Even some bloggers may not have heard of Beth Kanter. That's because she doesn't blog about celebrity gossip or the latest KFC sandwich -- she's a nonprofit expert and has been presenting her writing online for years on how charity organizations and technology combine in the 21st century.
It's a skill that, remarkably, many groups still struggle to master. Think of how impossible it is, in 2010, to think "promotion" without Twitter, Facebook and online partners. Yet, even major organizations can often fail to capture a motivated online audience. Catholic Relief Services, one of the most prominent nonprofits in the country, for example, has just over 4,000 followers on Twitter. Compare this to the more plugged-in UNICEF, which now boasts well over 100,000.
Twitter is just one example, and the ways nonprofits are struggling to catch up with online technology, and what they can do to make the transition are explored in Kanter's new book, "The Networked Nonprofit," co-written with author Allison Fine.
I spoke to Kanter and Fine on the phone this week. One thing they both agree on: using technology can help nonprofits solve major social problems.
"We've seen an explosion in the number of nonprofits," Kanter told me. "But, we've realized that we don't have the resources to solve these problems, a reasoned approach."
Part of the reason? Organizations may still only be working for the goal of fundraising, thinking as an "organization" and not as a "network," as Kanter said. Nonprofits must, they said, "reimagine" their relationship with supporters.
"I think there's no question that there's change going on," Fine said. "For instance, if we had looked at the nonprofit community three or four years ago, we would not have been able to find a traditional organization that was opening themselves up to social media. Over the last two years we are seeing traditional organizations like the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood breaking down the barrier between internal and external."
Planned Parenthood surprised the authors at how quickly and effectively they had transformed their organization to embrace social media. Kanter's July 2009 blog post on this issue describes why Planned Parenthood's strategy was successful:
While the board wasn't against technology or social media, it was a little bit of a mystery. Says Tom [Subak], "We don't talk about Facebook or Twitter. We talk about how using the tools expands our mission." And, they don't just talk, it is backed up with reports and graphs about how the use of the tools supports their work -- the connection between the online efforts and people using services on land. But, as Cecile points out the storyline isn't about technology or social media, it's about movement building and the people they serve.
Those who can build those movements will often be more successful than the traditionally-prominent nonprofits. Kanter brought up Mark Horvath, who tweets as @hardlynormal. Formerly homeless, Horvath now films interviews across America with those still on the streets. While he doesn't accept donations and is not a nonprofit entity, Horvath and others like him are what Kanter and Fine call "free agents."
"Nonprofits who are really smart are going to be listening on social media channels and identify who these free agents are," said Kanter.
She thinks the nonprofits that will have the greatest success are those that lead creatively and utilize free agents to catalyze their supporters.
"The onus is on the nonprofits," Fine said. "To be agile and open enough and to take young people, engage them, and then let them go. They're not going to be stuck in those donor bases."