Note from Beth: Please join me on June 21st from 1-2 PM PST for the virtual launch of The Networked Nonprofit. One of the key messages in the book is that nonprofits need to work less as isolated institutions and more as networks. Over the past year, I’ve has the pleasure of working with the good folks from Monitor Institute this past year as part of my work as Visiting Scholar at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to explore network effectiveness. I invited Heather McLeod Grant to write a reflection base the case study of KaBOOM! which you should read in full.
By Heather McLeod Grant, Monitor Institute (and co-author of Forces for Good)
At Monitor Institute we are interested in “emerging practices” in the social sector—including new more networked ways of working. Just last week we published a new case study of KaBOOM! called “Breaking New Ground: Using the Internet to Scale,” by myself and Katherine Fulton. (KaBOOM! is a national non-profit dedicated to saving play through engaging communities; creating dialogue; and providing tools, training and resources to build playgrounds across the United States.)
Instead of taking a traditional non-profit approach to scale, KaBOOM! has used the Internet to disseminate its model, empowering local communities to self-organize and build their own playgrounds using free resources on its website. While the idea of giving away a non-profit model itself isn’t new, KaBOOM! is one of the first non-profit organizations to take this approach online.
And the results have been impressive. Through a suite of online tools—including a social networking site, online training, do-it-yourself content, and a Google-map mashup—KaBOOM! has empowered more than 6,000 communities to build local playgrounds in the past few years (far more than the 1,700 it has built directly in 15 years). In so doing, it has had more impact for less cost. In 2009, a dollar spent by the organization on online tools helped to improve 10 times as many neighborhoods as a dollar spent on playground equipment.
With assistance from KaBOOM! and several social-media experts—including Beth Kanter—we identified seven key lessons for nonprofits that want to use the Internet to evangelize their program model and increase their offline impact:
1. Keep it simple and concrete. The more you can simplify your program model and codify it, the easier it will be to help others replicate it in their own communities. Programs that are really complex, or which rely on tacit knowledge or specialized expertise, are harder to transfer to the online environment.
2. Treat your online strategy as mission-critical. KaBOOM! quickly realized that its online strategy isn’t just another means of communication—it is now central to how the nonprofit delivers impact. In other words, KaBOOM!’s social media strategy is not the icing but the cake itself.
3. Build your own technical competency. Because the online strategy is so critical, KaBOOM! recently moved its website development in-house; relying on external vendors increased costs and delays, and didn’t give the nonprofit enough opportunity to iterate and learn.
4. Nurture your online community via its leaders. KaBOOM! is now doing more online “network weaving,” connecting leaders in various communities with one another, and with others in its network.
5. Create incentives for action. In order to encourage more action, KaBOOM! is developing systems to recognize and reward those who are having the most impact both online and offline.
6. Give up credit to increase your impact. Like many nonprofits working in more networked ways, KaBOOM! has learned that it must relinquish some control; in fact, it has had to take its brand off of some online tools, as this inhibited local adoption.
7. Care more about real-world outcomes than online metrics. While KaBOOM! does track online metrics, its leaders actually care more about what happens in the real world as a consequence of someone visiting the website or using its tools.
This approach hasn’t been without challenges—in fact, KaBOOM!’s current offline business model hasn’t transferred to the online environment. But, it has proven to be an effective way for KaBOOM! to scale its impact dramatically in a relatively short period of time. We think that KaBOOM! has a lot to teach other nonprofits just starting down this path of integrating online and offline action .
For those interested in reading more about networked ways of working—including networked approaches to scale—check out the recent cover story of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), entitled “Working Wikily” by Diana Scearce, Gabriel Kasper, and myself. The SSIR article explores how social media tools are driving more connected ways of working (what we call “working wikily”), characterized by principles of greater openness, transparency, distributed effort and collective action. Research came out of our work over the past three years with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (along with Beth) and other clients. We are also eagerly awaiting the release of Beth and Allison’s new book, The Networked Nonprofit. (Having had a sneak preview of the manuscript, I predict this is going to be the next BIG book in our sector. )
So: what other examples have you seen of innovative approaches to scaling social impact? How are other nonprofits using online platforms to disseminate real-world program models? What lessons are YOU learning?
Heather is a published author, speaker, and advisor to high-impact organizations; she recently joined the Monitor Institute as a senior consultant. She is the co-author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, which was named a Top Ten Book of 2007 by the Economist.