Lately I've been exploring the concepts of nonprofit networks here, what it takes to form and nurture connections among various nonprofits and between nonprofits and individuals. We've talked about building connectivity networks that link people to people, affinity networks that reinforce commonalities among network members and production networks that move affinities into collective action.
The other day I was researching learning management systems for a client interested in tracking staff competences and training needs. I started thinking about the need for skill networks within the nonprofit community and what would have to happen in order for us to develop such networks.
What Do I Mean by a Nonprofit Skill Network?
Very simply, a nonprofit skill network would bring together the knowledge and skills of individual staff at all member organizations and make those skills available to the members of the network. For example, a staff person at Agency A might have skills in developing organizational newsletters. This skill would be cataloged in an online location--either a database or in some other form, such as through a wiki using tagging. When Agency B needs someone to do a newsletter for them, but they lack the internal skills for this to happen, then they would be able to find the staff person from Agency A who could then assist them in implementing that project.
Why Do We Need Nonprofit Skill Networks?
Staff knowledge and skills are the lifeblood of any organization, but this is particularly true for nonprofits. The more skilled our staff are, the more access to good information they have, the more likely we are to be successful. But many nonprofits are small. They don't have the capacity within their individual organizations to cover all the skill needs that may be necessary to create an effective organization. This is particularly the case when we venture outside of traditional program areas into more functional skills, for example, IT, human resources, marketing and public relations, staff training etc.
With the creation of a skill network, member organizations would be able to expand their capacity to access particular knowledge and skills. In some cases, I could see organizations sharing a collective pool of staff. For example, Agency A might employ a marketing person who splits her time between several members of the network. Network members who used the marketing person would either reimburse the employing agency for the staff person's time or they could trade for services, perhaps offering the use of their finance person in return.
Agencies would also be able to access specialized skills and knowledge for special projects. For example, if an organization needed to run a training on case management basics, they might be able to "borrow" a staff person from one of the other organizations to provide the training. Again, they could either pay for the use of the staff person's time or they could trade for other services.
How Would a Skill Network Operate?
The first order of business would be to find a way to catalog the knowledge, skills and abilities of staff from all network member organizations. The network members would need to agree on a common taxonomy for describing skills so that member organizations are comparing apples to apples.
Ideally, these skills would be cataloged in an online system, either a shared database or by using something less sophisticated, such as tagging. If tagging was used, I could see the creation of a network wiki or blog. For each staff person there would be a detailed biography and maybe a copy of their resume, work samples, etc. Their entries would also be tagged with the appropriate knowledge and functions. Interested agencies would then be able to access the biographies by looking under the appropriate tags.
Other issues that would need to be addressed by the network would include:
- Processes and procedures for collecting the information from staff, including what information will be collected and how it will be shared.
- Will participation in the skill network be voluntary or required for individual staff?
- Processes for accessing staff from other agencies to work on various projects
- Acceptable exchanges--will trading be allowed or would it be strictly a financial arrangement? How will the organizations handle the financial side of things?
- Who will be responsible for maintaining and updating the skill database?
Cons of a Skill Network
There would be a number of challenges to creating such a skill network, not the least of which would be getting past the often siloed, territorial thinking of many organizations. Clearly this would be a complicated endeavor with logistical and practical concerns galore. Many organizations might be uncomfortable with the idea of hiring a staff person in the hopes that they would be able to share that person with other agencies and be reimbursed for those costs. (One way around that would be to look into sharing freelance consultants who would not be employed by any single agency). For various reasons, individual staff might also object to providing their services to another nonprofit. And a significant number of nonprofits operate in crisis mode, making the idea of setting up a skill network a pipe dream they feel they have little time to pursue.
Pros of a Skill Network
For all the potential problems in setting up and maintaining a skill network, I think that there are also significant benefits that make it a worthwhile endeavor. Clearly it would expand the capacity of individual organizations to provide higher quality services. They would have access to knowledge and skills beyond their organization that could give their individual organization a new lease on life.
There's also a benefit to individual staff. In many cases, nonprofit staff get burned out from dealing with the same people and problems on a daily basis. The opportunity to provide services in their strength areas to other organizations could re-energize a tired career. They could also give staff an opportunity to stretch and grow in ways that would in turn benefit their employing organization.
Some Possible First Steps
When I'm thinking about possibilities, I tend to take them to the furthest degree. I see the end result, which can be overwhelming to a lot of people. I think there are smaller steps that organizations could take, however, to start moving in the direction of a larger skill network.
Create an Internal Skill Network--The technologies exist for individual organizations to create their own internal knowledge and skill networks. Using wikis and blogs, individual organizations could take it upon themselves to catalog their internal staff knowledge and skills to make this information available to others in the organization. I would suggest delving deeply into what staff know--you may be surprised at the skills that people have developed in other parts of their lives that could be utilized within the organization.
Create a Skill Network with 1-2 Trusted Partners--Most nonprofits have developed relationships with other organizations already. To expand outside of the individual organization, they could reach out to a few of their trusted partners to build a smaller shared network of skills. You may already be doing this on an informal basis. However, making it a somewhat more structured process could reap bigger benefits for all members of the network. It could also create some major value-add for grant applications.
I think that there are a lot of possibilities for this concept and I'd love to hear from you about your thoughts, if you've seen anything like this being developed anywhere, etc. E-mail me or leave me a note in comments.