What challenges do hybrid orgs face?

May 20, 2009 § 6 Comments

It’s probably clear by now that I’m a keener for orgs mashup public benefit mission + market disruption + the participatory nature of the web. Mozilla is one such organization and, as I look around, I see others. There is alot of up side to how these orgs work, especially the potential to move markets towards the public good at a global scale. But there are also a ton of very real challenges in making these orgs work. That’s what I want to write about today.

hybrid challenges

From where I sit, the biggest challenge is explaining ourselves. The hybrids that I am talking about tend to have both missions and org models that people haven’t seen before. As shaver said to me in a tweet, this means we ‘…have to use 500 words to explain what we do, vs. five words for a pure for-profit or non-profit play.’ Fixing this is no small task, and it quickly cascades out into other problems.

Think about this in the Mozilla context for a moment. First off, we need to explain that we exist to promote and protect the open nature of the internet. While this mission fits well within the centuries old tradition of public benefit organizations, it’s not easy to point to similar examples that help people immediately understand what kind of beast we are. Red Cross? Sierra Club? Public radio? There are overlaps with all of these, but none provide a perfect parallel. The result: a whole bunch of long winded explaining.

Even if the mission comes across, there is still the organizational model to communicate. This matters less at first blush. Who but the taxman really cares whether an org looks like a company, a charity or a little bit of both? It turns out that many people do. As I travel around talking to people about Mozilla, I am finding that everyone loves Firefox (no surprise) but almost noone knows it’s made by a global community of volunteer contributors backed by a public benefit org (this has surprised me). When I explain a bit, I get happy surprises. Things like “wow, that makes Firefox even cooler’ and ‘I didn’t know I could get involved’. Once people get Mozilla’s model, it excites them. However, the lack of a shorthand way of explaining all that is bundled up in ‘hybrid org’ means it takes a bunch of explaining to get to that point of excitement.

hybrid challenges

This challenge of explaining ourselves is what lilly might call a ‘big poetry problem‘. Getting the poetry right is an essential element of success. However, hybrid orgs also face a ton of significant challenges on the pragmatic front. Decision making. Structure. Engagement. Investment. Staff recruiting. Management. Participation. Product. Public relations. Organizing resources. Revenue. Leadership. It’s not that other orgs don’t face challenges in these areas. However, the nature of these problems is often quite different when you’re working with a hybrid model.

Take the intersection between ‘participation’ and ‘product’ as one example. Many non-profits are focused on public participation. These orgs use well honed engagement and facilitation techniques to get people out, harnessing community effort to raise important issues, clean up parks and so on. However, until recently, this kind of mass participation was rarely used to make specific, high quality products (or services) that need to ship at a specific time and succeed in the market. Until recently, creating products and services that will be used by large numbers of people has been the domain of big companies and governments who can marshal trained specialists and set up big management structures.

hybrid challenges

Organizations like Mozilla turn this upside down and sideways. They combine the mass participation of social movements with the ability to create high quality, desirable (public) goods that people will use every day. This is where the challenge comes in: we don’t have well established models managing, facilitating and leading in this kind of environment. Hybrid orgs are inventing these models, finding ways to create good goals and scaffolding, focus on participation, let people scratch their own itch. The thing is, there is no clear roadmap on how to do this and the daily pragmatics are hard. There is a need for constant reflection, tweaking and a kind of personal + collective honesty that’s hard to come by.

Structure‘ is another good issue to look at from a hybrid org perspective. We have well established legal structures for create non-profit, public benefit organizations. Yet, in every country that I know about, these structures work poorly when people try to hybridize and innovate what it means to do public benefit work. They have trouble keeping up with new and emerging public benefit roles in society (example -> Wikipedia providing universal access to all human knowledge). They aren’t well tuned for organizations that participate in the market with a public purpose (example -> Firefox pushing open standards back into the mainstream of web development). And they don’t account for the critical role that volunteer contributors play as a form of public support and participation (example -> Mozilla localizations). The frameworks we’ve developed for charities over the last few hundred years just haven’t caught up to these new ideas yet.

hybrid challenges

The result is that many hybrid organizations must engage in pretzel like contortions in order to find a structure that works. In Mozilla’s case, we’ve set up a charitable foundation as well as a number of wholly owned commercial subsidiaries. All of these organizations share the same mission of promoting the open nature of the internet. All of them engage with community members to create products and services that advance this mission. And all all of them can demonstrate huge public support and participation. Yet, we run them as separate organizations. In some ways, this isn’t the end of the world, and it certainly seems like the safest option given the ambiguities of charity law. But there is no question this pretzel like structure adds strategic and operational overhead, and can just plain confuse people. There are definitely days where I wish we could just be one public benefit organization called ‘Mozilla’.

