October 24, 2018

At the intersection of Philanthropy and Tech: Sharing my perspective at ACT-W

Photo caption: Participants at the 2018 Advancing the Careers of Technical Women (ACT-W) Conference in Portland smile and wave in anticipation of their next workshop activity.

This first in a series of blogs will focus on what tech, as a sector and a community, gets right. The three big ideas: how the philanthropic sector can maximize impact with better technology, developing a more generous attitude toward risk and how philanthropy can invest internally by creating an open and mentoring work culture that spreads beyond the bounds of the individual workplace.

In July, I had the opportunity to speak at ACT-W Portland, the annual conference for our city's local ChickTech chapter. My talk, "At The Intersection of Philanthropy & Tech," was about the ways I think the tech industry is ahead of philanthropy, the things it can learn from philanthropy, and areas where both industries need to work together for the betterment of society. Last year, I attended my first ACT-W conference, when I was just beginning to get my head around the idea of being a "techie": I was three months into learning Python and a year or so into developing websites.

I was inspired by the conference and its unique mix of high-tech, person-centered and down-to-earth sessions –– so much so that –– this year I wanted to share my thoughts at this particular conference because I've been working at the intersection of tech and philanthropy, and I see the gaps in-between what each sector wants to accomplish and what they are currently achieving. Furthermore, I wanted to provoke and facilitate a conversation on this subject and felt that ACT-W was the right venue, as it brings together socially-responsible minded people rooted in tech.

The idea of better systems is close to home, because Meyer has maintained an in-house grants management system since 2004, when we decided to move toward digital. Technological advancements within the past decade have provided significant growth in tech products aimed at the philanthropic market and I think the future promises us not just the tools to do our jobs but also tools that will make philanthropy more effective. For example, data visualization platforms and real-time data platforms (as an alternative to traditional grant reporting) are already in the works. Just imagine how the entire conversation about the U.S. 2020 Census and the importance of an accurate census count could be changed if funders didn't need to rely on census data collected once per decade. Additionally, projects such as Grantmakers.io are utilizing APIs and caching tools to create more transparency in our sector, which is great news for nonprofits –– because it's 100 percent free –– and great news for the public, who deserve to know where philanthropic dollars go.

Philanthropy's attitude toward risk needs a shakeup.

As a sector, we tend to be risk-averse, which is funny, since our primary goal is to lose money. Foundations that have roots in tech are modeling the big-bet approach to philanthropy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is best known for global big bets on eradicating malaria and ensuring family planning and reproductive health care for all women. However, they also invest heavily (if quietly) in the Pacific Northwest, specifically in helping marginalized people secure education that leads to high earnings. They describe this work as "big bets in innovation." I'd call it equity, because it is looking not just at getting marginalized people into the workforce or into traditional university education, but also intentionally striving to build their long-term power. Another example of big-bet philanthropy is Michael & Susan Dell Foundation's annual expenditure of 15 percent of its assets, as opposed to the industry-standard (and legally required) 5 percent. In 2017, Fast Company profiled Dell Foundation's risky spending, their influence and their impact investing strategy as it relates to broader sector trends.

Finally, I think the way that the tech industry invests in people is absolutely phenomenal. From hosting weekly Meetup groups to participating in and supporting conferences like ACT-W, the people of tech are wholeheartedly engaged in sharing knowledge, mentoring and moving folks into the fold. Techies understand that the future success of their sector — and of society — depends on developing more programmers. If that sounds hyperbolic, consider cybersecurity expert and "Future Crimes" author Marc Goodman's warning: reserving high-level knowledge for an elite task force will only ensure that the bad guys stay ahead of us in matters of personal, institutional and national security.

I have personally experienced this supportive culture and learning environment: through groups such as Women Who Code and Latinx Tech PDX; through mentorship, encouragement, and being given advice by tech professionals; through free learning platforms such as Khan Academy, GitHub Labs and edX; as a member of the LaunchCode community; and from organizations such as ChickTech, who provided an interface for me to engage and platform for me to connect and share with peers. All of this has happened free of charge and within the past 18 months.

Philanthropy has nothing on this! I think it's time our sector got strategic about how to recruit, mentor, and retain instead of assuming that there are a finite amount of jobs in grantmaking and no one ever leaves them. I managed GRANTMAKERS of Oregon and Southwest Washington's jobs board for more than three years, and I know that's not the case. People move through our sector from government, academia, nonprofits and for-profits all the time. Philanthropy needs to consider doing more than the occasional diversity pipeline or leadership program (most of which don't result in getting folks of color into leadership).

If the idea of funders stationing a booth at a career fair or hosting a Meetup for folks interested in learning about grantmaking seems totally wild, it says something about our sector and the value we place on investing in people. That's not a message I want us to send.

If you're a funder and this blog feels like a total downer or if you're a techie patting yourself on the back for being awesome, stay tuned. I have more thoughts on how our sectors can work together. I think philanthropy has a lot to teach the tech industry about deploying resources for social good, and I think engaging tech in this work is one of our most pressing tasks.

Rhiannon