Reaching, teaching, and learning: how do we improve our information infrastructure?

Yesterday we talked about some of the big picture ideas for changing the way we support social change. One element was strengthening information sharing: with so many organizations wanting to create a better world, it’s important for us to access each other’s stories and resources. Here we explore how one organization could benefit from this concept.

posted by Christine Egger

Photo credit: Sunshine Horses


Meet Sophie, an incredibly sweet pinto mare. The photo on the left was taken on the very day that Sophie was rescued and taken in by Sunshine Horses. The photograph on the right was taken just a few months later, well into the rehabilitation that would lead to her being adopted into a loving home. My heart breaks for Sophie in that first picture, and soars for her in the second.

Meet my mom, Jan Lower, the one bringing Sophie along in a trot in that second picture. She’s one of Sunshine Horses’ volunteer coordinators, helping more than 50 volunteers take care of over 20 horses at any one time. (I love the way the photographer captured my mom’s concentration and strength. Can you believe she just turned 70? I want to be like her when I grow up.)

I had a chance to visit Mom last week, and as usual we spent quite a bit of time talking about Sunshine. The conversation began with horses: who’s been taken in, how they’re coming along, who’s been adopted, how the follow-up visits are going. Then, as usual, the topic turned to people. Sunshine Horses has a dual mission: to help horses and people. They intentionally create opportunities for children and adults to realize their own potential as they help the horses along. These programs are central to what they do, and the stories are heartwarming.

Then, also as usual, we started to talk about the nonprofit itself; about the parts that don’t translate so easily into photographs: fundraising and event planning, filling volunteer shifts, communicating inside the organization, communicating with the public.

About being part of a team that’s learning how to do all of the above even as the landscape of horses and people and funds and other resources shifts around them.

I’d just returned from Social Capital Markets (#SOCAP12), a conference for people who share my mom’s passion for doing good well. A recurring suggestion throughout the conference was to think about business and financial models along an entire, single spectrum – from nonprofits at one end, to return-on-investment for profits on the other, and all kinds of newly developed and not-yet-experimented-with combinations in between.

In particular the Markets for Good campaign suggested that we not think just about types of funds along that spectrum, but about the entire information infrastructure that supports everyone along it:

Markets for Good: The Video from Markets for Good on Vimeo.

URL: Marketsforgood.org

Twitter: @MarketsforGood

Hashtag: #mkts4good

So in addition to thinking about what Mom was telling me, I started to think about the types of information that help Sunshine Horses do what it does. What’s required to find and retrieve each horse. To take care of and rehabilitate them. To find new homes. To find and schedule and listen to volunteers. To connect with and create programs for people who will heal right along with the horses they come in to take care of. To arrange for stalls and pastures and trailers and straw and sawdust. To find the funds for all of this. And to make sure people know about what they’re doing.

Mom told me there are about 1,800(!) horse rescue organizations in the U.S. About 90 in New York State alone. Each is unique. Not all of them have the same dual mission of Sunshine Horses. Some of them work exclusively with former race horses or another niche.

Still, I can’t help but think about how much they could learn from, or simply support, each other if it were easy for them to share more information, more seamlessly, with more people, around this shared work.

Helping nonprofits share information with each other is just a tiny piece of what the Markets for Good campaign is about. Its mission is incredibly broad, and the points of engagement with this conversation are many. They’re asking us to think about how we can best use and share information across the entire spectrum of business and financial models that can be employed to deliver social good.

Are there better ways we can collect, classify and exchange data?

Can we build more useful knowledge platforms for social sector information?

How can we access the best information to support our work?

The campaign’s mission is to catalyze those changes so that everyone – beneficiaries, service organizations, donors and investors, and entrepreneurs – are equally contributing to and benefiting from a virtuous cycle of information that improves services, meets needs, and informs smarter funding.

According to Lucy Bernholz , the initiative contains elements that promise to help the nonprofit sector fully realize data as an asset and resource. This sector, she says, lags behind government and for-profit commerce in using data as an asset and resource.

The Markets For Good initiative, with its recommendations on infrastructure, interoperability, and access is a great start. It details a platform and set of operating standards by which existing data sources – reports, compliance documents, grants, and due diligence reviews can be made visible and useful. It lays the groundwork for better mapping of issues, shared planning efforts, and potential new ways of working.

In all of this, what I appreciate most about the Markets for Good initiative is that it isn’t about reinventing (or dismissing) any of the wheels that are already out there (if it were, I wouldn’t be drawing attention to it). From their website:

Our goal is not to replicate or replace, but to connect, align, and accelerate works and ideas already in progress.

That means that, in the spirit of network weaving, this is about uncovering, strengthening, and amplifying the myriad info-sharing-and-accelerating platforms that already exist.

Or in my Mom’s case, it’s about being able to more easily reach, teach, and learn from those 1,800 organizations that share her passion for helping horses and people.

Won’t that be a wonderful thing to add to our conversations?

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Background: While this campaign is new, the Markets for Good initiative has been taking shape for some time. Sean Stannard-Stockton offered this post-SOCAP10 review on the Tactical Philanthropy blog and this 2010 Markets for Good presentation by Liquidnet (a financial firm co-sponsoring the campaign along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation). The initiative has been informed by the Money for Good initiative, a series of analyses prepared by Hope Consulting with funding from Markets for Good sponsors and others.

Disclosure: I’ve been part of an informal Markets for Good discussion forum since 2010.

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