Of course, ‘participation’ and ‘structure’ are only two examples of pragmatic challenges that hybrids face. You could also dig into the question of investment, and in particular the fact the hybrids are percieved as a bad fit for both private investors and traditional grantmakers. This makes it tough to scale, compete and move the market. Or you could explore the revenue side. Hybrids must constantly ask: what kinds of income are going to align with — or at least not disrupt — our public benefit mission? Leadership — and how you balance it with distributed decision making and the culture of the web — also seems pretty central. The list of questions and challenges is pretty long.

My goal here is not to go deep on every major challenge, but to set the tone and get others talking. What do you see as the biggest challenges that hybrid orgs face? And do you know of hybrid orgs that have overcome these challenges? I’d love to see responses to these questions as comments and trackbacks. Also, we’re planning to talk about these questions with a few organizations that feel similar to Mozilla at a small gathering next month. My hope is that simply mapping the challenges and looking at how people have tackled them will go a long way towards helping us make our hybrid organizations better. Once we’ve done a bit more of this, I promise to loop back and synthesize what people are saying. Should be interesting.

Why do hybrid orgs matter?

May 12, 2009 § 10 Comments

I’ve been poking at the question ‘why do hybrid orgs matter?’ for a couple of days now. Emailing friends and colleagues. Grilling people over dinner. Drawing little doodles. As I did this, I kept stumbling around ideas like ‘huge impact’ and ‘creating public goods’ and ‘massive participation’. Important ideas, but not quite what I was hoping for. It turns out that coming up with a crisp, helpful ‘why hybrids matter’  statement is tough.

Why do hybrids matter?

It’s tough because the ideas we’re playing with here are (in part) very new, and the term ‘hybrid organization’ is still quite fuzzy (there are many different takes on hybrids beyond what I am talking about). However, the more I dig, the more I am convinced that organizations like Mozilla, Wikipedia, Kiva, Miro and so on that mashup mission, market and the culture of the web represent a new pattern worth understanding. Even if we don’t yet have the right words to describe this pattern yet, we need to dive in, think and play.

Elements of what matters

So, that’s what I did. I rolled up all the notes and email comments I gathered in the last few days into a short ‘why do hybrid orgs matter?’ blurb that goes like this:

Mission + market + web hybrids matter because they can wield the power needed to move markets at a global scale, while still looking out for the small guy, taking the long view and staying true to their public benefit mission. They show us how organizations could — and maybe should — work in the future.

It’s pretty awkward and wordy, and in a number of ways not quite right. That’s okay. Even more than earlier, my hope here is to spark conversation. Why do mission + market + web hybrids matter to you? What would you add to this statement?

As a way to feed the conversation, I figured it would be useful to share some quotes from the email conversations I’ve been having and notes on my own thinking. They break down into six things that matter about hybrid orgs:

1. Power to move markets …

This one comes from something johnolilly said in email: “Sometimes we need organizations with financial and market strength but mission-orientations to keep capital-only-organizations doing the right things for the commons. Historically, those with money, and money-missions, have had all the power. Hybrids are important because they have the potential to let mission-oriented orgs wield similar power, but for human-oriented needs.” No question this is at the core of what matters.

2. … at a global scale …

tonyasurman agreed but pushed one step further: “What’s unique about hybrids is the ability to take move market but also the ability to do this at a global scale without losing the integrity of the small. This is really important. Non-profits and social enterprises have never had the potential for this kind of impact. Hybrids can take public benefit products and services to a scale never before imagined.” The global scale that comes w/ the web also seems critical, and not just on the market transformation side. It’s an essential part of creating high quality products and services using peer production.

3. … while still looking out for the small guy …

Global scale, high quality product and public benefit mission mean that hybrids tend to be good at getting great stuff into the hands of incredibly tiny, otherwise-ignored markets. nreville said: “These hybrids are able to bring the full benefits of market influence to underserved constituencies that would otherwise be completely ignored a big company or poorly served by traditional charity. If someone made a special browser for just for people who speak Telugu it would probably suck. But Mozilla is willing to put energy into translating Firefox into Telegu, even when it’s not profitable to do so. The result is that a small constituency gets a world-class product.”

