Are You a “Networked Nonprofit”?

Lori Halley 07 September 2010 6 comments

You’ve likely caught the buzz about The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, the groundbreaking new book by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine – perhaps you’ve already picked up a copy. On the other hand, perhaps you’re still wondering if this book can help a small nonprofit like yours? The answer is, Yes! 

Networking is not just for the "big guys" out there. In fact, far from being disadvantaged, a small nonprofit can be in a strong position to make the shift to operating as a “networked nonprofit,” and to reap the benefits.

But let’s back up a second –

What’s a Networked Nonprofit?

Networked Nonprofits are simple and transparent organizations. They are easy for outsiders to get in and insiders to get out. Nonprofits don’t work harder or longer than other organizations, they work differently. They engage in conversations with people beyond their walls – lots of conversations – to build relationships that spread their work through the network.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Fortress, and we’re all too familiar with nonprofits that work on that model. Layers of administrative infrastructure hamper the enthusiasm of newcomers eager to move the organization ahead from “we’ve always done it that way” to experimentation and new levels of effectiveness. If the organization is online at all, it’s with a static brochure-style website; and communications go one way, with a newsletter, press releases, and direct mail fundraising appeals pushing dribs and drabs of information, while it’s like pulling teeth to find out who’s funding the organization, how it works, where it’s headed, and even who sits on the Board.

The Networked Nonprofit, in contrast, actively includes the greater community (of both supporters and critics) in the kinds of discussions and activities that once upon a time would only have taken place in the boardroom or staff meetings, or between the most active of its core membership.

The benefit, especially for a small nonprofit with a small membership and limited in-house resources, is clear:

Networked Nonprofits know their organizations are part of a much larger ecosystem of organizations and individualsl that are all incredible resources for their efforts.

Networking effectively can give a nonprofit access to expertise and resources far beyond what it could hope to find within its own walls, enabling it to more effectively pursue its mission.

Social media makes it possible

By “social media,” Kanter and Fine mean simply “the array of digital tools such as instant messaging, text messaging, blogs, videos, and social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace, that are inexpensive and easy to use.”  And all of these tools are so interconnected now, with Like and Share and Add This buttons, that deciding where to start needn’t be a stumbling block.

Choosing and using any specific tool is less important to organizational success than embracing the principles and strategies that make social media effective. Using social media is a way of being more than a way of doing.

If “social media” conjures up a vision of idly texting teens or games of Farmville on Facebook, The Networked Nonprofit will show you (through heaps of real-world examples) that social media tools are, in effect, just a particularly efficient way of communicating with large numbers of people – at a very low (or no) cost – and enabling them to take action for your cause.

Just think of the American Red Cross text-messaging campaign to raise funds for Haiti, for example, or the immensely successful “Knock Out Animal Fighting” video contest launched by the Humane Society of the United States on YouTube.

But can a small nonprofit be a “Networked Nonprofit”?

True, as the authors point out, most of their examples and case studies in The Networked Nonprofit are drawn from large US organizations – nonprofits with a substantial network of supporters and well-established brands/name recognition.

Those of us who work primarily with small nonprofits tend to get into a “scarcity” mindset, over time – there’s never enough money or manpower to do what we’d like to get done. (Hands up, who’s attended a Board meeting where the hot topic was how to attract more members ...when you don’t have enough members to launch a traditional membership drive?)  Even in times of fiscal restraint and calls for greater accountability on every dollar, the big guys do come to social media with more staff resources to throw at a social media outreach program than can be mustered by a small community-based group that’s operated entirely by members and volunteers. 

True enough.

But even if the scale is different, smaller nonprofits can certainly benefit proportionally by moving toward this new networked way of operating. In fact, small nonprofits, by their very nature, may have the inside track on several important assets in terms of organizational culture that can easy the shift to being a “networked nonprofit”:

Transparency

Organizations unaccustomed to letting information, documents, and processes go may find the transition to transparency discomforting. But the benefits of inviting people in and sharing an organization’s development far outweigh the potential downside. Imagine how much stronger the network’s reactions, input and suggestions will make your organization – and how exciting it will feel to share your great work with more people. 

Smaller nonprofits, with limited internal resources on which to draw, are already accustomed to tapping the broader community for help and ideas. Volunteer-driven organizations, by necessity, tend to share their information relatively freely with members; and it’s a short step to sharing it more openly still – financial information, reports, educational materials, plans and results. Transparency is the keystone to building trust and strong relationships with supporters and constituents, of course, and that’s something that many smaller organizations, working at the grassroots level, already know from experience.

Simplicity

A common refrain within nonprofit organizations and by nonprofit staffers is, “How can I make my life simpler when I have so much to do?” The answer is, well, simple: You have too much to do because you do too much....  Do what you do best and network the rest.

Again, simplicity is already at the heart of most small community-based nonprofits, which tend to be established around a very specific cause or to meet a very specific need, and know up front that they don’t have the resources to expand that mission.  You can probably sum up the role and goals of your local home-school association, or animal shelter, or community soccer program in one or two sentences, easily explaining what the organization does and why it exists. A simple clear mission statement is a real asset in the 140-character social media world.

