It’s probably clear by now that I’m a keener for orgs mashup public benefit mission + market disruption + the participatory nature of the web. Mozilla is one such organization and, as I look around, I see others. There is alot of up side to how these orgs work, especially the potential to move markets towards the public good at a global scale. But there are also a ton of very real challenges in making these orgs work. That’s what I want to write about today.
From where I sit, the biggest challenge is explaining ourselves. The hybrids that I am talking about tend to have both missions and org models that people haven’t seen before. As shaver said to me in a tweet, this means we ‘…have to use 500 words to explain what we do, vs. five words for a pure for-profit or non-profit play.’ Fixing this is no small task, and it quickly cascades out into other problems.
Think about this in the Mozilla context for a moment. First off, we need to explain that we exist to promote and protect the open nature of the internet. While this mission fits well within the centuries old tradition of public benefit organizations, it’s not easy to point to similar examples that help people immediately understand what kind of beast we are. Red Cross? Sierra Club? Public radio? There are overlaps with all of these, but none provide a perfect parallel. The result: a whole bunch of long winded explaining.
Even if the mission comes across, there is still the organizational model to communicate. This matters less at first blush. Who but the taxman really cares whether an org looks like a company, a charity or a little bit of both? It turns out that many people do. As I travel around talking to people about Mozilla, I am finding that everyone loves Firefox (no surprise) but almost noone knows it’s made by a global community of volunteer contributors backed by a public benefit org (this has surprised me). When I explain a bit, I get happy surprises. Things like “wow, that makes Firefox even cooler’ and ‘I didn’t know I could get involved’. Once people get Mozilla’s model, it excites them. However, the lack of a shorthand way of explaining all that is bundled up in ‘hybrid org’ means it takes a bunch of explaining to get to that point of excitement.
This challenge of explaining ourselves is what lilly might call a ‘big poetry problem‘. Getting the poetry right is an essential element of success. However, hybrid orgs also face a ton of significant challenges on the pragmatic front. Decision making. Structure. Engagement. Investment. Staff recruiting. Management. Participation. Product. Public relations. Organizing resources. Revenue. Leadership. It’s not that other orgs don’t face challenges in these areas. However, the nature of these problems is often quite different when you’re working with a hybrid model.
Take the intersection between ‘participation’ and ‘product’ as one example. Many non-profits are focused on public participation. These orgs use well honed engagement and facilitation techniques to get people out, harnessing community effort to raise important issues, clean up parks and so on. However, until recently, this kind of mass participation was rarely used to make specific, high quality products (or services) that need to ship at a specific time and succeed in the market. Until recently, creating products and services that will be used by large numbers of people has been the domain of big companies and governments who can marshal trained specialists and set up big management structures.
Organizations like Mozilla turn this upside down and sideways. They combine the mass participation of social movements with the ability to create high quality, desirable (public) goods that people will use every day. This is where the challenge comes in: we don’t have well established models managing, facilitating and leading in this kind of environment. Hybrid orgs are inventing these models, finding ways to create good goals and scaffolding, focus on participation, let people scratch their own itch. The thing is, there is no clear roadmap on how to do this and the daily pragmatics are hard. There is a need for constant reflection, tweaking and a kind of personal + collective honesty that’s hard to come by.
‘Structure‘ is another good issue to look at from a hybrid org perspective. We have well established legal structures for create non-profit, public benefit organizations. Yet, in every country that I know about, these structures work poorly when people try to hybridize and innovate what it means to do public benefit work. They have trouble keeping up with new and emerging public benefit roles in society (example -> Wikipedia providing universal access to all human knowledge). They aren’t well tuned for organizations that participate in the market with a public purpose (example -> Firefox pushing open standards back into the mainstream of web development). And they don’t account for the critical role that volunteer contributors play as a form of public support and participation (example -> Mozilla localizations). The frameworks we’ve developed for charities over the last few hundred years just haven’t caught up to these new ideas yet.
The result is that many hybrid organizations must engage in pretzel like contortions in order to find a structure that works. In Mozilla’s case, we’ve set up a charitable foundation as well as a number of wholly owned commercial subsidiaries. All of these organizations share the same mission of promoting the open nature of the internet. All of them engage with community members to create products and services that advance this mission. And all all of them can demonstrate huge public support and participation. Yet, we run them as separate organizations. In some ways, this isn’t the end of the world, and it certainly seems like the safest option given the ambiguities of charity law. But there is no question this pretzel like structure adds strategic and operational overhead, and can just plain confuse people. There are definitely days where I wish we could just be one public benefit organization called ‘Mozilla’.
Of course, ‘participation’ and ‘structure’ are only two examples of pragmatic challenges that hybrids face. You could also dig into the question of investment, and in particular the fact the hybrids are percieved as a bad fit for both private investors and traditional grantmakers. This makes it tough to scale, compete and move the market. Or you could explore the revenue side. Hybrids must constantly ask: what kinds of income are going to align with — or at least not disrupt — our public benefit mission? Leadership — and how you balance it with distributed decision making and the culture of the web — also seems pretty central. The list of questions and challenges is pretty long.
My goal here is not to go deep on every major challenge, but to set the tone and get others talking. What do you see as the biggest challenges that hybrid orgs face? And do you know of hybrid orgs that have overcome these challenges? I’d love to see responses to these questions as comments and trackbacks. Also, we’re planning to talk about these questions with a few organizations that feel similar to Mozilla at a small gathering next month. My hope is that simply mapping the challenges and looking at how people have tackled them will go a long way towards helping us make our hybrid organizations better. Once we’ve done a bit more of this, I promise to loop back and synthesize what people are saying. Should be interesting.