4. … taking the long view …

Similarly, hybrids can think beyond short term gain and consumer support. beltzner wrote: “Hybrid organizations have a distinct advantage over traditional organizations in acting for long-term benefits. Many traditional organizations, concerned with quarterly performance and growth, are consumed with what they can do to increase their immediate position at all costs. Hybrid organizations, concerned with public benefit and ecosystem growth, can trade off immediate short-term advantage with long term development more easily. For example, while a traditional organization may find it difficult to stop activities which have a short term benefit but a long term detriment, a hybrid organization approaches that decision differently. Practically speaking, this also means that hybrid organizations are as concerned with *how* they do things or develop systems as they are concerned with the things themselves.”

5. …. and staying true to their public benefit mission.

Responding to my first post, stephendeberry asked: “how do you ensure the public benefit remains core to the hybrid model?” This is actually a huge challenge for both traditional non-profits (grantmaker demands trigger mission drift) and social enterprises (can become more about the market than the mission). And it’s somewhere I think hybrids built on the idea of mass participation and peer production have a special advantage. They not only have boards and leaders committed to the mission, but they also have huge communities actively involved in interpreting the mission every day by helping to make something. The aggregate decisions of people who contribute to Firefox, or Wikipedia, or Kiva help shape what these things are in very real ways, which is in turn likely to make sure things stay more or less on mission. This isn’t to say peer production is democracy. Usually, meritocracy is the rule. Still, having a massive number of stakeholders involved in building things helps hybrid orgs stay public benefit focused.

6. Hybrids can show us how organizations could — and maybe should — work.

The organizational tools available to us as a society are quite broken, or at least don’t fit all the things we need and want to do. The current economic crisis shows this. The overly bureaucratized world of grant dependent non-profits shows us this. And, on a more positive side, the growth of massive informal social movements shows this. We don’t have good organizational models (or legal incorporation structures) to figure out how to channel the energy of huge numbers of people who want to play across mission and market make things better in a coherent, collaborative, high-impact and sustainable way. The hybrids I am talking about are taking a shot at fixing this, inventing and evolving new ways to organize as they go. This is pretty meta, I know. But it’s also pretty important.

7. ….?

I think there is some good stuff in here. But it definitely isn’t completely right yet. So, the question now is: what’s the seventh item on this list? The eighth? And the ninth? I really want people to add to this list, to poke at it further and to call out the bits that feel like just plain bull. The more I struggle with these ideas, the more I think conversation is useful.

Why do they matter to you?

Why? Because figuring out why these organizations matter, what makes them tick and what challenges they face (my next post) is a part of making them work better. Working in uncharted waters is hard. Sharing what we’re learning along the way helps. It helps those of us trying to nurture organizations and communities that mix mission, market and the web. And it provides fuel and encouragement to people who want to set up such organizations anew.

Hybrid orgs. What’s old? What’s new?

May 7, 2009 § 7 Comments

It’s been fun reading reactions to my first post on hybrid organizations. The conversation so far has underlined one very critical point: we are talking about something that is at once very old and very new. While I hinted at this last time, it feels like its worth digging deeper on which bits are old and which bits are new.

The idea of people organizing for the public benefit is almost as old as the hills. England started calling these organizations charities and created a law to support them around 1600. Before that, maybe people just called it ‘community’, or took for granted that we should get together to help each other out? Whatever we call it, this impulse to make things better — and to organize around it — runs deep. It is not new.

What is new is the toolbox that hybrid organizations draw from. Cheap global networks. A willingness to use markets as a channel to drive change. Collaborative peer production. Combined with the 500 year tradition of public benefit organizations, these new tools make it possible to organize huge numbers of people to create massively scaled, tangible public goods that out-compete what’s broken and make things better on a global scale. For me, it’s this mix that makes hybrids interesting.

If we push on ‘what’s old?’ for a moment, it’s clear that the hybrid orgs I am talking about build upon well established public benefit roles and traditions:

1. Championing important ideas. One of the first things we think of when we hear ‘public benefit organization’ is championing a big, important idea. History is filled with examples of organizations gathering millions to do everything from claiming their civil rights to protecting our planet to toppling colonial governments. The public benefit organizations behind such movements have not just been important, they have in many cases been transformative. When successful, they have changed the thinking of not only governments and businesses but whole societies for the better.

2. Protecting the commons. The idea of building and protecting things we hold in common like ‘bridges, seabanks and highways‘ has been recognized as a public benefit right from the outset of charity law. And of course, organizing people — and money — to protect the commons remains a major role for public benefit organizations today. Just think of libraries. Or the neighbourhood watch. Or organizations that protect forests and wildlands. These common assets are not just ‘nice to haves’. They are essential ingredients in a rich, healthy society. They make it easier to learn, keep us safe and clean the air. And, in the end, they even make it easier to do business. Organizations that protect common public goods play an essential role in our world.

