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How it all began

November 3, 2010

I’ve been asked by the core project team to document the emergence of the Nonprofit Management Resources project.  I’ll be doing that in a more formal way, but perhaps I can treat this blog as my scratchpad, and give you an informal summary of how it all began.

There are three  (or four) possible starting points, at least from my point of view, for the story of how the NPMR project emerged.  I’m sure that the narratives would be quite different if they were unfolded by others who are involved, but this is my version:

  1. (a) In some ways, it started with a conversation I had with Tim Gassert (the Boston Foundation’s director of web communications) some time in 2003. I didn’t realize that it would be a momentous occasion, so I didn’t note the date at the time.  However, Tim and I had an extremely lively discussion about how desirable it would be to have some sort of online tool or back channel that would enable the nonprofits in the area to share news and knowledge.  Perhaps it would simply be a calendar; perhaps it would be a listserv; perhaps it would be a dedicated web site.  (This was before we had heard terms such as “social media” and “Web 2.0.”)  Over the years, Tim and I have checked in about this idea, and it has taken on some very different shapes than what we imagined in the initial conversation – but I still think of it as the moment that I started looking for ways to use our geek powers to help nonprofits in Massachusetts share knowledge.  The glimmer of the idea was there, but for several years, nothing concrete happened.
  1. (b) We had another watershed moment when Kathleen Malin (director of technology at the Rhode Island Foundation) mentioned that she thought they needed a “Craigslist for nonprofits” in her state. She and I began an extensive exploration into the potential for developing online tools to assist nonprofits and philanthropies with capacity mapping and resource matching, and  she encouraged me to start convening an informal brain trust of people who were interested in collaborating on this topic. I quickly introduced Kathleen to Tim, and they became the spiritual godparents of this group.  At some point during one of the many exchanges among members of the brain trust, it became clear to me that knowledge itself – not just filing cabinets or surplus office space – could be seen as a resource that could be delivered online to fill the unmet needs nonprofit managers.
  2. But maybe the NPMR project really started when I had a series of conversations with Denise Moorehead (Third Sector New England’s education and outreach director). She was concerned, because so many current and aspiring nonprofit professionals were approaching TSNE’s staff for quick answers to nonprofit management questions.  TSNE had the in-house expertise, but no systematic way to give full attention to everyone who needed just five minutes of help.  We began to talk about compiling lists of frequently asked questions, and posting the answers on TSNE’s web site, but that did not seem to be a solution that would work well for a wide range of learning styles.  At that point, I came up with the idea of a video blog (or vlog) that provided online answers to frequently asked nonprofit management questions in audio-visual format.  We began compiling questions and shooting video, and notifying other nonprofit management support organizations that we were developing a free resource.  We were creating an accessible, authoritative online knowledge base, but it was still a stand-alone effort.
  3. So perhaps this project really and truly started when Geeta Pradhan and Andrea Martinez of the Boston Foundation invited me over to get my advice. Like TSNE, TBF was in a quandary about how to answer all the questions about nonprofit management that they received.  Geeta and her colleagues had been collecting resources, researching links to trustworthy information, and writing up summaries of best practices for several years; however, they were unsure about how to make it available online.  At that point, I reminded them about the TSNE vlog project, showed them the Social Actions  engine, and sketched out a few scenarios – one of which was the creation of a dedicated web-based search and aggregation engine that would provide answers to nonprofit management questions in many formats from a theoretically unlimited number of vetted content partners.

None of these origin stories really stands on its own.  And of course, any one of the team members involved would probably identify other crucial moments or insights without which the project could not have happened.  However, I do know that the current narrative lands us in the midst of a fruitful collaboration, and that the following elements have been crucial:


  • Relationships. Staff members TSNE and TBF had longstanding relationships with each other and with me.  I had a strong relationship with the leaders of the Social Action project, who in turn had a relationship with the developers from the Ronin Tech Collective (who did most of the technical work). This has made it easier to create the trust that is so necessary for collaboration across organizational lines.
  • Timely and free-flowing information. Because I was keeping current with TSNE, TBF, and Social Actions, I was able to connect the dots and show the potential partners that an opportunity existed – not only to collaborate on a shared goal, but to invite others with the right qualifications to enter into the collaboration as content partners.  It’s not enough to be a visionary; you also need to be a connector.
  • Long term commitment to stay alert for opportunities. Since Tim Gassert and I had our watershed conversation in 2003, we’ve continued to compare notes about whether the technology and the organizations were ready for some of our notions.  It wasn’t just a matter of keeping an eye out for a good moment, but one of seeking out individuals and groups who might be interested, and then bringing them together to brainstorm, and then putting significant effort into ideas that would support meet the missions of multiple organizations.
  • Money. Both TBF and TSNE were willing to invest in a collaborative project, once they had determined that it was highly congruent with their programmatic strategies and goals.

I think that I’ll pause here, and invite other members of the project team to add their thoughts.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 4:25 pm

    This is such a wonderful post, Deborah – love seeing the story of the NPMR project’s evolution. I’ll propose time aka “organizational bandwidth” as a fifth element. It was so rewarding – as the resources lined up to make this viable – to see all of the groups involved say, “Yes, this is important enough to make time for.” Your role has been key, too. Collaborations are often understood as a coming together of equals to accomplished a shared goal, and that’s true enough, but there are often one or two individuals holding that intention most clearly, keeping the plates of collaboration spinning on their poles when others would let them drop. I’m not sure how to label that sixth suggested “element bullet point” but it’s critical – the role that, regardless of title or organizational alignment (or even the direction a narrative takes) is primarily responsible for there being a narrative to tell.

  2. November 16, 2010 10:12 am

    Deborah – I love your comment at the end: ” It’s not enough to be a visionary; you also need to be a connector.”

    It’s clear that being a connector is one of your strongest competencies (Kathryn and I), the regular Ethos Roundtables. Connectors are what make collaborations stick together, expand and thrive.

    This looks like a project that’s off to an exciting start!

  3. November 17, 2010 12:15 am

    The way you tell your story is perfect. All projects have “founding stories” and yours is one of many. From your perspective, you’ve identified some real needs in the nonprofit sector, competencies and tools that can address them, and asked for input. Love the way you are going about it creating a collaborative foundation for the NPMR project. The real question is how is it being used and received – that will determine version 2.0 of the project. What are the demands on the Social Actions platform that you think need still need to be met?

    I’m sorry that I missed the in-person presentation of this at the Ethos Roundtable, but I am sure looking forward to following its progress.

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