If the Goal is Scale, Promote Theft

Too many smart people are trying to come up with too many new solutions; fostering plagiarism of successful models is the fastest track to systems change.

Two weeks ago, a self-published book called Dust hit number seven on the New York Times bestseller list. While it’s not the first time an independent writer has achieved this kind of notoriety, the book’s author, Hugh Howey, ascended to this point in a unique and captivating way.

For years Howey was an author only in his spare time and didn’t see success until he published his book Wool. Written over the course of 36 months and published entirely through digital formats, Wool caught the attention of many and saw a rapid increase in sales—at its peak, 20,000 purchases in a single day.

Once his sales became consistent, and at the point when publishers and movie studios began aggressively knocking on his door, he did the exact opposite of what you would expect of any struggling author—he opened his work up to anyone who wanted to build off it, and in the process, gave other struggling authors an established environment in which to build and find their own success.

Dozens of “imitators” have now taken up Howey’s post-apocalyptic world of Wool (Dust is the third and final book in the trilogy) without fear of rebuke. At the time of this writing, 11 of the top 20 books on Kindle Worlds are by authors who riffed off of Howey’s original series. By opening up his work to others, he enabled his own ideas to evolve, spread faster, and reach farther than he ever envisioned.

I believe this model holds great promise for social innovation.

Organizations can’t ignite systems change alone. They will always be hindered by their own programmatic myopia, constrained by their internal innovation cycles, isolated by their own geographic limitations, restrained by their ever-present funding limitations, and hampered by their capacity to manage rapid growth. If we could free existing solutions from these constraints, would we continue to see more new innovations or would we start to see greater replication of established, effective models?

Imagine if successful organizations learned to systematically make their business models open source without being territorial, without having to safeguard brands. This epochal shift in traditional development thinking would actually promote, rather than hinder, significant gains in the overall reach and efficacy of social sector work.

I am not suggesting a new take on collective impact. I see it as a new way of iterating that would allow for significant and rapid improvements on existing and successful products—not rapid prototyping of early-stage innovations or “hack-a-thoning” new ideas, but rapidly scaling what already works by way of entirely new actors who can tangibly increase the efficiency, expansion, reach, and net impact of the original model, whatever the sector and wherever the work.

By opening up our models, successful groups will make second-mover advantage (when a company benefits from feedback on a competitor’s earlier release) possible—in fact, probable. And if scale and real saturation are the end goals, versus a single organization’s success and acclaim, then this is exactly what we need to see. Here are some steps to getting there:

1. Reach success.

Nobody should mimic small thinking or unproven models. There are enough successful models out there to learn from and imitate. Akshaya Patra, Malaria No More, Water for People, Village Reach, and Friends International are just a few examples. Organizations like these have managed dramatic expansion and are on the cusp of inciting step-change results with their respective work. But as single organizations, their geography, funding, staffing, culture, branding, and vision inevitably limit their reach.

I think of these as the lead organizations; they have done the heavy lifting. They have crafted a theory of change, tested and corrected the implementation model, created the funding base and investment in the work, and achieved a consistency of success. Now they should open up their internal playbooks for others to mimic.

2. Make success open source.

I don’t mean putting some important principles for success on our websites or general development theory in an annual report, but putting our primary toolkits for success out there—the good, bad, and indifferent, in a structured way so that others can use the template and start at square 20 rather than square 1.

This may seem entirely counter-intuitive to traditional measures of success. The equivalent life-cycle stage in product development is exactly when the for-profit world would begin aggressively deflecting competitors with legalese. This is the exact moment when most nonprofit organizations start locking up their secret sauce, because they are seeing momentum in reputation and funding. Instead, we should actually be flinging the doors wide open.

In terms of our brands, staff, board, and donors, this may likely seem a terrible idea. But if scaling impact is the goal—versus the security or perpetuity of our organizations and its members—making our playbooks open source makes perfect sense.