3. Making markets wiser and more humane. Companies and markets don’t always do the right thing. In the last 50+ years, we’ve seen an increasing number of organizations that have tried to ‘move the market’ in ways that make it wiser and more humane. Organizations like the Forestry Stewardship Council, which has become the gold seal for planet friendly wood products, have shown that creating incentive for market players to improve their behaviour can make the world better for everyone. Many other organizations try to move markets in similar ways, using everything from humour to boycotts. The goal is not to be the market, but to make it easier for markets to feed, strengthen and respect the rest of what makes the world tick.

All three of these public benefit roles and traditions are important. But pursing these roles using the traditional organizing models of the not-for-profit sector has significant limitations and challenges. Turning big ideas and mass movements into concrete change is hard, and a bit of a crap shoot. Scaling the commons and out-competing enclosure requires — or at least has required — huge resources. Finding enough strength and influence to truly move markets has proven tough for players who are not in the market themselves. For these reasons, public benefit organizations often struggle to have the impact they want to have, or accept that their impact will be small and local.

What’s happening with hybrid orgs is a mashup of old traditions with new tools and ideas in ways that make it more likely that public benefit organizations will have the massive impact they want and need to have. Some of the new tools include:

a. Cheap networks, global scale. Clay Shirky has made it trite to say that the cost of organizing has gone through the floor. The thing is: he’s right, and it’s important. Cheap networks have made it possible for a very small group of people to organize effectively on a global scale. This is especially important for public benefit organizations which have typically had limited impact just because they couldn’t afford to reach out far and wide. The networked world makes it possible — in some cases even easy — to champion big ideas, build the commons and move markets on a global scale. This is genuinely new.

b. Mixing mission and market tactics. The idea of mixing tactics from the mission (volunteerism, calls to action, donations) and market (products, competition, earned revenue) worlds is also fairly new. Social enterprises that develop products and services as a way to pursue their mission have really only been around since the 1980s. Organizations like Mozilla and Kiva that try to keep markets doing the right things for the commons on a massive scale are even newer. Despite this newness, the idea that mixing mission and market is a legit public benefit strategy is seeping into the public (and more slowly government) consciousness.

c. Collaborative peer production. In the past, it the public goods created by non-profits and charities were by there very nature small and local. Collaborative peer production — the idea that many people on the internet can pitch in a small amount of effort to make something big — has changed that dramatically. A top quality, standards-based web browser. A massive, high quality encyclopedia. A huge alternative financing pool for poor entrepreneurs. No — or certainly few — public benefit orgs could have created such things 25 years ago. Peer production and open source changed this. The result: there are now organizations that can create public goods of a quality and scale that can directly move markets in ways that benefit the commons. These organizations don’t just describe big new ideas. Using the power of mass contribution, they make them real.

It’s the mashup of all these old and new elements that is the hallmark of the hybrid organizations I am talking about. Mozilla protecting the Internet commons by engaging millions of people to move the market. Wikipedia organizing people to create tremendous public asset that gathers the sum of all human knowledge. Kiva building a collaborative bank to move the finance market for the poor. These organizations are mixing the old and the new. They are in the public benefit remix business, figuring out how to get beyond the limitations of the past. From where I sit, that’s exciting, and important.

In my next post, I want to dig deeper into the question of ‘why do hybrid orgs matter’? The fact that we are seeing innovative public benefit organizations mash up the old and the new is cool. But what specifically does it get us? After that, I want to loop back to the challenges faced by public benefit orgs and look at the Mozilla case in a bit more detail. In the meantime, please comment, post and trackback to keep this hybrid org conversation rolling.

What is a hybrid organization?

April 23, 2009 § 30 Comments

When I first met Mitchell last year, she talked alot about Mozilla as a hybrid organization. I didn’t know exactly what she meant. But it felt right. Personally, I’ve been mashing up mission-based orgs, products, services, philanthropy and the web for well over a decade. It’s what I love most, and something the world needs alot more of. It is also one of the most powerful forces that drew me to Mozilla.

Hybrid Org

Over the last six months, I’ve found ‘hybrid org’ rolling off my tongue more and more. It’s as good a moniker as any for the organizational mashup that is Mozilla (and Miro, and Kiva, and so on). But every time the hybrid term drops, it begs (or I get asked) the question: hybrid of what? I figured the time has come to push on this question a little with a series of posts about hybrid orgs and why they matter. This is the first one.

So, what is a hybrid org? In the case of Mozilla — and an increasing number of other orgs — it’s a mix of social mission, disruptive market strategies and web-like scale and collaboration. Or, at least, that’s the definition I see emerging.


