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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: Social Media is all around us - How do we embrace the trend?

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert from our academic faculty to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

If anyone ever once doubted the energy and organizing force of technology, rest assured they don't anymore. Social media, particularly, have proven to be powerful and exceedingly important, especially as we watch the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. I will long remember the images of so many people feverishly using their handhelds to discuss the death of Osama bin Laden in social media spaces. Within an hour (and with a huge helping hand from social media), thousands had mobilized and gathered all over the United States to celebrate, remember, and embrace. Clearly, participation is in, and passive observation is out.

Two weeks ago, I introduced readers to La Piana's "Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector." In the report, the authors describe five trends that will dramatically alter how the social sector functions. In my previous post, I reviewed the first trend in "Convergence," which is "Demographic Shifts Redefine Participation." This week, I'll discuss the second trend, entitled "Technological Advances Abound.

"Convergence" makes the following assertion: "To have a credible voice in this [technologically advanced] environment, nonprofits need to empower everyone in their organization to be a spokesperson." The report emphasizes moving away from one stylized corporate message to a natural, multi-voiced approach to connecting with the public.

When I began leading a large nonprofit organization in the Midwest years ago, I was always clear: We had one spokesperson — me. However, times have changed my perspective. Technology now makes it possible and even requires me to be all over the place all the time. This means I've had to learn to share leadership to keep up with the demands brought about from new media. The communication between my organization and the public must be continuous and personal and come from multiple sources.

This kind of communication breeds a new expectation of the relationship between organizations and the public. "Followers" and "friends" want to do more than just donate to your cause — they want to hear from you, talk to you, and feel like they're a part of your mission. They want to connect.

In my posts, I've described only two of the five trends in this landmark study. The other three are the following:

  • Networks Enable Work to be Organized in New Ways
  • Interest in Civic Engagement and Volunteerism is Rising
  • Sector Boundaries are Blurring

These trends are meant to be understood as parts of a whole, working together to create a very different nonprofit sector and giving us an understanding of how we might anticipate the future, react to changes, and expand our organizations' effectiveness.

As I led a workshop at the national convention of the Alliance for Children and Families that focused on these trends, the significant challenge was for each organization to become "futurists," studying the trends for a year at their board meetings in hopes of understanding how they can be embraced as a part of the organizations' cultures. As the report explains, "For the nonprofit sector to survive and thrive, everyone — nonprofits, funders and capacity builders alike — must become futurists."

It's certainly a challenge, and we can take advantage of our new social environment from learning new approaches from one another.

How is your nonprofit organization adjusting to anticipate these important trends?

^ [1] "Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector" from La Piana Consulting was commissioned by the James Irvine Foundation. It was completed and published in November 2009. Click here to download a PDF copy.


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