Building a Networked Nonprofit

It's not just profit-driven titans that are trying to figure out the risky world of social media. Non-profits from the Humane Society to the Red Cross are trying to figure out how to connect with people, particularly the young ones, in an age where traditional advertising doesn't work like it used to.

That's the subject of a talk by Alison Fine and Beth Kanter today at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard. It'll be streamed live from Berkman's website.

Fine, author of the book The Networked Nonprofit, told me that she plans to talk about "the beginning of the second phase of the development of social media."

The Berkman Center is a leading institution for important research into the uses and impacts of digital technologies. We'll be previewing their regular brownbag lunches here on The Atlantic Technology Channel.

"The first decade of the century, the focus was on the toolkit itself. What are the tools? How do they work? Why are they important?" Fine said. "The conversation the next couple of years is, 'What happens to organizations that are immersed in social media?'"

The argument is that when non-profits open themselves up to social media, it doesn't just change how they communicate, but how the organization itself runs. They become simpler, more transparent and "part of an ecosystem, rather than a standalone, solve-everything entity."

Is this utopian? Fine doesn't think so. She pointed to Planned Parenthood as a paragon of social media enlightenment. Before the current chief, Cecile Richards, the organization had "closed itself off from the world because they were so afraid of attack and had been under siege," Fine said. "They had no connection to the younger people they were trying to reach."

Now, they provide real-time instant messaging for women in need of advice and they ended up partnering with MTV to push sexually transmitted infection testing through their Facebook page with measurable upticks in testing.

"If Planned Parenthood can open themselves up like that, what organization can't?" Fine asked.

And as for Malcolm Gladwell's contention that the Internet can't serve as an organizing platform for meaningful social change, Fine didn't mince words.

"I thought it was just nonsense. I was just shocked at the lack of thoughtfulness in the article. One, that social change was just one kind of thing -- these big social movements. And two, that online networks only constitute light ties. It's a much more interesting complex situation."