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This article was originally published at Nonprofit Online News, in preparation for the Visionary Budget Cutting workshop. Discussions ensued on several mailing lists and more than one person suggested that I reprint it some place where comments could be made.

We are in hard times and they are going to get harder. We can and should ask why, hold those responsible to account, and act with justice and compassion on behalf of those who will suffer as a result of the horrific larceny of the Bush Administration and its private sector sponsors. But this article is not about that. This article is about how we should respond inside our organizations, where we should cut back, and where we should invest.

We can find guidance in what people have always done in hard times. We turn to each other. Despite the massive erosion of community perpetrated by twentieth century media, insane land use patterns, and pernicious labor market structures, the natural human instinct to bond is still there. We are sitting on top of social assets that we often ignore in the good times. We can no longer afford to do that. We must turn our attention, our resources, and our strategies to social capital. We must uncover the social capital we have, we must use it and nurture it, and we must grow more of it.

In order to do these things, we must embrace appropriate technology like never before. (Please note that I use the word “technology” here in the broadest possible sense, including both old technologies that are not managed by IT departments and newer technologies that might be.) This involves four steps:

  1. Ruthlessly drop any technology that erodes social capital.
  2. Reduce investment in any technology that fails to build social capital.
  3. Immediately invest in technology that allows you to identify and nurture existing social capital.
  4. Strategically invest in technology that helps you build social capital.
     

But first, what is social capital?

Social capital has many definitions, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. There is disagreement on whether the term “capital” should even be used, because of the ways in which it cannot be traded. I subscribe to the notion that using a term from economics is useful precisely because it subverts the traditional notions of capital, in much the same manner as other relational capital – such as ecological capital or human capital. For our purposes, it’s enough to say that social capital is the productive value inherent in human relationships.

Social capital is academic shorthand for the relationships that we ourselves turn to when times are hard. Some of these relationships are formal, such as marriages (or, in fact, most civil society organizations), others are informal, such as friendships. Often we have both formal and informal relationships with the same people. They range from the obvious to the invisible. Some are direct relationships that we have with others, but most are relationships between others, that create and nurture the capacity to which we can turn.

“Social capital” is not a sentimental term. But social capital is what Robert Frost was talking about when he said, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And at the end of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, social capital is what saves George from ruin. (It’s what George spends the bulk of the movie investing in.) Social capital – who you know, what they think of you – is what turns a closet genius into a successful genius. Social capital can explain persistent racial poverty gaps. Social capital got Barack Obama elected President of the United States.

Social capital must be the strategic mantra of our organizations. There is no better guide in the coming years than discovering, preserving, nurturing, and creating social capital. When we come out the other side of these times, the organizations that don’t make it will be the ones who neglect their social capital. The organizations that embrace its call most fully will be well positioned for a generation to come.

Information and communication technology is the operational infrastructure of our organizations. It reflects and reinforces our leadership, culture, skills, knowledge, practices, and, above all, our relationships.

Step 1. Ruthlessly drop any technology that erodes social capital.

Civil society organizations may be better at measuring and managing the intangible than most, but that isn’t saying much. Most of us have spent our time blindly following mass marketing metrics, and during the last hundred years we seem to have had little choice, since the media available to us lend themselves to such metrics. Now we need to accept the fact that those media, or rather the management processes we have created around them, are getting in the way of the human relationships we need.

This isn’t a blanket indictment of old media, which is occasionally the appropriate media. This is instead a call to look at each and every medium we use and make a single cold judgment call: Is this medium, as currently constructed, getting in the way of people making genuine connections?

How will you know? We have a lot of work to do, as a sector and as individual organizations, to develop new metrics. In the meantime here are a few tips to help you identify problem areas: Are you policing content? (That’s a double whammy – investing substantial resources in order to prevent certain kinds of communication.) Are you introducing friction into communication in any form? Is it difficult for recipients to respond in kind or to forward your content? Are you overly protective of your brand, extending your standards and concerns into areas that could just be person to person communication? Are your production costs high in part because your marginal cost of sending is also so high? Are there communication initiatives, small or large, that are quashed by your choice of media and your management of it?

