I have a new blog post up on the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog.  Check it out here!

The “Swine Flu” scare was fun, wasn’t it?  No, it really wasn’t; but it did give most of the world a chance to react in real-time to what could have been much worse. In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, David Brooks compared the global response vs localized response to the outbreak. I think this comparison, and context, is a great example of why local (read: non-global) organizations are still key in social change work, and why we need to be building stronger networks for data and information sharing.

Power to the People
Brooks shows that if the world had a global approach to outbreaks like Swine Flu, then the decision-making and directive power would be in a really bumped up World Health Organization-like group. This umbrella organization would require time for consideration and input from its members and wouldn’t necessarily be in-tune with the communities or cultures actually touched by the issues.

Let’s consider this example in comparison to a generic sector, focusing on a global issue, like the environmental & climate sector working on climate change. Creating a huge umbrella organization is just not going to happen realistically for any sector, at least one with the governing and implementing power suggested above. Instead, we want to keep the power to address issues in the hands of organizations spread around the world. It is impossible for one organization to know the stories, issues, culture and decision-making information of all locations. It’s hard enough to master one geography!

Speak the Local Language
As Brooks points out, people like to look to someone like them, especially in times of crisis. Local organizations provide this local face. We can speak the local language, understand the local culture.

In the climate change example, this means that we can brand, communicate, and distribute information, calls to action, and important opportunities for engagement in a way that encourages response locally. The missing link, though, is that the underlying opportunity (whether it is a petition to sign, an online or offline event, or anything else) needs to be networked across all the organization. The effect of having all organizations gather signatures on the same petition versus hundreds creating and distributing their own petitions for the same issue is huge.

Innovate and Reiterate
Lastly, one enormous organization could only respond to the Swine Flu outbreak or something similar with safe, tested protocols. But those are often not efficient or necessary. With distributed power through local organizations, medical teams, and governments, the response to the Swine Flu outbreak was something involving much more innovation and experimentation.

This, again, holds true for organizations working on social change issues. New messages, campaigns, and strategies can be tested, deployed, and analyzed in separate groups. What makes this more powerful? Leveraging a networked system so that when a new campaign works, or better yet – doesn’t work, that information can be shared in real time with all of the other organizations. This means the “what works” can get implemented faster in other places and the “what doesn’t” can be cut out of the loop without more wasted capacity.

Great, Now What?
So, what do we need to make this happen? There are tools like Zanby that allow organizations to link together to share calls to action across networks. This is a great start. But, we also need to be building out collaboration platforms that allow for organizations to link in with each other, share data and calls to action, but also feedback lessons learned—a way to combine experiential and hard data across the whole network.

What do you think?  What kind of tools would we need to accomplish this? What push backs or culture shocks to working in this way would need to be overcome?  Where would you start?

Visit the SSIR opinion blog here.

SSIR Post: Swine Flu or Why Local Organizations Matter
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  • Amy – Incredibly insightful post. Your paragraph that starts “This, again, holds true for organizations working on social change issues.” reminded me of why I enjoy working for Pro Bono Net. Because we’re a small national organization with many, many local partners, I get to be in the lucky role of stepping back and helping our local partners figure out what did and didn’t work and then sharing the lessons with partners in other locations. It’s a great place to be.

  • Hi Kate-

    Thanks for your comment! I’m happy to hear that PBN is working to share knowledge and learning across the network. How do you manage this sharing? How do you encourage participation?

    Do you also share or plan to share the lessons you and your local groups have learned with the rest of the world? How?

    Thanks again for joining the conversations here!

  • Pro Bono Net’s mission is very closely tied to sharing. The original software platform that was built (probono.net) allows organizations and individuals to submit materials to share with other poverty law and pro bono attorneys. The other platforms developed from that, and opportunities for sharing have been built into the technology. For example: An org from Montana can access and publish shared resources from Georgia; an enhancement to New York’s site easily gets pushed to the other 30 state sites; and Turbo-Tax-like court forms that California publishes are available for South Carolina to download, edit, and republish as their own. Legal aid and pro bono programs can’t waste any funding reinventing what someone else has done.

    Pro Bono Net staff also focus on sharing information, using the typical technology tools – e-mail lists, community websites (like http://www.probono.net/dasupport/), and so on. We also try to have regular calls as a community. We also build relationships with the people and organizations that we are working with. In these calls, we pick up on the stories and problems that the projects are having. We also hear about resources that have been created and encourage the person to share them with the wider community.

    We aren’t as good with sharing with the rest of the nonprofit community, but we do try. Liz Keith presented about LawHelp.org as part of the Ignite sessions at NTEN’s NTC. And last year, she and Lisa Stansky presented at the NTC about legal aid’s experiences (See http://www.techno.la/2008/04/articles/selfhelp/technology-and-rebuilding-new-orleans/) Staff also occasionally present at other conferences, but it is often hard to find the right fit. Are there places that you know of that you think that we should be sharing this information?

  • Kate-

    Thank you for all this information – I’m very impressed with Pro Bono Net’s dedication to efficiency and sharing. Have you found any reluctance to sharing or was the case for not reinventing the wheel enough to fuel adoption without much work?

    I’m really interested in your public sharing – with other nonprofits working in the law and public sectors. There are a quite a few, whether they are sector specific (like environment) or focused on both legal representation but also congressional measures. Do you see a way of creating sharing opportunities across your organizational lines using something like a public version of your platform? What other ways do you think that could work?

    Thanks again for your full and thoughtful reply!

  • There are pockets of resistance here and there. I’ve never found that people resist telling others about work or lessons learned. They may be shy about it or need to be reminded that others would find it useful, though.

    What people may not want to share is work product. I’ve found that this generally stems from (1) the feeling that content is not good enough or wouldn’t be useful to someone else; (2) being uncertain if contributors would be okay with the content being shared (for example – private attorney uses internal reference materials to make money; it’s okay to share those materials with legal aid, but if shared with volunteer attorneys, will other attorney use it for non-pro bono cases?); or (3) just don’t have a culture of sharing. In each of these cases, I feel like the circuit riding program at Pro Bono Net has been critical to moving the sharing conversation forward. In the first case, the circuit rider can provide regular reminders and self-esteem boosts. And in the second and third, the circuit riders can engage and help shift the culture and conversations. Having an “expert” state the obvious often helps easy navigation through difficult situations.

    In terms of other communities sharing, I don’t think that the platform is necessarily important. I think that the staffing is. The projects that I think are the most successful are those where someone is responsible for encouraging people to share and doing the grunt work. (I think of this person as a variation on a wiki gnome.) If this isn’t anyone’s responsibility, it won’t get done. Another key piece is strong funder support. The funder needs to model the behavior and encourage grantees to participate.