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Four Things You'll Love About The Networked Nonprofit

From Fortress to Sponge: The Transformation of Nonprofits


The Networked Nonprofit

In Beth Kanter and Allison Fine's new book, The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, they categorize nonprofit organizations into three types:

  • Fortresses that build their walls high, man the parapets to keep out intruders, and even build moats to discourage the curious.
  • Transactional organizations have their eye constantly on how many...visits, donations, number of volunteers.
  • Transparents are like sea sponges, anchored but open, clear about what they do best, averse to complexity, trusting of others, relationship builders.

I have to admit that I've mostly worked in the fortress variety and even helped reinforce those walls in an effort to "control" interactions with what often looked like a dangerous world. But, I'm recovering, as I hope you are, and learning to use the new tools of social networking.

Kanter and Fine have been experimenting with social media for years. They have worked with numerous nonprofits to learn how networked organizations operate and to educate others to the benefits of social media within a context of social change.

Here are some of the things I liked most about The Networked Nonprofit and that I think you will like as well:

1. It provides an historical context.

American volunteerism has always been the pride of America's social progress. Until fairly recently, though, people came together to solve the problems of their communities in a free flowing way and without the aid of specialists or paid professionals.

About midway through the last century, however, these voluntary organizations began to change. Professional managers were hired; private foundations that preferred professional staffs multiplied and grew; nonprofits came to define their success as hiring more staff and having bigger budgets; and organizations learned to raise lots of money through methods such as direct mail that did not demand face to face contact.

Eventually, it seemed natural to have professionals who managed volunteers and to set up organizations that looked more like institutions than associations. Those institutions saw their peer nonprofits as competitors, and competed for resources.

But then something strange started happening. Those fortresses got wired, and the social networking revolution sneaked in, past the parapets and guards. Today, those mighty fortresses are more like Swiss cheese with their walls starting to crumble under the onslaught of a new generation clutching mobile phones, donors demanding transparency, and social problems that are more complex and global than ever. Social networking was knocking at the door.

2. It breaks down the myths about social media.

Not all nonprofits are going willingly into this new age. Well established organizations, particularly, may think that:

  • Their constituents aren't online. Think again. There is no digital divide, or at least very little. Although the Millennials are leading the charge into social media, almost everyone is connected in some way, from being online to joining Facebook to tweeting on Twitter.
  • Social media isn't core to our work. Social media actually enhances our ability to create social change through relationship building, conversations, and connections.
  • Using social media is hard. As more and more people engage through social media, the technology gets easier; and as we engage with it, we learn the "how to" until it becomes easy.
  • Using social media is time-consuming. Actually social media is a time saver once it is integrated into an organization's work flow.

3. It describes the social culture of networked organizations.

Networked organizations typically are open to:

  • Engaging in two-way conversations about the work of the organization with people inside and outside.
  • Embracing mistakes and taking calculated risks.
  • Rewarding learning and reflection.
  • Failing fast. In a social culture people are not afraid to go ahead and try things, changing and fixing on the fly.
  • Overcoming organizational inertia by challenging entrenched ways of thinking and doing.
  • Appreciating informality and individuality.
  • Trusting staff to make decisions and respond to fast breaking situations and removing organizational hurdles such as prolonged approval processes.

4. It provides lots of examples of organizations that use social media successfully..

You wouldn't think that large, entrenched nonprofits could change so swiftly, but just consider the Red Cross, which has broken new ground in social media, from its pioneering social media policies to raising millions of dollars through text-to-give campaigns.

At the other extreme, is MomsRising.org, about which authors Kanter and Fine say, "As remarkable as what MomsRising.org had done is what it had not done. The organization...did not grow to become a large, bureaucratic organization...[it] has remained an intentionally simple organization...." This tiny organization (with a big membership), whose staff all work virtually, has become a force for numerous issues that affect moms, families, and children.

There has been a lot written and said about social media in recent years. So much that it can all seem overwhelming. The Networked Nonprofit organizes the cloud of information about social media into a clear-eyed view of what social media can do for your organization and how to go about achieving its benefits.

Kanter and Fine acknowledge that it is easy to get confused and overwhelmed. So, they preach the beauty of the small experiment, saying:

Organizations cannot transform themselves overnight, but they can find small, safe places to experiment with working differently. Organizations can identify one fundraising event, one conversation to facilitate, or one effort that could use a crowd's help to experiment with listening, engaging with their community, and learning how to work in social ways. Try just this one thing, learn from it, and then try another."

What will be your next small, safe experiment?

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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