Archive - September 2010

Malcolm Gladwell Strikes Out on Activism
Tools and Resources for Assessing Impact
Blurred Definitions of Social Good Organizations
Reflecting on "Make It Your Own"
Foundations Increasing Use of Social Media
New, Flawed Voting Machines in NY
Is Clicktivism Meaningless?
Measuring Social Media

Malcolm Gladwell Strikes Out on Activism

The normally spot-on Malcolm Gladwell took a big swing and completely whiffed in ruminating about the activism this week in an article in The New Yorker entitled, ‘Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.”

More than misunderstanding the role and power of social media, what I found most disturbing and disappointing about the article was that Gladwell doesn’t understand activism.  Activism has come to represent a wide continuum of efforts, voluntary and professional, that, like the tax code I mentioned last week, cannot all fit neatly under one umbrella. The term activism has come to include society changing social movements, political advocacy, and acts of loving kindness, like giving clothes or food to people in need. Gladwell lumps all activism into the social movement category. There will only ever be one civil rights movement, and the every day overuse of the word “movement” (akin to the overuse of the word “gate” to describe political scandal highlighting a true lack of imagination on the party of the “gate”ers.)

Social movement are intense, long-term efforts developed by a core of people and then spread widely because of the moral indignation that galvanizes them. Gandhi spearheaded a social movement, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights movement laid the groundwork for the women’s movements, and later still the gay rights. And that’s it, all of the other “movements” since have been advocacy or awareness campaigns (think climate change, recycling, drunk driving, breast cancer) to raise money or change public policy. or direct service efforts like feeding the hungry. They amount to a series of campaigns with very specific, intended outcomes. They are not social movements.

Gladwell’s assertion that social movements are based on tight ties and online efforts on, say, Facebook, are participatory efforts based on loose ties is simply not true. When one looks under the hood of a successful activism efforts, as Beth and I did for The Networked Nonprofit, whether part of movements or campaigns, they have a combination of initially tight ties, someone does have to drive the train, and loose ties, others have to join the effort for it to take off. In addition, all of the successful social efforts in the connected age happen both online and on land – see Moms Rising’s onesie campaign, Surfrider’s advocacy efforts, the Humane Society’s Spay Day efforts on Facebook and on land.

In this smart post, Jillian C. York agrees with the mis-characterization of the loose/tight ties by Gladwell.

On the social media side, Gladwell again misses the point. As Nancy Scola points out, “But where Gladwell seems guilty of contributing more to the froth than the substance is where he goes from questioning to drawing the conclusion that enormous personal courage that characterizes the desegregation of the mid-20th century American South is found but in pale imitation in the modern….”

Gladwell assumes that techtopians (count me in that category!) make no distinction between in person friends and online friends. He cites no evidence for this broad generalization. Networked Nonprofits that I have studied are very good at developing a “ladder of engagement.” (check out the awesome video that Beth has on this post of Chad Nelson of Surfrider Foundation describing their ladder of change.)

Organizations like Surfrider clearly understand that there is a wide funnel for organizations connecting with people; a large number of lightly touched people at the top (e.g. someone clicking that they “like” a cause on Facebook) and successive smaller numbers of people who then choose to engage in deeper and more meaningful ways (e.g. commenting on blogs, self organizing events, raising money.)

I agree with Nancy, this is a disappointing effort by Malcolm Gladwell, one of the smartest people in any field. He could have taken a few examples of networks enhancing activist efforts and really done an in interesting analysis of where and how they work well.


Tools and Resources for Assessing Impact

The Foundation Center launched a new area on its website of tools and resources for assessing impact. More good stuff coming from the Center, which also recently launched Glasspockets, an area dedicated to foundations and transparency.

The area dedicated to assessing impact is a really great resource, a long needed resource, for nonprofits. It’s a very robust database, search able by, among other things issue area, assessment goals, the type of organization being assessed and/ or tool type.  It’s a very clear, straightforward layout, with terms defined and great trasnparency as to why tools were selected and how they are best used. The number of tools will continue to grow, presumably, making the searchability even more important.

There are a few ways I’d love to see this resource grow and develop.  First, it needs to move from a database to a conversation. In addition to a static feedback page, there is a nascent community with a forum and blog that will need a lot of network weaving by the Foundation Center to really fly. I’d also like to see users grade the tools Yelp-style. I’d also like to see more nonprofit practitioners involved in the selection process. This area was designed by McKinsey, and the expert panel is chock full of academics, all smart folks, of course. However, it would add great value to the utility of the tools if nonprofit practitioners and evaluators were included in the braintrust.  In other words, let’s invite the crowd!

It’s a great beginning, I’m looking forward to watching this unfold.

(The Foundation Center is using the unfortunate acronym of TRASI for this effort, hmmm, not really catchy, IMO)


Blurred Definitions of Social Good Organizations

Nancy Scola of TechPresident sent me a link to her post, “Why Should Non-Profits Get a Break?” which asks interesting questions about the differences, and different treatments of, socially responsible businesses and nonprofits.

Nancy makes an excellent point when she writes, “the nature of work is changing faster than our old categories for what it is we’re all doing to make a buck (even if we re-invest that buck into our organizations).”

There has been an explosion in the number of new business that have social responsibility at the core of their business. There has also been a trend of many nonprofits organized to do work like corporations – with fee-for-service revenue and ROI at the core of their organizations.  There is a blurring of the lines between nonprofits and socially responsible businesses,  but there are still two very significant and important differences.

The first difference is about accountability. Lucy Bernholz coined the phrase, “embedded giving” whereby for profit businesses can say some portion of their profits are going to charity, but they are under no obligation to say how much was donated, or even to which specific organization. Even if a company pledges that 5% of the profits will go to charity, there is no way for a consumer to know if it actually did go or exactly how that 5% was calculated.

The second difference is that nonprofits are provided tax breaks for providing a public good. There is a clause in the tax code for public charities called the public support test. Basically, that clause says that at least one-third of all of the support for an individual charity needs to come from the public – not from one individual and not from business operations unrelated to its core mission like sales or subscriptions. Many nonprofits would fail this test if the IRS were paying attention – but the intent is that nonprofits have tax breaks because they provide a pubic good that is supported by the public.

There has been an explosion in the number of corporations that specifically have social responsibility at the core of their purpose. For instance, the increasing number of corporations designed as “B Corporations”. In addition, as President Clinton reported this week from the Clinton Global Initiative, corporations that don’t have social responsibility at the forefront of their purpose are finding that philanthropy is good for business.

But it doesn’t mean that these corporations have the same fundamental purpose as nonprofits.

One more important difference between nonprofit and corporations. Some nonprofits, not all of them, have as their mission doing unpopular work. Take Volunteers of America. They provide a host of social services, and have for over one hundred years,  for the hardest to reach, hardest to help people. People with severe physical and mental handicaps. People who will never hold a steady job or own a home. People who need never ending charity from people and organizations with never ending patience. Those organizations don’t have a profit margin the way a corporation does, and they shouldn’t, and they need to be protected to do their work.

The tax code bunches too many disparate organizations into one overall umbrella of nonprofitness. Universities, hospitals, advocacy groups, direct service providers are clumped under the same tax exempt designation. It doesn’t make any sense any  more. And there are some nonprofits that are organized like businesses that shouldn’t be tax exempt at all. But, then, there are organizations that are in the business of performing acts of loving kindness ever day. They provide almost no reward for their employees and volunteers but psychic ones that need to be protected and honored for their work and not lumped in with the rest of the business world.


Reflecting on "Make It Your Own"

The Case Foundation has just released an evaluation of their innovative “Make It Your Own” program.

The assessment was conducted by Peter Levine, Peter Deitz and Cynthia Gibson. One would be hardpressed to find more knowledgeable, thoughtful folks on civic engagement and social media. The Make It Your Own program was a grant program in 2007 created by the Case Foundation to promote “citizen centered” approaches to local community building. With nearly 5,000 applicants and more than 15,000 voters. It was one of the first efforts, perhaps even the first, to use online voting as a way to crowdsource grantmaking.

The key findings of the evaluation include:

  • Two years after the grants were awarded, 80 percent of grantees were still highly engaged with their projects and said that they planned to continue to build on them, indicating that the MIYO was able to provide a solid foundation for this work.
  • More than half the MIYO grantees had achieved concrete and significant outcomes at the two-year mark, among them:
    • Replication of the citizen-centered model used in Dunn County, Wisconsin in other communities across the country and Canada (Dunn County Community Visioning).
    • Passage of a charter amendment mandating a citizen participation initiative in New Orleans and that the city may subsidize; there will also be a chapter on citizen participation included in the master plan for the city (Citizen Participation).
    • Public recognition and “100 percent support” from the police department in one New York City community for a project to convene police officers and community citizens; it started slowly but now, some of the project’s most committed participants are NYPD officers (Conversations for Change).
    • Statewide participation in an online community-building project in Vermont, which now has 20,000 users and more than 100,000 postings—accomplishments that were recently featured in Yankee magazine (Front Porch Forum).
    • Presentations to Philadelphia’s Department of Health and Human Services about the approach being used by a youth-led initiative that works with young people in the juvenile justice system to reintegrate into their communities. It has also just created a similar effort focused on young people in the foster care system (Juveniles 4 Justice).
    • The creation of four committees—one of which is now part of local government—and requests to partner with other community organizations in convening residents to identify and take action in addressing environmental problems in several Florida neighborhoods. Recently, Good Magazine and a local college of art and design partnered with one committee to run a campaign to encourage students to design new solutions to the community’s water problems (Summit for Environmental Action).
    • Expansion of an effort to recruit young people from Chicago’s southwest side to address community issues using social media and hip hop music. In its first year, the effort reached 400 community residents who took part in the project’s activities. The first class of young leaders also agreed to assume leadership in raising funds needed to financially sustain the project (Leaders of the New School).
    • Raising money for and building a community pavilion and holding public conversations that led to the establishment of a new organization to “boost up the scale”of green activities in nine towns in Massachusetts. That network persuaded seven town governments in the region to join together to be certified by the State of Massachusetts as a “green community”—a designation that allows the community to compete for a portion of a pool of state money for renewable energy projects (Hands Across North Quabbin).
    • In northwest Washington, hundreds of residents, health and community group leaders, government officials, and businesses held several convenings that led to the creation of an action plan addressing a health issue citizens identified as important: improving supports and service provision for children and youth with special health care needs [CYSHCN]. This has led to a new organization—Taking Action for CYSHCN—which now has four action groups, a development team, and a coordinating council that continue to use the citizen-centered approach in all its efforts (Making Health Our Own).
    • While the stories that stem from the Make It Your Own projects are inspirational, so are the numbers. From the Top 20 projects…
      • More than 800 community meetings were held with over 5,500 participants.
      • More than 1,500 action projects took place with more than 3,300 participants.
      • Nearly 20,000 individuals were engaged in some aspect of the projects.
      • Over 600 collaborative partners were involved.
    • Within two years of grant awards,three projects had ended or been forced to close, due largely to the inability of the original leaders to continue serving in that capacity. Also, the Foundation was unable to locate one of the Top 20 projects.
  • Other challenges faced by MIYO grantees at the end of two years were county and local budget cuts (which grantees also viewed as opportunities to spur support for their efforts in the community); keeping people interested in the projects; language barriers; and funding (although this was not one that precluded them from moving forward).
  • At the end of the one-year grant period, 13 out of 20 grantees (65%) considered themselves at an “advanced” level of citizen-centered work, compared to 11 grantees (or 55%) at the interim stage.
  • The grant award enabled winners to conduct public meetings which otherwise may have not occurred. Winning a MIYO award allowed organizations to conduct public meetings that would otherwise have been too expensive or difficult. These meetings attracted diverse groups of people in communities where having opportunities to connect with fellow residents were relatively rare. Most grantees indicated that the meetings were quite productive, suggesting they have the potential to serve as a foundation for ongoing work in these communities after the grant period ends.
  • People who participated in MIYO projects believed this participation would increase their civic engagement in the future. MIYO winners were more likely to report that the people they had recruited to participate in their community-based projects said this participation had increased their interest in “doing more” for their communities, now and in the future.
  • Even though only 20 projects received funding, a majority of the 4,641 MIYO applicants moved their projects forward. Of those, 28 percent started what was proposed , eight (8) percent completed what was proposed, and 19 percent went beyond what was proposed. Only 18 percent of all applicants reported that they hadn’t done anything.
  • Applicants generally liked the grant process, especially learning about the concept and having the chance to describe what they planned to do in that area. Among applicants, the highest-rated aspects of the grant program were learning more about the citizen-centered engagement approach and being given the opportunity to flesh out their projects in more detail via the online application form. Nearly half the applicants (46%) said that what they’d heard and learned about the citizen-centered process was very helpful to the work they did or are doing on their projects. For some of these applicants, the concept was completely new; for others, it “filled gaps” in their knowledge and was “exciting because it completely fits” with what they were already doing.
  • The overall applicant pool was not especially strong in terms of its reflection of “citizen-centered” efforts as defined by Citizens at the Center. Despite the Foundation’s efforts to include definitions of this concept in all its materials—including grant guidelines, website announcements, and the applications themselves—applicants tended to interpret the phrase as synonymous with community service, volunteering, and/or “effective or fair delivery of services to citizens,” rather than with community problem-solving that involves citizens.
  • The MIYO winners, however, did reflect the citizen-centered concept, suggesting that using a combination of both experts and external reviewers at the final stages of the effort to score and assess proposals was effective in surfacing projects that best illustrated the concept.

Go and read the full report, it’s great stuff.


Foundations Increasing Use of Social Media

A study released by the Foundation Center today reports that foundations are dipping their toes into the social media waters.  Based on a small sample of 73 foundation executives, the survey finds that about one-third of foundation CEOs surveyed regularly use Facebook or read blogs. Only six percent reported using Twitter.

The executives are more comfortable using more traditional forms of online communications, such as listserves (45%) and newsletters (65%). Obviously, there is a lot of room for growth by these execs in social media.

Just this morning, a friend asked me, “Would you rather see a foundation use social media tools themselves or fund it?” Since both wasn’t an answer, I said use social media tools themselves, because as we write in The Networked Nonprofit, “Social media us is a contact sport not a spectator sport.” It’s hard to effectively fund efforts on the part of grantees that have social media built into them without using the toolset oneself. It’s like buying a car without ever having driven one.

I hope these foundations, and the others who didn’t respond to the survey, will take a page out of the Case Foundation or Knight Foundation’s playbook and really begin to use the tools themselves. Senior executives need to blog and tweet as real people, not logos, out from behind the fortress walls. It’s the ony way to see how it feels to work as part of a network not just fund them.


New, Flawed Voting Machines in NY

At last, at last, ten years after the rest of the country began using new voting machines, New York state has entered the 21st century. Yesterday’s primary election was the first one using optical scan voting machines. Of the existing methods and machines, this is the best one as it combines both a physical ballot and mechanical scanning to avoid miscounts and election chicanery.

Of course, things didn’t go smoothly yesterday morning in lots of voting places – this is New York State, after all, where patronage still rules. But none of these contretemps, that really amount to a lack of training and preparation, are important in the long run.

What is important is that there are two major drawbacks to this system. The first is that the company, Election Systems and Software (one of only two in the country currently making voting machines, got the keys to the castle in their multimillion dollar contract with New York State. The company uses proprietary software in their machines. They are a for profit entity, after all, and the software is their commerce. But it’s not the state’s commerce, and by allowing a company to control the software, rather than make it open and open source, the state is at the mercy of the company’s process.  Open, verifiable software should be a cornerstone of any voting machinery.

The second is the process of filling out the ballot itself. I first noted the discomfort I felt watching a voter mark her ballot at a fairly open table, walk it across the room and work with an election official to feed it into the scanner in 2007 while visiting San Francisco during the primary election there. It was uncomfortable to watch the election official, with good intentions, probably, help voters there handle their ballots. And it was uncomfortable doing the same yesterday. I did not hand my ballot to the election worker, however, she clearly saw my vote. If I was inclined to make a radical or unpopular choice, it would certainly be tempered by this process. I find this lack of a true, secret ballot appalling.

I have long held that Internet voting is inevitable. We have a crisis in finding and training poll workers, and even I, an ardent voter, forgot that it was primary day until 6 pm.   Wouldn’t it be great to get an email reminder of an election, be able to surf the web while voting to learn more about the candidates (ha, they’d probably hate that!) quickly, conveniently from your laptop or iPad or at the library? We’ll get there, slowly, inevitably, ungracefully.


Is Clicktivism Meaningless?

I rarely have a conversation with an on land activist that doesn’t lead to a lament of clicktivism. It’s usually followed by complained about Millennials and their digital habits.

For years, my answer has been that clicktivism – clicking on a cause to share it with friends or give money – is that any action in support of a cause is a good thing. Organizations are charged with creating “ladders or engagement” to step up a portion of these people to deeper levels of activities. Surfrider Foundation is outstanding at doing this as we highlight in The Networked Nonprofit.

But then I read this article about Clicktivism ruining leftist activism and began to wonder, “Do we have it wrong?”

Here is the key graph:

Clicktivists utilise sophisticated email marketing software that brags of its “extensive tracking” including “opens, clicks, actions, sign-ups, unsubscribes, bounces and referrals, in total and by source”. And clicktivists equate political power with raising these “open-rate” and “click-rate” percentages, which are so dismally low that they are kept secret. The exclusive emphasis on metrics results in a race to the bottom of political engagement.

I can easily make the case that there is a huge need for a ladder of engagement that connects clickers to more meaningful engagement. This is something the Obama campaign did spectacularly well and the Obama administration has done atrociously. What I’m rethinking is the amount of effort so many nonprofits are putting into clicks that are, at their core, meaningless. Do we really have such low expectations of people and their abilities and passions, that saying that we “Like” something on Facebook is seen as even worth staff time to coordinate?

Not sure where I’m going where, just mulling, but just as service efforts lose meaning when done too lightly, so does clicking. Worth continuing to mull, I think.


Measuring Social Media

Welcome back to me!  After a lovely summertime blogging break, I’m back with a new Social Good podcast. This month’s edition features K.D. Paine, the principal of KDPaine & Partners, one of the preeminent experts on measuring the effectiveness of social media.

K.D. is soooo smart about all of this stuff.  She warns against over measurement (what I call malmeasurement), particularly the shiny object syndrome of using all of the new, free tools that display amazing graphs but don’t mean anything. Her advice for nonprofits beginning to measure their effectiveness using social media are:

  1. Ask yourself “so, what” three times. For instance, an organization may want more traffic to their site. Katie is advising them to ask “so what” three times about this, what does it matter that people come to our site, what do we want them to give or get?
  2. Create measurable objectives every step of the way.
  3. Focus on relationships and engagement.

I could have talked to KD much longer, she’s so interesting and informative. And her website has a treasure chest of tools and advice.

I hope you enjoy the podcast. I would also love any suggestions you have for future editions of Social Good.


Copyright © 2019 Allison Fine