We live in an age of an (often sickening) glut of information. Sometimes just thinking about Twitter, Facebook, Google, or BuzzFeed makes me really tired. And I love technology and media. But they can be absolutely overwhelming.
I recently finished Nate Silver’s phenomenal book, The Signal and the Noise, in which he offers a new way to approach our age of information overload. Silver’s book is about how we can better predict things like weather, economic fluctuations, and climate change by finding the right “signal” amidst the exponentially expanding body of data, or “noise.”
Silver describes how our current Internet age is very similar to life after the invention of the printing press, when books were suddenly cheap and everywhere. The result of this sudden enormous increase in the availability of information was, unfortunately, 200 years of holy war. Although Silver doesn’t believe we’re headed for another 200 year war, he argues that we must understand the parallels and the dangers of too much information. As Silver puts it:
We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.
In other words, we need to figure out how to organize the firehose of information that faces us everyday. I don’t know exactly how to go about that, but for my own sanity I have developed a few strategies.
First is taking regular time away from all of the information just to process and think alone, without screens, books, or chatter. We all must claim our very real need to turn off the noise and look inside for the meaning, the right approach, the way forward.
Second is seeking out the past. I was a history major in college and still love the subject, so my predisposition when I am overwhelmed is to look at how we approached things in the past. There is great peace there. In particular, I love the weekly email from Brain Pickings where writer Maria Popova delves into the works of past writers to help understand our world today. Aside from finding new things to read, it is incredibly comforting to realize the struggles we face today are really not all that new.
And finally, I believe that dissent holds promise for finding shelter from the information glut. One of the things Silver warns against (and we see this everyday) is that in an age of information overload, people tend to shut out things that are at odds with their opinions or experience. Our country’s current deep political divide is an example of this. So we need to break down those walls and surround ourselves with people who make us pause and who make us think. We need to seek out people who share our values, but not necessarily our life experience, education, politics, income level, or opinion on how the world should work.
We don’t have to succumb to the exhausting deluge of information. As Callie Oettinger put it, “The Internet is ours to shape. We can’t let the howling spread.”
Photo Credit: Roy Miller
December is often a fairly quiet month in the world of social change writing because of the holidays and time off, but there was still some great stuff to read. From Giving Tuesday, to Teach for America’s 25th anniversary, to philanthropy buzzwords, to social media trends to watch, to a critique of Charity Navigator’s naughty and nice list, there was a good bit to think about in the world of social change.
You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.
- Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque provides a scathing critique of American politicians and pundits and the dirty little secrets they are harboring about our economy. As he puts it: “We don’t live the lives we were meant to by merrily shoving Artificially Fried Chicken Flavored Dorito Slurpees down our gullets while watching our societies crumble. We live them when we build things. Great things. Worthy things. Noble things. And the greatest, worthiest, and noblest of all things that mankind has ever built are not apps, drones, corporations, or profits. They are societies in which every life counts. In which every life is truly, fully lived.” Wow.
- And speaking of the disparities in our economy, there is growing concern that wealth inequality is making its way into philanthropy. The super rich are disproportionately making up American giving and are supporting their own self interests (i.e. their alma maters, donor advised funds that provide personal tax benefits but no social benefits) as opposed to a redistribution of wealth to the poor.
- Teach For America, the often heralded nonprofit that sends recent college graduates into challenged schools to teach for 2 years, marks its 25th anniversary this year. NPR reports on the challenges the organization faces, including a “self-described TFA resistance movement [with] former corps members [who] say their youthful idealism was cynically co-opted by a group that, in the big picture, acts to the detriment of public education.” Yikes.
- Amazing blogger David Henderson from Full Contact Philanthropy took a writing hiatus earlier this year, but he’s back with a vengeance, and I am loving every one of his posts, especially December’s critique of Charity Navigator’s “naughty and nice list”.
- As is her annual tradition, Lucy Bernholz offers her 2015 philanthropy buzzwords. My personal favorite are “artivists” and “citizen science.”
- I would love to see more nonprofits (and foundations) getting into the advocacy game. Rick Anderson, writing on the Markets for Good blog, provides a really interesting case study of how Washington Nonprofits, the state association for the 58,000+ charitable organizations in Washington State, has been using data to better coordinate with state agencies, elected officials, other nonprofits and foundations.
- December marked the third annual Giving Tuesday, and it was the most profitable yet, raising over $45 Million. Perhaps we have a movement?
- The Wild Apricot blog offers 5 Social Media Trends That Could Impact Nonprofits in 2015.
- Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund encourages nonprofit leaders to stop fearing money. As she puts it, “Let’s eliminate the fear of finance from the nonprofit sector. It doesn’t serve us personally or organizationally. Why? Because nonprofits with strong financial leadership are better equipped to deliver on their promises to the community, explore new territories and foster innovation.” Amen to that!
- The fundraising anomaly of last summer’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge left a lot of outstanding questions. Not least of which is whether ALS would be able to retain any of those new donors. Beth Kanter talks to ALS CEO Barb Newhouse about exactly that question.
Photo Credit: US Department of Agriculture
Wow, November was a great month for writing about social change. I had a harder than normal time narrowing my list down to 10. From the election, to philanthropy’s role in Ferguson, to saving Detroit, to giving to the fight against Ebola, to speculation about Giving Tuesday (which is today, by the way), it was a busy month.
Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in social innovation in November. As always, add what I missed to the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.
You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.
- November saw elections across the country, and social media perhaps helped to get out the vote. But a chilling Princeton study found that America is no longer an actual democracy, we have become an oligarchy ruled by wealthy elites.
- But there is hope, some political reform is happening at the state level, like the amazing success of state-by-state legalization of gay marriage. I think we will be analyzing this movement as a social change case study for years to come. In fact they have been so successful that marriage equality nonprofits and donors must now figure out what’s next.
- Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof offers a thought-provoking 5-part series about racism in America, touched off by the situation in Ferguson. He argues for a national conversation akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to “examine race in America.”
- Detroit has finally exited bankruptcy, but Rick Cohen sees many hurdles still facing the city. And Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill worries that the philanthropists who helped get Detroit out of bankruptcy don’t really have a vision for a revitalized city.
- The philanthropic response to the Ebola crisis has been much slower than is usual for disaster response philanthropy. Vicky Hausman and Sylvia Warren suggest some reasons for this. And Google works to remedy the situation with their first foray into converting visitors into philanthropists. It will be fascinating to watch what else Google does in this philanthropy realm.
- Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms take a fascinating look at what they see as a fundamental shift in power. “Old Power” is “closed, inaccessible and leader-driven,” but “New Power” is “open, participatory, and peer-driven.” As they see it, New Power is fundamentally changing how people and institutions interact, but it isn’t necessarily all positive: “New power offers real opportunities to enfranchise and empower, but there’s a fine line between democratizing participation and a mob mentality. This is especially the case for self-organized networks that lack formal protections.”
- Today is Giving Tuesday, the annual day of philanthropy launched in 2012. Many have questioned the efficacy of the movement to get more Americans giving, including Tom Watson, who now sees some promise.
- The Pew Research Center’s Social Networking Fact Sheet offers a great glimpse into how social media use is evolving.
- October saw a stinging two-part ProPublica/NPR series about the American Red Cross’ handing of Hurricane Sandy disaster relief. It turns out that the story was helped by crowdsourced information. And David Henderson, Full Contact Philanthropy blogger, sees the tension in the Red Cross story that every nonprofit faces between running programs and fundraising for them: “The market realities of running a nonprofit create adverse incentives, driving organizations to raise funds at the expense of what their stated core missions are.”
- Always there to inspire creative entrepreneurs, Steven Pressfield writes about the importance of aspiration, “As artists and entrepreneurs…the content of our personal culture starts with us. We set the level of aspiration. The crew—meaning ourselves—follows us.” Amen!
Photo Credit: Karoly Czifra
I get a little tired of the social media noise sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I love social media for finding new information and making connections. But sometimes it replaces thoughtful conversation with increasingly shortened sound bites (more on that later). And when I hear people claim that 140 characters are better than long-form articles and blog posts, I get depressed.
Call me old fashioned, but I love to spend the necessary time processing thought-provoking, controversy-encouraging written words. Social change is incredibly complex work, so we desperately need people and spaces where we can have difficult, thoughtful, and game-changing conversations. And I think great blogs are one of those spaces.
