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Beth Kanter and Allison Fine on the Networked Nonprofit

Beth Kanter and Allison Fine recently wrote “The Networked Nonprofit“, one of the key books focused on activism and social change in a digital age. They’re our lunchtime speakers at the Berkman Center (which in a linguistic tic, I seem to be referring to “the Berkshire Center” today, perhaps in hopes that we’ll move the center west and lessen my commute.) Beth traces her history as a blogger to Dave Winer’s Berkman bloggers group, and her early work with Global Voices, featuring the voices Cambodian bloggers. (Beth’s adopted children are from Cambodia and she has a deep attachment to the country.)

It’s a good time to be writing about nonprofits – the nonprofit sector has grown massively over the past 30 years, in terms of number of nonprofits, their size and the amount of money they handle. The nonprofit sector is now the 10th largest business sector employer in the US. This growth in the sector points to a very disturbing problem – these nonprofits are, for the most part, not nearly effective enough. Fine offers the example of New Haven, CT, a city tha has the largest number of nonprofits per capita in the US. Despite these efforts, it’s hard to find a single well-being indicator in the city that’s moving in the right direction.

Kanter and Fine offer the idea that the complexity of social problems outpaces the abiity of any individual organization to address them. They wonder whether organizations working through networks could do better.

Many nonprofits are built of departments that work in silos, united by a logo and protected by an institutional firewall. These organizations are starting to change, adapting to a model where people within organizations reach out to networks outside the institution. As these collaborations grow, the firewall becomes more porous, and individuals connect with other individuals and institutions so they can collectively solve more complex problems. This isn’t easy for most organizations – it’s a major and difficult change.

Kanter and Fine interviewed nonprofits who were in the process of becoming networked nonprofits, and those that were born as networked nonprofits. This introduced them to organizations like the Surfrider Foundation, a global network of surfers focused on preserving the quality of beaches. The organization connects online and offline efforts, regionally and on more national and global scales. To do so, they’ve needed to give up a great deal of control. There are 739 Surfrider Facebook pages, representing different chapters and groups. Each one customizes the logo – the SF group shows the wave under the Golden Gate bridge, while the New York group shows the Statue of Liberty hanging ten. This isn’t an easy thing for the organization’s leaders – they sometimes wish groups would pick better logos. But their CEO told them, “We can activate 50,000 signatures in less than 24 hours – who cares about the logo?” Becoming a networked nonprofit may mean taking on a social culture of letting go.

Not all organizations are as far along in making this transition – others make it more slowly. But large organizations are starting to transform: Fine cites the Red Cross, the Humane Society and Planned Parenthood as undergoing major transformations. She suggests that organizations need to think about what they are and what they do, and that they need to figure out what they are first, before they try to do things in the social media space. Nonprofits need to understand networks; create a social culture; listen, engage and build relationships; build trust through transparency; and offer simplicity of mission. As they understand how do to these things, they can change what they do and: work with free agents; work with crowds; build “learning loops”; choose between friending or funding; govern through networks. You can tell organizations that haven’t thought through these issues, Fine believes, because they reject social media as something they tried and didn’t work. These organizations tried to use social media as a broadcast medium, not as an engagement medium.

Organizations tend not to trust outsiders to deliver their message – they create layers of permission to deal with the issues of lacks of trust. In a networked settings, where you let insiders out and outsiders in, there’s a great need to focus on simplicity. The organization’s mission needs to be simple, focused and understandable, and the group must fight mission creep. “Stick to what you do best and network the rest.”

Joseph Reagle wonders whether the success stories of network nonprofits are just a transitional phenomenon – once social media becomes more common, will these messages be so typical that we ignore them? And should we be worrying about cyberbullies and hate groups infiltrating our organizations and perverting them? Fine acknowledges a “palpable sense of cause fatigue.” But she believes the organizations who’ll be successful in the future are those that work closely to understand their constituents. Kanter acknowledges how important novelty has been in some efforts – her work raising $200,000 for Cambodian children was aided by the fact that she was an early adopter of social media and was able to leverage that knowledge to raise the first $50,000 and get that amount matched. That would be very hard for a social media novice to do, or for someone experienced to do today. Now the wins are more modest in scale – Surfrider was able to search for a graphic designer via Twitter and find a volunteer in minutes, for example.

A question asks about the example of Surfrider allowing members to customize their logo – how should we think of branding in a digital age? Fine warns us not to obsess about the loss of control – we never had as much control as we thought we did. Organizational cultures that value individuality and creativity do well in this world – after all, it’s hard to tell surfers where to go and what to do.

David Weinberger wonders whether the culture changes associated with becoming a networked nonprofit are accompanied by other organizational changes, like a change of mission. Kanter tells a story about a national organization which is focused on a specific disease. Their mission was to guide patients towards particular medically certified treatments for the disease. In the last year, one experimental treatment for the disease has gained a great deal of popularity, and the nonprofit was perceived as being opposed to this uncertified treatment. They started facing accusations online that they didn’t want the disease to end, that they were in league with drug companies. The confrontation – which they tried for some time to ignore – ultimately forced a mission change, and they now see themselves as presenting a range of options to the people who suffer from these diseases.

A question about networked nonprofits and fundraising leads Fine to suggest that one change we might hope for in nonprofit organizing is a move away from boards composed mostly of “white finance and lawyer guys – I guess they have a lot of free time.” These boards, she suggests, bring in assumptions from the corporate world that aren’t always helpful for nonprofits – they tend to focus on increasing budgets and staff, which leads to an overfocus on raising money, which can pull organizations away from their mission. Networked nonprofits are good at doing what they do best and collaborating to do the rest – this often means smaller organizations, not ones that plan to grow annually.

Prompted by a question about “free agents” – individuals who have great personal passion for issues but don’t always work within organizational frameworks, Kanter tells the story of Shawn Ahmed, who tweets as Uncultured – a kid who dropped out of college to fight global poverty and who has built up a massive online following by travelling to places like Pakistan and documenting his work via a Flip camera. Ahmed has been frustrated by traditional charity organizations’ unwillingness to engage with him and his hundreds of thousands of online followers. He wrote an angry blogpost about the Red Cross blowing off his offer to mobilize his network to help raise money for Haitian relief. To the organization’s credit, the Red Cross has begun engaging with Ahmed and recently invited him to their headquarters. Kanter argues that these free agents are too important to ignore – we need to figure out how traditional organizations can work with them on shared goals.

I asked the speakers whether we were seeing centrally-organized nonprofits figure out how to leverage networks to advance their goals, or whether we were starting to see truly networked organizations make decisions in a distributed fashion. Fine notes that she thought this would be an easy part of the book to write – all she’d have to do is find people working to make the board room virtual, opening up decisionmaking to outside influences. But she wasn’t able to find examples. As a result, the last chapter of the book – on networked governance – is speculative, based on the best thinking of people in the field. Steve Waddell, who studies nonprofits and social media, suggested that Wikipedia’s strategic planning process might represent networked decisionmaking. And David Weinberger suggested that, if we think of decisionmaking as including everything that leads up to a decision made by a small group, we may be entering a time of widespread network decisionmaking.

David Weinberger has notes on the talk as well. They’re probably better than mine.

3 thoughts on “Beth Kanter and Allison Fine on the Networked Nonprofit”

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