The Networked Nonprofit
The days of organizations standing on a mountaintop and broadcasting their messages for the world to consume are rapidly evaporating. No longer is control solely in nonprofits’ hands, no matter how much they wish it was. To truly succeed in raising funds and solving the world’s problems, nonprofits must work in concert with networks of social changemakers — passionate individuals and organizations, among others — to truly achieve their missions.
That’s why Beth Kanter, CEO of Zoetica and author of Beth’s Blog, and Allison Fine, senior fellow at Demos, wrote ”The Networked Nonprofit,” a book discussing the new fundraising landscape. In a webinar of the same name, Kanter and Fine discussed the motives behind the book and ways organizations can shift from old-fashioned fortresses to networked nonprofits.
What is a networked nonprofit?
Kanter and Fine define networked nonprofits as simple and transparent organizations that allow insiders to get out and outsiders to get in. They engage people to shape and share their work in order to raise awareness of social issues, organize communities to provide services or advocate for legislation. In the long run, they are helping to make the world a safer, fairer, healthier place to live.
“We looked out about a year ago at the ecosystem of nonprofits and foundations, and one of the things that we saw was individuals — we call them free agents in the book — who are great with social media working outside of the walls of organizations and making really great things happen,” Fine said. “The larger picture of what we were seeing is the nonprofit sector has exploded in the number of organizations over the past 20 years or so, but if you look at any specific needle measure of social change over that time, the needle hasn’t moved. One of the reasons … the needle hasn’t moved is that there’s been a growth of this focus of stand-alone institutions. [That] makes it impossible to scale social change because complex social problems outpace the capacity of any single organization or individual to solve. That’s what we were trying to change.”
Fine and Kanter laid out the traditional model of how an organization works: Staff works in silos within the institutional walls in order to achieve the goal, with very little input or aid beyond dollars coming from outside those walls. “Too many organizations are fortresses,” Fine said. “They have high walls and wide moats. And their organizing principles are about keeping insiders in and outsiders out. They are fear-based organizations that spend an enormous amount of time worried about control — trying to control the message and messengers, controlling strategy, controlling their donors as if they could still do those things.
“In the end, it cuts them off from enormous networks of people of good will and creativity and energy that are the only way that we’re going to be able to scale social problem-solving,” she added.
Instead of operating as a fortress, organizations should be more like a sponge — an open environment where things pass through easily, holding on to the good stuff and letting go of the bad stuff. This way, those walls come down, the lines between inside and outside become blurred, and organizations engage with their networks, with their supporters and donors, not at them. This cross-collaboration “allows staff to connect out to networks of people and organizations to reach and solve goals,” Kanter said.
The key to becoming a networked nonprofit is working with free agents, which Kanter defined as “individuals who are very passionate about a cause, many times younger people but sometimes older (like herself), who use social media tools to organize, mobilize, raise funds and communicate with constituents outside of traditional institutional walls.”
She provided the example of Amanda Rose, who founded Twestival, the largest global grassroots social-media fundraising initiative to date. Rose mobilized more than 200 TweetUps for social change, where people on Twitter actually get out from behind the computer and meet in a pub or restaurant and hold a fundraiser. In 2009, Twestival Global was held in 202 international cities to support Charity Water. More than 1,000 volunteers and more than 10,000 donors raised more than $250,000 for the cause, and to date, Twestival has raised more than $1.2 million for 137 nonprofits in 14 months.
Another example provided was Shawn Ahmed, described as a “classic free agent” by Kanter. Ahmed wanted to end extreme poverty in the world, so as a young 20-something, he’s traveled the around the world with his camera and social-media prowess, doing on-the-ground organizing, fundraising and program delivery — helping a widow get her children to school, helping malaria survivors, etc. Using his Twitter followers and YouTube channel, Ahmed is creating a social movement in the palm of his hand. He has a huge and passionate following (nearly 282,000 Twitter followers), and has garnered tons of support and raised crucial dollars for poverty-stricken people spanning the globe.
Ahmed is the perfect example of the divide between the fortress and the sponge. At the Nonprofit Technology Conference, Kanter said that during a session, Ahmed got up 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, and 2.1 million views on YouTube. I have a hard time having you guys take me seriously.” He discussed how when the Haiti earthquake hit, he wanted to connect his large network with the Red Cross, but the Red Cross ignored him. It was the type of scenario where the fortress model wasted an opportunity to engage with a whole new network of passionate people looking to help.
“We kept seeing free agents crashing into nonprofit fortresses,” Kanter said, and they are real people making real things happen for organizations.
“It only takes one free agent to change a fortress, but the fortress has to want to change,” she added. “Change starts at the top. It’s so important for leaders to understand that engaging in social networks, collaborating with free agents, nothing bad will happen, and it’ll actually be good for organizations.”
Kanter and Fine closed their presentation by offering some advice for working with free agents and becoming a networked nonprofit:
- Don’t dismiss
- Listen for good ideas
- Identify influencers
- Get to know them
- Have them get to know you
- Be flexible
- Remember, they can be like Cheshire cats — they will come and go.