Applied Crowdsourcing

There has been a lot of discussion on the Communications Network blog and on Twitter about the legitimacy of employing crowdsourcing methods within philanthropy, sparked by a presentation by Jim Surowiecki at the Communications Network conference. The Forum network has been working in collaborative knowledge management for a number of years now so I thought I might offer some concrete examples of how our methods fit the crowdsourcing model.

Before I get started, let me say that there are two important factors that make our system work, not covered in Surowiecki’s outline of the conditions for good crowdsourcing: 1) community trust and 2) shared goals. These elements might seem in conflict with Surowiecki’s conditions that a wise crowd contains a diversity of opinion and a willingness to embrace arguments, but in reality they are only modifications. Like in any family, conflicting opinions can still work together to accomplish positive outcomes.

I’ll begin with an internal example of how crowdsourcing used at the Forum: Our Knowledge Management (KM) System. The system administrators at each KM partner regional participate in an active listserve and weekly conference calls through which they can ask questions about how to accomplish a variety of tasks or suggest modifications—essentially, we troubleshoot for each other. Our system has been in operation since 2004, so we’ve had a good amount of time to thoughtfully encourage the growth of the system admin community. We now trust that we can come to the correct solution or select the right action because we are diverse and use the shared system in many different ways. A small regional association’s approach to an issue can be very different than a larger regional’s, but when a large regional runs into a problem, it may be something that the smaller, perhaps more nimble regional has already figured out, and vice versa. While our approaches differ, we have a common goal of using the system as efficiently and effectively as possible. The knowledge management initiative is one of our most successful collaborative programs.

An external example, open to the entire philanthropic field, is is a simple online venue (launched in collaboration with the Council on Foundations) that invites dialogue among those who are passionate about grantmaker education.  We aim to establish a collaborative learning community—with plenty of space for ideas and wisdom of the field.  The public site draws on the leadership of many other organizations involved in grantmaker education and learning. Back in July, 75 philanthropic leaders met in Chicago to exchange ideas and gather information on grantmaker education, asking hard questions about what challenges the field faces and how they might be mitigated, simplifying and improving the system all around. The initiative is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The conversation continues so please let us know what you think!

In both examples, we are relying on the wisdom of the crowd to direct key aspects of the Forum’s work. Through asking questions and gathering diverse opinions, we feel we’ve been able to engage more stakeholders, make better informed decisions, and ultimately improve the quality of our programming. But, in order for this to work, we need a certain level of trust and  a commonality of goals, even if we disagree about how to achieve them.


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