Where Are We On the Road to Open Knowledge in the Social Sector?

This post originally appeared on the Center for Effective Philanthropy's blog

It’s that time of year again. That special time for performance reviews, grant reports, and setting annual goals. It’s also the moment to set aside all illusions of what I still have time to accomplish, and take a hard look back at what really happened during the last eleven and a half months.

Like many of you, my performance goals are tightly bound up with my larger goals and aspirations for the social sector. Checking in on how far I have come this year often means gauging that against how far we have all come this year — how far we have moved down the proverbial path. And the path I am probably most concerned with is the path towards greater openness in how we (foundations and nonprofits) share the knowledge we fund and produce.

The reason we are so deeply concerned with openness at IssueLab, and at the Foundation Center writ large, is because we hear again and again from individuals and organizations who want to build on what their colleagues have learned. They want to work smarter, but they don’t always have the resources to track down the knowledge on their own. To a large extent, we (foundations and nonprofits) have the knowledge we need, the feedback we seek, and the on-the-ground lessons we crave — all captured in the reports, case studies, and evaluations we fund and produce. Unfortunately, these are shared (or “published”) in ways that may on the surface be free, but are only rarely “open.”

I admit, there is no easy measure for progress towards greater openness. How much of the knowledge we produce is even discoverable and accessible to the people who need it to do their work? How free is “free” if individual practitioners and organizations need to spend weeks of staff time searching for and sifting through hundreds of different websites to answer a question about what’s been done and what’s already been learned? How much of what foundations know are they actually sharing with their grantees and the public? A recent post from CEP recalled a statistic that really hit home for me when it was first reported. In 2013, CEP reported that only 36 percent of grantees thought that funders share the knowledge they have about what other nonprofits are doing to address similar challenges. By any measure that’s not enough, but especially so since foundations have the tools for greater knowledge sharing at their disposal.

Based on the work IssueLab has done this past year, the people we have spoken with, and the conversations we have had the chance to be a part of, I do think that the sector is changing in this regard. But what does that progress look like? And what can we expect to see — and influence — in the year to come? Are we as a sector just now stepping onto this path, or are we already gaining some momentum? Would our progress best be described as lurching? Stumbling? Or something steadier and more intentional?

I think it’s all of the above, really. More foundations are choosing to pursue open licensing policies, while others still stick with “all rights reserved.” More foundations are choosing to share their work through open repositories like IssueLab, while others haven’t yet considered open repositories as a complementary strategy to posting publications on their own websites. And more and more foundations are beginning to ask themselves the tough questions about what it would mean to share all the knowledge they fund and produce as a common good by default instead of cherry-picking reports for release, as many continue to do.

We may have a long way to go towards open knowledge in the social sector, but we’ll get there. Whether we’re stumbling along or striding alongtogether we are working out the shared systems and approaches to making social sector knowledge a true public benefit.