Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What sector do you work in?

I love Michelle, but I must take umbrage.

201 out of 665 users used these 6 open source tools. I don’t think that’s possibly representative of the sector (especially since in the survey, the most popular CRM was CiviCRM.)
In a sector where 80.8% of registered nonprofits have budgets under $100K per year and 50.9% 990 filers have budgets under $100K, OF COURSE these data make sense (2007 NCSS data). Who can possibly afford the commercial alternatives? Open source, free and accessible solutions are the obvious choice.

And obvious and used CRM solutions like Giftworks, MS Excel and post it notes weren't even in the survey (see dotorganize survey).

IN FACT, only 30% of NTEN CRM satisfaction survey respondents had budgets under 100K compared with the 50.9% in the sector .

And I'm not just saying this becuase CiviCRM emphatically spanked the huge commercial competitors. ;)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Too bad capacity building is passe

Funny quote from a small foundation:

The foundation I work for, along with every grantmaker I have spoken with, complain about the same thing - "The grant applications we have to review are horrible. Organizations don't follow directions!" About half of these horrible applicants get their grants. Even though we continually ask for what we need from charities to evaluate their requests, are we partly to blame for the problem of horrible applications?
My thoughts for the program officer:

(1) You are giving horrible applications grants. What have you just taught the grantee? Kinda like the parent that tells their kid "no" 5 times and then gives in. The kid just learned that the parent didn't mean it when they said no. Nonprofit know that the grant application is seldom the key determinant in whether you get a grant (see Larry Lessig's new work on corruption).

(2) How much money are you giving these grantees to improve their ability to respond to grant applications? If the answer is $0, then clearly this is not a problem you think is significant enough to invest in. Again the charity understands that the application isn't very important.

Givewell: Naive or Inspired

Probably a little bit of both. Rather than get into the debate about GiveWell, I'd like to point out a basic principle that the traditional philanthropic sector just doesn't get:

Openness. I've pointed out the different interpretations of openness before, but in the nonprofit sector, here we are pursuing charitable missions, where we want to help people, it sure seems like a no-brainer to be open about what you are doing.

Givewell exhibits two important pieces of openness:

(1) Publish what the charity submitted to Givewell. I'd be curious to know how many of the documents that charities submit to funding agencies can be found on their own web sites. If the material toots your own horn, publish it!

If you are bankrolling an organization, have them share their knowledge with the rest of the sector- more people will be helped.

We all know how backward the philanthropy sector is... we can't even get an aggregated RSS feed of grants made by foundations (Grantsfire seems stillborn). But what if you could get that RSS feed with a link to the application itself? A very powerful research tool for donors.

(2) Publish the selection methodology. My experience in the private foundation world was that the methodology we usually extraordinarily good. However, since there were always grants made that were clearly not motivated by the methodology, publishing the methodology just encouraged people to figure out which board member's in-law was on the board of the organization that got a big grant even though the methodology suggested they were a less effective candidate.

I tends to come down on the side of publish the methodology and don't feel embarrassed that there is favoritism. A foundation should be able to say, we have a relationship with this organizations and choose to fund them. End of story.

But having the methodology out there is huge for the sector.

Constructive debate can now happen. The metric of "Cost per significant life change" is, in my opinion a pretty bogus figure. But someone has bothered to put a methodology out. Now others can offer alternative methodologies. Hopefully the wisdom of crowds comes up with some better metrics.

Other thoughts that I don't have time to flesh out:

Givewell does something similar to the Sunlight Foundation in politics. See Larry Lessig's switch from copyright to corruption. By bringing philanthropic efforts into the light (openness) you reduce the dominance of corruption in philanthropy (which IMHO is almost as corrupt as politics, in Lessig's definition of corruption).

The nonprofit sector is almost architected to stifle innovation. Of course brash outsiders with poor social skills are the guys that innovate.

Charity Navigator (administrative costs are everything) and Givewell ($ per life saved) are probably both wrong. But the fact they are open means eventually they or someone else will get closer to getting it right.


