Nonprofits & NGOs

Becoming a Networked Nonprofit

Redesigning your nonprofit organization to become more participatory, open, authentic, decentralized, collective, and effective—via social media, networks, and beyond.


The environment in which nonprofits are doing their social change work has changed dramatically over the past five years. It’s more complex, online networks are central to our lives and work, and stakeholders want more involvement. Seeing tangible results from your organization’s social change efforts now requires two things to be successful: leading with a network mindset, and using measurement and learning to continuously improve. It is just not about using the tools—having a Facebook brand presence or tweeting as the CEO of your organization—it is a total redesign of your organization.

A network mindset exercises leadership through active participation, openness, decentralized decision-making, and collective action. It means operating with an awareness of the networks the organization is embedded in, and listening to and cultivating these networks to achieve impact. It means sharing by default and communicating through a network model, rather than a broadcast model—finding where the conversations are happening and taking part. It isn’t always easy or fast to do, as CEO of San Francisco Goodwill Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez shared in a recent presentation about becoming a networked nonprofit.

Getting comfortable with social media and showing a little bit of themselves is the first step for leaders to make this leap to a networked professional. But as Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez and other nonprofit leaders have discovered, social media isn’t just an engagement platform; it requires that organizations redesign how they work. Having a multi-channel marketing strategy, and competence and comfort using social and mobile tools is important, but organizations also need to incorporate networked practices, including having leaders leverage both their professional and organizational networks.

Success happens for nonprofits if they take small, incremental, and strategic steps. In my forthcoming book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, co-authored with KD Paine, we introduce a framework called “Crawl, Walk, Run, Fly” to help nonprofits figure out what incremental steps they need to take to get to the next level of networked nonprofit practice. It is designed to help them understand and measure the nature of the change process as they move through it. The model below indicates areas where organizations should focus time and learning to move to the next stage.


The Crawl Stage

Crawlers are not using social media consistently or measurement processes; they also lack a robust communications strategy. Crawlers can be small or large nonprofits that have all the basics in place, but they either lack a social culture or resist transforming from a command-and-control style to a more networked mindset. These nonprofits need to develop a strategy. Even with a communications strategy in place, some organizations may face challenges to adopting a networked way of working. If so, they should start with a discussion of the organizational issues, followed by codifying the rules in a social media policy. They should also anticipate learning and benefiting from inspiring stories from peers.

The Walk Stage

Nonprofits in this stage are using several social media channels consistently, but may not be strategic or fully embracing best practices—maybe they don’t engage with users, or they only share content and messaging produced by their own organization. These nonprofits need to create a social media strategy to support short- and long-term objectives, such policy change or increasing public engagement on an issue. Walkers internalize listening, and use the data they collect to improve engagement and some content best practices.

These organizations implement small, low-risk projects that collect stories, learning, and metrics to help leadership better understand the value, benefits, and costs. Walkers should focus on one or two social media tools, going deep on tactics and generating tangible results and learning. They must identify low-cost ways to build capacity internally, such as integrating social media responsibilities into existing staff jobs. Capacity is built with support from leadership and a social media policy formalizes the value and vision.


The Run Stage

Runners use more than two social media channels as part of an integrated strategy, identifying key result areas and metrics that drive everything they do. They have a formal ladder of engagement that illustrates how supporters move from just hearing about your organization to actively engaging, volunteering, or donating to your organization. This is used to guide strategy and measurement. They visualize their networks and measure relationships. These organizations practice basic measurement religiously and use data to make decisions about social media best practices.

In these organizations, a single department does not guard social media, and staff are comfortable working transparently and with people outside the organization. The board is also using social media as part of its governance role.

To build internal capacity, runners invest in a community manager whose job it is to build relationships with people on social media or emerging platforms. These organizations know how to create great content, and use an editorial calendar to coordinate and curate content across channels. They are routinely tracking the performance of their content strategy and adjust based on measurement.

The Fly Stage

These organizations have institutionalized everything in the running stage. Flyers embrace failure and success alike, and learn from both. Flyers are part of a vibrant network of people and organizations all focused on social change. They use sophisticated measurement techniques, tools, and processes.

Do you lead your nonprofit with a network mindset? Where is your organization in the shift to being a networked nonprofit? What do you need to get to the next level?


I am looking forward to discussion on networked practice at SSIR’s upcoming Nonprofit Management Institute.

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  • BY Anita S. Jackson

    ON August 30, 2012 04:06 PM

    Thank you, Beth! This is a useful framework to measure an organization’s social strategy and capacity. I’m grateful to be director of social media in an organization that was ‘born’ with a networked approach. This means that there’s buy-in and confidence in the power to use these communication tools to learn about our community, to develop and share messages, to take action and to organize effectively and make change.

  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON August 30, 2012 05:54 PM

    Anita:  Thanks for your comment.  Momsrising is one of the organizations that I used as an example of flying!  If you were describe the indicators or best practices at the “flying” level for networked nonprofits, what would that look like?

  • BY Brian Reich

    ON August 31, 2012 10:01 AM

    This is a super smart article, and the book promises to be smart as well—I would expect nothing less from Beth and KD, of course.  However, I would like to see the conversation about networked nonprofits, and how to measure their evolution and impact, include far more than just a conversation about social media - its adoption, the re-configuration that it requires within an organization to work effectively, etc. Social strategy must extend beyond just communications and engagement.  It has to be measured in ways that go beyond fundraising and capacity.  Those are key elements for sure, but they are only some of the overall set of considerations.

    Problem solving in today’s connected age requires a fundamentally different approach - whether someone is in the same room or on the other side of the planet.  My fear is that too much of the attention is paid to bringing people from far flung places, and with a wide range of expertise and insights together, and not enough attention is focused on how the same principles can be applied to the work that still needs to be done locally, within the walls of an HQ and similar.  This is the right conversation to be having, about the role of social media/tools in terms of changing how nonprofits function, but its only part of the conversation.  But a different set of tools would still demand just as much re-imagination of our approach.  What if there wasn’t social media/social tools to talk about—how would the thinking be applied forward?  What if organizations aren’t online at all, aren’t connected via mobile phones or any other kind of device?  What if we were forced to solve problems as a society by simply working together, as human beings… what would change about our thinking, and how we measure our impact then? 

    I think a lot would change.  Beth knows that, we talk about it all the time.  And I realize that when you write a book and push an argument you have to pick your battles.  Social media is a VERY important battle to pick. But I am not sure enough people beyond Beth have moved beyond this being largely a conversation about social media.  And it needs to move beyond that.  So let’s start with this conversation, but also see where it takes us…

  • BY Christine Prefontaine

    ON August 31, 2012 10:08 AM

    Beth I recently did an assessment of how civil society organizations are using social media. Also did some training. My recommendations — based on your writing, and backed up by my experience — pushed hard on this organizational development issue. Basically: You can’t just use social media as another broadcast channel. Well OK, you can. But the benefits will be limited. The message got through, as evidenced by this lovely story by the project’s Chief of Party (BTW I’m from Montreal, not Seattle…)

    That said, I got what I thought was really good feedback from Rebecca Sears, at the Technology & Social Change Group, at the University of Washington Information School. She pointed out that hierarchy/one voice is sometimes really important. Especially for government agencies. Some of the examples (apologies to Becky, these are from my quick notes, and she was way more articulate):

    • The binary (you are or are not a Networked Nonprofit) maybe not helpful. Perhaps think of it more as a continuum.

    • Tie it to the mission, not to whether they are the best user of social media. In many cases you don’t need to adopt a different org structure to accomplish your mission. So becoming a Networked Nonprofit is not the indicator of success, it’s accomplishing the mission. You can be successful using other models. [That’s the way I had constructed the argument: my bad.]