If we take ‘social mission’ as the first element, then a hybrid organization looks alot like a traditional charity or not-for-profit. Public benefit is the core reason that these organizations exist. For Mozilla, the mission is to promote and protect the open nature of the internet. This means ensuring that the internet remains a public commons where anyone can innovate, experiment or express themselves without asking for somebody else’s permission. On our increasingly digital planet, we clearly need public benefit organizations that care about such things.

... now let's add the market ...

When we move on to ‘disruptive market strategies’ hybrid orgs start to look a little different. These organizations use products, services and consumer choice to promote the ideas and move the issues that they believe in. Think about this in the context of Mozilla’s mission: the internet is shaped far more by the choices of people who build and use it than by regulation or high minded ideals. By creating products that a) many millions of internet users love and b) have open standards, security and innovation from the edge baked into their core, Mozilla leverages consumer choice to make the internet more open. With Firefox, this approach not only shifted the browser landscape from near monopoly into a more diverse ecosystem but also helped build the foundations for an era of standards-based web applications. Mozilla jumped into the market with a great product not to make money, but as a way to grow and protect the internet as public commons.

Of course, there are thousands of organizations that use the market and consumer choice to pursue their mission. Social enterprises like Jamie Oliver’s 15. Market-standards organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council. And, in some ways, even traditional charities like Goodwill. All advance their cause (and sometimes to sustain themselves) through the market in one way or another.

... and the scale of the web.

The thing that makes these hybrid orgs unique is mixing mission and market with the scale and collaborative nature of the web. The culture and technology of the web make it possible to grow a global community of passionate people who can pitch in to build stuff. The things they can — and want to — build are often quite complex: software that makes the web more open; an encyclopedia that offers free access to knowledge; a system of cheaper and better credit for the poor. With the web and collaboration, they can not only build these things, but they also have the potential for impact at a scale that only governments or huge corporations could have imagined in the past. From the programmers who contribute code to the localizers who make Firefox available in 70+ languages to the thousands of people who funded the first Firefox ad in the New York Times, Mozilla is filled with examples of web scale and collaboration.

Does this mix of mission, market and the collaborative nature of the web really represent a new kind of organization? Some days, I wonder about this. But there is no question that there are an increasing number of organizations that combine these elements. Mozilla. Kiva. Participatory Culture Foundation. Donors Choose. Wikipedia. All of these organizations are trying to ‘move the market’ on the web in a way that both engages and benefits a broad public. As they do so, they are charting new territory.

Hybrid Org Overview

Over the next couple of weeks, I want to ask a few questions about this new territory. Why do these hybrid organizations matter? What challenges do they face? And what role does optimism and the desire to create play in hybrid orgs? I’d love to get people’s comments, blogs or tweets about these questions, and will definitely be posting more myself. Hopefully, there is an interesting conversation in all of this.

Why Mozilla Education?

February 1, 2009 § 12 Comments

As we scribble and plan for for Mozilla Education, a question sometimes comes up: why? Why is this interesting to Mozilla? Why not just leave educating to the educators? There are at least two different answers to this question.

Mozilla Education as multiplier

The first is straightforward: providing people with high quality, easy to access learning opportunities helps with Mozilla’s goal of promoting openness and participation as a part of Internet life. We can offer courses about things like open source work methods and open web technology. People in Mozilla know these things inside out. By sharing what we know, we increase the number of people skilled in these areas, and we probably pick up new contributors along the way. This is pretty simple, and is reason enough to experiment seriously with education programs.

The other answer to ‘why?’ lays in the fact that well run open source source communities are inherently engines of learning.  People can show up to a project like Mozilla with basic skills and a willingness to contribute. From there, they can: study the code and the project; get feedback on their contributions;  work with more more experienced contributors to create things and solve problems. If all goes well, they leave (or move on to help others in the project) not only with better coding skills, but also with a deep understanding of how to work in a global collaborative community environment. While it’s more like apprenticeship than a PhD, there is no question that this is a process of learning.

Mozilla as learning process

Of course, this alone isn’t reason to create something called Mozilla Education. In fact, some might see it as an anti-reason: people are already learning, so why do anything different?

The answer is: we may be able to amplify and broaden the learning opportunities that flow from Mozilla by looking more systematically at the education side of things. Take the upcoming Labs Design Challenge as an example.  It will use a course-like approach (interactive online lectures, competitive assignments, access to mentors) as a way to engage with human computer interaction design students. By doing this, the Labs people are opening up Mozilla participation and learning opportunities to a group of people that have been traditionally hard to engage through the regular open software development process. They are using education to expand our community and the number of people we reach deeply with Mozilla’s approach to open innovation.

