6 min read

Part 2 of 3

A Support Base Is an Organism, Not a Bank

John Kay writes of the modernist city planners of the 20th century: “At first sight, visionaries who seek to rebuild whole cities seem engaged in extraordinary feats of imagination. But in reality, [their] schemes were characterized by a few ideas pursued with obsession. No one could design a city of three million people in any other way. The creation of living cities demands a multiplicity of objectives. Interactions among people are critical; their organization is necessarily complex, our understanding of them incomplete.”  
To paraphrase, he means that some things are too complicated for their solutions to be encompassed by even the best-written mission statement. A famous story tells of the Soviet diplomat who was shocked when he discovered that nobody was in charge of the supply of bread to New York—the organic interaction of millions of people made the city work.

Social scientists talk about “emergent systems,” situations that are created by a variety of factors and yet are more than the sum of their parts. Poverty is considered to be an emergent system, meaning it has no single root cause, but is created by a combination of factors that add up to make something bigger than the sum of them all (making it difficult for specializing nonprofits to deal with it). Indeed, most complicated problems can’t be solved by addressing an isolated portion of them, or by an isolated person or organization.

Yet isolation is the common thread in the problems described previously. On one level, we have isolation of nonprofits from each other, isolation of nonprofits from the outside world of the private sector, isolation of philanthropists from local knowledge. But this common thread starts with the isolation of human beings. The nonprofit donor is more isolated than he has ever been. He is isolated from people in need, cut off from the opportunity to exercise compassion. He is isolated from the nonprofit to which he gives money, seeing only ineffectual glimpses of its work through poorly strategized e-mail updates or mass mailings. And he is isolated from other donors, robbing him of the relationships and lifestyle that enable the psychological benefits of giving back.

People are not built to operate this way. Philosophers long before the birth of Christ insisted that people were social and political by nature; they need interaction with other people. Today, thanks to computer modeling technology that allows us to study entire populations, social science has caught up to the philosophers in the form of social network analysis. This field has allowed us to see how people’s networks of relationships influence them (and vice versa), and what we are learning shows us just how badly inadequate the prevailing wisdom in the nonprofit sector is.

Social networks aren’t the same as groups. They are the pattern of links between people; the relationships that allow groups to become more than the sum of their parts. A group of strangers in a room isn’t a social network; a nonprofit e-mail list or political party isn’t a social network. If I have an e-mail list of 100 people and I have a piece of news, I can only tell 99 people about it—it’s still isolated. In a social network, if I tell five of my friends the news, each of them might tell five other friends (I might know some of them, but not all). Those people might tell more people, and so on.  Some people have more friends than others, and others might be in more closed social networks than others (where more of their friends know each other than don’t)—all of these things might factor into how many people learn my news, but since the network isn’t closed, my news can reach more people than if I just let my 99 friends know. Social media works this way; if I have 500 Facebook followers, I can theoretically reach tens of thousands of people with a piece of content if they all share it with their networks and their networks keep sharing it. But this isn’t a social media thing. It’s a human thing. Social media is just a vehicle specifically designed to help humans tell their stories the way they’re hard-wired to do.

People aren’t naturally isolated. They have families, friends, work colleagues, college classmates, and so on. Unlike a mob, these networks are limited in size (rarely more than 150 people directly connected; there’s no such thing as large-scale “community”). But they have tremendous power, if we bother to understand them. Mass movements, like a protest, treat people as isolated individuals in a huge group; people in them have no value except as a head to be counted—and their influence today is limited. Social networks, on the other hand, have their own rules and their own energy—and require that we view their members as powerful agents.

Two of the leading scholars in this new field are Nicholas Christakis of Harvard and James Fowler of UC San Diego. Their impressive array of studies on social networks has allowed them to identify these facts about social networks:

(1)    We shape our network. We gravitate toward people like us, so our networks tend to look like us. Who someone is, what he likes, what he does, shapes who can be found in his social network. So if a person is interested in social activism, chances are so are a lot of his friends.

(2)    Our network shapes us. Mass media content that focuses on the institution reaching the individual (e.g. with a TV ad) is far less effective at convincing somebody that something is important than a network of relationships. Contrary to traditional economic theory, people aren’t just autonomous self-interested profit maximizers—they tend to want what the people around them want.  For example, one of the best ways to get an individual to quit smoking is to surround him with non-smoking friends.

(3)    Our friends affect us. People with overweight friends tend to become overweight. If all your friends enjoy a particular sport, you may develop a taste for it too.

(4)    Our friends' friends' friends' affect us. You know about the six degrees of separation concept, but scholars have also discovered that people have three degrees of influence. (You can’t figure this out by studying your “average donor;” you have to look at the behavior of an entire network with a computer model.) If you convert to a new religion, it has a ripple effect that can hit people three degrees of separation away.  

(5)    The network has a life of its own. Social networks are emergent systems. They’ll often see ripple effects that have no easily discernible origin (spend about four seconds thinking about what you considered stylish clothes in the 1980s and you’ll get the idea).  The viral force of a network can produce ideas, trends, and resources that would have been impossible for the individuals within it.
As you might be starting to imagine, social network theory has many implications for nonprofits—not all are obvious, and more research and experimentation in this field is needed. But some implications can be drawn from even some of these basic ideas:

>>>   If someone’s network is likely to look like him, developing effective ways to engage him socially might put an organization on the radar screen of other likely supporters (his friends).

>>>   It’s already well known that large percentages of people who give money to charity (some studies say as high as 80%) do so because they are asked to by someone they know well. But social network theory tells us people are more likely to act altruistically toward people with whom they share friends, even if they don’t know each other.  So creating strategies that develop networks, rather than just hitting people up for money by proxy, can raise more long-term interest and support even when they don’t lead to larger individual donations in the short run.

>>>   If people tend to want what people around them want, and networks develop a life of their own, organizations’ outreach and communication cannot be limited to a single person in a network; the goal should be to surround someone with other people who are invested in the organization, so they can rub off on each other and keep each other engaged.

>>>  When people’s charitable participation is visible, a person’s donation can impact the size of other people’s donations up to two degrees of separation away. One study by Christakis and Fowler showed that in such a situation, every dollar donated by one person led to an additional $1.05 in giving by other people in his network.  In other words, the connected donor is worth more than twice the isolated donor.

>>>  Social networks tend to be transitive, meaning they are connected with other social networks (for example, Jake might be a part of Kevin’s social network, but he might also be a part of Allison’s—and perhaps the only link between the two). This is important for knowledge sharing purposes, but also because participation rates (voting, volunteering, etc.) are dramatically higher in networks where about half a person’s friends do not know each other. A healthy social network, unlike a group, isn’t a silo—and people can carry knowledge and trends from one to another, so even one person can bring an entire additional social network into play.

>>>  This connectivity of one person to another, and one network to another, also increases the value of involvement to the network’s members. For example, in countries where religion is common, the positive effects of religion are higher. When more people share something, they get more out of it than they would have if they had done it alone—so nonprofits that connect people with each other relationally, rather than treating them as isolated checkbooks, may find it far easier to keep their donors happy and engaged. Likewise, there is an incentive to find ways to involve people beyond merely donations. Giving people ownership of something significant together, at a human-scaled level, ignites an organizational power that goes far beyond what the institution could accomplish if it operated as a closed circle.

Ed. note: This is part 2 of a three-part serialization of "Enlisting the Amateurs"; part 1 is here and part 3 will appear on Philanthropy Daily next week.

Leave a Reply

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