My last post on the way that information has different characteristics in the social sphere compared to the for-profit sphere, generated a string of reader comments. The comments covered a lot of ground and I encourage you to check them out here. But one recurring theme pointed to the costs of sharing information being something that was difficult for nonprofit entities to cover.
Gabi Fitz of IssueLab:
When we forget the original intention behind knowledge production in the social sector (namely that it will contribute to social good and social change) we also forget to dedicate the necessary resources to sharing this knowledge more broadly…
Just like any other social need that is not satisfied by the market (or is maybe even the result of a market failure), the work of making meaning from information, providing effective filters, and brokering knowledge in the social sector is a social service that needs charitable support.
Dan Elitzer of Full Contact Philanthropy:
I agree that unlike in the for-profit sector, information sharing in the nonprofit sector does not have a negative impact on the information-creator’s ability to achieve their goals. However, there is still an opportunity cost for organizations to package their knowledge and transmit it in a form that will reach and be actionable for other actors. Foundations may have the resources to engage in information sharing if they think it will advance their mission, but for most nonprofits, investing the time and financial resources to share their data or knowledge requires making cutbacks in other areas.
If a nonprofit staff member is directed to evaluate a program and capture information on how it can be effectively replicated, the time spent on that task is time not spent on providing direct client services or fund-raising or training new staff, etc. If that staff member then has to find a way to distribute that information so that others in a position to act on it will find it, that’s more time not spent on other mission critical work. Yes, the time spent on capturing and disseminating information may ultimately do more to advance the organization’s mission than whatever other activity was superseded, but unless the organization is confident it can make that case to its supporters, that’s a hard call to make.
These are important points. I think the way to address these concerns is though the Googlization of Philanthropy and the way that technology is unbundling the process of creating information from its distribution. In a Chronicle of Philanthropy column last April I wrote:
The Googlization of philanthropy is about organizing knowledge to allow for smarter giving by more people. Most important, the Googlization of philanthropy means that organizing the information will not be done by the information creators, but by third parties and — excitingly — the people who want to consume that information.
The point here is that we are witnessing the rise of information processing organizations like Google, Yelp and Twitter (when it is used to create information filters) which do not themselves create information, but which pay for the infrastructure of information distribution. Something similar could clearly occur in the nonprofit sector (with current examples like IdeaEncore, PubHub and IssueLab).
The rise of these intermediaries both bring light to the information that is already available and creates incentives for more information sharing. The Foundation Center’s Glass Pockets project is a good example. The site, which shows how transparent and accountable large grantmakers are, both allow users direct click through access to an enormous amount of information about foundations and importantly it helps set expectations around information sharing. Certainly foundations which are currently not sharing information which Glass Pockets deems necessary will at least need to give some thought to changing their policy.
The takeaway from all of this is that it is critical that the social sector, both nonprofits and grantmakers, embrace a cultural ethic of information sharing. That as a sector, we realize that we don’t need to “own” our social impact. If we have valuable information that can help inform the activities of others, it is our duty and our biggest impact opportunity to share this information widely. Even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest grantmaker in the world, makes up only 1% of the amount given to charity each year. So to the extent that they are able to share what they know to help inform the other 99% of giving, they have an opportunity for the impact from what they know to dwarf the impact from the money they give.