Nonprofits in the Age of the “New Citizen”

Good intentions abound in the civic and social technology movement—why are so few nonprofits participating?

During a recent Code for America salon featuring Nicholas Hanauer and Eric Liu, authors of The Gardens of Democracy, discussion centered on the need for a new conceptualization of the relationship between government and the governed. The “new citizenship” requires that we no longer view ourselves as the passive recipients of government services and disservices. We must take responsibility for our communities and ourselves, for “society becomes how you behave.”


The “new citizen” speaks. (Image courtesy of

Later, at OakX’s Data-Driven City, an open data/open government event in Oakland, a participant noted that allowing access to previously hidden government data requires a shift in attitude and operation for government. While the Code for America salon focused on how citizens should take charge of the democratic process, the message of the OakX discussion was that government must adapt to the “new citizens” and their pesky need for data, information, and inclusion.

Meanwhile, hackathons are popping up everywhere—Campus Party, Random Hacks of Kindness, Weekend Movement, Social Hackathon, and Code4Democracy—and the technologists, designers, and innovators that attend are trying to create solutions to the civic and social problems that plague our communities.
All of these discussions and events make it clear that there is a new-found civic engagement in the air. But to what end? Good intentions abound in the civic and social app movement to which all of these events contribute. What are missing are impactful solutions—you can’t create a solution if you don’t really understand the problem. As one prospective hacker put it, “I want to build something useful but I don’t know what the problems are that we’re supposed to solve.”

This is where nonprofits—the organizations that are wholly dedicated to understanding specific social problems and delivering services to address those problems—should come in. So, why aren’t they participating in the movement?

The answer, in part, lies in the nonprofit sector’s adherence to an outdated mode of operation, which seeks to solve problems for communities instead of solving problems with communities. Just like government, they need to realize that the “new citizens” are no longer passive recipients of their services; they demand engagement and inclusion. If nonprofits don’t adapt to this paradigm, they will be left out of the conversation.

Nonprofits have the opportunity to lead in this new civic climate. By attending hackathons, for example, they could provide the context and guidance that developers need to build meaningful and adoptable technologies that address social problems. Nonprofits should also open up their product and service design to outside input, involving technologists and designers, as well as interested community members. They should use their expertise to set the agenda—clearly identifying problems and calling for solutions—but instead of trying to create the solutions themselves, they should draw on the input, insights, and ideas of a diversity of stakeholders, looking beyond their staff, their boards, and their funders.

Some nonprofits are already doing this. One great example of how a nonprofit can engage in creative problem solving with a community comes from none other than the World Bank. This past June, a group of developers, data experts, and designers came together over the course of a weekend to demand more open, development-related financial data, and to convince the World Bank to release and publish data on their contracts. The World Bank agreed to release this data, and it was used to build Show Me the Money, an interactive app that promotes transparency in aid by illustrating the flow of World Bank open contract data. This effort shows how an organization, if it is willing to open up its processes and engage with its community members, can crowdsource both problem definitions and solutions to these problems.

Other organizations working with their communities to solve problems include Imagine H20, which hosts competitions for innovative solutions to water issues, and the Urban Strategies Council, which focuses on poverty alleviation and improving outcomes for low-income communities. They use a “community building support process,” which identifies the skills and resources of other stakeholders and community leaders and works to support them, without competition or duplication of effort.


Creative Currency’s program model. (Image courtesy of Creative Currency)

Finally, the Gray Area Foundation for the Art’s Creative Currency project has involved an extensive process of gathering input from community leaders, local businesses, and social service providers in San Francisco’s mid-Market area to inform the project’s efforts.

At TechSoup Global, we like to say that Web 2.0 moved the dial from what nonprofits have the least of—money—to what they have the most of—community. The time is now to start maximizing that asset.

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  • BY douglas robinson

    ON August 2, 2012 12:00 PM

    I have to disagree with one point in the article: that nonprofits are structured to work for communities rather than with communities. NeighborWorks America and the NeighborWorks network are adept at working with communities to jointly develop solutions. The new Neighborhood Marketing Initiative from NeighborWorks America ( is just the latest example of listening to residents and delivering the answers to what they have said are the most pressing needs.

    NeighborWorks America is reinvesting into programs that are based on community engagement—we have an entire business unit dedicated to this.

    Some nonprofits are solvers of the problems that they’ve identified; others are solvers of problems that residents have identified.

  • Kenneth Robinson's avatar

    BY Kenneth Robinson

    ON August 2, 2012 03:03 PM

    Great piece, Sheetal.

    I would call out one significant piece of work with which the American Red Cross is now engaged on a national level called our Disaster Cycle Reengineering project.  Let me paraphrase some key points from a recent update I received.

    The working team has gathered extensive input from our clients, volunteers and major stakeholders, in addition to analyzing the key activities and resources which make up our disaster cycle. The reason we conducted so many hundreds of interviews and reviewed so many surveys was because the reengineering is going to be driven by the needs of our clients and key stakeholders like our volunteers, donors, partners and government.

    I am excited that the leading commitment as the project continues is to convene the whole community throughout the cycle.  In fact, the “whole community concept” is now a critical piece to emergency managment and planning within government and NGOs such as the Red Cross.  Phase 3 (of five phases): analysis and recommendation has just recently launched.  I’m looking forward to learning how this project will help us to support all of America’s communities in becoming more resilient and more prepared.

