• Michelle Walker

More Curiosity: What New Questions the Survey Prompted

Updated: Feb 24

After the analysis of the survey responses was complete, I found myself in a similar state of curiosity that I'd been in before the survey. There were more questions about intellectual property, management, and strategy that hadn't been answered. Some of these questions for the basis of my ongoing study and work as a consultant. Some remain open and I encourage others to add their own curiosity to the exploration.

The questions that follow are by no means exhaustive. They are simply the ones that stand out to me as intriguing and unanswered by this survey data.

The first of which is: how does this small sample group’s IP management compare with a larger and broader sample of 501c3 organizations? Are some types of nonprofits more aware of and actively managing IP than any other nonprofits? The sample is too small to know how representative it is across the nonprofit landscape. Of note, large institutions, such as health care and higher education are not in this sample. In addition to a larger sample and response rate, the data collected with this survey would be enhanced with information about the age of the nonprofit, the composition of the board of directors, the number of staff and constituents served, and financial statements. This information could be used to show how differences in IP management correlate to the financial and impact metrics of the nonprofit.

It is clear that, at least among those that participated in the survey, nonprofits are able to identify IP among the organization’s assets and that most take the necessary steps to ensure legal protection. Further, some will even defend their legal rights by taking action against infringers. This prompts questions of whether innovative nonprofits are more apt to take legal action, in general, to protect IP, or if this is true of all non-profits. How do they scan for infringers? Are certain types of IP more zealously defended than others? What legal recourse do they take and what resources do they expend in that process?

Only slightly more than half of the respondents with IP also have written policies for management and strategic use of their IP. By far, the most common policy is on non-disclosure when partnering with other organizations, making protection of the IP a clear priority. Also common among the written policies are standards for brand and trademark display which signals that this is important to the organization. Policies on strategic use, non-compete clauses, and enforcement of rights through legal means were less common, but this does not prove that organizations do not manage the IP via these methods. It only indicates that these processes are not a part of codified internal controls. Future inquiries could look at organizational management of IP versus the written policies that guide that management to discover whether nonprofits forgo written policies but are still active and strategic IP managers, which is what the respondents’ answers to questions about leveraging IP seem to imply. It would also be useful to know the form and function of IP within an organization to know if certain policies or management tools are even necessary. For example, if a nonprofit’s only IP is its logo, which is a trademark, is a policy on non-compete clauses necessary?

The data also indicates, as mentioned earlier, that organizations with IP developed with foundation or government money are less likely to have written policies on IP management. Why is this the case? Do nonprofits that capitalize their own intellectual property create policies because the IP is an investment of finite resources and therefore more dear? Do nonprofits consider IP developed with a funder’s capital to be more of a public good, rather than a private one, given the public benefit origins of the capital? Is this dichotomy unique to some subset of nonprofits or does it exist across all 501c3 organizations?

Nonprofits responded that their strategic use of IP is a mix of methods. Only one firm licensed IP, leveraged it for revenue generation, and incorporated it into market expansion opportunities. The same firm uses IP to recruit both employees and board members. However, that organization did not use it to leverage “investors”, aka donors, via government grants or contracts. The rest of the 19 respondents ranged from indicating none of those strategies to a mix of, on average, 3 or 4 strategies. IP strategy maximization is not required of firms and may not be relevant to many firms. Future investigations could look at the type and function of a firm’s intellectual property and compare it to the management strategies utilized and correlate it to specific organizational goals for revenue generation, recruitment, niche protection, and scaling/growth.

The data suggests that nonprofits, especially those not engaging in any IP strategy, utilize other assets or methods to achieve their goals. If this is the case, does this differentiate an innovative nonprofit from any other nonprofit, or is the strategic use of IP a critical component of innovative forms, like social enterprise?

Finally, the number of follow-up emails from respondents interested in the results indicates a high level of interest in some organizations for comparing and understanding the landscape of IP strategy and management in nonprofits. Given the prevalence of intellectual property in non-profits, this knowledge could be useful to the entire non-profit sector by providing another set of strategies that manage IP assets to help organizations achieve mission. More time, resources, and different methodologies could very quickly add to the baseline data collected from this small sample. This survey is, hopefully, a starting place for future research into the innovations of nonprofits and their management teams.


You can skip to the summary of all of the responses in the Social Entrepreneurs and Intellectual Property Management paper. Or, read through each of the blog posts tagged as Intellectual Property Data V1.0 for a more recent analysis of the data.