The Networked Nonprofit Connects Social Media and Social Change

Katie Donnelly 

The Networked Nonprofit by Beth Kanter  and Allison Fine provides a clear overview of how nonprofits can incorporate social media in order to increase their organizational effectiveness.

The Networked Nonprofit is likely to be most relevant to nonprofit organizations who are just beginning to use social media to encourage social change; longtime readers of Beth’s Blog will have encountered many of the concepts in it already. While the book does give some specific advice for how nonprofits can use social media, its strength lies in providing a clear framework for how nonprofits can think about social media. Mini-case studies and reflection questions at the end of each chapter help to guide readers in applying this knowledge to their own organizations.

Kanter and Fine make a clear case for reorienting how nonprofits see themselves. They write:

Traditionally, organizations have viewed themselves through an organization-centric lens. Envisioning oneself and one’s organization as the center of the universe with other people and organizations circling around it — providing it with funds, attention, and volunteers as needed — is at odds with a world energized by social media and connectedness. Other organizations and individuals are not waiting for instructions for what to do; they are talking, doing, and connecting based on their own needs and interests. Networked Nonprofits know this and are reorienting themselves to engage with individual free agents and organizations in their networks.

As part of this reorientation process, Kanter and Fine argue, nonprofits must become more transparent, even when that means opening themselves up to criticism online. They cite a particularly disheartening 2007 survey by the Overbrook Foundation, which found that only one quarter of nonprofits with blogs allowed for user commenting. Kanter and Fine point out that many of the worries nonprofit organizations express regarding online conversations (most notably, the lack of control over information) can be solved with clear organizational social media policies.

The authors also discuss in detail the cultural shift that is taking place now that a full generation of digital natives has entered the work force. Nonprofits must embrace new, flexible attitudes toward work if they want to continue to thrive. The current (largely ineffective) system of governing boards needs to be reenergized as well — Kanter and Fine present an intriguing contrast between a typical stuffy board meeting and a dynamic, open one, with board and community members participating through multiple digital channels.

Traditional nonprofit funding structures look different in the digital world as well. Each organization has its own network of parters who fall somewhere along Kanter and Fine’s Ladder of Engagement, which ranks supporters on a spectrum that includes “happy bystanders,” “spreaders,” “donors,” “evangelists,” and “instigators.” These supporters help raise awareness for organizations, connecting them to more sources of funding, including a vast network of potential in-kind donations. Instead of competing with one another for limited financial resources from granting organizations, nonprofits can tap into their networks and collaborate on creative solutions. Networked nonprofits value openness and relationship building; they focus on abundance rather than scarcity and collaboration rather than competition.

But how can networked nonprofits measure the impact of their work? We’ve examined this question with regard to public media makers before, and it’s clear that it is relevant for organizations outside of the public media sphere as well. Nonprofits (and their funders) are used to relying on transactional metrics, but these numbers simply cannot provide a complete measure of organizational impact.

Kanter and Fine describe a process called “learning loops,” which combines planning, metrics  and reflection in order to measure engagement, return on investment  and social change. This framework involves identifying specific objectives to measure through simple experiments and a selection of online engagement metrics (blog commenting, monthly trends, bookmarking, etc.) It can be tempting to get caught up in the dazzling array of available measurement tools, but Kanter and Fine argue that these tools must be combined with thoughtful reflection:

Organizations also need to step back from the daily whirlwind of metrics and take one to two hours a month to wrestle with the larger questions of how social media fits into their overall efforts. They need to ask . . . How are social media activities helping us meet our overall strategic goals? How are our efforts using social media supporting our on-land activities?

Next, nonprofits must analyze the return on investment, including both tangible and intangible costs and benefits. Finally, they must consider whether their social media efforts led to social change. (This last step can be difficult to measure, which is likely part of the reason why many organizations are still relying heavily on numerical measurement data.)

It is clear that nonprofit organizations will be sorting out these issues for the foreseeable future, and, as Kanter and Fine suggest, it’s the organizations that take the time to incorporate, experiment with and reflect upon social media who most likely will end up thriving in the digital era.

Networked Nonprofit Slides from Beth Kanter

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