Book review: what is a networked non-profit?
When a non-profit organisation engages with social media, the temptation is to focus only on the tools. Questions such as “How can we increase the number of people following us on Twitter?”, “Why aren’t more people retweeting us on Twitter?” or “Is Pinterest the next big thing for nonprofits?” can become distracting, or even paralyzing for those starting out on the journey of engaging with social media.
Beth Kanter and Allison H. Fine’s book The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change encourages nonprofits to look beyond these questions to the larger questions of strategy, organisational culture, and how the change in how people engage with institutions should affect the behaviour of nonprofits. This perspective is the book’s biggest strength. As the authors say themselves, social media tools come and go but a coherent strategy is what guides an organisation forward and sustains its growth.
There are many aspects of the networked nonprofit covered in this book — here I’ve chosen the five that resonated the most with my work as Communications Manager at Refugee Support Network.
Networked nonprofits should be:
According to Kanter and Fine, a networked nonprofit should be a ‘transparent’ organisation. This means an organisation that is easy for outsiders to get in and insiders to get out.
Transparency is key to attracting new generations to engage with nonprofits. The authors suggest that while previous generations were passionate about specific nonprofit organisations and supported them accordingly, subsequent generations are increasingly passionate about causes, but not organisations, and see a separation between the two.
Social media therefore plays a key role in getting these ‘causes’ out there to a wide audience, and presenting a means of 'Millenials' interacting with nonprofits who are working towards the same goals that they are passionate about.
2) Engaging with larger social networks
The book raises the need for networked nonprofits to shift their focus from working as single organisations to working as part of larger social networks that exist inside and outside of their institutional walls. Kanter and Fine encourage the mapping of social networks, and stress the importance of social capital and the fact that people are more likely to act on a request if it comes from a friend than from an organisation itself.
3) Actively creating a social culture
Creating a social culture is key to any nonprofit, and while this book persuades the reader of its importance, it does lack in practical suggestions of how to do so, despite the study questions at the end of each chapter.
According to Kanter and Fine, a social culture needs to start at the top and have buy-in all the way through an organizational hierarchy- it can’t just be left to an intern sitting by themselves ‘in a cubicle down the hallway’.
One of the main obstacles to creating a social culture that I have heard in my work with nonprofits is the fear of losing control. The book’s sensitivity in dealing with this is clear, addressing several of the key fears relating to social media and providing clear checklists and suggestions for codifying social media usage, while encouraging organisational leaders to ‘experience for themselves the pleasure, power, and excitement that come from connecting with friends and strangers online around a common purpose.’
4) Embracing simplicity
A key challenge presented in ‘The Networked Nonprofit’ is to embrace simplicity, because ‘complexity is a barrier to becoming a networked nonprofit’. An example the authors give of this is how complexity leads to a scramble for resources. Organisations trapped in a scarcity bubble define everyone else as competitors for resource.
"[non-profits] are constantly talking about what we lack — money, information, staff, resources. There’s a strong feeling that there isn’t enough to go round, and so the focus is on grabbing the largest share possible for your organisation and holding onto it for dear life.”Michele Martin: President/CEO at The Bamboo Project
Throughout the book there are examples of how individuals and nonprofits have harnessed social media for change, though given the year of publishing (2010) some of these already seem quite dated. For some more up-to-date examples I recommend a free guide published by Unity Trust called ‘About that First Tweet’ (1.4MB) which has four in-depth case studies from Save the Children, The Girl Effect, the New York Public Library and Child’s I Foundation. The latter of these recently won a Digital Fundraising Award in the Technology for Good Awards for their use of social media in innovative fundraising.
These nonprofits all operate in different ways with different goals, and so the contrasting examples are an excellent accompaniment to this book. I’d also recommend taking a look at two blog posts by White Fuse Media’s Crispin that look at the nitty-gritty of getting better quality twitter followers, and how to write better tweets.
5) Incorporating storytelling at the heart of its messaging
One of the most exciting aspects of social media is its ability to share stories with a wider audience — something that Kanter and Fine emphasise. Storytelling can be empowering and also leads nonprofits closer to their goal of ‘transparency’. Indeed, “Storytelling using social media provides opportunities for individuals to use a megaphone they would not have had access to before.”
The growth of the internet has meant that more diverse voices than ever can be heard, and as nonprofits we have the potential to ensure the stories of those we work with and on behalf of are represented online. ‘The Networked Nonprofit’ provides practical suggestions of how nonprofits can do this- from offering factsheets to individuals and bloggers, to encouraging supporters to create their own media. We will definitely be thinking about this further at RSN as a result of reading this book.
The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change is available to buy online, and has just been joined by the follow-up Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World, by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine.
Mary Mitchell is a multiplatform storyteller, who works with film and word to share the stories of those marginalized by traditional media. She also works with nonprofits to improve their communications output, and is Refugee Support Network’s Communications Manager. Follow her on Twitter @mary_mitch and at marymitchell.co.uk.