The “Swine Flu” scare was fun, wasn’t it?  No, it really wasn’t; but it did give most of the world a chance to react in real-time to what could have been much worse. In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, David Brooks compared the global response vs localized response to the outbreak. I think this comparison, and context, is a great example of why local (read: non-global) organizations are still key in social change work, and why we need to be building stronger networks for data and information sharing.

Power to the People
Brooks shows that if the world had a global approach to outbreaks like Swine Flu, then the decision-making and directive power would be in a really bumped up World Health Organization-like group. This umbrella organization would require time for consideration and input from its members and wouldn’t necessarily be in-tune with the communities or cultures actually touched by the issues.

Let’s consider this example in comparison to a generic sector, focusing on a global issue, like the environmental & climate sector working on climate change. Creating a huge umbrella organization is just not going to happen realistically for any sector, at least one with the governing and implementing power suggested above. Instead, we want to keep the power to address issues in the hands of organizations spread around the world. It is impossible for one organization to know the stories, issues, culture and decision-making information of all locations. It’s hard enough to master one geography!

Speak the Local Language
As Brooks points out, people like to look to someone like them, especially in times of crisis. Local organizations provide this local face. We can speak the local language, understand the local culture.

In the climate change example, this means that we can brand, communicate, and distribute information, calls to action, and important opportunities for engagement in a way that encourages response locally. The missing link, though, is that the underlying opportunity (whether it is a petition to sign, an online or offline event, or anything else) needs to be networked across all the organization. The effect of having all organizations gather signatures on the same petition versus hundreds creating and distributing their own petitions for the same issue is huge.

Innovate and Reiterate
Lastly, one enormous organization could only respond to the Swine Flu outbreak or something similar with safe, tested protocols. But those are often not efficient or necessary. With distributed power through local organizations, medical teams, and governments, the response to the Swine Flu outbreak was something involving much more innovation and experimentation.

This, again, holds true for organizations working on social change issues. New messages, campaigns, and strategies can be tested, deployed, and analyzed in separate groups. What makes this more powerful? Leveraging a networked system so that when a new campaign works, or better yet - doesn’t work,  that information can be shared in real time with all of the other organizations. This means the “what works” can get implemented faster in other places and the “what doesn’t” can be cut out of the loop without more wasted capacity. 

Great, Now What?
So, what do we need to make this happen? There are tools like Zanby that allow organizations to link together to share calls to action across networks. This is a great start. But, we also need to be building out collaboration platforms that allow for organizations to link in with each other, share data and calls to action, but also feedback lessons learned—a way to combine experiential and hard data across the whole network.

What do you think?  What kind of tools would we need to accomplish this? What push backs or culture shocks to working in this way would need to be overcome?  Where would you start?

imageAmy Sample Ward’s passion for nonprofit technology has lead her to involvement with NTEN, NetSquared, and a host of other organizations. She shares many of her thoughts on nonprofit technology news and evolutions on her blog.