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Turning a Public Good Into a Publicly Accessible Good: A Case Study in Knowledge Sharing

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Lisa Brooks Head Shot_revisedSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Lisa Brooks

Have you ever thought about what your organization would do with its creative output should it ever have to close the doors and shutter the windows? We don’t typically dwell on things like going out of business, a situation that creates a whole host of issues to consider, including everything from concern for employee welfare to figuring out what paperwork you are legally required to file. Not to mention the emotional reality of putting to rest something you worked so hard to bring about and keep moving forward. While no one wants to think about ceasing operations, there is some good that can from knowing how others have handled this sometimes necessary step. There are lessons to be found in the story of a closing that even a thriving organization can learn from and take advantage of.

Foundation Center Logo_revisedI’m familiar with these lessons because I spend my days helping social sector organizations — nonprofits, foundations, and academic research centers — broadly and effectively share the knowledge they’ve produced. While most of the knowledge products I work with come from institutions that are open for business, I have archived the work of more than a few defunct organizations, and have actively participated in preserving the works of a couple of groups that created knowledge as a core mission. Here’s a story about one such organization that illustrates that knowledge has a life of its own — a public life. And that, with a bit of planning and safeguarding, and an orientation towards sharing over saving, the value of that publicly accessible knowledge continues regardless of the status of the organization that generated it.

A Case Study in Knowledge Sharing

Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) was a national nonprofit that aimed to strengthen social programming in a number of ways. For 35 years the organization hosted conferences and workshops, ran leadership academies, conducted formal program evaluations, and did research that resulted in all types of publications — white papers, issue briefs, case studies, written evaluations, and more. A lot of knowledge was created and freely shared by P/PV in those three and a half decades. Much of that knowledge benefited folks working to understand and eradicate poverty.

In 2012, due largely to the recession of the late 2000s, P/PV closed its doors. In preparation for that closing, P/PV got in touch with Foundation Center’s IssueLab service. IssueLab is part archive (collecting the knowledge generated by all types of social sector organizations), and part sharing platform (distributing that knowledge in a variety of ways). P/PV needed to find a permanent home for its large and important collection of reports, case studies, and evaluations and it wanted to ensure that the public life of this knowledge could continue unhindered. Since those are the exact reasons why IssueLab exists, we were happy to help.

In the months leading up to their closing, we worked with P/PV to catalog all of their work, applying a Creative Commons license[1] to every title to make it easier for anyone wanting to use the work to do just that. The Public/Private Ventures Special Collection went online in December 2012 with a few reports added in 2013 after P/PV closed.

The knowledge captured in this special collection continues to be useful, and the evidence supporting that thinking continues to build. An example: On July 5, 2016, the New York Times ran an article titled “Job Training Works. So Why Not Do More?”[2], which detailed how job skills training is a proven strategy for moving people out of low wage jobs and into higher wage careers. The author cited the work of a few nonprofit groups and recent studies, and included a 2010 P/PV report with a link leading directly to the study in the Special Collection.

P/PV’s last president has said that the research and publications that the organization left behind is “one of the richest parts of our legacy.”[3] In addition to being an expression of legacy, the works captured in the P/PV Special Collection are a public good created to inform conversation and further thinking about social change. There isn’t a shelf-life on the usefulness of this public good, as illustrated by the Times article. Furthermore, as a public good these works — and works like these — must remain available and freely accessible. As P/PV’s story attests, taking a public good and making it a publicly accessible good in perpetuity takes a bit, but not an insurmountable amount, of doing. 

Making Knowledge Accessible

Here are just a few ideas to start your organization on the path toward ensuring your public goods are publicly accessible goods. 

  1. Open licensing: Consider moving away from an “all rights reserved” and toward a “some rights reserved” open license like those provided through Creative Commons, which is bound to be much more aligned with your sharing goals. If your organization is a funder, the Hewlett Foundation offers a toolkit that details open licensing dos and don’ts for grantmakers and their grantees.
  2. Open access repositories: Sharing written works through your website is fine for communicating with your site visitors, but the knowledge sharing starts and stops there. Repository software and hosted services can mobilize your knowledge by making it easy for not only people to find it, but also systems and machines — meaning your knowledge is available in a lot more places where people are seeking it.
  3. Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs): DOIs are, essentially, a unique identifier and permanent link that provides persistent access to a publication forever. Since 2015, IssueLab has been issuing DOIs to social sector organizations at no cost. DOIs provide a cumulative count of how many times a title is downloaded across the Web, tracking citations, and accessing alternative metrics such as social media and new media data.

[1] The P/PV Special Collection is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommerical License. See http://ppv.issuelab.org/more/creative_commons for more info.

[2] “Job Training Works. So Why Not Do More?” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/06/business/economy/job-training-can-work-so-why-isnt-there-more-of-it.html?_r=0

[3] “Public/Private Ventures To Shut Down”,  http://www.thenonprofittimes.com/news-articles/public-private-ventures-to-shut-down/


Lisa Brooks is the director of knowledge management systems at Foundation Center. Applying new ideas and technologies to existing knowledge management infrastructures and methods, Lisa designs and implements systems that help social sector organizations easily and broadly share their knowledge. She co-directs Issuelab, a unique and ambitious open access knowledge sharing platform. Lisa also works with organizations to help them understand and adopt open publishing practices.

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