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

December 29, 2015

Open-doorIt's that time of year again. The time for performance reviews, grant reports, and setting annual goals. It's also the moment to set aside any illusions you have about what you still hope to accomplish in 2015 and take a hard look back at what really happened over the last year.

As is true for 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. And the thing I am most concerned with is the progress we have made toward 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 Foundation Center in general, is because we hear again and again from individuals and organizations who want to build on what their colleagues have already learned. In other words, they want to work smarter, but they don't always have the resources to track down the knowledge that's out there on their own. To a significant extent, the knowledge foundations and nonprofits need, the feedback we seek, and the on-the-ground lessons we crave are captured in the reports, case studies, and evaluations we routinely 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 of progress toward 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 has already been done or learned? How much of what foundations know are they actually sharing with their grantees and the public? A recent post from CEP includes a statistic that really got my attention when it first came to light. In 2013, CEP reported that only 36 percent of grantees thought funders share the knowledge they have about what other nonprofits are doing to address similar challenges. By any measure, that's not enough — especially when you consider that foundations already have tools for greater knowledge sharing at their disposal.

Based on the work IssueLab has done over the past year, the people we have spoken with, and the conversations we have been a part of, I believe the sector is changing in this regard. But what does progress, real progress, look like? And what should we expect to see in the year to come? Are we as a sector only now stepping out on the path to greater openness and knowledge sharing, or has momentum toward that goal already started to build? Should we describe the sector's progress in this respect as halting? Inadequate? Or something steadier and more intentional?

I think it's all of the above, really. More foundations are choosing to pursue open licensing policies, even as others stick with "all rights reserved." More foundations are choosing to share their work through open repositories such as IssueLab, even as others have yet to consider open repositories as a complementary strategy to posting publications to their own websites. And more foundations are beginning to ask themselves 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 still do.

We may have a long way to go toward open knowledge becoming the default in the social sector, but I am confident we will get there. Whether we are stumbling or striding down that road, together we will work out the shared systems and approaches needed to make social sector knowledge a true public benefit.

Headshot_gabi_fitzGabi Fitz is director of knowledge management initiatives at Foundation Center, where much of her work and attention is focused on IssueLab. For more information about the work IssueLab and others are doing to support open knowledge, check out Gabi and her colleague Lisa Brooks' series on the topic on Medium. Note: A version of this post originally appeared on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog.

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