Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Nonprofits and the Future of Social Networking

By Dennis D. McDonald

Thanks to a note provided by Sam Huleatt I attended a luncheon session last week in Washington DC titled “Leveraging Social Networks for Progressive Organizing.” I got an earful about how social networks are being used by nonprofits, election campaigns, and social action groups. I also learned — again — how important young people are to the functioning of nonprofits and political action groups.

 The following people spoke:

  • Chris Hughes, Co-founder, Facebook
  • Scott Goodstein, Founder, Catalyst Campaigns
  • Ivan Boothe, Director of Communications, Genocide Intervention Network
  • Lauren Miller, Strategist, Blue State Digital

Stephen Geer, Manager of Online Advocacy, Center for American Progress Action Fund, was the moderator.

I wanted to attend the session since one of my current clients is a nonprofit professional association. Many of my recent contacts have been connected with corporate applications of technology or media. I thought this would be an opportunity to hear a somewhat different perspective.

I came away with a much better understanding of how political organizing and election campaigns are using social media to promote agendas and candidates. I also gained some insight into the similarities and differences between for profits and nonprofits in how they view social networking and social media.

Here are some observations:

  • Nonprofits are just as eager as for profits to understand and measure “what works” when applying social networks to a goal or project of some kind.  Someone has to decide where to put staff and volunteer time. (This discussion was similar to listening to PR professionals talk about marketing campaigns and ROI (Return On Investment) calculations.)
  • Both for profits and nonprofits are concerned with how social networking interacts with physical action (meeting, voting, talking with others, purchasing, etc.) that can take place “away from the keyboard.”
  • In both cases relationship development and social networking among individuals related through common interests may serve both as an end in itself and as an intermediate step to further action.
  • The closed nature of some smaller social networks can be viewed as both an advantage and a disadvantage. One advantage of smaller groups is the ability to manage activities in different locations. One disadvantage is the difficulty of coordinating efforts among related or similarly themed groups.
  • General purpose social networking systems such as MySpace and FaceBook are seen more as relationship developers and recruiting tools than as conduits for specific “calls to action.”
  • Election campaigns tend to be more action-oriented than issue oriented groups where both long term and short term goals exist. As a result, managers of campaign networks sound a bit more impatient about identifying “what works.”
  • General purpose social networking tools are good for recruiting local representatives. Communication about geography-specific actions (e.g., meetings or rallies happening in a specific location) need communications to be organized through more targeted methods (e.g., specialized networks or email).
  • Terms I did not hear mentioned were “viral,” “podcasts,” and “value chain.” Terms I did hear were “word of mouth,” “relationships,” and “impact.”
  • Methods for generating “buzz” around new bands sounded very similar to methods employed to generate buzz around political candidates (e.g., hooking a MySpace mention to a YouTube posting coupled with resulting email measurement).
  • One nice thing about email is that you can sometimes measure how often emails are opened.
  • MySpace and FaceBook don’t provide great measurement tools and in some cases they restrict the volume of messages that can be distributed in connection with a given web page or group.

What provided me with the most food for thought was the mention made by several people that one must learn how to balance the specific agendas of a group’s organizers and the spontaneous relationship development and actions of individual citizens. Generating specific behaviors or beliefs is not something that can be controlled like flipping a light switch. In some ways this is similar to the focus that the more enlightened corporate web strategists and PR professionals have about social media in relation to the business goals of large corporations.

Another high level observation is that nonprofits depend greatly on enthusiastic young volunteers and young professionals for getting their work done.

This has always been the case. Especially here in the Washington DC area, there is an entire subculture of work study, recent grads, interns, and underpaid young people who keep the town hopping after dark and who keep things running during the day. Social media and social networking are natural tools for this group and provide mechanisms for extending reach and influence far beyond natural cost barriers and geographic borders. 

It seems to me that, given the proliferation of networks and continually improving methods for building custom networks, there will be a constant “churn” of communities, networks, relationships, and systems that can never be completely managed or centralized. People and their relationships change constantly. Larger systems such as FaceBook and MySpace, by serving as de-facto  “platforms” for communication and relationship building, may have an advantage over smaller more specialized networks, yet more specialized networks support a different type of action.

This suggests there will always be a built-in level of inefficiency and wasted effort that will drive the need both for constant management attention — and for low-paid staff hours to bridge the gaps among different networks and systems. Politically oriented groups will always need to stay current with the continually shifting boundaries among the different groups and systems that any coalition-oriented group must deal with.

Seamless integration of passwords, identity, and “presence” will not happen overnight. Armies of young people, on the other hand, are well positioned to navigate this constantly shifting landcsape.



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