Last week's Economist featured a special report on social media which argued that "social networking technologies are creating considerable benefits for the businesses that embrace them." This is nothing new to nonprofits, philanthropists and foundations. From America's Giving Challenge to Twestival, social media has been an intrinsic part of our narrative.
And it has always made sense. Unlike the corporate world, which is uniformly driven by profit, the nonprofit world is misuniformly driven by popular thought, social need, leadership and the responsible organization of resources. It's a realm where communication is planned yet organic, opportunistic but not disingenuous. Social media couldn't have a better home.
But there remains a relatively uncharted territory: "Enterprise 2.0" technologies, which last week's Economist described as the "social networks of the workplace." Networking suites like IBM's Lotus Connections, Salesforce's Chatter, Yammer and BlueKiwi, have become solutions for corporations like Netherlands-based Océ, whose use of Yammer helps them prevent duplicated efforts and enhance sales prospecting.
According to a study cited in the Economist, corporate workers spend between six and ten hours per week hunting for information that they could otherwise communicate to one another seamlessly in the Facebook/Twitter-like sphere of Yammer.
And what Enterprise 2.0 tools provide that Twitter and Facebook don't is security - online communities where ideas are exchanged freely without fear of breaking confidentiality, or letting sensitive information slip. They make silo-thinking an excuse of the past, and bring an organization closer to operating like a coordinated, central nervous system.
Of course, what leads these respective businesses to choose the tools they use is as important as the tools themselves. The France-based Dannone corporation, for instance, is currently experimenting with an in-house solution to make an online community of its 90,000 employees in 100 countries.
Now take this model to the nonprofit/foundation world, where executives, trustees and board members are vested with not only communicating, but managing social need. Without the right tools and practices, a board of directors with even the greatest credentials and prominence can sit by powerless as their organization runs into the ground.
An undeniable challenge the nonprofit/foundation industry faces is a rapidly shifting culture of information sharing. And just as the industry belatedly takes cues from the business world in things like "sales"/donor prospecting and management practices, it may be high time for nonprofits and foundations to make the silo break.
It may be of little coincidence then that last Friday someone on the Progressive Exchange listserve - which reaches over 5,000 nonprofit/foundation professionals, consultants and enthusiasts - asked if anyone had examples of nonprofits using Yammer. People responded with interest but had little to offer by way of example.
The most tangible one came from Jon Stahl, a senior strategist at Groundwire, a nonprofit that helps environmental groups. He said: "We have 20+ people in 3 offices, and we find that [Yammer] provides a simple, multi-platform, low-intensity 'water cooler' that lets us share ephemeral information without contributing to email clutter. We're obviously a pretty tech-savvy organization, and we've got 100% adoption, total message flow is probably 10-20 posts per day, total. It's a minor tool in our constellation, but we like it."
I also spoke with Tarek Rizk, the Aspen Institute's Director of Interactive Services. Tarek is a proponent of leveraging internal networks, like Basecamp, to enhance workflow and efficiency. He said Aspen recently started relying on Twitter to update staff when Blackberry email access is down - "it's not like they're going to get the email, ya know?" He's also implemented an intricate social bookmarking system for Aspen using Delicious and LinkedIn.
However, Tarek cautioned that the when planning Aspen's internal social media strategy, "it's hard to know which coat tails to follow." He added, "You can compare your strategy to another organization's, but in the end it's their mission distinction that dictates which tools they use and what decisions they make. The way a tool gets used depends on the path people took to use it - you can't just chase the first shiny object you see on the roadside."
Tarek and Jon are not the first nonprofiteers to think outside the social media box of marketing, fundraising and public relations, in order to think inside the box of their organization's strength and efficiency. And they certainly won't be the last.
Services like Yammer or BlueKiwi are nonprofit friendly in that they offer a free basic service plan. And for nonprofits who were wise and tech-savvy enough to board the Drupal/Wordpress train, modules like Organic Groups or BuddyPress can be used to create virtual board rooms or chapter meetings.
Last May, the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) and the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative launched a joint pilot project with 14 foundations called Philanthropy 3D Michigan, which enlists trustees as strategic foundation communicators.
According to a blog post by CMF's Rebecca Noricks, "3D's goal centers on developing a new communications model for philanthropy, one that we believe has the potential to radically change the traditional foundation communications approach of relying primarily on grant announcement news releases."
3D Michigan will be ongoing through the spring of 2010, so there is yet much to develop out of this initiative. CMF and some of the pilot foundations, including W.K. Kellogg Foundation, already use Twitter externally, but it will be interesting to see if the 3D project encourages them to make their own silo breaks. There's nothing like external communications to drive home the importance of internal housekeeping.