Idea Sharing in Nonprofits

The intellectual property issues just keep coming up! (See my previous posts on IP issues.)  Maybe I should go back to law school…

This morning, I was interviewed by a team of researchers at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden; they are studying collaborative innovation networks and how they can contribute to transformational change towards a sustainable society.  Then, I read an article in the New York Times, an interview with Lawrence Lessig (famous advocate of creative commons licensing and other radical changes to copyright and patent).

My discussion over Skype to Sweden was focused on nonprofit organizations (in the rest of the world, they’re called non-governmental organizations or NGOs).  Anyone who works with nonprofit organizations has noted their seeming inability to collaborate, their need to keep control over their sphere of activity.  And accompanying this is a frustrating tendency to reinvent the wheel–for multiple nonprofits to be operating in the same space, with the same mission, when their target audience could be much better served if they joined forces.  I thought that perhaps this was a uniquely American problem, so I asked if they thought Swedish nonprofits collaborated well–their response was to laugh.  In fact, they were the ones who brought up the phrase “reinvent the wheel.”  So we know at least it’s not limited to the U.S.

So how do we foster collaboration and sharing among nonprofits?  The intellectual property scholars, like Lessig, have argued that the current IP regime blocks collaboration by granting too strong an ownership right to creators.  (I argued this as well, in the final chapter of my book Group Genius.)  The ownership right (patent or copyright) allows the creator to charge whatever he or she wants for the privilege of using it, or blocking its use altogether.  Lessig has argued for mandatory licensing at a government-specified usage fee.

But when it comes to nonprofits, people aren’t motivated by profit.  The incentives are very different, and I don’t have a good understanding of what they are–genuine desire to help the underprivileged…but if that’s the motivation, then why isn’t there more collaboration?  Maybe it’s a big ego, the sincere belief that you know best how to help the underprivileged.  Maybe it’s the “founder mentality” that you see in so many venture-capital startups, where the organization is so closely identified with the founder, and the founder (who remains the executive director) has difficulty delegating or sharing authority.

I don’t think nonprofits patent their business models; I don’t think they should!  I’m thinking of a local St. Louis organization, KidSmart, that provides school supplies to students who can’t afford to buy pencils and notebooks.  There are similar organizations in cities around the country; none of them are paying royalties to the very first such outfit (and that’s a good thing). They borrow ideas from each other all the time.  But what if another nonprofit started up in St. Louis, doing the exact same thing?  Wouldn’t that be odd–why wouldn’t those folks just join on with KidSmart?  That hasn’t happened…but similarly odd things happen all the time (thus the phrase “reinventing the wheel”).

So maybe the “creative commons” is the right way to think about innovation in the nonprofit sector. (I don’t think it’s a good model for for-profit innovation, by the way.) But we need more research on exactly what motivates nonprofit volunteers and workers, and what forms of collaboration and idea exchange will result in the greatest benefit to the greatest number of needy people.

10 thoughts on “Idea Sharing in Nonprofits

  1. I remember the same thing from my time working in non-profits. Though I can’t comment on why redundant non-profits initially spring up (though I imagine in some cases it’s because of dissatisfaction with the current players’ results), once they are going the desire to collaborate is often killed by the fact that non-profits in the same space often compete for the same grants. Though some funders will require that their grantees collaborate with similar organizations, it’s quite commonly not the case. Not wanting to undercut their argument for deserving new or continued funding, non-profits can become quite turfy. I imagine that the same situation could result in any industry where there are only a handful of potential customers.

    1. Yes, that competition for grants is a problem. From my contacts I’ve heard that granting agencies are also thinking about this pretty hard…they also want their grants to foster collaboration and not turfiness. But it’s a hard problem…

  2. I’m fascinated by this also. I am writing a book (for intelligent popular American market – not academic or scientific!) on the Wounded Healer in all aspects of life for healing fractured world. It struck me in chapter on healing power of faith – just how many NG0s there seem to be across the world, many in USA, all basically chasing the same objectives – for interfaith cooperation for world peace – ironic that they dont seem to cooperate much between themselves and I had already thought what a lot of energy is wasted between them all! Googled your name for input on the creativity chapter actually and then found this. Could you point me in best direction please for info on the evolution of creativity which I think would be interesting to incorporate?

