How Many Free Agents Does It Take To Change A Nonprofit Fortress? | Beth’s Blog

How Many Free Agents Does It Take To Change A Nonprofit Fortress?

Case Studies, Fundraising, Networked Nonprofit

 

 

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.

Flickr Photo by Stuck in Customs

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.

Flickr Photo by Big Tall Guy

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

Source: Nicci Noble

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?

Answer these questions in the form of a light bulb joke in comment (include your email address)  and you’ll be entered into a raffle for a copy of the Networked Nonprofit.

Update:  Here’s the video and a blog post from Becky Wiegand over at TechSoup Blog.


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46 Responses

  1. Jeff Achen says:

    How many employeees does it take to make The Saint Paul Foundation more transparent?

    Answer: 70! (Our entire staff) (15 to tweet about our grants and programs, 15 to comment, “like” and share our videos and photos on their Facebook newsfeeds, 10 to Yammer internally with each other about how to collaborate, 30 to listen and engage on nonprofit blogs like Beth’s blog! …and of course all of them to embrace the brave new world of social media!)

  2. Wendy says:

    I wish I could be up there learning more with you guys!

  3. Arjun Singh says:

    A great talk Beth – I was honoured to see it live. Thanks so much for posting the info on your blog. Really helps to have a set of notes from the presenters themselves!

  4. Joe Garecht says:

    Great article. Free agents, as you call them, are important in every field of human endeavor, and particular in non-profit fundraising.

    To me, good “free agents” that we want to support are those people that are entrepreneurs… people who make things happen. There’s nothing like finding someone who supports your non-profit organization, who has the skills to make big things happen, and who goes out and does it!

  5. [...] week, I was in NYC to deliver a keynote with Allison Fine about our book, The Networked Nonprofit. I stayed the weekend to travel to [...]

  6. [...] last week’s Personal Democracy Forum, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine gave a keynote on their new book, The Networked Nonprofit. I’m often frustrated by how advice for nonprofits [...]

  7. [...] both inside and outside of institutional walls is not a one-step process. It isn’t as easy as changing a light bulb and our book provides a 12 step framework for making this [...]

  8. [...] way both inside and outside of institutional walls is not a one-step process. It isn't as easy as changing a light bulb and our book provides a 12 step framework for making this [...]

  9. [...] week, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine presented at the Personal Democracy Forum about the role of the free agent. For me, my first question was: What’s a free agent? In genius style, they helped us define a [...]

  10. [...] So if your nonprofit has always done an event, but you’re getting diminishing returns, STOP DOING IT. Call in a consultant. Get someone with no axe to grind to take a good hard look at your program. Use free agent bloggers and connected people to help your nonprofit succeed. Beth Kanter just did a wonderful post about this. [...]

  11. [...] that can more easily open up to innovation; welcome more creative thinking; allow “free agents” who are talented people, eager to help mobilize and strategize but aren’t technically [...]

  12. [...] the same time, is the idea of a social media internship itself outdated?  In their presentation of their upcoming book Networked Nonprofit, Allison Fine and Beth Kanter suggests that free [...]

  13. [...] Kanter and Allison Fine’s new book The Networked Nonprofit, they talk about the concept of Free Agents, individuals who crash into the walls of traditional nonprofits using social media tools. These [...]

  14. [...] nie omieszkam podzielić się przemyśleniami. A w międzyczasie zainteresowanym gorąco polecam oryginalny post Beth Kanter o twierdzy i wolnych strzelcach, lub zapoznanie się z prezentacją z webinarium na [...]

  15. [...] nie omieszkam podzielić się przemyśleniami. A w międzyczasie zainteresowanym gorąco polecam post Beth Kanter o non-profitowej twierdzy i wolnych strzelcach oraz zapoznanie się z prezentacją z webinarium poniżej. Oryginalne nagranie (w wersji audio) [...]

  16. [...] The third blog comes from one of my favorite voices in Social Media, Beth Kanter [@kanter]. Last month she wrote a blog about how the “millennial” acting as Free Agents might be the hope to break through the non-profit walls. They bring transparency and community building to the non-profits they work with.They are extremely social media savvy and have built relationships with their peers. Something the “Fortress” approach of some non-profits aren’t doing. She discusses the situation in her post “How Many Free Agents Does It Take To Change A Nonprofit Fortress?” [...]

  17. [...] Nonprofit, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine discuss how nonprofits can work with networks and even “free agents,” passionate givers working outside of [...]

  18. I agree that nonprofit organizations need to be more open to embracing “free agents”. I’m the founder of CausesCalendar.com, a free self-service resource for nonprofits. It’s a nationwide calendar of special events hosted by nonprofit organizations. You can search for runs, walks, galas, golf tournaments, pancake breakfasts, etc by location or cause. The disappointing thing is that when I contact nonprofit staff about this resource, their typical responce seems to be that they don’t want to be bothered. If we, the free agents, can collectively heighten awareness of how useful and valuable we are, maybe the doors of the fortress will open.