    • Example: Org running a large infrastructure project. They are hierarchical but also have awesome, funny Twitter staff and people write them back. Within what they’re trying to accomplish this model — cordoning off a group or staff — works well. Those people have latitude to be irreverent and funny. This org has several large infrastructure projects, and a responsibility to inform people (where will the road go and how will it affect my house, traffic patterns, etc.). Pull back the curtain a little bit to give peek into the organization.

    • Example: During elections in transition countries. A lot of misinformation. People need a source of consistent answers/info. Distributed spokespeople would not be good for this. Can cause confusion. [Embracing failure here would be really problematic.]

    So.. in some cases important to have hierarchy, command/control. Other examples are police, disaster response, or other cases where you need definitive, trusted source of information.

    Is the solution to cordon off parts? This could be in the org’s social media guidelines. Thoughts?

    Thanks, Beth. You rock. And your generosity and public sharing of your resources and work products is inspiring.

  • Ashley Boyd's avatar

    BY Ashley Boyd

    ON August 31, 2012 10:11 AM

    This model is both intuitive and profoundly useful!  It shows how organizations can move to becoming truly social not just in “social media” but at every level of work.  If we keep our social media strategies balkanized within an organization, we’ll never realize the possibilities it can provide us.  Thanks for this and congrats!

  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON August 31, 2012 04:34 PM

    Christine Prefontaine,

    Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your work!  When I’m not writing books or blogging - my main work is as a master trainer and designing and facilitating TOTs or professional learning networks on the concepts in the Networked Nonprofit - use of networks, integrated communications strategy, and social media - tools, tactics, and techniques.  We should definitely compare notes.  A recent project I’ve worked in with NGOs from India and Pakistan:

    I totally agree with Rebecca as it not being a yes or no as to being a networked nonprofit.  In the research for my first book with Alison Fine, The Networked Nonprofit, - we discovered two types of nonprofits - those born as networked nonprofits like Momsrising and traditional nonprofits that were in the process of transformation   That was 2008-2009.  During the years following, coaching hundreds of nonprofits - and facilitating peer groups - I’ve started to codify the practices and definitely it is continuum.

    The model is clean, but in real life can get messy.   

    My experience with NGOs internationally and this varies by country and culture - they are very likely to be working networks.  Perhaps because resources are so tight and already have a history of simplicity and sharing.

    I have put together a rubric that illustrates each of the indicators at four development levels so you can the continuum - would love to know what you think:

  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON August 31, 2012 04:37 PM

    Brian:  You are so right!!  What you have said resonates 1000% - It isn’t about the tools.  It isn’t about having an integrated marketing strategy. Yes, those items are important, but if change doesn’t happen within the whole organization - the social change results that I know you and I hope to see in the world won’t happen.

  • BY Cheryl Francisconi

    ON September 2, 2012 12:26 AM


    Thanks for again presenting us with such a usefuf model and guide.  This is extremely insightful and can help guide organizations at different stages.  It can also be a roadmap for future organizational development.  From the international perspective, having worked in Africa for some time, I notice that there are quite a few organizations who are somewhere between a crawl and a walk.  Basic infrastructure and lack of technology skills to begin with keep many organizations from moving forward easily, although many of those are already beginning to engage social media.  It’s not always easy for organizations who have grown up outside the technology revolution that has driven the West to catch up but there is desire and lots of effort.  Not all in the crawl stage have basics in place—not enough skills or sufficient infrastructure to engage at levels they would like.  Something to consider adding.  Thanks for inspiring us to keep developing ourselves and networking both with social media tools and through human connections.

  • BY Judy Darnell

    ON September 4, 2012 01:01 PM

    Beth - Once again we are inspired by you and challenged to constantly do better.  We are one of the “traditional nonprofits that (are) in the process of transformation” and you have helped immensely in that process over the past couple years.  It is about integrating our mission into everything we do - that is the end result, not becoming a “networked nonprofit”.  As we have evolved our editorial calendar is helping us connect mission with social media - twitter, Facebook and linking to website, blogs, etc.  Too often we nonprofit types think folks will seek out our websites.  Social media is the way to drive them there to learn, volunteer, advocate and yes, give.  We strive to reach, engage, influence and lead for results.  Thanks Beth!

