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.