On the Changing Roles of Nonprofits


One need not work for a nonprofit to be attracted to the idea of utilizing the Net to spur social change. With increasing facility, group formation and coordinated intervention are being steered to serve the public good.

A timely example is chronicled over at the O’Reilly blog, where Joshua-Michéle Ross describes the rapid creation of Stimulus Watch, a website that enables discussion and voting on the “shovel ready” projects that are candidates for stimulus bill funding.

This capacity for “organizing without organizations,” as Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, calls it, poses a challenge to traditional nonprofits. Amidst nimble actions like Stimulus Watch, how might ongoing organizations utilize online tools to add value? How are the roles played by nonprofits evolving?

When it comes to interactions on the Net, I am reminded of the metaphor employed by student of social change Ric Young. He compares watching the online flow of ideas and networks to exploring activity under the ocean’s surface with a scuba mask. The Internet allows us to see patterns that were once hidden.

In a recent post by Amy Sample Ward and in an interview that she conducts with Clay Shirky, both don underwater goggles to examine the roles played by big nonprofit membership organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters. They discuss how these organizations might be more effective bypushing power to the edges, helping their members to connect with one another.

P&P publisher Ecotrust is a smaller organization, with client-specific projects that don’t quite fit this mold. So I was inspired to pull out my scuba gear as well. I added a comment to Ward’s post, highlighting ways that Ecotrust and others are utilizing the Net.

A couple of notes: First, I referenced the Journal of Philanthropy, when I should have written The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Apologies for the error. And while mentioning Ecotrust’s FoodHub project, I would also like to mention other regional food platforms that are in various stages of development around the U.S. They includeMarketMaker, Red Tomato and Om Direct.

To follow this conversation, head over to Amy Sample Ward’s post at the Stanford Social Innovation Review. My comment is the third one down. As a follow up, here is my post on architectures of participation; and here is a description of Ecotrust’s tools for social learning. Your thoughts are most welcome.

[Update: Posted below is the original comment.]

Hi Amy,

Thanks for the interview. Clay’s discussion of the ACLU provides a strong example of an organization that would seem to benefit from a shift to a more network-centric model of activism. Your reframing of the question works well: “What can the relationships between our members do for our community?”

Still, there are other models for successfully engaging individuals/communities. Celebrated nonprofits like MapLight do nothing (as far as i know) to connect their members. Should they? WalkScore (created by a for-profit) serves a nice, modest function, without building communities. Alex Steffen often mentions the environmental benefits of Netflix. Zipcar also uses the Net smartly.

Perhaps i seem to have strayed off topic, yet i think that these examples highlight aspects of the changing roles of nonprofits. The ACLU, NRDC, United Way and so on – the big membership nonprofits – could potentially benefit greatly from, and create greater value with, a network-centric approach. Yet, as someone who works at a smaller nonprofit, with project-specific clients, i feel that other approaches exist as well. How might my organization utilize the Net to create value? The possibilities are endless.

Here are two approaches we are trying. One is called OCEAN. We utilize the Net for QAQC on a big data gathering project that brings fishermen’s local knowledge into the process of designating marine protected areas off the coast of California. (http://www.ecotrust.org/ocean) A second is called FoodHub. We seek to create an online wholesale marketplace for regional foods in the Pacific Northwest. (http://www.ecotrust.org/foodhub/) The first project has won a lot of recognition (a Mellon Award for Technology Collaboration); the second is an idea that has attracted interest for years but has never, as far as i know, been implemented in North America with strong success. (eFresh is a Dutch startup that recently landed big funding for a similar platform:http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/01/08/dutch-startup-efreshcom-raises-54-million-from-rabobank/)

One theme running through these examples is that the hard line between for- and non-profit is blurring. (Paul Hawken made this observation at his 2007 Long Now talk.) That’s part of the changing roles.

One last note. As i was reading your post and listening to Clay, i couldn’t help but reflect on another recent piece, an article in the Journal of Philanthropy: Americans Are Passionate About Social Causes, But Few Take Action Based on Their Beliefs, Study Finds (http://philanthropy.com/news/updates/7054/americans-are-passionate-about-social-causes-but-few-take-action-based-on-their-beliefs-study-finds). The study says that -63% represents, “The difference between those Americans who say the environment is personally important to them, and those who have donated time to environmental causes in the past year.”

I was thinking about this study in the context of the changing roles of nonprofits. There are certainly a lot of social causes for which volunteerism is essential, and i am cheered by Obama’s call to service. But, for environmental efforts, i wonder if this question is as relevant as it was once perceived to be.

Individual acts like planting a community garden or choosing a bike over a car are both important and gratifying. Local activism like the recent opportunity in Portland, Ore. to attend a City Hall meeting on proposed green building regulations don’t necessarily involve volunteering for a nonprofit. And savvy new groups like Focus the Nation are promoting a network-centric approach, less about donating time than about becoming an organizer.

Roles certainly are evolving. It is an exciting, challenging era for nonprofits – and for all of us.

»» Posted by: Howard Silverman on February 11, 2009 09:58 AM