The Networked Nonprofit

In my first post, I looked at the impact of social media on social movements.

In this post, I’m going to look at the impact on nonprofit organizations. Just as social networking tools are shaking up the way companies do business, they’re also changing how nonprofits operate. But while in the for-profit sector social organizations use technologies to bolster internal networks, in the nonprofit sector social technology is being applied to foster collaboration between organizations.

This “networked” approach is upending how nonprofits operate. Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano captured the shift in an article on the networked nonprofit in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

“Unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values.”

In her research, Wei-Skillern’s found that nonprofits are more effective when they adopt a networked approach, building alliances with others in their social sphere, even with organizations that were previously perceived as competitors.

A Shift in Perspective

For folks working in the nonprofit field, this networked way of operating represents a shift in perspective and behavior. In their book The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting With Social Media to Drive Change, Alison Fine and Beth Kanter listed the characteristics and traits of a networked nonprofit organization:

  • Transparent
  • Engaging people outside the organization in sharing their work
  • Focused on building relationships
  • Willing to trade control (even of program and brand) to generate more involvement for the cause

Social networking technology, according to Kanter and Fine, makes these ways of operating possible. While the technology is important, the investigation of the networked nonprofit centers on the behavior change that’s required and demonstrated when an organization adopts this approach.

Changing Behavior

Ultimately, according to Kanter and Fine, organizations that want to become networked do end up doing things differently. To shift from organization-centered to network-centered ways of working nonprofits can take the following five steps:

  1. Understand their ecosystem. To become networked it’s important first understand the networks in which you operate. Kanter and Fine recommend mapping the networks and identifying the influencers (network weavers, is the term they use) and what’s important to them.
  2. Create social cultures. This includes embracing a greater degree of transparency, rewarding staff for engaging in learning and reflection, and embracing social technologies as tools for authentic conversation with internal and external stakeholders.
  3. Engage in social channels to create relationships, increasing their interactions with external audiences.
  4. Increase the transparency of the organization. Share as much information as possible. Create opportunities for questions to be asked and for people outside the organization to contribute ideas and critiques.
  5. Simplify organizational structures. For example, foregoing formal contractually underwritten partnerships for more loosely constructed “networked” relationships with other organizations. Letting go of control whenever possible in favor of taking more action.

Of course just as companies have a compelling business case for adopting ESN technologies and cultivating internal networks, nonprofits step into the networked world in order to optimize their performance. Like advocates for social business in the for profit world, champions of networked nonprofits argue that failing to adapt means missing out on opportunities to connect with customers–i.e. supporters and donors.

Kanter and Fine make a distinction between organizations that sprung up in the past 16 years and so have the networked way of operation baked in, and legacy organizations, older nonprofits, for whom embracing social networking and the networked way or working represents a change.

Change is a challenge for an organization of any size. In the next post I’m going to look at how some leaders are shifting their legacy organizations into the new networked world, the obstacles they face and the results they’re producing.