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Million-member cooperatives

Crowdsourcing proves thousands of heads are often better than one

It was love of the great outdoors that first inspired Jody Allair to spend an entire night in the late 1990s alone on a remote back road in northern Ontario.

He was listening for owls calling out from the snowy spruce forest around him. The volunteer project he was involved in on that frosty April evening wasn’t called crowdsourcing back then. That term would have to wait until 2006, when Jeff Howe wrote in Wired magazine about a newfound tool for companies to drive research and development. That tool? Gaining access to the global mind via the World Wide Web.

At the time, Allair was just a budding scientist and lifelong birder – one of thousands of people across the country who had signed up for a cause he believed in. In this case it was an annual conservation project run by Bird Studies Canada to determine species at risk. Looking back, Allair, now a professional biologist and the same organization’s chief engagement officer, can think of few opportunities that have filled him with such a genuine sense of community. He felt he was part of something so much larger than himself. “I heard wolves that night. Then, I saw a great grey owl. It was like a ghost,” he says. “That alone was worth the late, late night and the really cold fingers.

A crowd – and a community

That experience, so succinctly summed up by Allair, captures the essence of crowdsourcing at its most successful. In the case of the birding project, the purpose was to collect valuable data in an efficient manner that couldn’t otherwise be accomplished without great expense. But the aim could just as easily be about raising money, gathering opinions, solving a problem or inspiring creativity.

Crowdsourcing is what happens when a series of engaged networks come together to reach a common goal. “There’s an ask, there’s a crowd, there’s an online component, there’s an exchange,” writes Alexandra Stiver via email. The PhD candidate at The Open University in London, England, is one a handful of researchers exploring the topic of crowdsourcing – specifically, crowdfunding for social enterprise organizations, non-profits and governments. She says reciprocity and relationship-building between project creators and participants is where the greatest potential for building community rests.

These days, thanks largely to the boom of social media, literally thousands of online organizations – big and small, non-profit and for profit – are experimenting with crowdsourcing in new and interesting ways. Many are listed on Wikipedia, perhaps the world’s best-known crowdsourcing project, where members of the public voluntarily write and edit encyclopedic entries across every topic imaginable, including the power of the crowd.

Literally thousands of online organizations – big and small, non-profit and for profit – are experimenting with crowdsourcing in new and interesting ways

A galaxy of projects

The Wiki list runs the full gamut of the alphabet, from Arkitekturbilleder.dk, a stylish photo database documenting modern Danish architecture, to the Zooniverse, a massive citizen-science web portal that boasts more than one million volunteer members. The latter is credited with helping the world’s astronomers classify some 900,000 galaxies in the space of just a few months.

A number of companies now regularly crowdsource artistic concepts behind clever advertising jingles and commercials in what’s become an extension of corporate brand-building. On the other end of the financial scale, many an independent filmmaker would still be only dreaming of a big-screen debut if the crowd wasn’t there to pony up the money needed to produce the work. Even big political parties have turned to crowdsourcing techniques with surprising results. U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign team was so effective raising hundreds of millions of dollars from individual Americans, each contributing modest amounts, that it has completely rewritten the how-to manual on contemporary fundraising.

The cooperative connection

Crowdsourcing has taken firm hold among cooperatives, too. That’s not surprising. While the term may be new, the idea is as old as the movement itself. Ask anyone in the cooperative world and they’ll tell you that co-ops are the birthplace of modern crowdsourcing. Long before the Internet, it was through cooperatives that groups of people found solutions to shared problems and raised the capital to make change happen.

Long before the Internet, it was through cooperatives that groups of people found solutions to shared problems

In fact, the crowdsourcing paradigm really got its start 150 years ago, says Brendan Denovan, communications manager for Cooperatives and Mutuals Canada, an Ottawa-based organization that represents 9,000 cooperatives across the country. “There would be a townhall meeting,” he says. “Everyone would put out their ideas. [They’d say] ‘how can we fix this need? We don’t have a grocery store or a fire hall or a bank in this town. Can we do it collectively?’ In that group, you have the diversification of risk, of capital, ideas and expertise. And everyone has a vote and a voice.”

In today’s world, technology has made it possible for co-ops to more easily crowdsource among themselves. Online projects such as Co-operating for Sustainability offer a one-stop platform for member-owned organizations such as British Columbia’s Vancity (509,000 members, $22 billion in assets) to meet and share best practices with the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives or the Cooperative Bank of Kenya.

Social media platforms and mobile technology development in particular have enabled cooperatives to reach out and engage with whole new generations of people hungry to get involved in what they feel is a worthwhile campaign. Mobile apps that allow people to vote instantly on important decisions from anywhere in the world have made it possible for organizations to expand member participation by eliminating the need for physical proximity. Denovan says these kinds of apps are still new but are being piloted by smaller cooperatives in Canada.

