Social Media for Accountability Part 1: Board Governance
This is the first of a two-part article that addresses the internal application of social media to improve efficacy and accountability in the nonprofit industry. This installment demonstrates how social media can improve board and executive governance, while the next will look at the broader issue of charities, foundations and philanthropists.
Last August, Pablo Eisenberg wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that the “nonprofit world is intellectually moribund.” He added that charities and foundations “are in flux, besieged by rising expectations, an uncertain financial future, and a lack of clarity about their priorities and future direction.” Among his prescriptions: a “type of New York Review of Books for nonprofit groups” that grants the industry greater accountability and opportunity in the news media.
I agree with Mr. Eisenberg, and not just because I like the New York Review of Books. But the industry is advancing too quickly for this solution to have a timely effect. The number of nonprofits in the United States has increased threefold in the last 25 years. Between 1998 and 2008, international private giving by U.S.-based corporate and independent foundations and individuals doubled – surpassing the World Bank's commitments by $13 billion in 2007 alone.
The long term remedy would certainly benefit from a different kind of news media, but the near term begs for social media solutions.
When nonprofits think social media, they usually apply it to all things external: branding, marketing, advocacy, fundraising and community building. One seldom hears discussion on how social media applies internally in the service of integrity, efficacy and accountability.
Consider two hypothetical scenarios at the level of board and executive governance: A 35-year-old walks into her first meeting as the youngest and newest member of a nonprofit board of directors. She observes a collective silence among her fellow board as the chief executive reports on matters that she feels deserve scrutiny. She demurs, thinking either that silence is the norm, or that someone else is already on top of this.
Scene 2: A celebrity tycoon checks emails on his iPhone en route to JFK International, and notices that the executive director of a nonprofit on which he is a board member has proposed a salary hike to $500,000. This is excessive, he thinks, but his taxi is pulling into the terminal and tomorrow he’ll be in Athens. The thought escapes him.
Every nonprofit board is its own culture and political system. Whether it’s composed of middle class professionals or prominent public figures, the politics of personality (e.g. the founder chairman) may create a culture of silence that renders the board powerless. Meanwhile, a board that’s all prominence and no substance could amount to an impressive rubber stamp.
The trick is to steer boards away from self-centeredness and toward the heart and soul of the nonprofit’s cause.
Of course, this seems like an impossible feat for the person who sits on six boards – ask her if she truly believes in democracy, access to water, press freedom, refugee rights, healthcare and public schools, and she answers yes. But ask if she has time to address all six, 24/7 and she’ll look at you funny.
Social media tools, if used strategically and selectively, make this closer to possible. They organize passions and commitments into manageable, messageable and accountable segments.
Take the scenario of the 35-year-old board member. Imagine now that when she joined the board, she was granted access to its exclusive, private discussion group on Yammer.com. This is where she learns the back story on existing elephant-in-the-room topics, and it’s where she can broach new ones – with the psychological distance of an electronic interface.
What’s more, imagine a social media strategy sophisticated enough to anticipate when that psychological distance was needed and when it was counterproductive. (A good social media professional can pinpoint exactly where that line is drawn.)
Turn back to the celebrity tycoon board member, now at his laptop in Athens. An alert reminds him that he is required to be active on Twitter for said nonprofit on this very day. So he tweets a thing or two about poverty in Africa, then remembers the ED’s extravagant salary proposal.
He cunningly digs up an online op-ed about excessive nonprofit salaries and tweets it to his 80,000-strong Twitter following. By the next board meeting, the ED has shelved his salary proposal.
In these new scenarios, social media was the means with which the board members connected with their passions and carried out their duties. And because social media was built into their board policies – with tools, strategies and quotas – it was their cue to remove themselves from the flock mentality and air of self-importance. In the end, it brought integrity to their nonprofits, and reinforced everything that made them join the board in the first place.
Of course, these are only hypothetical snapshots. But it’s becoming a trend. More social media experts and philanthropic leaders are asking where and how these tools can be used to help nonprofits, as Eisenberg puts it, “meet the challenges of the next 25 or 50 years.”
And like the nonprofits that jumped on the Twitter/Facebook marketing wagon early, those who do so for board accountability may, in the long run, stand apart in the eyes of donors.