During the period of development of the Michigan philanthropic infrastructure from the late 1960s into the early 2010s – and probably for generations prior to this history – the nonprofit charitable sector shared with one another. Information, lessons learned, stories, resources, and credit are just a few of the ways that sharing occurred.
If there is no profit motive for defining ownership of an idea, a sentence, a program, or intellectual property of any kind, then there is no harm in giving it away. Philanthropy is about sharing, giving to the unknown other, and working toward a better common world. Human and financial resources are scarce, and in an early version of “crowd sourcing”, nonprofits benefited from building on one another’s work. The ubiquitous sharing, copying, and replication in Michigan was considered to be a compliment.
An experienced fundraiser in a Michigan community foundation, upon reading a full paragraph she had written for her foundation in the annual report of another foundation responded – “it always makes me feel great to see my words being used.” This is without attribution, without asking for permission, and with no thought of ownership or copyright, beyond – “wow, that’s great!” The idea of copyrighting material was unheard of and would have been considered poor form.
Video: Leaders discuss the value of sharing in philanthropic leadership.
The computer field has coined an apt phrase – “open source”. Open source describes a creative process of sharing, building on ideas, and providing personal intellectual property without consideration for ownership or reward. For Michigan’s philanthropic field during the 40 years of infrastructure development, all ideas, programs, and written materials were considered “open source” resources for all to take, modify, and share.
In recent years, the adoption of a “business” model in the charitable sector may have had a chilling effect on this willingness to share. Particularly, materials committed to writing (workbooks, manuals, sample forms, etc.) are copyrighted and are made available as products for sale. These products are sold in order to generate operating revenue for the nonprofit. While effective in the business world, the ownership and individual organization’s benefits from charging for their work can diminish sharing across organizations. Each organization then has to create their own materials from the beginning, introducing large-scale inefficiencies into a system of organizations, each with scarce resources.
This sharing spirit, also a common characteristic of the philanthropic sector outside of Michigan at this point in time, facilitated the rapid adoption of good ideas throughout the sector nationally. The Branding Project for community foundations (now called the Venture Products Fund), Michigan’s work completed on defining a community foundation and developing operations standards all benefited from this “open source” philosophy of sharing.