Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fortress Fighters

In the past couple of years, the Internet and social media have begun to disintermediate traditional charities -- requiring them to radically reinvent their role-as-middlemen between the wealthy and those in need. Today's Web-driven, mass philanthropy movement is energizing all sorts of people, rich and poor, to "give direct" (their money or their time) for social good, often bypassing traditional charities altogether. This change is spurring spirited debates about the future of nonprofits across the giving sector. [See Cause Global's Feb. 15 post, Are Charities Becoming Obsolete?]

To be sure, it's no longer a question of whether the Internet will upset the status quo at traditional charities. The question now is which charities are transforming themselves most effectively so as to become more socially relevant and sustainable?

The latest book on the subject is The Networked Nonprofit, out this month from consultants Allison Fine and Beth Kanter. [Kanter writes the long-running Beth's Blog, which has been tracking the growing use of social media by nonprofit organizations for almost a decade.] At first skeptical about social media's radical impact on non-profits, both Kanter and Fine now agree with others in the field that unless charities thoroughly embrace social media (and the new leadership behavior their use requires), these organizations will not survive the decade.

"The size of the (philanthropy) sector has exploded geometrically but on any measure of social change, the needle hasn't moved," Fine told those attending the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum. "The problem? Complex social problems today outstrip the capacity of any single organization or individual to solve them. We don't need to grow non-profits. We need to grow networks for social change." Fine likened many of today's charities to "fortresses" whose executives "need to start leaving the building and crossing the moat" to work with others for greater impact.

Such fortress-storming is already occurring at nonprofits large and small; the Fine-Kanter book, like an earlier one (Cause-Wired) by nonprofit consultant Tom Watson, is filled with a number of good examples of old organizations scrambling to reinvent the way they fundraise and manage. [See also Lucy Bernholz's recent paper, Disrupting Philanthropy, which examines the immediate and longer-term impact of networked digital technologies on philanthropy.]

America's oldest nonprofit, the American Red Cross, is one example cited by Fine and Kanter and a favorite of many others writing about change in the sector. [My magazine, Contribute, profiled the organization's modern-day challenges in a lengthy, 2007 case study by writer Keith Epstein]. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the 129-year-old nonprofit was in obvious need of organizational change: between 2002 and 2008, it had been through seven CEOs, and post-Katrina, it was being criticized widely for being out of touch, unwieldly and largely unresponsive.

After the storm, the ARC hired Wendy Harman as its first social media manager to help turn things around. "I had felt we were going to war," the 26-year-old Harman recalled in April during a panel I led at NTEN in Atlanta. Yet four years after taking the job (and despite making big strides for the organization), Harman said she was still having serious doubts about her ability to make change on the ground. "Yes, I have helped the American Red Cross to gain thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, but I started asking myself last December, 'Was all of this interactivity online actually doing anything to help people?'"

Fast forward to January 12 of this year, the day Haiti got hit by an earthquake. Harman wasted no time partnering with MGive to launch a mobile phone texting campaign that ended up raising more than $32 million online for Haiti in a week.

"This was a wildly successful event in the face of unspeakable tragedy," Harman said Thursday, addressing social activists attending last week's Mashable Media Summit in Manhattan, one of New York's 2010 Internet Week events. But Harman says much work is still needed by the nonprofit to boost aid delivery on the ground. "There was a woman in Haiti trapped under the rubble in a supermarket who was able to text her family, who then texted to us that she needed help," Harman told the Mashable crowd. "I was able to listen to that but was not able to do much about it." Harman added: "This was a huge wake-up call for us."

Going forward, Harman said, "we'll continue to try to bring this stodgy old organization into the 21st century," but by using more social media, not less. She said GPS-enabled location awareness technology such as Foursquare could be additionally useful, though the technology has yet to be tested in aid delivery.

Here's a video of Harman's brief remarks at last week's Mashable event:

Do have stories to share about how social media are turning your organizations upside down? We'd love to hear from you.

--Marcia Stepanek

(Photo: Bodiam Castle/England by S. Greg Panosian for

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Anonymous Wendy Harman said...

Thank you for this. Networked nonprofits or bust!

I should clarify that the State Department, mGive, and many of my senior leaders from International Response, Marketing, and all the way up to our CEO and President were responsible for getting the Text HAITI to 90999 program up and running so quickly.

June 13, 2010 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Wendy! And best of luck in your work going forward!

June 13, 2010 at 5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for so much for pointing to The Networked Nonprofit! You're so lucky to present with Wendy. She's rocks!

June 13, 2010 at 8:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Marcia, thanks so much for this wonderful write-up. I LOVE the notion of an army of Fortress Fighters using all of their social media channels to take down the walls! Thanks again,


June 13, 2010 at 8:20 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

You're welcome, Allison; we're seeing fortresses being stormed cross-sectors; thanks to you and Beth for advancing the conversation of how that is happening in the nonprofit arena. Best of luck to you with the book, and keep us posted with new examples.

June 14, 2010 at 6:46 AM  

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