This has been quite a year: Many big thinkers have been setting their sights on coming up with ways to develop sustainable, self-empowering solutions to solve major societal ills. A high-profile example in the fight against poverty is the microcredit concern Grameen Bank, which won the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

Grameen lends tiny amounts of money to poor people in Bangladesh, without any collateral -- and the ensuing benefits to those people and their communities have been pretty amazing. (Longtime Fool Selena Maranjian recently outlined Grameen's interesting and inspiring history.)

It may seem odd to old-school thinkers who equate some societal problems with old-fashioned charitable donations, but there are more and more examples of for-profit, progressive organizations seeking to provide sustainable solutions for some of the world's biggest problems. Take, for example, Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) for-profit philanthropic arm. And there's the Omidyar Network, a for-profit organization that funds companies that take a progressive approach to self-empowerment, including some microfinance organizations. It was founded by none other than eBay's (NASDAQ:EBAY) Pierre Omidyar, who knows quite a bit about community and its ability to foster self-empowerment. (Consider that there are a whole lot of eBay sellers for whom eBay is their sole source of income.) And when it comes to the world's neediest people, what could be better than offering a hand up instead of a handout?

Grameen, though, took the prize this year, being thrown into the spotlight by the Nobel prize. But here's the kicker: Many Fools were already in the know when it came to helping needy people improve their situations. In fact, the Fool community is a fertile ground for such ideas.

Many ears to the ground
This is the time of year when our community-driven Foolanthropy campaign is in full swing. Each year, the Fool community nominates worthy charities and organizations, and five are chosen that are the most Foolish. Whichever charity receives the most Foolish support at the end of the campaign gets an extra $10,000 from the Fool. (Here's a full description of our Foolanthropy drive.)

That brings us back to Grameen: It's often been nominated in Foolanthropy, even before it hit most people's radars. In fact, taking a trip through the Foolish archives, I find that it was one of the chosen Foolanthropy organizations for several years running through 2003 -- long before its recent Nobel. That's s a great example of the power of community intelligence to find the best ideas.

Over the years, The Motley Fool has stood for empowerment to -- and from -- regular people. Consider the Foolish ideas that have blossomed since the Internet was in its infancy:

  • Individuals educating and empowering themselves to do just as well in the stock market as Wall Street's so-called experts can.

  • Regular people exchanging ideas on the Fool's vibrant discussion board community.

  • And charitable Fools engaging in the community-driven Foolanthropy campaign during the holiday season.

Indeed, here at the Fool we've always taken great interest in what the crowd has to say. Sure, sometimes we disagree with others -- how can there be true knowledge and intelligence without debate? Closed minds miss many risks and opportunities. And what's more, how can there be progress without ideas, some of which virtually no one ever even thought viable or possible? Grameen's idea to provide tiny loans to impoverished but entrepreneurial individuals -- sometimes so small that most of us would blow the same amount on a mediocre dinner out, yet immensely helpful for the recipients of those loans -- well, it's a great example of an idea that many people scoffed at on the onset. And look where Grameen is now, years after it first hit Foolanthropy's radar as a Foolish organization. It's not only proved to be a very successful endeavor -- it's also a Nobel prize winner.

Where ideas blossom
The Fool community has been a fertile ground for ideas through Foolanthropy, to say the least. And now the Fool's latest innovation in community intelligence is Motley Fool CAPS, a database intended to take the temperature of many individual investors' attitudes toward a universe of stocks -- many known, some completely off the radar. It's an all-inclusive community, where everyone's ideas are welcome.

Much in the way that the Fool community yielded great Foolanthropy ideas like Grameen, say, or Heifer International, we believe that the Fool community will yield some great investing ideas for us all to ponder, or maybe even pose challenges to conventional wisdom that might be proved wrong later down the road. The pitches each CAPS player includes with his or her "outperform" or "underperform" ratings often outline the risks or the possibilities facing the companies in question. Sometimes, we'll gain insights that we'd never even considered. The more people who participate, the stronger and more knowledgeable the system will become. And that pooling of ideas, opinion, and information is very Foolish indeed.

There's no shortage of talk about community intelligence these days -- and with good reason, since there's increasing proof that it's a powerful engine for great ideas and innovation. There's never been a better time to join the crowd -- community can make a difference in many ways.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.