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The Social Sector Needs a Social Infrastructure

ID-100178342(2)Bathing in social media, we might just be tempted to think we know it. There are a lot of folks out there doing amazing things with it, but the fact is, the curve is still steep. We’re learning a lot, every day. Further, the numbers and the noise lessen considerably as you try to find end-to-end case studies with conversion metrics, longitudinal analysis, and replicable methods. They’re out there, but guarded closely and priced at a respectable premium for any organization wishing to make it work all the way down to the last mile. On this backdrop of evolving use of social media, Craig Arteaga-Johnson makes a case for advancing our social media skill toward deeper connections that lead to giving relationships.

As we talk about creating a new information infrastructure for the social sector, it’s worth considering that the last decade has seen the creation of an exceptionally advanced information infrastructure that many of our organizations are, to a meaningful extent, under-utilizing. This infrastructure is the ecosystem of social media platforms that have revolutionized communication and participation across many societal sectors. Facebook, Twitter, the Google-verse and other platforms are already connecting our stakeholders in many of the ways envisioned by Markets For Good’s strategic vision. Or they could be, if we utilized them fully.

It’s not that we’re ignoring these platforms completely: most of our organizations are using social media to pump out information about our next event or share a recent news article. We may even be using social media to elicit feedback or have periodic conversations with our audience. But are we using these platforms to their full potential for connecting people and information across all of our stakeholder groups, for providing extreme transparency about our work and its impact, or for involving our donors and beneficiaries as full-fledged collaborators?

Here are a few examples of what that might look like within my field of higher education:

  • Donors following faculty and students on Twitter in order to learn directly about the impact of their support.
  • Board and faculty minutes being posted online and opened for comments—or meetings being streamed with viewers able to post questions.
  • Strategic visioning documents being crowd-sourced via Google docs, with contributions from across the university or college community.
  • Alumni on Facebook being asked to suggest course readings or other resources.
  • Crowdfunding platforms providing donors with high levels of choice and transparency while also enabling interactions between donors and students.

You might not see the social media ecosystem as the type of information infrastructure intended by Markets For Good. It certainly isn’t what we’re used to since much of the data it produces defies analysis due to its highly personal nature. From my perspective as a fundraiser, however, this is exactly why it has so much promise. The social sector needs an infrastructure that is more than a way to exchange information, we need an infrastructure that enables relationships. Social media platforms fit the bill. They are not about big data, they are about tiny data—the bits of specific information that create personal connection and therefore matter most: nicknames, favorite authors, cherished causes, habits, hometowns. The most effective engagement (and fundraising) evolves out of holistic, human relationships and by capturing and leveraging tiny data, social media platforms may be the most important data tools we have.

To make full use of social media, we’ll need to do some things differently. We’ll have to come to terms with working on platforms that we neither own nor control. This will involve working out the extent to which we integrate our proprietary data and systems into social media platforms in order to track relationships or analyze data. Or we may decide to abandon proprietary systems altogether, realizing, for example, that LinkedIn will always have better employment data than we will. We’ll also need to populate our organizations more and more with people who can skillfully operate within “social” culture, which is characterized by extreme transparency, a fast pace, a premium on authenticity and an absence of hierarchy. Individuals not comfortable in this environment will be of less and less use as organizations seek to engage their community members proactively and personally.

As we envision an information infrastructure for the social sector, we will do well to remember that data is most valuable when it is used to build relationships. Let’s make sure our information infrastructure is also a relationship infrastructure that enables the social sector to be truly social.

[h/t to Daniel Stid, who posted in May (If We Build It, Will They Come?) about the potential limits of information infrastructures. His writing started me down the path to this post.]


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Prior to returning to Pomona, where he graduated with a major in Studio Art, Craig directed exhibition and performance programs at an arts non-profit on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. Later this month, he will be presenting at the S.T.A.F.F. Conference on “Open Advancement: Preparing for Our Social Future.”