The Real Takeaway From Yesterday's GiveBIG Campaign

Yesterday's mass fundraiser hinted at the potential superpower of nonprofits.

By Josh Feit May 16, 2013

The share economy—a pop-business theory and buzz word that attempts to explain phenomena such as car sharing, where market models prioritize access over ownership by either letting customers share one company's assets (Car2Go) or where one company creates a platform so people can share and profit from their own assets (AirBnB)—is reinventing capitalism for frugal and anxious 21st century consumers.

I've taken to calling it "Open Capitalism"—a populist monopoly over the means of participation.

Wired magazine explained the "shared consumption" model in its latest issue perfectly:

Making new things for every person on the planet is impractical, our dwindling natural resources remind us, and maybe ownership is not so important either. But collaborative consumption is hardly a rebuke of capitalism. If anything, it's a sharpening of the instinct. A broom not in use is no longer a broom but an instance of idling capacity. The true genius of the share economy might ultimately be its endless ability to wring extra value from itself.

Yesterday, these innovative yet simple share economy principles came to the non-profit world via the Seattle Foundation's third annual GiveBIG campaign— a mass opportunity for donors to contribute to any of 1,300 local nonprofits, with matching funds guaranteed by big spenders in advance. The campaign, raised a total $11.1 million.

This year's GiveBIG topped last year's $7.4 million and 2011's $3.6 million.

I'm not just being cute here and saying, cool, everybody was in a sharing mood yesterday. Seattle Foundation is picking up on an important innovation that is already remaking the for-profit world.

What if that $11.1 million went into one big trust fund?

By acting as a shared development director for more than a thousand non-profit groups yesterday, not only did the Seattle Foundation do a big service for local nonprofits—including PubliCola favorites Transportation Choices Coalition ($4,500), the Northwest Film Forum ($5,000), and Legal Voice ($50,000)—they also hinted at a restructuring that I've always believed is necessary in the local nonprofit landscape.

Sharing resources—everything from phone lines to staffers to, well, development directors—would build efficiency (the real philosophy that's driving the share economy as the left takes the concept over from the business school right) that would sharpen their success.

There are 1,300 non-profits? Why, for example, do green groups like Futurewise, Transportation Choices Coalition, and Sightline all compete for donors, members, staff, and headlines. If they were all under one umbrella—one platform—not only would they storm legislators' offices with more clout, but they'd save, through economies of scale, on rent and copy machines, not to mention electricity—making good on their shared environmental goals for one thing. (This setup already exists informally at the downtown Vance Buliding, where separate lefty groups have converged as renters.)

By acting as shared development director for more than a thousand non-profit groups yesterday, not only did the Seattle Foundation do a big service for local nonprofits, they also hinted at a necessary  restructuring.It'd be the same equation for the ACLU, Legal Voice, and Columbia Legal Services.

I get that each group has a different focus—Legal Voice, for example, advocates specifically for women's rights. But that wouldn't prevent a combo nonprofit from upgrading the fight for women's rights by finding natural synergy with the ACLU.

If the mantra of the share economy's private-sector reboot is that access trumps ownership, let me suggest that a remake of the sprawling non-profit model should be: Teamwork trumps turf.

While donors were all picking their favorites yesterday, what if that $11.1 million went into one big trust fund?

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