Earlier this week, NPR published a story on their website earlier this week entitled: On TV We Have Friends. On The Internet We Have Friends. In Real Life We Live Alone. It really struck a chord with me and highlights a concern echoed by many that we, in the US, are becoming more and more isolated.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Robert Putnam speak about his research on social capital outlined in his book, Bowling Alone. It was fascinating to hear about the number of picnics we were having (in the USA) and about all the other indicators of social capital. While there are many definitions of social media, the essence of it is all of the ways that we are connected to each other. These connections make it easier for us to relate to each other, and to be more forgiving in those areas we don’t agree on. The World English Dictionary provides a more formal definition: “the network of social connections that exist between people, and their shared values and norms of behavior, which enable and encourage mutually advantageous social cooperation.” There are five primary benefits that Dr. Putnam highlights:
- safer and more productive neighborhoods
- increased economic prosperity
- improved quality of civic and democratic institutions
- improved education and economic production
- Improved health and happiness
Unfortunately, the decline in social capital seems to be continuing (with a possible exception in political engagement). As related in a recent study reported in The Boston Globe, young American’s seem to care less about each other.
At the same time, organizations are having an increasingly difficult time of recruiting new donors (as well as retaining them). To address this, many have suggested that it is time to reinvent the donor pyramid. Instead of starting the first level with donors (acquired through traditional methods such as direct mail, events and telemarketing), start with a new level that includes those who are engaged with the organization in any way, for example subscribing to our e-newsletters, engaging in on-line dialogue, introducing their friends via social media, volunteering, advocating, etc.
Perhaps we in the nonprofit sector have an opportunity to engage people in the work we do (helping our organizations become more stable financially), while also creating more social connections (and thereby increasing a sense of responsibility for each other).
So the question becomes, how do we do a better job at engaging people in our work? I suggest that we take at look at some large, recent campaigns and look for similarities. Specifically, I’ll reference three here: Charity:Water, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and Kiva. In looking at these three organizations, there are four similarities that stand out:
1) Persistence – In Kiva’s case, Matt and Jessica Flannery were persistent in the face of naysayers (including friends and foundation leaders).
2) Transparency – Both Kiva and Charity:Water keep donors updated about how their loans and donations are being used. And a few weeks ago, when a well ran into problems, Charity:Water sent an email to donors to update them regarding a challenge they ran into with a particular well. It treated donors as partners and investors in the project.
3) Focused – Instead of trying to have several different strategies to work on, the Obama campaign chose to work on one. Instead of trying to solve all of the problems facing a community, Charity:Water chooses to focus on water, Kiva focuses on microloans.
4) Use of Technology – Social media is prevalent for each of these organizations. In 2008, when Charity:Water was approached by a group wanting to have an international event called a Twestival, they embraced the partnership and raised over $250,000 for their cause in 2009 (in March 2010 over $460,000 was raised through Twestival events). Kiva developed their own social network to connect lenders with entrepreneurs.
Each of the causes listed above are connecting people to causes that are bigger than themselves. They are in many ways increasing social capital. And social media is a large part of developing that. Here are a few of the opportunities that are made easier through the use of social media:
- Engage in meaningful dialogue with others who are passionate about your cause
- Hear early feedback about the impact new programs will have
- Educate people about the complexity of the cause you are addressing
- Target messages to those who are interested in your cause
- Allow others to easily share information about you to their friends and family
- ‘Listen’ online to feeds / posts about your organization
There are several on-line resources that provide the technical details you need to get started (Mashable, SocialBrite, Beth’s Blog, and John Haydon are a few of my favorites). So in this forum, instead of getting technical, I’ll close with three thoughts on social media as it relates to social capital:
First, it’s a relationship. We don’t have to control it.
Second, it’s a relationship. We should be open to a two-way dialogue.
Third, it’s a relationship. Let’s simply help people connect with a cause they are already passionate about, find ways to engage them in ways that are meaningful to them, and invite them to participate with us as together we change the world (one relationship at a time).