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What Would Google Do: Non-Profit Edition

I've been tweeting and yapping to friends about Jeff Jarvis's terrific book "What Would Google Do" even before I've properly finishing the thing. I sat myself down tonight and plowed through the last 100 pages where Jarvis examines different industries including automotive, manufacturing, telcom, healthcare and more to see what Google would do if they were in those businesses.

On one hand, I was really hoping that Jarvis had taken a look at the non-profit sector given my personal history in the sector and my ongoing interest in how non-profits operate. I'll also note that I used to write a fairly well read non-profit marketing blog. Unfortunately, the book doesn't delve into this much, if at all. I thought, instead of a basic set of notes or a book review as I usually do that I'd jump back in time and take a look at the sector with fresh, and "Googley" eyes.

If you haven't yet read the book, the basic premise is that Google fundamentally operates differently than traditional businesses by embracing concepts like abundance (as opposed to scarcity) along with open communication, collaboration and community. That's too simple an explanation, but to be honest, you should read this book anyway, so I'll skimp on that since I know you'll order it immediately!

In any case, those same traits and behaviors that Google uses are polar opposite of how many traditional non-profits operate. Like most traditional business models, many non-profits have are caught in an odd spot - it's clear that something big is happening, but there hasn't been a forcing function like Napster demolishing the music business for example that has created a need for massive, fundamental change. Unfortunately for many large non-profits, I believe it's about to happen and is going to really surprise and destroy a lot of well known and traditional institutions.

For example, in the international aid and micro-lending space, organizations like Kiva have been literally exploding out of the woodwork, using business models that traditional aid agencies either can't or won't embrace create massive shifts in how donors think about, and interact with both the institution and the recipient of their donation!

Now that I've finished the book, I've cherry picked a few key concepts and have applied them to a non-profit business and business model. One last note before I jump into the deep end for you non-profit types who are rolling your eyes... "You don't have to be Google, to act like Google..."

New Relationships: Give people control
Over and over I've seen it happen. Donors say to a non-profit, I'll give you money but you need to focus on this or on that. The non-profit's response (rightly so in the "old world") is we'll take your money, but we're the experts on what we fund, not you. Sorry.

Let's start here because I think at some fundamental level, what non-profits do with their money is the most basic buiding block for a traditional non-profit business model. In a "Googley" non-profit, the organization would open up and let folks have a say where their money is going. Non-profits could start by allowing patients, researchers, donors and more rate and rank what is being funded. As Jarvis points out, this doesn't mean they give up total control, but it does mean that the non-profit starts listening closely. In the future, someone is going to listen, and that's where I'll (and everyone else) will donate. Think Yelp, but for what to fund, what programs to create, etc.

How else could non-profits give people control? How about in fundraising? It already happens organically and primarily offline, out of site of the "brand police," but why not allow donors to create, publicize and promote events that they create, run and manage on a technology platform that supercharges these small, long tail events. Why not create leaderboards, wikis, best practices around these events and share them with everyone and anyone who wants to get involved? A few years ago I saw a site that Invisible Children created that had leaderboards and wiki where kids could rate, rank and collaborate on the best ideas to raise money. Afraid of losing control? Bad news, you've already lost control, and now you are in danger of losing your donors to boot.

New Architecture: Be a Platform
Non-profits are about to find themselves on the outside of the very conversation they created. I've seen it happen before... a donor has a great idea and raises a ton of money. The non-profit at first loves the volunteer, but then suddenly, the balance of power shifts and the volunteer decides to take their "network" and their several hundred thousand dollars in donations a year elsewhere.

Instead, create a "virtual non-profit" platform where you manage infrastructure but give the freedom to create entirely new market opportunities. For example, say you have a great volunteer in a remote location where you do not have a chapter or an office. Why not empower that donor (with proper training of course!) to use your platform to serve the local community? AOL did this for ages as they rapidly expanded their online communities. Instead of 20 or 40 chapters in 30 states, chapter based organiations could have locally run outposts, managed by committed volunteers in every town in every state and country across the world. Think CafePress or Blogger.. or hell, for volunteers to create, manage and run their own "chapter" on your behalf. Chaos? Nope, that's what we call trust baby!

Connect the dots like Best Buy does with their Blue-shirt nation, or like the Red Sox do with their online community to provide guidance, collaboration, support and the help they need to help you succeed. Can you imaging a site like Starbucks or Dell's idea site that allows both internal and external folks to help redesign everything from structure, policies to fundraising campaigns? If you work in a traditional non-profit, I bet you can't.. but you'd better.

Radical? I think necessary.

New Society: Elegant Organization
My favorite quote in the book comes from Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook. Zuckerberg said "You don't start communities, they already exist." Zuckerberg's point was that we should be asking how we can help them do whatever it is they want to do better. I've already outlined a few ideas above on how non-profits can think about this concept, but I think we can go even further.

