How nonprofits can succeed in the new sustainability paradigm: 6 big lessons from social media



Many nonprofits are in crisis mode these days. Still, it pays to remember that “crisis” is derived from two Greek words meaning “a turning point” and “to decide” (not “the sky is falling”).

The current situation may not be so much a crisis as a paradigm shift. This isn’t just a hard patch to work through in a few years then return to business as usual.  These changes are long-term, and they demand more of nonprofits than seeking new funding or cutting programs. They require the definition of a new normal, where flat is good.

Nonprofits are going to have to learn how to develop and evolve without the expectation of growth. (Down deep—didn’t we all understand that steady growth couldn’t last?) Out of it’s ashes is rising a more democratic, healthy paradigm—sustainability.

So, how do nonprofits start thinking about and planning for this new paradigm? Not surprisingly, the world of social media offers some important clues. These rapidly evolving tools are creating a global conversation that’s fueling the paradigm shift, and in the process they’re modeling some of the behaviors that point to future success. After all, the title of this year’s U.S. Web 2.0 Expo is “The Power of Less.”

1. Be nimble but think long-term

Using social media, people can put things out there and start to communicate very quickly, seizing the moment.  But often, ultimate success depends on their strategy to build participation and support over time. (You don’t start out with 25,000 Twitter followers.) The sustainability paradigm is about long-term survival. For nonprofits, that means balancing the ability to turn on a dime with a steady eye on the future. Resist fear-based crisis thinking and strive for focused clarity. Respond quickly when it’s advantageous or necessary, but make sure even your quickest actions are in the long-term best interest of your organization.

2. Experiment and analyze

Social media are about innovation, experimentation, and analysis of what works and what doesn’t. Tactics that don’t work are abandoned. The sustainability paradigm will place a high premium on innovation among nonprofits. As one foundation executive recently put it—this is not about doing more with less but doing differently with less. This may mean fundamental changes in your mission, geographic reach, services, populations served, operation design, and external relationships. Everything’s on the table. (Just be sure, when you’re trying new things, to  build in evaluation.) Seth Godin’s post Pivots for Change and Donor Power Blog’s post Moving Beyond Spreadsheet Thinking to Design Thinking might trigger your creativity.

3. Build and use networks strategically

Social media are about everyone getting into the conversation; network-building on a world-wide scale. Nonprofits and foundations have been paying lip-service to networking for years, but now it’s time to get seriously intentional and collaborative. Going forward, working together will be a more successful business model than competing with each other. Some foundations already are using nonprofit collaboration as a funding strategy. Rethink your network of nonprofit connections—are there opportunities for cooperation that could increase impact without increasing budget and staff? (Go ahead, give up turf if you have to.) Are there new networking tools and strategies that you should be using to help people organize around your issues? As the business sector reinvents itself, are there new partnership opportunities there? (Look at the recent Tyson Foods and Tide campaigns for charity.) Even back in 2004, a study showed that 89% of Americans want nonprofits and corporations to work in partnership.

4. Let the public in

Social media have invited the public back into government, the mass media, and the business and nonprofit sectors. If you haven’t already, consider opening up a conversation with the public. Don’t just ask for support, ask for their ideas and participation–then listen, keep them engaged, and thank them. Last year, NPR built a hurricane emergency online community site for free in one weekend, and asked the public for help. In 2 days, 500 people had joined the community and were creating new maps, lists of emergency shelters and resources, and other critical content. Even small nonprofits can use free, open-source social media to start a two-way conversation with their supporters and stakeholders. Volunteerism is surging right now–leverage that fact.

5. Engage young people

Many nonprofits resist using social media because they see it as only for young people, and not a good match for their over-30 supporters. First, they should know that the largest growth segment in recent months among social media is older users, including boomers and seniors. Second, organizational sustainability means not just serving today’s supporters, but cultivating the next generation. The good news is that many of these young people are passionate about social causes and talented at using the Web 2.0 media that can help you raise awareness and even money. Reach out to them now.

6. Focus on impact

There’s never a very long gap between the appearance of a new social media tool and the development of ways to measure its usefulness. Return on investment is a big topic among social media experts. For most people, it isn’t enough to write a blog—you need to track your user data through Google analytics and Quantcast, authority through Technorati, and resonance through FairShare to understand the influence you’re having. Activity is important, but impact is more important. Impact is becoming more significant in not only foundation and government funding decisions but also among donors who view themselves as investors looking for the highest yield. Nonprofits need to develop effective, systematic ways of measuring and communicating the human impact of their activities.

What other lessons can nonprofits derive from social media to help them succeed in this paradigm shift?

CC photo credit: askpang



3 Responses to “How nonprofits can succeed in the new sustainability paradigm: 6 big lessons from social media”

  1. Top 10 posts of the year: Happy 2010! « IMPACTMAX Says:

    […] How nonprofits can succeed in the new sustainability paradigm: 6 big lessons from social media […]

  2. Roundup for March 2009 « Nonprofit Blog Exchange Says:

    […] How nonprofits can succeed in the new sustainability paradigm (Impactmax) […]

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