June 13, 2010

How Nonprofit Groups Need to Adjust to a 'Networked’ World


Shawn Ahmed, here in a rural village in Bangladesh, is a “free agent” social activist.

Shawn Ahmed is a 29-year-old Canadian from Toronto and the founder of the Uncultured Project. His goal is to move people to fight extreme global poverty. He is idealistic and facile with social media and works outside the walls of a nonprofit organization or other institution. We call Shawn a free agent for social change.

One of Shawn’s goals is to demonstrate that members of Generation Y can be the ones who end extreme poverty with one small action at a time in places like Bangladesh. His work in poor countries seeks to make as many meaningful differences in other people’s lives as possible. This includes helping a widow keep her children, helping a student stay in high school, helping malaria survivors stay healthy, and much more.

“I can’t single-handedly end global poverty,” he acknowledges “but I can take actions and inspire others.”

By sharing this journey on social networks like YouTube and Twitter, he is inspiring other people to talk about the issue of global poverty and take action “in a way that is different from the big nonprofit organizations,” he says.

Inspired by the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who founded the Millennium Project’s antipoverty effort, he has traveled the world for more than two years, visiting developing countries and using his flip camera, the YouTube channel, Twitter, and other tools to shine a light on the problems of extreme poverty.

Using his own money and raising dollars from others, he has also helped to bring much-needed medical supplies, food, clean water, and other items to people in need.

He says his videos have been viewed more than two million times, and he has more than a quarter million followers on Twitter.

Free agents like Shawn use social-media channels like Facebook and Twitter. They organize supporters, raise attention to important social and political issues, seek donations, and organize supporters to walk, run, shout, protest, and vote, things that were once done mostly by nonprofit organizations. The free agents do it when and how they please, making them distinct from and more powerful than traditional volunteers.

But as they proceed, Shawn and others like him are smashing headfirst into nonprofit fortresses—organizations with high walls and wide moats that work very hard to keep insiders in and outsiders out.

We witnessed this collision firsthand during a session we led this spring at a technology conference, where Shawn poured out his frustration with traditional organizations. He grabbed the microphone to address the room full of nonprofit executives 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. I get dismissed as 'just a guy on YouTube.’”

Fortresses work hard to keep their communities and constituents at a distance, pushing out messages and dictating strategy rather than listening or building relationships. And that is the model of how nonprofit organizations have historically worked in the United States: They are organized and financed as solo entities, each starring in their own Sisyphean tragedy, rolling their own boulder up the hill, alone, every day.

These habits and assumptions stop nonprofit organizations from effectively building communities to solve complex social problems. And almost all social problems are complex, outstripping the capacity of any single organization or person to solve them. Only networks, ecosystems of individuals and organizations, can solve social problems.

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. But that trajectory changes when organizations learn to use social media and actually become their own social networks.

Some organizations such as the Surf­rider Foundation, MomsRising, and Charity: Water are created to operate as social networks. But any organization can operate that way, and venerable nonprofit groups, such as the American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross, the Humane Society of the United States, and Planned Parenthood, are turning themselves inside out with great success.

Those organizations—and many others like them—understand how and why networks work. They are simple and open, focused on building relationships with supporters, not just conducting transactions. They pursue all of their work in social and connected ways, and they are all fluent in social media.

That approach to their operations enables them to engage crowds of people in shaping and sharing their work. As a result, they raise awareness and organize communities of supporters with less effort than traditional organizations, and they can turn friends into donors and even turn their governing boards into social networks.

Any nonprofit organization can become what we call a networked nonprofit organization, but to do so, groups need to think differently about how they work. In particular, organizational leaders need to come out of their corner offices and listen and engage directly with their supporters and detractors as real people, not as logos or brands. Their personal example paves the way for their organizations to open themselves up to their ecosystem and lead by listening and learning.

As part of changing their behavior, senior leaders must also demonstrate that they trust their staffs. The default setting for organizations has to shift from control and mistrust to trust. Organizations need to let employees talk with people without a script. Relationships can be built only through personal connections.

But those small steps are possible only when organizations face their fears about what could possibly go wrong. The fear of losing control of their strategy, message, and supporters is a huge barrier for many groups. The fact is that no organization can control any of those things today, if they ever could, so time spent worrying about them is lost time.

A month after our gathering in Atlanta, Shawn Ahmed shared news of a meeting with the Red Cross, an organization he now describes as an “unfortress.” He applauds the organization for exploring ways to team up with a free agent.

As the use of social media grows, power will continue to shift away from institutions and toward individuals. The ability of individuals to connect with one another, create and share content, and organize to aid good causes will also continue to expand. Nonprofit leaders can thrive in this new world by transitioning from stand-alone entities to social networks energized by abundant resources in their ecosystem. It’s time to unleash this power to promote the social good.

Allison Fine and Beth Kanter are authors of The Networked Nonprofit, published this month by Jossey-Bass. Ms. Fine is the host of The Chronicle’s Social Good podcast, which focuses on the best ways for nonprofit groups to use social media.