  • BY Derek Thomas

    ON August 2, 2012 09:02 PM

    Ms. Singh,

    I agree with your assessment that the nonprofit sectors are stuck in yesterday’s outdated mode of operation. With the advent of web-based technology, mobile apps, etc., the nonprofits should look at connecting and engaging with their communities in real-time to get their message(s) out. Not only is this immediate and engaging, it’s more cost effective than traditional nonprofit marketing strategies. Grass roots marketing efforts that take place online have proven to be quite successful for brands of all types, and of all sizes.

    People are passionate about the brands they connect with online, and it’s only natural they would feel the same way about a community cause, charity or nonprofit organization, especially one that is based in the town or city they reside in. Nonprofits would be wise to change their approach to community outreach and use online resources to communicate their causes and get people to communicate, participate and, ultimately, make people’s lives better.

    I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on my opinions.

    Derek Thomas

  • Mihai Lisetchi's avatar

    BY Mihai Lisetchi

    ON August 3, 2012 01:23 AM

    “the nonprofit sector’s adherence to an outdated mode of operation, which seeks to solve problems for communities instead of solving problems with communities”
    Some comments:
    - from the perspective of the good practice theory, nonprofits should work with communities. The fact that some organizations operate integrating this principle and some not, doesn’t make the mode of operation outdated
    - the use of new communication technologies (when attempting to involve community) do represent a weak point in nonprofits’ organizational behavior (as in the case of business or government)

  • BY Sheetal Singh

    ON August 3, 2012 09:45 AM

    Derek- I agree that nonprofits should be embracing web-based and mobile technologies to connect with their communities. And many are. We have a wealth of information on the site to advocate for and guide nonprofits in the use of social media, digital story telling, etc. But even these activities are usually seen as marketing efforts, maybe fundraising. While there is a time and place for marketing, it’s not quite the same as problem solving with communities. (I think they should do both).

    Douglas and Ken- thanks for the additional examples! It’s inspiring to hear these stories.

  • Christina Dragonetti's avatar

    BY Christina Dragonetti

    ON August 3, 2012 12:43 PM

    Sheetal - great piece! Your clear and concise description of a new paradigm (as its emerging) and the nonprofit entry point (and opportunity for leadership) makes it easy for nonprofit leaders to look ahead at what’s coming and try to adapt over the short and longer term.

    On the point about nonprofits working in out-moded ways, I agree that many still do see their clients as passive recipients (particularly when it comes to the relationship between foundations and nonprofits, or US/western nonprofits working in the global south) but the best practice of working with instead of for is definitely flowing into and through the sector faster and faster. However, I think funders are one of the key drivers and as long as they continue to insist on more and more metrics reporting (“how many clients received your services last year?” “How many volunteers did you engage?”), the focus is shifted away from the crucial relationship building and collaboration aspects of the work.

  • BY Ratna Amin

    ON August 5, 2012 04:46 PM

    Working for versus with communities is not just a question for non-profits, it is for all of us. I appreciate this blog highlighting its importance.

    At the most recent OakX event, Ahmad Mansur presented a new paradigm for leadership. I would argue its the *only* paradigm that will work in the face of unprecedented complexity and technological change (so called “wicked problems”). Specifically, he described that we should shift to an ecosystem paradigm, where “ecosystems serve as an innovation platform to address complex challenges”, described by “Open systems, Social technologies, Crowd sourcing, Collaborative networks, Multi-directional” 

    The intelligence and resources non-profits need exist across distributed networks. We have to keep up with the pace of creative destruction; an open ecosystem approach, working with and not for, is the only way we can move from reaction to co-creation fast enough to make a difference.

    With the planet on the brink of irreversible climate change, pervasive human rights abuse, and long-standing institutions under attack, both funders and grantees in the non-profit world have a growing importance. We should all look to those non-profits that are using an open, co-creation approach to their work and see what where can learn, and see how fast we can iterate.

  • Nice piece, Sheetal!

    We’re seeing more and more nonprofits start to embrace the notion of their clients not as passive recipients, but as active customers. 

    Some organizations like CBY25 in Florida call the youths they serve, “customers” and design programs with their help.  Others like North Hills Community Outreach and Communities in Schools listen to feedback from their low income clients to make program changes. 

    Our own site, (, is used by thousands of nonprofits to invite active feedback and dialogue with their constituents - their clients, volunteers and donors. 

    So I think while it may not be as visible as hackathons, nonprofits are working on active engaging their communities

  • BY Sachin Malhan

    ON August 7, 2012 07:54 PM

    Sheetal, what timely observations!

    Ratna Amin, you sum it up perfectly when you say that “The intelligence and resources non-profits need exist across distributed networks.” The ‘resources’ here includes practically everything - talent, money, tools, practices, so on and so forth. Non-profits need network-entrepreneurs, network-managers and suchlike - people who can think distributed. I think that the change needs to be co-lead by funders otherwise the fear of ‘dilution’ by distribution and collaboration may deter non-profits from changing their approaches. The funny part is that the successful social movements of our age knew this - and co-opted, collaborated etc. with ease. Some learnings there i’m sure.

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