Our nonprofit is not unique. Over the past five years, we’ve stumbled our way into social media. We’ve listened to our supporters online and attempted authentic engagement with various social media platforms. While a large percentage of our organization can articulate the importance of being on Facebook, very few staff can grasp how these tools will help to achieve our goals: greater awareness and involvement in the broader movement to address hunger. Our use of social networking has exposed many cultural differences within our organization.
I am part of a large group of staff within our nonprofit that interacts with our supporters on a daily basis. It’s my job to listen to our members and empower them to get involved. Naturally, my colleagues and I have taken the lead in establishing our organizational presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Ning and posting to our blog. It is obvious that our skills directly translate into establishing an online presence. We know what our supporters like, need and want.
In contrast, a large segment of our organization rarely interacts with our supporters. They are tasked with the important work of research, creating our policy agenda and providing strategy for legislative campaigns. Despite their distance from activists, their work is why our organization is trusted and respected in our field. Policy and research staff have a different culture than those of us who work directly with individuals on the group. These two differing cultures recently came to head over social networking.
For an entire month, our organization was working to move forward a bill in Congress. We called on our network to take action with emailed action alerts, phone calls and posting messages on Twitter and Facebook. The response was positive, but near the end of the month many of our supporters were getting very tired. They had made a phone call, written a letter, sent an email, blogged about it and, in some cases; they had even met with their local representative. A companion bill was introduced around the end of the month and in large part because of the efforts of our advocates.
I was excited to inform our supporters about the bill, so I, along with a few other folks on staff, posted message to our Facebook and Twitter pages asking people to take action on the bill. Our supporters even picked up the message for themselves, particularly the people who worked hard for this bill to get introduced. Unfortunately, we were reprimanded for not being “on message” with our policy agenda. (The person who scolded us is not even on Facebook!) I was asked to “control the message” of our supporters online, who were already spreading the message virally.
My initial reaction was one of anger. But I calmly responded with an email that lifted up the excitement of our advocates on sites like Facebook. Hearing about the bill from us first increased our legitimacy and built the relationship with our network. I argued that it’s important for us to offer multiple paths of engagement and thank our supporter when their actions have a result. For our tired supporters who had tried everything on our other piece of legislation, this news was a breath of fresh air!
After this incident, we started to reflect on how our organization can move beyond its greatest fear of losing control and embrace social media? First, we need to move beyond the false dichotomy of message control vs. conversation. There’s a prevailing belief that you can’t foster conversation and get a message out. Social media teaches us that the best way to get the message out is to foster conversation. Conversation leads to ownership; ownership leads to creativity, and creativity leads to collective action.
We are taking a few steps in this direction, primarily by challenging our internal culture of message control and creating space for conversation across departments. We’ve formed an eCommunications Taskforce that includes representatives from every department. The group will discuss our overall strategy with our online presence and establish guidelines for social media. My department will facilitate a workshop about creative uses of social media to achieve our organizational goals. Adopting social media goes beyond getting your organization to be active on Facebook or Twitter. It starts by transforming a top-down culture into collaborative environment that listens, engages and involves its supporters.
How are you changing the culture of your organization to embrace social media?
Holly Hight is the California Field Organizer with Bread for the World.