6 min read

Demand Begging for a Supply

As should be clear by now, the nonprofit approach that treats donors as isolated individuals is badly in need of an update. But this is made even more true by the sociopolitical circumstances described at the beginning of this report; circumstances which, while they present a challenge for nonprofits, also present an opportunity for them to take a leadership role that pays off significantly for both organizations and their supporters.

Even at the sunset of the age of mass media, mass politics, etc., when writers and poets have been lamenting isolation for nearly a century, social networks are alive and well. But the stabilizing forces that once gave them grounding, purpose, and directed energy have declined. When people move frequently, the local community loses weight in their lives. When people aren’t religious, church loses its influence. And there’s no manual for finding alternative grounding institutions in a given place or stage of life. People plugged into strategic networks can still do a great deal of good, but most people do not know how to plug in, or the opportunities available don’t fit their lifestyles. For example, a 2011 study in the U.K. showed that 30% of Brits gave 90% of nonprofit donations and did 70% of the volunteer hours; and that participation opportunities tended to rely on individual initiative, be characterized by boredom and ineffectiveness, and be dominated by people with a lot of leisure time (like retirees).(1)  An even smaller percentage of people usually populates all the nonprofit boards in town.

The rest of the population faces a two-fold casualty: not only do they lose the benefits of participation, but they also miss the middle-tier relationships that are characteristic of civic involvement. A social network in 2013 tends to revolve around the people closest to a person (like family) and the people with whom he shares only a minor connection (like a favorite sports team or Facebook group). (2) Missing are the middle-tier relationships that tend to be created by shared participation in civic institutions like the town, community center, fraternal organization, and yes, nonprofit. These relationships are often more ethnically and economically diverse than the others, and provide much of the psychological value of “giving back.” But for most people, they are unknown; a relic of another time when people knew their neighbors and took care of each other.(3)  Re-forming those connections means restored relationships, but it means more: the opportunity to dramatically increase the total pool of donors and volunteers; giving people with little time or money ways to give back, giving skilled people a chance to give back more effectively, and opening doors for more people to benefit (on both ends) from public service.

In short, there is a ready market for organizations that will step into twenty-first-century civic life and find ways to help people recapture the grounding, human connectedness, and shared purpose that is missing from their lives.

Sure enough, we find that study after study reflects the idea that in addition to being more concerned with results than they used to be, modern donors “want the opportunity to be more than passive audience members whose social activism is limited to writing a check.”(4)  Even to keep its existing donors, the effective nonprofit today must find ways to involve more people, which requires a more creative engagement strategy and a better communication strategy, both built around social networks rather than the lone voice of the organizational e-mail blast.

This is a challenge for at least four reasons:

(1)    This is a sector that has historically valued control. The nonprofit sector sees the organization, with its paid professionals, as the centerpiece of whatever is to be accomplished. As previously noted, major changes don’t come easy in the nonprofit world, and this would be the biggest change it has seen since its inception.

(2)    Such changes usually require understanding social connectivity (and not just social media) as a crucial ingredient rather than a necessary evil. When it comes to social media, even the best nonprofits in the digital sphere are usually at least five years behind the private sector (which in turn is only just beginning to understand how to integrate it into operations). And none this author is aware of have harnessed the social links behind social media, or figured out how to systematically use social media to promote real-world meaning and relationships rather than replace them. (Only 7% of word-of-mouth advertising happens online,[5]  and persuasive arguments have been made that digital-only engagement actually diminishes the relational value of compassion.[6]  So thinking a nonprofit can increase its revenue or publicity by “getting on Facebook” is like a person thinking she can get from New York to Miami by buying a car without learning how to drive.)

(3)    A lack of communications talent and knowledge. Nonprofit communications officers already have a difficult task: translating what goes on day to day into a story that makes a donor want to continue giving. There are already few enough people in the sector who can do that well—communications people are frequently undervalued and underpaid in the nonprofit sector, so the best ones end up in for-profit marketing. Yet now the few stars that do work for nonprofits have to consider how to tell their story in an ongoing tapestry made up of small pieces that are specifically designed to induce people to share them with others. Hardly any nonprofit communications people know that emotions like awe and humor increase sharing,(7)  or that people are more likely to share information that makes them look good(8)  or remember brands that their daily lives trigger them to remember frequently.(9)  Still fewer have built their organizations’ communications strategies around such things, things that create positive word-of-mouth (i.e. network-based) publicity. And nonprofit communications infrastructure is usually built around “closed” communication tools like mail or e-mail lists, which are one-way, do not grow organically, and rely on the nonprofit to keep them on life support.

(4)    Young people. The people who are most keen to be involved beyond money (and indeed may have no money to give at this point) are people in their 20s and 30s. But Millennials’ energy, lack of ready money, and lack of respect for the status quo often create disinterest if not distrust among older nonprofit leaders.

Yet for organizations that can overcome these challenges and rethink their strategies, these very real social changes have created a demand that is begging for a supply. And concepts drawn from social network analysis provide valuable ammunition for the organization that wants to provide that supply.


Instead of a six-person staff trying to do all the work funded by a 600-person donor base, what if a 3,000-person community of communities could achieve exponentially deeper- and wider-reaching results . . . while increasing the personal connections that are the hallmark of the small organization? Social network analysis and technology present that possibility—larger donor pools, larger and more involved volunteer groups, increased community buy-in, and the recapture of the connections between servants and served.
Providing this supply does not require radical overnight changes to services—change can be incremental. And the execution will vary from one organization to another based on its nature and mission. But providing the supply does require that nonprofit leaders reimagine the role their organizations can play in the lives of everyone involved, both donors and clients. That means using social network theory to rethink how to reach new people, how to get them involved, and (a new question) how to connect them with each other. And it means larger strategic questions, depending on an organization’s size and mission: how to create a volunteerism model that includes skilled volunteer work and is a sustainable, meaningful, and transformative part of people lives; how to communicate with a support base that is no longer a passive group of disconnected onlookers; and so on.

The Passing-the-Beggar scenario is a heartbreaking scene that plays out daily for millions of people, and not only because the beggar is ignored. Reconnecting the one person in the scenario with the other puts the nonprofit in a position to fuel a strengthening of American society, and a dramatic increase in its ability to achieve its mission.


(1) Richard Wilson and Matt Leach, "Civic Limits: How Much More Involved Can People Get?" in ResPublica  (July 2011), at www.respublica.org.uk/documents/kpg_ResPublica%20Civic%20Limits.pdf
(2) Marc Dunkelman, "The Transformation of American Community," in National Affairs (Summer 2011 issue), at http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-transformation-of-american-community
(3) Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” (New York: Touchstone Books, 2001)
(4)  Heather Gowdy, Alex Hildebrand, David La Piana, and Melissa Mendes Campos, "Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector" (The James Irvine Foundation, November 2009), p. 10
(5) Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, "Connected: How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do" (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), pp. 7-12
(6) Jonathan Safran Foer, “How Not to Be Alone,” in The New York Times (8 June 2013), at http://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/how-not-to-be-alone.html
(7) Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, “Approaching Awe, A Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion,” in Cognition and Emotion (2003)
(8) Jonah Berger, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), p. 33
(9) E. T. Higgins and G. King, “Accessibility of Social Constructs: Information-Processing Consequences of Individual and Contextual Variability,” in Personality, Cognition, and Social Interaction, eds. N. Cantor and J.F. Kihlstrom (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1981)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *