Digital Darwinism: What Side of Evolution Is Your Nonprofit On?

Nonprofits can no longer ignore the world outside their doors. They can either engage and evolve and survive or, sadly, they can close your doors and move on.
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Recently, one of my colleagues at Common Sense NMS was sitting down with a perspective employee. In the course of the interview, the phrase "Digital Darwinism" came to his mind in regards to the revolution we have seen in the nonprofit and cause world over the past five years. To survive today, you have to evolve how you think about your business.

For the past 30 or so years, nonprofits were sheltered from business realities. They were not for profit groups intent on creating positive change in the world: saving the rainforests, promoting unique community projects around the world or even just trying to build constructive and nonpartisan means of communication among citizens.

Nonprofits existed in their own ivory towers and were independent. They never made an attempt to be as up-to-date with technology as a businesses that are driven by the bottom line. In nonprofit culture, there is not the need ,or desire, to budget and adapt quarterly or monthly. Annual budgets are drawn up -- if not in stone, in at least in very strong concrete -- and that's that.

However, one of the many results of technological advancement is that nonprofits can no longer ignore the world outside their doors. Nor can they realistically expect to survive if they are unwilling or unable to embrace the developments around them. It's as if they believe, on some level, that they can stick their heads in the sand and survive -- but they cannot.

I speak from experience. In 2006, when we set up Common Sense NMS and began to advise nonprofit clients on the new and emerging world of social and new media, Veterans For America was one of our largest and most important clients.

Under the tutelage of Bobby Muller, VFA had won a Nobel Peace Prize and was a leading voice in the veterans movement. Then the world changed around them. Younger groups like IAVA and VoteVets were created in the digital age and soon, with other factors involved of course, VFA folded its doors.

I went to check on another former client, The Justice Project, which is a strong organization that featured the work of Kirk Bloodsworth -- the first man freed from Death Row by DNA. The website is down, the account suspended and the organization is apparently no longer in existence. The Innocence Project, however, continues to grow and develop strongly in its place.

Both of these organizations were smart groups, founded by dedicated people, who wanted to do more in the world. Both were also groups of the legacy world, focused on traditional models with traditional strategies and tactics. Both of their missions have been usurped by younger groups whose sole focus is digital.

Is there hope for legacy organizations in the new world? Of course. I see two things that are critical to making sure the evolution follows the revolution.

First, the change has to be driven from top down and it's going to ruffle some feathers. It's critical that leadership within the groups understand the world has fundamentally changed and it's not going to change back. Direct mail is a declining tool, though a still valuable one. Newspaper and traditional PR doesn't' cut it any more. With the use of tools like Facebook,Twitter and Google, the capacity to change how we live and communicate is not open for debate.

You can either engage and evolve and survive or, sadly, like VFA and The Justice Project, you can close your doors and move on.

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