Social Change in the Connected Age

Q+A with author Allison Fine

After reading Allison Fine's book Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, we were eager to talk with her about her tips, warnings, and predictions about the role of technology in advancing social change. She asserts that tools like email, the web, cell phones, PDAs, and iPods are most important not because of their wizardry, but because they connect people in inexpensive, accessible, and scaleable ways.

Read excerpts from the book below.

Case Foundation: Technology is only as good as what you put into it. Surely technology can help good organizations be better, but can it make an ineffective organization effective?

Allison: I use a cooking analogy in the book to say that social change using social media is cooking and not baking. By this I mean that success can't be prescribed for activists -- there are some core ingredients that need to come together, like a big gumbo, to make something delicious. Technology, both the gadgets and the know-how, is one key ingredient. But so are leadership, planning, and meaningful participation by a community of people. We need all of these things, but how they come together, in what order, and in what combination, are unique to every organization.

Case Foundation: In your book, you say nonprofits need to move away from events and interim outcomes and instead focus on the root causes of problems. With pressure from funders to deliver measurable results, is there a way to shift that focus? And can there be a balance between the two?

Allison: In order to be successful, activists need to move from a state of powerlessness, of doing what others want them to do, to a place of powerfulness or what I call "self-determining" in the book. I was reading about the trend that some public companies are starting to push back against the corrosive effect that trying to achieve quarterly profits has on their companies' long-term profits. Activists need to do the same thing. But this doesn't mean everything that we do and plan for is long-term. The balance comes from creating plans for measuring that everyone agrees on that have short-term and long-term mileposts to tell us where we are and how we're doing along the way.

Case Foundation: What are the elements of an organization that is truly taking advantage of social media and getting results?

Allison: When I'm talking to people in an organization to see how they're doing with social media, I don't look just at the technology. More important to me is how they talk about the way that they work. For instance, are they having a two-way conversation with people outside the organization, or are they just broadcasting messages? Is their website a place for real, open, side-to-side conversations between people inside the organization and outside, or is it just brochureware? And even blogs, which allow for comments, can be just pretty words that are meant to tell the world how great and invincible the group is, not letting people inside help figure out strategy and even struggle with the hard questions all organizations face.

Case Foundation: What are some organizations that are doing it well?

Allison: There are a lot of groups that are using a variety of social media now to connect people to what they're doing. The Level Playing Field Institute is one -- students they advocate for are creating podcasts and blogging. The Sunlight Foundation is a new group that is doing an amazing job of using blogs, databases, and a really fun new application called Congresspedia to monitor the relationships between Congress, money, and legislation.

Case Foundation: Working to advance social goals is largely about people and relationships. How would you respond to someone who says the impersonal nature of technology actually makes it harmful and not helpful in bringing people together to solve problems?

Alison:You mean after I laugh at them? No, seriously, I wouldn't laugh at them, I would wait until later. Technology is not a panacea for the hard work of developing relationships face to face. Social media, interactive digital tools, are very inexpensive, and when used well are great ways to enhance, deepen, and strengthen those relationships. Imagine that a group meets locally to discuss a clean water strategy. They can then go online and create a wiki to share documents and lists together. They can also create a listserv and a blog to keep everyone informed of progress and discuss strategy. All of these tools are cheap and easy to use. Now think back to the pre-social media days when everything had to be done by snail mail. Which way do you think connects people more to one another and the cause? Some folks make an assumption that using social media is a zero-sum game, that it replaces face-to-face relationship building. That's absolutely not true. But again, leaders have to want real, meaningful participation to involve people in solving problems regardless of whether it is happening mainly online or on land.

Case Foundation: In Power to the Edges and Momentum, you claim that online organizing will never take the place of on-land organizing. But the recent immigration rallies and voter surge in 2004 suggest that new technologies can be pretty powerful. Can on-land and online approaches coexist?

Allison: I think they have to do more than coexist -- they have to be inseparable and build on one another. On-land organizing builds strong relationships, and online connections extend and augment them. The immigration rallies were a perfect example of this. For instance, in Los Angeles, the Liberty Hill Foundation has been supporting efforts to train high school students in organizing. When the immigration marches came along, these students were aware of the power of on-the-ground organizing and used the tools they know best -- MySpace, text messaging, cell phones, and email -- to self-organize and come out and march. The combination is enormously powerful, and it is the future of social change.