The hope is that Mozilla Education can have this sort of broadening effect writ large: giving more people a chance to learn with and get involved in Mozilla. And not just technical students. Also students from disciplines like design, marketing and business.

On related question that a few people asked in response to my last post: why just focus on Mozilla, as opposed to looking at open source and education more broadly? The reasoning here is that you need real and concrete problems to learn around. In a traditional classroom, students work on ‘exercises’ — problems that someone else has already solved or that won’t actually get used in the real world. Whether its fixing a bug or developing marketing materials or coming up with design ideas, open source projects offer learning opportunities that are built around real world problems. By extension, these are learning opportunities that have potential for significant real world impact. The solution you come up with might just end up in a product like Firefox.

While Mozilla may eventually choose to champion the idea of open source as learning environment in a broader arena, the starting point has to be with the assets we have on hand: real problems in Mozilla projects, and mentors who can help people solve those problems. Eventually, we may learn enough about how open source and education  work that we could do something broader than just Mozilla. But we’ve got to start somewhere more concrete than that if we want to have an impact.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evangelize and connect with others who share our vision about teaching open source. We have alot to learn from initiatives like Summer of Code that are already making the education + open source link. Mozilla is hosting a small EduCamp event on the day before FOSDEM with this in mind. If you are going to be in Brussels, please consider dropping in. It’ll be a great place to share your ideas and learn about this whole space.

Upcoming posts: explaining education ideas we have on the table by interviewing some of the people who are making them happen.

Constellation model in OSBR

September 25, 2008 § 4 Comments

Over the summer, Tonya and I published an article in Singapore’s Social Space journal about the constellation governance model used by the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Environmental Health. This is a way of organizing NGO partnerships in small clusters — or constellations — based around interest, skill and passion. Obviously, some similarities there to how many open source projects work.

The people at the Open Source Business Review picked up on this and asked to republish the article with an open source spin. It’s out today. Here’s the abstract:

The constellation model was developed by and for the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and the Environment. The model offers an innovative approach to organizing collaborative efforts in the social mission sector and shares various elements of the open source model. It emphasizes self-organizing and concrete action within a network of partner organizations working on a common issue.

Constellations are self-organizing action teams that operate within the broader strategic vision of a partnership. These constellations are outwardly focused, placing their attention on creating value for those in the external environment rather than on the partnership itself. While serious effort is invested into core partnership governance and management, most of the energy is devoted to the decision making, resources and collaborative effort required to create social value. The constellations drive and define the partnership.

The constellation model emerged from a deep understanding of the power of networks and peer production. Leadership rotates fluidly amongst partners, with each partner having the freedom to head up a constellation and to participate in constellations that carry out activities that are of more peripheral interest. The Internet provided the platform, the partner network enabled the expertise to align itself, and the goal of reducing chemical exposure in children kept the energy flowing.

Building on seven years of experience, this article provides an overview of the constellation model, discusses the results from the CPCHE, and identifies similarities and differences between the constellation and open source models.

This issue of Open Source Business Review is all about the intersection of open source and social innovation. Some interesting stuff, including a piece on the OLPC as educational innovation and something on the McConnell Foundation’s approach to community engagement.

Practising my open philanthropy rap

May 26, 2008 Comments Off on Practising my open philanthropy rap

During my recent trip to Cape Town, the Foundation held a 'messaging meeting'. This is basically a communications group therapy session. Everyone has two or three minutes to deliver a pitch on their work and projects. After watching a video playback of each pitch, the group offers constructive criticism.

If you want to hear my current open philanthropy rap (or just want to see me make a fool of myself) take a look at this video from the meeting:

The 'get better at your pitch' benefits of this exercise are obvious … and doing a session like this every few months is worthwhile for this reason alone.

However, there was a bigger and somewhat surprising benefit: team building. People learned about each other's projects in a way that they would never have time for during the normally flurry of a workday. They also had a chance to provide informal, rapid-fire input on both the positioning and substance of the work we are doing as a Foundation. And, fueled by the nervous gawkiness of any public speaking rehearsal, all of this was rolled up inside a good dose of humour and love. It was quite amazing. I hope I get to do it again.

The world is flat (rate)

April 30, 2008 § 2 Comments

Today was CopyCamp2 in Toronto: a conversation about art, copyright and the Internet. Lots of fun examples of remix art. More Linux stickers and Internet savvy artists than last year. And a few boring culture bureaucrats playing broken records. Not a bad cocktail, all told.


