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.

Amazing presentation on YouTube and participatory media

I’ll be recommending the following video to my Board in Anchorage soon. Thanks to Robert Paterson for pointing it out. This is pure Internet gold that’s worthy of broadcast on PBS itself.

The point? It explores YouTube (and related sites) from an anthropological standpoint and explains the many ways in which “Web 2.0” technologies are fundamentally different from traditional media. Blew me away with the depth of analysis and the many moments of self-recognition. It’s so reassuring to know there are others out there struggling with issues of authenticity, identity and community in the online world. Old media and new media are even more radically different than I thought.

The only downside: it’s a full 1-hour video. So you have to reserve it for a time when you’ve got that much time to watch it. No snacking here — this is a full meal.

How network effects disrupt the liberal elite world of mass media

Here’s a fast and tight 25 minutes of thinking that everyone confronting the disintegration of mass media should view. It’s Mark Pesce speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum just last month (June 24).

I’ve certainly felt an increasing pull of networked social structures in the 21st century. There’s something new happening today, something unprecedented. Pesce puts words to that feeling and it sounds largely right. Plus it dovetails nicely with Clay Shirky’s ideas in Here Comes Everybody, a seminal work for broadcasters getting shoved around in this new media world.

My concern, however, is that other factors will derail these social network developments. For example, even given all the cell phones in the world, there are still tremendously autocratic / dictatorial leaders that the masses, supposedly connected, have not yet overthrown. Even in our own country, one of the most connected, we’ve been unable to defeat or marginalize a President that has acted repeatedly against our own national best interests.

Pesce’s ideas also seem to ignore the upheaval I’m betting we’ll see with the end of cheap oil, partially due to depletion and partially due to global warming controls. Seems to me a fundamental upheaval like that would disrupt the social order that’s supposed to be disrupted by the network effect. And what about global warming effects — with predicted mass extinction events (starting with ocean acidification) that will have unknown effects on the rest of our ecosystem?

In any case, it’s a fascinating talk. Well worth the time of mass media folks trying to understand why they’re no longer the center of the universe.

Community, Community, Community

I hate the word “community.” It’s a catch-all word that means so many things it feels like it means nothing. When I use it I feel a little silly.

Yet there’s not really a good replacement for the word. Or at least I haven’t found one I like.

Check out a thesaurus — is there anything that can both refer to a geographically-bound collection of individuals while also referring to a group of individuals that are naturally cohesive around a shared affinity?

Society has too many connotations of snootiness or political implications (“The Great Society”). Association is usually attached to the name of a lobbying group. Neighborhood is nice and informal, but it’s too geographically-bound and too small-scale. Nothing else quite matches “community” in terms of flexibility and meaning, right?

If anyone has a better term, please share it in the comments. I really would like to find another word I can use interchangeably with this term.

Behold the potential of the political web

Change CongressEveryone complains about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it. Same thing with Congress, right?

Well, maybe not. Be sure to check out two things to discover how the web could very well change the nature of how we practice democracy.

The Internet, with its (mostly) ubiquitous presence and many-to-many relationship model could be the platform for transforming the way we handle our politics and community policy development. That alone is worth reading about.
But if you also believe our representative democracy is neither representative nor a democracy, then this is a movement you need to know about.