Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lessons from the Front

Some 21 years ago, just after the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square ended in a spray of violence and live fire from military tanks that killed untold thousands, a Chinese journalist colleague of mine advised fellow activists to "be like water." He was quoting a proverb, urging persistence in the face of towering obstacles. Water, he explained, can seep through and around even the most imposing walls to get to the other side.

Fast forward to February 11, 2011, to Tahrir Square, and to the pro-democracy activists in Egypt and their social-media inspired youth movement that forced Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak to step down following years of strategizing and weeks and months of open, organized protest. Watching the cheering crowds via an al-Jazeera livestream from my office in New York on the night Mubarak was deposed, I couldn't help but recall my Beijing colleague's advice two decades earlier, to "be like water." Social media helped to make the difference this time; it helped a large group of change-makers organize a campaign for change that was able to prevail despite traditional efforts by government military forces to squelch it.

In my keynote on social media strategy last week at Stanford University (and with my NYU master's students earlier this week who are enrolled in the class I teach with colleagues Howard Greenstein and Tom Watson, The Wired Nonprofit: Social Media Strategy and Practice), I shared these Top 5 lessons from the rise of social media movements globally. While social media are still evolving, they continue to influence the balance of power between citizens and organizations, and are reshaping the behaviors of many establishment institutions and organizations.

1. It's not about the tools. Technology—social media —changes our behavior and our relationships with each other, and with our organizations. For years, the Internet has been dis-intermediating the "middlemen" across society, from travel agents to video rental stores. Traditional charities have long operated as the middleman between resources and need, but with the advent of social media and the Internet, more "free agent" donors prefer to "go direct." A new crop of "digital nonprofits" such as, and Donor'sChoose are meeting that need, reinventing the role of the middleman in the social good sector.

2. Social media decentralize leadership, shifting the locus of power to outside the walls of established organizations. Some traditional nonprofits tend to overestimate their supporters' dependence on them for access to information and underestimate their supporters' access to each other. The rise of social networks means that supporters don't need a nonprofit's permission to act, or to assemble, or to create fundraising campaigns of their own. The nonprofit establishment can no longer completely control the conversation; new strategies are required to accommodate and engage the conversations and activities of free-agent donors that are occurring outside the traditional donor networks. Social media also create new ways that supporters can hold nonprofits accountable to them. Example: last year's Susan G. Komen for the Cure controversy.

3. Social media create shared awareness. Facebook, Twitter, and other mainstream social networks create large networks for rapid information-sharing. They also make it possible for cause advocates to easily create solidarity around particular events that underscore the importance of their missions. Examples: the "We Are All Khaled Said" campaign on Facebook and the "We Are All Trayvon Martin" actions organized by social media, including a "Justice for Trayvon Martin" page on Facebook. Occupy Wall Street's "We are the 99%" blog on Tumblr and the more recent "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" essay on Facebook (which drew 1.2 million likes as a re-post on The Huffington Post earlier this year) provide additional examples of how cause advocates can use social media to create and expand the strategy of "shared awareness" to build support for their goals.

4. Social networks want proof of impact. Nonprofits are under vastly increased pressure to prove their relevancy and impact on social platforms. Supporters and would-be donors want causes to "show" their work, not simply talk about it. Examples:'s "Proving It" pages and the 5 Gyres project, a nonprofit that is seeking to raise awareness of the world's five "garbage islands." 5 Gyres employed photographer Chris Jordan to help prove its mission to potential fundraisers.

5. Social media democratize philanthropy. Micro-donations, made possible by online fundraising platforms and social media networks, have been a rapidly growing segment of support for nonprofits. Cause leaders are being forced to expand their understanding of who their supporters are, and to create new ways to work with vast numbers of new advocates, representing more diverse age and income groups across society. No longer can nonprofits afford only to target high net worth individuals and corporations for new dollars. These new free agent social networks represent a powerful new constituency for fundraisers and a new lever of influence. Nonprofits wishing to cultivate the support of social networks must devise new strategies that meet these new micro-donors where they work and play, using social media.

The bottom line? Social media can invigorate a cause and deliver help in new ways, but increasingly "from the outside in."

-- Marcia Stepanek



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