The Future is Community
Nonprofit organizations inherently champion “community” in their work -- communities organized around fighting diseases, regional issues, oppressed groups, third-world needs, politics, education, faith and more. Yet, community is conspicuously absent in one critical area: operations. To date, nonprofits have not been able to leverage, in any significant way, their collective wealth of knowledge, experience and technology pertaining to fundraising, IT and internal processes
Granted, groups such as the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation, Association of Fundraising Professionals, Nonprofit Technology Network and others facilitate community through publications, conferences, Web sites and other vehicles for education, networking and knowledge share. But the ability to do this broadly has been severely limited due to immature online tools, scant use of collaborative spaces and a lack of appropriate legal structures like the General Public License for software or the Creative Commons license for content and thought leadership.
However, a new paradigm is emerging because the nonprofit sector now has the ability and the responsibility to achieve a deeper level of community collaboration. This is a truly transformative way of operating, likely to have profound impacts. The most mature manifestation of this new community model is the open-source software movement.
Open-source software is a better way to develop and use technology to fuel nonprofits’ missions, ultimately making the world a better place. With open source, organizations have access to the software’s source code and freedom to customize applications and create widgets to meet specific needs. Currently, very few platforms and applications for nonprofits are open-source, but most applications allow some third-party integration with other tools (usually via an application programming interface, or API). This is the first step in what we should hope will be full opening of these products.
Beyond customization, open-source software allows organizations to share the tools they’ve developed and then improve and share them again. For example, in the past, an organization that needed mobile access to donor data had four choices: 1.) build an application to allow access from mobile devices; 2.) pay someone to build the application; 3.) find, buy and integrate a commercial product; 4.) beg, even badger, a software vendor to develop the functionality and, if the vendor agrees, wait for a future product release.
Under the new paradigm, the first three options are still viable, but there’s a new, exciting option to replace the fourth. With the open-source model, you log on to the nonprofit community Web site and download the mobile-access widget developed by someone else. If no one has posted this widget, you ask community members if anyone has and will share this functionality. If not, you collaborate with other community members to build the product or even share the costs of outsourcing development. Then you share it with the community because other organizations might need it, too.
As open-source communities grow, the need for an individual or a single organization to develop functionality or pay exorbitant customizations fees will be virtually eliminated.
The new model provides a platform for nonprofits to share not only technical innovations and development costs but also best practices. Nonprofits can use technology to harness their collective strategic expertise. Having a central repository for exchanging this knowledge that supports operational success -- e.g., business rules, segmentation tactics, and fundraising fundamentals -- is a crucial element of community.
Historically, nonprofits have shared knowledge and/or learned from each other through conferences, seminars, consultancies, agencies, professional associations and the like. These are still important but highly inefficient because of limited exposure and a lack of historical documentation of all that knowledge.
The new model of community-driven innovation is dramatically more efficient and builds on already familiar processes. During my years as a consultant, when a client had a need that neither colleagues nor I had encountered, we’d query our co-workers and even our external networks via e-mail to find out whether anyone had pertinent knowledge or experience -- for everything from technology implementations to marketing strategies. We’d also search the Web and the latest conference materials. Although exponentially more productive than pre-Internet options, these processes still took time and were expensive for a nonprofit paying hourly or retainer-based consultant fees.
The emerging community model improves efficiency by 1.) giving nonprofits direct access to the “network;” and 2.) consolidating historical conversations and research sources into a single community (or only a few). In this new paradigm, a nonprofit professional or consultant could search the community and, if nothing useful surfaces, then post a query directly to the community to reach internal and external networks that are broader than he/she could tap individually. In addition, the entire conversation and knowledge are available to everyone seeking similar information.
Although the community model is the future, it won’t just appear tomorrow. There are three keys to realizing the lower costs, greater innovation and time savings that a robust community model offers: participation, participation and participation.
Participation is key
Everyone will have to live by the mantra of “community first,” which means active participation even when you don’t have a question, want an application or need help solving a problem. We’ll need to change the way we’ve operated, e.g., instead of e-mailing a question to a few colleagues, post a question to the community.
Everyone will get more than he/she contributes. Keith Bright, dDirector of IBM’s Linux Research Center and one of today’s leading evangelists for open-source software, gave IBM a mandate eight years ago when asked to head this initiative: Community must come before IBM’s business needs. If doing what was right for the community seemed counter to IBM’s interests or even likely to help a competitor, IBM would still put the community first. In a visionary move, IBM agreed to this condition, which, according to Bright, has always eventually benefited the company.
Those who embrace the emerging community-based model for nonprofit collaboration will reap tremendous benefits. But, like almost all great innovations, it requires a commitment to participate and change how we work. Operating as a community is an unprecedented opportunity for nonprofits to achieve the agility and freedom needed to fulfill their missions, transcending any one product, vendor or organization. Think of the resulting impact we can all have on the world.
Matt McCabe is vice president of community for open-source software provider MPower. www.mpoweropen.com