While the discussion may have been old hat to some of us who’ve been blathering about these issues (see older posts), it was energizing to see people from domains that are often disconnected talk to each other. Nonprofits, for example, are increasingly aware of technology’s potential but often befuddled as to how to integrate it so that it reduces costs and leads to outcomes. Civic engagement groups mention technology at their conferences but there’s not much deep exploration as to how it could enhance meaningful participation. And technologists are often so immersed in the “latest thing” they sometimes forget that a considerable swath of the public isn’t tweeting 24/7; as a result, they risk alienating the people they say they want to reach.
Yet, all of these folks need each other, especially in this rapidly-changing world. As Joe Trippi remarked, “We’re not talking about radio shifting to TV—it’s not just about a change in the way we communicate. It’s about a change in power and how people use that power.” He and Micah Sifry of the Personal Democracy Forum echoed Clay Shirky’s contention that the Internet is just as transformational as the printing press because both give ordinary people the ability to access information without having to rely on gatekeepers/elites.
What does that mean for nonprofits, especially big organizations focused on “social change”? Sifry suggested that traditionally, there has been a sector of “professional do-gooders,” but now “do-gooding” is becoming more populist in nature. And it’s particularly prevalent in the political sphere, where millions of Americans are taking action on issues without need for more formal intermediaries such as nonprofit advocacy groups. Today, there’s an emerging “fourth sector”—the churches, the grassroots, and the “barnraisers”—who are using technology to move entire agendas, Sifry noted.
Interestingly, that may be coming full circle back to where civic and political organizations first began—in the kitchens and church basements of community folks. Those “identity groups,” says Theda Skocpol, led to more professionalized organizations that burgeoned during the 1960s. Civic groups moved from “membership to management,” whereby membership became nothing more than writing a check to mostly DC-based professional advocates who did the work.
Now? Membership may be moving from check-writing to signing up for email lists, according to emerging research. That may reflect a new generation of young people who’ve grown up with technology and are using it to go around traditional institutions and make change in ways they believe are more cost-efficient and get results more quickly. Rather than writing checks to big institutions or taking to the streets in protest, young people who care about an issue can whip up a powerful protest movement through blogs, wikis, You Tube, text messages, virtual town halls, social networks, and digital brainstorms.
As a result, the core membership bases of some leading advocacy groups is declining and/or comprising mostly older donors more comfortable with institutional loyalty. That’s lacking among young people, one panelist noted, which may be due to young people’s impatience with bureaucracy; “top-down” messaging campaigns; and confrontation, rather than collaboration.
But what does all this mean for the future of nonprofit membership organizations? A new paper by the Monitor Institute Working Wikily 2.0: Social Change with a Network Mindset suggests that nonprofits will have to begin working with a network mindset—embracing principles like openness, transparency, decentralized decision-making, and distributed action—and that doing so can help funders and activists increase their impact. The paper dovetails with a new national research study, funded by the Packard Foundation, that Monitor Institute is conducting to determine how and to what extent nonprofit membership groups are changing (or not) in light of current trends. (In the spirit of transparency, I should say that I’m working on this study with Heather Grant and Barbara Kibbe.)
Conference attendees agreed. Nonprofits are “going to have to let go of control,” said Scott Heifernan of Meetup.org and Adam Connor of Facebook. “Organizations have to realize that they no longer have control of their message or brand because people are already talking about them on the internet. They have to change from trying to control the message to monitoring what’s being said. Organizations also have to cede power to people to self-organize and do it locally. And they have to learn to collaborate more.”
Does that mean that there’s no role for traditional nonprofit, membership-based groups? Not necessarily. The jury’s still out as to whether internet organizing leads to longer-term civic engagement. And, is signing up for or forwarding emails any different than writing a check? And is one a more meaningful form of civic/political engagement? As political blogger Michael Connery points out, technologically-driven initiatives may help to achieve “one off” goals, but it’s not clear that those will matter over time.
Another problem? The assumption that “bottom up” and crowd-sourcing strategies always lead to thoughtful decisions. Recent efforts by the White House to ask the public what mattered to them most led to legalizing marijuana as the top vote-getter, suggesting that there’s a role for both experts and “real people” to play in what gets decided and how.
And, of course, nothing can take the place of face-to-face conversations. As Heifernan noted, the Internet can be used to “get people offline” and connect. But how do groups do that in ways that deepen human relationships and collaboration? As one panelist said, “No one gets together with a group of people they met via the internet and asks, ‘what’s our mission or purpose?’ right off the bat. They ask ‘what am I interested in?’ and then ‘how can we move from me to we?”
Finally, it’s important to note that young people have usually been the ones upending traditional mores and that all of this is part of a “wild west” occurring in a new era of fast-paced technology and the tools it provides—the dust from which has yet to settle. Before dismissing nonprofit advocacy organizations, it'll be necessary to take a closer look at what these groups have to offer and whether their new brethren are a replacement or complement to them in their efforts to most effectively and efficiently engage millions of people in civic and political life.