Information technology is transforming civil society, but into what?

There are many people in the nonprofit world who want to see organizations define success metrics and pursue them with the same intensity that corporations pursue profits. This approach is advocated by some of the world’s largest foundations and is being hailed as a major step forward for the sector — the logic being that if nonprofits can become as efficient as for-profit corporations, they’ll be able to help many more people.

But there’s one big difference between the corporate world and the nonprofit sector — and it isn’t simply the bottom line. Corporations keep their best practices secret because it gives them a competitive advantage — and competition is the lifeblood of the for-profit world. The nonprofit sector, however, is about collaboration. Nonprofits should therefore want to spread best practice tools and techniques so their peers can more effectively contribute to the work of building a better world.

We at Sarapis view the FLO software movement as a benchmark in high-value, voluntary collaboration. We believe the FLO principles that make such technological triumphs as the Internet, Linux, Firefox and Wikipedia possible can inform civil society as it transitions from industrial age paradigms to information age ones.

How can civic organizations become more collaborative? How can the public sector become a more significant contributor to the global information commons? How can such contributions be incentivized and measured?

Documentation: FLO Techniques

All successful FLO solutions have functional documentation that helps people understand how the solution works and how they can contribute to making it better. If people don’t understand how a solution works — whether it’s a software technology or a decision-making practice — they can’t contribute to its continued development. The same is true for groups and organizations: if people don’t understand how a group works together, then they will find it hard to collaborate with the group and won’t benefit from the group’s experiences.

While many nonprofits have become savvy about using documentation to communicate with donors through newsletters, email marketing and social media, significantly fewer organizations are using documentation to collaborate with their peers through tools like wikis, listservs, news aggregators and CRM systems. By using these tools and techniques, nonprofits can expose their best practices to the constantly-expanding global knowledge commons.

Just as Google uses links to determine a website’s ranking, we believe the “networked” nonprofit sector will determine an organization’s merit by analyzing the extent to which its documentation is referenced by others. An organization’s contributions to the globally accessible knowledge commons should be a primary success metric.

Applying Solutions: FLO Tools

Just as the collaboration techniques used by FLO communities are extremely helpful to nonprofit and community organizations, the FLO tools created using these techniques are the technical foundation upon which the social sector will transform the world. Indeed, the FLO movement is creating all the technologies we need to strengthen our local communities from the ground up. These technologies include entire operating systems with complete suites of free software (ex. Linux, OpenOffice, GIMP, etc instead of Windows), web applications for constructing enterprise-grade communication and collaboration platforms, (ex. OpenStack, WordPress, CiviCRM, etc instead of Oracle), designs for building physical machines (ex. Thingiverse, Open Source Ecology, Appropedia, etc instead of Monsanto), and much more.

The scale and scope of FLO technology ecosystems is vast and growing at an unprecedented rate — far more quickly than any proprietary ecosystems ever could. And yet, the general public is almost completely unaware FLO technologies exist. Why? Because while proprietary technology providers like Microsoft, Oracle and Monsanto spend billions of dollars on advertising their products, FLO projects rarely advertise at all — and the advertising-driven media therefore has no incentive to discuss them. Indeed, most corporations would prefer the general public remain completely unaware that FLO solutions exist. Meanwhile, many FLO projects are perfectly happy to remain obscure to “consumers” because they don’t receive any tangible benefit from people who don’t contribute back to the project.

Communicating Across Sectors

A primary objective of many FLO projects is to recruit producers who have high enough levels of technical understanding to make valuable contributions to the project — not “consumers” who will use the solution but never promote it or log a bug, much less add lines of code. There are two main problems with this approach: 1) “consumers” aren’t being exposed to FLO solutions that could transform their work and their lives, and 2) FLO projects aren’t developing “engagement ladders” that make it easy for non-technical people to get involved. This results in lopsided project teams that are saturated with engineers but have shortages of designers, usability experts, copywriters, marketers, social networkers and donor cultivators.

This is a solvable problem, and the nonprofit sector presents a solution.

A primary objective of many nonprofit organizations is to attract donors (a.k.a. consumers) who have influence within their community and can leverage their social relationships to cultivate more donors. Recruiting “producers” who have high-value skills but lack cash and potentially lucrative social networks is often a secondary task that receives much less of an organization’s resources. Because of this dynamic, “producers” often aren’t exposed to collaboration opportunities within these organizations — and thus can’t contribute valuable services. The result is nonprofit organizations that routinely tap their networks for cash to pay service providers when they could be getting services directly from their networks. This is where FLO solutions come in.

Higher quality, more accessible FLO solutions result in more people with the tools and techniques needed to provide valuable services to nonprofit organizations. More open and collaborative nonprofit organizations results in more opportunities for people to identify and meet nonprofit needs. The marriage of these two approaches leads to lower costs for higher quality services.

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