What Should NonprofitsThink About in 2012?

Although there are glimmers of hope that things will soon “get back to normal,” my thoughts on what nonprofits should watch for in 2012 are based on the premise that no matter how much we wish it to be so, there isn’t any returning to a pre-recession world. The landscape of the sector is changing – has changed already – due to both crisis and innovation. Unfortunately, the bleak funding outlook has muted any excitement over the adoption of technologies that have resulted in more and better data visualization and engagement across sector boundaries.

These times call for nonprofits to stay true to their mission but to let go of the past, and face 2012 eager, nimble and fearless.

 

Showcasing Your Data

Look for the once cutting-edge trend of infographics to become even more widespread, if not the unofficial standard, in nonprofit marketing and reporting materials, while large, data-rich organizations make use of web-based interactive viewers to share information with stakeholders.

Annual reports will be stripped down and simplified, (hopefully) resulting in lower costs while allowing for a far more striking presentation of data. That said, simplified doesn’t mean simple, as telling a story via numbers, headings and brightly hued graphics may present more of a challenge than the emotive narratives we are so used to cranking out. Save those stories, including videos, to feature on your webpage and YouTube channel, and as content for e-newsletters.

 

The Social Media Mini-Backlash

I have heard the murmurs among nonprofit professionals that social media isn’t working as promised, or is (still) too nebulous to play a noticeable role in an organization’s strategy. It is a criticism that is due – it is even happening in the for-profit sector. After a few years of listening to experts extol the benefits of social media for nonprofits, executives want to see impact via the bottom line, not the weekly number of followers, likes or re-tweets. So, cue the new meme: perhaps nonprofits shouldn’t put SO many of their eggs in the social media basket and instead concentrate on tried and true traditional methods of communications and fundraising.

Well, before you cancel your Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Constant Contact accounts and run to the mimeograph machine…

Social media utilization is, no must be, part of the organizational culture, modeled from the top down and integrated across departments/sites/states/etc. Take a pause in early 2012 to revisit your strategy and social media’s place in it. Work in small feedback loops so that you have the ability to experiment with the technology and messaging methods to find what works best for you, but do not, please do not let your accounts go silent.

There is not going to be a hot new trend that people will abandon it for, social media will change and diversify, but it will not go away.  Frankly, it should be utilized more and in tandem with email and other communications, marketing and fundraising tools.

 

Shifting Structures

Fiscal constraints may have finally done what years of cautionary tales of nonprofits inadvertently drifting into the silo mentality could not: the merging of departments, and likewise, goals, strategies and priorities. Since they were already changing the organizational charts, some also tweaked their traditional hierarchies to those with more horizontal communication.

The move toward the non-hierarchical models will continue, particularly in new nonprofits. In preparing this post, I was surprised to find that many service and advocacy organizations highlight their non-traditional organizational structures in copy and hiring pitches. This slow but steady shift is a major managerial trend to watch over the next decade. Will established agencies, leaders and board members accept a team-based linear model featuring open dialogue, collaborative efforts, and transparency?

In 2012 we may also see social media have a larger internal presence in nonprofits (especially large, multi-site organizations) as a way for leadership, staff and volunteers to share information, collaborate on ideas and work as communities or teams connected to the larger hub.  The possibilities of such a concept are laid out by Shawn Graham in his piece Using Social Media To Improve Employee Communication, Collaboration, And Even Compensation (at the Fast Company Blog) about Shopify’s UNICORN, their on-site social network.

 

Everything Evidence-Based 

Funder demand for anything deemed evidence-based continues to grow, although the misuse of that term and its direct linkage to program funds have caused it to be viewed with suspicion by some in the sector. With nonprofits already cutting budgets, future government funding in jeopardy, and the need for services on the rise, expect accountability to center on realistic expectations of what can and should be collected, analyzed and reported in a timely manner.

Foundations will continue to the lead the way in improving evaluation capacity in nonprofits, encouraging it to become part of the culture rather than handled by one department or only utilized for grant-funded projects. Luckily, this role also provides them with the opportunity to  learn of any misapplication of evidence-based programs – those used in an environment and/or with a target population divergent from that which was intended, or watered down to make service implementation quicker and cheaper. Service agencies and foundations have a responsibility to the community and the  sector to guard against this practice.

 

Sector Overlap and A(nother?) Leadership Gap

Nonprofits will find increased competition for the next generation of passionate, service-focused  leaders as the popularity of corporate social responsibility programs and non-government organizations (NGOs), and opportunities for social entrepreneurs continue to grow. We have only scratched the surface in exploring potential collaboration and funding patterns, and future downturns or austerity measures will keep this topic at the forefront of planning discussions. While young talent may have gotten their feet wet in the traditional nonprofit sector through volunteering, internships or entry-level positions, the sectors are blending, and it is no longer the only way to work for social change.

The 2011 Daring to Lead study reported that 58 percent of nonprofit executives felt depleted by interactions with government funders. Would it really be a surprise, then, if up-and-coming nonprofit stars choose against the continuous struggle for government funding and opted for a leadership role at privately backed or hybrid programs?

One last note on what to watch in 2012: keep an eye on the Occupy movement. If their applications for nonprofit status are approved, they become part of the sector, a peer, and potential collaborator or competitor for donor attention and other resources

Social Media Strategies from the Occupy Movement

Regardless of your opinion of its purpose or participants, there are some lessons to be taken from the grassroots, decentralized, “leaderless” Occupy moment’s messaging and outreach tactics. Social media played an enormous role not only in connecting the various Occupy camps that popped up in cities across the nation but in bringing them to the attention of the media and eventually the general public.

Below is an interview from October with a social media star (@grimwomyn) in the Occupy movement (from the fundraisinginfo Youtube channel) that is worth a listen, especially if you are with a fledgling nonprofit looking at how to best leverage a small staff and an even smaller budget to engage with your audience. This is a fascinating case study of sorts that nonprofits should be paying attention to.

A point that has stayed with me since I watched the video a week or so ago was one @grimwomyn made about measurement on the fly. While they were not collecting social media metrics at the time, Occupy was paying attention to what was “out there” because, “Ultimately, the way anything online is happening now – you’re only as good as the people who are talking about you and what they are saying.” Which leads me to wonder: how many nonprofits report all sorts of social media metrics to leadership each quarter but couldn’t tell you what was being said about them online just this week?

The Occupy Movement, Nonprofits and the “Solution”

The video below is a collection of responses from Occupy New York attendees to the question: Are nonprofits part of the solution? Now, I am not exactly sure what solution is being referred to, but I’d hanker a guess that the concept is as varied among the interviewees as their comments.

I have been pondering the similarities and distinctions between nonprofits and the Occupy movement for a few weeks. I hope to write more about it (specific to Pittsburgh) in the future, but for now, what do you think? Are nonprofit organizations part of “the solution?”
How much do service and advocacy nonprofits and the Occupy movement have in common?
What can one learn from the other?