“The smartest person in the room is the room.”
Robert David Steele, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto
Nowadays it is in developing countries where the most innovative and sustainable social technologies in healthcare, water supply and energy are designed. Why is this so? Because very often innovation springs from necessity.
Development NGOs who act as bridges between the north and south could now have a new role to play in promoting and facilitating such innovation and making it known in other places – both north or south. In recent years such organisations have become more and more concerned with raising funds in order to survive, but some of them have also noted that survival depends mainly on a change in strategy.
Crowdfunding is one of the tools that can point NGOs in this direction. It promotes and accelerates social change and, because crowdfunding is based on values such as openness, participation and transparency, it goes beyond the more traditional simple, charitable notion of fundraising.
It is precisely these values that might help us put an end to a vision of implementers and beneficiaries within development projects, where information is all too often compartmentalised amongst small, discrete communities such as beneficiaries, technicians, local people and volunteer workers – very few of whom have access to the whole picture.
Putting it into action
Over the last two years I have organised various workshops in Spain aimed at NGOs working in development, social action and humanitarian aid, and these have had two main objectives: understanding how to adapt a cooperative project to a crowdfunding campaign – a practice which requires the implementation of new forms of internal organisation; and looking at how to gain the support of two kinds of target audiences:
- A younger generation, most of whom are completely digitally literate, who do not identify with the idea of membership or donation to charity organisations but who are willing to support a development project based on different ideals – namely that they are open, participative, global and applicable in different contexts.
- People traditionally supportive of NGOs – members, donors and volunteers – who have become disenchanted by the perceived lack of results from their contributions. Crowdfunding provides the perfect opportunity to reengage with this audience and to show them new ways of participating in development projects.
For each of these objectives I have been using a template adapted from the DIY Toolkit. A week before a workshop takes place, I invite participants to choose which of their organisation’s projects they would like to present for work on a crowdfunding campaign. We expressly recommend that it should be project that could feasibly be carried out within a year.
At the beginning of the workshop, the participants divide into groups of between three and five people and choose the project that they will work on during the sessions (normally two blocks of eight hours). The projects that are not chosen are put aside for a week’s online tutoring following the course, in which the techniques studied during the workshop are applied.
The first session focuses on adapting the chosen project to a crowdfunding campaign and for this we use a template based on the Business Model Canvas. The right-hand side (“How do you interact?”, “Who do you help?” and “How do you reach them?”) is covered at the end of the workshop in a section on communication plans.
With the aid of this template students evaluate the real, concrete and assessable value of the project and adapt it to make it more open, transparent and participative.
The crowdfunding platform that I take as a reference and where I encourage NGOs to present their projects is Goteo because of its open source and commons philosophy, and because it combines collective financing with other forms of participation such as distributed collaboration.
During the second session students take on the challenge of seeking the two aforementioned target audiences. They use the People & Connections Map template to identify exactly where these audiences are, not only geographically (local, national or international) but also in terms of subject areas or professions, where to find professionals who would be interested in particular areas of the project (in supplying water, healthcare or energy for example) and to analyse the social basis of the organisation itself.
Next students go back to the Business Model Canvas and, using the right-hand side, they construct a map or exploratory journey and, with their new vision of their target audiences as consumers, producers, generators of information etc., they set out to capture them. While doing so they must not forget that their aim is to create a new generation of relationships and ways of collaborating with NGOs.
The aim of the workshop is therefore the rethinking of social projects, with an emphasis on the communication of results, on ensuring the participation of all involved, on transparency and openness, and on continuous learning.
Challenges to overcome
The two most frequent stumbling blocks I come across are linked to the structure and processes of decision-making within NGOs. The first is fear of failure, i.e. not reaching the financial targets of a campaign, and our answer is a classic one: mistakes are an essential part of the learning process. However, NGO management does not usually take kindly to failure.
The second problem is the lack of leverage that many technicians within NGOs have, and the excessively rigid decision-making hierarchy existing within their organisations.
In order to meet both these challenges I recommend that the NGOs create a group which has decision-making powers to coordinate the crowdfunding campaign, and which is temporary, interdisciplinary and independent of the NGO itself.
As outlined above, these crowdfunding workshops do not only serve to discuss ways of raising funds but they also create awareness, which in turn leads to greater commitment, talent and innovation. And frequently, the richest source of these attributes are to be found within the very target audience that NGOs so often have access to but do not know how to tap into.
Xose Ramil is Head of Communications at the Innovation and Technology for Development Centre at the Technical University of Madrid and is a consultant in Communication and Innovation for the nonprofit sector.