• Michelle Walker

Reading Without Comprehension



What is ironic and wonderful is that my misread led to interpreting a blog post as a call to give away intellectual property. That misunderstanding launched the pursuit of questions I still haven’t finished asking. My questions were sparked by the idea that giving impactful programs away is the best way to scale did not square with my own experience at nonprofit organizations over my then-13-year career.


In 2013 I was completing a weekly writing assignment for Professor Lenkowsky’s Social Enterprise course at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. I read a blog post by Kimberly Dasher Tripp about scaling social innovation. (I think it was this one.) Reading it again, if indeed that is the right one, I think I must have been in a mood. I remember being much more upset about the implication that organizations give away impactful programs to communities. Reading it now, I don’t see that Tripp is advocating for giving innovation away; rather that local context will matter and local agents should have a say in how change happens. I’m cool with that.


But, even in hindsight, my knee jerk reaction to the misread was not wrong – there is a broad misconception that nonprofit organizations don’t, can’t, or shouldn’t have intellectual property assets, or that they simply aren’t as valuable as other intellectual property and should be given away to solve social problems.


It turns out that very little attention has been paid to intellectual property in nonprofits. That was shocking to me because by the time I had read the blog post I had worked for three nonprofits that all recognized and utilized their intellectual property for mission-oriented goals.


At the University of Pittsburgh I worked with a group of medical doctors that were developing pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tools, and therapeutic procedures. All of these advances and innovations included some form of intellectual property that was under management by the university’s technology transfer office.


At Manchester Bidwell Corporation I was surrounded by intellectual property. The impact of the programming was in the curricula – all a form of copyright. But, the secret sauce of Manchester Bidwell, as anyone who has seen or heard Bill Strickland speak will tell you – is in how the organization blends the value of human as people, art, culture, care, and compassion into a place that makes people glad to be there. That secret sauce, though, is also full of copyright, brand, and process – from the curated art exhibits to the Jazz label to the replication model for scaling Manchester Bidwell’s success in other cities.


But, it’s the time I spent working at SAE International that underscored both the financial and strategic power of intellectual property in nonprofit organizations. SAE International’s members, who are professional engineers, volunteer their time, energy, and expertise to write the standards of automotive vehicles. In return, the professional engineers who work on standards committees build network and reputational capital, expertise, resume credentials, and have access to the library of SAE standards. This mutually beneficial process advances mobility knowledge and solutions for the benefit of humanity, which is the larger mission of the organization – all built on the development of standards which are intellectual property.


I didn't think it was likely that my experience with intellectual property was a anomaly in the sector, but I had to find out.

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