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Should Nonprofits Model Themselves after Starfish?


I went back and re-read the book The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom this week. It’s a great read for anyone who runs an organization, particularly a membership organization, or works primarily in the internet world. Since the book was written, social networks have soared in popularity, helping to topple dictatorships and transforming politics.

The book’s title comes from the make up of starfish and spiders. Starfish don’t have a head or a central body but operate as a decentralized network. Major organs are replicated through each and every arm. If you cut an arm off, it grows another one, or in some species regenerates into a whole new starfish. The spider on the other hand has eight legs and a central body. If you chop of its head, it dies. If it loses a leg or two, it’s in trouble. The authors use the spider as an example of traditional “command and control” organizations: armies, governments and I would add, many nonprofit organizations. Starfish, on the other hand, are represented by things like the internet, e-Bay, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Wikipedia – essentially where no one person or organization is in control.

Where the book really gets interesting is when the authors introduce the concept of a “hybrid organization” – ones where central organizations introduce elements of decentralization by giving their customers a role. At e-Bay policing of the site was primarily turned over to its users; at Amazon and Netflix, users are encouraged to review books and movies. At Intuit, the maker of highly sophisticated and complicated Quicken and Turbo Tax software, a way for users to help one another on line was introduced called – without any mention of brand or products. As Intuit explains it, “the collective knowledge of the entire tax professional community is far more powerful any handful of experts.” At IBM, there is support for Linux – the open source operating system – and at the same time IBM-designed hardware and software that is Linux-compatible.

So where is the sweet spot for nonprofit organizations? The nonprofit community suffered for many years from poor management, inconsistent delivery of services and insufficient capacity. In the last decade or so, the nonprofit community has made great progress in running better organizations, improving both capabilities and capacities, and the way we measure both output and outcome. But in this effort to professionalize, have we failed to grasp the power of the starfish system? Many of us have contact with lots of donors, volunteers and service recipients. How can we use the network effect to create communities? How can we use the power of chaos as incubators of creative and innovative ideas? Decentralized networks can seem messy and a step backwards. But harnessing their power may be our best chance to introduce new energy and vitality into our organizations.

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice