(Nonprofits+Politics)2.0

September 16, 2009

More Reasons Seth Godin is Wrong

I recently read a great post on Cause  Wired Communications blog on why Seth Godin is wrong about nonprofits and social media, and wanted to add a few of my own thoughts..

First of all, the post is right on that Seth’s post perpetuates misconceptions of our sector and that the metrics of being on the Top 100 Twitterers, getting Digged a lot, and other comparisons to VC tech firms is ridiculous.  However, there is an even greater factual inaccuracy in the assertion Seth makes, purely on his observations.

I could get into how funders don’t want to put money into innovation, capacity building, or marketing – that they want every dime going to the services nonprofits provide their clients, and how that is a barrier to trying out new technologies.  There are also other potential barriers like confidentiality, limited resources in general, overall lack of technology infrastructure, etc.

BUT there’s no need.  The whole premise of Godin’s article is wrong, so that’s where I’ll start.

Godin inaccurately asserts

“The problem facing your group [nonprofits], ironically, is the resistance to the very thing you are setting out to do. Non-profits, in my experience, abhor change. … Where are the big charities, the urgent charities, the famous charities that face such timely needs and are in a hurry to make change? Very few of them have bothered to show up [in social media] in a big way

However, the Society for New Communications Research recently determined that nonprofits are leading the way in social media! For example, “their latest research shows the Fortune 500 with the least amount of corporate blogs (16%), the Inc. 500 with 39%, colleges and universities blogging at 41%, and charities now reporting 57% with blogs.

Here are some other great stats highlighted on SNCR’s blog:

• In 2007, 75 percent of the respondents reported using at least one form of social media. One year later, 89 percent of these organizations are using at least one form of social media. Usage increased for every tool studied.
• Social networking and video blogging are now the most common tools used, with 79% of charities using each of them. Use of online video increased by 38 percent; social networking increased by 47 percent in the one-year period studied.
• In addition, the charities reported that they have begun to use Twitter.
• When asked if they felt their blogs were successful, approximately 90% of charities with blogs said yes. This finding is consistent with studies in business and academia that have consistently shown those using social media are satisfied and feel it provides positive results.
• Sixty-six percent of respondents in 2007 and 75% in 2008 report they monitor the Internet for buzz, posts, conversations and news about their institution. This compares with 54 percent of colleges and universities and 60 percent of the Inc. 500.
• More than 80 percent of those studied feel that social media is at least “somewhat important” to their future strategy; 45 percent responded that social media is very important to their fundraising strategy.

Unless his experience has been living under a rock, Seth seems to have missed the fact that nonprofits are the changemakers in our community.  Nonprofits find solutions for problems other sectors don’t even see like developing funding solutions, driving innovation, bringing vulnerable people out of institutions and into our community, addressing mental and physical challenges that require more than doling out pills, and, yes, taking advantage of new tools like social media. (pardon the random assortment of innovative changes recent and 40 years ago – there are lots in between but I’m writing this response on my lunch, so you’ll have to add to the list in comments below).

I appreciate a good call to action and do think there is more that non-profit and for-profit sectors can do to take advantage of new tools and embrace innovation.  But perhaps before making sweeping generalizations it would be useful to do a little research and look beyond your marketing/VC lens for viewing the world, and seek out some facts.

This critique of nonprofits’ use of the social web are particularly appropriate form someone who himself is antisocial on the web, refusing to tweet or even allow readers to comment on his blog.  Seth, why aren’t you among the top 100 Twitterers out there?

What do you think?  Is your nonprofit embracing web2.0?  What resistance have you found?  How have you overcome it?

PS: I do agree that naming yourself based on what you are not is not particularly effective, but the IRS classification (nonprofit) is still more appealing than the connotations conjured by the word charity.  Perhaps one day we’ll see a rebranding exercise to go for something like “community benefit organization,” but for now we’re busy meeting the needs of our constituents.. and staying ahead of your for-profit folks on this social media stuff :)

PPS: Seth, I do allow comments here and enjoy observing and engaging in dialogue.  I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

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10 Comments »

  1. [...] Gilnack responds at (Nonprofits+Politics)2.0 with “More Reasons Seth Godin is Wrong”. He writes “However, the Society for New Communications Research recently determined that [...]