    1. Thank you for your comment and good luck with your book! There’s not much on the evolution of creativity per se, but a couple of books on the evolution of art:

      Denis Dutton, THE ART INSTINCT, just published

      Ellen Dissanayake, WHAT IS ART FOR, a classic

      My own belief is that creativity did not evolve separately; creativity is based in foundational cognitive capabilities that are at the core of homo sapiens’ brain and allowed us to become intelligent problem solving animals.

  3. Dr. Sawyer
    I just read an article about the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery called “multiples”. Although its application was based on scientific discovery it could really be applied to ideas in general and could answer why there are so many NGO’s / Non-Profits with the same or similar mission.

    For example there are more than 10 and perhaps more than 100 non-profits across the US whose mission is to collect, sort and redistribute donated medical supplies to countries is dire need. These sundry supplies, from bandages to x-ray machines, are otherwise destined for landfills – a double benefit no doubt.

    You suggest we need more research on exactly what motivates nonprofit volunteers and workers, and what forms of collaboration and idea exchange will result in the greatest benefit to the greatest number of needy people.

    I think that the highest leverage point in this case (a place in a system where a small amount of change force which is the the effort required to prepare and make a change causes a large predictable, favorable response) – is at the NGO / Non-Profits president/ceo level not at the volunteer level.

    An interesting experiment would be to ask the CEO’s of NGO’s / Non-Profits
    1). If they were aware of their fellow NGO’s / Non-Profit’s with the same mission?

    2). Had they thought about collaborating or merging with them?
    They could share supply chain assets such as warehousing, distribution channels, volunteer labor etc) , co-market in cities across the country, reach more hospitals, share their international transport and in-country contacts – the benefits would be immense.

    3). What would keep them from collaborating with them or better yet merging with them?

    Love Group Genius by the way..

    1. I’m glad you liked Group Genius!

      I like your idea of thinking of the nonprofit duplication as “multiple discoveries.” You’re right that these have long been noted in science. I discuss some examples on pages 277-278 of my 2006 book Explaining Creativity: such as the development of calculus by both Newton and Leibniz, the invention of the telephone by both Bell and Gray; the famous sociologist Robert Merton, in 1961, identified hundreds of such cases.

      I love your three questions for executive directors. How to get these questions out to them? One idea is in “social entrepreneurship” programs like the one my university has–classes for aspiring founders of nonprofits that combine business school methods and social work techniques. In many of these classes, the aspiring entrepreneur has to prepare a formal business plan. I recommend that one step in this process should be to ask the aspiring entrepreneur these three questions, and to require that the business plan (1) identify similar nonprofits; (2) evaluate the merits of merging, or explain why a merger is inappropriate; (3) identify a few possibilities for collaboration; (4) extract best practices from the similar nonprofits.

  4. I think there is a growing amount of collaboration in the social enterprise sector, where we aim to borrow best practices from the private sector including a focus on measurable results, doing more with less, and focusing on entrepreneurs as a driver of change. We have partnered with many of our peers in the international social enterprise space through a network called the Aspen Network for Development Entrepreneurs – In forming the group, members agreed that the whole sector and its constituent members would benefit from sharing knowledge and pooling resources around core issues like setting industry standards for metrics, identifying and cultivating talent, and offering viable models for investment of private capital. Of course, there’s always the potential for members to feel proprietary about some IP and funding sources, but there is still plenty of room for collaboration based on clarity around our shared larger purpose – to unleash the potential for small and growing businesses to create social, financial and environmental benefit in the developing world.

  5. As recently retired Executive Director of the California Association of Nonprofits, I found the ‘multiples discovery’ problem is often created by good intentions turned toward self-preservation of “my job”, “my role”, “my turf”. My partner and I have formed IdeaEncore Network ( ) as a social enterprise to enhance the practice of individuals sharing with nonprofit colleagues (person-to-person) into a more institutional practice of nonprofit organizations sharing with each other (organization-to-organization). We believe that adding earned income potential, helping the organization position themselves as leaders in their sub-sector and IP protections to the usual approach people take to sharing will help nudge the institutions toward sharing. Although we have just launched our website, we are finding a growing interest in sharing and are in the early stages of proposing a pilot project on collaboration and what would motivate institutions to share more. Would love to discuss further with anyone off-list.

    Flo Green
    IdeaEncore Network

    1. I took a look at and it is exactly what nonprofits need to start sharing on the Internet. I searched a few of the topics and I see you already have several ideas that have been shared; many are free and a few have a price attached (allowing those who create the ideas to retain IP and generate some revenue for great ideas).

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