I'm not knowledgeable enough about the sector to confidently critique anything but the lack of transparency and public discussion. And it's this problem that stops any other problems there might be from getting addressed. -Holden Karnofsky
OK, just this quote alone makes me want to send them a check.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Highly questionable

I've been looking at a lot of social enterprises lately and I am not surprised to find that there are a fair number of wolves in sheep's clothing out there. Or, perhaps worse, they basically just don't get it.

Take Giving Tree. Their mission is to bring philanthropy to the masses. And to make sure that they are the only ones that can bring it to the masses (at least using the word microphilanthropy).

Or so it would seem from their trademark on the term "microphilanthropyTM" Do they intend to sue nonprofits that support microenterprise for trademark infringment if they use the term microphilanthropy?

If your mission is to bring philanthropy to the masses, then do it, engage with others, create a bigger pie rather than using old and tired legal strategies for hamstringing the competition.

Give me a break. Tacky. Tacky. Tacky.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The term "open source" officially meaningless in the nonprofit sector

So I'm reading this NP Times article. The word open source is used 20 times.

Gene Austin (Convio) has a fairly hilarious quote:

"I think the confusion in open source in our market is that people look at vendors like us that have proprietary applications, and say that they're not believers in open source, and that cannot be further from the truth because we use those technologies to assemble and build a great application," Austin said.
First, technically, he is right. Second, few in the NPO sector probably gets the hilarity. :( And third, give me a break. Using open source tools and software to build proprietary products doesn't mean they are believers in open source.

The Open Source Initiative has a great quote on their home page:
The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.
I would venture that Convio believes in open source because it helps them lock in customers for a lower capital outlay. Simple as that. P.S. ANY SaaS (software as a service) vendor's EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) gets better the better as they lock in more and more customers.

The beacon of light in the article is, as ever, Holly Ross.
The question isn't really about open source, but about openness.
And this is the crux. Open source and openness (e.g. open APIs) can both contribute to lock in. Open source by giving proprietary vendors cheaper ways to build their solutions, and openness by making making other applications dependent. Salesforce is an absolute poster child for the lock in strategy (for their commercial customers)... to use AppExchange applications, APEX, or any of the other stuff in their ecology, you must pay Salesforce.

None of this is bad. Customers are getting better products that do more things that they need. It's just the concept that proprietary vendors would cloak themselves as supporters of open source software that irks me. :)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Convio and Kintera APIs... we're excited why, exactly?

My life in nonprofit technology continually gets defined by this moment in 2001 where a major technology company schooled me on why nonprofits didn't need open source... you see technology adoption runs on a five to seven year adoption cycle, they said, in 5-7 years, the innovations that are unique today will be commonplace and adopted throughout the sector, driven by the commercial market.

It is 4th Quarter of 2007 and Convio and Kintera announce APIs. Adoption can begin in their customer base. Mmmm... maybe the nonprofit sector is different.

Don't get me wrong, APIs are important, these announcements should be encouraged, only one more major vendor needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into 2002 (yes, 5 years out of touch). But please people, raise the bar a little. One has to wonder how long we would have waited for the vendors to release APIs if Salesforce hadn't flooded the market with modern software.

The real golden nugget is Convio's Facebook application based on the concept of extensions. This is where APIs need to move in the nonprofit sector if regular groups without 5 figure development budgets are going to use APIs. People need to be able to download applications, drop javascript into their web pages, not write code.

That said, looking at the 13 nonprofit applications on SalesForce's AppExchange, and knowing how many great things have been built by consultants and nonprofits but are not available, it may just mean that the benefits of open APIs are available only to those that can write a $10K+ check in addition to the cost of their commercial software. Hopefully Convio has more success distributing the innovation unleashed by their APIs.

P.S. APIs have been available from the beginning from open source tools focusing on the sector. The problem is that we still haven't come up with a distribution model that gets the tools in the hands of nonprofits without that darn five figure consulting fee.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Facebook is yet another step..

As much as I love Deborah, I think she is missing the point...

at this moment it feels like every self-respecting 501(c)3 is going to need to develop an application that integrates with Facebook.
Facebook is yet another step in the path to allowing non-programmers to do cool programmer things. A nonprofit doesn't need to create a application to raise money from Facebook users... they have lots of choices (causes, etc.). Advocacy campaigns have lots of choices. I'm sure in another few years they'll have apps to do all kinds of things we can't imagine.