So I offer here my current list of favorite blogs. These are spaces where I think really valuable points of view are being expressed. That’s not to say that I don’t read or enjoy blogs beyond this list. These are just the top of the heap for me right now:
- White Courtesy Telephone
- Balancing the Mission Checkbook
- Nonprofit Finance Fund Social Currency
- Work in Progress: The Hewlett Foundation Blog
- The Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog
- Steven Pressfield Online
- Full Contact Philanthropy
- Markets for Good
- Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog
- Beth’s Blog
- Philanthropy 2173
But I LOVE to find new writers and spaces, so what are the places you have found for a good, thought-provoking read?
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Amy Sample Ward, CEO of Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), the membership organization of nonprofit professionals who put technology to use for their causes. Amy leads a team dedicated to connecting individuals, organizations and campaigns in order to transition the nonprofit technology sector into a movement-based force for positive change.
Previously serving as the Membership Director at NTEN, Amy is also a blogger, facilitator and trainer having worked with groups and spoken at events in the US, UK and around the world. In 2013, she co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Allyson Kapin.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: For many nonprofit leaders, social media is still viewed as a sideline, rather than an integral, aspect of the work. How do you convince nonprofit leaders that social media can actually be a means of furthering their social change missions?
Amy: Social media really encompasses so many different tools and platforms. The probability that your community isn’t using ANY kind of social technology is pretty low. Every organization doesn’t have to use every tool out there. Quite the opposite! I encourage every nonprofit not to think of social media as time suck and “one more thing to add to the list”, but, instead, as a way to connect directly with community members on a much more regular basis than your other outreach in email or events. Select which platform or platforms you use by asking your community and listening first – this helps ensure that any time you do invest in social media is spent in the platforms where your community is active and you have the highest chance of success.
Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource constrained, nonprofits have traditionally been somewhat insular and risk averse. How do nonprofits reconcile that approach to a growing need to be more open, collaborative, transparent and risk embracing?
Amy: If there’s fear about change, taking risks, or transparency, my suggestion is to take inspiration from and share responsibility with your community. As a nonprofit organization, you cannot fully achieve your mission on your own – you need your community to help you create lasting change in the world, so why not invite the community to help you create change in your work!
When you invite your community in, you start to embrace transparency. You also lessen the stigma of risks because you now have community members championing new ideas and helping you test and iterate to find the best approaches. You don’t have to fear changing when you are working closely with your community because doing so means working with people, and we all change every day.
Nell: On the flip side of that, is there a risk of becoming too consumed by social media and new technologies? Can nonprofits – and all of us really – become too enamored of every new shiny object at the expense of actually creating social change?
Amy: At the end of the day, we all have lots of work to do and don’t want to get distracted or bogged down by any one thing, whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, email, or meetings! I think the real risk is in letting your tools guide your strategic decisions. Social media tools are launching every day, sometimes with a lot of press coverage. It’s understandable that you could read a post or see another organization trying a new platform and think you should do it, too. Or, to let the functionality of a certain platform dictate how you decide to create and run a campaign. It’s critical that all staff have the resources and training to think and plan strategically about their work, identifying the tools last that align with their goals, community and audience, and your mission.
Nell: Technology is often considered “overhead” in the nonprofit world. How can nonprofit leaders convince funders and board members that investing in technology can have a significant return on investment?
Amy: The best thing organizations can do to prove this is by actually proving it: track and evaluate your own return on investment, share information about your budgeting and planning, and include clear information and analysis of the necessary technologies to do your work in every grant proposal and report. You can’t expect funders to invest in something if you aren’t able to convince them from the beginning.
Photo Credit: nten.org
Heather Mansfield’s newest book, Mobile for Good, is a nice complement to her 2011 book, Social Media for Social Good. This time around, she adds mobile to the “new media” mix and gives a detailed approach for nonprofit leaders ready to embrace changing technology.
In Mobile for Good, Mansfield sounds a warning call to nonprofit leaders. The tide of new media is swift and those nonprofit leaders who don’t embrace it will be left behind:
“Your nonprofit would be wise to assume and act upon the fact that more than 50 percent of your website traffic will occur on screens varying in sizes from one to six inches by 2016.”
