April was another busy month in the world of social change writing. From Google’s shift to mobile, to the Baltimore protests, to using sitcoms to change public opinion, to the pace of social change, to teens and social media, to a new way to measure a country’s performance, there was much to read and digest.
Below are my 10 picks of the best in the world of social change in April, but please add to the list in the comments. And to see what else I found beyond these 10, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn.
And you can read past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- There was much analysis about what went wrong in Baltimore, but I found the most insightful to be Dan Diamond’s Forbes piece about how it is fundamentally a “tale of two cities” and the persistent inequality between two very different Baltimores.
- As is Google’s way, they made a huge change to their search algorithm in late April that will affect us all. Google is now favoring websites that are mobile friendly. But fear not, Beth Kanter offers some advice for upgrading your nonprofit’s website.
- For those in the trenches, the pace of social change can seem glacial. But this great graphic from Bloomberg demonstrates that for many issues (prohibition, interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, same-sex marriage) there was a tipping point at which America very quickly changed its mind. Fascinating.
- Civic Tech, or using technology to make citizens more engaged and government more effective, is a huge investment opportunity, says Stacy Donohue from the Omidyar Network. With venture capitalists, the federal government and nonprofit and for-profit solutions all poised to make change, Donohue sees civic tech as a “very real, very now investment opportunity.” Let’s hope that new ideas and (most importantly) lots of new money can turn our struggling democracy around.
- Social change can happen in many different ways, including by altering popular culture. Former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi is attempting this kind of shift with his new web sitcom that takes a “Cosby Show” approach to portraying American Muslims in order to combat Islamophobia.
- Writing in Slate, Krista Langlois takes a hard look at her fellow environmental journalists and whether they have failed to adequately describe the environmental challenges facing our planet since American concern about climate change has actually declined in the last 20 years.
- One of the most common hurdles to nonprofits raising capacity dollars is the challenge of articulating to funders the potential impact of a capacity investment. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) have put together some tools to help funders understand the importance of and return on capacity investments. Share these with your funders.
- In April, MIT and the Social Progress Imperative launched the Social Progress Index, an effort to create a complement to the Gross Domestic Product that measures a nation’s social and environmental performance. The Social Progress Index looks at 52 indicators of a country’s social and environmental performance (like child mortality rate, adult literacy rate, greenhouse gas emissions). As Michael Porter, one of the chief architects behind it puts it, “Measuring social progress offers citizens and leaders a more complete picture of how their country is developing. And that will help societies make better choices, create stronger communities, and enable people to lead more fulfilling lives.”
- Writing on the Huffington Post Politics blog, Robert Reich describes a worrying trend where nonprofits are silencing themselves for fear of losing their big donors. As he writes, “Our democracy is directly threatened when the rich buy off politicians. But no less dangerous is the quieter and more insidious buy-off of institutions democracy depends on to research, investigate, expose, and mobilize action against what is occurring.”
- And finally, if you want to understand where social media is going, Pew Research Center released their most recent findings about teens use of social media and technology.
Photo Credit: Patrick Neil
February was a pretty cold month around the country, but on the positive side that made it a great month to stay inside and read. I really struggled to cull the list of great reads to 10 this month because there was so much thought-provoking stuff out there. But below is my valiant effort.
From Afghan women, to political engagement, to nonprofit burnout and capacity building, to economic development and net neutrality, there was lots to read and think about.
Here is my view of the 10 best reads in the world of social change in February. But as always, add to the list in the comments. And if you want my unedited list of picks, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.
You can see past 10 Great Reads lists here.
- February saw the end of Andrew Sullivan’s long-time blog, The Dish. But before he left, he wrote this beautiful piece about how quickly the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage happened, and more broadly, how social change happens: “[The legalization of gay marriage] is a sign and a proof that the deepest darkness can be turned to light. And that reason and love and argument and the truth will win … in the end.”
- In a fascinating interview, NPR Morning Edition host Renee Montagne talks with Afghanistan’s First Lady, Rula Ghani about her role as the first politically active first lady and the plight of Afghan women.
- Writing in the Washingtonian, Andrew Beaujon describes how 2015 may be the “Year of Quality” in political reporting since Politico and Gawker, among others, are moving their measure of success from number of clicks to quality of reader engagement. Let’s hope this is part of a larger trend away from click-bait and toward thoughtful political journalism.
- And speaking of better informed politics, the Knight Foundation joins with other democracy funders to issue a $3 million challenge to identify ideas that can “better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during, and after elections.” Entries to the challenge will be accepted until March 19th.
- An anonymous former nonprofit staffer writing in The Guardian (which, by the way, launched an interesting new blog focused on the nonprofit sector called Nonprofit Chronicles in February) describes why she suffered burnout and why the nonprofit sector needs more support: “Burnout [doesn’t] just occur in a vacuum. My experiences were intensified by the increasing frustration of carrying out support work in the context of austerity measures.” Amen!
- But perhaps help is on the way. Beth Kanter reviews two new reports (one from the Foundation Center and one from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations) about funder efforts to build the capacity of the nonprofit sector. And Paul Shoemaker from Seattle Social Venture Partners makes the case for funders making 100% of their funding unrestricted.
- February saw a decisive victory in the effort to preserve an open Internet (“Net Neutrality”) when the FCC ruled that “America’s broadband networks must be fast, free, and open.” Lucy Bernholz breaks down what the ruling means for digital civil society.
- Aaron Hurst writes a compelling piece about how investing in businesses that create jobs is not true social change: “If we want to see more Americans gainfully employed—not in jobs, but with living-wage careers—we need to invest more in the nonprofit sector and in government programs. While these investments don’t create the short-term gains that business leaders have been trained to seek, they are what will matter at the end of the day. They will create the supply of talent needed for our economy and society to thrive.”
- Nonprofit With Balls blogger Vu Le argues that nonprofits should drop “accountability” as an organizational value and instead embrace values “Where people act not out of fear of punishment but out of a drive to build a strong and just community.”
- Finally, the Philantopic blog offers 5 Ways to Improve Your Digital Strategy for Older Donors.
Photo Credit: Lois Le Meur
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
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