The point here is all the NPO is doing is using their browser to click and configure. This started with widgets, is moving on to Facebook, and who knows where in the future.

The far more interesting item comes from the comments, where Caroline Meeks (a most excellent technologist) notes that the real magic comes when Google chooses to crush Facebook by "out opening" them.

But in the end, a human of average intelligence, a mouse and a keyboard can do things today that it took millions of dollars and special training to do yesterday. Nonprofits don't have to build Facebook widgets, but they do need to understand how to use tools in the new online jungle.

For those of us that have been in the technology game for awhile, basic technology literacy is still paramount to using technology sucessfully. Where we used to say "is it plugged in" we now say "are you logged in".

Wednesday, September 12, 2007 uses open RFP process announced a $10M grant program via a Request for Proposals (RFP) process.

We realize that this type of open call for proposals is not the usual model for investment, but we wanted to use a process that was open to new ideas and new entrants.
They are exclusively focusing on entrepreneurs and companies... they already made some grants to nonprofits.

Does this suggest that unique, entrepreneurial innovation doesn't happen in the nonprofit sector? Is t true that only the biggest, best-reputation nonprofits should be invested in? Did they think that there wouldn't be any interesting folks popping up in an RFP for nonprofits?

I'm a firm believer that nonprofit funding is biased to funding winners, not innovators. Something like the Netsquared investment process (kind of an RFP) creates space for those small innovators to emerge. Interestingly enough, however, the Netsquared winner was a bigger, more established organization... not a scrappy start up.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ack people! Technology adoption *cycle*

Lucy Bernholz, who I am sure is joking, says,

I suppose you know something has gone totally mainstream when its portrayed in Doonesbury.

I guess its time to look for the next new thing.
The strip mentions and Secondlife. But these technology tools are still VERY early in the adoption cycle.

I remember sitting down with a big technology company and being educated that the cycle takes about 5 years to convert the skeptics. Though even today 50% of small nonprofits use Post It notes and excel as their databases. Maybe that adoption cycle is a bit longer for nonprofits?

I suspect we in the nonprofit technology sector will have a far greater impact on real things... people fed, poverty alleviated, etc... if we focus on moving existing technology to the conservatives rather than figuring out what the next big thing the technology enthusiast will start playing with.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Trapping users' data

From the good idea, but gotta-wonder department:

We think it’s time for socially-enabled web sites to stop competing over who can build a higher wall to trap their users' data.
This from the folks that bring us the open social web bill of rights.

(1) Duh. Of course this is better for consumers and better for the social web. My virtual world is tied up in Linkedin, Facebook, Plaxo, Technorati and a million other places. Each of these locations tries to connect me with other people I know. Far better if they all connect with one another seamlessly behind the scenes.

(2) What is the economic model? For profit technology firms are driven by investors looking for very high returns on investment or by corporations looking for high revenue plays. This goes back to the concept of does a company care about the size of their slice of the pie or the entire size of the pie?

A totally open social web creates a very big pie where all actors compete equally for user attention (and from there revenue). What corporation in their right mind is in favor of low barriers to entry in their market? The lower the barriers the lower the profits.

The angle that gets me jazzed is that many small actors, facing high barriers to entry, really do have an opportunity to create an open social web. Facebook might have already cracked the door.

Facebook is now a platform of social applications. Think of it as a private network... they control the cables, switches and routers. Open standards comes along. No one controls the network and you can create a virtual private network. More importantly the virtual private networks all follow the same basic rules.

It will be interesting to see this play out over the next few years.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Productize the Social Web!

Britt Bravo and the NetSquared crew have a cool idea... pose a question and a cool background report from the Overbrook Foundation and get people to pontificate ;) The better idea in this is that anyone can pontificate, further proof that the audience often has far more interesting things to say than the speaker. Go to the site and answer for yourself!

What is needed to facilitate more nonprofits' adoption of the social web?
A clear value proposition and simple, achievable models.

