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.