Fortified or Networked, What Kind of Foundation Do You Want To Be?
“Complex social problems outpace the capacity of any individual organization.” –Beth Kanter and Allison Fine
Last week I participated in a Care2 webinar called The Networked Nonprofit featuring social media gurus Beth Kanter and Allison Fine. Beth and Allison have just launched their new book by the same name and used the webinar to explain just what makes an organization “networked.”
The quote above comes from one of their opening slides on the webinar and when it came across my computer screen I found myself nodding. In the past year, Beth and Allison’s research has found that despite the explosion of nonprofits (and I’ll add foundations), despite the new programs and all the money targeting a variety of social problems, “the needle on social change hasn’t moved.”
Because “the focus on the growth of stand-alone institutions makes it impossible to scale social change because complex social problems, and all social problems are complex by definition, outpace the capacity of any individual or single organization to solve them.”
So if no “one” organization can solve a social problem, what next? How can social problems be addressed in a way that does move the “change needle”?
Now, even though the webinar and book focus on nonprofits, there are many concepts that foundations can find useful and the answer to the riddle on how to solve social problems is one of them.
Fortified vs. Networked
Beth and Allison describe most organizations as being “fortified.” That is, in a “fortified” organization staff work in silos, work behind institutional walls and the institutions themselves work in isolation trying to solve complex social problems.
Beth and Allison contend that a shift is needed.
They propose that organizations should shift from a “fortified” model to a “network” model. A “networked” organization is a “simple and transparent organization that allows insiders to get out and outsides to get in and they’re experts at social media.” In a “networked” organization staff connect with networks of people and organizations, and together reach and solve goals.”
Beth and Allison use the analogy of a sponge to drive home their point.
Now, often the analogy of a glass house is used when promoting this type of transparency. However, Beth and Allison point out that a glass house still has walls up between people and institutions.
A sponge, like the kind you’ll find on the ocean floor, allows water to flow through it, filtering and taking the nutrients it needs to survive.
A “networked” organization is like a sponge–open and porous, operating without walls so that the lines between inside and outside are blurred and “they engage with their networks, not at them,” as a “fortified” organization would.
So if a “networked” organization is porous, what exactly is coming in?
When walls become porous, a “networked” organization is opening itself up to work with individuals and other organizations to solve social problems. Individuals, or free agents, can connect an organization with a cache of new volunteers, donors and new audiences.
Free agents are “individuals who are passionate about a particular cause…who use social media tools to organize, mobilize, raise funds and communicate with constituents” all outside institutional walls.
Don’t underestimate a free agent.
Take the example of Shawn Ahmed, who “has a huge and passionate online following.” Shawn has created a social movement by traveling around the world with a flip camera, documenting his work as he works to combats extreme poverty.
A month ago Beth and Allison met Shawn at one of their presentations.
Shawn got up…he grabbed the [microphone] and he said to the room, that was filled with nonprofits, “The problem isn’t social media, the problem is you. You are the fortress. Social media is not my problem. I have over a quarter million followers on Twitter and two million views on YouTube and I have a hard time taking you guys seriously…Shawn [then] pointed a finger [at the Red Cross] and said “When the Haiti earthquake happened I wanted to connect my network with you and you guys just ignored me.”
Imagine what a quarter of a million passionate followers could do for an organization.
Want to learn more about what it means to be a “networked” organization?
Want to learn how to engage with free agents?
Check out the Networked Nonprofit slides and audio online via Care2.