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Beth Kanter, nonprofit social media blogger and CEO of Zoetica, and Allison Fine, a senior fellow at Demos and co-author of Rebooting America with Micah Sifry and others and The Networked Nonprofit (co-written with Beth Kanter), presented for the Personal Democracy Forum's morning session yesterday. I've just now had the opportunity to sit down and re-watch it (you can find it here in full) in order to catch some finer points.
In their presentation, they talked about an old-school, but still widely held organizational structure at nonprofits, that includes silos, processes, and people all working toward trying to solve a common problem or reach a common goal. This method can make it difficult to change the actual outcome of the social problem they're aiming to solve because those silos and processes end up acting like a firewall to actually block a lot of progress.
They proposed a new model of nonprofit structure called "the networked nonprofit" that can more easily open up to innovation; welcome more creative thinking; allow "free agents" who are talented people, eager to help mobilize and strategize but aren't technically employed by the organization; and also works to break down those traditional barriers of the "fortress" style nonprofit.
They envision organizations working like an ocean sponge ' anchored to the ocean floor (the cause) and they allow water and sea life to flow through them (human talent, ideas, strategies) but they skillfully capture the good (innovation, free agents) and let the bad (silos, protocols) flow out.
I've worked for a couple of nonprofits that operate with the old fortress model and listening to this presentation got me reflecting on why they may have adopted some of the departmentalization they did. Or why they had all the protocols that often delayed things. I don't know the real background, but from my (light) experience working on grant proposals and with funders in the past, I feel the message to nonprofits of yore may have been to emulate the business models of corporate America in order to get the foundation or government support they need. And while corporate America has moved somewhat away from the old fortress models due to competition and the "stay agile (or die)" nature of the marketplace, nonprofits have faired similarly (though at a slower pace), with the more innovative, flexible, and open organizations gaining ground with greater philanthropic and government support.
They continued to talk about key features found in the networked nonprofit "sponge." They'll be humble enough to accept that they may not know everything or be able to control every part of their issue or message. It's about realizing that none of us own the issues we work on, as much as we might try to find our niche within a movement of organizations working toward a similar goal. It's realizing that some 25-year-old grad student with a million views on YouTube might be a great free agent to invite conversations with to help your organization get the word out about the cause.
But it means letting go of some control and being the cheerleader for all those out there rooting for the same end goal. And in working inside, outside, and across the real-world network of people, organizations, and opportunities to collaborate, we'll move the ball down the field toward the social change goals we seek.
Photo: Marc Smith
Becky Wiegand is the Webinar Program Manager at TechSoup.org @bajeckabean on Twitter
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.