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Harnessing the Promise of Crowd-Sourcing in Nonprofits

Dec 15

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Thursday, December 15, 2011  RssIcon

By Christopher Haight
December 2011

The underlying power of the internet has always been the connection of ideas and people without regard to temporal, physical, social, or other common restraints. Through this communicative ease provided by the internet, crowd-sourcing is becoming a prominent feature in many aspects of our lives. Crowd-sourcing is essentially the enabling of a mass collaboration of individuals to contribute to a task normally reserved for one individual or a set number of individuals. The most prominent example to date is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia open to contributions and edits from anyone who chooses to participate.

Crowd-sourcing is not exclusive to privately -run efforts, as more and more grant programs and funded projects seek to leverage this new social and educational tool. One such program, recently opened for 2012, is the Sparks! Ignition Grants for Libraries and Museums. This funding opportunity, administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) seeks innovative projects that significantly improve the operations and reach of libraries and museums throughout the country. The official grant guidelines specify the use of crowd-sourcing as an example project that may be of interest to the application reviewers.

Even for grant programs that do not highlight crowd-sourcing as of particular interest, techniques that leverage this strategy can still be incorporated. In addressing professional development of teachers and how they would create Instructional Improvement Systems, many applicants for the Race to the Top grant program proposed establishing online banks of lesson plans and test items. This innovation provides resources to teachers across entire states and enables far more cost-efficient collaboration than if teachers had to traverse many miles just to trade best practices and share experiences.

There are important elements to consider if proposing crowd-sourcing within a grant proposal. The trade-off when enabling mass participation may be the overall level of quality. Even Wikipedia, which has grown much more sophisticated in the scope of its entries and knowledge, suffers from a challenge in regulating content while remaining true to its premise of openness. Some less scrupulous contributors purposefully alter entries to give an overly positive or negative spin - often related to individuals of considerable fame or influence. On an even smaller scale within your organization, you should make sure you address editing and filtering concerns.

An organization proposing crowd-sourcing should think carefully about what you ultimately want to achieve from enabling the masses. Sharing resources, such as the lesson plan lesson bank described above, is a good candidate for crowd-sourcing as many people may have developed valuable practices or tools but have no method for making them widely available without a single online vehicle. Idea-gathering or civic participation also is prime for crowd-sourcing. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) employed this through his "You Cut" program that solicited suggestions from citizens on what to eliminate in the federal budget.

Beyond formal grant proposals, charities and nonprofit organizations can also employ crowd-sourcing to raise funds. Crowdwise is a website that specializes in crowd-sourcing for fundraising, enabling individual fundraisers or organizations to register and begin actively soliciting and accepting donations. For individuals, Crowdwise provides a 21st century means to raise money through participatory events, like running a 5K, without the hassle of collecting checks or cash from friends and family. Nonprofit organizations can also register an account for free and begin setting up events or accepting donations (for a small transaction fee). To learn more, please visit

Ultimately, incorporating a smart crowd-sourcing strategy into your projects or even your general fundraising can help you not only secure more funds, but also develop a more engaged and committed cadre of supporters.

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