No doubt there are upsides to many of these media. But very few of those upsides are worth the social clear-cutting that they cause. Furthermore, in almost every case, there is a cheaper new media alternative that doesn’t undermine the most important resource we have.

Step 2. Reduce investment in any technology that fails to build social capital.

As you do the hard nosed inventory of step one, you will discover many borderline cases. Sometimes, because of their tangibility, they can reach people – both physically and emotionally – in ways that new media cannot. But we have to make certain that we are truly making an evaluation based on the effect on social capital. All too often, dropping an old medium is difficult for the wrong reasons: We’re attached to it. It gives us a sense of identity and boosts our confidence. The board likes it. We can’t see the alternatives clearly. And most of all, we’ve lost track of our main evaluation criterion of how the medium affects social capital and we start conflating that with other issues.

But even if we’re clear in our resolve to build social capital, there are still plenty of cases where the social capital outcomes are mixed. This is where we must develop the ability to live with both old media and new. We have to systematically reduce our old media investments while substituting new media in their place. We reduce investment in two ways:

  1. Media substitution: Using the old medium, we invite people to opt in to receiving the corresponding new media version of the communication. Online newsletters, organizational blogs, and email appeals take the place of their old media counterparts for successive waves of stakeholders, carefully testing results along the way, until the old media are in a healthy, high-impact mix with the new. This results in savings based on the number of stakeholders converted to new media, the proportion of particular communications that are converted (for example, you might convert to an email newsletter, but leave thank you notes as actual postcards), and the marginal costs of these communications.
  2. Content substitution: First, building on the ease with which we can discover and encourage powerful content from a far wider number of people than before, we lower our costs by substituting successively larger amounts of content from outside our usual production channel. Secondly, we identify those stages and components of our traditional content by which we as an organization add the most unique value. Then we make those components available to a growing pool of people to turn into content suitable for end use. Third, we break our existing content down into microcontent, which is something that we have to do anyway in order to repurpose it in new media. Then we rigorously test that content and start culling. Pursuing any or all of these tactics, we save money by reducing our production costs.

Step 3. Immediately invest in technology that allows you to identify and nurture existing social capital.

We have to know the lay of the land before we try to build something on it. Yes, this is an obvious principle. But for reasons that are best explored elsewhere, it is also widely ignored. It may very well be the single most important investment you make in the pursuit of new media and appropriate technology for hard times. Indeed, it is the key to discovering what technology is, in fact, appropriate.

New media have made social capital visible. Obviously, they are not the only means by which people relate and thus build social capital, but they are the easiest media for discovering the social assets you have access to as an organization. The goal is to eventually track social capital as well as you currently track financial capital and the critical investment required of you in these times is in the technology and skills to do so.

Work from the inside out. Follow your stakeholders to the social capital. By using aggregators, channel convertors, social network mapping, and other tools, along with a set of new habits and practices, you will build capacity across the organization for tracking the communication that expresses the relationship networks in which your organization must survive and operate.

Listening is only one step removed from nurturing. Although there are many ways to build social capital, the starting point for doing so is closely tied to the process of discovering and tracking. If the latter can be thought of as a form of passive listening, then the first steps in nurturing can be thought of as a form of active listening.

Active listening as a form of nurturing social capital comes down to reflecting three things back to the originator of a communication: (1) attention – that we’ve dedicated time to it, (2) apprehension – that we’ve understood it, and (3) appreciation – that we think it’s valuable. We use a mix of new and old media, with the latter occasionally being used as a means of signifying greater importance. Sometimes we communicate as individuals, sometimes on behalf of the organization, and sometimes we organize communication from others. We benefit from the frequently enormous leverage that even informal recognition from an organization can have.

The major technological elements of active listening are (1) incorporating a wide range of media into our active listening workflow, including blog comments, email, our newsletter, our website, other blogs, and more, and (2) tracking content, authors, audiences, relationships, and communication history.

Step 4. Strategically invest in technology that helps you build social capital.

