This is the first of a two-part piece which examines how participatory media can help streamline and democratize philanthropy. First we’ll look at how collaboritive tools can help draw out the brightest ideas and most capable project leaders. Next we will examine how participatory media can redefine the evaluation process after a project has already been funded by giving the targeted community a greater say in how the initiative has (or has not) had an impact on their lives.

Imagine you have just started working for a philanthropic foundation that is about to request proposals that aim to strengthen community journalism. Just like in the old days, the communications department drafts and distributes a press release with a catchy headline and bulleted points for journalists to copy and paste into their articles. But unlike a decade ago, when the press release was rehashed in a dozen or so newspapers, today it is immediately sucked into an entire universe of mailing lists, forums, blogs, and websites. And, yes, twitter.

Whereas you, the new employee at the imagined foundation, expected to review around 200 proposals, instead here are more than 3,000 proposals from groups you’ve likely never heard of, most of which are based in countries you’ve never been to. How do you select the 15 most deserving projects?

Just reading 3,000 proposals is daunting enough, but a responsible review process also implies researching every individual, organization, and claim listed in each proposal. While hiring more expert reviewers is an option, this takes away from the money available to the projects themselves.

Foundations are discovering the difficulties involved in scaling up the review process from a few hundred proposals to a few thousand. In their efforts to stay afloat, new models have emerged which “crowdsource” the review process to gain insights from the collective expertise of individuals and organizations which are potentially more familiar with the region of the applicant and the issues which affect the project (s)he is proposing.

Changemakers: Open Sourcing Social Solutions

A leader in the field of crowdsourced philanthropy is Changemakers, an initiative of the Ashoka Foundation, which aims to “open source social solutions.” Like most philanthropies, Changemakers regularly makes “requests for proposals” in hopes of finding innovative projects focused on particular themes. Rather than reviewing these proposals behind closed doors, however, they are all submitted online and made available for anyone with an internet connection to read and comment on. That’s not to say that the final funding decisions are left to the general public. Each grant competition has its own committee of judges – the so-called experts. But unlike most grant review committees, all of the reviewers of Changemakers grant competitions each have their own profile page where you review the comments they’ve made and, once logged in, send them private messages.

Recent grant competitions have focused on ending global slavery and using banking services to fight poverty. Between April and August of 2008 over 230 proposals from nearly 50 countries were submitted in the grant competition to end global slavery. In total they received 1,300 discussion comments and no single proposal received greater than 87 comments (though the great majority of the proposals did not receive any comments). As you might guess, most comments come from personal and professional acquaintances of the applicant and mostly serve as brief “comments of recommendation.” But what is fascinating is how much more informative those recommendations are than the feedback from the judges. For example, in the case of Vimukti Trust‘s proposal to lobby the Indian government against bonded labor, many of the commenters with NGO experience in India emphasize that putting an end to the bonded labor in India is only possible with stronger state and federal government support. That is much more insightful and useful than any of the boilerplate commentary that came from the expert judges. In the end we learn that Vimukti Trust’s proposal was chosen as a finalist, but did not receive funding.

Idea Blob: Users Choose What is Funded

While Changemakers leaves the decision-making process to a small committee of experts, Idea Blob decides which new idea will receive its monthly $10,000 prize based solely on the number of votes the idea receives from the community. Idea Blob is a philanthropic initiative of Advanta, a small business lender which got its start in 1951 when a Philadelphia schoolteacher started giving small loans to fellow teachers. Last month’s $10,000 prize went to Elizabeth Dehart of West Jordan, Utah who is trying to start a small business which will stock vending machines with organic food options. Her proposal received 53 comments, most of which were along the lines of Teebee’s comment: “that’s rockin. do it.” But others were more constructive in their feedback and criticism of Dehart’s business plan. Jeffrey Hollender, for example, writes: “Local school districts can be a hard market to crack. You might be better off starting at the college level, or seeking appointments with companies that practice sustainability. Start with local businesses, a hometown advantage can be a big plus.”

News Challenge Garage: Connecting Mentors and Applicants

The Knight News Challenge Garage is a new initiative of the Knight Foundation, which funds all of the projects regularly featured here as grantees of the annual News Challenge (including the project I direct, Rising Voices). The Garage aims to provide a “place for prospective applicants to share their ideas and receive comments from peers, as well as coaching from program mentors (past winners and current screeners), before submitting applications.” The site matches new applicants with experienced mentors in the hope of improving the quality and foresight of proposals before they are reviewed. Applications aren’t officially open for the News Challenge until September 2, but some projects have already begun posting parts of their proposals. One applicant is asking for $15,000 to translate and publish content in local, indigenous Malawian languages and then encourage online discussion about that content. It strikes me as a wonderful idea ” a major obstacle to digital inclusion is a lack of content in indigenous languages. However, I am also aware that the applicant is not framing his/her proposal in language that is accessible and appealing from the perspective of the Knight Foundation. I also know that (s)he will score extra points by mentioning specific open source software solutions like Drupal, which the Knight Foundation has already invested heavily in. I hope that Social Actions, which aggregates opportunities for do-gooders to do good; Have Money Will Vlog, which (similar to Spot.us) encourages community funding of video-blogging projects; and the annual NetSquared conference, which awards prizes to the most innovative projects that use social software for social change based on the voting and discussion of the NetSquared community.

At the very least, participatory philanthropy offers more transparency into the process of how and why grantees are selected by foundations. If a foundation were to provide funding to an undeserving recipient, there would be immediate outcry. But participatory philanthropy also offers an advantage to the foundations themselves as they are able to take advantage of the knowledge and insight of volunteer ‘consultants’. This is all still at a very experimental phase, of course, and it remains to be seen to what degree the general public should play in deciding which proposals receive funding.