Allison Fine researches and writes about the intersection of social media and social change. She is the co-author (with Beth Kanter) of the bestselling book, The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, as well as the award-winning Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age. She hosts a monthly podcast for The Chronicle of Philanthropy called .”Social Good” The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.
MKC: You’ve researched and written about social media and how it could impact democracy in the 21st century. Is the Occupy Wall Street movement along the lines of what you were envisioning?
ALLISON: Occupy Wall Street is absolutely part of the same DNA of social protests that we’ve seen for about the last ten years or so. They are widely distributed – meaning there’s no centralized organizing person or organization. They are fueled, but not caused, by social media – the ability to share messages, share photos, share videos, which are very powerful, is part of what’s stirring the pot and helping to organize the events. Occupy Wall Street has some of the drawbacks of this kind of mobilizing as well: the lack of a centralized message and the lack of goals. Whether or not those ultimately stop the momentum for these self-organized efforts locally will be interesting to watch.
MKC: Back in the nonprofit world, people are asking constantly, Gee, if these things can spur revolutions, how come they can’t do fundraising?
ALLISON: Ha! Well, they are doing fundraising. There’s a lot of money being raised through Causes on Facebook, for example. When folks hit a wall is when they try to take old on-land habits online. When you start fundraising too quickly using social media, when you make people feel like they are recipients of direct mail, or just an ATM machine, it won’t go well. Money can be raised through social media. The question is whether you are connecting well with people or not.
MKC: You and Beth Kanter wrote a wonderful book called The Networked Nonprofit. Could you paint a picture of what a networked nonprofit would look like in operation?
ALLISON: A networked nonprofit is an organization that is much more connected to the outside world than traditional organizations are. (We call some of those organizations “fortresses.”) They work much more naturalistically with their community of people. In particular, this direction is coming from the top. Leadership within those organizations understands the importance of asking people questions instead of coming out to the world with all the answers; doing what they do best and connecting with other like-minded organizations in their network; sharing resources; and ultimately, understanding that the world is a place of great abundance, full of people who want to help, but you have to be open and porous in order to access those resources.
MKC: The attitude of abundance is in contrast to what we often observe as an attitude of poverty?
ALLISON: Absolutely. Most organizations that were started last century – those are the fortresses – have a sense that they have to pull in all the resources they need and keep them tight, whether it’s information, relationships or money. Their notion of doing well is a constant sucking in of all those resources because there isn’t enough time, money, staff to get done what they want to get done. But once you let go – once you start exhaling instead of inhaling – once you start to focus every day on building relationships, not trying to get people to do what you want them to do, then you find that the world really is an abundant place.
MKC: Are there some examples of notable organizations that have gotten pretty far along the spectrum of this?
ALLISON: Charity: Water is probably the best example, an organization started with this DNA. Moms Rising is a wonderful organization. But as we said in the book, one of the most exciting things going on right now is that there are formerly traditional organizations like Planned Parenthood or American Red Cross that are in the process of becoming networked nonprofits. So being born a fortress is not a chronic disease. The change is coming from organizations that are either facing reputational crisis, like American Red Cross, or a funding crisis, either due to mismanagement or the recession.
MKC: I understand you have also had experience as an executive director yourself. What was the biggest challenge for you as an executive director? What were the things that kept you up at night?
ALLISON: The same things that keep every executive director up at night – making the budget and making payroll. I think one of my strengths in writing about networked nonprofits is that I did create a fortress, I worked with a scarcity mentality, so I understand what drives people to work that way. It is a very scary place to be, if every day you feel your organization is about to go under. And most nonprofits feel that way, every day.
MKC: And yet you tell them to exhale.
ALLISON: You have to. Look, the fact is, very few organizations make the impact that they want to make, because they’re trying to do too much with too little. So they’ve got to look at the networks out there as a way of working, to spread out the work and to leverage the resources that are out there. Otherwise, not only will they not make the impact they want to make, but they will burn out. And that’s why we have such a high burnout rate in the sector.
MKC: Whenever there is a change or leap into the unknown, people get frightened and cling tightly to what they know. Do you have some advice for nonprofits that are apprehensive about jumping into the unknown?
ALLISON: Well, they’re not just apprehensive. They’re terrified! Change is coming in a couple of different directions. In some organizations, younger staff are shoving them into this new world, either publicly or more surreptitiously, by being online and taking the walls down. So there’s an opportunity to give them a little more rein to experiment. Other organizations, particularly those that have lived off their direct mail donor base for years and years, see that the Millennials, the Gen Wired, are not going to give $20 a month through direct mail. So they have got to reshape themselves to connect with those Millennials, and that means using social media.
The best way to start, once you have senior staff on board – because we’re talking about taking an organization out into the public, and taking the walls down – is to set up some experiments. Maybe organize one fundraiser this year on Facebook – not trying to raise the money necessarily on Facebook, but starting conversations about what you want to achieve, what the network wants to achieve through that event, so you’re not putting the whole entity at risk by starting.
MKC: Would changing to a networked organization be enough to rescue nonprofits from their uncertain future, or is it going to be just one of many other changes?
ALLISON: We’re living in a very fast-changing world. Social media is a part of it. I think the relationship that people have to institutions is a huge part of it. We began by talking about Occupy Wall Street, and one of the key characteristics of those efforts is not only are they not captive of political parties, they’re not being organized by advocacy groups on the Left either. And I think that’s very notable. Organizations are going to have to learn how to work within networks, how to develop more social capital within those networks, and they’re going to have to be much more agile than they’ve ever been before. So it means no more five year plans. Try five month plans.
One question I’ve been thinking a lot about is do we need organizations? Look at Occupy Wall Street: That has all been done without organizations. Now, I think the starting point for Occupy Wall Street is the utter failure of the political party system here, because this protest, I think, would have been a primary fight for Obama on the Left 20 years ago. But that kind of political organizing is not on the radar screen for younger people, who have seen social movements as the pathway to protest. So they organize social movements using social media, something they’re familiar with, and right now they don’t need organizations to get the word out to the media, to raise money, any of the things organizations used to do. So what’s the role of an organization like Common Cause in a world like this? I’m not sure I know the answer.
You can follow Allison on her @afine)., her A. Fine , her or on Twitter (
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.