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Monday, April 18, 2011

Aborted before Inception

OK so this blog’s title was a way of getting your attention on an important topic that I wanted to discuss in today’s blog. What I wanted to talk about was something that I have noticed about what happens or I should say what “doesn’t” happen with good ideas everyday-they die because of the difficulty with moving an idea to implementation. How many times have you heard someone say, “You know what would be a good idea?” And then that is as far as it goes. The step from an idea to a reality is often cumbersome.

I was attending a meeting this weekend with a group of professionals from a well known non-profit. At the end of our meeting we started listing all of the activities that could move our effort ahead. A list of 27 ideas was developed and then we had to rank them into the top 5 ideas. All that was accomplished with a great deal energy. But when the time came to talk about how this organization would implement the ideas it became apparent that the bureaucracy of this organization would mean that multiple people and various sections of the organization would have to sign off on most of the ideas. All this meant that for most of the ideas to become reality it would take a great deal of time and energy. This group has some dedicated leaders so maybe some of these ideas can be implemented but the odds are not good.

The idea of identifying and organizing a group of people to undertake a community project seems daunting. The thought of having to create a non-profit entity is something most people would find too difficult and expensive. With the connective platforms that have been created with the Internet the possibility of creating networks to provide a community service is being used frequently today to address and develop a community service. The key advantage to a network is how easily an idea can move to a reality using one of these platforms and the viral nature of the Internet.

I can give many examples of this in our community. The first is an example that I was directly involved in a few years ago. I had many times thought that many of the items I was taking to our County landfill might have some use to someone but I couldn’t figure out how I could identify that person. I thought that maybe a community swap meet that I had heard about might be one way of doing this but it seemed like too much work for a minor benefit. It was just easier to take the item to the landfill and be done with it. I certainly felt uncomfortable being part of the “throw away” culture where nothing was ever repaired ---just thrown away. One day I read an article in the Baltimore Sun about a new online group called Freecycle using the Yahoo Groups platform. Suddenly the answer to my idea was apparent. I immediately went to my computer to look up the Freecycle site and found that there was no freecycle near Columbia so I just set one up. It took me 5 minutes. What has been the result of that 5-minute effort? Today 6 years later over 4600 people are members of the Columbia Freecycle and there have been over 150,000 posts to the site. With many posts more than one item being offered it is difficult to say exactly how many items have been freecycled rather than being throw out and ending up in the landfill. I don’t want to leave the impression that no work has been necessary since that first 5 minutes. Some amazing volunteers keep the site operating properly by moderating the site. Untold hours are spent each week with this effort. The point is this—would I have created this community resource if I had to develop a board, draw up by-laws, obtain funding and hire staff required to operate a non-profit? Not likely.

I have written of other efforts that use the networking capabilities of the Internet to provide their services. Neighbor Ride uses volunteers to provide transportation to senior citizens in Howard County. Drivers take rides by responding to email requests that outline the rides that have been requested. Around 99% of the ride requests are provided. The old method of providing this service would have been to buy vehicles, hire drivers and pay for insurance. The number of rides provided this way would have been fewer than the present system and the cost would have been much higher. More vehicles would have had to be purchased and more drivers hired under the old system. With the Neighbor Ride system expansion is just identifying more volunteers, something they have been very successful in doing.

The Cold Weather Shelter program that I have written about is another example of networking community resources instead of building more homeless shelters and hiring more staff. While the coordination of an effort like the Cold Weather Shelter is not insignificant it has growth potential that can more quickly respond to growing demand then raising money to build more shelter beds. Anyone who remembers the time and effort it took Grassroots to expand knows how this is true.

An alternative to traditional charities to provide money to meet financial need has developed over the past few years. That alternative is the networking of Giving Circles. The Women’s Giving Circle in Howard County is the best know giving circle. A network of women make a commitment to give money to women in need in an easy and effective manner with a minimum of bureaucracy. The need is identified and usually met in the same day. No lengthy application process with multiple forms and review groups before the support is given.

Will networks replace non-profits as a way to meet community needs? The answer to that question remains to be seen. I do think that it is safe to say that more nonprofits will use the networking tools that the Internet provides to expand or to create new services. As time goes on the networking method may become the predominant method used by nonprofits to meet community needs. In the future when someone is asked to assist in meeting a community need their response maybe “Is there an App for that?”

Good article in the Baltimore Sun this morning on another example of crowdsourcing that I blogged on last week.

2 comments:

Jessie at CA said...

Duane, Keep on thinking-thinking-thinking, doing-doing-doing, and writing-writing-writing.

Hey, I'm so into what you're saying about networks being the add-on or, in some cases, replacement to nonprofits.

In my role at CA, I've recently created two documents. Both are focused on "a community:" the first is for Columbia-focused organization - http://bit.ly/fgQc3H - and the second is for biking - http://bit.ly/fiPu33. Both of the documents are online and sharable. And they're iterative, meaning I make no claims that the data I currently have is comprehensive and complete. (Kind of like Google does with their perpetual beta apps.) :-)

I believe that the zeitgeist of the times is more about "What can I do for myself and my tribe?" vs. "What can I expect others to do for me?" where "others" often means government and charity.

And while, to those minds that require stepped and progressive information (bless you for your data needs), for those whose minds are more intuitive, you can see the jumps I'm making, right? These documents I've created are resources, yes; *and* they are one example of one way of how to begin documenting networks.

The Columbia-focused groups would probably not consider themselves a community or network, per se. They are often on opposite sides of the table. Another way to look at them is groups and individuals who show up along a spectrum, yet focused on a similar concern.

Same thing with the biking document. Tri athletes, a biking advocacy group and a police officer working with the bike patrol groups may not see themselves as a specific community, yet the common denominator called "bike" connects them all.

I'm curious to know if other similar documents exist in Columbia and Howard County. Hit me up at jessie.newburn -at- columbiaasociation.com if you know of any ... particularly if they are online and publicly viewable. ;-)

Michelle said...

Hey Duane -
Ran across this group recently - www.modestneeds.org. While there's a traditional non-profit behind it, they have an interesting model for connecting "givers" with needs. Thought you might enjoy.