Principles for Creating a Technologically Powerful Nonprofit Sector

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An enlightened person aligns himself with the unfolding destiny of the universe–I Ching

Within this article you will find an excerpt from an extraordinary report entitled “A Blueprint for Infusing Technology into the Nonprofit Sector,” produced by the National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology (NSNT), a leadership network of nonprofit staff members, funders, and technology-assistance providers. This 1999 report is the organizing document for an emerging national network of technology/organizational change agents. Encompassed in the report are the four simple but powerful principles boxed below–these did not spring fully formed out of the collective heads of NSNT; rather, they have evolved over time and through practice. What we find interesting about at least two of these principles is their relationship to other tides of change sweeping the globe. For instance, the concept of transparency is linked closely with the global movement for more participatory democratic processes as it also is with the development of the flatter organizational structures viewed as more suited to the information age.

Examining this link between technology and a grander vision of society and of organization, we can trace the ideas of self-organizing systems back to Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics (see box for definition). He considered information to be key in the way systems with a purpose (including organizations and social systems) successfully moderate their behaviors toward a goal within a complex environment. Of course, when the system is, itself, a complex group of individuals (in an organization, a field of practice or a democratic nation for instance), the more information they have about what affects them on their course toward a collective goal, the better. A rich diversity of knowledge and perspective, if shared, only makes more likely a collectively desired outcome. This is the self-organizing system in practice. In the example of open-source software, you get a clear sense of the potential power in agreeing to move toward a goal together without jealously guarding what we’ve learned but, conversely, actively sharing our advances.

Open Systems: The principle of open systems means that projects–not just software–are designed from the start so that they can be shared and cloned as easily as possible, and, as with the Internet, that the clones themselves can be cloned ad infinitum. An open system encourages the development of new tools and ways to share them, with the underlying assumption that no one entity owns them.

Technology Transparency: The principle of technical transparency will become a reality when nonprofits make the most productive and innovative use of technology, and when technology becomes integrated into the way the entire staff thinks, works, and communicates–in other words, when it becomes transparent. Transparency also means that learning and open evaluation will be ongoing activities at nonprofits in order to guarantee the high quality of work that makes leveraging and cloning worthwhile.

Fair Exchange: The principle of fair exchange of resources, ideas, and intellectual assets–refers to the creation of an environment in which people and organizations that have these assets will be motivated to share them and receive appropriate compensation, perhaps monetary, but equally possibly in the form of other intellectual capital or bartered services.

Fair Compensation: Technological know-how will flourish in an environment in which people who have it are compensated fairly. Pay is an element of this, certainly, especially given private-sector demand for technology skills. But compensation in intangibles like recognition, a feeling of contribution to an important cause, intellectual challenge, and opportunity to build new skills is no less important. This is the meaning of the principle of fair compensation.

If all players commit to these principles–and to working with those who commit themselves to practice the principles–nonprofits will find the vision to use technology well, funders will have the confidence to support such work, and technology-assistance providers will be more effective. It is also anticipated that these principles will attract many new players, accelerating the commitment of nonprofits, funders, and technology-assistance providers to create and support technology in the service of nonprofit missions.


Ruth McCambridge is director of program development at Third Sector New England.

Although the release of the underlying source code is an important part of what makes software open-source, it is more than just that. Open-source software should include all of the following characteristics:

* The software may be freely distributed with no royalties to the author.
* The source code is released with the software or otherwise made readily and freely available to all users.
* Anyone has the right to modify the source code and distribute the modified software under the same terms as the original software.

The Open-Source Initiative offers this eloquent summary of the benefits of open-source software:

“The basic idea behind open-source is very simple. When programmers on the Internet can read, redistribute, and modify the source for a piece of software, it evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.”

“The open-source community has learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits.”[1]

In addition to the improved quality of software that the open-source development model yields, end users enjoy the added advantage of freedom to change, modify, or customize the software in order to serve one’s specific needs, with access to the original source code to assist with the customization process. Organizations do not have to reinvent the wheel, nor must they hope that a closed-source product happens to support the particular tasks they need to accomplish.

Open-source software tends to cost much less than commercial, closed-source software does. The reason for this is easy to see. Since the source code is freely available, distributors cannot extract monopoly rents for the product.

In addition to the practical advantages of open-source, there are the philosophical attractions referred to earlier in this article. The open-source development model is by nature collaborative as developers willingly contribute code in exchange for freedom to utilize already existing code in their own work. Clearly this model driven by a higher purpose than individual enrichment–common learning, support of one anothers’ efforts, development of common capacity for effectiveness–truly this is a model for our sector.

The term cybernetics was coined in the 1940s by the renowned American mathematician Norbert Wiener–it was taken from the Greek word Kubernetes which means the art of steermanship. The art to which Wiener referred was that of using continuous communication and feedback direction (termed control in cyberspeak) to steer towards a goal. He developed this concept through the study of “animal and machine.” Cybernetic concepts (like feedback, adaptation, and self-organization) are at the basis of advanced information technology systems but they have also made their way into many other fields of practice. This evolution is the result of decades of interdisciplinary learning by mathematicians, biologists, engineers, political and social scientists, anthropologists, economists and others interested in developing a common language and set of principles for understanding the organization of complex systems.

An understanding of cybernetics can help us make the permanent shift from knower to co-learner and co-creator. Wiener, himself, believed strongly in the value of learning through feedback for human communities. He considered the integrity of communication channels to be essential for the healthy functioning of society.