Happy new year! In celebration, I’m excited to share news about a big milestone in the evolution of the Open Referral Initiative: Open Referral is now fiscally sponsored by Aspiration, a 501c3 organization that provides facilitation and capacity-building support to nonprofit technology initiatives.
For years, the Open Referral Initiative has evolved organically, without much formal organizational structure, as an unincorporated community of practice. This was an intentional decision. Rather than build a new organization with all the overhead and other associated costs that would entail, we instead focused on building relationships, sharing knowledge, and facilitating experimentation across an open network.
I believe this open-ended approach has paid off in a big way. Dozens of organizations, governments, and technology developers are now adopting Open Referral’s protocols in their efforts to facilitate the exchange of interoperable resource data. Even more importantly, we’re developing new business models that can transform the sectors of health, human, and social services. We’ve accomplished all of this with a very modest amount of funding, most of which has gone to our partners for the doing of the actual work — while Open Referral itself has maintained our independence and agility along the way.
Yet as our network grows, so grows the complexity of considerations for Open Referral’s specifications, protocols, documentation – and community. With this complexity comes the need for formal institutional support.
I believe that 501c3 fiscal sponsorship is an appropriate step for this intermediate phase, between our formative years and whatever this network may become in the future. Here are two primary reasons:
First, this will enable us to directly fundraise for Open Referral’s operations. To date, Open Referral has primarily helped partner organizations raise funding for their own projects, while we’ve conducted our development in tandem with those projects. Now, however, we’ve come to a point where we need dedicated technical leadership and coordination capacity in order to continue evolving with many projects simultaneously. Towards this end, we can seek grants and other support from the various institutions that have an interest in seeing ‘open’ solutions to problems related to community resource directory information. Fiscal sponsorship makes that process much easier for all involved.
Second, this will establish a formal mechanism for stewardship of Open Referral’s intellectual property. Open Referral is and always will be open source, but that of course can mean many different things. In our case, we’ve adopted “Share-Alike” licenses that allow adaptations of our products yet require the preservation of open source licensing with them. In order to promote a balance between interoperability and innovation across our network, it will help us to have a formal institutional mechanism that can anchor this licensing regime. Through fiscal sponsorship, a trusted legal entity can ‘hold’ our open source licenses.
Aspiration is the ideal partner for this purpose. As both advisors and event facilitators, they have supported Open Referral’s activities for years (as well as activities of our partners, such as Code for America, Civic Hall, and Benetech, among others). They have long-standing relationships with non-profit funders and other leaders across these sectors, and a strong track record of nurturing open technology projects as a responsible fiscal sponsor(such as the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation and Idealware). Our values are very aligned, and Aspiration takes a hands-off, low-cost approach to their fiscal sponsees. (If you have any kind of upcoming event that might benefit from effective facilitation, check them out!)
This step is really just the start of a longer process of developing systems of stewardship and governance for the resources developed in this community. Toward that end, we’re looking to expand and deepen our relationships with a network of advisors who can guide this process through our next phase. If you’re interested in helping to shape the next chapters of Open Referral, please reach out!