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[berkman] Beth Kanter and Allison Fine on networked nonprofits

Beth Kanter and Allison Fine are giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on their book The Networked Nonprofit.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Allison says that over the past few years, the question has emerged: What can nonprofits do with the new tools? The number of non-profits has grown over the past year. Non-profits now the tenth largest employer in the country. But the complexity of social problems is outpacing the capacity of any single organization to solve them. How could non-profits working through networks solve these problems?

Non-networked non-profits work in silos, behind non-porous firewalls. Networked non-profits work up their professional networks within the organization. The institution becomes more porous. The insiders are allowed to get outside the institution to connect with others to solve complex problems. But, Beth points out, this sort of institutional change is difficult.

Some nonprofits have networking in teir DNA. E.g., the Surfrider Foundation. It’s not afraid of letting go of control. For example, they allow local chapters to play with the logo. They can put together 50,000 people within an hour, so who cares about the logo?

Other non-profits are more entrenched, and it can take years to make the transition. The Red Cross, The Humane Society, and Planned Parenthood are now in the process of opening themselves up. They need to “be” before they “do”; otherwise, they’ll try a social media experiment and it will likely fail. Traditional non-profits are usually like fortresses, whereas networked non-profits are more like spongers: thousands of gallons of water moves through them, and they hold on to what they need. “When organizations are immersed in social media … we begin to see what goes on in side,” says Allison. “That kind of transparency builds trust with people, not just outside but also inside.” They don’t trust their own people. But, within a network, where everything is more open , the focus becomes simplicity: “sticking to what they do best, and networking the rest.”

Q: How to simplify to make time to do social media?
A: “You have too much to do because you do too much.” Also, look at using your social network to help accomplish your tasks.

Q: If every social medium is asking us to help a cause …? Also, do people maliciously infiltrate the porous infrastructure?
A: We are seeing a palpable sense of cause fatigue. The non-profits that will succeed are the ones that build relationships, get to know their supporters.
A: If you’re asking if these are early adopter wins, a couple of years ago I would have said yes. But I’m starting to hear lots of stories of small wins. E.g., SurfRider tweeting for two minutes to get someone to do some PhotoShopping. Or the Humane Society. And, yes, people will use social media for evil. (Evgeny Morozov has a book coming out on this, Beth says.)

Q: How do you handle global branding in a networked age?
A: People worry about losing control when using social media, but they never had that much control anyway. It’s all a matter of where you want to invest your energy. The amount of energy organizations spend policing people internally and externally is a huge wasted opportunity. E.g., my synagogue, says Allison, spends too much energy deciding on who can be a member.
A: The orgs not doing an effective job with social media are the ones who don’t have a communication plan. The ones who start later have an advantage because they can start with a clean slate.

Q: How about organizational leaders who have been able to make the transition?
A: It does start with leadership. They need to get their hands dirty. They need reverse mentoring. But there are lots of myths about social media: “We’ll make a mistake, it’ll create info overload, it’ll eat up the time of sr mgrs.” You can’t use those as conversation stoppers, but as conversation starters.
A: Social media are a contact sport (says Allison). People need to sit down and go through the real concerns. And, they need to keep doing what they’re doing, e.g., cultivating large donors. But find a place to experiment, build relationships, just listen. That’s how CEOs inch their way in.

Q: I’m surprised your language is so tame. We’re seeing tremendous disruption. If you were to start with a clean slate, what would it look like?
A: Non-profits too often hop into do-ing. That’s why they’re in business. But they should begin with conversations, building relationships, being a good sharer and generous, being a trust source…Don’t worry about metrics right away. Build relationships and understand your situation.
A: My son’s kindergarten class has a “I can make better choices” chair (says Beth). That’s a social media best practice! Non-profits that start out networked are great learners. E.g., one has funerals for ideas that didn’t work.

Q: Many of the fund-raising opportunities opened by social media come from corporations, and my group doesn’t take money from them. Any tips?
A: You’re a social media best practice. Consider how it its into your mission.
A: There’s a myth in fund raising that orgs should have a mix of different revenue streams. A study showed that non-profits typically are good only as some types of fund raising. I’d try to build a stream from lots of small funders.

Q: Does this culture change bring changes outside of how these orgs work?
A: An example. A non-profit working on eradicating a disease heard got a backlash because of the talk of a possible cure arose on FB, making the org look like it wasn’t trying to prevent the disease. So they changed their mission.
A: Too many boards are packed with white lawyer guys and white finance guys. There are apparently plenty of them out there ready for board work. They develop expectations of annual growth for non-profits. Because of that, orgs become very focused on raising more money every year and hiring more staff. That can take people away from their mission. It can be a shock when you go out in the world and see people’s perceptions of what you are not achieving.

A: Professionals have felt that they’re paid to have the answers: to develop the plans and strategies. When they step out into the world with a plan, it’s done. “This is what we’re going to do, and this is the role of volunteer donors.” Instead, you can authentically ask people for their input, which means actually listening to them. You have to change the dynamic so that your individual donors become a really smart crowd.

Q: Could you talk about the Planned Parenthood example?
A: The leader told us that she’s not afraid of being uncomfortable. When talking to their online person, he said that on FaceBook they spend as much time wishing people happy birthday as talking about the issues.
A: Think about the amazing amount of courage of the PP leadership and board first to start building their own Web page and then move on to FaceBook. They decided the cost of not being on social media was too high. They moved from cramming urgent action alerts down people throats to building relationships.
A: Opening up comments helps to build loyalty. Their FaceBook has become an early warning system for telling them what’s going on. Their most enthusiastic FaceBook fans are evangelists.
A: Free agents are incredibly powerful, and keep crashing into organizations. Shawn Ahmed, creator of the Uncultured Twitter stream, has a million followers who care about ending global poverty. At a meeting with institutions, he said, “Social media is not my problem. It’s yours,” because they’re not taking him and his followers seriously. He blogged, railing against closed institutions. The Red Cross is now talking with him. Similar example: Hardly Normal.

Q: [ethanz] You’re talking about networked non-profits, but you’re talking about fairly centralized orgs that have figured out how to use networks. Are there cases of organizations making strategic decisions in networked ways?
A: I looked for examples and was stunned at the lack of examples. So we wrote about what governance could be.
A: [steve waddell] Wikipedia has done networked development of strategy.
A: [me] It’s perhaps in part because you’re looking at legally constituted orgs. But, if you define decision-making as not just the moment of decision, but the set of processes leading up to and from the moment of decision, those processes are becoming networked and distributed.
A: [ethanz] I ask because of the current debate about value of networks in political action [i.e., Gladwell]. The strong case for what you’re saying is not when the head of the Red Cross deigns to meet with Shawn, but Shawn’s ideas rise into the Red Cross early on in the process.
A: We are seeing some decentralized agencies and organizations.

Q: There’s anecdotal evidence but is the return on investment always as great as people think when they first start up their Twitter account. How much do you recommendation orgs devote to social media?
A: Start slowly with small, low-risk pilots. Measure. Reflection, relationship-building … The “being” side.
A: Keep the expectations of your board realistic that this isn’t a spigot for cash, and that building relationships takes time, but that’s where millennials live.

4 Responses to “[berkman] Beth Kanter and Allison Fine on networked nonprofits”

  1. […] Weinberger has notes on the talk as well. They’re probably better than mine. Discuss […]

  2. Thank you for the great questions and the live blog post!

  3. Thanks for posting these. I wish I could follow Beth and Allison around the country and i CAN!

  4. Is there a reason this talk didn’t get webcast and archived? I was really sorry to have missed it.

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