Posted on August 3, 2007
Filed Under Culture & Technology |
I had an interesting conversation within the past week that brought up a fact that I think is known but often goes unexamined by most: non-profits are often extremely inefficient at achieving their full potential because they are not run like bottom-line-driven businesses. While a discussion of management theory and principles for non-profits is outside of the scope of this blog (and my expertise), it did get me thinking about the ways in which the Internet and Web 2.0 might be able to play a role in assisting non-profits do the good deeds that they intend to.
There are a number of Web 2.0 services designed to make the world a better place. While I don’t necessarily think all of them realistically have the ability to do that, I am a big believer that the potential of the Internet to serve as a powerful platform for improving the world is still to a large extent unrealized, partly due to the fact that the Internet has become yet another distribution channel for consumer culture. That’s to be expected, but giving some thought to how we can leverage it in more meaningful ways is a worthwhile exercise and in this post, I’ll detail some of the models already out there along with some of my own thoughts.
There are an increasing number of Internet services dedicated to social giving. For example, Change.org and Kiva.org apply the power of the crowd to raising money for causes:
- Change.org bills itself as “a social network for social activism, incorporating nonprofits, politicians, and people across the globe.” The service enables non-profits (and not-so-benevolent politicians) build communities amongst their supporters, expose their organizations to the social networks of existing supporters and to engage in “viral” fundraising campaigns. I personally like the idea of “viral” campaigns, however I question their efficacy and whether or not they will drive substantially more donations to causes that need substantially more donations.
- Kiva.org enables individuals to loan money to entrepreneurs in the developing world. This “microfinancing,” which earned Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, is admittedly a concept that is easy to fall in love with. That said, however, a Boston Globe article entitled “The pitfalls of microlending” raises some valid concerns.
Helping Non-Profits Work Better
Many of the problems pointed out in the Boston Globe article reflect those often faced by non-profits in general: they are managed less-than-wisely and use resources inefficiently. Private enterprises tend to be much more efficient because their primary goal (making as much money as possible) is aligned with efficiency. Companies that leverage good management and use of resources to increase the efficiency of the business tend to make more money.
In the non-profit world, however, the goals are often much more intangible than generating profits. Because of this, there is less obvious ability to measure of results, and thus little to no easy ability to make sure that real progress towards a goal is being achieved. In the case of microfinance, for instance, it’s convenient to assume that the $25 I just loaned to a farmer in a developing nation has supported some achievement (i.e. given that farmer a solid footing towards self-dependence). But has it?
With this in mind, I think that it would be wise to look at the ways in which the Internet and Web 2.0 can assist in making non-profits run better. While services like Change.org and Kiva.org have the potential to increase the amount of money being raised for good causes, without a marked improvement in the ability to use that money to achieve good, considerable waste will still exist. I suspect that if existing waste was eliminated, it could very well have a greater impact than an increased inflow of cash. While the elimination of this waste will require more than technology (a different management approach, managers with formal business backgrounds, etc.), here are two ways in which I believe Web 2.0-based solutions may be of assistance:
- Crowdsourcing. Corporations are increasingly leveraging large groups of individuals to solve business problems that may be too complex, too time-consuming or too-costly to implement in-house. This “crowdsourcing” is based upon the same general principle that James Suroweicki promotes in his book : under the right conditions, large crowds can come up with better solutions than smaller groups of experts. Non-profits often find themselves understaffed and undercapitalized. Perhaps crowdsourcing for non-profits can be applied as a new form of volunteerism in which the “wisdom of the crowd” can be harnessed to assist non-profits in finding solutions to some of their most pressing challenges. Whether it’s having input as to where certain money gets spent, or entirely crowdsourcing the design of a marketing campaign, being able to tap into the collective intelligence of a crowd (if executed properly) may be of value. This crowd could be comprised of the organization’s existing stakeholders, outsiders or both. Perhaps offering the ability to participate in this fashion could lead to higher donor retention, as donors will feel that they were given the ability to be invested in the management of the organization. Additionally, because the decision-making process is more transparent, other individuals would be attracted to the organization, as transparency is often a factor donors consider when choosing which non-profits to contribute to.
- Social networks for non-profit managers. Private (or even semi-private) online communities can enable the sharing of information between non-profit managers. While a lot of emphasis is being placed on services like Change.org, I haven’t seen a LinkedIn for non-profits. Facilitating more effective communication and collaboration between managers at non-profits, providing a place for the aggregation of non-profit knowledge and being able to “match” non-profits that have potential synergies (which could be realized through partnerships) might be extremely beneficial. Obviously, the challenge here is creating a large network that has enough participation amongst non-profit managers to be of value.
While the Internet and Web 2.0 will almost certainly always be more efficiently exploited by commercial enterprises, the potential it offers for organizations trying to do good is considerable, and hopefully this is an area that will be the focus of some real attention and innovation.Print This Post