Nonprofits risk missing out on several opportunities when they entertain the mindset that social media belongs to the marketing department. This is especially true for museums. For one, audience-inspiring stories often stem from inside operations, such as conservation, horticulture, and life sciences departments, not to mention anecdotes and lessons from floor staff, interpreters, docents and ongoing programs. The opportunity that social technology affords museums in spreading their mission of educating visitors cannot be ignored. Social technology helps educational initiatives transcend museum walls, and even the most common social media sites offer opportunities to engage different types of learners.
But the issue extends beyond the notion that social media helps nonprofits and museums better fulfill their missions. Social technology can (and soon enough, in everyday life, will be) used to make nonprofits stronger organizations overall. In preparation for their 2007 book, Forces for Good, Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant examined twelve of the nation’s most impactful and successful nonprofit organizations. They pieced their findings together and outlined six practices of high-impact nonprofits: inspire evangelists, nurture nonprofit networks, share leadership, advocate and serve, make markets work, and master the art of adaptation. Today, social technology plays a leading role in helping organizations to meet more than half of the critical six practices of high-impact nonprofits. And chances are, social media will continue to evolve so that we can even better utilize social media to take on these critical functions.
1. Inspiring Evangelists. Successful organizations turn outsiders into insiders in order to help spread a message. Evangelists often have a personal connection to an organization’s cause and they cultivate their own networks to support the cause. This effort helps build the organization’s overall community. Successful organizations open the door to outsiders and seek to communicate with them and creating meaningful experiences. Because being social is at the heart of social media, sites help to efficiently create conversation and cultivate evangelists. In the world of social media, we call these evangelist outsiders free agents. It’s no wonder we’ve developed have our own term for online evangelists in the last four years; the Internet makes it easier than ever to connect with causes- and to connect with people who support your causes.
2. Nurturing Nonprofit Networks. According to Crutchfield and Grant’s research, successful charities recognize that strengthening their organization involves also strengthening the sector and sharing information. The notion that a good nonprofit tries to put itself out of business is at least conceptually true. A step forward in innovative educational outreach for one museum is a step forward for the power of informal learning for everyone. Social media makes it easier to grow the pie and share knowledge. Several significant online resources are free to everyone. If one museum has developed a new exhibit that has been shown to have educational value, it’s easy for museum professionals to share the information. In fact, the blogosphere is great for information-share and overall sector-strengthening. Information sharing not only strengthens museums overall, but it helps to develop individual leadership. And we need strong and knowledgeable leadership for this evolving industry. As a related side, here are some of my favorite, basic resources for individual museum professional development.
3. Mastering the Art of Adaptation. Social media not only facilitates the development of this organizational skill (adaptation), but having good social media requires it. Forces for Good shares a cycle for adapting to change: listen, experiment and innovate, evaluate and learn, modify. This is the exact approach that is advocated (yes, for lean start-ups, but similarly) for developing social media strategies. In order to be effective on social media, folks representing museums and other nonprofit organizations must listen, try new things, and take note of how audiences respond to those initiatives. Moreover, mastering adaptation involves balancing bureaucracy and creativity. As museums embrace social media, they find themselves both hungry for online engagement but also apprehensive of it. Radical trust is an issue for museums. Taking on social media mimics the organizational process of adopting change, mostly because adapting to social media is a big change for many institutions. The cycle never ends. In order to be taking full advantage of social media, organizations must be constantly listening, testing, and fixing. They must be constantly adapting.
Nonprofits are moving forward in utilizing social to aid in the final three practices of high-impact nonprofits as well.
- Advocating and serving. Crutchfield and Grant found that high-impact nonprofits both provide their own services and advocate for policy reform. It’s no surprise that social media is a good tool for building awareness and spreading a message. In fact, Planned Parenthood is a good example of an organization tapping into networks to support policy advocacy.
- Sharing Leadership. “Great nonprofit leaders share power,” Crunchfield and Grant write. Social media can help share information in order to educate professionals and cultivate leaders. It prepares professionals for the sharing of leadership, and empowers them to create their own professional voice through their personal brands.
- Making Markets Work. Social media can help nonprofit and for-profit partners connect to create collaborations that financially aid nonprofits and lend a reputation for promoting social good to for-profits. One way that museums leverage the market is by selling admission. In this case, social media really does work as a true marketing force, and online tools and mobile applications can help visitors purchase admission remotely.
Social media is a key resource for museums that want to develop nonprofit management techniques to help raise their organization above the rest. However, this will not be the case for long. Before we know it, those organizations that have not tapped into online networks to strengthen their museum will be far behind. Using social media to actively and consciously cultivate sustainability and long-term impact will be commonplace. At some point we may find that online engagement through social technology is not just a smart business move, but a matter of long-term nonprofit survival.