November 02, 2011

What Nonprofits Can Learn From Occupy Wall Street

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Occupy Wall Street has gathered support quickly thanks to its genuine, grassroots appeal, which nonprofits and foundations can learn from.

In the six week since Occupy Wall Street began its protests, the movement has spread across the country.

Nonprofits that want to create movements that take hold and spread fast need look no further than the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr blog, says Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum.

Where nonprofits often stumble in their social-networking efforts, he says, is by creating campaigns that are "a little too slick, a little too professional, a little too cautious, a little too controlled."

"People don't spread things that feel like marketing," says Mr. Sifry. "We are highly attuned to what we think of as something genuine."

Foundations and other nonprofits should do more than look at the movement's communications techniques. They should also examine other aspects of its structure that help promote social change. For example, Occupy Wall Street eschews rigid hierarchies of management, says Mr. Sifry, and getting rid of such structures might also help nonprofits advance their missions.

But most important, Mr. Sifry says, is for all groups concerned about social change to assess how Occupy Wall Street has "re-energized" Americans' willingness to protest how corporations and governments work.

Allison Fine, a nonprofit leader and expert on technology and communications, discusses how charities and foundations can more effectively use social-media tools to spread their messages and raise money. Ms. Fine incorporates suggestions and questions from readers into her podcasts and invites you to e-mail her at Look for new installments on the first Thursday of every month.