Make Success Open Source, and Bring on the Competition!
October 29, 2013
(Eric Stowe is the founder and director of Splash, an international nonprofit working on smart solutions to the water crisis in developing countries.)
Greater transparency and open source sharing could accelerate the pace of social sector change, but few organizations are able to take this thinking forward. I recently wrote a piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review wherein I suggested that successful organizations in the social sector could finally start to see real traction and systems change if, and when, we open up our internal business strategies to competitors.
Help Entrepreneurs Use Proven Models
The belief behind this is that no one organization, or even a handful, can solve the massive problems we are fighting against. If we open-sourced our work and allowed some of the brilliant entrepreneurs out there to take our respective work further by enabling them to start at step 20, instead of step 1, it would ultimately advance our causes for the better.
If the end goal is true scale toward a solution, not an organization’s scale toward perpetuity, then we need to get a fraction of the growing pool of amazing social innovators away from focusing on the newest unproven solutions—continually building new starting lines toward untested finish lines.
Instead, encourage the sector as a whole to make success open source and scale what works. Why? Because no single group has effectively taken proven solutions to global scale to eradicate the very problem(s) they started out to conquer. I believe this trend will continue unless we methodically and systematically promote theft of our proven and successful models.
Lest it be seen simply as NGO naiveté, I am actually a fan of the market side of the equation. My argument ultimately advocates for more solid competition in the sector, not less. If someone can best us at our game (which they most assuredly can), and force us to either step it up or be put out of business (which they absolutely might), that is a net gain.
Use Risk Capital to Make Success Open Source
How do we take this further, from dialogue to action?
In funding terms, when we collectively talk about “scaling impact,” it usually means “scaling an organization’s footprint.” To funders, I say that lone organizations in any sector simply don’t have, nor have they ever had, the resources to pull it off. Funders should no longer bear the notion that single implementers should carry the burden alone; nor should funders accept organizations that say they can.
In my conversations with successful implementing organizations, most have stated they would be willing to promote imitation of their models by competent third parties. But funding it is incredibly tricky, if not outright impossible, in a field where most grants go the traditional route of project-by-project funding—which leaves little or no room in the budget to strategically document our respective paths to success and, more importantly, promote its imitation by separate organizations.
If willing organizations could marry their openness to this concept with donors willing to bundle a bit of risk capital in their larger grants, it would open up the space to try this out and catalyze second-mover advantage, rather than hinder it.
Invest in Imitation and Move Toward Real Scale
But what happens if the imitation of a successful model is weak? The donors who will fund global solutions at scale can sniff out the difference between a weak approximation of the gold standard and the real thing. This should mitigate risk for donors at every level within the funding spectrum and ensure that the overall drag from anemic imposters doesn’t result in a net decrease in efficiency, reach, or quality. It will certainly take time to standardize and evaluate the growth of imitators—with all sorts of speed bumps along the way. Sadly, time is on our side, since we aren’t currently solving any singular problem on our own.
From an implementer’s perspective, this is scary ground to cover, because it has the potential to put our brand, our reputation, and our hard-won success at risk. Yet it is terribly exciting when we think of finally scaling our solutions rather than continually locking them down and walling them off.
For my part, it is easy to preach this indefinitely without ever acting on it. To supplant that, in the coming years I will try to push my own organization, Splash, to invest up to 5% of our annual funding to nurture second-mover advantage. This will include rigorously documenting and standardizing our strategies, as well as bringing “competitors” into our office to learn our work from front to back—with the intention that we will start to see real growth outside my own organization's abilities and reach. I believe that committing 5% toward nurturing imitation will go much further toward real scale than isolating that same amount to our own program growth ever could.
If we get throttled and crushed in the process by a group that is quicker, smarter, and sharper than us—so be it. To them I say, “Bring on the competition!”
-- Eric Stowe