According to Beth Kanter, there are two different types of nonprofits:
- Fortressed Nonprofits. These type of organizations try to maintain total control of medium, message, spokespeople. They limit their audiences to a small of constituents identified by the organization. And they don't necessarily get social media.
- Networked Nonprofits. Consider everyone inside and outside of the organization resources for helping them to achieve their goals.
Beth believes nonprofits can unleash the power of social good by transitioning from stand-alone fortressed institutions to networks energized by abundant resources in their ecosystem. In order to do this, they need to work with free agents.
Free agents are individuals working outside of organizations to organize, mobilize, raise funds, and communicate with constituents. They are hyper-connected people passionate about social change without being an employee of the organization(s) they support. Free agents use social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, and can create social movements in the palms of their hands.
Leading a session at the annual NonProfits and Technology Conference, Beth brought together organization representatives who had learned first-hand the opportunities and challenges of working with free agents.
The relationship between the organization and free agents is sort of like marriage. The partnership has to be mutually beneficial and not coercive. Important characteristics of this partnership includes:
- Trust. Free agents must be worth trusting and able to support in mutually beneficial ways.
- Transparency. Trust and honesty are important for organizations to have to make the relationship work. It is important to build a relationship that doesn’t change based on what free agents do.
- Empathy. Organizations and free agents need to understand each others’ motives.
- Enthusiasm. This helps to sell a concept.
In thinking about "economy" between organizations and free agents, both have to get value from relationship. What's valuable for your free agents?
Free agents like Shawn Ahmed (@uncultured) are promiscuous for good!
Free Agent. Source; Rob Cottingham.
To take this metaphor a bit further, Beth set up her panelists as “couples” in a newlywed game format
Kat and Mark were aware of each other’s existence via Twitter; they met in person when Mark interviewed the Executive Director of 100k homes. Mark describes free agents as "the marketing plan that the organization can’t afford. They want to help you tell your story, and they are connected with stakeholders you would otherwise not reach." When asked, "How do you resolve conflict?", they responded "You commit and work through it." Mark explained, “The worst thing you can do to me is censor me. Free agents share goals and won't intentionally hurt the organization." Based on their experience working together, Kat and Mark believe that organizations need to empower free agents. "Take a leap of faith. Encourage your staff...create Evangelists." said Mark. It helps if the organization is ready to reach out and embrace the free agent. Kat said, "I am lucky to work for a director of a campaign...that is willing to take risks." Mark added that organizations are good at "navigating his passions" to focus his agenting.
|The Newlywed Game! Beth Kanter with Kat Johnson (100KHomes) and Mark Horvath discuss the relationship between organizations and free agents. Source: Michael Dougherty|
Shawn describes himself as a "Former Notre Dame grad student who dropped everything to start an unplanned, unexpected, & 'uncultured' journey to help the poor." He heard good things about Save the Children, so he investigated and liked their work so much he sought out ways to promote the organization. "A free agent is a bridge maker for nonprofits," explained Shawn. "American people want to KNOW who they are giving money to." He added, "The last aspect of bridge making is bridging cultures." To demonstrate, he showed the following video about "The Boy Who Lived."
Free agents at work. VIDEO of community efforts – The Boy Who Lived.
Ettore added, "The moral of the story is the connection to Shawn (a free agent) has opened the door to other supporters." Save the Children considers some free agents "citizen journalists", thus precedent for paying for travel - so other organizations may want to consider free agents as citizen journalist, citizen or philanthropist to be able to afford to bring them to events/efforts. Shawn explained, "To move a volunteer to a Free Agent means to move them from single activity to multiple activities." Ettore's suggested, “If you work for an nonprofit organization, discover the free agent experience by being one for your own organization.”
One of the concerns that many organizations worry about when opening themselves up to social media is negative publicity. Panelists recommended that if there is someone out there speaking against you, bring them on the team. Embrace them. Turn them from an enemy into an ally by listening and responding.
Finally, one untapped resource of free agents for many NGOs is the whole blogging community. What should you do with a potential blogger? Engage them to see if there is a fit because they are going to talk about you anyway.