communities. Another result: In a majority of the efforts, participants expect to increase their civic engagement in the future.

The Rockefeller Foundation is experimenting with crowd-sourcing through several programs, part of a broader effort to support cutting-edge innovative practices for solving social problems identified and developed by the ultimate users of the innovations. For example, in an interview last winter with the Philanthropy News Digest, the foundation's Antony Bugg-Levine discussed a program with Global Giving and Innocentive to crowd-source solutions to five key challenges, which were themselves identified through crowd-sourcing. The foundation will offer cash rewards to those who propose the most promising solutions, and those solutions will then benefit from additional crowd-sourced funds. The essential core of the work is, as president Judith Rodin put it in a discussion at the Council on Foundations conference earlier this year, "If you want an answer, ask everyone."

In their book, Kanter and Fine stress that "social media are not a fad or a trend." Instead, their use will continue to grow and become ingrained in everyday life. It's not clear that new techniques that thrive on social media, such as crowd-sourcing, will have the same longevity. But they certainly also have the potential to open a process to new ideas.