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July 21, 2011 / Christian Clansky

Are Infrastructure Organizations Still Needed in Today’s Networked Society? YES!

By Tamara Copeland, President (@WRAGprez)

When we stand outside of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC and gaze across the Potomac at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Northern Virginia, we sometimes think about the congestion on the 14th St. Bridge or the constant repairs, but rarely do we think about the inherent value of the bridge or its place in an almost 50,000 mile interstate highway system. We take for granted this important structure that directly connects two jurisdictions and facilitates a continuous flow along the I-95 North-South corridor.

Just like Dwight Eisenhower’s vision of the value of an interstate highway system, countless other leaders have envisioned and created systems of connectivity – some national, like the NAACP, the American Bar Association, or Voices for America’s Children – and others local or regional, like WRAG, the Council of Governments or the Nonprofit Roundtable. These infrastructure organizations have evolved top down and bottom up. Individual leaders have seen the merit of connecting the dots and the dots, so to speak, have seen the value of being connected. The resulting organizations define standards for their respective fields, serve as watchdogs, advocate for improvements, train practitioners and generally work to ensure that their members do the best job possible on the work that they do.

Some suggest that thanks to the advent of the internet and social media – and the sheer volume of information available through both – the era of infrastructure membership organizations has passed. Critics believe that these tools can replace the function of infrastructure organizations as vehicles for information exchange.

The reality is that infrastructure groups do so much more than just enabling the exchange of information. They foster a community that technology alone simply cannot.

By ourselves, we cannot advance a field, be the movement for change, develop the shared sense of direction, improve the standards or be that collective powerful voice. We still need the American Red Cross to galvanize its chapters across the country when there is a major emergency. We still need infrastructure groups – national, regional, state and local – to be the hub of the community, to be the voice of a sector, to promote collaboration and cooperation, to have a larger vision and to promote change on a scale greater than its individual members. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Decades after the interstate highway system came into being, cars have improved, highways have improved and much improved signage guides us along the way. But, the infrastructure of the bridges and roads that connect us across the country is still needed and must be improved and maintained. As funders contemplate the value of making a grant to either to direct service provider or to an infrastructure organization, I suggest that this is an apple to oranges comparison. Both are needed. Both provide important services. The question really lies in your decision to change the life of one family or to potentially change the ability of a sector to support needy families. Both are valid. Effective infrastructure groups maximize impact. In times of plenty or of scarcity, any vehicle that maximizes impact should be celebrated and nurtured.

Just one person’s opinion, what is yours?

One Comment

  1. Ruth Schimel / Jul 21 2011 3:43 pm

    In 1998, The Schimel Lode began a nontraditional approach to assisting others, supporting nonprofit effectiveness, now called capacity building. We still “lack” an office and staff. Our Board continues to do the work.

    We feel and act connected through e-mail, telephone conversations, periodic meetings and professional development processes. This entire process is helped as our members also meet among themselves and assist one another to build connection. Over the years, we’ve developed mutual trust, openness; we have the fun that comes with creativity and exploration.

    I agree that a variety of organizing approaches is important, yet sense the pitch goes more in the direction of “edificing” rather than less traditional approaches.
    Ruth Schimel Ruth@TheSchimelLode.net
    http://www.TheSchimelLode.net

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