Total blue sky, inspired in part by a wonderful gathering pulled together by Jake Shapiro at PRX and Vince Stehle at the Surdna Foundation, picking up on thoughts from various contexts:
If I could start (or otherwise will into existence) any non-profit right now, what it would do is to develop and apply code for non-profit organizations that are under-using new information technologies for core communications purposes. The organization would be comprised primarily of smart, committed, young coders and project managers, primarily, who know how to take open source and other web 2.0-type tools and apply them to connect to communities of interest. (Perhaps some coders would volunteer, too, on a moonlighting basis.)
There are a bunch of problems it would be designed to solve. There are lots of non-profit organizations, such as public media organizations or local initiative campaigns or NGOs in fields like human rights, for instance, that would like to leverage new technologies in the public interest — to reach new audiences for their work and to build communities around ideas — but have no clue as to how to go about doing it.
I think the stars are aligned for such a non-profit to make a big difference at this moment of wild technological innovation. There are lots of relevant pieces that are ready to be put together. Ning and many others have developed platforms that could be leveraged. SourceForge has endless tools for the taking and applying to solve problems. Blogs, wikis, social networks (think of the Facebook open API), and Second Life (or whatever you’d like to experiment with in the participatory media space) are also easy to put to work, if you know how. Most small organizations know that Digital Natives (and many others) are spending lots of their lives online. There are others who do things like this — consider the wonderful Tactical Tech in the global environment, as well as those who do development for political campaigns, like Blue State Digital — whose learning might be leveraged here. There is plenty of “pain in the marketplace,” as venture guys might say. There are smart coders coming out of schools who want to do well enough by doing good in a mission-driven organization (think of the geekiest members of the Free Culture movement). The goal would be to take these technologies and making them work for carefully targeted customers in the non-profit space.
The non-profit would require a reasonable pile of start-up capital to get set up and to have ballast for lean times, but it would have a revenue model. It would charge for its services, on an overall break-even basis. It would not develop things for free; it would develop things for cheap(er) and with real expertise for non-profits that need access to the technologies. (One could imagine a sliding scale based upon resources and revenue and so forth.) It would also have a training services arm. Clients would be required to pay for some training, too, so that the organization would have an internal capacity to keep up the tool that’s developed for them.
I could imagine it loosely based in a big, open, low-rent space in Central Square in Cambridge, right between MIT and Harvard, with collaborators around the world. I suspect there are others doing something like this, but I am constantly surprised by the number of times I am at meetings or conferences where prospective customers tell me they don’t have a provider for their needs.