Trust-Driven Philanthropy: An Experiment

Purpose: To help catalyze a new kind of philanthropy, where donors and recipients co-create the change they wish to see in the world and promote a world view where everyone is a potential philanthropist and changemaker.

Status Quo: Traditional giving is often transactional and rooted in future-based projections; by the time a donation reaches the hands of the actual recipient, its use is constricted by pre-defined ideas that may no longer hold true. As a result of this process, donors are mired in bureaucratic follow-up and don't have time to look at 90% of the new ideas that are sitting on their desk; the grant recipients feel like "employees" expected to return what the donor wants to see and miss out on many on-the-ground innovations; and the masses hear the cookie-cutter, choreographed stories that "sell" instead of authentic voices that inspire.

A New Possibility: Imagine a form of giving that is rooted in trust and transparency. You make a no-strings-attached gift to people you trust; those recipients are now empowered to dynamically serve in their own context, leveraging this unconditional gift; and as an expression of gratitude, they pass the inspiration on, creatively sharing the story of paying-forward the gift they received. Onlookers get engaged, and the (r)evolution continues organically.

The Experiment: Five friends invite five "generosity entreprenuers", cultural creatives who are deeply committed to the gift-economy, for a small gathering. After sharing some inspired introductions, the Generosity Entreprenuers (GE's) are given (as a surprise!) an unconditional gift of $500 and asked to "pay it forward", no strings attached. Five friends, five GE's, and other guests brainstorm spontaneous ideas and share stories in the space of gratitude. Three weeks later, we gather again. GE's will not only share stories of what they did with the money, but will also have invited the next round of GE's who will be similarly surprised with $500 checks. GE's willing, everything will be made transparent on the Internet, in the hopes that onlookers might be inspired to get engaged by contributing some money, time, blessings or other resources.

Possible Outcomes: Imagine someone moved by homelessness, who now has a daily meal with a homeless person and writes stories about those conversations. Imagine an artist who does free portraits on the streets of San Francisco on the weekend and shares those photos online. Imagine a filmmaker who asks unsuspecting people -- "What makes you come alive?" and posts the videos online. The possibilities are unlimited. Such grassroot work empowers an incubator of compassionate action, a hotbed of innovations, and whole new genre of philanthropists and initiators. Someone might say, "Hey, if this guy is sharing meals with the homeless and sharing his insights and photos everyday, I'd rather give him my ten bucks instead of watching a movie this week." Or someone might want to volunteer, or connect the GE to a relevant resource, or fund an expansion of the project, or replicate it elsewhere. It's human, honest, viral and scalable.

Underlying Principles: Power of abundance, power of many, power of small. Trust in self-organization instead of hedging fears with business plans; trust in the wisdom of many instead of the wisdom of privilege; trust in the power of small "be the change" acts instead of a grand save-the-world idea that compromises a few values. ("Off by an inch in the beginning, off by a thousand miles at the end.") The subtler idea is to create context for the invisible to matter; ie. purifying the vibration of the donor, recepient, and beneficiary and letting its collective strength self-organize into its magic.

Scalability: While the pilot will start with 5 people, $500, and 3 weeks, there is no reason why any and all variations of those numbers can't be replicated. The Generosity Entreprenuers website will loosely connect all the experiments, stories and best practices and create a social network that empowers the GE's to support each other. Moreover, this website will generate a repository of rough-cut, authentic stories (mostly video) of people "in their element", sharing creative stories of generosity that makes them come alive; this can be used by the mainstream media as "human-interest" stories, by bloggers as topics of discussions, by organizations to inspire their constituencies, by micro-philanthropists to find a grassroot ideas, by foundations to fund particular niche ideas, and by the masses to spread goodness via word-of-mouth. Compassion is contagious!

Originally drafted in May 2007; latest at