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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nonprofits: How to get smart about social media

Over the last ten years, the internet has completely transformed communication between people and organizations, and I believe that its influence will continue to grow. What consequences will this have for existing nonprofits ? How can they move from a static web presence to an active interaction with donors, members, volunteers and committees? How do they integrate people that do not participate in meetings?

When I started to work with nonprofits in Germany more than ten years ago, the internet did not exist as an organizing tool. I remember begging my parents for a modem at the time, but without success. Snail mail was the only way of reaching a specified group of people. We distributed leaflets in their hundred thousands in order to broaden our base. If we needed interaction, we called a meeting. And if anything had to happen quickly, we had to hope that the other person was within reach of their land line.

Email changed everything. For the first time, we could reach people within seconds, without cost. And, most amazingly, they could respond. Wherever groups wanted to work together, mailing lists sprung up, and with them came questions. What was acceptable use of a certain list? What constitutes a group decision? How do we moderate? People soon learned that also virtual places have an atmosphere, and that this atmosphere is constituted through the content and tone of messages, of their frequency and the personal touch that the sender would lend them.

But while the use of email has become ubiquitous since then, not everyone has learned to use the medium wisely. In my current organization, mailing lists are unheard of, and there's hardly any online outreach to members and partners. Instead, most online communication consists of endless reply-all conversations between the same people to a point where it is impossible to detect decisions or distill useful information. Why is it so difficult to learn a new medium?

Email is for old people.

While organizations are still struggling to get to grips with the medium 'email' or the idea of regularly updating their website, the world has moved on. When teenagers grow up with their own computer and a broadband internet, connect with their friends via text message or chat, and spend time on YouTube or MySpace - will they listen to organizations vying for their donations via direct mail? Probably not. But they will also ignore clumsy attempts to be hip.

So, if there is potential a) of creating a more meaningful conversation around your cause and b) of reaching people that 'old means of organizing' - direct mail, magazines, committees - no longer reach, where can organizations start to become more web-wise? Some ideas:

  1. Encourage the use of web tools in existing structures: Put your board on a mailing list and slowly move offline discussions online. Provide background material for download. Try collaborative writing in a wiki. Share pictures on flickr.

  2. Strive for transparency and sharing: You probably have lots of great information in your organization. Don't keep in your drawer - make it available for others to use. If you've produced a video clip, a report, a press release, don't forget to put it on the web.

  3. Help your organization learn: Become acquainted with tools and best practices, play with them, and teach them to others. But most of all: Make resources available to help your organization catch up with societal change.

  4. Engage in the conversation: The internet is no one-way-street. People will react on what you do. Some of them might be members, some are donors, some are new to you, but all of them are interested. Find ways to listen to what they have to say, and keep them up to date and give them opportunities to get active.

  5. And, if you haven't done so yet: Find ways to use email to connect to members, donors, volunteers and take charge of your own website.

This quote at the beginning of this post is part of a conversation I had with members of Friends of the Earth Germany. Thanks for nailing me on my loud-mouthed prophecies, Martin! I hope the above ideas somewhat answer your question (even if they come too late and in the wrong language).

Image by Extra Ketchup via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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