Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review of The Networked Nonprofit:Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change

Beth Kanter and Allison Fine have a warning and a promise for nonprofits.  The warning: with the rise of social media (and a generation that's used to quick and transient support for the cause of the moment), your old models are not going to work much longer.  Don't count on gaining new supporters who will be loyal for life.  If you don't adapt, you're toast.

The promise: if you narrow your work, open your books, and collaborate with other agencies and key individual actors, using social media, you may be able to get more done than ever before.

The book is full of real-life examples and checklists to help you put its lessons into practice.  Some of the examples are negative, like the organization that didn't want to let its young professionals group create a Facebook page that the organization didn't control.  (We should be happy if people want to spend time talking about our organizations!) Others are positive, like Planned Parenthood's use of its website and pages on Facebook and MySpace to let "individuals share their personal stories in their own words, images, and videos."  On the website, they keep readers up to date with current thinking and provide more tools.

The Networked Nonprofit also includes helpful chapters on how (and how not to) use crowdsourcing, learning loops, online fundraising, and online tools for governance of your organization.

I do have some reservations about the book.  One assumption behind it is that the Millennial generation, or Generation Y, will keep on surfing from cause to cause and not form abiding loyalties to particular organizations as Baby Boomers like me have done.  I distinctly remember acting the same way when I was in my twenties and thirties--even without the aid of the World Wide Web.  As my dear wife Rona Fischman says, people create their own grooves and fall into them.  I am not sure that's going to change.  But that means it's even more important to meet young supporters in their chosen media, on their terms, now, so they will stick with us in the future.

The other reservation is about "Sticking to what they do best."  This is Kanter and Fine's idea of how you become more effective AND become a good citizen of the "ecosystem" of groups working on your issue.  They say:

A common refrain within nonprofit organization and by nonprofit staffers is, "How can I make my life simpler when I have so much to do?"  The answer is, well, simple: You have too much to do because you do too much.  (p.89)
I have a lot of respect for the wisdom of this observation.  At the same time, social problems are complicated.  If each group sticks to what it does best, who's looking out for the whole?  The authors would probably say that if you're not trying to DO it all, you have time to engage in those strategic conversations.  They are refreshingly frank that "It's too soon to tell whether and how the outcomes of Networked Nonprofits differ from their predecessors...."  Anyone who is interested in finding out, however, should read this book.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Challenges to Authority: How Do We Respond?

I said I would return to Korach “soon,” and that’s true—on a historical scale!  Yes, it’s a month later, and I am still thinking about what we can learn from Parshat Korach about the questions “When and how should we challenge authority, and how should authority respond?”

We live in a time in the history of the United States when it’s hard to be on the side of authority, or sometimes, even to take authority seriously.  After Vietnam and Watergate, after the lies that produced the Iraq War and the electoral frauds that may have produced two terms of the Bush presidency, when Congress and the media carry less prestige than lawyers and used-car salesmen, the claims of our elected officials are automatically suspect.  

For many of us, religious authorities can be just as hard to believe in.  You don’t have to be a “new atheist” like the late Alexander Cockburn.  Devout Catholics have been rocked by the sex abuse scandals and the institutional response to them.  Protestants have been dismayed by the Religious Right selling its soul to its corporate sponsors.  Jews, still after decades, denounce other Jews because we disagree with the Israeli government’s policies in Palestine (which to my mind are no better and probably worse than the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan).

Some would read Parshat Korach as a classic text of repression by religious authorities.  Challenge Moses & Aaron, and God will kill you:  end of story.  But we have already seen that that’s too simple a way of reading the story.  It leaves out Aaron’s nonviolent response (which David Matthews’ reading of Korach highlighted).  It leaves out the way the firepans of the rebellion become component parts of the altar (as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook pointed out to champion healthy skepticism and challenges to tradition).  The vindictive reading of the story also leaves out the fact that many of the Psalms are attributed to the sons of Korach—who then clearly survived and continued to serve in the sanctuary.

What’s more, the vindictive reading leaves out the way that rabbinic Judaism has developed for two thousand years after the canon of the Torah was closed.  The rabbis found ways to justify harsh principles and ameliorate them in practice.  For instance, they found capital punishment in the Torah and explained why certain crimes deserved the harshest penalty of which we could conceive.  Yet when a case came up before the Sanhedrin in its capacity as high court, they would demand such extremely strong evidence as to make it impossible to carry out that penalty.  The Talmud tells us that if an execution happened once in seventy years, that court would be known as “the bloody Sanhedrin.”

How can we use authority to sustain the values that sustain us?  How can we incorporate challenges without simply repressing them or simply co-opting them?  More thoughts to follow in the conclusion of this series.