The Search for Wisdom

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Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network and CommA Fall 2010 Conference in Los Angeles with the help of a blog team, which is part of the conference’s 2nd annual Gorilla Engagement Squad.  This is a guest post by Larry Blumenthal, Web and Social Media Strategist at Open Road Advisors. Follow Larry on Twitter: @lblumenthal

by:  Larry Blumenthal

Earlier this year, a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had a proposal land on his desk to fund distribution of a documentary. The officer knew that the filmmakers produced good work because the foundation had worked with them in the past. He also knew that the documentary hit a bullseye for his program goals. What he didn’t know was whether the film would generate conversation among the audience he wanted to reach. Would it inspire them to action? Would it create buzz?

Being a savvy social media sort, he tried an experiment. He put the name of the documentary into the search box on Twitter. And he hit the jackpot. Thanks to Twitter, he learned that people were talking about the film. They were suggesting their colleagues see it. It was creating buzz. That was what he needed to know to make his decision.

That story came to mind while I was listening to the first presentation at this year’s Communications Network annual meeting. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, took things one step further. He mentioned how Bernardo Huberman, a senior fellow at HP Labs, found that one could predict the box office success of a movie by harvesting and analyzing the collective knowledge of people on Twitter. These are people who had not yet even seen the movie. Surowiecki made the case with example after example that, under the right conditions, the wisdom of the crowd trumps the wisdom of any one individual. He went on to describe the three elements that constitute the “right conditions” – a means to aggregate the collective opinion, a cognitively diverse crowd and a crowd that feels comfortable sharing thoughts openly.

Surowiecki emphasized the particular importance of cognitive diversity, tapping a crowd that has a broad range of expertise and experience.

What a powerful tool for foundations. Yes, blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are beginning to proliferate in the world of philanthropy, especially as communication vehicles. A few are experimenting with idea competitions, forums and/or Wikis that tap into the collective knowledge of the field to shape program work. It is still early, but the time is here to imagine the possibilities for those foundations that open themselves to tapping the wisdom of audiences beyond the usual suspects. The possibilities that will come from inviting others working on the same issues into the process – early and often. Listening to Surowiecki left me pondering one question. In a world where having impact is so crucial, how can foundations not jump in?

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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