by Mary Joyce
At last week’s Personal Democracy Forum, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine gave a keynote on their new book, The Networked Nonprofit. I’m often frustrated by how advice for nonprofits is vague (“listen more”) and tool-based (“Android or iPhone for your cause?”), so I was really glad to hear Beth and Allison’s overarching vision for the networked evolution of the nonprofit.
Their presentation (below) focused on one way in which nonprofits should evolve: acting like sponges, which interact freely with their environments, instead of non-transparent fortresses which hold supporters at arm’s length and dictate strategy.
During the presentation, Beth made an important point:
There has been an explosion in size of nonprofit sector over last twenty years… yet the needle hasn’t moved on any serious social issue. Growing individual institutions ever larger has failed to address complex social problems that outpace the capacity of any individual organization….
I strongly agree with Beth that to solve social problems, we need to build networks, but this network-building doesn’t stop at improving collaboration between nonprofits or between nonprofits and individual activists. Networks must be created and trust relationships built among all players involved in a social change dilemma.
To solve the BP disaster, for example, (clean-up + accountability) does not only involved the collaboration of environmental nonprofits and individual activists, but also of federal and local governments and of BP itself. After all, governments and corporations are historically the most intransigent “fortress” organizations in our global society.
Nonprofits certainly need to put their own houses in order and collaborate more effectively in order to “move the needle” on our most pressing social challenges but, for real change, nonprofits need to realize that their agency is limited as long as powerful political and economic institutions remain in fortress lock-down. (Sem DeVillart and Brian Waniewski have a great chapter on this in Digital Activism Decoded.) In all the work that we do, proponents of networked social change must keep this big picture in mind.