Book Review - The Networked Nonprofit

The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change
By Beth Kanter and Allison Fine; Jossey-Bass, 2010; paperback, 201 pages; ISBN#978-0-470-54797-7; $34.95

It’s an understatement to say that anything technology-related will not have a long shelf-life, and in that sense, much in The Networked Nonprofit will become dated. However, authors Kanter and Fine argue that this book is not about platforms or gadgetry, but rather about changes in people’s behaviors and expectations around charity, and how nonprofits can use social media to improve their effectiveness and impact.

“Social media” is still a buzz term, but the days of being ahead of the curve if you engage in it are long over. Appropriately, this book is not a how-to-get-started guide (though there is some of that), but rather a means to examine current dichotomies in fundraising and management: the aforementioned gadgetry vs. behavior, online vs. “on-land”, personal vs. professional, loose ties vs. strong ties, passion for a cause vs. passion for an organization, and ultimately, the old way of doing business vs. the new. The authors make a pretty convincing case that the current model of nonprofit management is outdated and works against progress, and they raise some interesting questions that all leaders and boards should discuss. Intractable problems will not, they argue, be solved through the current nonprofit structure, i.e., by organizations that view others working in their field as competitors (which many do because of increasingly fierce competition for funds); that view individuals interested in their cause as a threat to their control; and where the job of executive director feels increasingly undoable and undesirable to many, especially younger workers. Instead, they call for a radical shift to “networked” organizations that are leaner, more focused, and which leverage other organizations in their “ecosystems” to take on complementary tasks, and which allow individual “free agents” to work on their own terms on behalf of the organization, rather than under the control of the organization.

The central argument here is that a shift must be made from organizations operating traditionally, where control is maintained and risk is minimized by management so as to maintain a good public image and therefore donations, toward networked organizations, which are more transparent and which accept risk as a necessary evil in the quest to accomplish their missions in the most effective and efficient way possible. One excellent piece of advice: “The goal is to do the fewest, not the most, things well to meet the organization’s mission.” The authors suggest that leaders informally leverage the other things that need to get done in their general fields through the connections they’ve established outside of their organizations – with other organizations or other individuals who are interested more in the cause than in the organization. It seems clear that we are still in territory where the old model still works in some ways and the new model opens up amazing doors of possibility. It’s not either/or, for now, at least.

The fear of losing control (of an organization’s voice, message, reputation) is a common and valid fear addressed in the book. When staff, volunteers, and even unaffiliated individuals working in your field are tweeting and blogging about your organization and activities (or about themselves in relation to your organization) with no approval from the PR department, you have to accept that at some point, something stupid will be said. The authors argue that the good outweighs the bad and that honesty and authenticity can manage such public embarrassments, but it’s easy to understand that this requires an uncomfortable leap of faith.

Another key message here is that social media activities should not be the responsibility of one designated staff person, but that everyone in the organization can be a part of it. “The key…is authenticity. Real people need to do their own talking. Logos don’t tweet or blog or have real conversations with people.” The idea is that personal plus professional interactions build community in ways that purely professional interactions can’t. Lots of this advice is fine in theory but may be difficult for many organizations to adopt for many reasons. Sure, it’s fine for an executive director to understand that “informality and individuality do not indicate a lack of caring, professionalism, or quality,” but how can one tell if an organization’s primary donors will understand that? But, it’s a fact that lately there is as much uncertainty in business-as-usual as there is in making these kinds of changes.

Other topics explored include: the joys and perils of crowdsourcing (crowds can achieve great things on your behalf, but “crowds can become angry mobs”, and do crowds exist out there for unglamorous but essential causes?); working in transparent ways; bringing networked behavior not just to your external communications, but also into management and even governing , so that the whole organization adopts a social culture; and concerns about staff productivity when spending time on Facebook becomes part of a job description.

The book includes specific reflection questions at the end of each chapter to get discussions started. It also contains a glossary of terms so you can quickly review the differences between channels, clusters, hubs, and nodes, and which includes my favorite, astroturfing: “artificial attempts at online relationship building, often done by a company or individual with an ulterior motive, such as selling products or burnishing their own reputations”.

Despite the fact that it could have benefitted from tighter editing (like most blogs, the medium in which both authors primarily write), I found this to be a fascinating book with lots of interesting ideas, some of which I’m still not so sure about, but all of which had me thinking about the tech-based changes sweeping our culture at large and how nonprofits are engaging.

For more information, check out the interesting blogs of both authors on this and related topics: A. Fine Blog and Beth’s Blog. And be sure to read an opinion that is less embracing of all of this in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article, Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.

-- Cecilia Stancell, Program Officer