Thursday, April 30, 2009

Social Networking for Nonprofits 101

In the past I've posted about the importance of social networks in youth development and explained what we do at Cabrini Connections in terms of bridging social capital. Today I want to discuss another very important aspect of social networks, how to utilize them to bring much needed resources to non-profits like Cabrini Connections. As I've said in previous posts, we all have social networks, whether we like it or not. We have people in our lives who care about us and what we do, as a result of the personal relationships we maintain, the groups we choose to affiliate ourselves with or merely by the virtue of us having met them in the past.

As someone who helps coordinate a volunteer-based non-profit, I am constantly working through my social networks to channel resources to our organization. In fact, I'm coming to understand that access to a large, resource-rich personal network is incredibly beneficial to non-profits like Cabrini Connections, whose business model depends on engaging individuals and encouraging them to support us with their time, talents and funds. Beyond the folks I know personally however, lies an even more vast, comparatively untapped network of resource-rich potential supporters. These are the people in my friends networks whom I don't know personally, but am connected to via this mutual friend. Social capital and networking theory state that due to the fact that we share a mutual friend, we are more subject to reciprocity norms that would lead us to support each other to a greater degree than we would if we weren't connected via a mutual friend. When utilized systematically and intentionally, these reciprocity norms can be utilized to the benefit of an organization to draw a variety of resources to them.
For example, I have been working with the Youth Leadership Council to determine a constructive capstone project for them to engage in that will build their leadership skills and self-esteem while also accomplishing an organizational objective of Cabrini Connections. After some discussion, the students decided that it would be good to film a short documentary about the long history of our program. Once that was decided, the next step was for me to find volunteers to assist the 6 students with completing their project.

Not knowing anybody in my immediate network who would have either the time or the skills to volunteer for this task, I thought about the people in my network who might know someone who would be willing to take on this project. So, I ended up reaching out to a woman, Rebecca Parrish, whom I met at the Cabrini Connections Art and Film Festival through her prior involvement with youth filmmakers. Therefore I asked her if anyone in her network might be interested in such a project. She immediately connected me with her friend Matt, who based on nothing except our mutual relationship with Rebecca, trusted me enough to volunteer his skills, time and eqipment to help our youth leadership council film this documentary in time to premiere it at the June 4th Year end Dinner. Check out the above graphic to see a visual representation of how this process played out.

Stories like this unfold every day at Cabrini Connections and effective organizations around the globe as we intentionally utilize our social networks to pull necessary resources towards our non-profits and the causes that we care so passionately about. That's why we try to turn everyone involved with our program, from our interns to our mentors, volunteers and students, into evangelists for our organization. The book "Forces for Good: The 6 Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits" argues that successful organizations "create ways for many people to engage with their organization...and convert them into evangelists who will spread the word among their social networks." Moreover, they argue that the very best non-profits "are particularly strategic about indentifying, converting and cultivating powerful individuals, or super-evangelists." They argue, as we do, that over time this process of identifying and intentionally engaging an ever growing community of potential supporters through social network analysis "can create a powerful community of individual supporters that is ever expanding."

Luckily, social networking tools such as facebook and LinkedIn make identifying and engaging these individuals as easy as typing their names into a search bar or perusing lists of individuals aligned with a given cause and finding mutual friends who can serve as a bridge to connect you. Therefore we encourage everyone interested in helping to pull at-risk youth off the streets and into college and careers to think critically about not only how they can support tutor/mentor programs addressing these issues, but how the people in their networks can help as well using their unique talents and resources.

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