Rethinking Nonprofits in a Networked World

Well known philanthropy blogger Lucy Bernholz has proclaimed the third philanthropy buzz word of year: networked. Change is all about the technological network -- how you connect electronically.
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Well known philanthropy blogger Lucy Bernholz has proclaimed the third philanthropy buzz word of year:networked. She says why:

Change is all about the network. Your social network -- who you know.
The organizational network -- how you interact with other organizations and how permeable you make the "walls" around you. The technological network -- how you connect electronically.

In our book, The Networked Nonprofit, Allison Fine and I discuss how nonprofits need to adjust to survive and thrive in this networked world. One of the reasons we wrote the book is because we looked out and saw a landscape of "Free Agents" crashing into Fortresses.

But first, let's define the terms "Free Agents" and "Fortress."

Free agents are powerful social change players. A free agent, as we are defining it, is a person -- many times a GenY, but not always -- who is passionate about a social cause, but is working outside of a nonprofit organization to organize, mobilize, raise money and engage with others. Free agents are also fluent in social media and take advantage of the social media tool set to do everything organizations have always done, but outside of institutional walls. Sometimes they go on to form their own nonprofits like Amanda Rose and Manny Hernandez.

In the book, we talk about three different models for transparency and nonprofits. The least transparent is one that we've dubbed the Fortresses. These institutions work hard to keep their communities and constituents at a distance, pushing out messages and dictating strategy rather than listening or building relationships. Fortress organizations are losing ground today because they spend an extraordinary amount of energy fearing what might happen if they open themselves up to the world. These organizations are floundering in this set-me-free world powered
by social media and free agents.

We've been witnessing Free Agents crash into nonprofit Fortresses -- not even getting past the gate. We think this is a lost opportunity. But we're beginning to see this change. Fortress fighting is happening at nonprofits large and small, turning them inside out.

Are you a free agent working with a nonprofit? Are you a nonprofit beginning to work with a free agent fundraiser? What makes such a partnership work best?

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