This approach pre-supposes there are few innovators and far more followers. To achieve volume (i.e. more nonprofits) you need to "comdify" the social web.

The first angle is always a why question. Given the choice between calling a donor or filling out a grant proposal, why am I going to invest my time in the social web? An answer that is always good is an ROI answer. Do happy, engaged constituents give more money? Are their demographics more desirable than my regular donor pool? Does the cost effort I invest today to figure this all out exceed the benefit I may get?

So to answer the why question, I would love to see a 2 page case for why the social web helped the Overbrook grantees that were in the vanguard. Drop the academic analysis we are sometimes too fond of in our sector and make a clear case designed to sell the reader.

Now that we have nonprofits sold on the social web, we need to give them achievable models.

I find it interesting that in the Overbrook report, it seemed like no one had to be sold on the social web:
“I think I’m missing something really big, but I don’t know what it is or how to find out what it is.”
“We don’t know who can translate these things for our needs.”
In our sector, we seem to want to answer these questions by teaching the organization how to write an RFP. Because somehow, it makes sense that a human rights organization needs to be an expert in the social web to be able to use the social web... to write an RFP, select a consultant or 'do it themselves.'

The Overbrook report also notes "There was almost universal frustration voiced about using outside technology consultants." Why?

Probably because the human rights organization wanted some sausage and really didn't want to know how the sausage was made. Why can't we as nonprofit technology assistance providers deliver a satisfying outcome rather than a frustrating process?

So this leads us to the second point... where are the social web "products"? I'm a nonprofit and I just buy, off the shelf, a solution. I don't have to become an expert. I just reap the rewards.

(Easy to say, FAR harder to do... but that is for another post)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Enormous Reach and Power

Nancy White, whose blog I follow, got me thinking with her quote "Yahoogroups has enormous reach and power."

Very few technology companies systematically deploy their assets in support of social change. Yahoo and Google have amazing technology assets. Do they systematically deploy yahoo groups? Do they make specific partnerships to deploy Google Aps to small groups? Do they hire a couple of head counts to do the marketing and outreach? Do they designate social change groups as a targeted vertical in their product organizations?

Based on conversations with main line product management folks, it seems like they don't think this way. From their actions in the aftermath of Katrina and the rapid innovation it spawned, my conclusion is that these companies haven't gone about deploying their assets in a systematic way in support of social change.

On the other side are companies like that have actively created a delivery system and ecology for deploying their asset in support of social change. Oddly enough, the investment required would be very insignificant for these much larger corporations.

My next job, which I start next week is about deploying the core competencies of a technology company (product, services and people) in support of social change. I'll be asking a lot of questions about how to craft a delivery system and ecology.

The one big question I already have is why bother creating company-specific ecologies? Wouldn't it be far more efficient to use an existing ecology and methodology to deliver the assets of technology companies in support of social change (i.e. people, products, services)?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


I often talk about what it takes to product-ize open source software. Most regular people consider open source to be "not ready" or "almost there". This interchange on the CiviCRM boards is a great reminder of the need for an ecology around open source products.

Basically, a small, no resource organization wants CiviCRM to work better with IE. The open source projects asks the no-resource organization to invest time and/or money into making CiviCRM work better with IE. The small organization gets frustrated and says:

Not working on the UI in the most common browser on the planet (especially for low-income people in need) is--to me--shooting yourselves in the foot WRT accomplishing your goals. But perhaps you are not building this "for the people," but really for geeks. If that's the case, then be clear about it. If your goal is to help non-profits, this is one place you fall very seriously short.
The simple fact is that the "people" don't have the resources to contribute, and the geeks and large budget nonprofits do.

Or is that really true?
Non-profit accidental techies with no time and little or no power in their orgs make up a huge portion of your user base (as I understand it, anyway). I am wondering if we should be discussing how to make this "community" model work better, because I don't feel like it's well-directed to do what you want it to do--supplement the good work you guys are doing.
And here is the crux... how do you make the community module work better? I think it is probably by providing clear, simple, low time commitment tasks to the community:
  1. Take 1 hr talk to the CiviCRM team about how to do testing and test CiviCRM in IE. Then log the bugs found.
  2. Take 1 hr, send an email to everyone you know asking for a volunteer programmer/geek to come in and fix those bugs.
Accept the fact that your hour may or may not make an immediate difference (this is the really hard thing to get folks to truly accept). But by becoming part of the community you move the community forward.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Drupal Saving the World

Jeff Robins, a Drupal visionary, had a great post on Drupal saving the world.

