Understanding the New Power of the Collaborative Economy for Social Good Sector | Beth’s Blog

Understanding the New Power of the Collaborative Economy for Social Good Sector


My colleague, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans have just published an important piece over on the Harvard Business School blog called “Understanding the New Power” that gives us a great high level analysis of how collaborative economy is operating in the social good sector.   The piece talks about how the growing tension between: old power and new power are transforming the way that social good activists do their work.    The article lays out a framework for understanding how power works and how it is shifting.

They characterize these two types of power as:

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

They suggest that old power is consumption, enabled by control and ownership.  The new power is shared ownership or what has been called the sharing economy.    The article traces the different phases after consumption as – sharing, shaping, funding, producing, and co-owning.     They identify ways the new power will impact funding and change philanthropy:

Peer-to-peer giving, lending, and investing models effectively reduce dependence on traditional institutions. Instead of donating via a big institution like United Way that parcels out money on donors’ behalf, people can support a specific family in a specific place affected by a specific problem. Platforms like Wefunder allow start-ups to access funding from thousands of small investors rather than rely on a handful of very big ones. One inventor just set a new record on Kickstarter, raising more than $13 million from 62,000 investors. To be sure, new power funding models are not without their downside: The campaigns, projects, or start-ups that are most rewarded by the crowd may not be the smartest investments or those that benefit the most people. Indeed, crowdfunding puts on steroids the human tendency to favor the immediate, visceral, and emotional rather than the strategic, impactful, or long-term.

The post also examines the values of the new power.  In other words, “power is not just flowing differently; people are feeling and thinking differently about it.”

These feedback loops—or maybe we should call them “feed-in” loops, given that they’re based on participation—make visible the payoffs of peer-based collective action and endow people with a sense of power. In doing so, they strengthen norms around collaboration and make the case that we can do just fine without the old power middlemen that dominated the 20th century. Among those heavily engaged with new power—particularly people under 30 (more than half the world’s population)—a common assumption is emerging: We all have an inalienable right to participate. For earlier generations, participation might have meant only the right to vote in elections every few years or maybe to join a union or religious community. Today, people increasingly expect to actively shape or create many aspects of their lives.

The article explains how these values impact and drive governance, trust, transparency, and affiliation in the social sector.   The article also includes some strategic ways for those working in the social good sector to leverage impact of the new power dynamics.   As they point out, having a Facebook page is not the same thing as having a new power strategy.   That is just window dressing.   They suggest these three tasks for starters: (1) assess (2) channel their harshest critic, and (3) develop a mobilization capacity.

My favorite piece of advice is:   “Occupy Yourself”

What if there were an Occupy-style movement directed at you? Imagine a large group of aggrieved people, camped in the heart of your organization, able to observe everything that you do. What would they think of the distribution of power in your organization and its legitimacy? What would they resent and try to subvert? Figure it out, and then Occupy yourself. This level of introspection has to precede any investment in new power mechanisms. (Companies should be especially careful about building engagement platforms without developing engagement cultures, a recipe for failure.)

There’s a good chance that your organization is already being occupied, whether you know it or not. Websites are popping up that provide forums for anonymous employee accounts of what is really going on inside businesses and how leaders are perceived. In our new power world, the private behavior—and core challenges—of every organization is only a leak or a tweet away. This poses a threat to happily opaque old power organizations, which face new levels of scrutiny about performance. Are you really delivering advertising reach for my product? Are you really improving my kid’s reading skills? Today, the wisest organizations will be those engaging in the most painfully honest conversations, inside and outside, about their impact.

The article ends with a point about the new power needs to be democratized:

We need new power leaders to make a grand entrance into civil society. Those capable of channeling the power of the crowd must turn their energies to something more fundamental: redesigning society’s systems and structures to meaningfully include and empower more people. The greatest test for the conductors of new power will be their willingness to engage with the challenges of the least powerful.

This thought provoking piece reminds us that social good organizations play an important role in the collaborative economy and that we as a sector have to move beyond consumption models to sharing and beyond.    This post gives social sector leaders some ways to think about this transformation in their organization as well as the sector.

What you think?








5 Responses

  1. Brian Reich says:

    I think its a terrific article and I am enamored by the theory. My fear is that ‘new power’ may not have much power/influence in some key situations – that it becomes a much improved conversation, a valuable perspective that leads to increases in learning and connection between a diverse set of audiences, but that mobilizing new power, directing it towards meaningful, measurable change will be difficult. I hope I am wrong, but my gut is that ‘new power’ is better theory than practice at the moment.

  2. […] A good summary article about some of the best points – from Beth Kanter […]

  3. John Mennell says:

    Gets to the heart of what change makers need to know to be relevant collaborators in the new social economy. Thanks Beth for the heads up!

  4. […] Understanding the New Power of the Collaborative Economy for Social Good Sector | Beth’s Blog. […]

  5. Arline Warwick says:

    When we all realize there is enough to go around we think differently. Channeling is the way for everyone to reap the benefits. Working together gives strength to every participant.

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