Engaging large memberships

For huge organizations such as Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), with more than 3.75 million members, it’s not feasible to give everyone a direct hand in running the business. MEC decisions are made by an elected board of directors. Still, the organization, famous for its outdoor adventure clothing and products, has been very successful at using crowdsourcing techniques to strengthen its ties beyond big urban centres and into some of the most remote communities around the country.

Last year’s Dirt Search contest, for instance, won the attention of thousands of Canadians from rural towns in Ontario and Quebec to those far up north in the Yukon. The popular crowd-voting initiative saw community mountain bike clubs from across the country vie for a $10,000 MEC grant to fund a local trail project. The campaign is MEC’s most successful to date, garnering 56,000 votes, says Andrew Stegemann, community investment manager for the Vancouver-based organization.

Yes, admits Stegemann, “the initiatives are chosen to support our brand.” But true to the nature of crowdsourcing, it’s also about letting the broader MEC tribe determine the kinds of projects it wants its organization to be involved in. “It’s the membership’s money, so it is really important that we’re doing things that are in line with members’ interests,” Stegemann says.

Not so fast

There is a flip side to crowdsourcing. On the creator end, it can be tempting to rush into a project in the false belief that it’s a matter of throwing a page up on Facebook and letting strangers take over. The reality is that crowdsourcing is heavily labour intensive. “[It] is not a quick fix or an easy money-grab,” writes Alexandra Stiver.

Crowdsourcing is heavily labour intensive. “[It] is not a quick fix or an easy money-grab”

—Alexandra Stiver, PhD candidate, The Open University, London, England

Stiver’s research has found that projects succeed if they are planned well in advance of an online launch. They must also be monitored daily. What’s more, they must focus on securing the emotional investment of the crowd throughout – and sometimes even beyond – the project’s lifespan. This holds true whether the goal is to raise money, solicit ideas or gather information.

Striking the right balance between accountability from creators and buy-in from backers can be delicate. “At its best [crowdsourcing] can create project evangelists who ultimately take on some of the creator’s role in terms of promoting the project, creating content (Tweets, Facebook posts, visuals, YouTube videos) in support of the project and building community morale and project momentum,” writes Stiver.

On the other hand, the “our project” mentality can lead to serious tensions if a large number of backers feels as though they are stakeholders deserving of input. “Projects might require redirects, deliver on a different schedule than anticipated, [or] have either too much or too few funds. How much do backers deserve to have a say in all of this? What responsibility do creators have to this community of backers?” Stiver writes.

Clear goals needed

Michael Johnston, president of HJC, a global fundraising consulting firm, says a mismanaged crowd can quickly turn ugly in a way no one could have initially predicted. Johnston points to the uncomfortable conversations that cropped up online in the wake of the recent death of Toronto toddler Elijah Marsh. He says that’s what can happen when clear goals and limits on crowd participation are not set out early on in a campaign. In that case, news of the little boy’s tragic death from exposure on one of the coldest nights of the year spurred thousands of Canadians to chip in for funeral costs. As of this writing, more than $150,000 had been raised – well in excess of the amount immediately required by Marsh’s family. Many contributors said they felt soured by the experience and online spats broke out over what to do with all the extra cash.

“It is an unfair burden on the family, without a doubt,” says Johnston, noting the campaign, however well meant, “spun too big, too high and too fast.” He adds that crowds are unpredictable: people play off one another and emotions amplify in a certain direction. That can be positive or negative, he stresses. “You need a clear objective: ‘This is what we are going to accomplish collectively and then we are going to stop.’ Without setting limits on the crowd, bad [stuff] happens,” he says.

The crowdsourcing sweet spot

For Jody Allair, the sweet spot in the many crowdsourcing projects he’s now been involved in can be found in the intersection between the interests of an organization and those of its supporters. Before working with Bird Studies Canada, Allair says he was naïve about the time and energy required of him to effectively engage with a group – even one as loyal as Canada’s birding community.

He fields hundreds of emails and phones calls on a regular basis from volunteers eager to report something they’ve seen, ask if they can change their particular study route or pose a question about the kind of CD player to use in the field. At the same time, project creators must be able to give something back, whether that takes the form of a thank-you letter or an official report based on the collective data. “If you create a program where you can do that, you are going to be set,” he said.

It helps that birding is not so much a hobby as an addiction for Allair. “This is why we have success and why crowdsourcing can really work,” he says. “It creates opportunities for people to engage in nature with birds and for people to have these incredible experiences of barred owls calling back or maybe even flying over your head. These are experiences that really resonate with people. They feel like they are giving back to the birds.” In a way, participants in crowdsourcing are like birds themselves. When they flock together, amazing change can happen. ◊