The entire history of CivicSpace is about using Drupal and CiviCRM saving the world. And the conclusion I have reached is that there is not an ecology in place to make that happen. In fact, the ecology is not even evolving at this point. That ecology needs to generate some basic things:

(1) Technical innovation
(2) Productization
(3) Marketing
There are some assumptions embedded in this analysis. In software there are three important concepts: a product, configuration, customization. A product can just be used by an end user, no muss no fuss. Configuration allows a lay end user to learn enough to set the software up how they need it to work. Customization requires special skills (PHP) to get the software to do what you want.

Getting CiviCRM to accept online donations is a perfect example. If you get CiviCRM through CivicSpace On Demand, it just works-- it is a product. Install CiviCRM yourself and you have to make sense of 50 or so options as you configure it.

Originally, I thought that software could have an impact on social change if it was configurable. I came to the conclusion that this is wrong becuase it is virtually impossible to market a configurable product to small groups involved in social change.

The average social change organization wants software to just work... just like Gmail or Yahoo Mail.

So what does the ecology need to do?

(1) Technical innovation is required to productize Drupal and CiviCRM. Install profiles in Drupal are a first step, but need to be improved. There are a number of other technical innovations involved.
(2) The actual productization is the process of building things like Buzz Monitor.
(3) Finally, marketing is required to generate enough revenue to sustain products.

All the steps on this path so far have been done by people that forgo health insurance to change the world.... by $5K extracted out of a small nonprofit to fund $15K worth of innovation.... by little innovators operating with little in the way of larger institutional support.

Right now, the Drupal and CiviCRM ecologies do a great job of generating consulting dollars, so there are lots of healthy consulting firms. That open source software will be around forever.

But there seems to be very little movement in the ecology to build products that help small social change organizations on a massive scale.

On the commercial side, many of the firms are too young to be deemed good investments. And investors have a hard time funding technical innovation that is indefensible (open source community).

On the social change side, no one understands the technology strategy well enough to invest in Drupal changing the world. More importantly, we haven't been able to clearly explain how a million dollars invested today directly results in 10,000 grassroots groups sustainably (i.e. no additional philanthropic investment) using Drupal as a platform for social change on the web for the next 20 years.

Seems like an unfortunate missed opportunity.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Sustainable Nonprofits that Suck

There is a bunch of conversation on whether sustainability=earned income, how far you can push the nonprofits should be like businesses thing here and here.

Well I'd like to point out there are a bunch of sustainable nonprofits that suck. Let me define my terms. Sustainable nonprofits have enough cash income to fund their ongoing operations... that could be from an endowment, from a good development director, from a sustainable pool of individual donors, from earned income, whatever. Sucking is defined as not accomplishing measurable goals.

My version of suck (measurable goals) is, I think, the axis on which the whole nonprofit vs. for-profit thinking debate should take place. In business, you have a quick, measurable built in goal: profitability. Why can a CEO of a packaged foods company move over to and Internet media firm? The P&L is the same... the same basic measurements are in place.

It is a lot harder for the CEO of a symphony to switch over to being the CEO of a homeless shelter.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review has a good article. One quote struck me:
“The lack of having a bottom line is truly under appreciated,” explains Schlosberg, “as is its importance in enabling an organization to have focus and come together. It becomes much more of a challenge to evaluate not only the organization, but individuals and their performance as well.”

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wisdom of Crowds

So Netsquared picked their 21 projects for the conference [by Netsquared, I mean the registered users of the Netsquared site]. This is basically the first phase of selection. As for the $100K minimum to be distributed to projects, "The format for allocation will be determined by vote of Conference participants."

I think they are applying the wisdom of crowds at the wrong stage. It will work in this case because the Netsquared community is pretty homogeneous, but if you ever hit scale (10,000 projects), the popularity contest that is the first cut just doesn't make a lot of sense.

