News & CommentaryArchive
Apr 12, 2011
Musings on Social Media, Technology and Foundations
Yesterday I attended back to back sessions on social media, technology and foundations. To be honest, there was little of note in either session—my overall impression is that there wasn’t enough valuable content in both sessions combined to have been worth even one slot on the agenda. There was nothing here to dispel one of the notion that foundations are way behind the technology strategy curve. Part of the problem, I think, is a continuation from what I noticed in the sessions on strategy yesterday: everyone involved was a believer and a champion; dissident or dissonant voices were nowhere to be found. Here are a few more musings:
• The only mention of dangers involved with committing to technology and online networks, and it was a brief one, concerned the fact that many in the poorest communities are cut off from the networks. Geoffrey Blackwell of the Federal Communication Commission noted that less than 70% of Native American households have even a landline phone; no more than 10% have broadband access. Foundations have always had a problem overly favoring the voices of the elite—the same thing can happen, or even be exacerbated, by putting too much emphasis on social media as a form of communication.
• In one session, Beth Kanter, perhaps the best known champion of social media in the non-profit world, noted that many executive directors of foundations and non-profits “don’t have faith that money will follow from engagement.” But as far as I could tell there was no discussion of why the EDs should have such faith. I have yet to see evidence that contradicts the survey work we have done illustrating that except for a few outliers, money doesn’t necessarily flow from engagement.
• Another panelist noted at one point one of Kanter’s points about engaging with social media: “trust is cheaper than control.” Unfortunately there was no follow-on discussion of the somewhat obvious point that trust is cheaper than control only when the people you choose to trust are trustworthy. When they are not then trust is far, far more expensive than control. Just ask, for instance, those who trusted Bernie Madoff, or more recently the executives of NPR who trusted senior fundraising staff to be politic in their conversations with donors. [NB: this is not a critique of Kanter, who does discuss such issues in her work, but a critique of the way the sessions were handled, always staying at the surface level and never acknowledging issues or problems.]
• Perhaps my favorite moment of the two sessions was during a break-out conversation with James Rucker of the ColorofChange.org organization which has been quite successful at mobilizing African Americans via social networks and social media on issues like Katrina, Jena and a boycott of Glen Beck advertisers. One of the attendees asked James how ColorofChange.org was using Jumo. His completely serious response was: “What’s Jumo?” Another illustration that much of what is going on inside the world of social media for good is really a solution looking for a problem. As James later mentioned, “E-mail is old, but it works. It’s really effective.”
• Another key point made by James, in response to a question about whether things the effectiveness of on-line petitions and campaigns was falling as politicians realized that many participants wouldn’t follow through with votes, was that the value of campaigns now wasn’t about persuading politicians. The real value was using the campaigns to get media attention. And attention from “old media” was what would change politicians behavior.
Finally I’ll note that there was some quality content on this topic on show at the conference—but it was in the form of a report produced by the Knight Foundation and Monitor Institute that was being given away. Titled Connected Citizens: The Power, Peril and Potential of Networks, it delivers what the sessions lacked—insight and analysis. I highly recommend it.