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As nonprofits increasingly use social media as part of their fundraising, communications and educational strategies, nonprofit staff are stepping up to lead and manage those efforts. Recently, the Case Foundation hosted a group of these emerging nonprofit network managers for a conversation about what we called “network building.” We will share the highlights of this discussion in two posts.
The first below, is focused on what network builders do and the second will discuss where this function is heading and the outstanding questions surrounding the role.
Just minutes after the earth shook in Haiti last January, Wendy Harman, the social media manager of the American Red Cross began to receive tweets. They were SOS calls from people trapped in the rubble pleading with the Red Cross for help. But for Wendy, there was no user manual and no instruction guide. She simply had to make up her response as she went along.
That’s what network builders embedded within nonprofit organizations are doing every day. They are experimenting and learning as they create a brand new function within organizations that is critically important for nonprofits to both use social media effectively and to build their networks of supporters in order to meet their missions.
Gathered around our table were ten network builders: Caitlin Johnson of Forum for Youth Investment, Jennifer Roccanti of Miriam’s Kitchen, Danielle Brigida of National Wildlife Federation, Scott Beale of Atlas Service Corps, Jake Brewer of Sunlight Foundation, Dave McMurtry of Habitat for Humanity, Deborah Drysdale of Women Donors Network, Wendy Harman of American Red Cross, Carie Lewis of Humane Society of the United States, and Kate Bladow of ProBono Net.
While most of the participants were based in DC, they represented a vast spectrum of organizations – from very large established institutions like the Red Cross, the Humane Society, and Habitat for Humanity, to very small ones like Atlas Service Corps and Miriam’s Kitchen. This also meant that some network builders like Jenn Roccanti of Miriam’s Kitchen work alone within their organizations, while others like Carie Lewis at the Humane Society have a team of five or six people.
We began by asking the participants what they do as network builders and how they do it. There was a lot of agreement on a basic set of functions. According to our participants, network builders:
- Listen. This was the first step in social media use for these network builders. Participants were adamant about the need for organizations to build a community first by listening before asking them to do something. Carie mentioned that the Humane Society had warded off several crises by listening on social media channels to specific complaints or concerns that people had.
- Tech steward. They test tools and train and coach staff on how to use them. Scott Beale shared the power of using videos to explaining a tool or scenario, which also serves to get people engaged with the technology as part of their learning process.
- Tell stories. Using social media to tell the organization’s story, Dave McMurtry of Habitat for Humanity mentioned their initial experiment in a story-centric approach to fundraising netted $750,000 in just three weeks!
- Provide individual technical assistance. Several participants mentioned that this can sometimes feel like a drain when staff people use the network builders as sounding boards for new ideas.
- Educate and coach their board members. The importance, and sometimes difficulty, of gaining buy-in from board members came up several times, as well as the frustration by some of not getting enough face time with them directly.
- Facilitation. Connecting people to one another without an immediate benefit to oneself as well as providing ways to make others' work easier through tools and resources were key characteristics of network builders.
- Relationship building with supporters externally. More important than using the tools, participants said, was the challenge of creating an experience for people and engaging them when and how they want to be engaged. This also included thanking and welcoming new friends.
Participants reflected on what they have been learning as network builders. Scott Beale of Atlas Service Corps shared why it was so important for small organizations to engage with social media. He said, “growing our network using social media makes us seem much larger than we actually are.”
Participants also discussed the barriers and frustrations of their positions. Some mentioned the push back that they receive from their legal and communications teams. Others mentioned the uncomfortable role they have of being mid-level or somewhat isolated within their organizations, while being the face and voice of it externally. Many are learning how to manage expectations and how to gently bring them down.
The need to focus on community building over the use of any one particular tool arose repeatedly. Jake Brewer of the Sunlight Foundation, reminded us that, ultimately, network builders and nonprofit organizations are in the business of social change on the ground that can only be supported by social media, saying, “social media is not a piece of the pie, it’s the pan.”
Guest blogger Allison Fine is a writer and activist dedicated to understanding and enhancing efforts to use new, social media tools for social change.
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