Allison Fine and I are honored to be delivering a conversational keynote at the Personal Democracy Forum today in New York City. Our session is part of a series brief talks that look at the future in a networked age. Our topic is rethinking nonprofits in a networked age. It just so happens that Allison Fine and I wrote a book together over the past year, The Networked Nonprofit, on that topic.
There has been an explosion in size of nonprofit sector over last twenty years, huge increases in donations and number of organizations, and yet needle hasn’t moved on any serious social issue. Growing individual institutions ever larger has failed to address complex social problems that outpace the capacity of any individual org. or institution to solve them.
That is why we feel passionately that nonprofits need to become more like networks and leverage the power of social media and connectedness. That was the inspiration for the book and the title, “The Networked Nonprofit.”
Making the shift from working as a single organization to one that works in a networked way both inside and outside of institutional walls is not a one-step process. Many organizations cannot just flip a switch. It isn’t as easy to change as changing a light blub. In the book, we offer a 12 step framework to guide nonprofits on how to embrace social media holistically. In our research, we found that some nonprofits are born as naturally networked nonprofits and have it in their DNA. While other nonprofits, institutions that have been working in a particular way for decades, have more challenges in making the change. Some will probably never change.
We believe that Networked Nonprofits first have to be, before they can do. The being includes:
- Understanding social networks through social network analysis
- Creating a social culture at your nonprofit
- Listening, Engaging, and Valuing relationships
- Becoming more transparent, less of a fortress
- Simplicity, letting go, focusing on what you do best and network the rest
Once an organization has assumed this way of being, then comes the doing. Networked Nonprofits are masters at:
- Working with “Free Agent” fundraisers
- Working effectively with crowds
- Rapid experimentation and learning
- Friending and funding
- Networked Governance
The framing our discussion is the question, “How Many Free Agents Does It Take To Change A Nonprofit Fortress?” is not just a play on those light blub jokes. We’d like to focus on the challenges that some nonprofits have working with free agents. But first, let’s define the terms “Free Agents” and “Fortress.”
A free agents are powerful social change players. A free agent, as we are defining it, is a person (many times a GenY, but not always) who is a passionate about a social cause, but is working outside of a nonprofit organization to organize, mobilize, raise money, and engage with others. Free agents are also fluent in social media and take advantage of the social media toolset to do everything organizations have always done, but outside of institutional walls. Some times they go on to form their own nonprofits like Amanda Rose and Manny Hernandez.
In the book, we talk about three different models for transparency and nonprofits. The least transparent is one that we’ve dubbed the Fortresses. These institutions work hard to keep their communities and constituents at a distance, pushing out messages and dictating strategy rather than listening or building relationships. Fortress organizations are losing ground today because they spend an extraordinary amount of energy fearing what might happen if they open themselves up to the world. These organizations are floundering in this set-me-free world powered by social media and free agents.
We’ve been witnessing Free Agents crash into nonprofit Fortresses – not even getting past the gate. We think this is a lost opportunity.
It happened in April at our NTEN/NTC session on the Networked Nonprofit right before our eyes in a room filled with people from nonprofits and Shawn, a passionate free agent fundraiser and video blogger. (You might know Shawn from his “Uncultured” project – I first encountered him in 2008 through Blog Action Day.)
Shawn’s frustration with traditional organizations spilled over. He grabbed the microphone to address the room full of nonprofit professionals and said, “the problem isn’t social media, the problem is that YOU are the fortress. Social media is not my problem: I have over a quarter million followers on Twitter, 10,800 subscribers on YouTube, and 2.1 million views. Yet, despite that, I have a hard time having you guys take me seriously.”
He turned and pointed a finger at Wendy Harman from the Red Cross who was also in the room and said, “When the Haiti earthquake struck, I contacted the Red Cross. I offered to connect the community supporting my work with your efforts in Haiti. But I was dismissed as ‘just a guy on YouTube.” A few hours later he wrote a blog post titled “You Are The Fortress!” to further vent.
Crash, Bam, Glass Smashing ….. but the story didn’t end here. Something amazing happened. Wendy Harman engaged with Shawn in the comments of his post and later by phone or email. Shawn wrote a second blog about his meeting with Red Cross and applauded them for taking the step to explore ways to work together. The title of this post is “Unfortress”
This morning Shawn shared some more thoughts about how to engage free agents from his perspective. So, I leave you with the questions we are posing to the audience at the PDF conference:
- What is your experience turning Fortresses inside/out? What works?
- Should we try to change free agents or just let them be?