Opinion
November 16, 2014

5 Falsehoods That Keep Nonprofits From Making the Most of Social Media


The online and on-land worlds aren’t in competition with each other. We are living online and on land not in one space or the other but in both spaces simultaneously.

Nonprofit leaders face a dilemma: How can we work with people out in the world when the world is so unsafe?

Outside is a teeming, chaotic mass of people armed with social-media tools, shouting what they want any time they want. They’re off-message and uncontrollable, while we’re on-message and always in control.

But there’s another way for things to work, something I call "matterness," or the intersection of people and organizations when they come together in a positive and mutually beneficial way.

Matterness is:

  • The willingness and ability of individuals to speak and be heard.
  • The willingness of organizations to listen to people and to engage individuals, both inside and outside, as creative problem solvers and ambassadors.
  • The smart use of social media to connect people, both online and on land, in huge ecosystems of individuals and organizations that are filled with generosity and capital.

Instead of infusing their efforts with matterness, too many nonprofit organizations continue to hide behind their fortress walls, paralyzed by their fear of the world. This is how and why more than 70 percent of complaints about nonprofit organizations made on Twitter are ignored by organizations.

Five false assumptions are keeping leaders fearfully locked inside their organizations:

The online world is overflowing with whackadoodles.

Of course, whackadoodles, wingnuts, and crazy people exist, but not in the numbers or to the extent that organizations imagine they do. Organizations confuse the possibility of being attacked with the probability of it.

The far more likely scenario is that an organization will be ignored online rather than attacked.

The reality is that most organizations that step outside find a world filled with well-meaning people interested in helping to shape and support their cause.

Social media are making us less civil.

Bullying and uncivil behavior exist online, as do hoaxes, cons, catfishing, identity theft, and misinformation. Just as they do on land. Social media bring out the best in most of us and, sadly, make visible the worst in some of us.

However, there is no evidence that we are less civil online than we are on land. Social media have not made us kinder and more generous, but they do provide us with many more avenues to easily express and share our kindnesses. It is the responsibility of leaders to insist on civility online in the same way we do on land.

We are living on land or online.

The online and on-land worlds aren’t in competition with each other. We are living online and on land not in one space or the other but in both spaces simultaneously.

Whatever we do anywhere is our real world, and what we feel and know carries over to any other place or space we occupy. There is no evidence, no data, no research that proves we are different people when socializing online versus on land. We are who we are wherever we are. Organizations cannot relegate online engagement to second-class status.

Staff members cannot be trusted online.

On average, the cost of hiring a management-level person comes to more than $20,000 when you count the staff time it takes to do interviews and the cost of recruiting candidates.

Once hired, the first thing most organizations do is tell these smart, responsible, self-starting, creative people not to think for themselves or speak on behalf of the organization. Research shows that employees who work in cultures that value independence and creative problem solving stay longer.

Organizations shouldn’t muzzle their best ambassadors. AARP trains and supports dozens of staff people to openly engage with their constituents online, and nothing bad happens.

Plans are more important than people.

Plans, budgets, staff meetings, to-do lists, and discussions of what might go wrong create an overwhelming cacophony that I call the churn. The churn blocks out important stuff like matterness and ends up skewing groups to value plans over people. By recasting their efforts to focus on matterness, nonprofits can create their efforts with their own people, making them matter more than ever. Plans are timed; people are timeless.

Billions of people are acting kindly and generously online and on land every day without barriers, fanfare, or recognition. Nonprofit organizations need to tap into this goodwill and expand the matterness that will enable them to fully engage in their good work. Organizations do not need better people on the outside. They need better leaders on the inside.

Allison Fine, who hosts The Chronicle’s podcast What’s the Big Idea, is the author of "Matterness" (Legacy Books), which was published this week.