The strange highlight was a session by Paul Hoffert, ex-hippie musician, Berkman fellow and founder of a new company called Noank. Their web site says:

Noank’s mission is to license and distribute digital content globally while fairly compensating content owners, using the most efficient, sustainable, and effective business and technology systems. Noank’s motto is "limitless legal content flow."

The idea is simple: blanket content subscriptions charged by ISPs for all the content you can eat. Users just grab content P2P-style the way they do now. Content creators get a slice of the subscription revenue based on the popularity of their materials.

What’s interesting is not the idea on its own (it’s not new), but the fact that Noank may actually make it happen, and at scale. They have a contract to offer their service to 25 million Chinese students in partnership with the ISP that serves all universities in China . Each student pays $20/year for all the online textbooks, movies and video they want. And, Noank has already signed up 40% of the content providers they’ve targeted, including all of the Chinese ones and a bunch of global majors.

More interesting is that fact that Noank will split revenue with anyone who owns content and signs a contract with them, even if they’ve already open sourced it. A case in point is MIT Open Courseware, which is in huge demand in some Chinese universities. MIT could put its lecture videos on the Noank P2P network and then claim a piece of the action, even though the material is available under CC free on the web. If it works, this both helps with both international bandwidth issues and allows those who produce open content to bring in money.

Is there are catch? Yes, of course. Noank uses super invasive client software to track the popularity of materials. Each use of each textbook, movie or video is recorded at the file system level on your computer. There is a piece in the client that anonymizes all this info before it is transmitted back to Noank. That may reassure you. It may not.

A final note: Noank’s decision to start in China — and to go to Russia next — is worth paying attention to. As Paul stated in his talk, these are places with copyright cultures very different from those in the west. And, they are such big consumers ands creators of content that they will eventually influence how new business models and copyright play out globally. Noank figures such places make good terrain to hammer out their ideas. They are quite right. It will be interesting to see where (and if) this goes: good, bad and / or ugly.

Open salad

April 18, 2008 § 2 Comments

Salad makes a perfect open source project. While most people think it’s a drag to produce a whole salad, it’s not so hard to get them to cough up one or two ingredients. The ingredients people contribute automagically turn out to be complimentary, most of the time. And, as more people contribute ingredients, the salad gets better and better. Yum.


So it is that that the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) has made its first foray into open source: a bi-weekly Open Salad Club.

The CSI is a shared workspace for social entrepreneurs and change agents located in a downtown Toronto warehouse. It’s home to about 100cdifferent organizations. The Shuttleworth Foundation‘s International Evangelism Unit (that’s me) is one amidst this multitude.


Every Tuesday and Thursday, about 20 CSI’ers throw an ingredient on the counter, mash it all up into an instant salad bar and nosh together. The rules for Open Salad Club, posted on a cafe table at CSI, are simple: “… each person brings two items that could conceivably go into a salad. Then we share. Your first trip to Salad Club is free.”

The culinary results a wonderful: fancy cheeses; tasty nuts; super fresh produce; all mixed up together. Some of the tastiest and most unique salads I’ve eaten in years. And, without the dreaded ‘what the heck am I going to bring for lunch today?’ crisis in the morning. Just grab whatever you’ve got in the fridge and go.




Of course, it’s the community vibe that really makes Open Salad Club rock. I’ve met (and learned the names of!) people I’ve been brushing past in the hallway for a year. And, my friend Marcia, who’s just taken up residence at the CSI (and just moved to Toronto) is still out there in cafe gabbing away with people. Building salad together is a quick path to meaningful relationships, it seems.

Important to remember: these community projects never come without trouble or controversy. There are already disputes over the name. Is it Open Salad? Or Salad Club? My strategy is to combine the two to avoid controversy, thus: Open Salad Club. Yet even this isn’t good enough. Rumour has it that the people at the Hub in London have forked the name again, setting up Sexy Salad on the same model.

There is also the question of whether Open Salad Club is an original idea or a derivative work. Eric Squair, who got this salad sharing rolling, claims the idea originated at Greenpeace. However, there is no concrete information online about the previous Greenpeace version or the license under which its rule set was released.


In any case, Open Salad Club is tasty, convenient and fun. It’s also one more example of ‘open’ being applied in novel and useful ways. Which, of course, makes it part of the case for open everything. More news, and maybe an Open Salad Club wiki, coming soon.

