Moving Money Schemes

San Francisco     Being on the Tides board in its various forms is an emersion experience in a different culture and environment outside of the normal range where I roam. Even after 30 years of being on this board and my great pride in the growth of Tides that began in the most casual ways as Drummond Pike’s side drawer operation when we would hardly meet annually and do so everywhere from a boat cabin in Sausalito to the point of formality now of board rooms and color tabbed dockets, it still amazes me how unique and insular the philanthropic environment can be whether $50,000 is involved or $50,000,000. Our world is no doubt the same, but somehow our values and culture are so far outside of this silo that there seems little imagination of it and less a sense of the paradoxes. I often sit in the meeting with the strange feeling of being a visitor from another planet. One of the biggest differences is the transference of entitlements to the staff that seem to rub off of the wealth being served and the absence of any sense of end-use or constituency accountability. But that’s not really what I was going to talk about, so I better get away from there! Nonetheless it is like going to a foreign land….you learn a huge amount, hope to make small contribution, and are delighted to get home again!

Among the things that I learned though were about some different ideas beginning to emerge as “business models” for moving wealth from donors into “doing good” and we will leave it at that:

* Good Night An interesting effort in the hospitality industry that is offering guests at participating establishments the opportunity to pitch in another $4.00 on their bill that then goes into a fund. The fund moves money internationally among other things to health projects. Not sure how large it is, but it’s a fascinating concept and definitely goes past the Paris Hilton concept of giving.

* Geneva Global This is a for-profit outfit out based somewhere on the Philly mainline that claims to have moved $60,000,000 over the last 5 years. They take a huge chunk of the case to administer and identify the projects. It appears to be around 20% of the gross contribution. I looked at the website for the outfit while it was being discussed and the funding looks “mainline” with a little microcredit and this that and the other. Their hook though is on their web site they list a figure of over a 1,000,000 people having been helped by the investments in their projects, but the figure is very specific and gives the impression of having real substance and metrics. They tout the fact that they have a network of 600 “volunteers” and development officers, peace corps people, and whatever who are part of their network of referral and vetting of projects. They have some staff sprinkled around the globe that monitors and moves the money. Fascinating.

* Google This is a coup for Tides especially given the “no it all” Google-culture, but they have asked us to move their money to international projects. Hmmmmm…..

* Synergy On Tides it turned out that without fully realizing it, we found in looking at Tides Network synergy that we were granting about $8,000,000 in Africa and had projects based on that continent that were also spending about the same amount of money. Ellen Friedman, Tides EVP, ventured that without full recognizing it, we had become a significant funder in Africa. OMG!

* ActBlue And, though this had nothing to do with Tides to the degree the meeting forces my mind open it felt more like fate than a coincidence to read in today’s Times about a couple of fellows construction of a web portal called Act Blue that with 54000 web pages facilitates various fundraising efforts for a wide range of Democratic candidates and related projects. They have committed to assisting in raising $100,000,000 for this cycle and the claims of the story held that they were materially changing the way that money was raised. Definitely these electronic sweeps and transfers of resources were even challenging the way matching money is figured by the FEC and how to count these small, almost anonymous donations.

We have to create more capital to resource the work at so many levels, so these ideas on the brave new frontier of collecting and distributing money are worth watching closely to see what we can learn, copy, and even raise ourselves.


Triple Bottom Line

San Francisco     During a meeting of the Tides Network board the term “triple bottom line” was tossed around wildly, particularly as we discussed the concept of a “green space” initiative as part of our larger “Shared Spaces” program that has successfully developed the non-profit office complexes where our San Francisco offices are on the Presidio grounds and more recently with a new building across from the Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan in New York City. Cynthia Rowland, our able attorney, gave me her brief synopsis of the term and that was helpful, but the way the concept was being bandied about made me both curious and uncomfortable.

The “triple bottom line” or TBL as some call it was a term coined by John Elkington in 1994 and turned into a book about general corporate responsibility that he wrote in 1997. With increased conversation about corporate social responsibility the term has acquired a certain faddish appeal including a movement to about 180,000 hits annually on Google to try and figure it out.

Wikipedia’s entry boils it down nicely to: “people, planet, and profit.” The three “Ps” stick to the mind admirably, though more broadly this is understood as measuring an operation’s value on three levels, economic which goes past profit to also attempt to touch the concept of sustainability, people that looks at the social impact of the effort and its impact on community, culture, and other forces, and then planet that goes to the environmental impact, the footprint and general carrying ability of resources against the value of the enterprise. The United Nations beginning this year adopted some forms of TBL as measurements of urban and community accounting which might spread the notion more widely and perhaps offer some specificity.

Professors Wayne Norman and Chris MacDonald, who are two Canadian professors, offer an interesting critique in Business Ethics Quarterly in 2004 of the concept arguing “(a) that what is sound about the idea of a Triple Bottom Line is not novel, and (b) that what is novel about the idea is not sound.” The professors believe that the TBL allows a corporate smokescreen and distracts and disguises real and focused work and business accountability on a series of shifting and unstable grounds rather than forcing measurement on specific social or environmental objectives and remediation.

Seems interesting, though squishy to me, especially when talking about real estate where regular non-profits may still simply not be able to afford the space. I would worry about it seeming better than it really works, especially if you find yourself, as we often do, still on the outside looking in and listening to the all of the TBL virtues being extolled, when it still looks and feels like a regular developer’s real estate dream with better environmental standards and financing courtesy of all the virtues of non-profit and tax exempt financing.

Located in the historic Letterman Hospital buildings of San Francisco’s Presidio National Park, Thoreau Center for Sustainability is a highly successful Multi-Tenant Nonprofit Center. This 12 building facility houses over 60 organizations working for social and environmental sustainability as well as two community-oriented art galleries. Its renovation incorporated green design and historic preservation.