'Too often, the behaviors of nonprofits and their funders have been focused more on perpetuating institutions, than achieving measurable impact.'

This Throwback Thursday post highlights the behaviors that Living Cities staff are modeling to open-source social change. The blog was originally published on May 22, 2014.

One of the central beliefs at Living Cities is that we need to move beyond projects and programs, and instead focus on transforming systems. We’re testing this belief on-the-ground in cities as it relates to urban poverty. And, in our work focused on moving the social change field towards a new type of practice that collectively moves the needle on systems-level results, we are seeing that the behaviors of nonprofits and their funders have been focused more on perpetuating institutions, than achieving measurable impact.

Donella Meadows famously wrote, “The only way to fix a system that is laid out wrong, is to rebuild it if you can.” She also advocated that the most powerful way to intervene in a system relates to shifting the mindsets and paradigms of its actors.

Donella Meadows'famous quote

What we’re seeing, by-and-large, is that the mindset of individuals, organizations, and funders in the social sector is closed, secretive, even fearful. We see an unwillingness to share what we’re learning through our work, and when we do share it, it is often so far after the fact that others don’t have the chance to learn alongside us. We see nonprofits and funders seeking evidence-based approaches and best practices to fix every problem, even when they don’t exist because we actually need to build them together. We struggle because we do not talk about failure, out of fear that admitting our failures will make us un-fundable. And through it all, our annual reports say that we’re doing great work, but the problems that we’re trying to solve keep getting bigger.

These are powerful mindsets and paradigms in the social sector today. But, they also prevent us from learning from one another, working together, accelerating the development of effective solutions, and the scale of meaningful impact on our toughest problems. We are not in competition with other social changemakers. As social changemakers, we are in competition with the problems that we’re trying to solve.

At Living Cities, we believe in the potential of working in a different way, where we make what we are learning open and accessible to others in the field in as close to real time as possible. And we have spent the last couple of years testing this idea by learning to do it ourselves. We call this shift ‘open sourcing social change’.

As we’ve worked to develop this mindset among the staff in our own organization, we realized that we should be sharing how we are thinking about this with others, so you can see what we’re proposing as an alternative to the status quo. We’re learning that a person who is open-sourcing social change:

  1. Frames -articulates the questions they are working to answer or hypotheses that they are working to test in their work.

  2. Builds -designs everything from blog posts to programs to try to answer questions or test hypotheses.

  3. Measures -gathers data and feedback to determine the effectiveness of what they have built, and the validity of their hypotheses.

  4. Learns - reflects on what the data and feedback means in light of their question/hypothesis (and does so in real time, as well as building in opportunities to reflect on the longer term)

  5. Engages –connects with others to get their feedback and learn about their work, and build more connections in the problem-solving network

  6. Shares -enables others to learn along side her/him, by making what (s)he is doing and learning available to others.

What do you think of this list? Are there other behaviors that should be included? Ones that shouldn’t be on there or are unclear? Share your ideas below, on Twitter using #OpenSourceChange (we’re at @NadiaOwusu1 and @AKGold11) or by emailing us at agold@livingcities.org or nowusu@livingcities.org.