MichaelCreating Connections…Organizing Online

By: Michael Smith In: 2009 Annual Conference| Place

6 May 2009

As a member of the Council’s Annual Conference Planning Committee, I’ve been trying to take credit for anything good (good food, good speakers) and blaming others for everything that goes bad (bad food, boring speakers) – just kidding. But, really the only thing I can take any credit for – good or bad – is leading up the efforts to plan technology-related sessions. Of the three sessions we organized, this morning I attended one where panelists were debating the values of online versus offline organizing. Sally Kohn, Center for Community Change, perfectly summed up my feelings on the subject… a bad farmer blames his tools.

Moderator Michael Smith and panelists Donna Callejon, Eddie Choi, Scott Harrison, Matthew Mahan, Sean Stannard-Stockton and Kristen Taylor.

Moderator Michael Smith and panelists Scott Harrison, Eddie Choi, Matthew Mahan, Donna Callejon, Kristen Taylor and Sean Stannard-Stockton

Twitter, Facebook, Ning, Smartphones, MySpace – they are all just tools. They are tools just in the same way a phone, fax machine, flyer or e-mail are tools… garbage in and garbage out. As nonprofits and foundations struggle to figure out how they can create the killer online campaign that repeats the success of Obama for America or Charity: Water’s Twestival, which raised more than $250,000 in one day, they need to understand that there is no silver bullet. Yes, social media has the incredible power to reach millions with the click of a button (Facebook has over 200 million members on its own), to level the playing field between large nonprofits and small neighborhood causes and allow information to spread like an endless wildfire, but none of this just happens. Just like Akhtar Badshah, head of Microsoft Community Affairs, said today in the Technology Town Hall when people asked him how they can repeat the success of the Obama campaigns online organizing efforts… get an Obama. Or get a message that resonates with people and get a passionate group of staff and volunteers that are willing to work online and offline for success.

During the Online Organizing panel, it was said that President Obama has made organizing sexy and something that everyone wants to do, but it’s important to note that online organizing doesn’t work by itself because, at its roots, organizing is not just about sharing information or getting people to send an e-mail. Rather, it’s about helping the disenfranchised build social capital and create power, a strategy where the process is equally important to the outcomes. Technology can enhance these efforts but are not the heart of these efforts.

I’ve had the pleasure to work in the “technology space” for about nine years, starting with efforts to bridge the digital divide and now at the Case Foundation testing the potential of how nonprofits and individuals can leverage social media to bring new supporters and donors to their causes, especially in these tough times. When I first started in the digital divide space many thought that giving kids access to computers was a great accomplishment. In fact, giving kids access to computers gave them access to a new way to play video games. It took hard work from my colleagues in the social sector to hammer home the message that money, staff and training were all vital to ensure that kids were using computers as tools to learn, grow, share and connect. And that’s the same thing  we’ve learned from our experiments at Case, such as the Giving Challenge and Make It Your Own: organizations that are successful online use social networks, e-mail, widgets, pizza parties, phone trees AND every other tool in their toolkits to motivate and mobilize their bases.

It is clear that we in the foundation space are finally caring about social media and want to know what to do and exactly how to do it. So, what to do first?… Learn. Check out Beth Kanter’s Social Media Blog, www.SocialCitizens.org and Google and Facebook’s Nonprofit pages for quality examples and inspiration. And then jump in– the water’s fine. We have the great privilege and responsibility to innovate, take risks, fail, learn from our failures and then make sure the good is replicated.

Michael Smith is vice president for social innovation at The Case Foundation. You can read their blog here.

1 Response to Creating Connections…Organizing Online

Marjorie Finee

May 11th, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Great comments. Now if you add fundraising and organizng into the mix it really gets interesting. I think the organzing arts help organziners do well at major donor fundraising-but they haven’t been encouraged to do it-something I hope to change. Woud these same skills work on linenad lend themselves in the same way? I don’t know. What do you think? Thanks, Margie

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