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The Permeable Organization

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By Michael C. Gilbert, February 2006

The boundaries of traditional nonprofit organizations are under relentless assault by new patterns of communication and association that are stronger than the corporate model of governance and stronger than nonprofit brands. The media of this assault are social software and the network on which such software flourishes. The assault is fueled by the very passions and people from which the organizations themselves once emerged. Ironically, although it threatens to dissolve their boundaries, this assault is very much on the same side as most of the organizations themselves.

Unless the neutral, end-to-end nature of the Internet is destroyed -- which is hardly an idle threat, given the current political alliance of the venal and the clueless -- the network assault on nonprofit boundaries will fundamentally change the form and function of our organizations.

How nonprofits choose to respond to these forces is profoundly important. Changes are going to happen. Nonprofits can deny them, resist them, be damaged by them, embrace them foolishly, or embrace them wisely. We may look back on the coming ten years and see them as a period of evolution in the structure of civil society organizations matched only by the rise of the corporate model itself. It's incumbent on the leaders of every organization to make the most of these years.

Setting Boundaries More Mindfully

The boundary that separates an organization from its environment is like the membrane of a cell. It has to let some things out, keep other things in, let some things in, and keep other things out. Many of the most critical characteristics that distinguish a cell can be discovered by understanding its membrane. And though the process of studying their boundaries might be harder, the same is almost certainly true of nonprofit organizations. It is therefore somewhat surprising how few organizations set their boundaries with anything resembling strategic care.

The boundaries of a nonprofit organization are in effect the byproduct of many forces: the location of staff and office space, policies and procedures relating to communication, the cultures from which staff and key volunteers are drawn, and above all, the affordances of the communication infrastructure. But of course, it is these affordances that are changing.

Both individuals and organizations have long relied on the inconvenience of conventional communication media as a substitute for mindful boundary setting. Anyone who walks in the door or, in many cases, anyone who calls on the telephone, is an acceptable interruption for many people. But they are overwhelmed by the challenges of email, frustrated by the fact that now, because they are so easy to reach, they actually have to choose who to reply to.

Many individuals try to avoid making those choices for as long as possible, relying on people to start screaming at them as their means of setting their priorities. But organizations didn't have the privilege of ignoring the effect of email. Email was the first social software to dissolve organizational boundaries enough to provoke a response in the form of policy. Comfortably ignoring most of the smaller scale email communication outside their walls, most organizations have reached a point of equilibrium in regards to email, primarily because it doesn't leave much of a trail.

Blogging, on the other hand, is all about leaving a trail. Combined with email, it provides the individual with a primitive, but more or less complete, toolkit for online communication. As many others have written, the Internet has put powerful communication media into everyone's hands. As new tools evolve and interpersonal networks grow exponentially in both richness and scale, this will only accelerate. No longer can organizations rely on the byproducts of infrastructure to control their boundaries.

People Support Causes, Not Tax-Exempt Corporations

Organizations could respond to this assault on their boundaries with policies of control, as many did with email and are trying to do with blogging, were it not for some critical facts: The people who are in these new networks are their people. The issues being taken up by these networks are their issues. The passion that is driving these networks is the passion they were counting on.

The simple fact is that people don't really care about nonprofit organizations per se, unless they have some personal ego identification with them. Even staff and funder loyalty to an organization is fluid, transferring from one organization to another over the years. When I taught career management workshops for people who were first entering nonprofit work, I used to teach them that strategically they should think of themselves as working for a cause, not for an organization. And that reflects a basic truth: People care about causes.

Frankly, the corporate model is not well suited to public benefit work. (That assertion will be the subject of a much longer exploration at some point.) It is largely a product of the tax code and it served well enough in the age of centralized media. But it is not an accurate reflection of how people really come together to make things happen when they care about something.

How do people come together around a cause in this new era? We are only just beginning to find out. In some respects, the models of social organization will resemble those of neolithic tribes and aboriginal villages. In other respects perhaps they will be something completely new. Most likely, we will think they are completely new forms, when they are not, and we'll beat our chests a bit about it. Most likely, because of scale, they will be new in ways that we don't even see.

Caught up in this social phase transition, the organizations that currently embody civil society will have a relatively short period to decide what to do. For our causes, this is a moment of unprecedented opportunity. For our organizations, a time of profound uncertainty.

Responsible Leaders Need Transitional Models

In these times, responsible leaders cannot simply dissolve the boundaries of their organizations, hand off their resources to the hoards, and assume that successful models will magically emerge from the chaos. Neither can they armor themselves completely against these changes, unless they choose to ally themselves with the dangerous mix of forces which seek to stuff the Internet genie back into its bottle. Responsible leaders need models that will get us from where we are, to where we are going, leveraging all of the available resources in service of their cause. They will see to it that our organizations, like healthy cells, are neither utterly impervious, nor utterly dissolved, but permeable.

We should think of these as transitional models, not simply new models. We can't pretend that a few adjustments, however radical, will be the end of it. There is simply too much change afoot, too many network effects to track, and too many unknown variables.

The key to our transitional thinking will be a new mindfulness about organizational boundaries. We will adopt narrower definitions of corporate control over communication. We will recognize richly permeable boundaries as valuable assets, rather than liabilities. We will turn our organizational borders into gateways to empowerment. We will pull back our boundaries from many resources and learn to husband them as they grow, rather than own them as they shrink.

In the long run, we will probably have to let go of the corporate model itself, as the dominant form of organizing in civil society. Among our older models, collectives and cooperatives are much more suited to the task and to the new environment. New ways to form ad hoc groups are emerging and new ways to form coalitions are desperately needed. And there will be models for which we do not yet have names.

This is a call to you to help invent those new models. A few pioneers, mostly those closest to the new technologies, are already doing this. They are the vanguard, but they may not be the best stewards of the resources and wisdom of our past. We need people who stand in the middle to guide the way.


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