Non-proftis can use community for just about everything under the sun. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head...
  • Testing ads with mission affected patients
  • Collaborating with donors on how to raise more money
  • Collaborating with patients on how to best deliver services locally
  • Talking openly with families about policies and program services
  • Connecting patients to other patients in similar situations
  • Connecting families to families
  • Allowing patients and families to rate hospitals, doctors, treatments and more (gasp!)
One more... Get Out of the Way
This is a big one for me and is at the heart of why I think non-profits are headed for big trouble in this new world. Non-profits, like many traditional businesses and business models live for control. They love controlling messaging (you MUST breast feed!), and because they aren't last I checked under CAN SPAM laws, love spamming and blasting out direct mail, email and more. They rely on controlling the event experience at walks, runs and dinners. They simply think that because they've been successful in the past, that they know best.

Those days are over. It's time to flip things inside out and let your true fans help redesign your organization from the ground up. Have you really talked to donors, patients and families about what they think about those controversial policies? Have you asked your event participants to collaborate with you on how to make the event suit them better? Have you done anything that would indicate that you are actually listening?

Please don't tell me you are having a conversation and prove it with your e-mail newsletter, Twitter account full of donate now or register for our fun event links or a lame Youtube channel where you've turned off video replies and comments.

When I was at a nameless non-profit a few years ago I found myself in drag out fights with legal on creating a liberal link policy. I wanted to publish banners and give anyone/everyone permission to TAKE our content and republish it (with due credit of course) anywhere and everywhere. I begged them to open our image archives, put the entire thing on Flickr and use a Creative Commons license to allow anyone and everyone to enjoy and use the images.

No they said, that's too scary, and besides, what do we get for that?

What they didn't understand was that in a gift economy, you have to be the giver, not the taker. I'm afraid that most non-profits today continue to be the takers and not the givers. Give your fans, your patients, your donors and your staff permission to get "googley" and to create new opportunities, or else.

Phew, glad I got that all off my chest.


Dan D. said…
Well said! I could not agree more! The platform part of your comments rings so true on so many levels. Considering Electronic Health Records (EHR) I ask why not an Electronic Health Platform?

Dan Deakin
twitter: medc2
Unknown said…
My name is Marc Stein and I am president of the international children's agency, Gospel Light Worldwide. I have been wrestling with these same issues. I literally read WWGD with a highlighter in hand and like you Marc, my brain started spinning. I can see how we can apply this new openness at the pedestrian level but it really starts to get tricky at strategic levels, doesn't it? How can we invite our partners into a truly participatory conversation without experiencing serious mission creep? Are other leaders talking about this?
Marc Sirkin said…
Thanks for the comment (Dan too!). It does get tricky at a strategic level, but I'm convinced that if you approach this as a marketing issue, it will not be transformative.

Mission creep is a big thing, but I do not think that is the game... Jarvis in fact touches on this with Google itself by pointing out that they do draw boundaries around their own mission of "organizing information." No crowd, conversation or partner is going to convince them to take their eye off their core mission.

One of the big issues with a lot of non-profits (and for-profits as well) is that they haven't been able to clearly articulate a singular mission and have a hard time with identifying what's a core competency vs. something that could/should be outsourced.

Within the non-profits I've worked for, we always had the fundraising vs. mission chicken and egg conversation. The revenue folks and the mission folks battling over things is just turf crap, it's not WWGD for sure!

Here's a simple IT example: e-mail and web infrastructure: Why would any non-profit at this point manage their own e-mail, intranet or web servers at this point is beyond me (some exceptions at extremely massive scale, maybe). It's cost effective to outsource AND you can take that headcount and attack key strategic issues (IT or otherwise!).

As for your partner question, I think you can invite partners into a conversation by simply inviting them. Open a dialogue on a blog, a wiki or an old-style message board and see what turns up. The listening part comes first I think :)

Marc - fantastic thoughts here! To comment on the whole "strategic level" stuff, just today I found a post about the Smithsonian opening up their strategic planning session to ALL of their stakeholders by asking them to post videos in a YouTube group.

I think that if you are clear about the boundaries of what you'll consider, it could be a HUGE win for non-profit organizations (and businesses) everywhere.
Unknown said…
Hey Marc,

Finally pulling our twitter conversation down here to your comments (I'm @marcopolis)!

I think that there is some good thinking going on and even some proposed models around how non-profits can do some of this stuff that would be worth reading/interacting with:

Beth Kanter (@kanter) has been posting/thinking about how we can all "work more like clouds" and introduces someone's concept of "wierarchy - a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology" -

Mark Surman (@msurman) of the Mozilla Foundation (those fine people who, among other things, bring us Firefox!) has been thinking about the "hybrid organization", which I think really resonates for some of how we do our work -

In both cases, much conversation is happening in the comments, well worth reading along with the original posts themselves.

Pad said…
Hi there Marc- just come across your post. I think you've done a great job of laying down the gauntlet to the non profit sector. I'm really interested in how we can use these ideas to create a powerful agenda for change in the non profit sector. But also how we can learn from other sectors now the ideas of the gift economy are going mainstream. I've blogged about it here
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