“Philanthropy in Virtual Worlds,” Remarks by Jonathan Fanton in Second Life
June 22, 2007 | Speech | Digital Media & Learning

Welcome and Hello.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation, and I am here to address two audiences in particular as we launch a year-long exploration of “Philanthropy in Virtual Worlds”.  First, hello to all of you in virtual worlds, where this video is first being shown.  And second, hello to all philanthropic organizations and individuals working to improve our world and the human condition.  By bringing together both audiences, we at MacArthur are eager to begin a conversation about the role of philanthropy—Foundations in particular—in virtual worlds. 

We see real practical potential in virtual worlds.  We understand them as places where individuals socialize, play, conduct business, and go about their everyday lives.  Before going more deeply into the question of virtual worlds and philanthropy, however, let me start with a few comments about foundations and charitable giving.

Philanthropy is not simply about giving out money, although that certainly is what we do.  More important, it is the actions of organizations and private citizens to make a genuine difference in the daily lives of millions.  Foundations can have a deep impact on public policy at the local, national and global level through organizations they support.

The diversity of what philanthropy can offer is perhaps best illustrated through concrete example.  Here at MacArthur, we are perhaps best known for our Fellows Program, known to many as genius grants, and for supporting public television and radio.  But we do a lot more.  We work in sixty countries around the world, with offices in Russia, India, Mexico, Nigeria and soon China. 

Our endowment—now over $6 billion--has been growing, so our grantmaking will increase to $250 million next year.

Our international program includes conservation, population and reproductive health, peace and security, principally reducing weapons of mass destruction, and human rights and international justice.  An emerging initiative looks at migration and mobility. 

Our “general” program is the R&D Center for the Foundation, sometimes incubating initiatives that later evolve into full-blown programs.  One current focus of the general program is on new media, considering dilemmas such as information overload and how internet users assess the credibility of information they find online.

Our domestic program focuses on community and economic development, affordable housing preservation,  juvenile justice reform and education.  We have added a new dimension to our education grant-making: digital media and learning.  We want to know how digital media influences ways in which young people think, learn, interact with others, make judgments, and face ethical dilemmas..  It is this interest that brought us to Second Life specifically and virtual worlds more generally.

Last October, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, we announced a $50 million initiative to investigate the role and impact of digital technology on the lives of young people.  We indicated that we wanted to explore the implications for schools, libraries and other social institutions – for families, the economy, even our democracy -- and that we believe there is a new interdisciplinary digital media and learning field in the making. The event was available as a live webcast and was broadcast in Second Life, so some of you may have been present. 

To build the field of digital media and learning, we have begun to think with others in many disciplines about the ways our youth are changing – about how different the world is now than it was just a decade ago, and how different it will yet be in the decades ahead.

Our interest in virtual worlds like Second Life is rooted in our digital media and learning grantmaking.  We have already partnered with Global Kids, for example, to support activities in Teen Second Life that bring youth from across the world together.  The conversation  we are starting today, however, will explore even greater possibilities in virtual worlds. 

Today we want to introduce the notion that philanthropy may have a role to play in virtual worlds. Foundations  support innovation, seek to advance the public interest, build institutions, and convene people to shape debate and pursue policy.  Using tools like grants, low interest loans, or simply institutional reputation, Foundations can make connections and enable conversations that otherwise might not occur.  
In virtual worlds, we see unprecedented opportunity for innovation because interactions are multi-modal, simultaneous, physical and virtual, and advances happen on a daily basis.  In watching the recent series on Best Practices in Education run in Second Life, and the classes held by State of Play in There.com, it’s clear that there are real opportunities for education. 

As we watch the emergence of embassies from countries like Sweden, the cross cultural work of Meaden, and the U.S. Supreme court on democracy island, we believe that the virtual worlds can be a platform for global and civic engagement that can contribute to solving entrenched problems, but also seizing opportunities.

Yet we also recognize that it is easy to get caught up in awe and admiration of the new, especially something as novel as virtual worlds.  As we investigate the possibilities of Second Life and other metaverses, we also will consider the inevitable unexpected outcomes and unintended consequences of virtual worlds. 

Whatever the complexities of virtual worlds, we suspect that they will continue to grow in popularity and increasingly become integrated into daily life.  As metaverses continue to grow and develop, we believe it is appropriate for foundations and philanthropic institutions to begin considering how:

1. to make investments within virtual worlds that help individuals, groups and  non profit organizations address  serious social issues;

2. to reach out to the residents of worlds like Second Life and There.com to encourage in-world discussions about areas of philanthropic work ranging from human rights, community and economic development and urban policy, and housing reform to global conservation; and 

3. to provide advice and assistance to virtual world inhabitants who are eager to engage in philanthropic activities in-world that support the public interest, advance charitable purposes, and may lead to such activities in the physical world.

The exact contours of these activities will be determined in the coming months.  We recognize that Second Life and other metaverses are vibrant, complex, and creative worlds.  Through discussion with you over the next year we will learn if such places benefit from philanthropic activity and the presence of foundations – we don’t assume this. 

We hope that residents of virtual worlds understand that the presence of MacArthur and other foundations is about more than giving away money.  We hope that you see us as helping to build a global network of individuals, groups and organizations committed to building more just virtual and physical worlds.  We hope that you see MacArthur as a trusted source of information and ideas that is eager to support debate and discussion about the complex issues in our world.  

And with that, let me turn to my avatar, to participate, for the first time, in the virtual world.

Stay Informed
Sign up for periodic news updates and event invitations.
Check out our social media content in one place, or connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn.