Allison Fine is the co-author of the bestselling The Networked Nonprofit, and author of the award-winning Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age. She is also the author of Social Citizens Beta and a co-editor of Rebooting America.
Allison blogs about the intersection of social media and social change at A. Fine Blog. She also hosts a monthly podcast for The Chronicle of Philanthropy called “Social Good.” Allison has a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MPA from New York University.
She is a frequent speaker nationally and internationally about the ways we are remaking ourselves as people and societies in this fast changing world.
Connect with Allison on Twitter at @afine.
My Real Story
The year was 2005. I was writing my book Momentum when I stumbled on a short article in The Washington Post. The all-male legislature in Kuwait had just granted women the right to vote. This astounded me; how was it achieved?
I followed the bread crumbs to a surprising end: Blackberries were the #1 consumer product sold that spring in Kuwait. Women were buying them. Beneath their burkas these women were emailing, advocating, and drawing their girlfriends and daughters into the cause.
The men in the legislature saw only the email messages. They didn’t know they came from women. So, emboldened by constituent support, they enacted groundbreaking reforms for women’s rights – all because of a handheld device.
This was my light bulb moment about how social media was changing the world. We can choose to make technological opportunities terrifying – trapped in a fortress of our own making – or exciting, when the opportunity for remaking the world becomes infinitely, immediately inexpensive and possible.
Because for all the beeping, whizzing, and pinging that surrounds us, in the end it’s not about which buttons to push. It’s about being fully human in our lives and our work, and getting back to what we do best as people: connecting with others.
In a time of great fluidity and change, that’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? Even though the way you’ve ordered your professional life is being shaken up in a snow globe, you can get back on solid ground by stepping out from behind the armor and having the courage to reveal yourself and your organization to the public.
Don’t be fooled, it’s a huge task. It requires facing, unraveling, and legitimizing your fears. But I can tell you firsthand that it’s possible. You can come out of a buttoned-up environment – exactly like I did – and thrive in a different way.
My evolution started in 1992, when I founded and led Innovation Network, Inc., a small national nonprofit that provides program planning and evaluation support for nonprofits and foundations. I ran it in all the tradition business fortress ways I’m now asking people to undo.
I learned a lot in the job, but the most powerful lesson was the terror I experienced in not knowing whether we would make payroll next year or not. The constant worry about what could go wrong and the harm others could do to my organization and its reputation was exhausting.
Then I learned the antidote. I found an energizing way to approach business that brought out people’s generosity and willingness to share in a new world intimately connected by social media. Once I plugged into that, I had more opportunities to catalyze really exciting, networked activism events in my career.
Here are two of my most gratifying and fulfilling successes:
- In 2008, Nancy Scola and I threw a new idea into the world one month before the presidential election: TwitterVoteReport. Over one month we engaged a large network of amazing volunteers to create a website, visualization tools, and database. Ultimately, without a penny spent, we enabled thousands of citizens to share their election victories and hardships and connect directly with election protection lawyers. Side-to-side, we had created the first all-citizen election monitoring and protection network. This idea and the programming behind it became part of the groundbreaking election monitoring work done by Ushahidi.
- Then, in 2012, the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood news broke, and I helped launch the #takebackthepink campaign with an amazing group of social media activists. I was able to jump in, create a cause, break down a well-known fortress, and manage it in the new way. It was exhilarating to jump in and get to work with a network of people who were accountable to one another and a shared mission. In fact, I did exactly what I’m suggesting others do: be flat, give more credit than you take, err on side of generosity, and lose control.
Both of these examples highlight the power of individuals using social media to make a difference. Moreover, they represent the tip of the iceberg for traditional organizations, for-profit and nonprofit, that can remake themselves to harness this energy. (Why yes, I do have a whole book on the topic: The Networked Nonprofit.)
All in all, I’ve had the good fortune to watch the social media revolution unfold from a front row seat as a writer and activist. I’ve spent my entire career in the field of social change, and once social media arrived on the scene, I put the two pieces together. As a result, I’ve had the privilege of a front-row seat to see – and help create – an entirely new field of social activism.
This worldview creeps into my personal life too. I have the great honor of being president of my synagogue (a volunteer position, feel free to donate!) where I’m experimenting with transforming the institution into a networked nonprofit.
On the home front, I reign as Queen of the Penis Palace. My husband and three sons not only give me a chance to see young people in action with today’s tech tools, but they have also cultivated my ability to speak very slowly and loudly.
And last but not least …. Go Giants! (I’d say Go Mets! too, but, well, it’s going to be a long few seasons on that front.)