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Tom Watson

Don’t Go Blindly Into That Social Media World

Seth Godin has gotten everyone talking (some are even yelling) about his latest post that chastises nonprofits for not embracing change and getting on the social media bandwagon. Godin is irritated at nonprofits for not embracing these new tools to “focus attention and galvanize action” around their cause.  And the overwhelming amount of debate about the post  (Beth Kanter, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Tom Watson, to name a few) , has focused on whether or not nonprofits have embraced social media, whether they are “deer in the headlights,” whether they are risk averse, whether they “blow people away,” and so on.

This is a good debate, to be sure, but what interests me in all of this is a bigger question about the role of social media in a nonprofit’s overall resource engine. Social media is just marketing, right?  Some organizations have figured out how to tap into social media to spread the word, build a following and so on.  Some businesses have even seen a spike in sales.  That’s great.   But marketing through social media, just like any kind of marketing, has to have a bigger goal in mind.  You don’t market for marketing sake, and you don’t Tweet just because it’s cool and “everyone” is doing it.  Rather, you have to understand how that marketing activity (whether it is “free” or not, it still takes resources) is going to contribute to, or perhaps detract from, your bigger goal, which for nonprofits is to raise resources to execute on their mission.  So, in essence, nonprofits should be using social media to build donors, volunteers, advocates, supporters, right?  And as such, their use of social media has to be part of a larger resource plan.  Social media is another channel for the distribution of your message. You should not just go blindly into the social media world.  But don’t sit on your hands either, I get it.

I would argue that social media must be one component of a larger overall resource plan for a nonprofit, that brings dollars, volunteers, advocates, etc. in the door.  But first we need to take a step back to understand that resource plan.  Which brings me to a misunderstanding of fundraising in the nonprofit world and to my usual hero Dan Pallotta.  Pallotta’s blog posts are wonderful, and usually I read them while silent “Right Ons” and “Amens” stream through my head.  But his recent post on fundraising left me frustrated that Pallotta wasn’t stepping far enough out on the limb that he usually does.

Pallotta argues that fundraising is a dirty word in the nonprofit sector and organizations work as hard as possible to spend as little as possible on it:

Fundraising is the black sheep of the nonprofit sector. Charities spend as little as they possibly can on it. They talk as much as they possibly can about how little they spend on it. The watchdogs, the IRS, and donors deduct goody-two-shoes points from nonprofits in direct correlation to every dollar they spend on it. Institutional funders penalize charities for spending on it… By extension, fundraisers are the black sheep of the sector’s workforce; second-class citizens to the program staff who are in the trenches every day doing the real work of social change.

He laments this reality and suggests that we better integrate fundraising into the costs of the programs that nonprofits operate:

This is ass-backwards. Without fundraising there are no programs. The less we spend on it the less money there is for programs…We should make fundraising a program domain in and of itself — every bit as important as the medical research, social services, advocacy, and everything else it makes possible. We should consider all spending on it to be a critical “program” expense. Instead of disdaining it, we should invest in understanding and developing it, because unless we do, we’ll never have anywhere near the money we need to address the massive social problems we confront.

These are all valid points, but then I lose him at the end when he claims:

Institutional funders should take the lead…Fundraising should be every bit as prevalent on the lists of their program interests as health, human rights, and global poverty. And when they are, they won’t need to be giving program grants to health, human rights, or global poverty anymore, because the fundraising arms of the organizations they support will be able to fund them on their own.

Huh?  I agree with Pallotta that there needs to be more risk and experimentation with fundraising.  But I would take this much further.  Fundraising isn’t just a “necessary expense,” rather a nonprofit’s resource engine must be fully integrated with and equal to its programs and operations.  We have to move away from the term “fundraising,” which has come to mean galas, direct mail campaigns (which Godin abhors), and foundation grants that are conducted in a vaccuum completely separate from and organization’s programs and operations.  Fundraising has become akin to a gerbil on a treadmill where nonprofits go from grant to grant, direct mail response to direct mail response, email campaign to email campaign, working their fundraisers to the bone trying to make the dollars coming in the door equal the dollars going out the door to run their programs.

That is “ass-backwards.”  The only effective way for a nonprofit to achieve its mission, and ultimately social impact, is to fully integrate their programs (the social impact they are trying to achieve) with their core competencies (what they do better than anyone else) and their overall resource engine.  This overall resource engine must be a diverse combination of activities that generate support for and work with, not detract from, the mission of the organization and the organization’s core competencies, like this:

Mission, Money, Competency I’ve written about this critical alignment before, and it seems to me that this integration of the three core activities of a nonprofit are rarely integrated effectively, or even recognized by those commenting on the sector, like Pallotta and Godin.  Any marketing or revenue-generating activities that a nonprofit embarks on must be chosen and invested in–with resources like money, staff, board and volunteer time–in accordance with the organization’s mission and core competencies.  And the marketing and revenue-generating activities from which a nonprofit can choose include things such as: individual donor cultivation, solicitation and stewardship; direct mail acquisition; online fundraising; foundation grants; earned income businesses; and yes, even social media.  Just as nonprofits should not shy away from social media because they are afraid of risk and change, they also shouldn’t run towards it if it doesn’t make sense in the overall picture of how they can effectively integrate their mission and core competencies to create a sustainable resource engine.

Nonprofits shouldn’t fear social media, nor any other technological, social, or financial shift in our world.  Nonprofits, just like any other entity, need to be aware of their environment and adapt their business to survive and thrive in that changing environment.  But it all has to be based on an integrated strategy.  Yes, be open to new things like social media and experiment to see how this new development might enhance or contribute to your mission, and your resource engine, while working with your core competencies.  But don’t blindly go there without understanding how it fits.

The bottomline is that the pace of change is speeding up for all of us.  Nonprofits have to be more open to change, yes, but any change still has to be digested and made part of an overall strategy that integrates mission, competency and resources.  I think Godin would be the first to agree that we are nothing without an integrated strategy.  So don’t jump on that bandwagon without one, just because Godin tells you that you are “paralyzed in fear.”


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Thursday, September 17th, 2009 Fundraising, Nonprofits, Philanthropy, Strategy 2 Comments