Sunday, October 03, 2010

Is Crowd Sourcing A Viable Sustainable Way for Nonprofits to Raise and Retain Support? No.

Nonprofits are feeling out this brave new world of technology, like all other sectors, and determining through trial and error (and evaluation and follow through) what tech achieves real goals and provides effective, efficient, and affordable options to conduct each nonprofit-specific operation, like: fundraising, public outreach, partnering with the community, recruiting new donors and other types of supporters and then retaining them. 

The nonprofit sector is always seeking effective methods that will connect them with supporters and their greater communities at large and like every other professional sector, there is much to be read today (in print and online) about what options technology, the web specifically, offers.  Technology often offers effective and extremely affordable, if not free, options to conduct much of a given nonprofit's administration (i.e. fundraising, public relations and marketing, etc.).  For examples, see our post, Some More Free Resources for Your Nonprofit Office.

Jane Wales' September 28 article for the Huffington Post, "If You Want an Answer, Ask Everyone:" The Rise of Crowd-Source Grant Making provides a survey of some of the latest discussions (in print and online) about technology trends that, so far, appear to both 'have legs' and provide viable solutions to community issues. 

Wikipedia defines crowd sourcing as, "... the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open call." and also says of the phrase, "The term has become popular with businesses, authors, and journalists as shorthand for the trend of leveraging the mass collaboration enabled by Web 2.0 technologies to achieve business goals. However, both the term and its underlying business models have attracted controversy and criticisms."  And so it goes with anything that is new, right? 

The Internet as we use it, today, only really began in the early 1990's and the time that's passed between then and now is but a percentage of a second, in overall the vast history or time line of the advent of all human-made technology (computer-based or otherwise).  What anyone who considers it for a moment can see is the history of humankind and its technological achievements (from the civil engineering of Babylon, to the printing press, to the Industrial Age, to the automobile, and of course the personal computer) demonstrates again and again that humans will innovate and invent solutions to meet their needs.  What happens after invention, the discovery phase - is the period of time that every single person who tries out this new invention takes to determine: does it really work for me, and is it viable (able to achieve success again and again)?

And this is where we, in the nonprofit sector, are with computer-related tech, including crowd sourcing.  How does a nonprofit determine what is working for their organization and whether its viable?  By looking at their own mission statement, their organization's current mission-based goals, and by conducting a cost/benefit analysis of the effort taken to achieve the goal (whether its public outreach such as marketing and PR or whether its fundraising or volunteer recruitment, etc.).  Each organization is of course different (as is each organization's goals and budget) and each nonprofit's leadership is wise to weigh new modes of outreach before implementing it.

Wales provides examples of contemporary real-world uses, in the nonprofit sector, of crowd sourcing.  As she demonstrates, many nonprofits and foundations (grant donors) are using crowd sourcing for everything from innovating new solutions for real-world issues, to deciding what criteria a grant applicant should meet in order to receive a grant, to deciding which of a total pool of grant applicants should receive a grant.  For example, Pepsi decided to forgo advertising in the 2010 Super Bowl and instead diverted that budget to the Pepsi Refresh Project which encourages nonprofit organizations and other socially conscientious operations and people to apply for Pepsi grants by providing their solution to one of society's concerns, and then asks the public to review the applicants' ideas and vote for which grant seeker should get a grant.  The social innovator gets a grant to do their work and Pepsi gets a huge number of visitors to its site and some good PR.  This is fine.

As I read Wales' article, though, I found myself thinking the same thing that I did after I received and read press releases from Pepsi about the Pepsi Refresh Project. 

The ability to innovate solutions that successfully protect people, commerce, the environment, or anything else from threatening catastrophes, or even simply discomforts, is the genius of our specie.  I do not believe, though, that crowd sourcing, alone, is an innovation that successfully achieves good for a community or a nonprofit's beneficiary(ies).   The resulting vote from a majority is not, compared to the decision making by credentialed, experienced, reputable, talented, and successful professionals, informed enough or experienced enough, to be qualified to reasonably provide effective viable solutions for our communities' issues and better the world again and again, more consistently.

Let's say that twenty-four reputable, long existing, successful, efficient, well operated, applicant nonprofits are selected as finalists in a given foundation's current grant cycle.  These are each organizations that would likely do really great things, if any one of them receives the grant.  If a crowd, let's say the general public (like the Pepsi Refresh Project) is asked to vote online for which of these applicants should get the grant, what happens is each applicant nonprofit attempts to get the most people that each can to vote online for their specific organization.  Each nonprofit might include a request in their print newsletter, post on their website, Tweet, post on their Facebook page, e-mail supporters and clients to request, conduct a phone call campaign to request, and even mail through the postal mail a request asking that the public log onto the pertinent website and vote for their organization so that they can get the grant.  Even if each nonprofit uses professional nonprofit best practices to develop the written content (or copy) for each mode of outreach that they use to request that their supporters vote - in the end, which nonprofit receives the grant depends solely on which nonprofit most successfully gets their supporters to: log onto the grant donor's website, find the specific nonprofit's profile on the grant donor's website, and then click a button to vote for that nonprofit.  Read that last sentence again and then consider what nonprofit (let alone multiple numbers of nonprofits) includes, in their mission statement, a phrase like, "...and the such and such nonprofit also exists to direct traffic to a grant donor's website and get our web traffic to click a radial button..."?  None.  Not one.  The mission informs the work and goals of a nonprofit.  The leaders of that organization utilize the mission to make decisions and set goals for the organization, in the best interest of the organization and its beneficiary(ies).  Driving traffic to some website and requesting invaluable supporters to click on another entity's website takes that nonprofit's resources and time.  The cost benefit analysis of this exercise (especially if it's done again and again) for that nonprofit, if studied, probably does not add up to the nonprofit's benefit (especially given that there are other ways to raise grants, reach out to the public, and any other operation that crowd sourcing allegedly does for nonprofits or the greater community).

