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Social Sector Knowledge Sharing: A Manifesto for 2015 and Beyond

MFG Archive, Opinion

Lisa Brooks and Gabriela Fitz of Foundation Center's IssueLab take a look into the open licensing of grant-funded products and content, and what this could mean for the sector.


Within the last six months, three of the world’s largest foundations—the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation—have all announced that they will require open licensing of all grant-funded products and content. In doing so they build on the leadership of early adopters, such as Wellcome Trust, the Shuttleworth Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. While it’s not yet clear if this is a smoke-signal or the beginnings of a wild-fire, these actions are significant and could catalyze positive change across the social sector.


A large percentage of the products that these three foundations are now choosing to openly license, and requiring that their grantees openly license, is “grey literature”—the case studies, evaluations, and research reports that capture valuable front-line lessons about the social interventions we create, support, and implement. This grey literature results from one of the sector’s key purposes: the production and publication of knowledge that helps us better understand social problems and their solutions. But rarely is this literature, and our role in producing and sharing it, thought of as published work. More often we think of these products as communications pieces meant to be immediately disseminated, or as a kind of procedural artifact of rational grantmaking. But why does that matter as long as we are getting the products out the door and available on our websites?


It matters because when we begin to think of this activity as publishing we also begin to think about the kind of publisher we want to be. And we begin to see steps like the ones recently taken by Ford, Gates, and Hewlett around one aspect of publication: licensing. In being purposeful about how they want the work they produce and fund to be shared, these foundations are following in the steps of hundreds of thousands of individuals and organizations who, for many years, have used open licenses to spell out how the content they produce—music, images, design, text, and more—can and should be used by others.


Moving toward open licensing is as good a place to start as any when talking about best publishing practices. The licensing piece is not a small thing; it’s also not the only thing we can start doing collectively and cohesively to share our knowledge better today and tomorrow. There is much to learn from the self-publishing masses and the multi-billion dollar publishing industry alike. Over the years, as we in the sector have placed hundreds of thousands of publications on our web servers, announcing their release on our “What’s New!” page, then moving those no longer new publications into a list of available titles in our “Publications” sections, and finally removing that knowledge-in-a-PDF from the Internet entirely during a website redesign (“let’s get rid of anything that is more than five years old!”), self-publishers and the publishing industry have moved toward new publishing mechanisms and paradigms that ensure that the works they create stay in the game for the long run. Open licensing is part of that. The increasing acceptance of the “open access” concept, and increasing use of open access repositories as an expression of that concept, are another part.


The good news for the social sector is that the “open” ethos (open content, open access, open source, open license, open culture) that has cropped up on the Internet over the last decade or so plays to our strength. We have openly (albeit haphazardly) released content online since “online” became a destination. We know that the Internet is a largely decentralized and dynamic self-publishing space. What we don’t seem to know is how to capitalize on “open”, and stop operating in ways that limit our ability to truly tap into our collective intelligence.


Although a “how-to” guide is probably needed, what the sector really needs at this moment is a publishing manifesto. Here’s a starter manifesto for all of our consideration, offered as a means to begin a dialog about our publishing habits, behaviors, actions, and reactions:


  1. We recognize and value the power of our collective intelligence.
  2. We acknowledge that publishing is a key activity for many foundations and nonprofits.
  3. Our publishing practices should and can be better aligned with why we publish in the first place: to better understand and inform social change.
  4. We will stop focusing solely on one-off dissemination and ad hoc solutions and will start paying attention to—and using—shared systems for open publishing and knowledge sharing.
  5. We can learn from and build on what’s happening in other sectors.


If you agree with these principles, say so! And if you don’t, say so! Suggest alternatives, tell us what holds you back, and what your obstacles are. Open up! Change depends on it.

Many thanks to Lisa Brooks and Gabriela Fitz for their take on the role of open data and publishing. Please do comment below with your thoughts, or tweet us @marketsforgood and the team at IssueLab, @IssueLab.


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