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Charitable Mutual Funds (updated)

[Note : don't assume you know what a Charitable Mutual Fund is. It's an evocative but really misleading name but I don't have a better handle for it yet. This is not an investment vehicle, it does not return any money. It is way to allow a donor to donate to one or more causes that match certain objectives. Please read on…]

Scenario : What if I wanted to make a charitable gift to reputable non profits, who work in my state, who focus on homelessness? I could research it with various services (such as GuideStar) I might see one or two that speak to me, and decide to write a check or two. Now of course they would come back to me a year later (or sooner) to ask for another donation, and maybe I would or maybe I'd like to pick a different one.

So here's an idea that (literally) came to me in a dream. I don't remember the story line but this idea stuck with me.

What if there was an organization (itself a non-profit) that automated this and did this for me. In other words, I would fill out a form describing the kind of work I wanted to support:

Screen shot 2011 03 11 at 11 05 21 AM

With that information I sent in a check for say $1,000.00. They would immediately apportion that check according to my specification and make one or more donations on my behalf. If I wanted to do this say annually, they would could manage that as well.

I call this a "Charitable Mutual Fund " because, like a mutual fund, a entrust a third party to 'invest' my funds according to a certain guideline that I give it. And I empower them to adjust the donations based on their judgement of the individual causes.

Now the term "Mutual Fund" could be very misleading and therefore might be totally wrong. It implies investment and appreciation. What I am describing here is not an investment vehicle at all and would actually not hold on to any funds at all, nor would it have any returns for donors.

Charitable Mutual Funds could either be "actively managed ", where a presumably smart board of advisors would determine the best and most deserving charities that matched my particular focus, or they could operate like an "index fund " where an algorithm would simply grab the 10 or 50 highest rated charities and distribute donated funds pro-rata.

Does this already exist? I did a quick web search and saw no evidence of it but it strikes me as something that easily could have been created before. At any rate, I am in no position to implement this myself. I also think it would be non-trivial to build with challenging legal, tax, confidence and marketing issues to figure out. But if it doesn't exist, it might be a great boost to the world of non profits.

What do you think?

… ….. later in the day……….

One problem with the idea as described is that makes the act of donating to a cause very impersonal. You always read, make sure you've looked into whatever cause you want to support to make sure it is what you are looking for. Follow what they are doing. Get to know them. The model I describe flies in the face of that.

Now of course the same could be (and was) said about stock mutual funds. Only invest in companies you really know, don't just copy someone else's investment ideas. But of course we learned that there is a very real role for stock mutual funds.

A second response would be that our service would have an option where you received a quarterly update indicating what charities were supported by your donations, what they have done, and so on. Or you could even have a chance to approve a change in the roster of charities that your donation would be going to.

So there are good ways to overcome this objection.

Interesting search engines

Qwiki seems to create multi-media presentations on any topic at all. I picked an odd topic, like "BlogBridge", and it did a half decent job. I don't know how automatic or human-driven it is, but it's interesting.

Another interesting find is Fotopedia, "The First Collaborative Photo Encyclopedia". It's interesting but it suffers from an unclear mission. I think it's trying to be wikipedia meets flickr, but I am not sure. As you can see from this link, there's some actual connection to Flickr. Are they using Flickr to prime their pump?

Three Armed Bandit?

If I could fool you into believing that a fake rubber hand that you were looking at was really your own hand, how would you react if I took a knife to it? Weird questions that Neuro-science researchers busy themselves with, but really fairly amazing. Here's an article in Scientific American about the study:

"A knife-wielding researcher is bearing down on your right hand—or is it your hand? You see three arms in front of you, and you can feel your palms dampen with fear-induced perspiration. But is it your right hand the kitchen knife is plunging toward, or a false, rubber right hand?" (from Scientific American)

Greplin, actually a rather cool product!