And, contrary to popular belief, this shift is not just among the youngest generations of potential donors. Every generation – from Silent, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, to Gen Z – is increasingly discovering and giving to nonprofits online.
But Mansfield is not suggesting that nonprofits chuck all fundraising vehicles in favor of a singular new media approach. Rather, she urges nonprofits to embrace a multi-channel fundraising strategy, “using print, web, and email communications, and mobile and social media in order to appeal to donors of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
And in fact, reports on the death of email are unwarranted. In fact, it’s enjoying a rebirth:
“Email is not dying. It’s growing. Furthermore, every email address that your nonprofit accrues translates into $13 in online donations over a one-year period. If you think this trend is isolated to Gen X and older, it’s worth noting that 65% of Millennials subscribe to nonprofit e-newsletters.”
The key, however, is making sure that everything (your website, your e-newsletters) is responsively designed, meaning that it automatically converts to fit whatever is being used to view it (laptop, phone, tablet).
Mansfield urges nonprofit leaders to invest in new media. The nonprofit sector’s desire for free or very cheap technology solutions isn’t realistic anymore:
“It’s imperative that you find the funds and the tech know-how to position your nonprofit for future survival…One of the downsides of the rise in social media is that it has inadvertently resulted in nonprofits becoming overly accustomed to and dependent upon “free” online tools. This mindset is becoming destructive to the sector istelf…The era of free is over.”
Mansfield devotes a chapter to each of the main social media networks and gives tips and best practices for each. The problem with writing a book about such a quickly evolving space, however, is that it becomes out of date before it even hits the shelf (for example Facebook’s recent organic search changes, and LinkedIn’s discontinued Products and Services tabs). So you must view Mansfield’s tips in a larger context, and for real-time updates you can check out her Nonprofit Tech for Good blog.
Overall I think the book holds a good deal of value for nonprofit leaders, however, I do have two criticisms.
First, for the nonprofit leader already overwhelmed by new media Mansfield doesn’t effectively prioritize where to focus. By including all major social media networks and all new fundraising tools (including untested ones like Crowdfunding) she leaves the impression that there is an endless and equally valuable list of innovations to embrace. Without a framework for prioritizing where to focus it is easy for the already overwhelmed nonprofit leader to give up. She could have discussed the merits of focusing on some of the bigger bang for your buck social media networks (like Facebook) while letting others (Pinterest) go if time doesn’t allow. Or thinking through a nonprofit’s target audience and their habits and preferences in order to prioritize staff time.
Second, I must take Mansfield to task for perpetuating the nonprofit overhead myth – the idea that nonprofits should separate their “program” and “overhead” costs. As I’ve mentioned before, this myth is incredibly destructive to nonprofits by forcing them to hide or ignore the true costs of their work. In Mansfield’s “Online Fundraising” chapter, she lists 10 best practices, of which #6 is to “Include Program Versus Operating Expense Graphics,” suggesting that nonprofits create “a pie chart graphic that shows your low fundraising and operating costs.” She goes on to mention the Overhead Myth Campaign in passing, with no irony about how she is perpetuating the myth itself. Ugh.
At the end of the day, Mansfield provides a nice overview of the rapidly changing new media landscape and some great steps for what nonprofits can do to keep up.
Photo Credit: nptechforgood.com
There was a lot of talk in November about how we actually make the shift toward measuring outcomes in the nonprofit world. And the resounding theory was that we should start with funders and funding for evaluation. Let’s hope philanthropists are listening!
And speaking of funding, there were some fascinating articles about the financing of public parks and how philanthropic, corporate and public money all affect a very public good.
At the end of the day it’s always about money isn’t it?
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in November. But as usual, please add what I missed in the comments.
- A fascinating article in The New Yorker unpacks some recent developments with the funding of New York City parks, the delicate balance between private philanthropy and public goods, and how both contribute to or detract from equality. Exploring a similarly murky delineation between public goods and corporate profit, this article from The Atlantic Cities describes a new trend in corporately-financed public parks.
- Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christina Triantaphyllis and Matthew Forti argue that NGOs need to move from overhead measures to cost-per-impact measures. And funders need to help that shift happen.
- Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy would agree, it seems. As he puts it, “Until foundations really step up and support nonprofits’ data collection, assessment, and improvement, we will not get the best out of our collective efforts.” Tell ‘em, Phil!