    Pingback by Midcourse Corrections » Blog Archive » Nonprofit Bloggers & Social Media Adopters Scream Foul But Are They Right? — September 16, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  2. Kevin:

    Thanks for being one of those nonprofit employees that speak out in this situation. It’s easy for the social media specialists and consultants to cry foul, yet, it’s different for those of us in the trenches.

    Here’s an interesting twist on the facts you quoted. The US IRS says there are more than 1.8 million nonprofits in America and there are another 70,000 nonprofits in Canada. Do we actually think that the SCNR stats apply to all those nonprofits?

    The SCNR stats you site above are from a study of 200 of the largest charities in the US, a mere 0.1% of all the nonprofits in America. I’m grateful that 89% of those charities are leading the way for the rest of the nonprofits. I’m saddend by the fact that most of the nonprofits have not adopted social media yet. I agree with Beth Kanter that yes, change is hard.

    Comment by Jeff Hurt — September 16, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    • Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for your comment and great aggregation of the various responses to Godin’s post. I’m hoping to get home at a decent enough hour to address the questions and points you raised regarding my post (I need to reread the study from SCNR but I am not sure they were carefully distinguishing charity vs. nonprofit organizations, but will parse through and clarify that later). Until then, here’s a quick response between events to keep the dialogue going.

      By no means do I think that nonprofits have fully embraced and utilized to their full potential the tools that encompassed by social media. What I wanted to address immediately was the misconception Godin perpetuates that nonprofits are lagging behind the other sectors of our economy, that we are any more resistant to change than the millions of businesses who haven’t hopped on Twitter yet.

      You mention that 1.8 million nonprofit organizations is a pretty staggering number, but there are 22,659,000 businesses, so if SNCR’s statistics of the industry leaders from the nonprofit and for-profit worlds can be extrapolated, there are far more businesses resistant to change and innovation than nonprofits. The business sector has only 16-39% of the 1/22,659 leading the way in social media. So, I suppose we should be sad that businesses are so much further behind.

      We still have a long way to go to enable our smaller nonprofits to take advantage of these tools to their fullest – but I know that there’s a huge thirst for knowledge about them in nonprofits of all sizes, and a sincere interest in bringing them into their strategy. We are already the most transparent sector with publicly available state and national reporting requirements and the scrutiny of donors and the media. We also have a history of addressing some of society’s most intractable problems, and constantly finding new ways of doing it. Plus, we love free resources.

      We certainly have our bureaucracies, our curmudgeons, and slow adopters, too – and all change takes time and is difficult. But I think despite challenges like no money for innovation, capacity, marketing, etc., we’re still poised to keep leading the pack when it comes to social media adoptoin.

      Further, and more to the point of my post, I think it’s completely irresponsible for someone with a soapbox as big as Godin’s to misrepresent our sector, especially in comparison to the for-profit world, which the numbers show is so far behind us on the web.

      Let’s not settle for where we’re at, but take pride in our progress and keep pushing for further innovation.

      Comment by kgilnack — September 16, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  3. Excellent rebuttal! Go Kevin!

    Comment by Beth Kanter — September 16, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

  4. I worked in nonprofits for 12 years and totally understood what Seth was saying. The people getting upset over his claims are not the ones that need to hear the message. They’re already active in the online world and thus are probably innovative.

    The general complaint is that the corporate world is worse than the nonprofit at change. I don’t think Seth would disagree with that and he certainly didn’t say that in his post.

    His concern is that nonprofits have to be more innovative than for profits because they have a more urgent goal and they have less funding. You complain that Seth makes generalizations, but you say “nonprofits are the changemakers in our community” which is simply not true.

    I agree that his mentions of Twitter and Digg as measurements were off base, but your challenge to him about comments and a lack of Twitter account are worse. If Seth opened comments he’d spend his days managing it. If he tweeted he’d be top 10 within a week. Seth is hardly antisocial – he responds to emails regularly.

    So, let’s have a look outside of each person’s individual nonprofit (and I’m sure everyone’s nonprofit is great at change) and look at the sector. There are too many old boys clubs and best practices holding back the sector.

    Comment by Matt — September 16, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for sharing your feedback and personal experiences. Your point that we should continue to promote nonprofit use of social media is right on.

      You are right that part of the issue I have with his sweeping generalizations is that he implies nonprofits are less active on social media than the for-profit world. I think the following implies that connection pretty loud and clear:

      “Take a look at the top 100 twitter users in terms of followers. … What? None of them are non-profits. Not one as far as I can tell. Is the work you’re doing not important enough to follow, or is it (and I’m betting it is) paralysis in decision making in the face of change? Is there too much bureaucracy or too much fear to tell a compelling story in a transparent way?”

