Crowd,” by Terry Robinson

March 1, 2018; T|H|E Journal

Over the better part of a decade, crowdsourcing has emerged as a tool for accessing insights, developing innovations, and using collective intelligence to identify approaches to address complex problems. Increasingly, crowdsourcing is being used as a pathway for creating strategies by leveraging the participation of diverse stakeholders through eliciting feedback, inviting ideas, and exploring new concepts. This, of course, should be native to nonprofits, the purpose of which is centered on collective action and fulfilling the public good—as the public envisions it. So, we should not make the mistake of thinking of this as a foreign concept for us; there is a crying need to recommit to the practice of this kind of engagement as a core practice.

In the public sector, governments are using “crowdsourcing” to flatten government organizations, with the goal of increasing civic participation and, in turn, developing new services. The city of Calgary, for example, uses myCityInnovation, an internal collaboration program for its 12,000 employees to share, collaborate, and test new ideas for improving city services. This initiative is part of the city’s larger Civic Innovation YYC program, which aims to engage citizens as the primary driver for the city’s next generation of services.

Similarly, in the private sector, companies utilize crowdsourcing to pilot new products, foster innovation, and ultimately increase sales. One example is Catalyst Activewear, a yoga-wear brand that in 2017 launched a crowdsource platform called Open Studio. Open Studio allowed Catalyst to solicit feedback from its customers on topics such as style, colors, and patterns, and integrated that feedback into its production process, with the goal of lowering overstock through the use of predictive sales analytics. Countless other businesses use crowdsourcing as a discovery process linked to their products and services.

While the nonprofit sector is increasingly familiar with decentralized engagement and the philanthropic implications of fundraising using online crowdfunding platforms, many are learning about the benefits of using crowdsourcing to address questions of mission and direction. One example that can highlight the benefits is the Jefferson Education Exchange (JEX), a new nonprofit dedicated to using crowdsourcing as a pathway for documenting the efficacy of education technology (edtech) in schools and classrooms. JEX is an initiative created by Bart Epstein, formerly the head of the Jefferson Education Accelerator, in partnership with the University of Virginia Curry School of Education. JEX’s crowdsourcing strategy is simple: in exchange for feedback on their edtech experiences, JEX provides financial stipends and tech support as incentives to participants. The organization is spending the next year doing R&D to develop protocols and tools to enable participation in this crowdsourcing effort.

In many ways, JEX is also an example of a nonprofit that originated from the identification of a gap in services. Through the University of Virginia’s and Digital Promise’s EdTech Efficacy Research Academic Symposium, it became clear to Epstein and others that there is a dramatic lack of understanding related to the context of why certain edtech products work in some environments, while in others they don’t. By integrating feedback from end users in the classrooms themselves, JEX believes that it can create new processes and standards that decision-makers can use to identify the most appropriate and effective edtech products for their classrooms. This marriage of identifying gaps, coupled with crowdsourcing as a solution, is one potential avenue for nonprofits to explore as a route delivering innovative services.

In addition, crowdsourcing has other potential benefits to nonprofit organizations. For instance, some emerging research shows that low centralization organizations that utilize crowdsourcing for strategy development have higher levels of transparency, inclusion, and employee engagement. Furthermore, balancing crowdsourcing for ideas with an integrated approach for team-based collaboration is an evolving model that addresses how to effectively solve problems by using crowdsourcing and ad hoc team structures.

Ultimately for nonprofits, crowdsourcing is a tool that can be used to meet new challenges and find new approaches for addressing community needs. For JEX, using crowdsourcing to gather information is essential to meeting its vision of creating “an environment where every edtech decision-maker has what she or he needs to make the best decision possible.” In an age where context is central to understanding why interventions work, crowdsourcing is a promising approach that nonprofits should consider exploring to refine their programs and integrate new perspectives. That’s exactly what JEX is doing, and it will certainly be worth watching what they discover as they implement their crowdsourcing solution.—Derrick Rhayn