Technology is changing the way we live, work and play – that much we know. But what if it also has the potential to transform how nonprofits demonstrate effectiveness, collaboration and transparency? What if technological innovations can improve the capacity for nonprofits to share internally and externally? Would the sector be better off for it?
Anil Patel seems to think so. Executive director of Framework, his organization connects people to causes and is perhaps best known for its Timeraiser events, silent art auctions whereby people bid volunteer hours instead of cash on works of art by local artists. Patel was en route to Calgary and the multitasking entrepreneur used the opportunity to speak with me on speakerphone about his views on sharing.
Sharing toward trust
It’s a timely conversation, considering the increased level of scrutiny nonprofits are facing by stakeholders, the federal government and the general public, all demanding greater openness about their activities, funding and impact. Earlier this month, Tides Canada made an unprecedented move by opening its books and providing a detailed account of its key grant recipients and foreign donors. Many believe the act was the organization’s response to an ongoing battle between environmental groups and Ottawa and the government’s recent stipulation it would crack down on charities engaging in political activity and receiving foreign funding. Would this “sharing” help Tides Canada reinforce its standing as one of Canada’s most fervent and loyal supporters?
Perhaps. But an attempt to build trust aside, the desire for greater efficiency and effectiveness is also driving nonprofits to adopt newly open approaches. Take the Nonprofit Sector Link Wood Buffalo of Fort McMurray, Alberta, established in 2009 to promote dialogue and action on common issues faced by community nonprofits, through leadership training, coaching and resource sharing.
Sharing toward efficiency
“Getting information is not our problem but we have limited time to nurture communication,” offers project manager Reinalie Jorolan. “Meaningful relationships is our gap.” The hope, in founding the organization, was to inspire the sharing of resources and ideas, toward greater dialogue and local support. She continues, explaining, “If we were friends and I was making a soup and missing ingredients, you’d say, ‘I have this ingredient that can work with your soup, I can go to the grocery store and pick it up for you’.” In effect, she adds, meaningful relationships allow for the pooling of resources — material and human — ensures collaboration over duplication and offers multiple opportunities for support.
Sharing is imperative
For Patel, the support he envisions comes in the form of his latest paradigm-disrupter, the Sharing Imperative. It’s simply a natural step forward, he explains. “After ten years of doing Timeraiser we’re trying to pay attention to all the trends on the horizon for philanthropy.” It began with the realization that in a few years’ time, there will be 50 billion devices connecting users to the internet. Considering all that virtual engagement, it dawned on him that there existed a potential for something greater. Imagine, for instance, if nonprofits were able to share their financial, operational and programmatic information with volunteers, stakeholder and like-minded organizations online and in real-time.
The impact from that level of sharing would be huge, says Patel emphatically. It would help organizations work better together, demonstrate money is being used well and ensure they’re responsive to stakeholders and volunteers. But the Sharing Imperative goes beyond each singular act it would inspire. “It’s actually [about] all the little things you do every single day, in and around trying to be a bit more transparent, collaborative and effective in how you run programs and communicate,” he explains. “If you start to do little things, it leads to the big AHA! moment down the road and it becomes more of a state-of-mind than one particular thing an organization does.”
Sharing is not like the others
Patel also distinguishes between the new sharing mindset and the three nonprofit “watchwords” of the day: collaboration, transparency and efficiency. Just because an organization is collaborative, doesn’t mean they’re efficient, he says. Similarly, an efficient nonprofit is not necessarily collaborative. And an organization may appear transparent by putting links to PDFs on their website, but if the most significant piece of information is buried deep within the document, they’re missing a real sharing opportunity.
The sharing imperative is one step ahead, effectively representing the co-mingling of all strategies for greater impact. “What we’re honing in on is the trifecta – a new discipline that needs to do three things really well to be an effective mission-based organization.”
Patel’s Framework is walking the talk too. Diving head-first into the new sharing approach, among other things, the organization publicly posted their financials and their online “bookkeeping in the cloud” workflow displaying how the team articulates their approach to online bookkeeping and accounting. The results, so far, have been encouraging. “The conversations we’re having now with our funders are looking way different than they did two years ago and we wouldn’t have been able to unless without the sharing we’re doing.”
To help others adopt the new sharing paradigm, Framework will soon be launching the Sharesies Academy, a series of training modules and workshops for anyone who wants to learn more about any of the 20 online or “in the cloud” topics they’ve adopted into their practices.
How much to share?
It all sounds great in theory but what if organizations are fearful of sharing, thinking that showing their cards can have the negative effect of losing the confidence of their stakeholders or supporters? Can there be such a thing as too much sharing? Some things can remain private, admits Patel, but, as a general approach, openness is important. “If the default is 'I’m not sharing because I don’t want people to know', then there are way bigger problems going on than that.”
If someone is investing in an organization or an idea, they do it because they believe in the people making it happen, he explains. But that level of trust is eroded if there’s an in-house version of the financial truth, for example, and another version for donors and funders. Perhaps it just takes a while to break down those walls. Just ask Ashley Good of Engineers without Borders, the lead developer of Admitting Failure, an online community and resource geared at challenging development professionals to share their missteps. The thinking was, by establishing new levels of transparency, repeat failures would be avoided and the overall objective of addressing poverty issues would be addressed more effectively.
Yet, one of the biggest takeaways of the project for Good was the realization of how mentally difficult it is to talk about failure. “Compared to the number of people interested [in the idea of Admitting Failure] the number that gets posted is really piddley,” she says, explaining her expectations for the initiative changed since its inception in 2011. “When I started the site, part of me hoped that everyone the next day would get on the computer and post failures. Then you’d have a database from which to search so people could avoid those failures in their own work.”
The reality is a long way from that. Though initially surprised by the tight-lipped development community, Good is understanding. “It’s hard to talk failure with a trusting team, let alone post it on the internet for people to see forever,” she says. “It tells me how far we have to go.” Regardless, she remains positive. “I’m totally blown away and inspired by people who want to have these discussions even if they can’t post them online,” she shares, adding some people apply the idea to their own organization, others for research purposes.
As she waits for people to grow more comfortable with sharing, Good remains focused. “My goal has become to catalyze that shift in mindset, asking people to accept that we need to learn as we go.” The logical next step, she continues, is saying, “Because we want to do great work, we have to be willing to talk very openly and honestly about what’s working and what’s not.”
Sounding a lot like Patel, Good imagines a scenario where NGOs openly share the solution to a problem, creating something better than what they could have on their own. “I imagine a world where all the information is available and out in the universe, where it’s not limited by knowledge but by the extent of your imagination,” she offers. “That’s the vision behind open organizations. That to me is the dream.”
Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.
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