Harness the social web before it harnesses you

[Editor’s note: Social media — Do nonprofits get it? What do you think?]

By Marnie Webb

Change is afoot in the nonprofit sector. Check out change.org, Network for Good’s SixDegrees.org and Tech Soup, and you’ll see how the new tools are connecting users to powerful applications and, perhaps more importantly, to one another.

From a technical perspective, you’ll find yourself in a sea of initials and trendy names – Open APIs, F/LOSS, XML, RSS, microformats, tagging. How do you deal with it all from an organizational perspective?

The trick is for nonprofits to set themselves up to harness all this energy and power in ways that are manageable, meaningful and do not end up squirreling away countless hours on new opportunities simply because they are bright and shiny.

Technology is leading us to a bigger change, but we have to learn how to use and harness it.

People are trying to connect with their passions and make changes that they can see.

They want to band together; that’s the power of sites like change.org and Six Degrees.

These sites illuminate what you can do when you connect with others with similar passions.

They let individuals with twenty extra bucks in their pocket see their impact in a way that’s much more tangible than writing a check and dropping it in the mail.

To make these tools work for you, you need to follow two key guidelines:

* Tell people what you are doing. Give them details. Tell them you need beds for the pet shelter or you have to buy paper for the copier. And make sure you let your supporters know what their help meant to you.

* Give up some control. When you start letting the details out, those passionate people are going to come up with own ideas about what you can do. Let them take those ideas and run with them. Resist the urge to take them over or tell them what would work better. Instead, point to them proudly.

Of course, these seemingly simple steps have a lot of organizational work behind them.

You have to decide what you can share because – and let’s be honest here – transparency isn’t always the best thing.

Do you really want to be blogging about your impressions of a candidate for a new position or the beginning of a relationship with an important funder?

Probably not.

Take some time to decide what your organizational boundaries are.

Something is happening, even if we don’t know what exactly yet.

So get on board so you can be there when the train really starts moving.

Marnie Webb is co-CEO of TechSoup in San Francisco.

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