    “Blog for Causes”, at http://www.blog.causescalendar.com is our open forum for people to share stories, pictures and ideas about their favorite causes.

    Please help spread the word about these worthwhile resources! Promoting awareness and participating in nonprofit events helps the entire philanthropic community.

  19. [...] nie omieszkam podzielić się przemyśleniami. A w międzyczasie zainteresowanym gorąco polecam post Beth Kanter o non-profitowej twierdzy i wolnych strzelcach oraz zapoznanie się z prezentacją z webinarium poniżej. Oryginalne nagranie (w wersji audio) [...]

  20. [...] YouTube videos from Bangladesh.Beth Kanter and Allison Fine called “just guys” like Shawn “free agents” in their book, The Networked NonProfit. And social media has helped create many of them.Mark [...]

  21. [...] Kanter and Allison Fine called “just guys” like Shawn “free agents” in their book, The Networked NonProfit. And social media has helped create many of [...]

  22. [...] Kanter and Allison Fine called just guys like Shawn free agents in their book, The Networked NonProfit. And social media has helped create many of [...]

  23. [...] Kanter and Allison Fine called “just guys” like Shawn “free agents” in their book, The Networked NonProfit. And social media has helped create many of [...]

  24. [...] Kanter and Allison Fine called “just guys” like Shawn “free agents” in their book, The Networked NonProfit. And social media has helped create many of [...]

  25. [...] Kanter and Allison Fine called “just guys” like Shawn “free agents” in their book, The Networked NonProfit. And social media has helped create many of [...]

  26. [...] agent” this year in their book, The Networked Nonprofit. A “free agent,” as they defined it, is a “person who is passionate about a social cause, but is working outside of a nonprofit [...]

  27. [...] by Allison Fine and Beth Kanter in their book “The Networked Nonprofit” and describes people who harness social media to mobilize their networks to take action-whether it be signing a petition, making a donation, or attending a protest. What’s key about [...]

  28. [...] This phrase was coined by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine in their book Networked Nonprofit. Learn more about free agents and see [...]

  29. [...] This phrase was coined by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine in their book Networked Nonprofit. Learn more about free agents and see [...]

  30. [...] for not-for-profits, social enterprises, socially minded businesses, community organisations and free agents are [...]

  31. [...] support individuals engaging in their own citizen philanthropy activities, they are attracting free agents — people who want to operate outside the domain of a 501c3. These free agents feel empowered [...]

  32. Ots says:

    I hope you will continue posting those so good articles. I am impressed.

  33. [...] talks about the growth of the nonprofit sector over last twenty years in her blog. Despite the number of nonprofits and the increased amount of donations, the needle hasn’t moved [...]

  34. [...] nightmares are connected and they’re evidence of challenges that the digital network poses to fortress-like hierarchical organizations like the US government.  By increasing the power of the individual to [...]

  35. [...] that can more easily open up to innovation; welcome more creative thinking; allow "free agents" who are talented people, eager to help mobilize and strategize but aren't technically [...]

  36. [...] The necessity of participating in public creation, of being consulted, is also what Dan Gillmor was talking about when he coined the term “the former audience” in the context of citizen journalism and what Beth Kanter is talking about when she encourages nonprofits to act and strategize like porous sponges instead of self-isolating fortresses. [...]

  37. [...] in single strong campaigns, not multiple weak ones, and being transparent so organizations (and free agents) in the same field can be mutually aware of each other's [...]

  38. I’m curious to see what – if any – differences have been made with the advent of so many crowdfunding services in recent months? I’d like to think there’s been a large shift, but know in my heart there is just so much yet to do that it likely has hardly made any dent at all.

  39. [...] support individuals engaging in their own citizen philanthropy activities, they are attracting free agents — people who want to operate outside the domain of a 501c3. These free agents feel empowered [...]

  40. [...] by technology and how Millennials choose to do good. And, generous people are choosing to act as free agents, bypassing traditional work with nonprofits and [...]

  41. [...] silent in the realm of social, you miss out influencing millions of potential fans, followers and free agents. Content MarketingSocial [...]

  42. Floyd says:

    Hi! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give
    a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading through your blog posts.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same
    subjects? Thanks a ton!

  43. [...] So if your nonprofit has always done an event, but you’re getting diminishing returns, STOP DOING IT. Call in a consultant. Get someone with no axe to grind to take a good hard look at your program. Use free agent bloggers and connected people to help your nonprofit succeed. Beth Kanter just did a wonderful post about this. [...]