Have you read the new report out from the Knight Foundation: Connected Citizens: The Power, Peril and Potential of Networks?
The report notes:
- It’s important to listen to and consult the crowd in our work
- We should create environments where connections can naturally form, including between people with different perspectives
- It’s good practice to support collective action so grassroots efforts can grow
So how can nonprofits embrace these practices? Mayur Patel of the Knight Foundation was kind enough to provide some reflections on that very topic in an interview with me. Here are his thoughts for us:
Katya: In Connected Citizens, you examined 70 examples of how networks are being used to build better and more engaged communities. What was the most surprising or counterintuitive finding?
Mayur Patel: The report highlights the fact that the power of networks isn’t a passing fad. Networks are and will continue to be a fundamental part of how we engage in community change, and so we have to adapt to them, embrace the technology and play on the opportunities that they afford.
One of the most interesting findings was how networks are being used to bridge differences. People are being incredibly intentional about creating spaces that bridge differences in communities. This is important because a lot of the data suggests that people tend to connect narrowly, with like-minded people online.
The report shows far more is possible, but it has to be something that you plan for. The web and technology alone do not bridge siloed online spaces. You have to establish reputation systems that build trust, and then create a space where people feel comfortable and are rewarded for taking that extra step of interacting with those with different perspectives.
Katya: A vital theme of the report is the value of actively listening to your communities, consulting them and allowing them to shape your programs. That likely feels scary to nonprofits who are afraid to lose control of their messages or their direction. What would you say to those reluctant to make this leap?
Mayur Patel: For many years the dominant frame in business and across different sectors was on controlling the message. But there is value to a different approach, and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. A simple way for nonprofits to move in this direction is to identify the people in your organization who want to take this participatory approach – there is usually someone at that frontier – and allow them to listen to and empower advocates, building a network within and beyond your organization.
Supporting these earlier adopters in your organization, will help you move in this direction organically; and it’s a direction all of us have to move in as our world becomes increasingly defined by greater transparency, decentralization and interconnectedness.
One important point is that the approach to participation needs to be transparent and authentic. On Twitter, we’ve seen great work by nonprofits to forge connections by being open about the sausage-making process at their organizations, sharing what they are thinking, and celebrating what others say and do. It is both transformative and cumulative. You don’t need a polished product from the outset when you engage in listening and collaboration – you just need to show a progression.
Katya: When organic movements and grassroots efforts spring up in loose networks outside a nonprofit, what should a nonprofit do to embrace those networks?
Mayur Patel: The primary thing to do is to lend your voice to those efforts. Use social media and your communication arms to spread good ideas and help support their community. Be a partner rather than trying to force a governance structure or your own ideas of scale onto these emerging initiatives. You want to nurture the individuals behind the informal effort. Lift them up.
Support their individual leadership, even if you don’t engage in their outcomes. Create infrastructure for them. Resource the network itself rather than formalizing the idea or outcome.