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Government and Philanthropy: Team of Rivals?

By Susan Carey Dempsey on April 27, 2011No Comment

From Egypt to Wisconsin, in the streets and on smart phones, observed Tom Watson, activists are finding their voices and finding their fellow citizens. At a panel discussion on Government and Philanthropy at NYU’s Heyman Center this past week, the conversation was dominated by observations of the impact of social media and the power of information shared online.

“There has been a massive change in the last two to three years,” observed social entrepreneur Andrew Rasiej, “in the use of tools like Facebook and Twitter” in political activism. During the 2008 presidential election, he said, nine out of 10 political videos came not from the candidates themselves; 1.3. billion online videos were produced and shared by citizens, not campaigns.

In the discussion moderated by Watson, publisher of onPhilanthropy and author of CauseWired, panelists agreed that e-government has arrived, in which technology enables the delivery of many services from government to its citizens. (Rasiej prefers the term “we government”).  A tipping point has been reached, perhaps in the availability of data online. These days, when people can used smart phones to collect all kinds of data from the government, citizens are building apps, tools and platforms to put those data to work in their civic lives. “Citizens innovate faster than government ever can,” says Rasiej.

Panelist John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation observed that we are only at the beginning of seeing such changes emerge. He pointed to tools like OpenCongress and GovTrack – which was built by one graduate student at UPenn wishing to track a piece of legislation through Congress – and which are lapping the information proffered by the Library of Congress through its more cumbersome and costly Thomas legislation tracking function.

Speaking on the one-year anniversary of the BP oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Wonderlich pointed to the information on the failures of regulatory agencies that was discovered in the wake of the accident. “Public information is at the heart of how government is supposed to function.” He praised Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) for sponsorship of the Public Online Information Act, requiring all executive branches of the federal government to make any of their public documents available online. “Our expectations of what should be shared online,” Wonderlich said, “ will only grow.”

So where does government intersect with philanthropy in these times? According to fundraising consulting Richard McPherson, an NYU faculty member, in a rather crowded space: “Competition between government and nonprofits is becoming increasingly uncomfortable,” as governments turn to fundraising, even using sites like to close gaps in budgets for community colleges, school districts, parks and other areas in straitened times.

Another take on the government-philanthropy dynamic came from Laura Fredricks, who teaches and consults on philanthropy trends. “The toughest place to fundraise now is New Orleans,” she stated. “They’re still in shock. First of all, the city has lost one-quarter of its donor base, people who left and never came back in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Plus, the attitude is – the federal, state and local governments have all turned their backs on us. What good could a local nonprofit possibly do?

But Fredricks was able to provide a very interesting perspective on US philanthropy when observed from afar. She’d recently returned from Russia, where she’d been invited to speak to a session devoted to philanthropy at a gathering of 2100 financial investors. “They were fascinated to know how, in the second year of a recession, the US had still managed to raise $300 billion for nonprofits.” At the conference, an online platform to enable interaction between businesses, NGO’s and governments was introduced. It is hoped that, as a voluntary sector emerges, Winko, as it’s known, will stimulate the NGO sphere by providing interaction between the most active nonprofits and socially responsible businesses, with the government supporting by providing information online. It’s a tentative step forward in a nation that had previously associated NGO’s with government corruption. “In a sense, the government has created its own United Way,” Fredricks observed.

One observation that most of these experts agreed on was that there has been a proliferation of nonprofits that is really counterproductive. “There’s a new nonprofit created in the US every 15 minutes, “ declared McPherson. “Forty to fifty thousand a year are approved by the IRS. That’s way too many. We should be seeing a trend toward mergers and acquisitions.”

Ending on a hopeful note, the panelists suggested that technology, with its expanding access to information, may play a part in resolving this trend. The more citizens are able to make informed choices, the more nonprofits will be forced out of their silos. For those who wish to remain hunkered down there, time and technology won’t be on their side.

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