Philanthropy on the commons

April 16, 2008 § 3 Comments

I spent the weekend mulling over Mike Edwards‘ essay Philanthrocapitalism: After the gold rush. The basic argument is this: there is a movement afoot to harness the power of business for social change. This includes newly-minted foundations like Gates, corporate social responsibility programs and social entrepreneurs. These philanthrocapitalists are undermining the independence and social mission of civil society. As a result, we are missing out on real social transformation, and maybe even risking our democracy.

From where I sit, much of what Edwards says seems wrong or misdirected, mixing apples with oranges with assumptions. Which is why I was so surprised to see him briefly trumpeting one of my
favourite ideas: “… new business models built around the commons, such as open source software.” Edwards suggests that these new models have the potential to deliver deep changes to both our society and our economy. I agree. In fact, I would argue that they already have.

The power of peers

Just think about Wikipedia for a second. In less than 10 years, Wikipedia has completely overturned the intellectual and economic power structure of the publishing industry (or, at least, the parts dealing with reference materials). What’s more, it has dramatically increased the number of languages that have their own encyclopedias (over 250), the number of topics covered (2.3 million in English alone) and the speed with which new topics get covered (there is even a little article on philanthrocapitalism). Like it or not, Wikipedia is unquestionably an incredible achievement.

Many would also argue that Wikipedia is a major public good, on the order of an education or library system. That’s certainly what Jimmy Wales and others had in mind when the coined the Wikimedia Foundation’s vision statement: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in
the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.” The people behind Wikipedia were definitely thinking about what Edwards calls ‘real social transformation’ right from day one.

Of course, the most interesting thing about Wikipedia is not Wikipedia itself, but the method used to create and maintain it. Tens of thousands of volunteers around the world contribute and edit content on topics they are passionate about. When you add up all of these small bits of labour, you have what it takes to create the world’s most comprehensive

It’s this kind peer production that Edwards is talking about when he speaks of ‘the commons’. And, as Yochai Benkler eloquently argues in The Wealth of Networks,
this model is not limited to Wikipedia: it is a part of a new and
growing wave of non-market peer production that is creating tremendous
public assets. Linux. Mozilla Firefox. The Public Library of Science. MIT’s OpenCourseWare. The 60 million Creative Commons-licensed photos
on Flickr. We create and hold these things in common. And, as we hold
them, our economies, our societies and our democracies are

The yin yang dance

The funny thing is,
Edwards seems to think that the commons and business are at odds. “The
problem is that these approaches are absent from the philanthrocapitalist menu,” he says. The facts say otherwise. Who are
the top funders of of Wikipedia? Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla and Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite. Who funds the Creative Commons?
Sun, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Yahoo, Facebook as well as a number of
foundations created with newly minted high tech wealth. The commons is
clearly on the philanthrocapitalist menu.

More importantly:
collaborative, non-market peer production was born from a world that
lives on the fuzzy edge between public and private benefit. In his 1999
essay, the Magic Cauldron, Eric Raymond
offered a taxonomy of open source business models that still left the
code in the commons: cost-sharing; giving away things that have use
value but no sale value; selling technical support or services. His
point was this: business and the commons are not only compatible but,
in many cases, actually interdependent.

In the almost 10 years
since the Magic Cauldron, we’ve seen real world success by open source
projects mixing public and private benefit. Committed to bringing books to the blind, entrepreneur Jim Fruchterman generates revenue from online services while staying staunchly not-for-profit. Once a single foundation, Mozilla is now a foundation and two companies
as a way to consciously play across the private / public benefit divide.
And, intent on transforming the economics of software with an always
free, easy to use version of Linux, Mark Shuttleworth set up not a charity but a business.
In stark contrast to Edwards, these folks do not see public and private
benefit in a zero sum pitched battle: they see a yin yang dance. There
may be times of conflict, but it is a conflict of interdependence and,
ultimately, mutual benefit.

Open sourcing philanthropy

the end of his essay, Edwards asks what he calls the $55 trillion
question: how will we use the vast amount of new philanthropic
resources that will be created in the next 50 years? My instincts tell
me that Wikipedia, open source and peer production may hold part of the
answer. The world of the commons has used openness, participation and
community to create real and (hopefully) lasting public goods. Why not
apply these same principles to improving education, creating low cost housing or evolving our democracy?

course, using open source principles to address a wide variety of
social needs would require a new kind of foundation. In fact, it would
require a whole wave of foundations built from the ground up around the
values of openness, transparency and participation, and sitting happily on the fuzzy
edges between public and private benefit. It would require us to open source philanthropy. Possible? I think so. And, who knows, maybe some of the so-called philanthrocapitalists might even be willing to help.

An edited version of this post is part of a debate about philanthrocapitalism taking place on OpenDemocracy.net. It’s also highlighted on Slashdot.

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