A recent conversation with Brook Manville reminded me of a question that has been puzzling me for a while: Why don't philanthropic foundations think more about networks?
The traditional philanthropic model revolves around money. Foundations have it, and nonprofits need it. So the foundations give it to the nonprofits in the form of a grant. There's a lot more to it, of course, but that's the basic idea.
Money is important, but it's not everything. When I talk to friends and colleagues in the nonprofit sector, what I hear again and again is a desire for knowledge. A charter school in Oakland wants to know whether a particular after-school program is a good use of their limited funding. A clinic in Tanzania wants to know how to increase compliance with a malaria treatment regimen. A music school in Philadelphia wants to know whether it should invest in commercial software to manage its box office.
There are a lot of reasons why nonprofit executives are hungry for knowledge. They work on particularly stubborn problems. The sector is highly fragmented and specialized. The absence of a strong market mechanism and regulating institutions allow bad management practices to endure. But in the end, nonprofit executives are doing what executives in every industry do: trying to learn from the experiences of others to improve their own performance.
If there is one thing that we've learned from the Web 2.0 phenomenon, it's that interpersonal networks are extremely effective in addressing these kinds of knowledge needs. Nonprofit practitioners benefit enormously when they connect with other nonprofit practitioners doing the same type of work. If I'm trying to increase compliance with a particular drug regimen in Tanzania, it is incredibly useful for me to connect with other practitioners who have done (or at least tried to do) the same thing in other parts of Tanzania, sub-Saharan Africa, or the South Side of Chicago. I can learn from their successes and their mistakes, and dramatically accelerate my own learning.
This knowledge transfer is already happening, but not effectively. Face-to-face conferences are expensive and often logistically impossible. In the absence of good public sources of knowledge, personal networks are even more important than in the for-profit sector. But like all personal networks, they don't scale efficiently.
It's not hard to imagine a better way. I'm envisioning an online knowledge networking tool for nonprofits. Nonprofit executives could go there to join discussions, share and access documents, describe case studies, find experts, create affinity groups, etc. Think of it as a standing online industry conference for nonprofit executives. And you don't even have to get on a plane.
Somebody needs to host this party, and philanthropic foundations are the natural hosts. In the near-term, each foundation would create a site exclusive to its funded organizations. Being supported by a particular foundation would not simply be a matter of receiving funding. It would also include an invitation (and a corresponding obligation) to become an active participant in a network of practitioners. The more wisely a foundation invests, the more powerful its proprietary network would become. I could even imagine a time when grant renewal decisions were determined by the quality of a fundee's participation in the network, and when inclusion in a foundation's proprietary network became more important to nonprofits than the accompanying financial support.
Bill and Melinda, are you listening?