The Middle East: Senior Research Fellow Papers

Social Change and the Connected Age

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 9, Issue 2, April 2007

By Allison H. Fine 1

The women of Kuwait successfully won the right to vote in 2005 by secretly using their personal digital assistants beneath their burqas to send e-mail messages to Kuwait’s all-male legislature. Last fall, Rock the Vote and Facebook teamed up to enable young people to register to vote through Facebook, the leading online social-networking site.

In myriad ways, by stealth or sunlight, people around the world are creatively using new digital media to connect with one another, influence their communities, and catalyze social-change efforts. The interactions that people have with one another through websites, cell phones, chat rooms, personal digital assistants, iPods, and other gadgets and gizmos have transformed society from the information age to the connected age.

These digital tools, called social media, are important not for their wizardry, but because they are inexpensive and easy to use and they allow individuals and small groups to bring about big changes. Connectedness does not come from technology but is facilitated and strengthened by it.

The greatest challenge for nonprofit organizations and their leaders in the connected age is recognizing that using social-media tools is easy compared with adopting a new mindset for social change.

Today, nonprofit groups are part of a larger network or ecosystem of people, organizations, resources, and information. Relying on old-fashioned, top-down management approaches for setting activist agendas and designing fund-raising and volunteering efforts will lead inevitably to disappointing results.

Power is shifting from institutions to individuals throughout society. We have seen what happens when people can barter and sell goods without a middleperson on eBay, and when we can watch what we want, when we want, through YouTube.

The same sorts of shifts are happening quietly in the nonprofit world. Anyone can create and post a video of what they think their congressional representatives do as part of the “Congress in :30 Secs” campaign organized by the Sunlight Foundation. Volunteers can document the connections between campaign contributions and legislation as part of the Genocide Intervention Network. Donors can pick a school and a specific project to support as part of the DonorsChoose website.

Successful connected-age organizations are those that facilitate broadly representative networks of social activists — not necessarily organizations with the biggest membership lists or the most money in their coffers. These days, young people in particular are not likely to join behemoth membership organizations. Instead, they go online to express their views and instantly connect with individuals and communities interested in their issues and concerns. They also self-organize for social action, as so many did in joining the immigration marches last spring.

The key ingredient in all these efforts is that they spread the workload — no single person or organization is doing everything — and all the participants are given meaningful things to do. And unlike traditional tools, social media costs almost nothing to use to geometrically increase the number of people who can connect to a cause or an organization. Activists themselves are charting the course for what they think needs to happen, and not passively waiting for institutions to lead the way.

Green Media Toolshed recently unveiled, a website where volunteers can spend as little as 15 minutes at a time helping to create and maintain a directory of journalists interested in environmental causes.

Volunteers contribute meaningfully on their own schedule, and the grass-roots environmental organizations using the directory have access to an updated resource that they never could have afforded on their own. Time is well spent, power is shared, money is saved, and the organization is accomplishing a key part of its mission.

Too often, nonprofit groups fall into a power trap, where our actions and our deeds suggest that donors who give the big money are more important than the social activists who do the work.

As a nonprofit leader myself, I fell into this trap. Pressure to demonstrate an immediate return to donors leads to a culture where what matters most is pleasing grant makers instead of focusing on how we can involve activists in meaningful and effective ways.

In a connected world, power is defined entirely differently. It comes directly from an organization’s supporters; the more numerous and more diffuse they are, the more power they generate. And these supporters, when they are invited to participate in all facets of an organization’s work in meaningful ways, can become a loyal network of donors as well.

Care2 is an online site that connects more than six million people, hundreds of environmentally friendly businesses, and more than 150 environmental organizations.

The Care2 website offers a wide variety of ways for its members to meet one another, learn more about issues, shop online at stores that provide donations to environmental causes, find environmental jobs — and donate money. As the website states, “We’re just here to facilitate and empower all of these amazing, diverse efforts. It’s incredible what individuals and organizations can accomplish when they have the right tools.”

Meaningful interactions like those on Care2 are what many Americans yearn for. As a result, nonprofit organizations need to examine the way that they are interacting with their volunteers, board members, clients, and donors to offer those kinds of experiences.

The incessant one-way push of broadcasting messages and fundraising that treats donors and board members like passive consumers of information and ATM machines is a vestige of last century’s information age. Connected activists strive to overcome the listening deficits that disable so many organizations.

Listening means connecting people to one another, to resources, and even to other organizations. It includes a willingness to change as a result of what is said. This can feel burdensome, but it is, in fact, the heart and soul of social-change work.

Activists need to have authentic two-way conversations with people interested in our work. The reality needs to match the perception that organizations truly want people to participate — not just robotically join their campaign or give a donation, but voice an opinion, ask a question, find a like-minded soul, and even do something heretical in activist circles of recent years: disagree.

Perhaps more than anything else, the key to success in this new era is a shift in control from a few leaders at the center out toward the many people at the edges who want to contribute meaningfully, but who are, for the most part, now locked out of the process.

When power is pushed out to the edges, more people are involved in developing strategy. They can tell people in their own social networks about issues and organizations and become powerful advocates and actors in their own right — if the organization is willing to share the reins.

It feels counterintuitive to suggest that decentralizing decision making will increase rather than decrease the power of nonprofit organizations.

But more progress is made more rapidly when organizations move to facilitating rather than controlling social-change efforts. We must learn to use our leverage more and lift less, to listen better and act smarter, to share and participate, not control and command. If nonprofit groups — with the help of social media — change their approach, they can create a vast power surge for social change. By not doing so, we risk becoming irrelevant and failing the people who count on us to make the world a better place.


1 Allison H. Fine,, is a senior fellow at Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action, a New York group. She is the author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age. This article is reprinted with permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.