The nonprofit sector relies on its communities to function.  There is no nonprofit that operates successfully in a vacuum.  Each nonprofit that operates, succeeds at its mission, grows, and flourishes successfully acquires community support on a constant and ongoing basis. The only way, after thousands of years of nonprofits operating, best practices has determined that any one nonprofit successfully recruits and then retains supporters (of all kinds, including: donors, volunteers, community partners, and even excellent staff) is by each nonprofit achieving the goal of its mission statement, on an ongoing basis (forming a track record or reputation of excellence), for contemporary but as yet unmet needs, in an efficient, effective, evaluated (and founded by verifiable real data), ethical, and professional manner.  There are no two ways about this.  If a donor does not see that their support achieved success as per the organization's mission statement in a current and efficient manner, there's no guarentee that they will ever give to that organization again.  If, though, a donor sees that they are not just a means but rather an investor in a given nonprofit's achievements and successes they are confident giving to that organization again.

If a nonprofit is concerned about raising and retaining support for today and then again and again tomorrow and the time after that, it must direct its invaluable resources towards achieving the contemporaneous or relevant goals of its mission statement.   

Taking a nonprofit's resources and time to drive its supporters' attention to some other entity (even to raise a large grant) is arguably a waste of that nonprofit's resources because many grant donors exist that require applicant nonprofits to be able to demonstrate ethical and efficient mission success in order to qualify to apply, use credible reputable professionals (in the pertinent professional sector) to decide which applicants are finalists, and then decide who receives the grant based on the latest professional practices, thinking, ethics, and more for that organization's specific professional sector.  Most often these grant donors give grants in larger dollar amounts than those who use crowd sourcing to issue their grants.  Then, after the grant is spent, recipient organizations are asked to evaluate the project or program that received funding (by acquiring participant feedback, for instance), quantify and share findings and lessons learned (and what improvements will be made to the funded project and when).  This kind of professionalism, these requirements, and the follow through do not just ensure the donor that they are investing soundly in a quality recipient nonprofit (and its achievements), this kind of professionalism (and respect for the applicant organizations' beneficiaries and their circumstances) ensures that the community at large (our world) is actually benefiting (by virtue of each nonprofit's respective profession's best people and best practices being key in the process). 

So, a nonprofit's resources spent on driving its supporters' to vote on some other entity's website to raise a grant could be better spent.  Any moment that a nonprofit engages its supporters should be used (according, again, to professional best practices which are such because they work again and again for millions of nonprofits everywhere) to: thank them, let them know what the organization's recent successes and achievements are, what the current but as yet unmet need exists in the organization's beneficiary(ies) today, what the organization's current goals are, in what various different ways they can help, and again, thank you.  Retaining donors is the key to the longevity and success of a nonprofit having cash flow.  Finding viable ways to raise grants that keep donors free from having to use their personal time to execute some online activity on some other website is a better way to raise grants.  Keeping a donor's attention and keeping them aware of their contribution's success is a better use of a nonprofit's time and resources used to engage that donor.

Is it "bad" or "wrong" for a foundation or nonprofit to jump in and try out new popular methods of outreach or community building, such as crowd sourcing?  Of course not.  I just happen to not see the benefit to the community, at large, in it.

The best interests of any nonprofit's beneficiariy(ies) are not served by, for instance, leaving the decision of which (hopefully) best applicants should receive resources that could really address a current issue up to the vox populi.  While a majority vote is a fair voting option, in and of itself, and crowd sourcing engages the community, a majority vote such as crowd sourcing does not responsibly guarantee that the knowledge, experience, and perhaps credentials necessary to best determine which applicant a community will be best served by.  Crowd sourcing, solely used as a community building tool is one thing if it is used to create a movement behind a mission statement-related program developing tool such as recruiting new volunteers, educating the public about a disease and its effects, or informing clients (or potential clients) about what services and programs an organization offers are appropriate uses of online groundswell.  Leaving major community and welfare effecting decisions such as solutions to issues, or where donations (grants) will be spent, up to what amounts to a popularity contest is irresponsible, at best.  I remain skeptical of the viability and effectiveness of crowd sourcing because in part of its lack of requirement for qualified, experienced, professional decision makers or innovators (who are qualified to decide on recipients or innovate safely and effectively), and the drain on resources that campaigning for crowd sourcing responses places on nonprofit organizations.

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