Dan McQuillan, who has an impressive track-record of online innovation with Amnesty and other nonprofits, is now saying openly what others are muttering: the charity model is broken for many cause-related purposes.
He said this briefly at a recent get-together for a possible UK version of Netsquared, aimed at promoting web-enabled social innovation.
He has now filled out his thinking in a blog post advocating seedcamps for social innovation. These are competitive-collaborative events where entrepreneurs meet investors and mentors.
I've heard quite a bit about seedcamp and it's high octane approach to incubating web innovation. I wonder if the same model could be applied to social innovation? For sure, we need some new methodologies, because it looks like the old way of organising into charities and NGOs is broken.
At first sight, seedcamp is a purely business proposition, mentoring startups on competitiveness and providing injections of venture capital. What's that got to do with alleviating social problems? But compare and contrast with the characteristics of many charities. In my experience, the amount of innovation that makes it out of the door of an NGO is a tenth of what it could be. And the limiting factor isn't rigerous testing of ideas against reality, but institutional conservatism. Anyone who's worked in the sector knows the score; anxiety-based leadership, a focus on internal politics, inter-departmental struggle and an unquestioning conflation of the issue and the organisation.
CATCH UP OR CATCH 22
But charities don't own social issues. And it's lazy behaviour for the rest of society to assume that bunging charities a regular donation is actually good value. We'll see what happens as more sousveillance and web-enabled transparency is applied to the third sector. The web-savvy minority in nonprofits know that it's urgent for their organisations to catch up with the digital age. "If only the CEO would blog more, if only our campaigners understood facebook..." But are these the core issues? Or is the starker question that the inherent nature of charities as institutions makes them anithetical to the participative and post-deferential nature of the social web?
ROUTING AROUND BLOCKAGES
Personally, I'm more excited about the new modes of collaborative innovation opened up by the web, and how these can be powerfully applied to solving social issues . I don't just mean web tools themselves, but the wider social modes and processes opened up, from the virtual organisation to crowdsourcing, and from open IP to self-organising networks. There are already examples of NGO startups; GetUp systematically applied the accidentally viral success of MoveOn to the Australian third sector, and in six months had more members than Amnesty Australia. So if we want to encourage social innovation that leverages these possibilities we need ways to incubate it that are native to this space rather than native to the nineteenth century. Roll on, social innovation seedcamp.
I think Dan is right in doubting whether adding new social media to old models will work, as I wrote here when the Government announced plans for a Third Sector innovation exchange. We need a different approach - and Simon Berry, I and others, tried promoting that through an Open Innovation bid for the innovation exchange. We didn't win, but the process give us some insights into what a different way of doing things might be like. More here about the "official" innovation exchange that's now up and running.
I'm fascinated by the idea of an innovation development process that would mix seedcamp events, online exchanges and many other elements to really put some buzz behind different ways of promoting and supporting social action. I think it's what Matthew Taylor has in mind for the RSA, as I've covered in posts here (scroll down to start at the beginning). But can you innovate successfully from within such a venerable structure, or does the internal change process sap so much of your energy there's too little left for the real work outside? Dan has been brave enough to pose the question. More ideas please.