February 22, 2011

How we’ll fund innovation & sustainability

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Snapshot of sustainabilitiy in the 50 largest U.S. cities (photo by whiterice).

Guest post by Joe Brewer
Cognitive Policy Works

It’s time to solve a fundamental problem that plagues progressives everywhere – the lack of seed money to get innovative projects off the ground and the absence of workable funding models to scale up the ongoing efforts to create systemic cultural, economic and political change.

Every major economic paradigm shift throughout modern history has been propelled forward by the influx of financial capital to build institutions that support the new framework. In the 1850s and ’60s it was investment in cheap steel to lay down railways. A century later there were massive capital projects to build the interstate highway system and the explosion of suburban landscapes that accompanied it.

Now we face a deeper challenge. Not only must we cultivate technological breakthroughs that drive us toward sustainability – a huge challenge in its own right – but we must also create a different paradigm for finance that liberates us from the consumer culture threatening the ecosystems of the world.

In other words, we need new models for funding social change that lead us toward a more livable world. This is the central crisis of the progressive movement. We cannot enact our vision of widespread prosperity and human security until we change the equations that dictate how wealth is measured and how it is used.

We are standing at a crossroad where our next steps will have tremendous consequences. And the wave of unrest has begun to ripple across the globe through the populist uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and this week in Wisconsin. Progressives have been crafting solutions for decades in anticipation of a major change. Now is the time to lay the institutional foundations that we’ll build upon after we cross the tipping point. We can’t wait any longer.

Out with the old, in with the new

The funding models of the last century are no longer serving us. Our non-profits struggle to stay afloat. Our governments have been stripped of the wealth created through investments in societal infrastructure (like roads, schools and courts), and now face major budget shortfalls. Wealth has been aggregated into the hands of a small “super elite” reminiscent of the Gilded Age of a previous era.

And now, as our need is at its greatest, we lack the seed money to invest in social innovations that can free us from further entrenchment in a broken status quo. We lack the finances to implement green urban design for our cities. Our ability to provide health and human services falls short of an escalating crisis of widespread unemployment and insecurity.

We need a new paradigm, which is starting to emerge in the forms of collaborative consumption, crowdsourcing and socially conscious business.

We cannot simply count on the old models – venture capital for monetary gain, government grants to support basic research, philanthropic giving spread across a hundred issue silos. While some of the practices continue to be vital for our success, the overarching paradigm of monetary growth must change. Increasing GDP does nothing to secure our future on its own.

So we need a new paradigm that reflects where our world is going. And that paradigm has started to emerge on the scene in the various forms of collaborative consumption, crowdsourcing and socially conscious business. We are beginning to see deep changes in how people think about wealth, property and sharing.

New measures are starting to arise that capture this new economic paradigm, the most well known being the Gross National Happiness Index. We are increasingly concerned about measuring social capital as a currency of trust. And we are beginning to see that the wealth of our communities comes through the support we find from a friend or neighbor more than from the paper in our pocketbooks.

What funding models will enable progressive reform?

So how does this relate to the funding of the progressive movement? If we are to build our capacity for the long haul, we must discover the funding models that will carry us into this new paradigm. I have some early experience in this arena through a successful crowdfunding campaign I ran last fall to create the Progressive Strategy Handbook. It is the first of its kind, a crowd-funded, open source project designed to engage progressives in ongoing dialogue about strategies for the movement.

And now I am excited to partner with Suresh Fernando, co-founder of OpenKollab, to take this work to the next level. We have just launched another crowdfunding campaign, How We’ll Fund 21st Century Social Movements, with the goal of creating a How-To-Guide on the use of crowdsourcing to increase engagement and collaboration through micro-financing methods.

We have started to see what the new funding models will look like. The most promising of them are built on the themes of interactivity, engagement and empowerment. We are discovering that the most powerful funding models are also community organizing models. They turn the traditional approach to engagement on its head. While most organizations today seek to engage with their constituents in order to raise money, the most successful are raising money as a side effect of ongoing engagement and participation.

The Obama campaign exemplified this in 2008. Small donations flowed in month after month as the number of volunteers increased. Fundraising was built on a model of community engagement that sustained itself by keeping participation high. The campaign leveraged the power of social media to enable volunteers to organize themselves into local clusters, which amplified this effect over time.

So the key to funding the progressive movement is to focus on collaboration and participation, while leveraging the power of social media for helping crowds to organize themselves and become the primary driver of the movement. Our strategy handbook is demonstrating how this works right now. It was funded through a network of blogs, Twitter and Facebook. And now it represents an emerging conversation that weaves across this digital landscape and touches down in local communities across the country.

Personally, I am ecstatic that we have gotten to this point in this transition. A phrase that captures the moment nicely is the Great Unleashing. We are in the midst of an explosion of creativity by social innovators from every walk of life who are starting to take an active role in driving political, cultural and economic change. We are many, and we are spread across the globe. And now, through social media tools, we are learning how to self-organize and turn our energies inward so that we become a coherent movement calling out with one message.

We will fund our movement in the same way we communicate with one another, through the vast web of overlapping social networks that sync up online and offline. The funding models are here to be seen and used.

And I want to do my part to spread them around.

Joe Brewer is founder and director of Cognitive Policy Works, a social business that specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising and training.
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