From Crowd to Community: Part 1

This post represents the first of two exploring crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.

I do a lot of thinking about community-building—my whole approach to international social change partnerships involves the strengthening of communities as they go about achieving their mission.  But I haven’t thought a lot about crowds.  I was aware of, but it was only recently when I saw a list of 30+ such sites that I realized that there is a crowd-related movement afoot.

Last week I enjoyed a cup of coffee with Cognitive Policy Works founder Joe Brewer, and he thoughtfully shared examples of how crowdfunding is supporting a civic project on which he is working.  I nevertheless left the conversation pretty skeptical that crowdfunding would work in cross-cultural partnerships involving collaborative social change given the inherent power dynamic that comes in the crowd “owning” the product that they fund.

But every small non-profit person experiences a surge of adrenaline at the thought of a new money source, so I started reading about crowdsourcing and crowdfunding on-line.  I am now intrigued.  I want to share some of the ideas that I have been thinking about and invite your thoughts in return.  Part 1 of “From Crowd to Community” deals with definitions.  Part 2 will delve more deeply into how we might apply these definitions within small NGO partnerships.

From Crowd to ‘Smart Swarm’

To me, a crowd is not a community.  A crowd is a bunch of people gathered together, usually for a purpose, like to see the Christmas lights turned on downtown or to protest the WTO.  There is no interconnection between them—no mutual obligation.  They just happen to be proximate to one another, much like the rays of a sun connect to the center but not to each other.  A crowd left unto itself is not helpful to any organization because it lacks a structure through which to engage them.

It is a healthy community that sustains an organization over the long term.  Communities are defined by their social nature; members relate to one another through shared resources, shared governance, and shared culture.  Sustaining a health community is job one for every small non-profit.  Organizations are constantly trying to engage people from various sectors of society in their cause, attracting new community members who will contribute financially and otherwise.

While the terms ‘crowd’ and ‘community’ are used interchangeably by some (see Neil Perry, president of crowdsourcing video company, Poptent), defining their differences is key to understanding how small NGOs might use crowd-concepts in building their communities.  It seems to me that societies contain crowds—individuals who gather around critical events or ideas—and these crowds could convert into community members – crowd members that interrelate—in the right circumstances.  The $50 million dollar question for most non-profits is how to create the right circumstances.

This is where my thoughts go to another term that caught my eye: smart swarm.  Scanning the shelves of my local library, I stopped to look at Peter Miller’s The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make US Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done.  (A good summary can be found here.)  Miller defines a smart swarm as “a group of individuals who respond to one another and to their environment in ways that give them the power, as a group, to cope with uncertainty, complexity, and change.” (p. xvii)  As we shift away from traditional hierarchies, we need to redefine relationships and rethink systems.  From birds, fish, and insects we can learn critical lessons about self organization, diversity of knowledge, indirect collaboration, and adaptive mimicking, lessons that organizations can use to convert members of a crowd into smart members of our organizational communities.

The concepts behind crowdsourcing and funding are not new—social change activists and anti-poverty professionals have tapped their communities for quick-time updates and solution ideas since social change began; non-profit directors use table captains and house parties to provide opportunities for their community members to hook people new to the organization.

What is different is the new dimension that technology places on the exchange between crowd member and fundraising organization and that organization with its international service delivery partner.  Crowd-engagement requires a reconsideration of organizational values, modes of communication, and internal capacity to coordinate this new level of activity.  More on that in Part 2, coming tomorrow.

Some resources that I found interesting:

Beth Kanter on crowdsourcing
Lists of non-profit resources on
Analysis of crowdfunding

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