3. Promote theft.

Second-mover advantage allows for significant evolution and maturation of pre-existing models. If we cultivate it—even passively—it could have huge ramifications for the social sector. Open up successful models, spread the word that theft is a good thing, and competition will come. In doing so, the nonprofit sector could finally see massive upshifts in momentum and eventually achieve the real scale we all talk about.

When funders and nonprofits talk about "scaling impact," it is often just code for “scaling an organization’s footprint” rather than “scaling a vibrant response to intractable problems.” Other times it is a prelude to discussions about the latest innovations.

Instead of applauding a flood of social entrepreneurs all working on the newest solutions, let's use a fraction of that industrial spirit to finally scale what already works.

Twice my organization, Splash, has hired innovative water organizations that focus on hand-washing and behavioral change to work alongside us for an entire year in different countries. We also paid a premium to openly embed our own staff in their headquarters during that time. From this, we gleaned what worked (and excised what didn’t), and thereby advanced our own work by years. This process allowed us to create a better-quality product than competitor organizations offered, in a fraction of the time.

Splash’s goal is to provide other organizations with the same level of insider knowledge—without the cost—so that they can benefit in the same way.

The real springboard effect will happen only if we allow and nurture replicators to take off with our original models and benefit from our hard-won lessons. Honestly, it is going to take an army of competitors to solve any of the massive problems we are fighting against. So bring on the competition.

This can and likely will open up space for poor facsimiles of the original models and potentially diffuse some of the preceding gains organizations have made. But if the end goal is real scale, the occasional weak effort will have little net effect on the overall outcomes.

Done correctly, this will allow other capable groups to start much farther along the development continuum than we did, more quickly and efficiently leap frog right past us, and iterate at greater scale and at a faster pace than we could ever manage alone.

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  • Eric, you get it!  You have a real vision for synergistic efforts.  Great article and a really a call to action.

  • kevin starr's avatar

    BY kevin starr

    ON September 23, 2013 07:27 PM

    right on, eric.  we need a “second mover” movement.  and those of us on the funding side need to get behind it.  thanks for this.

  • Dr. Quinton Morris's avatar

    BY Dr. Quinton Morris

    ON September 24, 2013 12:21 AM

    Awesome, Eric!  You continue to inspire me!

  • this is kind of an extension of the open source v. proprietary debate that we see in a lot of areas from software to handpumps. With handpumps, open source/public domain designs have spread further than proprietary and means there is no monopoly, but the downside is quality control. If you’re organisation buys an Afridev or India Mark II, what are you you really buying? However maybe the quality problems there are more related to market failures elsewhere in the system.  Eric, i think you are are probably right in areas where the barriers to entry are low and so the risks are low. where costs and risks get higher then the value of intellectual property goes up.  For the private sector the survival and success instinct and motive is clear, for NGOs it should be a different story because mission should be more important than the organisation itself. However,  there seems to be an increasing blurring of the lines between NGO and private consultancy, so here’s my question is: what is an NGO and what should their role in development be?

  • John Sauer's avatar

    BY John Sauer

    ON September 24, 2013 12:36 PM

    Thank you, Eric for the insights and the challenges. I love your idea of embedding and seconding staff. I’d like to see that happen more and more. One question: where do you think the right platform is to advance these discussions and get some real traction on these ideas of blurring institutional lines and generating new leadership across the board. I want this to be more than a discussion. I want to start to make this happen!

  • Michael Duarte's avatar

    BY Michael Duarte

    ON September 24, 2013 01:41 PM

    For many, this will read as a breath of fresh air. For others, this will be a tremendous challenge! I agree that if we really do want to create change - than we cannot do it alone, but must open up and share or “steal” ... but is it really stealing if we give it up freely? Thanks for always pushing the boundaries Eric!

  • Great points. I wish donor organizations would incentivize this way of thinking. Currently you have the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) trying to push for this, but organizations in the US are very reluctant to share what really matters - their evaluations, their impact (or lack thereof), their theories of change/log frames, their failures, their strategies and business plans/models, etc., because it means they lose their edge to others who are not sharing….