After attending the Lean Startup Machine weekend a few days ago, I pay more attention to these 'I created this startup in 3 hours' stories. So when I saw this in Inc. Magazine:

"He's an Israeli who sidestepped military service in favor of moving to the Bay Area to become Y Combinator's youngest founder. Six months later, all eyes are on Daniel Gross, as he has almost $5 million in funding backing his search engine, Greplin. Oh, and he didn’t go to college." (from

I was intrigued. The headline was even more preposterous: "How a 19-year-old earned $5 Million to Revolutionize Search" (alternatively to 'Take on Google'. Well he didn't earn $5 Million, right, it was funding. Also while a cool product, I highly doubt it is going to revolutionize search or take on google.

From what I can see, Greplin, searches through all of my 'password protected' web sites, for example, LinkedIn, Facebook, DropBox and so on. It's very simple and just works. I am not ready to declare it life changing because I don't know yet how often I actually need to search there, but still, a very interesting product. I would check it out!

Lean Startups and Custdev

I had the interesting experience this weekend to attend the "Lean Startup Machine" weekend at the Microsoft NERD. It was kind of a hackathon for Lean Startups, which are startups that practice something refererred to as Customer Development, or CustDev. If you've not heard about it, here's a 40 minute lecture about CustDev by one of the top gurus, Eric Ries. Another reference would be essentially the founding document:, "The Four Steps to the Epiphany"?

The high level story is this: we have well defined and articulated methodologies for managing the creation of software: Agile, Extreme Programming, etc. But on the other hand, there are no equivalent 'scientific' methodologies for defining products and understanding market.

Another pithy statement: Startups fail, not because they fail to create the product that they envisioned, but, because customers don't want the product that got built.

The methodology has it's rabid fans. However you feel about it, you owe it to yourself to learn more about it.

As I digest what I learned, I will be posting more, as well as links to a bunch of interesting tools we learned about.


Some choice quotes to introduce a good lecture about Engineering:

'…[snip], Napoleon dismissed Robert Fulton's claim of a steam-powered ship: "What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense."

Or consider the pronouncement of Dr. Dionysus Lardner, professor at University College in London, on the prospects of a new form of transportation: "Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia."

Or hear the opinion of the commander of the army's cavalry in 1938, just before World War II: "We must not be misled to our detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proved and tried horse."

Or listen to a great aviator speaking about the profession: "Flying machines will eventually be fast; they will be used in sport but they should not be thought of as commercial carriers."' (from 1996 Woodruff Distinguished Lecture by Norman Augustine)

If you are an engineer or interested in the topic, the lecture has some great lessons.

Finally a little bit of insight on what’s going on in Wisconsin

I've seen several interviews with Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, about his efforts to 'balance the budget'. I put that in scare quotes because there's a good case to be made that his agenda is different or at least well beyond that.

He's very articulate about his position, and quite convincing. None of the interviewers had anything to add to the debate other than, "gee aren't you union busting?" and "gee, how come isn't it good enough that the unions have agreed to the financial concessions?" And the Governor has very good answers to each of the obvious questions.

Along comes David Brooks, as of now, my favorite op-ed columnist in the New York Times (sorry Tom Friedman, you've been repeating yourself for a while now, and it gets tiresome to see you constantly try to launch your own memes -- you've been replaced.)

David Brooks adds something very interesting and new to the debate. Basically his point is that not all unions are alike, and in fact, there's a crucial and never discussed difference between public sector unions and private sector unions:

"[…snip…] public sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

As a result of these imbalanced incentive structures , states with public sector unions tend to run into fiscal crises. They tend to have workplaces where personnel decisions are made on the basis of seniority, not merit. There is little relationship between excellence and reward, which leads to resentment among taxpayers who don’t have that luxury.[…snip…]" (from Make Everybody Hurt, New York Times)

If this is interesting to you, read Make Everybody Hurt in The New York Times.

[GEEKY] Poker AI

An interesting article about how to think about designing Artificial Intelligence for playing poker. It's high level but gives you a good feel about how this writer went about the design. You also learn the basics of Poker at the same time:

"It is very important in this type of project, for any AI project really, to fully understand the rules of the game and the tactics typically used to win. So when I worked on poker I spent a fair amount of time reading the best books and playing the game, both against existing AI and real humans of various levels of experience." (from Poker AI: A Starting Point)

And here's a follow up article on the same topic: "Aces High: Numerical Techniques in Poker AI"