In a general sense, I would approach it in stages:

  1. Attract a bunch of applicants in an open process. Open, community process heavily reliant on networking and advertising.
  2. Qualify those applicants. Use the media volunteer approach to still let "lay people" do it, but at least you make sure the basic criteria is met. This is a binary, qualified or not decision. Qualified projects move forward.
  3. Review and select those applicants. Again, a media volunteer approach is perfect... anyone can participate-- you got the little "d" democratic going, but they have to think about the actual projects they are reviewing in a structured way, not just voting for favorites. A reviewer is assigned a project on a round robin basis, every project gets a score. Highest scoring projects move forward.
And that is it. You'd have to tweak the incentives a little to create better incentives for groups to recruit their supporters into the process, but the basic outline feels like it would keep to the focus on substantive issues rather than popularity contests.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Netsquared's High School Popularity Contest

Daniel Ben-Horin relates some comments from Siegfried Woldhek about the Netsquared Innovation Fund's process:

"What an interesting experiment this is turning out to be. Implicitly at least three new criteria were added to the official, sensible list.
  • The size of the mailing list
  • The activism of the inner circle
  • The 2.0 savvy"

My inbox has seen a lot of direct advocacy to get me to vote for them, making points about how the visibility is important to ongoing sustainability, etc. This is from groups and people respect, am impressed by, and really want to succeed.

But quite honestly, it pisses me off.

First, an innovation fund is not about you. If you want to plug into your network and get them to review the proposals and add their brain power to the mix, great. Ethically (in my sometimes high-handed brain), that email should invite people to the process... not to the action of voting for you. There should be a single very short sentence at the end saying something like, "Please don't forget to review our proposal ."

Virtually every email I got didn't explain to me why the group met the criteria of the Innovation Fund:
  • Use the power of community and social networks to create change
  • Use existing, or newly developed technology tools for social impact
  • Have a plausible financial model
  • Have a clear way to measure success
  • Exhibit extraordinary leadership, passion and resourcefulness
  • Exhibit a passion for social change
If you aren't going to tell me why your organization meets the criteria, then basically you are running for homecoming queen on your popularity and the fact that you hang out with the cool kids. In fact, some really great projects that basically don't meet these criteria are going to have a lot of votes because of their advocacy strategy.

Advocacy is appropriate and good. Mobilizing your network to help you win by making your network part of the process is also appropriate and good.

Mobilizing your network to game a voting process suggests a weak understanding of how communities and social networks create real change (as oppose to raising a buck).

Friday, April 13, 2007

Content, Quality, Money

Michelle brings up the question of open content. Laura provides a most excellent and well thought out tirade.

Shockingly enough, I have an opinion. First in defense of paid/ copyright content: (1) it takes money to build content via traditional writer/editorial channels and the most traditional way to extract economic value from content is copyright. So I understand what Michael and Laura are saying and largely agree with it.

However, there are two things that fascinate me:
(1) Something like Idealware could be founded on an online community... something like Compumentor's (this is a tough challenge in and of itself). If Idealware started with free community content that was not produced in a traditional writer/editorial model, then packaged up the very best to deliver to the community, their dynamics and economics would be completely different. They could, for instance, implement a membership model... and their free content would drive membership in that community.
(2) Content is no longer a value generator... it is a consumer capturer. You need to capture the consumer with your free content and then extract value through alternate channels... ads, products, services, memberships, etc.

When will Techsoup acquire Idealware? They can then free the content to capture some "consumers" for Techsoup stock.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Selecting a Content Management System: Drupal, Joomla and Plone

I've been working with Idealware, joining with Ryan Ozimek and Patrick Shaw to provide a Drupal, Joomla, Plone roundup. I think that my co-presenters would agree that having a developer you trust is far more important than which CMS you pick... they all are great.

Few, CMSs, however, have a vision that fits with more expansive social goals. At CivicSpace our mission is to make advanced online community and CRM tools accessible to the smallest grassroots organizations. There is a specific type of technical architecture required to build technology specifically suited form small groups in the civic sector.

