DTES Kitchen Tables Project: A New Wave of Open Source NGO Coalitions?

A new trend of non-profit coalitions is emerging. Rather than formal agreements, groups are coming together – sometimes extremely quickly – in connected and collaborative groups. They are using the open source model to link themselves together in service of a common strategy yet allowing tremendous flexibility in tactics.

Whether it was the broad-based TckTckTck campaign, 350.org or the current “open source” Red Tent campaign, organizers are seeing the benefits in collaborating with like-minded groups. Both TckTckTck and Red Tent have made extensive use of social media  and other web-based technologies to connect groups. Micheal Silberman wrote a great piece on how 350.org came together on the Huffington Post here.  I love his point that although technology is key, organizing has to come first and technology second. As an example, the Red Tent campaign asks for a commitment to a Basis of Unity to demonstrate alignment of values. That commitment then allows groups in this loose coalition the freedom to create actions, design posters, even launch new campaigns while staying “true” the overall principles.

This article in the Georgia Straight highlights another great example of this – the Downtown Kitchen Table project. Like many inner city areas, the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver has challenges like poverty and food security. There are also many agencies diligently fighting to make change. However, also like many inner cities, these agencies are frequently working in parallel at best and at cross purposes at worst.

The Kitchen Table project is an attempt to align disparate groups with related goals to achieve a common objective

In October 2009, the Potluck Café Society and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House received six months of funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada to pursue community-based solutions to food insecurity for Vancouver’s most vulnerable residents. The Downtown Eastside (DTES) Kitchen Tables project will work toward a paradigm shift in the way the city deals with food insecurity. “It’s a model that allows and enables access to affordable, quality, nutritious food by every resident down here,” Heather O’Hara, executive director of Potluck Café and Catering, said.

One of the goals is to develop innovative and efficient food-distribution methods. “We’re suggesting decentralized distribution and multiple distribution sites instead of just the single source or the single lineup,” O’Hara explained. “It’s more about a community economic-development solution to food.”

As multiple agencies across the city work to integrate their delivery models, the food that is there can be more effectively distributed. According to Reverend Ric Matthews of First United Church Mission,

“There clearly is a need for food, but…my sense is that it’s not because people will otherwise go hungry. I think, in the main, there’s always enough food in the DTES. In fact, there’s probably more than enough.”

So the coalition approach makes sense. What I find interesting here is the growing number of these coalitions that are evolving. While there have been partnerships between non-profit groups in the past, the speed at which these groups can come together is accelerating.  Using new organizational models and communications techniques, groups can quickly synchronize core messaging while allowing for very loose and creative implementations of strategies. That is the strength of the open source approach.

I am very interested to see how this model evolves over time. I have a couple of big questions:

  • How do groups ensure the “commitment” to common values over time as people and organizations evolve?
  • If technology, specifically the social web, is playing a key role how do we ensure that groups such as the DTES Kitchen Table project have access to these tools?

I would also love to hear of other examples of this new wave of connected, collaborative and open source coalitions.

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