Networked Nonprofit in Boston: A Story of Contrasts | Beth's Blog

Networked Nonprofit in Boston: A Story of Contrasts

Networked Nonprofit

Weak Tie/Strong Tie Ice Breaker

Earlier this week, I flew across the country (thanks Virgin America!) to Boston for two days of book events hosted by  Associated Grant MakersBarr Foundation, Public Conversations Project, TechFoundation and Berkman Center Luncheon series.   This post shares a few observations about Networked Nonprofits.

Networking: Weaving Online and Offline, Strong Ties and Weak Ties

I have been experimenting with how to deliver “networked” presentations and workshops.  So, I was delighted to get an opportunity to test some new icebreaker at the evening event that was intended to get people to know each other in the room and connect online.   You can only really do this with a technically comfortable crowd, and the folks at the Public Conversations Project and TechFoundation hosted event fit the bill.

I asked folks to raise their hands if they had a smart phone, most did. I asked folks if they were on Twitter or Facebook, most people raised their hands. Next, I asked them to stand and take a photo of someone next to them and to post the photo on their Facebook or Twitter using our hashtag, #netnon.

As I went from event to event, meeting people who “followed me on Twitter” or were “liked my Facebook Page” I could not help but think how offbase Malcolm Gladwell’s argument about strong versus weak ties was in his New Yorker article “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”

At the events, the people I encountered were a mix of strong ties (people you know Face-to-Face) and weak ties (those you’ve met online) as well as  something in between from my “social graph” or network.   On the one hand,  Deborah Finn is an example of  “strong tie,”  a respected colleague that I’ve known for over ten years in the nonprofit technology community.  Connecting on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook allows us to keep in touch bolsters our professional connection.    Claire Murray and Kathleen Sherwin are other nonprofit technology colleagues who I first met face-to-face and have also kept up with through social media and who attended the book event.

On the other hand, Susan Kang Nam who is someone I first on Twitter where she is goes by the handle @pinkolivefamily.   We met face-t0-face at  a social media event in 2008, but that was the only time I had interacted her face-to-face.   Since then, I’ve followed her work on Twitter and feel like I know here better than the one-time meeting we’ve had.  Jack Vinson who I met at Blogher way back in 2007 is another person I have only met once or twice, but have gotten to know better through Twitter.   I’m also thinking of nonprofit technology professionals like John Haydon and Debra Askanase are another example. They work in the nonprofit technology field and we connected and have conversations online before meeting in person.

This demonstrate how the connectedness of social networks bolsters both strong ties and weak ties directly and indirectly.    Social networks like Twitter or Facebook allow for ambient intimacy or frequent informal communication with people who are weak ties.   This “relationship building” conversation is the foundation of forming stronger ties.

Dancing on Different Sides of the Adoption Curve

One of the reasons we wrote the book is that we felt it was important to put a flag in the ground at the point in time.   We are seeing the use of social media broaden beyond the early adopters and becoming more mainstream.  Organizational leaders are changing questions from “why bother with this?” to “how does our organization begin to adopt social media strategically?”

Yet, there is still some resistance.   As I have been traveling around the country and speaking to nonprofits leaders,  I ask the audience to this question, “What two words come to mind when you think about social media?”    The same themes come out and usually there is a cluster of positive words – like exciting, strategic, fun, etc.     There are also concerns like the word cloud above which represents the challenge of organizational change to adopt social media.  It takes time and patience as Allison notes.

Discussion at the Berkman Center

We were honored to do a luncheon discussion at the Berkman Center on the Networked Nonprofit.  (Here is the archived webcast and a post).    The last time I had a discussion at the Berkman Center was in 2005 during the Thursday evening bloggers group.  That’s where I first discovered and connected with the Global Voices Community around my interests in Cambodia.  (I’m now an advisor).

Ethan Zuckerman, a Berkman Fellow and (fellow board member at Ushahadi) blogged the conversation here.   Ethan asked a thought provoking question:

I asked the speakers whether we were seeing centrally-organized nonprofits figure out how to leverage networks to advance their goals, or whether we were starting to see truly networked organizations make decisions in a distributed fashion. Fine notes that she thought this would be an easy part of the book to write – all she’d have to do is find people working to make the board room virtual, opening up decisionmaking to outside influences. But she wasn’t able to find examples. As a result, the last chapter of the book – on networked governance – is speculative, based on the best thinking of people in the field. Steve Waddell, who studies nonprofits and social media, suggested that Wikipedia’s strategic planning process might represent networked decisionmaking. And David Weinberger suggested that, if we think of decisionmaking as including everything that leads up to a decision made by a small group, we may be entering a time of widespread network decisionmaking.

David Weinberger also lived blogged the presentation and q/a.  He asked if we had seen any organizations change their mission as a result of connectedness on social networks.   I have only seen one example of this so far and told the story, but am now curious.  Have you?

As always, lots of fun to actually see my co-author, Allison Fine, in person.   In my spare time, a video crew was following me around to create a short piece for Blackbaud Conference on October 20-21st in Washington, DC as part of the keynote to be delivered live by Allison.   The video is a reality tv meets Networked Nonprofit presentation, wondering around Boston in the rain.   (I’ll be on the Twitter back channel following the #netnon hashtag from the Independent Sector Conference in Atlanta.)

2 Responses

  1. Dan Bassill says:

    Hi Beth,

    I’ve followed your work for many years and am actively involved in connecting non profits in what I call “networks of purpose”. By this I mean, people working together in various ways to solve complex problems that might take many people, and many years.

    Connecting people in strong and weak links via face to face and social media is an essential component of this strategy, but I wonder if you have seen many networks focused on a common goal, such as fixing the environment, or helping inner city kids go from first grade to first job, using documentation systems to show that members of the network are taking actions on a consistent basis that support the goals of the network.

    We’ve been piloting an on-line documentations system since 2000 which you can see at

    More than 1400 actions have been documented, most by myself and my staff, related to actions needed to make more and better tutor/mentor programs available in Chicago. The metrics charts are linked to a Ning forum where people can read about what we’re trying to do, and what challenges we face.

    I encourage you to look at this. The next step beyond connecting people in Twitter, Facebook, etc. is getting them to act in ways that make something happen. If you are seeing more exapmles of documentation systems where groups of people are working toward a goal, it would be great to share them.

  2. Patrick Kuras says:

    I think you got the distinction between strong ties and weak ties wrong. It’s not whether you’ve met someone face-to-face that makes them a strong tie. It’s how well you know them. Almost certainly, a strong tie will be a face-to-face tie, but someone you’ve met face-to-face, even many times, can be a weak tie too. Weak ties are people you know casually, and probably don’t share a lot of in-depth personal knowledge with. They’re more likely to be business contacts, or people from some kind of business-related association. Gladwell’s point is that you’re more likely to get a business referral, a job lead, or some other valuable connection, from a weak tie, because there are more such people in your life. Also, strong ties know you well, and will have given you such leads already if they have them. You have to work your network of weak ties to find the kinds of connections you want to make, but if you ask, they’ll appear.

    Did I misunderstand you? Or Gladwell? Or maybe neither…

    Thanks for your post.