May 1, 2005 Todd Cohen
Reshaping democracy by investing in the development of open-source software that individuals and groups can use to promote citizen action is the focus of a new foundation that aims to raise $5 million this year.
“Our goal is to ensure that where citizens and communities see problems and want to organize around solutions, that they have the ability and the wherewithal to find each other and to promote community-based solutions through next-generation software strategies and training,” said Rob Stuart, co-founder and chair of the e-Volve Foundation in Philadelphia, and senior vice president for strategic and philanthropic services at @dvocacy inc., a firm in Washington, D.C., that provides online services for political and issue campaigns.
“If people feel they can engage in their community, they will,” he said.
In 2004, the foundation raised $400,000 and handed out $300,000 to roughly 10 groups to develop promising civic-engagement technologies, said Allison Fine, the foundation’s CEO, and the founder and former president of Innovation Network in Washington, D.C. This year, in addition to attempting to raise $5 million and making more grants, she said, the foundation aims to develop a “civic commons,” or a suite of free software tools that individuals and communities can use to create campaign Web sites that include weblogs, mailing lists and petitions.
It also plans to pilot a leadership-development workshop to build the online literacy skills of grassroots activists, and to commission up to three original papers.
The first paper, which was scheduled for release in April in partnership with Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, an affinity group of the Council on Foundations in Washington, D.C., examines the state of online democracy and will be available at evolvefoundation.org and pacefunders.org.
“What we’re trying to do is much more than mechanical,” said Fine. “The idea is about pushing power to the edges. We want to change the way people work and think about working with others, and that’s more than having a piece of software in front of you.”
Projects the foundation invested in last year include justvote.org, a San Francisco-based voter-registration site that registered 240,000 people in two months during the 2004 election season, and AdvoKit, open-source software that manages issue and electoral campaigns and get-out-the-vote activities.
Campaigns can use that software, being developed by roughly a dozen programmers through the United States, to organize volunteers, assign them tasks, monitor whether they complete the tasks, upload voter files, and organize phone banks and coordinate the canvassing of voters.
While software previously was available to handle those kinds of tasks, Fine said, it was not open-source nor free.
The foundation has invested roughly $100,000 in the software project, which is coordinated by Dan Robinson, co-founder and pro bono chief technology officer for the e-Volve Foundation, and a founder and technology practice lead for CivicActions, a consulting company in Berkeley, Calif., that works with organizations and political campaigns on civic-engagement technologies.
The foundation is counting on three sources of funding, including small donations from individuals through a Web site it has launched at evolvefoundation.org, larger contributions from individuals and foundations, and a portion of transaction fees from a credit card being developed by the San Francisco-based Interra Project to benefit community organizations.
Barbara K. Robinson, a breast-cancer survivor in Hermosa Beach, Calif., wanted to make a $2.5 million to $3 million gift to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center to establish a breast-cancer research program. Robinson was ready to write a check, but Jim Normandin, president of the Memorial Medical Center Foundation, suggested she might find it more advantageous to donate appreciated securities.
He also suggested she make the gift through the Caritance Foundation in Fredericksburg, Va., which has launched a donor-advised securities program at caritance.org that lets donors, charities and professional advisers assisting them contribute publicly traded securities to qualified charities.
Based on a plan he worked out with her, Robinson’s investment adviser used the Caritance Foundation’s new online tool to transfer 33 issues of appreciated stocks totaling $2.7 million to a donor advised fund she established to support the Barbara K. Robinson Breast Cancer Research Program at Long Beach Memorial. The foundation sold the stocks and transferred the net proceeds into the medical center foundation’s account, the day after they were entered into the Caritance Foundation’s online tool, which produced a letter of authorization that permitted their transfer into its brokerage account.
By using securities to make the gift, Robinson avoided taxes on more than $1 million in capital gains, Normandin said. “I see Caritance allowing the donor to take command of the situation and basically, at their keyboard, make a gift,” he said.
The Web site of the Caritance Foundation, which reports Robinson’s gift is one of the largest ever transferred over the Internet, was developed and is hosted for free by AssetStream, an online service owned by the Planned Giving Design Center in Matthews, N.C., that handles and helps nonprofits market and process gifts of securities.
It also featured content donated by AssetStream and by the Planned Giving Design Center.
The Web site provides information and resources designed to help donors learn about donating appreciated securities, calculate and compare the tax benefits of donating securities, select the most advantageous securities to give, and donate them to charities they choose.
Donors can give stocks, bonds, mutual funds and listed options by completing a secure online form, including information about the charity that will receive the gift, the security to be donated, and where the security is held.
An automated system then produces a letter of authorization that the donor or the donor’s adviser prints out, signs and returns to the foundation’s gift-processing center by email, fax or mail. The securities then are transferred to the foundation and sold on behalf of the charity.
After determining whether the charity the donor selects is a public charity in good standing with the Internal Revenue Service, the foundation delivers the net cash proceeds to the charity in the form of a grant. Donors can be identified to the charity or, if they wish, remain anonymous.
When the gift is completed, the foundation sends the donor a gift acknowledgement and gift-valuation report for tax-deduction purposes. The foundation retains a fee equal to 3 percent of the first $50,000 of the gift, or 6 cents a share, whichever is greater, but not more than 3 percent of the total gift.
In addition to serving as a “pass-through” organization that handles gifts of stock, and transfers them to charities designated by the donors, the foundation aims to “educate donors and promote their awareness about how best to be a philanthropist,” said Lynda S. Moerschbaecher, a lawyer and consultant in Carlsbad, Calif., who advises nonprofits and donors and serves as the foundation’s president on a voluntary basis.
The foundation, for example, already offers donor-advised funds, and expects to launch new services that might include accepting or transferring closely-held stock and gifts for real estate, she said.