By far the majority of nonprofits working at the community level already operate with a very simple structure, by necessity: an executive Board of some sort, perhaps a staff person or two, and a flexible number of volunteer-based committees to steer their specific projects and events. If, as Kanter and Fine suggest, it’s essential for nonprofits to develop “the simplest ideas, structures, and processes possible,” small nonprofits are already well out ahead on that road!

Which brings us to a third strength of smaller nonprofits:

Agility

“Agility” isn’t one of Kanter and Fine’s headings, specifically, but you’ll soon notice it as a recurring subtheme throughout The Networked Nonprofit. Start by listening and engaging, building relationships and weaving networks, the authors suggest, then try a small experiment, a bite-sized project, and see where it takes you. And that’s exactly the kind of approach that works so well for the smallest of volunteer-based nonprofits.

It seems to me that many small nonprofits already function, from a communications standpoint, very much like an ad hoc collection of free agents – those passionate individuals who spontaneously act for a cause they care about without any official direction or authorization from within the organization. Maybe you’ve seen it happen in your own nonprofit, offline – a member has an idea for a new fundraising event, and she volunteers to make it happen; unless it’s a budget item, all it might take is a nod from the Board for her to be up and running. Now translate that to, say, a volunteer who wants to set up a Facebook Page or write a blog about your cause...

Or suppose that, through listening to social media conversation, you become aware of a public misunderstanding about your cause. Do you put it on the agenda for discussion at the monthly Board meeting, or jump in with correct information?

Unlike large nonprofits, operating on the old-school corporate Fortress model, where every public utterance has to climb up a ladder of approvals before it’s released, small nonprofits are often better able to respond quickly, and that’s a huge asset when it comes to mitigating some of the perceived “risks” of opening up to your networks.

A Quick Start to Nonprofit Networking

We’re all pressed for time these days, and if you’re at all like me, there’s already a huge stack of reading material that’s waiting for your attention. So if you’ve hesitated to pick up The Networked Nonprofit just because you’re not sure you’ll get time to read it, here’s a "quick start" suggestion: 

Read the second chapter, “Nonprofit Challenges and Trends,” first. It’s a short one, but does a great job of putting this whole new approach in context, explaining why your nonprofit needs to shift its attention from the organization itself to you networks, and how the Millennial generation and the rise of free agents fit in.

If you’ve already got a solid feeling for how the social networking world works, and especially the importance of social capital, you can skip ahead for the moment to “Building Trust Through Transparency” (chapter six). The move to greater transparency is probably the most difficult shift for most nonprofit organizations to make, and it will be one of the most powerful if you can pull it off. This chapter is full of great examples and ideas crowdsourced from individuals and organizations in the authors’ own extensive networks.

By this point, you’ll likely be hooked on Kanter and Fine’s vision – keen to jump in and get your nonprofit networked.

Have a look at the “Reflection Questions” provided at the end of each chapter. These serve as a great starting point for brainstorming and planning, as well as a good way to gauge which chapters you’ll want to read next and share with your colleagues.  

As a matter of fact, those questions are one of my favorite parts!

In their conclusion to the book, Kanter and Fine quote Marnie Webb, CEO of TechSoup Global – “What, if anything, does all of the clicking, blogging, and ‘friending’ add up to in the end?” – and continue:

We know millions of people use social media to connect with one another around causes, but exactly what difference does it make? Does it help more people in need? Does it pass better laws? Does it fund more medical research? It is too soon to tell whether and how the outcomes of Networked Nonprofits differ from their predecessors, but not too soon to ask the questions and try to determine the answers.

... Stand-alone organizations may survive financially in the future; their relevance, however, will wane as more organizations and people recognize that working as networks is more effective.

If you’ve read The Networked Nonprofit, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the ideas there can best be put to use by small nonprofits.  And if your own organization has already started the shift to getting networked, please tell us about your experience, in the comments!

p.s. Thanks to publisher Jossey-Bass/Wiley for the review copy. As usual, I'll set the book free for someone else to enjoy and learn from... just as soon as I read it again!

 

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Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Tuesday, 07 September 2010 at 3:11 PM

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Comments

  • Beth Kanter said:

    Tuesday, 07 September 2010 at 12:40 PM

    Thanks so much for the terrific review!!

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Tuesday, 07 September 2010 at 5:44 PM

    You're welcome, Beth - thanks to you and Allison for writing the book!

  • John Haydon said:

    Wednesday, 08 September 2010 at 7:37 AM

    Rebecca,

    Two things:

    I love your focus on "Agility". In my own somewhat limited experience working with larger nonprofits, I've seen first hand how slowly they move - particularly when it comes to massive cultural shifts like going from Fortess to Networked.

    Brilliant "Quick Start" section. Can I steel it with attribution?

    John

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Wednesday, 08 September 2010 at 8:16 AM

    John, sure, feel free to use it. Glad to hear this piece struck a chord with you!

  • Jeanne Ellinport said:

    Monday, 27 September 2010 at 5:18 AM

    Great review on a great book.  Your additions enhanced an already good book.

  • MJ said:

    Tuesday, 28 September 2010 at 9:12 AM

    Video of Allison Fine and Beth Kanter book release of Networked Nonprofit in NYC last June:  http://bit.ly/a2LLsg

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