Social media are tools to connect

Allison Fine
Allison Fine

Allison Fine

Social-media tools are ubiquitous.

Facebook users add up to one of the larger countries in the world.

Twitter has seeped into the world’s consciousness as the fastest vehicle for getting and sharing news of events in Iran or Egypt or Kalamazoo.

And even as nonprofits have dipped their toes into the social-media waters in the last two years — according to surveys by NTEN, Blackbaud and others — there is clearly a difference between organizations that are using social media well, like charity:water or Autism Speaks, and many, too many, organizations that aren’t using the toolset well.

The difference between the two groups isn’t that one knows which buttons to push and one doesn’t.

Rather, organizations that are effective using social media are comfortable actually being social.

As Beth Kanter and I explained in The Networked Nonprofit, being social doesn’t mean throwing a good party on land, although that’s nice, but rather understanding that social media are an opportunity to take down organizational walls and engage and build relationships with large networks of supporters.

Working socially challenges deep-set organizational assumptions about leadership, roles and structure. It forces organizations to think hard about what’s important to manage and what can be left uncontrolled.

Organizations with social cultures:

  • Use social media to engage in two-way conversations about the work of the organization with people inside and outside the organization.
  • Embrace mistakes and take calculated risks.
  • Reward learning and reflection.
  • Use a “try-it-and-fix-it-as-we-go” approach that emphasizes failing fast.
  • Overcome organizational inertia — “We’ve always done it this way” — through open and robust discussions.
  • Understand and appreciate that informality and individuality do not indicate a lack of caring, professionalism or quality.
  • Trust staff to make decisions and respond rapidly to situations, rather than crawl through endless check-off and approval processes.

The biggest internal barrier to the wide-open use of social media is the stranglehold that devil’s advocates have around the conference table.

Imagine this scenario: George comes in full of energy and says he has a great idea. Let’s use Facebook to generate ideas for our next fundraiser. The next 55 minutes are spent with the devils around the table coming up with all of the possible ways an effort like this could go wrong:

  • We will be beholden to the ideas of people we don’t know.
  • We will look like we don’t have good ideas.
  • We are going to tick off the board chair who always hosts our spring fundraiser.

It’s easy to look for reasons not to do something, and we have been acculturated to think of that as smart management.

But the risk of not becoming more social is too great to let fear continue to be the default setting for our organizations.

The good news about having this conversation today is that there is a large and growing number of stories of nonprofits that have taken the walls down and become more social.

We need to collect up the courage to overcome these fears.

Leaders of these organizations have the courage to intentionally make themselves and their organizations uncomfortable.

Allison Fine is a senior fellow on at Demos: A Network for Change and Action in New York City, and co-author of The Networked Nonprofit.

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