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To continue our series on nonprofit network building, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing diversity of people we had at the table a few weeks ago. They had all sorts of interesting and different professional backgrounds from community organizing and fundraising to the military. Wendy Harmon is a (gasp) lawyer by training, and we even had a psychotherapist (Deborah Drysdale) at the table.

And even though some were self described introverts and others extroverts, they shared similar traits as network builders like the ones outlined by the Marin Institute to describe “on-land” community builders:

  • Imagination
  • Sense of humor 
  • Blurred vision of a better world 
  • An organized personality 
  • Strong ego/sense of oneself 
  • A free, open mind, and political relativity
  • Ability to create the new out of the old (Saul Alinsky, 1971)

But one area of great divergence was the difference in their experience as internal network builders if they were working within a newer organization that naturally operates more like a Networked Nonprofit versus a more traditional organization learning to turn themselves inside out.

Others, particularly June Holley, have written extensively about the tasks and characteristics of network builders - what they do and how they do it well. For instance, June Holley has a comprehensive checklist for network weavers. Here is a Google Doc of June’s checklist.

Christine Egger has also written extensively about network building from the perspective of the network builders. However, the struggle that we heard in the room from the network builders working in more traditional organizations was a lack of support from senior staff.

Participants described real and strong internal resistance to breaking down the organizational walls from the very people who hired them to do just that! They told us stories about their surreptitious efforts to circumvent organizational barriers from their legal or communications departments implicitly or explicitly supported by senior staff. Even though leadership using social media happens everywhere inside and outside of organizations, the fact is that the occupants of the c-suite can create or support roadblocks that make network building slow and difficult.

So, how do we break down this resistance? What do organizational leaders, the folks sitting in the c-suite - CEO CFO, COO, etc. - need to do differently to enable the people they hire to build their networks successfully?

Here is a list of tips for the c-suite to help make their network builders successful.

Tips for the C-Suite on Network Building:
  1. Face the Bogeyman. The fears that organizations have about bad things happening if they take down their walls far outweigh the reality of what happens when they do. It is important for organizational leaders to engage in frank discussions with their network builders about what could possibly go wrong and what is likely to go right rather than allow their unfounded fears stop them. One way to help the c-suite over this hump is to use the growing array of stories and case studies of traditional organizations like Autism Speaks, American Cancer Society that are turning themselves inside out.
  2. Challenge the Default Settings. Organizations need to challenge their internal default settings for responding to the world. These settings speak directly to the kind of organizational culture that exists. Metaphorically, organizations need to tie a string around their finger as a reminder of what needs to change in their everyday interactions with the world. Are we open or closed by default? Are we proprietary or open source? Do we let people create things on our behalf or we are prescriptive? 
  3. Board Engagement. Our roundtable participants described a level of removal from their boards that was frustrating and disappointing for them and ultimately counterproductive for their efforts. Boards need to become hands on with the concepts of network building and social media. It’s as important as reviewing the financial statements, because their organizations cannot be successful in the future without strong growing networks. 
  4. Touching All Departments. Social media isn’t just a communication or fundraising function. Andrew Rasiej is fond of saying about social media: “It’s not the pizza slice, it’s the pan.” Social media skills need to be built or strengthened throughout the organization and experimentation has to happen across departments. In particular, social media has to be woven into programs and services, the real “it” of nonprofit work. 
  5. Have Joyous Funerals. Organizations by nature are risk-averse. Through that lens, anything new tried that doesn’t work as expected is considered a failure. Organizational leaders need to celebrate these efforts and focus on what was learned not what was lost. Senior management needs to create space internally for network builders to experiment and learn. 
  6. Share the Rule Book. It is important to outline the social media policies, the dos and don’ts of social media use, for organizations. What are we allowed to do and say? Where are the lines we can’t cross? This isn’t just to provide legal cover for organizations; it provides permission and clarity for staff to use social media. Approval of the policies can only come from the top, but if organizations want social media use and network building to spread they have to articulate the rules of engagement. Here is a great post from Wild Apricot on how to create nonprofit social media policies
  7. Focus on Social Media Capacity. When the summer intern is asked to “Get us up on Facebook,” it is a wasted opportunity for organizational capacity building. Social media aren’t just tools and platforms, they’re an opportunity to create a robust and resilient network that is ready to respond and act at a moment’s notice. It is an abundant resource of creativity, good will, energy, passion and skills. The network builder, whether it is a summer intern or a staff person, needs to build the capacity of everyone within the organization to help build the network on an ongoing basis. The c-suite needs to focus on social media capacity rather than immediate productivity.
  8. Practice Patience. As we discussed in the post on the future of nonprofit network building, redefining success for network building is a work in progress. Organizational leaders (and funders) need to understand that the results will look and feel different from the past habit of counting heads and beds and declaring the battle was won. Building networks takes time and patience and trying to predict their pathways is a fool’s errand. Organizational leaders need to let these efforts unwind and learn along with the builders and the network in real-time what is working and what isn’t.

Organizational leaders need to be fully engaged in social media and network building for their organizations. They need to understand and believe that it is as vital to their future success as fundraising. Maybe our next roundtable should be CEOs talking about ways they are supporting their internal network builders!

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