Dries Buytaert, the leader of the Drupal project has outlined some goals for Drupal... eliminate the developer and eliminate the designer. This is really about eliminating the need for specialized knowledge and limiting the complexity the end user is exposed to.

Part of the reason ASP solution are so appropriate for the nonprofit and civic sectors is that they promise the same thing... eliminating the developer and designer, but really haven't been able to deliver. I trust the 300+ volunteer developers of Drupal to accomplish this goal more that Kintera or Convio mostly because ANYONE can join Drupal at any time to help... crowdsourcing works.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Creating Options

How can you not just love Michelle:

Sometimes, the forward march of technology seems like this train I'm riding on - inexorably traveling down the track of capitalist profit while nonprofits are hanging on to those little hand-powered trucks that we, the people who serve them in this realm are working really hard to pump up and down, so we can try and gamely keep up. And while they watch really large organizations zip by them in bigger, better vehicles, looking exactly like they know where they are going. But no one seems to be asking "why are we on this track in the first place?" "Is being on this track going to really help me save the whales/feed people/organize/save the planet?"
Power to the edges, open source, the inexorable lowering of technology costs... all these factors create an opportunity to build a new track, to innovate and create lots of ways to save the planet.

I come back to a single issue: innovation and saving the planet is a human-scale issue... people to people communicating. Actually saving the plant is a systems-scale issue... millions of human-scale activities aligned in the same direction. Yet the only path to "scale" available to us is capitalist profit track... Adam Smith had it right when he recognized the power of capitalism to coordinate individual activities.

Until we find other paths to scale that are in line with social change, we will have wonderful micro-interventions that, unfortunately, stay micro.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Values, Mergers, Investment and Mission

Michelle Murrain made a great observation on the Convio/ Get Active merger:

In the final analysis, in the days, weeks, months and years following these, and other mergers, no fewer people will be homeless, no fewer women will be battered, no fewer children will be hungry, no less environmental damage will be done, no more people who need it will get mental health services. But a few more people will have a lot more money in their bank accounts. And this, I think, is one really important thing to think hard about. Are the means that progressive organizations use to reach their ends truly in line with their mission?
And this goes back to the hub-bub over whether the Gates Foundation should consider it's mission when investing its 60 billion dollars. Interestingly enough, 96.9% of those voting in Lucy Bernholz's poll would be considered naive by the CEO and COO of the Gates Foundation... they think the mission should impact the investment strategy (to be fair, I am not entirely clear that the Foundation's position is anything other than "let this blow over").

We generally believe that the business of doing good is just like the business of supplying mercenaries to Africa... the companies use the same financial tools (Cash Flow, Balance Sheets, etc.). And these tools' strength is their value-neutrality. ROI, stock price appreciation, profit are all really efficient ways to run an economy because they make no commentary on the actual activity.

In the end, a financial transaction in the social sector should be measured by how many fewer people are homeless. The new breed of social enterprises in the nonprofit technology sector... Democracy in Action being the first clear success and leader of the pack... hopefully will measure themselves in those terms as we move forward.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mergers, Open Source, Open Standards and Wishes

The esteemed Holly Ross writes,

I also think that the physical act of integrating two disparate systems, especially in the case of Convio and GetActive, will cause them to create the kinds tools that will be used to share data internally at first, but can then be spit polished and prettified for use by the general consumer.
Lets chew on this a bit. I have a corporate quarterly profit goal. I build tools to port data from Get Active to Convio as fast as possible. (1) Those tools are probably not general purpose, they are designed to get the job done and get it done fast. (2) If they are general purpose, who is going to polish them? Convio will if it leads to porting data from Blackbaud to Convio, but I doubt they would release the tools to facilitate the other direction.

And here an aspect of the difference between (distributed) open source and open standards. If the clunky tools were released into the community, all kinds of people would have an incentive to polish and prettify. If they aren't released to the community, they will serve quarterly profit targets.

I was thinking that the CiviCRM/Drupal community should run a marketing campaign... "you have to migrate anyway, migrate to open source." I suspect the tools and the companies have a few more years of maturation before they compete head to head with Convio, but I like the marketing campaign. :)