Accountability in the Social Sector

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop wrote an internal memo recently that’s been making the rounds. In a nutshell, he writes that Nokia — the long-time market leader in mobile — is in danger of losing its position, and that it needs to change or die.

His memo is remarkable for its urgency and candor. It reminded me of a pivot I got to witness first-hand in 1995, when Microsoft admitted that it had missed the boat on the Internet. In the ensuing six months, it ended up dominating a market that it had been completely ignoring.

Reading the Nokia memo got me wondering about nonprofits and foundations. Has there ever been a similar pivot by a philanthropic foundation or a large, well-established nonprofit? Will we ever see one?

My guess is that the answer is no, although I’m anxious to hear stories to the contrary. There are no widely agreed upon ways of measuring accountability in the social sector, and thus, there is no accountability. The platform is burning, but everyone is on the same platform.

In contrast, in the for-profit world, winning and losing is defined by market share. Revenue may be problematic as a proxy for value, but it keep the whole system moving. Companies are accountable for what they’re doing now, and those that get complacent eventually lose.

In the absence of structural incentives for change, leadership becomes even more critical. Institutional philanthropy is in a wonderful position to be these leaders, and, by and large, they’re taking a pass. Foundations are wonderful at thinking deeply about very hard problems, but they are very poor at modeling change. (Last year, Monitor Institute published a great report suggesting how foundations can start doing this.) This is a sector that badly needs it.

I had an interesting Twitter exchange on this topic with Jeff Lindsay and Philip Neustrom, which motivated me to flesh out my thoughts here. Philip pointed me to Van Jones’s 2007 keynote speech at the Craigslist Foundation’s Nonprofit Boot Camp, where he talked about the importance of brutal honesty in the nonprofit sector. Read the whole speech; it’s wonderful.

Also, Sean Stannard-Stockton and Lucy Bernholz recently had a fascinating exchange on ways to introduce more accountability into the nonprofit sector.

Tools and Culture

Tools reinforce power relationships. If you want a more emergent power model within a group, you have to make sure your tools support that. Git is a beautiful example of how a tool can support the right power relationships.    (MRK)

However, just because a tool has affordances doesn’t mean people will pay any attention to them. Linus Torvalds alluded to an example in a software development context: Giving everyone commit access to a centralized repository. He refers to this happening in companies, but there’s precedent for it happening in Open Source communities as well. For example, TikiWiki gives commit access to anyone who asks. The underlying philosophy behind this policy is very Wiki-like: Empowering everyone to make things better offsets the risk of giving everyone the opportunity to screw things up. By not imposing a power structure, the right model can emerge.    (MRL)

In the case of git, the tool explicitly supports an emergent power model. In the case of the TikiWiki community, the tool’s inherent model is overridden by the community’s culture.    (MRM)

What can we learn from this? Tools have the potential to transform culture, but transformation never comes easily. In the Wiki community, the classic case of this is when users email an administrator about a typo in a Wiki rather than fixing it themselves. We in the Wiki community use this behavior as a leverage point to explain that they have Permission To Participate and can change the content themselves. Once people start modeling this behavior, transformation becomes a possibility.    (MRN)

When I saw Michael Herman last month, we talked about how tools do and don’t encourage emergent models of behavior and how often we need to catalyze this process by other means. Michael brought up the phenomenon of a few people gathering at a circle of movable chairs, then sitting on opposite sides of each other with many chairs between them rather than moving the chairs they needed into a tighter circle. Even though the environment was adaptable, people chose to go with the default rather than optimize it for their needs.    (MRO)

I saw a similar phenomenon a few weeks ago at TAG, where I sat in on Eugene Chan, Lucy Bernholz, and Suki O’Kane‘s session on Web 2.0 and philanthropy. They had a very interactive design, which in the context of TAG (a very traditional conference format for a very conservative community), was highly unusual. They kicked things off by doing a spectrogram.    (MRP)

https://i1.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2197/1914433901_f1acf95cf8_m.jpg?w=700    (MRQ)

Not only did this establish a sense of self-awareness and Shared Understanding among the participants, it also got people moving (and laughing), which was especially important since the session was right after lunch. Without saying anything, it was clear that this was not going to be your traditional talking heads session. Smart, smart, smart. Then they led a discussion. They gave people Permission To Participate by explicitly setting expectations, catalyzed the discussion by asking broad questions, then held space and exercised self-restraint whenever there were awkward silences. Again, very nice.    (MRR)

But they also did something dumb. Look at the space:    (MRS)

https://i2.wp.com/farm3.static.flickr.com/2296/1915270732_369c6fa3e3_m.jpg?w=700    (MRT)

Whereas the leaders of the session were saying, “Please talk! Participate! Learn from each other!”, the space was saying, “Look at the leaders! Keep quiet! Check your email while pretending to listen!” And the space was really, really loud, much louder than the leaders.    (MRU)

In fairness to Eugene, Lucy, and Suki, it would have been a major pain in the rear to rearrange the space, and there were strong disincentives to doing so (specifically, the wrath of Lisa Pool). But space makes a huge difference, and even super smart people don’t account for this as much as they should. Even people who are in the business of collaboration and are constantly preaching about this sort of thing (i.e. me) make these mistakes all the time. Old habits and thinking die hard.    (MRV)

The online tool space is rampant with these examples. How often do you see Wikis where the “Edit this page” button is impossible to find?    (MRW)

Tools can encourage or discourage certain types of behavior, and it is in our best interest to choose and adapt our tools to encourage the behavior that we want. That’s not always enough, but it’s generally a good start. Eliminating obstacles can be as much of a catalyst as a good kick in the pants, but a combination of both is even more effective.    (MRX)