Jeff Perlstein: Amplifying Social Impact in a Connected Age

A Survey of Technology-Related Grantmaking for Social Benefit

Review by Nancy Glaze

2010, 26 pages, ZeroDivide, San José, CA

The need to reconcile funder interest in supporting grantees' use of new digital media tools and strategies with limited philanthropic investments in these technologies overall underscores the challenges facing the nonprofit sector in successfully crossing the digital divide. In his timely case study, Amplifying Social Impact in a Connected Age, Jeff Perlstein, director of strategic engagement at ZeroDivide, gives an overview of many of the barriers to increasing technology engagement and support and provides helpful grounding for funders grappling with investing in these new technologies. Clearly the days are gone when a technology grant consisted of servicing the basic IT operations of an organization. Today funders must not only understand but also be willing to embrace and engage with a rapidly changing technology landscape. In addition, funders must change their traditional mind-set. They must be willing to explore new ways of collaborating with grantees and take risks in unfamiliar territories that may not always provide immediate or predictable results.

A key takeaway in Perlstein's study addresses an interesting challenge—and disconnect—for funders and grantees alike. On one hand, you have grantees in the trenches struggling to keep pace with the technologies that are now intrinsic to the way we live, work, and interact. On the other hand are the funders who are using traditional methods and analysis to meet their reporting requirements and evaluate the success of these programs. On a practical level what should the role be of a foundation officer in assessing these opportunities? Given the ever-changing nature of technology, what efforts should they make in staying current? How can the philanthropic fields address the urgent need for ongoing professional development in these areas?

Clearly, it's a two-way street. Funders can't expect grantees to lead in their fields as technology content experts unless they, the funders, also acquire the knowledge regarding the technology itself, as well as comprehend its execution and impacts. Perlstein offers some interesting suggestions for meeting these challenges. The most intriguing—and perhaps most difficult to implement—is “fostering a more technology-fluent foundation culture.” Funders must embrace key characteristics, including being comfortable learning about and using new technologies, encouraging all staff members to acquire the same capabilities, and understanding the technology value proposition and how its strategic application can help advance an organization's mission.

As funders we must not only internalize these approaches but also incorporate these characteristics into our organizations' DNA. By doing so, we can all fully participate in and keep pace with advancements and best practices in our sector—and also responsibly fulfill our obligations as funders and philanthropic investors.