Paul Buchheit (founder of Gmail and Friendfeed) wants to donate money to charity. He's trying an interesting experiment in collaborative charity, where he's planning to crowdsource the list of ideas he should consider funding. The ideas he gets are only recommendations, he says, and he will ultimately choose the best idea that appeals to him and that makes sense.
In that spirit, let me make a suggestion for Paul and others like him in Silicon Valley, one that takes a different perspective. If you're a successful tech founder or VC who likes philanthropy, consider this a free "business idea for giving back" that you can adopt as your own if it interests you. [Now I'm no VC, nor am I a rich, successful tech founder, so I have no idea if the approach below has any appeal to these folks; nevertheless it is an interesting thought exercise.]
Silicon Valley skills
In general, anyone with a bit of time or money and the inclination to help, can donate to charity, and many people do (bless 'em!). The most effective donations, however, leverage the unique skills and perspectives that one can bring as an individual, using one's own talents and gifts in addition to money, to help others.
So what could Silicon Valley entrepreneurs do? How about this: instead of donating money directly, why not use it as seed funding to build an organization that can keep on giving? After all that is what tech founders (and VCs) do best: they fund startups that take some initial amount of money and then leverage it massively to create a disproportionate impact on a target market - or die trying. Why not take the same approach to charity? Build an organization that leverages other people's time and money, and creates massive impact, much bigger than the pure monetary donation would create.
But what type of organization? There are already many, many charities, of many different types. How do you make a difference?
Third level of Abstraction
Give a man a fish, it is said, and you feed him for a day; teach him to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Extending the metaphor, what if you could create a construct that continuously spawns ideas, technologies and approaches for teaching everyone to catch fish?
What the world needs more than direct charity, is locally-sustainable ideas that allow populations in underdeveloped areas to take care of their own core needs - clean water, sustainable food production, cheap education and economic development - by themselves. As a philanthropist, what if you were to establish an organization to crowdsource innovations and ideas to bring about these very changes? You could create a mechanism to encourage such attempts and to reward successes.
The idea: So the idea I'm proposing, in a nutshell, is this: instead of making a direct monetary donation to charity, set up a recurring contest or start an organization that encourages and rewards innovations in technology, design, reuse, financial models, human factors or ecology conservation, for the social good. Most important, these innovations must lead to local, self-sustainable solutions that do not depend on ongoing external help to keep going.
Real-Life Examples: Business Models and Innovations
There are many examples of business models for encouraging innovation through crowd-sourcing:
- Competitions, such as the Netflix prize for improving their recommendation algorithm (which seems to be beaten) or NYC's design competition for post-disaster provisional housing
- Paul Graham's Y-Combinator micro-funding model for seeding startups
- Social incubators like socialedge
I'm sure there are many others that are not listed here, feel free to list them in the comments if you know of any.
What kind of innovations should such an organization look for? Ideally, these would be locally-managed, self-sustainable or reuse-based product design ideas, original approaches or creative financial models.
Here are some examples of innovations of this type:
- Clean water powered by playgrounds: Playpumps International
- SHRIMP Refugee Housing, which folds up so small that four of these can fit into a standard shipping container, and each one provides shelter and fresh water for a family of 4. [A slide show from Wired Magazine has a whole list of innovative shelter designs for providing emergency housing to disaster areas and refugees.]
- Buy a pair of chickens for AUS $10 and help a family get started in sustainable chicken farming. [via Darren Rowse of Problogger]
- Lighting up remote villages in India, using technology and innovative financial models: SELCO [via Sramana Mitra]
The world needs many more innovations of this type. Why not explicitly encourage them?