How the Nonprofit Sector Can Share What We Learn and Why We Should | Beth's Blog

How the Nonprofit Sector Can Share What We Learn and Why We Should


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Note from Beth: I’ve been a big believer in shared knowledge and learning for the sector.  IssueLab has been working for ten years to apply the age-old knowledge management question, “what if I knew what others know?” to the hard-earned lessons of nonprofits and foundations.  While they confess that they still don’t know the ultimate answer to that question, they have learned a thing or two in their continued pursuit of that goal.  That’s why I’m so grateful they are sharing it in this guest post.

How the Nonprofit Sector Can Share What We Learn and Why We Should

Guest Post By Gabriela Fitz and Lisa Brooks

You might call what we’re doing Big Knowledge, or Big (Qualitative) Data. In ten years we have grown the IssueLab collection to 20,000 publicly available, searchable resources, organized across 38 issue areas, authored by 15,000 researchers, and published and/or funded by more than 7,000 institutions from across the globe. Not bad, but we have just scratched the surface.

Our sector—foundations, nonprofits, and university-based research centers—is producing knowledge at a rapid clip. A survey of grant data from IssueLab’s parent, the Foundation Center, shows that in 2012, U.S.-based private and community foundations made more than $210 million in grants for evaluation or research. But most of this knowledge still goes uncollected, shared at best on a nonprofit or foundation’s website (which may or may not still be there when you go to find it years from now), and at worst shared only with a small group of internal stakeholders.

We’ve written at length elsewhere about why we think this is — it’s not just a capacity issue but also about the sector both doubting the value of our knowledge and simultaneously wanting to control the ways it’s used.

“There’s still a bit of a hurdle for organizations that don’t think their content is good enough,” as Justine Greenland Duke, senior manager for knowledge management at MasterCard Foundation, puts it. “Nobody thinks they are investing enough in evaluation and research. Nobody thinks they are showing enough return. But you don’t know how people might use the knowledge that you have, until you put it out there.”

Sharing is in the air right now. The IRS just made 990s machine readable. Over at Creative Commons, they have developed a new strategic vision and plan, encapsulated in a video, whose key message is “When we share, everyone wins.” In January Guidestar unveiled a platform intended to help institutions tell their story and win more supporters by sharing more information. So we are hopeful this is a trend.

Change will require more of this kind of shift in thinking, but also a real shift in organizational practices around how we license and share what we learn. The use of open licenses (like creative commons) and open repositories (like IssueLab) are two such shifts.

Despite What Many of Us Think, the Web is Not Self Organizing

To know what we know, though, sharing alone is not enough. For knowledge to be discoverable it needs to be organized, at least a little; which is where metadata comes in. At IssueLab, we index on 15 fields including a basic description, author, funder, publishing organization, publication date, one to three standardized issue areas, and document type among others.

This make resources more easily searchable but also allows for connections between resources, so users can see who is funding research in a specific issue area, other organizations co-publishing on this issue, and related research users might want to read next. Connections made possible by properly (and lovingly) indexed metadata.

“Standardizing how we classify and catalog documents creates more entry points for people—specialists or generalists—to help them find content more easily,” Nicolette Lodico, director of information management at Ford Foundation, told us in a recent interview. “[I]t becomes possible to surface similar knowledge created by vastly different organizations.”

Of course we hope readers of this blog will take a look at IssueLab and ultimately make it a platform of choice for sharing research, lessons learned and other knowledge— as well as using it to gather information and plan programs.

But we also hope that our insights into how to unify the incredible diversity of the work we all do to promote the common good will spark some recognition and insights for you, too. We’d be glad to hear those thoughts in the comments.

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Lisa Brooks is director of knowledge-management systems at Foundation Center and Gabriela Fitz is director of knowledge-management initiatives at Foundation Center. Both co-founded IssueLab together.


2 Responses

  1. Anne Gloger says:

    Fantastic blog! The non-profit sector focuses on isolated programmatic responses as its predominant way of trying to affect change…it doesn’t work.

    For 16 years, I’ve been working to pioneer a new approach…the Connected Community Approach C3: focusing on connecting, sharing, convening, communicating and developing joint strategies

    I’m currently working toward launching the Centre of Connected Communities later this year. A national approach to curating knowledge, finding synergies among people and organizations…

    Just thought I’d share since there might be opportunities for us to work together sometime 😉

    Thanks so much for being a champion for more connected, more collective and more effective sector!


  2. Gabi says:

    Hi Anne:

    Thanks for reading and for the work you are doing around connecting people to each other’s knowledge and strategies!

    Our feeling is that as more and more foundations and nonprofits adopt a systems mindset in addressing systemic social problems it will get harder and harder to do so in isolation of each other’s lessons and experience.

    So I guess we have hope for the future. 🙂

    We are always open to collaborating with and plugging into other projects that are pulling in the same direction, so we will keep our eyes and ears open for more about your effort and the upcoming Centre. We also have a free API so if you think any of the work we index on IssueLab would be valuable to your users, just let us know!

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