  • Super! thanks Eric! for this thoughtful piece
    I love the Second-mover advantage mentality. Absolutely, Organizations can’t ignite systems change alone.
    Start a discussion on LinkedIn these are issues we all need to explore.

  • BY Ned Breslin

    ON September 24, 2013 02:21 PM

    Spot on Eric

  • BY Jeff Nagata

    ON September 24, 2013 02:29 PM

    I’ve seen a lot of design-based companies that are trying to tackle big social problems do a great job of what is being described here. For example, released a second edition of their “Human-Centered Design Toolkit” for free online (which you can find here: This isn’t some watered-down, half-assed attempt either. It’s a quality toolkit that really delves deep into their own process for successfully making social impact.

    I’ve been using a combination of toolkit like these, and I’ve seen first-hand the kind of impact can be achieved when more organizations start being less protective and more collaborative. It also brings a lot of good attention to the organization that is spreading their knowledge, so it seems good for the organization, too.

  • Jeff, I love your comments. I do see it a bit differently, though.

    There are a lot of How-To-Start books out there that discuss early stage design of a product, business, or program. A beautiful example is Guy Kawasaki’s APE (, the Apple guru’s website and free book devoted to providing all the tools necessary to publish your own work. While the most accessible example I can see in the social sector is the same one you mentioned: IDEO’s human centered design toolkit. IDEO wants to create a trend in the system so they have pushed their toolkit into the digital ether to allow others access to their core methodologies. It is brilliant, you are right. And also Business Model Generation (, which is designed to speed up the idea process…

    But these primarily cover the early stage development- you still have to add your own idea to the mix, test the theory, find the value proposition to cover core investment in the model, test and retest, fail and retest, etc. What I am proposing is a few steps beyond that: organizations opening it all up in a structured way at the moment success is fairly consistent and the model is sufficiently proven. This may all sound easy as it is what has been happening in the tech world for years- people building off of each others initial frame to create something far more robust and lasting- but where is it happening in a methodical way within the social sector?

    Thanks for your input.

  • John,

    I think our respective orgs have to be willing to collaborate with potential competitors to spark that trend- no matter how small- at first. Sounds fluffy and bland to say “it has to start somewhere”, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

    In our case, we had to push, and push hard, for our “competitors” in Nepal and Cambodia to allow our staff to even visit their offices let alone be part of the formal planning processes and program implementation- extend that for an entire year and you can see how uncomfortable that could be for everyone involved. In the end, though, embedding our staff in secondary organizations was absolutely crucial to the collective understanding of what can be done once the content was open sourced: no one org can do it all.

    Thanks for your comments and question.

  • All very true. There are many different ways to get at this. One would be websites such as Another would be to recognize much of this knowledge is contained in grant proposals and reports, and we need to find a respectful way to release that information from the filing cabinets of Gates, Ford, etc.

  • Dan, great feedback.

    My concern is that grant proposals rarely talk about the crucial and necessary mistakes made and lessons learned when organizations are asking for funding, and grant reports traditionally only cover 6-24 months post-project oversight = not enough info on the front end and not enough analysis on the tail end.

    Tracking proposals/reports from the files of the monoliths like Gates and Ford, rather than from the smaller orgs directly, also has the potential to erase any collaborative intent out of the equation.

    Great suggestions.

    Looking forward to Top Tier Evidence.

  • Shelley Milne's avatar

    BY Shelley Milne

    ON September 24, 2013 06:41 PM

    Brilliant, Eric! This is true leadership at its best. I believe that this is exactly how we can effect real and lasting progress in the nonprofit sector. Please continue to inspire and challenge the rest of us to liberate ourselves from the confines of our divisive cultural conditioning and instead explore and cultivate an inclusive atmosphere of mutual support for the benefit of all. What’s the next step?

