soy milkWhen I realized that my daughter was lactose intolerant, I looked into buying a soy milk maker.  But thebeer-mugy’re almost $200…  But, our neighbor has one. We brew our own beer, which is a something she doesn’t make, nor does she want to invest in the equipment.  So we built an exchange. 

 So every monday evening, we exchange a bottle of beer for a quart of soy milk.  Everyone says that she’s getting the better end of this deal, but I need the soy milk!  I’ve always liked the sweet soy milk that you buy at the store, but I wasn’t fond of the unsweetened variety.  But now, my husband and I often look forward to the warm, fresh soy milk to make hot chocolate. (OK, it’s still sweet, but fresh soy milk is good!)

Nonprofits have been good at coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems for a long time. Several nonprofits went in together to share an HR staff member–something none of them could afford by themselves.  POWER, Bethlehem Haven and the Center for Victims of Violent Crime created this joint position to handle the increasingly difficult HR issues that arise.

After I pick up my soy milk, (this time on a Monday morning) I’m headed for my volunteer shift at the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library–a cooperative started over 34 years ago for families to have a safe place to play with developmentally appropriate toys for children ages 6 and under.  It is open six days a week and has no paid staff.  Because of its proximity to Oakland, there is an incredibly internationally diverse group of families who frequent the “Library”.  Long term friendships are developed between parents.  Babysitting leads are shared, playdates are arranged, parenting advice is easily discussed.  It is one of the unsung gems in Pittsburgh.  It is a major parental stress reliever.  But it is an incredibly creative solution to a lack of funding for staff–and a way to make all families invest because it is THEIR center.

Let’s keep thinking creatively.  Now my neighbor and I are considering bees & chickens… honey and eggs.  Yummmm.

There are many ideas coming out of the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh–I’d love to hear some more stories!

Some months back, I came across a fascinating NY Times article that discussed how the “kids” at Google found yet another innovative way of taking our “free data” and using it for a good cause. In this case, recent evidence suggest that when Internet users’ search for information on, oh, let’s say “flu-like symptoms” that Google “may be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu a week to 10 days before they are reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” What a Brave New World (Mr. Huxley)!

What this example succinctly illustrates is what “Researchers have long said–that the material published on the Web amounts to a form of [collective intelligence] that can be used to spot trends and make predictions” (NY Times). Wikipedia, a kind of “collective intelligence,” turned author, is harnessing such wisdom through its Wikinvest Web site; Wikinvest is building and archiving a database of user-generated investment information on popular stocks, for free of course.

Now, where I’m going with this is back in October of 2008, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “How Wise Crowds Can Advance Philanthropy,” by Steven H. Goldberg. Mr. Goldberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit that aims “to provide children-in-need with high quality everyday supplies,” suggests that we in the nonprofit sector should be thinking about how to harness this “collective wisdom.”

Mr. Goldberg writes that most mid-sized nonprofit organizations possess some of the most “innovative solutions” to today’s problems. However, as he notes, there is a dearth of “reliable information about the relative performance of nonprofits,” so as a result “billions of philanthropic dollars annually are distributed haphazardly among more than 1.5 million organizations, some deserving, some less so.”

His solution: use guidance markets to “consolidate information about which nonprofits provide the highest social returns on investment, thus guiding donors to the most attractive opportunities.” He further elaborates on just what this guidance market might look like: “This market could list virtual [stocks] in the form of questions,” and essentially evaluate each nonprofit on whether they accomplish their beginning of year outputs and outcomes.

The idea here is that the collective wisdom of the public “would drive virtual prices up or down depending on whether traders considered the market assessments too low or too high based on dispersed information including strategic hires, grants and sponsorships, regulatory developments, and…performance.” Furthermore, “by revealing the consensus judgment of potentially millions of donors, employees, and volunteers in the nonprofit sector, the market could forecast the relative success of organizations competing for donations.”

Finally, what I like most about this idea is that as Goldberg writes, “If collective intelligence could index nonprofits’ effectiveness, social enterprises would have an incentive to collect and report performance data to improve their [stock].” Think of it: greater sector transparency, a clearer recognition by stakeholders of nonprofit best practices, and more opportunities for smaller nonprofits to compete against larger organizations for funding. Sounds like an idea worth investing in.