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Recently, I tweeted that one tweet from a nonprofit's CEO was worth more than many tweets by its staff, borrowing a line from trite saying, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” This prompted a debate with several colleagues, including two nonprofit CEOs. I immediately took it into a branch conversation (a terrific online tool for those of us who need more than 140 characters to discuss something).

What we ended up agreeing on is that, yes, having a nonprofit CEO use social media shows that social media participation is important to the organization from the inside/out; but it is equally important to have all staff involved. This is not an "either/or" argument, but more of a “both/and.” But the main point is, it's not just about using the tools or getting your nonprofit’s CEO to send out some tweets -- it's about a total redesign of your organization. And it all starts with leaders leading with a network mindset.

Understanding the Network Mindset

So what exactly is a network mindset? It's a new style of leadership that works through active participation, openness, decentralized decision-making, and collective action. It requires that nonprofit leaders have an awareness of the organization’s networks and are listening to and cultivating these networks in order to achieve impact. It means sharing by default and communicating through a network model, rather than a broadcast model -- finding where the conversations are happening, and taking part. It also means using analytics to measure success, and being data-driven to continuously improve.

But it isn’t always quick and easy to do, as CEO of San Francisco Goodwill Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez shared in a recent presentation about becoming a networked nonprofit. Getting comfortable with social media and giving people a closer look at themselves is the first step for leaders to make the leap into adopting a network mindset. But as Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez and other nonprofit leaders have discovered, social media isn’t just an engagement platform; it also requires that organizations redesign how they work. Having a multi-channel marketing strategy and competence and comfort using social and mobile tools is important, but organizations also need to incorporate networked practices, requiring leaders to leverage both their professional and organizational networks.

But success can happen for nonprofits if they take small, incremental, and strategic steps. In my forthcoming book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, co-authored with KD Paine, we introduce a framework called “Crawl, Walk, Run, Fly” to help nonprofits figure out what incremental steps they need to take to get to the next level of networked nonprofit practice. It's designed to help them understand and measure the nature of the change process as they move through it. The model below indicates areas where organizations should focus time and learning to move to the next stage.

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The Crawl Stage

Crawlers are not using social media consistently or incorporating measurement processes; they also lack a robust communications strategy. Crawlers can be small or large nonprofits that have all the basics in place, but they either lack a social culture or resist transforming from a command-and-control style to a more networked mindset. These nonprofits need to develop a strategy. Even with a communications strategy in place, some organizations may face challenges to adopting a networked way of working. If so, they should start with a discussion of the organizational issues, followed by codifying the rules in a social media policy. They should also anticipate learning and benefiting from inspiring stories from peers.

The Walk Stage

Nonprofits in this stage are using several social media channels consistently, but may not be strategic or fully embracing best practices -- maybe they don’t engage with users, or they only share content and messaging produced by their own organization. These nonprofits need to create a social media strategy to support short- and long-term objectives, such as policy change or increasing public engagement on an issue. Walkers internalize listening, and use the data they collect to improve engagement and some content best practices.

These organizations implement small, low-risk projects that collect stories, learning, and metrics to help leadership better understand the value, benefits, and costs. Walkers should focus on one or two social media tools, going deep into tactics and generating tangible results and lessons. They must identify low-cost ways to build capacity internally, such as integrating social media responsibilities into existing staff jobs. Capacity is built with support from leadership and a social media policy formalizes the value and vision.

The Run Stage

Runners use more than two social media channels as part of an integrated strategy, identifying key result areas and metrics that drive everything they do. They have a formal ladder of engagement that illustrates how supporters move from just hearing about your organization to actively engaging, volunteering, or donating to your organization. This is used to guide strategy and measurement. They visualize their networks and measure relationships. These organizations practice basic measurement religiously and use data to make decisions about social media best practices.

In these organizations, a single department does not guard social media, and staff are comfortable working transparently and with people outside the organization. The board is also using social media as part of its governance role.

To build internal capacity, runners invest in a community manager whose job it is to build relationships with people in social media or on emerging platforms. These organizations know how to create great content, and use an editorial calendar to coordinate and curate content across channels. They are routinely tracking the performance of their content strategy, and they make adjustments based on measurement.

The Fly Stage

These organizations have institutionalized everything in the running stage. Flyers embrace failure and success alike, and learn from both. Flyers are part of a vibrant network of people and organizations all focused on social change. They use sophisticated measurement techniques, tools, and processes.

Do you lead your nonprofit with a network mindset? Where is your organization in the shift to becoming a networked nonprofit? What do you need to get to the next level?

This is a guest contribution by Beth Kanter. Named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and one of the BusinessWeek’s “Voices of Innovation for Social Media,” Beth Kanter is the co-author of Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, and writes Beth’s Blog.

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Originally published Oct 15, 2012 2:00:00 PM, updated July 28 2017