“Open-Source Strategy” (Part 3): Getting Burned by Openness

As I mentioned in my previous post, we have taken a stance of openness when it comes to our strategy and operations at CEP, sometimes against advice to the contrary from people I respect greatly. We have done so because of our view that it’s the right approach for a mission-driven organization like ours.

Openness feels easy to me internally. I trust our staff and feel they’re entitled to know what’s going on. I am always struck, when we work with large foundations, how much time is spent by some of them planning how to internally communicate about the data we provide them! “It’s your own staff,” I want to say. “Just give them the information! It will be okay.” I think this effort to manage internal communication often backfires, with staff feeling disempowered, disrespected, or just plain patronized. Maybe because of CEP’s small size, 30 or so staff, I have always found it easiest to err on the side of just getting the information out there, and sooner rather than later.

But, externally, openness gets more complicated, because, frankly, even though we’re all mission-driven, there are real competitive dynamics – especially for operating nonprofits. While I think we have generally been right to adopt a stance of openness externally, and I have certainly championed it, we have, at times, been burned.

The big risk is that people take your ideas and work and seek to implement them themselves, without credit or compensation. This has happened to us. We have shared our survey instruments with foundations expressing interest in using our tools, only to have them use the survey questions, verbatim, on their own – without asking or even having the courtesy to let us know. In other cases, organizations have come to us espousing a spirit of “collaboration” only to turn around and use our work to compete directly with us – offering what in my (admittedly) partial view was an inferior product – all the while insisting they were not. In some of those moments, I have doubted myself and my judgment, feeling that perhaps I am just naïve.

So, there is no doubt, openness can bite you.

But I think we just can’t afford to take a narrow view. We know that, for the kind of change in foundation practice to happen that we want to happen, many other organizations need to play a role. That’s why we work in close and productive consultation with organizations like GEO, Monitor Institute, Bridgespan, Foundation Center, Grants Managers Network, and others. We know that all of these organizations play a vital role in helping create the kind of change CEP is trying to affect. We are but one part of a much bigger picture. If we jealously guard our plans, we’ll duplicate efforts and stumble into each other. Resources will be wasted.

Competition is often healthy, of course. But there are many, many examples where it’s better to coordinate than compete. One very small, simple, example: GEO and CEP each have bi-annual conferences and we coordinate on the dates so that we don’t go head to head with each other. We’re largely seeking to reach the same audience, so it just makes sense for everyone to plan together in this way.

So I remain convinced that it’s better to err on the side of openness – both internally and externally. I know that, at times, we have been naïve about peoples’ intentions. But I am pretty sure that obsessive parochialism and competitiveness on the part of organizations like ours won’t lead to the kind of impact we seek.