Last night, I had the great opportunity to interview Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody. The first thing I asked about was his view of the new role of nonprofit organizations in the social media or technology revolution that is well underway. I think it’s an interesting topic and wanted to continue the conversation here with you! The topic is also featured as this month’s NetSquared Net2 Think Tank.
I asked Prof. Shirky specifically about the avenues of participation, content, and convening online. Last month, my blog here on SSIR discussed the idea that nonprofit organizations, with the use of social media, can now create shared spaces online for their communities—truly convene groups online. I still think this is one of the most dynamic opportunities that nonprofit organizations have now, providing a way to be more than a source, a service, or a membership.
Shirky points out in the video that nonprofits can’t participate online in the same way that individuals can. I think this is a hard concept for many to agree with because of the process by which the social media tools are most often adopted in organizations: for example, Jane really likes taking pictures and usually posts them to Flickr (an online photo sharing website) as a way to store them, sort them, and share them. After taking some pictures at the local holiday parade, she finds that many others wanted to post their pictures on Flickr and started a group to pull them all together. She posts her photos to the group and something clicks, “we could do this for our annual holiday event!” Jane brings up the idea with her organization’s executives and they decide to give it a try, but only if Jane takes responsibility for implementation, monitoring, support, and so on.
In that example, it would be difficult for Jane to really approach using Flickr from a different perspective than how she is already using it personally. Why? Because the difference isn’t in using the tools per se, we all have the same functionality to upload, tag, comment, etc. But the important difference is all about the formation of connections, or relationships.
We have all heard before that social media is allowing a conversation to take place online: people are talking to each other, people are talking to organizations, organizations are talking to people, and so forth. Well, those connections are really important, but not in a highest-friend-count kind of way. It’s great for organizations to inspire hundreds or thousands of supporters to join their group, forum, network or whatever other opportunity that’s available. What’s really great and exciting to see happen more and more across the web is organizations creating opportunities to connect members to members, and not just to the organization.
Here’s another example: I may really support the League of Women Voters, could maybe find them online and join a network, but it would probably be nationally oriented or have chapter-specific relevancy that was still larger than me and my networks. If the League of Women Voters could look at the network, see the kinds of opportunities present for members to connect with each other, and then provide the resources to connect (whether it is online tools, facilitating offline events, or just letting people know about each other) the ripple effects in the network could really create synergy amongst members and produce untapped enthusiasm for the organization.
Instead of thinking, “what can the relationships with members do for our organization?” or, “what can our relationships do for our members?” try thinking of this:
“What can the relationships between our members do for our community?”
So, perhaps the changing role of nonprofit organizations in the online space is not one of playing catch-up to the early adopters and hyper-connected individuals, nor is it one of “friending” big names or joining every platform; but is one of strategically convening supporters to create dynamic connections across the community.
What do you think? Are there organizations that you think are doing this already and are doing it well? Which organizations do you wish were doing this? How do you think organizations can begin?
Amy Sample Ward’s passion for nonprofit technology has lead her to involvement with NTEN, NetSquared, and a host of other organizations. She shares many of her thoughts on nonprofit technology news and evolutions on her blog.