The Future of Nonprofits: “Innovate or Die”

The Future of NonprofitsPerhaps the biggest divide among today’s nonprofits is the use of social media. Some organizations use social media heavily to deliver programs, engage supporters and advocate for the cause, but some are a more ambivalent.

David Neff and Randal Moss, the two co-authors of “The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age,” are very active members of the first group. Both have won awards for their digital strategy work with nonprofits and as consultants. Neff was named one of the top “Social Media People” in Texas in 2009. Moss has testified before the U.S. Congress on digital media marketing.

Like many of today’s current thinkers on the subject of social media and social change, the two begin their book boldly… by making the case that for today’s nonprofits, coming to terms with the uncertainties of  Web 2.0 is not just helpful, it’s imperative to their survival. (Even within the genre, the title of the first chapter, “Innovate or Die,” is a keeper.) Fortunately for readers, “The Future of Nonprofits” proves to be a truly useful guide to help nonprofit organizations do exactly this.

Innovation as Imperative

The watchword in “The Future of Nonprofits” is “innovation.” According to Neff and Moss, innovation responding to social trends has driven every major change in the nonprofit industry, and will continue to do so. One of the most compelling examples they give of this is the shift from geographically-based fundraising to workplace-based fundraising as a result of women joining the workforce in the 1970s. This is a big reason, they say, that fundraising is now driven in a big part by peer-to-peer social networking. More people who care about issues have daily access to technologies that help them connect to others who share their passion.

Dictionary.com defines “innovation” as invention successfully placed into practice. With this in mind, Neff and Moss stress that we must not only come up with new ideas, but also think of new ways to execute them. Essentially, they say, we’re now living in a climate of constant change, so organizations must cultivate a “culture of innovation.”

Neff and Moss provide multiple industry examples of how different businesses have used social media to increase their impact. Staff members at Comcast, for example, followed a Twitter user who complained about their customer service, and quickly tweeted back to help the user with his problem. Now Comcast solves all its customer service problems online.

The nonprofit charity: water raised $250,000 in one day by inviting its Twitter followers to a conference. This funding allowed them to increase their visibility exponentially. Now any visitor of Hulu.com has seen Charity Water’s frequent advertisements that stream during your favorite episodes of “30 Rock” and “The Daily Show.” These colorful testimonials are sprinkled throughout the entire book, and entice readers even further, likening social media to a steaming plate of cookies just waiting to be eaten. ($250,000 is a little more than you might earn from a neighborhood bake sale.)

Digitizing Nonprofit Strategy

For all its talk of future casting and flexibility, the name of the game in “The Future of Nonprofits” seems to be “social media or bust.” Jump on the wagon with the cool kids, already! Despite the authors’ earnest testimonial to Web 2.0, no one can deny that technology and innovation are interrelated. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg kind of situation: Technology is driving innovation, but innovation is also driving technology.

However, many nonprofits still remain social-networking-phobic. It’s important to recognize that even though the jargon may seem confusing, the goals are the same. The three pillars of the book’s strategy are familiar to anyone who has ever tried to run an organization – being aware of other organizations, structuring for the future, hiring inspired people with lots of new ideas  – and social media can help achieve these goals more quickly and effectively.

Here are some tips that Neff and Moss share about how using social media can more effectively advance your organization’s goals in the digital age:

  • Awareness: It has always been important to remain aware of what’s going on in similar organizations to remain competitive in the marketplace. Just a few years ago you might have received a deluge of paper newsletters in your mailbox that piled up on your kitchen table. Today, it’s up to you to subscribe to blogs (from Beth Kanter and Nancy Schwartz’s Getting Attention to NTEN and VolunteerMatch, to the various articles at Mashable.com) and follow like-minded organizations on Twitter.It’s not just about gauging the competition. Where reading a monthly mailing is a passive act, social media can help you participate, learn and confer with your surrounding market. “Like” things. Leave comments. Part of awareness is making other organizations aware of you.
  • Structure: In the old days, business structure was all about the CEO in the secluded corner office proposing all the big ideas. Now, creating an innovative organization is all about feedback from all levels. But how can nonprofit managers cultivate, refine and launch ideas? Social media. You can get feedback from anyone on Twitter or other online networks on many of your ideas during the launch phase of a project. They can come from anyone with good ideas that don’t necessarily have a locked door and daunting capital letters after their names.

Neff and Moss surely make a convincing case for the use of technology in today’s nonprofit business climate. The comic strip in the back of the book that summarizes its entire contents is a cute if somewhat gimmicky way to spread their message in yet another media format. Although one has to wonder: Are we really expected at this point to take the time to read more than 140 characters at a time?

I would recommend this book to any organization looking to revitalize and/or build their impact in the digital world. You can buy “The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age” by David J. Neff and Randal Moss on their website.

Check out more photos of the book, Moss and Neff on Flickr.

Laura Weiss is an intern at VolunteerMatch. You can reach her at lweiss@volunteermatch.org.

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3 thoughts on “The Future of Nonprofits: “Innovate or Die”

  1. Pingback: When someone asks if your org should be on social media, you say “YES!” « « Small Act Small Act

  2. This!

    As leaders in our organisations, it is our responsibility to be asking “Why do we do it like this?” And furthermore, we must recognise the worst answers to that question… Most notably: “Because it’s how we’ve always done it.”

    If the answer isn’t “Because it consistently yields increasingly successful results”, then we’re doing it incorrectly, and it’s time to devise a new plan.

    Social media is a particularly scary topic for a number of organisations, but I’ve even seen cases of outright refusal to even DISCUSS the topic. This baffles me. Yes, there are risks in implementing a social media plan; are there risks in talking about one? Absolutely not.

    Ask yourself: What are we doing just because it’s how we’ve always done it? What avenues are we not considering because they’re scary, or new, or we just haven’t taught ourselves enough about them?

    You can make an exit plan, should an innovative endeavour fail. But you cannot progress if you let the innovative process stagnate.

    • Good point, Ron! The first step in innovating is being willing to even consider it – it’s a scary road, but it’s necessary, and the decision to explore change can sometimes make the rest of the process less daunting.

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