      Oh, and then there’s this swipe, which might even be a more direct comparison:

      “If you spend any time reading marketing blogs, you’ll find thousands of case studies of small (and large) innovative businesses that are shaking things up and making things happen. And not enough of these stories are about non-profits. If your non-profit isn’t acting with as much energy and guts as it takes to get funded in Silicon Valley or featured on Digg, then you’re failing in your duty to make change.”

      The fact is, we’re not selling things, we’re trying to raise awareness for causes, move people to action, open up doors into our organizations, and communicate with stakeholders, so not all of the stories about how we’re using social media make the attract the same level of self-aggrandizing blog coverage that unique business marketing might.

      Regardless, the numbers are pretty clear that in general non-profits are outpacing the for-profits Godin compares us to.

      Nonprofits are changemakers in our communities, but that’s not to say businesses and government don’t create change as well. However, the sector does have urgent needs and challenges and has always risen to meet them, and in the process done great things to improve the communities we live in. While that may be generalizing, it is not as inaccurate as claiming a sector is behind when it is in fact far ahead.

      Just like Seth wouldn’t have time to reply to comments (which bloggers are not obliged to do, he could at least let commenters interact with each other.. but that would mean “giving up total control and bureaucracy [or in this case message]. Which is scary because it leads to change.”) or tweet to his fullest potential, Twitter and Digg might not always be the best tools for the job when it comes to nonprofit marketing, fundraising, or advocacy strategy.

      It was a bit of a glass-houses type of rebuttal. Further, if Seth understands his own limits in time and resources, hopefully he understands that not every non-profit OR for-profit has the need and resources to compel action now. But again, at least nonprofits have proven more nurturing environments for that than business has.

      Like I mentioned before, I do like a good call to action and do believe that it is worth encouraging and enabling all sectors to utilize these powerful tools. I hope we continue to lead the way in social media adoption and believe there is surely more we can and should do to make that happen. My point is, his call to action was framed in a thoroughly inaccurate way that perpetuates inaccurate perceptions of the sector already least understood and recognized in our economy.

      Comment by kgilnack — September 17, 2009 @ 1:25 am

      • I’m still not convinced that he was comparing nonprofit to for profit. The quote you used says to me that he’s comparing to small business and entrepreneurs. I’m willing to bet a large amount that those companies are doing more in social media and coming up with new ideas than the nonprofit sector. That’s his plea – follow the lead of the up and coming, rather than the old and falling.

        Comment by Matt — September 17, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  5. Excellent, response based on evidence! My response is here — I repeat what I wrote about Godin in 2006, when he ranted about nonprofits not using Squidoo: http://bit.ly/19DFW

    @celestew on Twitter

    Comment by Celeste Wroblewski — September 17, 2009 @ 1:57 am

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful comment on my blog, and this is a great post. I LOVE how you point out that Seth doesn’t tweet or allow comments on his blog–both huge voiolations of what you’re “supposed to do” with regard to social media. I understand his reasoning for not doing it, but I agree that you can hardly base others’ failure to embrace social media using number of Twitter followers as a metric when you yourself aren’t even using it.

    I actually speak to this issue as someone whose full time role is social media & community specialist at an association–which, on the surface would seem to negate his argument because of course I’m a great example of a nonprofit embracing social media use, right? Sadly, though, I still think the answer is no. In my role I constantly hit the exact walls he talks about: fear, slowness to change, reluctance to innovate. Yes, we are using social media and that’s good, but the roadblocks I encounter on a daily basis are definitely a testament to what he’s saying. I feel good that I am at least in a position to change the stereotype, and not only show how we are using social media but reach out to other nonprofit and association people and help them overcome the obstacles that are holding them back from implementing their own social media initiatives.

    Comment by Maggie — September 18, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    • Thanks, Maggie, for following-up on my comment and sharing your thoughts here.

      I realize change is often resisted at many organizations, but I also think that across all sectors of our economy, your association is ahead for having a media & community specialist who is engaging social media.

      We still have a long way to go, and I hope you keep up your awesome work of instigating innovation and helping nonprofits and associations continue to lead when it comes to social media.

      I’d love to hear the tips you or anyone else has to share for overcoming the obstacles you describe.

      Comment by kgilnack — September 18, 2009 @ 11:14 am


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