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Nonprofit 2.0
Jon Lebkowsky, 31 Aug 06

at.jpgNonprofits tend to be mission-driven and not enamored of cutting-edge new technologies unless it's very clear that they create a benefit, and are easy for non-techies to use. So adoption of new applications and new thinking about network approaches has been slow. It's picking up, though, driven by organizations like NTen, TechSoup's NetSquared, and the innovative CivicSpace Labs.

Not long ago I blogged elsewhere about nonprofit 2.0 and the long tail. I apologize for including the overused 2.0 versioning metaphor in a reference to nonprofits, but the point is that the NPO world is changing, and that change is driven in part by access to inexpensive technologies that can extend the capabilities of the smallest organization. There's also the web's inherent support for networking, which creates a tremendous potential to establish and sustain weak ties between organizations that can pull together and mobilize as issues emerge. Though I've seen limited effective work of this kind so far, the potential is there for a network of small organizations to work and respond almost as effectively as larger organizations. This alternative to large, centralized, top-down approaches is agile, modular, and potentially more responsive at the edges of the networks that form. It's also inexpensive, in that it leverages network effects to build effective communities of affinity and avoids the much higher monetary cost of broadcast messaging. It's not cost free, but much of the real cost of "nonprofit 2.0" is in intangible value networks.

It's important to consider the long tail effect that I described in the post I reference in my first sentence above, where I reference a post at "Confessions of a non-profit IT director."

Basically, the long tail is a statistical phenomenon that says that the niche players in any Internet-driven market, become, in aggregate, a larger market force than the “brand names” of that market. For us non-profit types, that means all those little mom-and-pop non-profits are actually a bigger force in toto than the Red Crosses, United Ways and Salvation Armies of this world. In a sense, your average donor is now going to be confronted with a Netflix-like selection of charities he or she can donate to. Sure, they might want to donate to the Red Cross but then there's the indie non-profit just trying to help out literally in the neighborhood of that donor.
This means that donations will be increasingly distributed, and it could be harder for large centralized NPOs to support their size and scope of activity. This could be a problem in large scale responses where it might take an organization like Red Cross to handle the scale of the required response. I'm thinking about the aftermath of Katrina. The Red Cross has been criticized by some for apparent disorganization and confusion on the scene, but I doubt that a network of smaller organizations would have been any more effective. In the future, though, depending on the coevolution of technology and mission, who knows?

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..."but I doubt that a network of smaller organizations would have been any more effective."

If the huge but flawed network of the Red Cross could coordinate with the small but more site-focused networks of NPOs, the NPOs could know where to fill in the gaps in Red Cross coverage.

Why wouldn't huge NPOs and groups like the Sierra Club help support and work through mini-NPOs with compatible but more focused missions? Seems like a win-win.

Posted by: Cliff on 1 Sep 06

Good point - networking large AND small orgs would be most effective.

I think the problem is that all organizations have limited attention, and you need attention on both sides (the large organization and the smaller ones) to make an effective link.

I saw a good example of this when I was working on the Katrina PeopleFinder project. We knew we should be sharing data with Red Cross, but it didn't happen until Marty Kearns dedicated himself to the task of getting us onto their radar. They were perfectly willing to work with us at that point.

A best case would probably be for an organization like Red Cross to have someone whose job it is to look for those kinds of connections, or to have organizations that are essentially glue, dedicated to discovering where alliances could work, and facilitating them.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 1 Sep 06

> "all those little mom-and-pop non-profits are actually a bigger force in toto than the Red Crosses, United Ways and Salvation Armies of this world"

I'm entirely uninformed on the issue, but I read an article in The Independent a few years back claiming that roughly 80% of charitable donation money went to 20% of the charities, generally the biggest ones (another old statistical rule of thumb, the 80/20 rule). I imagine I've got the percentages wrong, but this kind of distribution is different than the long tail. Under this distribution, even collectively, the small fish are ony a quarter as big as the big boys.

Posted by: pauldwaite on 1 Sep 06

That was true a few years ago, but one important point of the nonprofit 2.0 discussions is that more small nonprofits are appearing with better (generally web-based) tools for accepting donations, and this potentially changes distribution of donations, and facilitates a "long tail" in the nonprofit realm.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 1 Sep 06

Thanks, Jon, for this post. In both my work as a ED of one NPO and volunteer board member for another, the whole thing boils down to gluing — convening, connecting, catalyzing, communicating. It's so rare to hear anyone else talk about this. Over a breakfast meeting this morning, we were discussing the challenges of measuring this kind of work. The best we could copme up with is a daily log (today introduced a to b regarding c) and then, overtime, seeing how the relationship blossoms and bears fruit. (Somehow, gardening analogies really capture the process.) And while web tools are wonderful, it's really a people-connecting process at heart. The biggest challenge: designing and budgeting multiplayer,distributed projects.

Posted by: Will on 1 Sep 06

I work for a not-for-profit, and this article just gave me hope that we can turn this entrenched old society around.

Posted by: John Platt on 1 Sep 06



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