  • BY Lauren Haynes

    ON September 24, 2013 08:41 PM

    Yes! Spot on, as usual Eric.

    In web businesses, Company A and Company B are competitors. The fraud people at both companies will willingly exchange information because they are both trying to beat the bad guys (fraudsters). This is when the two companies are in DIRECT competition; fraudsters are out to get both companies in new and innovative ways, so it is mutually beneficial to share tactics and methods.

    And yet, in the non-profit sector, we often won’t share information that is mutually beneficial to both companies. It’s as if we’re not fighting the same bad guy…

  • A solid, thought-provoking post, Eric.

    Many of the problems are so big, and so many solutions have failed - and continue to fail - that we need a real shift in thinking, and behaviour. These things are never easy - systems change is never easy - and open discussion such as this is an essential starting point.


  • Eric, I think this makes great business sense. Why reinvent the wheel when someone has already gone ahead and paved the way for a faster, cheaper model. This is great advice for the nonprofit sector.

  • Eric, as I mentioned to you in an email, open source is not a new idea in other non-NGO areas, been around a long time (as a retired computer programmer, open source software like Linux has long held an appeal for me). There are many detractors, but I’d agree with you, this is the way forward. I am always looking for ideas to steal, although as someone mentioned, maybe it’s not stealing if freely shared - that is the whole point of our local water networks, to promote best practices around… (El Porvenir is the vice coordinator of the network here in Nicaragua at the moment). Take care, Rob

  • BY Michael Etzel

    ON September 26, 2013 10:47 AM

    Great piece, Eric. Wish there were more concrete examples of this happening today.

    I’m reading #2 (make success open source) and #3 (promote theft) as the supply and demand necessary to get this approach off the ground. Would love to learn more about what you’re seeing as you do this at Splash:
    -For #2, how can an individual organization fund this kind of work? Built into operating budget? Line item grants from forward thinking funders?
    -For #3, it seems like the change needs to be driven by funders. Where have you seen examples of this kind of thinking? More from private philanthropy? Government?

  • Christine's avatar

    BY Christine

    ON September 26, 2013 08:52 PM

    I can’t tell you how happy this article makes me. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of “new” rather than building on the good stuff already being done.

    This “open source” approach is exactly what my organization has done. More than 20 years ago, our founder started a program to help teen moms get on a path to success. For most of that time, the program was housed in a large, bureaucratic organization that by nature is territorial. They ran the program well but they were never able to grow it the way the founder (an original social entrepreneur!) wanted it to.

    Three years ago she decided to start it as a separate nonprofit organization with the main purpose of scaling. I launched it with her and since the very beginning we decided to be open, collaborative, adaptive - all of the things that make scaling easier. Our most important decision was to implement it in partnership with other organizations, those already positioned in communities of need who could rapidly start up. We give them the model and training, and develop very close long-term relationships with them that has led to an incredible network.  (We also provide funding to partners. We have found it is much more effective for us to fundraise for the whole program than to have each partner out raising money on their own.)

    The results have been incredible:
    - In just two years, we have the same reach as the more traditional organization had in 20 years.
    - We are constantly adapting the program to make it as responsive and effective as possible.
    - We have a network of 5o+ people working on the program all over California, all of whom feel ownership because they are part of the iterative process.
    - By spreading the program through a broad network, our brand awareness has increased much faster than it would have had we tried to do it all on our own.

    For those who have programs conducive to this type of model, I highly recommend it!

    Christine Clark
    Teen Success, Inc.

  • I’d be very interested in reading more about why - for organizations that have pioneered effective interventions - opening up their playbook isn’t just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. 

    There have been some interesting anecdotes shared in these comments, but I still don’t quite grasp what their incentive is, if as you write, it very well could end up being a terrible move for their particular organization, brand, and staff. The analogy that comes to mind is name brand vs. generic drugs: one reason name brands are so expensive is because pharma companies are trying to recoup their costs incurred over due to drug discovery, clinical trials, FDA approvals, etc.  If you take away the drug pioneer’s ability to reap the benefits of its discovery, then there’s less incentive to innovate in the first place. 

