Last Friday’s Nonprofit 2.0 Unconference opened with an empty whiteboard and two blockbuster keynotes.
The nature of an “unconference” is that the attendees construct the schedule and content as they go. To set the tone and bring some context to the day’s proceedings, the keynotes came first. Two of social media’s most respected thinkers, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine kicked things off discussing their new book The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, then the Red Cross’s Wendy Harman showed how her networked nonprofit works in action, particularly in regard to disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti.
Kanter and Fine’s book defines “free agents” as “individuals working outside of organizations to organize, mobilize, raise funds, and communicate with constituents for a cause.” Kanter pointed to Roger Carr of the Everyday Giving blog and Mark Horvath (@hardlynormal) as prime examples of free agents working their magic.
Nonprofits (foundations and regional associations included) need to identify individuals who are passionate about their cause. If these individuals are adept at using social media, organizations can mentor free agents and bring them into the fold.
Kanter and Fine note a huge culture shift taking place. Nonprofits are embracing social media, some out of crisis, some seeking opportunity. What we need to remember is that change on this scale takes years and requires patience.
What we’re seeing, according to Fine, is a move from a transactional mindset to building relationships with people. Nonprofits need to be more forgiving of donors and volunteers. Too often we just want people to do what we want them to do, which exhausts them. We don’t take these free agents for all the experience and creativity they have to offer. For example, Fine suggested, instead of having your summer intern do your social media, have them teach senior staff how to be social. By the end of the summer, you’ve increased your organizational capacity.
Kanter agreed. “I’d love to see young people switch their mindset from being stealth innovators [implementing social media without permission from management] to becoming teachers and leaders who show the rest of the staff how social media works, show how it is used well. They become an internal resource for how to use social media.”
Of course, many staff members take up stealth innovation because higher ups are worried about losing control of the organization’s message. What can you do with a negative free agent, someone with the same skill but who views your organization less favorably? Kanter said “The only thing you can do is build strong relationships with free agents along the way, educated them about your issues, and let them go. Listen first.” In the book, Kanter and Fine draw the distinction between fortress nonprofits and networked nonprofits. Fortresses focus on control while networked nonprofits are comfortable with transparency and conversation. For a good summary, check out Northern California Grantmaker’s blog for a write up of an earlier Kanter/Fine webinar.
The other concern most often expressed by management is social media’s return on investment. Some say a manager’s asking for ROI on social media is another way of saying “no,” but Kanter said, when it comes to social media, ROI stands for more than just return on investment, it’s return on insight, return on interaction, return on impact, and, yes, finally, return on investment.
One organization that has done wonders with it’s social media is the Red Cross. Wendy Harman heads up their social media team. What makes them so successful? They have a philosophy in place that informs their every move: to use social media to accomplish our mission. Unlike many other organization when it comes to social media, the Red Cross is not in it to raise money. “I don’t think of my job as a fundraising job,” Harman said, “I think of it as a friend making job.”
Before the earthquake in Haiti, Harman says she was losing faith in social media. On a day to day basis, most people are on Facebook looking for entertainment, she said. The biggest lesson the Red Cross learned from the earthquake in Haiti was that social media can empower us to respond. Someone would tweet “@redcross there are 20 people here without water” and there would be an expectation that someone at the Red Cross would be on the other end of that tweet to organize a response. Just how do we let the content coming in through social media inform us? That what Harman is most focused on right now.
“In the middle, everything looks like a failure,” she said, quoting Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Networks grow through four phase: the catalytic phase (people are finding you), trust building, alignment (usually caused by an outside stimulus), and production (things are happening around your goal). Right now, most nonprofits are somewhere in the middle of this cycle and, often times, it looks like failure. Luckily, the Red Cross created what may be the most comprehensive handbook on social media there is to help guide their staff (and the rest of us) through the best practices and strategies. The handbook is constantly updated as the Red Cross continues to listen to their supporters and detractors. For more information on how to get started “listening,” Warman suggested checking out Beth Kanter’s Social Media Listening Literacy for Nonprofits.
With the crowd energized, unconference participants then pitched topics for the day’s sessions such as Engagement, Blogger Outreach (led by the brilliant Chris Abraham and Dan Kreuger of Abraham Harrison), My Super Agents: I’ve Identified Them, Now What? with Beth Kanter and Clint O’Brien of Care2, and Roger Carr’s session, Cheerleading from the Sidelines: How to Work with Volunteers.
Notes from each session will be available on the Nonprofit 2.0 Unconference website. On a personal note, I have to say that this conference had the most practical advice and tips for application of new strategies of any conference I’ve ever attended. Kudos to organizers Allyson Kaplan, Geoff Livingston, and Shireen Mitchell. I’m looking forward to next year.