Applied Crowdsourcing

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Communications Network and CommA Fall 2010 Conference in Los Angeles with the help of a blog team, which is part of the conference’s 2nd annual Gorilla Engagement Squad.  This is a guest post by Dan Brady, Communications Manager at the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.  Follow on Twitter:  @givingforum.

By:  Dan Brady

There has been a lot of discussion here and on Twitter about the legitimacy of crowdsourcing. The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers has been working in collaborative knowledge management for a number of years now so I thought I might offer some concrete examples of how we’re employing crowdsourcing methods to strengthen our network of regionals associations.

Before I get started, let me say that there are two important factors that make our system work, not covered in Surowiecki’s outline of the conditions for good crowdsourcing: 1) community trust and 2) shared goals. These elements might seem in conflict with Surowiecki’s conditions that a wise crowd contains a diversity of opinion and a willingness to embrace arguments, but in reality they are only modifications. Like in any family, conflicting opinions can still work together to accomplish positive outcomes.

I’ll begin with an internal example of how crowdsourcing used at the Forum. A number of regional associations and the Forum work on a shared platform comprised of a common content management system, an association management system, and a collective resource repository that is available to members known as the Knowledgebase. This is our Knowledge Management (KM) System. The system administrators at each KM partner regional participate in an active listserve and weekly conference calls through which they can ask questions about how to accomplish a variety of tasks or suggest modifications—essentially, they troubleshoot for each other. Our system has been in operation since 2004, so we’ve had a good amount of time to thoughtfully encourage the growth of the system admin community. They now trust that they can come to the correct solution or select the right action because they are diverse and use the shared system in many different ways. A small regional association’s approach to an issue can be very different way than a larger regional’s, but when a large regional runs into a problem, it may be something that the smaller, perhaps more nimble regional has already figured out, and vice versa. While their approaches differ, they have a common goal of using the system as efficiently and effectively as possible. The knowledge management initiative is one of our most successful collaborative programs.

An external example, open to the entire philanthropic field, is LearnPhilanthropy.net. LearnPhilanthropy.net is a simple online venue (launched in collaboration with the Council on Foundations) that invites dialogue among those who are passionate about grantmaker education.  We aim to establish a collaborative learning community—with plenty of space for ideas and wisdom of the field.  The public site draws on the leadership of many other organizations involved in grantmaker education and learning. Back in July, 75 philanthropic leaders met in Chicago to exchange ideas and gather information on grantmaker education, asking hard questions about what challenges the field faces and how they might be mitigated, simplifying and improving the system all around. The initiative is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The conversation continues so please let us know what you think!

In both examples, we are relying on the wisdom of the crowd to direct key aspects of the Forum’s work. Through asking questions and gathering diverse opinions, we feel we’ve been able to engage more stakeholders, make better informed decisions, and ultimately improve the quality of our programming. But, in order for this to work, we need a certain level of trust and  a commonality of goals, even if we disagree about how to achieve them.


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