    If promoting others to steal your playbook is “merely” the right thing to do, then I honestly can’t see many pioneer organizations willingly risking their future survival.  I suppose this may be why, as Michael Etzel noted above, the funders really need to drive this push toward open source scaling?

  • Nate, fantastic feedback. In this scenario, I am really talking about proven solutions taken to scale by a multitude of competent and capable actors- of which there is no shortage- rather than tons of smart folks and new orgs trying to continually come up with the newest solutions.

    In terms of incentive, I would argue most drug companies did not get into their respective pursuits solely to eradicate a major problem. I think it is safe to say you could extend that to most of the commercial world. The exceptional case is not the norm. Conversely, I do believe most of the NGO/SocEnt population came into this work, and have stayed in it since, to do more than make a profit. The larger incentive, thus, is to finally eradicate problems that we otherwise barely dent year after year because everyone is coming at the answers from entirely different starting lines and degrees of content expertise. If we could speed both of those up simply by making available, and promoting theft of, our internal business strategies and lessons learned, would we see better overall returns over a 10, 20 year span rather than if we didn’t? I think so.

    Could it effectively put my org out of business as the competition gains steam? While I like to think it is improbable, it is absolutely possible. Which forces me to step up my game, for sure. Depending on your aperture, I actually think that is smart business modeling toward an end goal rather than the right thing to do.

    Cut to the quick: I do believe my org is doing pioneering work regarding water issues facing the urban poor. Yet I know we will never be able to touch a fraction of the need if we do this alone- even if funds were raining from the sky. The problems are simply too large. Thus, if there is a way to factor in a percentage of our annual budget moving forward to promote second mover advantage, I believe we should and the net results would be far greater than if that same amount was spent solely within our own programs.

    Thanks for the question, it is a strong one and one to deeply ponder on this topic.

  • Michael, your comment around building the funding needed directly into our operating budgets is powerful. I have envisioned 5+% of our budget moving toward this in the near future (we can’t just talk about it, we have to provide an example of it). As said above, I think the returns would be much greater if we shifted in this direction than if we opted not to.

    It is, without question, a heavy burden for any organization to bear.

    I have no concrete examples of this to share between or amongst the social sector and the funders that fuel the work.


  • BY Jill Vialet

    ON September 29, 2013 07:41 AM

    Great article!  We talk a lot about this at Playworks, as our goal isn’t to build the biggest possible Playworks, but to change the system so that every child gets to play every day.  So we open-source our games and we’re exploring free online trainings, but there are real tensions. Visibility, and getting ‘credit’ for change is essential to fundraising.  I have Executive Directors out in our 23 cities who are being held accountable to goals around numbers of kids and schools served, dollars raised, the growth of our training business.  When I see someone ‘stealing’ our approach, or even jumping on the bandwagon, I think “cheapest program I run,” but many of my EDs, understandably, have more ambivalence.

    The other tension that comes to mind is around program quality.  In the for-profit system, cheaper spin-offs have a place in a market where consumers, presumably, have a greater amount of control over their choices.  The non-profit markets, such as they are, are way more irrational, and the consumers often have less control over their choices.  If someone copies our idea and goes into schools, selling a less expensive, and poorly implemented version of our program, it is possible that they will do more harm than good.  This can have real negative consequences for our efforts, setting back people’s understanding that a great recess can contribute to kids’ well-being and learning.

  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON September 29, 2013 01:04 PM

    Alison Fine and I wrote about this in our book, “The Networked Nonprofit,” - and it was in a chapter on simplicity—- urging nonprofits to get to scale was a matter of focusing on what they do best and network the rest.  Easier said than done.

    If we could just step away from the competition and get to coopitiation ... and share playbooks this could lead to scale much faster and more efficiently.

