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Knowledge Sharing in the Social Sector: Leaders Open Up About Opening Up
June 22, 2015

(Maggie Lee is IssueLab Specialist at Foundation Center.)

Maggie lee closeSomething great happened in Boston two weeks ago. A group of dedicated folks from foundations and nonprofits gathered in a workshop session to discuss how we, as a sector, publish and share our knowledge. IssueLab, a service of Foundation Center, convened the meeting as part of our work to increase foundation effectiveness through open knowledge sharing. Rather than diving immediately into a conversation about how we should do this, we wanted to take a step back and look at the reasons why we publish in the first place. Two hours flew by as we discussed our work — and the obstacles that get in our way — in order to articulate a set of principles that can guide us moving forward.

Sharing knowledge amplifies impact - we can’t fund or consult with everyone, but by sharing research and lessons learned we can make our dollars go further.

To break the ice, the session leaders asked for quick, one-word responses to a few questions:  How would you describe your organization’s knowledge-sharing practices?  “Dusty.” What is the biggest obstacle that prevents organizations from engaging in open knowledge sharing? “Fear.” “Confusion.” “Lack of resources.”  (Okay, that’s three words, but the concept is so important!)

From there, we talked about why our own organizations publish formal materials, such as white papers, case studies, and evaluations. The ideas and questions that were raised in this short time point to just how integral knowledge production and sharing are to the goals of our organizations. People had a lot to say, which included:

  • Agreeing that sharing knowledge amplifies impact - we can’t fund or consult with everyone, but by sharing research and lessons learned we can make our dollars go further;
  • Reinforcing the need for spaces and places where everyone can contribute their evidence and insights; and,
  • Questioning whether we are biased towards formal knowledge and whether we can agree that decisions benefit from a broader and more informed context.

This workshop is not without precedent. In 2001, Open Society Foundations (then the Open Society Institute) convened a meeting in Budapest, which became known as the Budapest Open Access Initiative, in order to “accelerate progress in the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet.” In doing so, they articulated a vision to guide their work: "Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge."

Now that’s a vision! With our Boston workshop, we sought to bring this spirit and this conversation to the social sector to ensure that more research and more voices are included in this common intellectual conversation.

By the end of this very productive session, we had drafted a starter list of principles. Here are just a few:

  • Social sector knowledge resources are produced with funds in the public trust, which gives us a unique responsibility to share them as a public good.
  • The social sector’s credibility relies on honesty and transparency.
  • We believe that new knowledge is built on existing knowledge and should be placed in context and attributed.
  • Do no harm. Do not waste scarce resources. Do not replicate mistakes.

This workshop was only the beginning of a conversation about open publishing. We’ll soon be creating a set of draft principles building on what was proposed at the workshop, as well as a vision statement based on these principles to be shared more widely with the sector. (We’ll keep you posted!) We hope everyone in the social sector who produces knowledge, shares knowledge, and uses knowledge will tune in, add their voices, and help shape the principles and vision to guide this important work.

--Maggie Lee

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