- But maybe the solution is more systematic. Ever the visionary, David Henderson offers an idea to make the shift toward impact by tying charitable deductions to outcomes. Crazy or brilliant?
- The nonprofit sector really needs to get over its inferiority complex, and to help, the University of San Francisco’s MPA program developed this great infographic on The Rise of the Nonprofit Sector.
- From the HubSpot blog comes some tips for how nonprofits can use social media to really engage people, and The Guardian in the UK offers the 5 characteristics of the top 30 nonprofit CEOs on social media.
- On the How Matters blog Jennifer Lentfer argues that the “social good industry” wrongly assumes “that in the developing world, nothing exists, i.e. that there’s a blank slate upon which our interventions can be built.”
- There are some great reports and data analysis tools recently released. For a start, you can dig into the foundation landscape, analyze nonprofit financial performance, or understand how content marketing and technology are being used for social good.
- Speaking of technology for social good, crowdfunding is becoming a bigger funding source for social causes, raising $2.7 billion in 2012. Lucy Bernholz rounds up the research on this emerging and not fully understood funding vehicle.
- And finally, a really cool example of truly public art has emerged in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Photo Credit: kakao-bean
June was all about attacking some pretty fundamental roadblocks in the way of social change. From the pivotal “Pledge Against The Overhead Myth,” to a new database for all nonprofit organizations, to moving philanthropists from innovators to capacity builders, to ideas for growing the level of giving, it seems June was about putting everything on the table and exposing what stands in the way of progress.
Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in June. But, as always, add your favorites to the list in the comments below. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- The big news in June was GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s Open Letter to the Donors of America and their kick-off of the Pledge to End the Overhead Myth. The three nonprofit review organizations are on a quest to expose the destructive nature of the overhead myth.
- This exciting announcement was followed quickly by some great articles. Kjerstin Erickson’s (former Executive Director of FORGE) eye-opening post about how the overhead myth can ruin a great nonprofit. And Ann Goggins Gregory (most famous for the seminal Nonprofit Starvation Cycle article in a 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review that arguably started the entire overhead debate) great post about what nonprofits can do to speed adoption of the idea of overhead as myth. And Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy chimes in with what foundations can do. And writing on the Grantmakers in the Arts blog, Janet Brown seems to agree, arguing that “with more efforts for honest assessment and honest communication between funders and nonprofits, we can stop dancing solo and begin dancing as real partners.”
- Antony Bugg-Levine, from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, gets down to brass tacks, gleaning 3 things that funders can do to help nonprofits from the NFF’s most recent State of the Sector survey.
- Echoing these same themes, Dan Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, argues in the Huffington Post Impact blog that “Philanthropists…must come to grips with their new role as capacity builders rather than innovators.” Amen to that!
- But the reality is that foundations aren’t using innovative tools already available to them. A recent study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that only 1% of US foundations are using PRIs (program-related investments), which I think is an enormous missed opportunity.
- Keeping with their ultimate goal of building the data infrastructure necessary for social change to thrive, Markets for Good announces the new BRIDGE project, which assigns all nonprofits a “numerical fingerprint” so that we can eventually understand the global social sector at scale.
- The annual unveiling of philanthropic giving numbers shows the same result, giving as a share of Gross Domestic Product has not strayed far from 2 percent over the past four decades. Suzanne Perry offers some reasons why, past failed attempts to grow the figure, and new ideas for moving the needle.
- The Dowser blog interviews Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, a ten day transcontinental train journey where each of the 40 Millennial riders profiles a crowdfunded project to build a better nation.
- If you wonder whether social media can actually move social change forward, check out this fascinating case study. A Facebook app encouraging organ donation resulted in an initial 2000% increase in organ donor sign ups. Who knows if those rates will continue, but the experiment definitely demonstrates the power of social media.
- There is a lot of hype in the world of social innovation, and two contrarians offer some thought-provoking perspectives about digging beneath the hype. First Daniel Ben-Horin is fed up with social entrepreneurs who don’t realize what a long haul social change is, when he notes “This making a difference stuff, it turns out, can be a real grind.” And Cynthia Gibson argues that we need to create a culture within the social change space that “encourages healthy skepticism.”
Photo Credit: mindfire3927
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