At a time when money is tight, it's especially important to ensure that surplus assets, capacities, and resources do not go unused. If you think that a mash-up of online tools for capacity mapping and resource matching would assist nonprofits, philanthropies, and the communities that they serve, then we invite you join us at our upcoming session at the 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Thus far, an informal brain trust dedicated to this topic has communicated and collaborated through a private list and closed-door meetings; the NTC in March will mark the first time that we open our conversation to everyone who is interested.
How can online tools help a project succeed?
Let’s say you belong to a neighborhood group that wants to turn a vacant lot into a community garden. It’s an unincorporated community group with no employees, no assets, and no funding. You need a lot of information and resources from different knowledge bases, to answer questions such as:
- Are there already groups within a ten-mile radius that have experience in creating community gardens?
- Are there established organizations looking for partners?
- Would it be advisable to incorporate as a nonprofit?
- Is there an individual or organization within a five mile radius that would lend us their rototiller twice a year?
- Is there a hardware store within a five mile radius that will donate wheelbarrows and seeds to community gardens?
- Is there an urban entrepreneurism program in our town that will help us sell produce from the garden?
- Will we need any permits from the city?
- What sort of memorandum of understanding would we need with partners or others who share their assets, expertise, resources, or capacities with us?
- And so on.
While all of this information should be available through online search and aggregation tools, not all information has the same properties. Here are some categories of data that being used by various capacity mapping and resource matching projects that I think are significant:
- Immediate information. You run a search, and the answer to your question is delivered to you online, then and there. There’s no upper limit on how many people can search, find, and use that information, and the content doesn’t change rapidly. An example might be that you search for best practices in supervision for nonprofit managers, and find a video on this topic from Third Sector New England. Tools that deliver immediate information include IdeaEncore, Nonprofit Management Resources, the Boston Indicators Project, and Answr.
- Dynamic information. You run a search, and it yields up results from a database that is regularly updated. What is delivered to you is not a single item, but a dynaset. Even if you save the search, you may get slightly different results next month, as more records are added. There is no upper limit on how many people can search, find, and use that information. An example might be that you search for the number of nonprofit organizations in a specific municipality offer arts programs to elders. Tools that deliver dynamic information include the Massachusetts Philanthropic Directory, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Database, Idealist’s organizational database, Guidestar, Social Source Commons, the Merrimack Valley Hub, Great Nonprofits, Capaciteria, and InterEthos.
- Ephemeral information. You run a search, and it yields up results from a database, but the information is likely to become obsolete quickly. What is delivered to you is a dynaset of opportunities that have deadlines (such as a pledge) or resources that are finite (such as a set of surplus file cabinets). There is usually a limit on how many people can make use of the opportunity, and what is delivered to you through the online tool is not the resource itself, but the information about its availability. Examples of such opportunities might be jobs, petitions, volunteer openings, events, gifts in kind, or surplus office space. Tools that deliver ephemeral information include Social Actions, Craigslist, Idealist’s job database, Freecycle, Sparked, Groundcrew, Kiva, VolunteerMatch, NPO-Connect, and Community Corps.
It would be highly desirable for you to be able to use a single login for all of the online tools that might supply information to answer your questions, so that you can put the pieces of the puzzle together and save the results of your searches. In the best of all possible worlds, you would have something like an online project worksheet, in which you created a wish list of components needed for success in your initiative, and then filled in the blanks. This worksheet would be password protected, and you would be able to invite potential donors and partners to view it and to offer assets, expertise, capacities, funding, or other resources to help make the vision a reality.
The power of bringing all of this together through an online suite of tools is especially clear in these tough economic times: it may turn out that scarcity of funding can be overcome by clever use of currently under-utilized information and resources. It's also clear that this could be many separate projects with clever mash-ups and data interchanges. In the age of XML, it does not have to be a monolith with one owner, one web host, and one platform.
One of our brain trust’s goals is find ways to mash-up this information – not just by mapping where the resources are, and not just by mapping where the unmet needs are, but by providing some sort of tool that will help individuals and organizations capture various kinds of information and put it to use in fulfilling a mission.
We certainly have an idea about a grand convergence of many brilliant individual projects, even though we do not as yet have a detailed road map for achieving it. I think that our best hope is to work for incremental successes. We need to identify individuals and organizations who are already working toward online capacity mapping and resource matching tools, brief them about the big picture and its potential, promote convergence and collaboration among the developers, and work out the organizational and technical basis for moving forward together. My hope is that our session at the Nonprofit Technology Conference will provide an opportunity for all this and more.
Deborah Elizabeth Finn is a consultant who helps nonprofits and philanthropies achieve their missions, mostly through strategic use of information and communication technologies. She is especially passionate about bringing unmet needs and under-utilized resources together seamlessly, and about fostering the relationships and communities that make this possible. Some of her past and present clients are Third Sector New England, the Public Conversations Project, the Rhode Island Foundation, Community TechKnowledge, the Data Collaborative, the Boston Foundation, NetSquared, TechFoundation, Capitol News Connection, EarthTrack, and the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. She has an interdisciplanary academic background, and holds degrees from Bennington College and Harvard University.