Social Networking for Social Change
There were some changes noted during a recent visit to the home page of change.org, and not just the types of changes that are saving the world. It seems that the organization that, “aims to transform social activism by serving as the central platform that connects likeminded people, whatever their interests, and enables them to exchange information, share ideas, and collectively act to address the issues they care about,” has restructured its site to more significantly highlight the social issues that its users wish to impact, somewhat downplaying the users themselves. Now, instead of photos of the site’s members dominating the home page, the question, “What do you want to change in the world?” is the headline, and all the content “above the fold” (that is, what you see on the page without having to scroll down) is completely issue-oriented. The visitor can choose to “connect, discover, or make a difference,” on a wide range of issues, such as:
End Global Hunger
End Dependency on Oil
Eliminate Child Labor Worldwide
Protect Endangered Habitats
Promote Fair Trade
Stop Global Warming
This change, though subtle, shows that organizations like change.org are learning to focus more on issues to engage people and draw them into action. What hasn’t changed about change.org is the fact that it relies on social networking to achieve its ultimate goals. And that is a trend that seems to be growing in the nonprofit sector. (Check out this YouTube video for a fun and simple explanation of social networking.)
A recent Chicago Tribune article notes that, “non-profit organizations are testing ways to raise money through these networks, betting that the Internet's viral nature will open fresh avenues for fundraising and marketing.” The article mentions the well-known sites such as FaceBook and LinkedIn, from which social change efforts have sprung, but also notes that there are “social networking sites dedicated to philanthropy such as YourCause.com, HopeEquity.org and actor Kevin Bacon's SixDegrees.org.” An internet search of social networking sites focused on social change also returns results such as changeagents, takepart, and even gamesforchange (G4C), which calls itself, “the primary community of practice for those interested in making digital games about the most pressing issues of our day, from poverty to race and the environment.” And before you write them off as a bunch of youngsters looking for excuses to play online games all day, note that the G4C’s “soup-to-nuts workshop for newbies” was one of 17 winners of the first Digital Media and Learning Competition funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (In fact, our own PhilanthroMedia, is a venture into the social networking world of blogging. PhilanthroMedia also uses RSS functionality to leverage the content nationally, publishing it out to nearly 80 foundation websites daily, in what we believe to be a future model for publishing.)
So, what does all this mean? Is social networking right for all nonprofits? IIn fact, the answer depends on the culture and branding of the specific organization, but any organization that would describe itself as moving toward a web-enabled, technology-supported business model should seriously start thinking about how to include social networking in its platform. And every organization needs to demonstrate its leadership through knowledge of the issues in its own community, and, frankly, beyond. The question is just how user-generated the information about these issues will be. For many organizations, the more comfortable approach is to create and publish information on the issues themselves and have their clients “interact” with the content via social networking-like tools (e.g. forms, comments, etc.).
Some organizations that want to move squarely into the social networking arena are starting to figure out how to do so. Unfortunately there aren’t many CMS platforms currently in use by more traditional players that accommodate social networking very well. So foundations and others that want to include elements such as groups, discussions, blogs, etc. are piecing together their own “stacks” of software to achieve these goals. Some of the current options include:
The good news for those still waiting in the wings is that there will be options to choose from when you are ready, and they will continue to get better as more organizations use them. There will also be content generated by others that can be linked to, so no one has to create everything from scratch. The bottom line is that people will increasingly be looking for information on issues of importance to them, and for ways to engage around those issues. Social networking is moving into the mainstream as a key way to reach an important constituency.