Case Foundation: You make a point in Momentum not to use words like "nonprofit" and "evaluation." Instead, you use the words "activists," "activist organizations," and "measuring success." Why is language so important in this area?

Allison: How we describe ourselves is how we think about ourselves. Even before we worry about how others think of us, our language tells us, deep down, how we think of ourselves. Are we in the business of not making a profit or of actively making a positive difference in the world? A friend of mine had a real "aha" moment when he read my book and realized that it was incredibly powerful and freeing to use the term "activists" in a nonpolitical way to refer to anyone working to improve their community. He said it was the first time he had realized his sister -- who is very active in her local PTSA and after-school programs -- was a powerful activist, even as a volunteer, and that we can involve so many more people in community change efforts by defining ourselves this way.

Case Foundation: As technology increasingly enables individuals to connect and organize in real time, will social organizations eventually become irrelevant or unnecessary?

Allison: It is tempting to talk about the "death" of activist organizations, but the real answer is that the need for organizations doesn't go away, but their functions have to change. Organizations need to move from doing almost all of the heavy lifting for social change efforts to connecting people to one another. They have to move from feeling as though they have to be the lead strategists to realizing that having real and meaningful participation by a larger group of people automatically makes the organization more powerful. This is going to be a difficult transition for some groups that are used to controlling the agenda and calling the shots but I'm beginning to see groups as "old line" as Goodwill Industries and the ASPCA begin to make the transition.

Case Foundation: While you point out mistakes many organizations make, you also admit that you've made most of them yourself. For the sake of learning, would you like to share any of those moments that others may relate to? And what made you "see the light"?

Allison: I can promise you that any mistake anyone has made as an activist I've already made! I was very fortunate when I was with the E-Volve Foundation to work with people like Dan Robinson, Kaliya Hamilin, Marty Kearns, and Rob Stuart, who tutored me on moving from what I call a proprietary mind-set to an open one. It ranges from fundamental things like measuring success in the wrong way. When I ran InnoNet, the measures that I too often used were how big we were, how many staff we had, how large the budget was growing. I should have been more focused on how connected we were with activist groups and how we engaged them to help build evaluation tools for the sector. And then, of course, there were the proprietary feelings about holding funder information, even lists of contacts, too close to the vest and thinking of other groups as my competitors rather than potential collaborators that drove a lot of our strategy. I'm still learning and rely on folks to point out when I slide into proprietary thinking. For anyone beginning to take this journey, I tell them that it will be the most freeing thing you'll ever do in business. Proprietary thinking, worrying too much about owning information and ideas and about competing rather than connecting, drains your energy. Open thinking is energizing and freeing, and in many ways, I think, a more natural way of working.


Excerpts from Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age

Becoming a Connected Activist:
"Our passion for participation and social change is colliding with the reality that we are increasingly connected to one another. Social media tools such as websites, email, cell phones, and blogs are important not for their wizardry but because they are inexpensive and accessible and can make interactions, and therefore social change, massively scalable."

Powering the Edges:
"It is counterintuitive but true; the more decision making we push away from the center, the more powerful our social networks become. That's the power-to-the-edges concept. We need to let go of the message and the messenger and encourage activists to participate in real, meaningful ways in shaping and implementing strategies."

Leveraging Social Networks:
"Social change happens through social networks. Social media provides the fuel to reach out and activate these networks at a scale and speed never seen before. We need to think about our 'stickiness' within our ecosystems. Who are we connected to and how? How can we create stronger, more authentic, connections within our network?"

Are Nonprofits Dying?
"Nonprofit organizations aren't going to become extinct, but they do need to transform themselves. In order for change to happen in large-scale, meaningful, and sustainable ways, activist organizations must change the way they view themselves and their constituents; they must start to act as part of networks of activists not as soloists."

There's Another New iPod?
"Every week there is a new widget that is smaller and now has a video screen. Connectedness does not come from technology but is facilitated and strengthened by it. In the Connected Age, success for social change activists will mean using technology to facilitate an end."

About Allison Fine
Allison is a successful social entrepreneur and writer dedicated to helping grassroots organizations and activists implement and sustain social change efforts. She is a senior fellow at Demos, a network of action and ideas based in New York City. She is the founder of Innovation Network, Inc. (InnoNet), and the former CEO of the E-Volve Foundation. Currently she serves on the board of directors of Just Vision. She lives on the banks of the Hudson River with her husband, Scott, and three sons, Jack, Zack, and Max. Join her interactive conversation on social change in the digital age at http://afine.us.