Nonprofits and engagement media

I’m out of the nonprofit world these days, but I’ve spent some years in it, so I’m not at a total loss as to how things work and how cultural norms accrue. I’ve got my opinions, to be sure.

So when I saw, via FriendFeed, a post from Beth Kanter — Seth Godin’s Non Post About Nonprofits: Deers in the Headlights? — I was curious. I like both Kanter’s and Godin’s work and this seemed to be generating some buzz. So I clicked over to both Kanter’s post and to the original Godin post: The problem with non.

Quite a bit of the conversation was on Kanter’s site, so I joined the fray with the following post-length comment…

I was, until recently, trying to develop engagement media practices inside a public media company. It was a disaster, but not for the reasons most nonprofit managers would point to.It wasn’t about the tiny budgets or the excessive time required. It was about EXACTLY what Godin was talking about: resistance to change and slothful, good-enough-for-a-nonprofit management practices. It was also because the traditionalists liked their ivory tower positions; they liked speaking from on high to the little people in the audience. I was told we didn’t want to get the public involved in public media — that’s too messy.

Godin has nailed it and the reason for the violent response is precisely because he nailed it.

Lots of nonprofit workers, after a while, develop a sort of victimization mythology that serves the stagnation problem. “I don’t have enough money, so I can’t do this, so I can’t make more money… woe is me. But I’ll keep at it because I’m such a nice person. And maybe someone rich will come along and notice me. It could happen!” I saw that all the time.

Is it all nonprofits? Nope. But it’s a lot of them. Of the 2 million out there, how many are really creating engaging relationships with donors or their constituents regularly? Maybe 10,000? Whatever the number is, it’s not enough.

Here are the key nonprofit organization questions you have to answer:

  1. Who are you, why are you here, and why should anyone care? (And if you spit out a mission statement, you just failed step 1.)
  2. What are you doing today to build authentic, meaningful relationships with donors and potential donors? (Mass mailings via any means don’t count.)
  3. What are you doing today to build authentic, meaningful relationships with the individuals, firms or communities you serve? (Look up the words “authentic” and “meaningful” before you answer.)
  4. What are you doing today to connect your donors and your beneficiaries, either directly or indirectly, so the donors feel energized and involved and the beneficiaries feel supported and involved, too? Or in other words, how are you building a community around your mission? (And broadcasting doesn’t count as connecting.)
  5. Given #1, what tools will best help you handle #2-4? (Notice I made no mention of Twitter or any other social media tool.)

charity:water is just the beginning. There’s a new generation of donors growing up right now and they won’t take your call or your e-mail or your mass mailing. But they will respond to an earnest call for help, especially from a friend they know. The next-gen trick is to be that friend first.

Nonprofits had best start making new friends. Because the old ones are dying and the broadcast campaigns (e-mail blasts, newsletters, appeal letters) will largely die with them. There’s still a place for building awareness, but action will come via relationships.

Godin’s pointing all this out through this post, his recent Tribes book and plenty of other posts. It’s a tough message, especially if you’re a “victim” inside a change-averse nonprofit (or a for-profit, for that matter!).

From here, you can deal with it — seeking new ways to engage your community — or just hope he’s wrong.

Frankly, I think it’s more fun to engage with your community regardless of what Godin says. But if proving Godin wrong sounds more fun to you, enjoy.

What I didn’t mention in my comment was my own immediate experience with fundraising for a cause via social media — via connections built across my own “community.” It was a small, first effort. But it was the collective action of a group of people with no nonprofit organization whatsoever. We came together to help a friend we’d literally never met.

For my generation and especially for Generations Y and Z, the old impersonal “broadcast” approaches used in public media and across the nonprofit spectrum will have diminishing returns.

But if I know you and you know me and we know we care about one another in some meaningful way — if we’re engaged in each other’s lives — the support will be there.

2 thoughts on “Nonprofits and engagement media

  1. Pingback: Daily Lifestream Digest for 2009-09-17 | Jonathan Coffman - Lifestream

  2. Absolutely on the money. I watch the non-profit I sit on the board of categorically refuse to engage in thinking differently about the future. This is directors, permanent staff and volunteers — all stuck in a groove which is now four decades old.

    I begin to believe that the answer is to go in and manage such a not-for-profit: change from a board seat isn’t working.

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