• Michelle Walker

Q1: What Intellectual Property Does the Organization Have?


I sent the survey to 107 people at the organizations curated on the theS&I 100 list, which was a list of vetted social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. The point of using this list was to highlight innovators working on social challenges, i.e. social entrepreneurs, since innovation is linked to the creation of intellectual property. I received a 20% participation rate after accounting for undeliverable emails. Not bad for a random request to a group of strangers.


The first question to those participating is to identify which forms of intellectual property the organization has as part of its assets, brand, services, marketing, and/or program materials. The question provided definitions for: trademark, patent, copyright, and trade secret. All of which are recognized form of intellectual property in the United States. Each form was one possible answer to the question and they could select all that the organization claimed to have. I also gave respondent the option of “none” which two participants (10% of all respondents) did select and were taken to a thank you message.


Image of the original survey text.
Image of the original 2014 survey text.

Right there is a big piece of confirmation data: 90% of the organizations responding have some form of intellectual property.


That’s more than I expected given the lack of any research or data on these assets in the nonprofit sector. So, I thought about it and looked a bit more closely at the responses.


Though it is a large number it does seem reasonable. First, the sample is composed entirely of social enterprises, which by definition are innovative and more likely to be aware that intellectual property is a product and tool of the innovation process. Second, after all of my reading it was clear that there is a difference between recognizing intellectual property (as in: I know that this is copyright.), managing intellectual property (as in: I’m going to protect my rights in this copyright.), and strategically using intellectual property (as in: I’m going to sell copies of the curricula to generate revenue that goes back to support other mission-related work.) It is not unreasonable to assume that most executives can identify patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets within their organizations since they are likely skilled leaders.


I had part of my gut instinct validated: other nonprofits do create and do recognize that they have intellectual property assets.


I gave them the option to select all the forms that the organization claimed to have.

  • Seventeen (17) have trademarks.

  • A different group of seventeen (17) have copyrights.

  • Two (2) have trade secrets

  • The two with trade secrets also have trademark and copyright.

  • None of the respondents have patents.


The lack of patents in the respondent pool is not surprising. The organizations on the S&I 100 were not research focused or exceptionally large institutions and patents are a particular form of novelty. Patents can also be expensive and time-consuming to obtain. In industry, as I had learned in my readings, an organization will opt for trade secret instead of patenting and achieve similar strategic outcomes for their innovation without the up-front costs. It is possible that the trade secrets held by two respondents may be some form of patentable innovation. This data point also aligns with what I’ve seen in my consulting work. Patents are generally not the primary way most nonprofits will protect innovations that qualify for patent protections. However, I have consulted with a handful of nonprofits that decided for strategic reasons a patent would be the best option for protecting and leveraging their intellectual property to achieve mission-related goals.


I had two of my earliest questions validated just from one survey question. Exploring the rest of their responses was going to be even more exciting than I could have anticipated!


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.


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