Thursday, September 09, 2010

Conflicting Trends in Grant-Making: What do you think?

Chicks hatching (Gallus gallus domesticus)Image via Wikipedia
Popularity funding vs. greater outcome accountability
Years ago, when I lived in Chicago, I read an article detailing the method used for determining the most popular exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry. The method was simple -- how often the tiles in front of the exhibit needed to be replaced.

The most popular exhibit was the incubator where chicks were hatching day in and day out. How did the tiles play into it? People stood there quite fascinated, watching the miracle of birth, shuffling their feet, wearing out the tiles in front of the exhibit. (Perhaps this was the origin of the concept of voting with your feet.)

This story came to mind when I read yet another article about funders looking for ways to hold agencies, museums, arts programs accountable. We've talked about the struggle to find meaningful, short term, and do-able measures of accountability before. It's a challenge.

The same afternoon I received an email from a local soup kitchen asking me, and everyone else on their email list, to vote daily for their program in Pepsi's Refresh Everything campaign. And, get all our friends to do the same. Pepsi is giving away $15.6M in grants ranging from $5000 to $250,000 -- all based on which agency got the most votes. Kohl's retail chain ran a similar popularity-based grant program this summer, Kohl's Cares, $500,000 to 20 public and private K-12 schools.

Whether we're talking $5K or $500K, we're talking real money here. Money generating a lot of publicity for the sponsors, Pepsi and Kohl's, without any accountability for whether that money will "do good." Is this a viable program that will benefit the community? All we really know is that the winning agencies can get out the vote.

This "social media grant-giving" is heavily weighted in favor of communities that are digitally sophisticated, the digital-haves,leaving behind those with less access to digital tools and a social media-savvy population -- the digital-have-nots.
So, there we have two conflicting trends. Traditional foundations seeking ways to hold grantees more accountable while corporate foundations seek ways to make grant-giving into tax-free advertising. (Pepsi Refresh site on Facebook notes 92,000 monthly active users. KohlCares indicates 2,729,440 people "like" this.)

Hmmm. Your thoughts?
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