Social Networking the Not-for-Profit World

In ASAE’s recent Decision to Join study, the following four items ranked consistently as the top member benefits in membership associations across nearly all demographic categories:

  • Providing networking opportunities
  • Providing professional development opportunities
  • Supplying industry news
  • Producing industry standards, research, policies, and other information

One of the most important functions associations fulfill is to connect members to each other. New Internet technologies can go a long way towards facilitating these connections, with or without the involvement of the parent organization. With the explosion of social networking technologies, people with like interests and goals have a variety of ways to find each other. Membership organizations need to consider their use of Web 2.0/social networking capabilities, not just to stay relevant but also to fulfill their historic mission of serving their member communities.

The Haefer Group recently compiled Internet use data as reported in Business Week. The information was broken down by typical generational categories (Millennials, Generation Y, Generation X, Baby Boomers, etc.) and by types of Internet use:

  • Creators: Originate content (write blogs, create podcasts)
  • Critics: Comment on content ( write reviews, post ratings)
  • Collectors: Gather information (via RSS, social bookmarking)
  • Joiners: Use social networking sites
  • Spectators: Consume content (look things up on Wikipedia, watch videos on YouTube)
  • Inactives: Online, but don’t participate in that newfangled Web 2.0 stuff

(Obviously, these categories are not mutually exclusive.)

The full report is available by following the link above, but the key point is that Baby Boomers and Seniors largely fall in the Spectator and Inactive groups, while there is an explosion of Creators, Critics, and Joiners among younger groups, particularly teens and young adults. In other words, among your youngest members and newly hired staff.

Fast Company recently published an article, “Retaining Younger Workers,” that addresses this exact point. It’s important to remember that something is only “technology” if it was created after you were born. Most of us don’t think of the television or the plain Ma Bell, landline, plug-into-the-wall telephone as “technology.” Younger workers feel the same about blogs, wikis, podcasts, and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

So let’s take a closer look at one of these Web 2.0 technologies, social networking, and how your organization can use it to help your members and staff connect.

Social networking, according to

…is the practice of expanding the number of one’s business and/or social contacts by making connections through individuals…Based on the six degrees of separation concept (the idea that any two people on the planet could make contact through a chain of no more than five intermediaries), social networking establishes interconnected Internet communities (sometimes known as personal networks) that help people make contacts that would be good for them to know, but that they would be unlikely to have met otherwise.

When most of us think of social networking, we tend to think of sites like Linkedin. And you can send your members there to find each other. But you’ll lose your organizational branding, your ability to promote this as a member benefit, control over who finds each other and by what criteria, and the positive mental association, among your constituents, of this capability with your organization.

There are a variety of social networking software options available (Web Scribble, Sparta, Higher Logic, Small World Labs, ONEsite, etc.), and they are mostly relatively inexpensive and easy to install. But before purchasing and installing new software, you might want to talk to your Association Management System vendor.

Social networking sites are basically turbo-charged member profiles. A typical online membership directory allows members to search by name, location, possibly employer, and maybe even interest areas, as selected from a pre-defined list of options. Social networking sites expand that to include full-text profiles (and full-text searching), where people can locate each other based on shared interests, areas of expertise, responses to questions, topics they’d like to learn about, and a wide variety of other options. Moreover, most social networking software packages include other Web 2.0 technologies like blogging, collaborative workspaces, the ability to upload and share media files (audio, video, photos, etc.), the ability to form ad hoc groups, and event scheduling.

Social networking allows your members to make connections. “So what?” you think. “That’s why we have an annual meeting.” That’s true – annual conferences are excellent places for members to connect with each other. However, early-career people are less likely to enjoy company support for the time and expense involved in professional development travel, and they are less likely to be able to afford it on their own if their organizations will not pay or allow them the time off work. Even if they can attend your face-to-face events, they are far less likely to know others in the profession. And no one likes to walk into a room of 200 people and feel like the only one with no friends. It is far less intimidating for those young Creators/Critics/Joiners to approach someone virtually around an expressed shared interest or with a question about an expressed area of expertise than it is for them to walk up to a complete stranger and attempt to strike up a conversation in the hallway between breakout sessions at your conference.

A few things to bear in mind as you contemplate this brave new world of collaborative technologies:

  1. DON’T panic. Back in the mid-1990’s, Generation X and that fad, the Internet, were going to destroy the not-for-profit world as we knew it. All information would be available freely to everyone all the time, and those kids just coming out of college weren’t joining associations anyway. Didn’t happen. Now, Millennials and that fad, social networking, are going to put us all out of business. Everyone can connect with each other all the time without needing associations, and those kids just coming out of college aren’t joining associations anyway. Another piece of information revealed in Decision to Join is that association membership is a factor of stage of career. People don’t join straight out of college because they’re not sure where their career paths are going to take them. Once they settle in, they join. Generation X did, and so will today’s young people, provided your organization stays relevant to their lives and careers.
  2. DO create a plan for deploying new technologies to your members. The good news is that Web 2.0 technologies are relatively cheap and easy to set up. This is also the bad news. Your constituents are inundated with information, and they’re not going to show up at your cool, new, empty organizational wiki just because you launched it. You may, and in fact probably will, have to pre-seed content and participation in order to make your new resource worth the investment of their time. So how do you do that? Tap your volunteer leaders to write, to respond, to interact, to proselytize – they are your most valuable allies in this effort. Tap your younger members, and ask them to do something specific: post the question they emailed you to your online discussion forum, share that insightful comment they just made during your webinar on your President’s blog. They’ll be flattered and will begin to feel a sense of ownership of your organization. And before you even consider any of this, think about your content and your audience, and which technology provides a natural fit. Ask your members: “What Web 2.0 technologies are you already using as part of your normal, daily life? What additional information or capabilities would you like us, your professional organization, to offer?”
  3. DO write good internal policies. Even though all this stuff offers a lot of exciting potential, you still need to make sure you protect your organization from liability. Just as with any official organizational communication, you need to think about who’s allowed to say what and in what forums. Work with your IT staff and your organization’s legal counsel to make sure you’re protected. But you also need to think about what you can reasonably control. Setting up policies you can’t, and maybe don’t even intend to, enforce just encourages disrespect for all your policies. And while it’s risky to make categorical statements in this area, I can definitively say that “ban everything” is not the right policy.
  4. Pursuant to that, DON’T make technology the scapegoat for management problems. If “Bob” is wasting time on Instant Messaging and not getting his work done, instructing your IT people to lock down IM is not the answer, particularly if you adhered to point 2 above and had a good reason for launching it in the first place. “Bob” will just find an alternate time waster – computer Solitaire, surfing the ‘Net, personal phone calls, water cooler breaks every 10 minutes – or even worse, circumvent your IT controls to keep IMing his buddies, in the process creating a back door into your network for viruses and hackers. The right answer is for Bob’s manager to do her job and actually manage him.

The bar for entry on most of these communitarian technologies is very low. The software is free or very low cost, and easy to install. Hosting companies abound. That’s the good news, but it’s also the bad news. Many organizations are jumping in without a clear plan. And this is not a case where building it (whether “it” is a blog, a wiki, or a storefront in Second Life) will result in traffic. Technology is not the issue. Content is. Participation is. But with proper planning, organizational and volunteer support, and a little behind the scenes work to generate buzz, your association can deploy new technologies in ways that benefit staff and members and generate increased loyalty from both.