  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON September 4, 2012 03:21 PM

    Judy:  Thank you for the inspiration in fleshing out the model and the change to work with you and the great folks at SpitFire!!  As a trainer/capacity builder, you never know if your work or program design will have impact or help the organizations.  What I like about this the model is helps design programs and measure them - and of course tweak them.  Like your organization, I’m always trying to improve!

  • Beth Kanter's avatar

    BY Beth Kanter

    ON September 4, 2012 03:22 PM

    Cheryl:  When I’ve used versions of this in places where the Internet isn’t so great or where the basic needs are very great, we add a column called “Sit” ... but the key is making progress.

  • BY Karen Zgoda

    ON September 5, 2012 06:10 AM

    I can’t wait for this book to arrive to have your very helpful guidance in implementing these ideas! Would love to track down resources for building a networked nonprofit from the ground up. kWhat resources do you recommend for a start-up networked nonprofit?

  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON September 5, 2012 10:17 AM

    HI Karen:

    The first step would be to use the detailed assessment documents and figure out your level and where you want to improve.

    Then, you work on that area of practice.  I have a lot of how-tos, resources, and examples for each of the practices and will be adding those to the wiki.  I’m also now trying to align my blogging with the model - so I will blog about practices and put it on the framework.

  • BY Karen Zgoda

    ON September 5, 2012 05:37 PM

    Thank you!!

  • Joe Beckmann's avatar

    BY Joe Beckmann

    ON September 8, 2012 07:40 AM

    The spin I would suggest is just a little oblique to the line you’re taking, yet it offers insights into each of those time-culture-basic, and internal-external-impact vectors. View social networking as community organizing, and adapt Alinsky ( to strategic steps, phases, and assessments. In other words, your planning time should be in creating a strategy - and doing nothing, absolutely nothing but assembling the “right” people who are ready to be as open as possible. Hold them together long enough and they’ll explode into what will then seem an intuitively shared outreach strategy. In other words, create a culture that can be the foundation (if not the real, complete model) of the eventual organization, and motivate your partners into shared ownership of that model.

    Concurrently, don’t worry about - don’t even think about - opponents. Pretend that there are no opponents, and that pretense is enough to delay their appearance until there are enough resources - and resourceful partners - to cope with them. This doesn’t mean delaying a target, or goal, or setting a pro-active agenda, but, rather, put off acknowledging that the opposition may have its own message while you frame - as a group - the message in which you believe and which, increasingly, you share. This can be as varied as a parent organization for school kids (at anything from a Charter to a “low performing” public school to a rich-kid academy); a health consumer organization (targeting anything from feminism to aging, from HIV to diabetes, from obesity to costs); or a development or transportation advocacy group (from bikes to high rises).

    Finally, once your group is growing; once your calendar is generally known; once that calendar and agenda is on a blog, in email group(s), different languages, and shared by many people, make a splash. Find a task which is emblematic of your mission, accomplish it, and credit everybody - including any opponents - for your success. That moves your “impact” to “fly.”

    In other words, your model is elegant and compelling, but it ought also to have an edge, a smell of burying the bad-guys, a whiff of a “new consensus.”

  • BY Paul Shoemaker

    ON September 10, 2012 06:50 AM

    We have been a networked organization from the git-go, but still need to make progress on the tools and how we optimzins a network of 27 cities

  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON September 12, 2012 04:15 PM

    Paul:  How will you know you are making progress?

  • BY Demetrius Wooden

    ON July 9, 2013 09:27 AM

    This is an amazing article. I’m an intern for the Minnesota State College Student Association (MSCSA), and we just recently purchased your book Measuring The Networked Non-Profit. We as an organization have been searching for new, innovative ways to connect to our student body via social networking effectively and enhancing our advocacy work as well. I’ve yet to start the book, for the tips you’ve supplied here as me only imaging what the book has to offer for organizations like ours. Keep up your great work and we’ll be looking for more of your findings and articles in the near future!

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