Monday, June 07, 2004

Open source philanthropy

Imagine if you could tap into the expertise of every other organization doing the work you care about or funding the work you care about? Imagine you could access an online network of documents, testimony, video, evaluations, project reports, program summaries of all the NGOs working to fight hunger or foster creativity or prevent the spread of AIDS. The information would be out there for you to find when you needed it. In addition, you could add your thoughts, comments, and expertise on a topic or project and put ideas out there to trusted colleagues who would be able to try those ideas in their locations, add to them, edit them, or propose fixes for things that don't work. Let's pretend we can do this:

A local effort at neighborhood improvement has shown great results. More and more residents are involved in street watches and block parties, some small businesses have opened their doors, and a community bank is in the process of opening a small storefront branch. The efforts have been led by a group of local parents and grandparents who made it a priority to attend public hearings, learn how the city's decision making systems work, and advocate on behalf of their neighborhood. A small part of the success was supported by a local family foundation that often made grants to the block association for food and games at the block parties, but the rest of the changes have come through the leadership and endless energy of the neighbors. The changes are small but noticeable, and in a city with too little housing, wealthier denizens of the city have "discovered" the neighborhood and started buying homes in the area as they come on the market. In one case, such a purchase led to the eviction of one of the neighborhood's leading advocates, who had rented a flat in the house for more than 25 years. Recently, two more of the village elders have passed on. The neighborhood association is pre-occupied with infighting about priorities and arguing about the effects of these newcomers. Its last three meetings have led to nothing but bad feelings, and two city commission hearings were missed because the group couldn't get organized.

At the same time, a large national foundation interested in neighborhood revitalization also has "discovered" the area. Seeing the good changes that were made in the last several years, the Foundation wants to support more of the same. It is unaware of the current transitional state of the neighborhood leadership and assumes that the work that has occurred was led by a small number of nonprofit community organizations in the city, not one of which is located in this neighborhood.

What will happen....? How could the neighborhood pass on a torch of leadership, reset its priorities, bring together the new residents with the long-timers, and take advantage of the financial (and possibly other assets) of the Foundation? On the flip side, how can the Foundation learn more about working with neighborhoods in a positive way, find out who and how these changes have occurred, and avoid partnering with "the wrong" folks just because they are easier to find?

One way would be to tap into the knowledge and experience of the thousands of neighbors and foundation staff/board members who've been involved in neighborhood change in the last decades. Some of this expertise is in writing, and various affinity groups focused on US neighborhood grantmakers offer a good place to start. But every neighborhood is unique and what the Foundation needs is a way to learn enough about the area (before making decisions) so that it can ask the right questions or look for the right information from its peers. It needs a network of ideas, resources, people, past lessons, into which it can tap by asking good questions, framing a situation, and learning more about how to proceed? Are community conversations appropriate? Should it listen to the community development nonprofits? Can it send someone to attend the neighborhood association meetings? Should it send someone to walk the streets, hang out in front of the corner produce shop where a small clan of neighbors gathers every morning for coffee? Ride the buses and eavesdrop?

This is the everyday challenge of well-intentioned philanthropists, and one that could be addressed if information in the philanthropic realm were treated with the same ethos as information in the world of open source software. Some basic assumptions guide the way Open Source works - collaboration makes stronger tools. More heads are better than one. Many people working on the same problem will find more answers and more options than just a few people. The final ideas are owned by, and available for use by, everyone.

When it comes to investing in neighborhoods (or culture or health care or education or any of the issues philanthropy invests in), there is much to be gained by stepping back and taking stock of some of these open source premises. Ideas gain power the more they are used. Philanthropists interested in outcomes have much to gain from using the public experience and expertise of others to inform their strategy and then feeding their experiences back into that public idea stream so that it continues to adapt and get stronger.

For more on open source see
Steve Weber, The Success of Open Source, Harvard University Press, 2004.

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