    Thanks Eric for your brilliance.

  • Jill, your comments are very well taken. There is definitely a possibility of the imitation being so weakly planned and executed that it dilutes the whole concept. And you are right: the market forces within the NGO world, used to weed out poor copycats, won’t have the same strength as those in the for-profit realm. I believe the funders and orgs who take this on will be coming at this from a greater place of front-end scrutiny and long-term evaluation, but we will have to prove it rather than just talk about it.

    While at the Opening session for the Independent Sector Conference yesterday, Wynton Marsalis ( was talking about innovation and how it relates to jazz’s evolution. It so perfectly captured what this second-mover thinking is all about:

    “Innovation is an additive process- we are building off those who came before us with grains of our own uniqueness. But in totality, we are adding on to moments created before us and, if lucky, others will be adding off our contributions to create a much larger wealth of knowledge and experience.”

  • Kimberly Lemme's avatar

    BY Kimberly Lemme

    ON September 30, 2013 07:07 PM

    Great article, Eric! Thanks for pushing forward the thinking in this area!

  • Peter Feldman's avatar

    BY Peter Feldman

    ON October 12, 2013 09:54 AM

    Great piece, Eric - thanks for raising these issues. Yes, there is a lot of branding and territorial behavior in the zero-sum game of development funding. However, as you point out, good ideas do sometimes spread. A couple of things came to mind. First, we will need better evidence and an agreement on what ‘success’ is (not always simple). As well, why not spread the word on failure? You might enjoy reading the piece on building ‘failure’ (experimental design) into projects from the outset (

    Second - was glad you discussed your approach to organizational learning (i.e., embedding a staffer in another agency). This is a very good idea, but may be hard to scale up. However, the critical issue is that person-to-person learning opportunities are still the best and most trusted way to onboard new skill sets. Other approaches I’m aware of that seem successful but at larger scale include organizational twinning and “horizontal learning”, the former common in the utility industry in the US (and probably elsewhere), and the latter I’m only familiar with in South Asia.

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking piece Eric.

  • Eric & everyone,

    I, too, have a hearty “yes!” undergirding my reading of this advocation. I advocating applying a bit of Matt Ridley to this discussion and replace “theft” with “sex.” When people come together and bring the best of what they’re doing to each other in a give and take way—that’s when we really produce some beautiful world-changing offspring.

    Eric, I also want to give you kudos for not only talking about this, but planning for it down to the budget level. As was pointed out in this thread, there must be vertical alignment with the belief in this theft/sex, from funding to beneficiaries.

    Lastly, I’d love to talk more with anyone interested in entertaining the question, “How might technology (i.e. an online platform) lubricate and even incentivize the type of collaboration proposed in this article and thread?”


  • Thank you for writing this, it’s exactly where I find myself as I work on helping vulnerable girls off the street and into school in a specific slum community in Liberia. Excited to talk with you and even more excited to do something about this.

  • Noah Levinson's avatar

    BY Noah Levinson

    ON December 9, 2013 10:47 PM

    For those of us who really believe that the primary goal of development organizations is to put ourselves out of business; the making of success open source which Eric speaks about is imperative…perhaps even a moral obligation. Perhaps just as important and just as rare is the sharing of failures. Awesome post.

  • BY Eric Stowe

    ON March 10, 2014 02:40 PM

    While not exactly on the mark, I find this example of Rocket Internet to be somewhat similar in its end goal: “Why bother with accelerators? Why not just hire a bunch of clever youngsters, provide them with the necessary cash, support and technology, and tell them to pursue a business idea with a proven success record? That should make it possible to start a new company in weeks, not months or years.” -

    They certainly know how to mimic success and force competition from the original innovators

    Fascinating example, even if outside the scope of this original article.

  • BY Eric Stowe

    ON March 10, 2014 02:44 PM

    Pressed send a bit early- one more additional article that came out around the same time:

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