You might be tempted to start here, but the first three steps are essential building blocks. Media investments that fail to build – or actually erode – social capital can undermine positive efforts in many ways. They tie up scarce resources. They send conflicting messages to stakeholders. They shape your culture and management processes. They make it much harder to proceed.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of specific tactics that could be lumped together into one tip list after another and then mislabeled as “strategy”. Describing them is beyond the scope of this article, but if you take step 3 seriously and invest in both passive and active listening to your communities then you will have most of the information and inspiration you need to proceed strategically.

I’ve written other material that will also help make this investment pay off. For example, the high-level ideas described in “A Triumph of Trust: Five Principles of Nonprofit Social Media Strategy” include: track everything, follow the energy, be a useful resource, make it easy for stakeholders to communicate, tell the truth, and earn trust. In “Playing it Safe is a Trap“, I issue a warning about five things that can go wrong: “best practices”, wrong metrics, focusing on self-promotion, cautious language, and seeking control.

Quite possibly the most important action you can take to help shape you strategic investments in social capital is in developing new metrics. Again, you will have laid the groundwork for this in step 3. Measuring social capital in the age of new media is about knowing the voices of your communities and the connections between them, not just the size of your own lists.

A lot of money can be saved through new media. In these times, that alone is worth serious consideration. But our need is far greater than that. Just as we’ve always done in hard times, we must turn toward each other. People are hungry for the precious resource of human connection and ready for bold decisions. Are you?

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Several years ago, I was invited to a little gathering at the well-regarded Hollyhock retreat center on Cortes Island in British Columbia. Unfortunately, I had to cancel not long before the event. Despite several close calls since then, I have yet to get to Hollyhock for any sort of event at all. This year, it looks like I’ll actually make it – for Web of Change 2007.

Even more than most conferences, this one is billed as being about networking and relationship building (on top of the very obvious renewal that can be found at a lovely place like Hollyhock). And while I don’t think I’m actually listed myself, I do look forward to meeting the people who are scheduled to attend.

I’m scheduled to lead a session on what looks like a very rich agenda. It will be on a topic that will be familiar to many of my readers:

Asking the Right Questions: Methods for Breaking the Technical Frame of Reference in Strategic Technology Planning

Many observers will agree that common complaints about technology projects — resistance to change, long sales cycles, inappropriate technology, unexpected costs, unused tools — are often the inevitable result of technocentric planning. The only way to unravel this problem is to go to the source and challenge the questions we ask – our actual planning methods, not just our intent. This session will include a short presentation of the core concepts of an alternative frame, followed by a group discussion exploring specific tactics that have worked and which help flesh out the alternative model.

I’m pleased by the highly interactive format of this conference because unlike the usual call for “interactivity” in conference agendas, this one has the potential to actually leverage the expertise of the participants to advance the ideas that I want to explore. I’m always on the lookout for peers.

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At the The Guru’s Handbook, Asher Bey writes:

Determine to study botany, and you will discover entomology plays an important part in botany. Determine then to study entomology and you will discover that insects and the soil of the land are intimately related. Such is the tapestry – the ecology – that is the study of the world: everything is connected.And so, how can you study one thing, knowing that any deep investigation of the matter will touch on other subjects that are just as deep, require just as much study, and that those will touch on others and so on?If you lucky and you are a good teacher, one day one of your best students will, in one form or another, ask you this question. Why, they will ask, should they study so hard, if there is always more left unrevealed, if there is simply too much to know, if nothing can be truly understood by itself?This is a fine moment: your student has realized how deep and connected is their world.How will you answer?

Asher’s writing is very dangerous for me. The Guru’s Handbook indulges my already far too philosphical tendencies, my affinity for abstractions. But because With (this blog) is devoted to exploring the topic of connection, I think I should essay a response.I’m going to conflate Asher’s questions as follows: Why learn anything if – because everything is connected – you’ll never really be done? (This isn’t an entirely complete translation, but I’ll address those nuances below.) I offer these answers:First, why do you care about being done? Do you believe that there is such a thing as “complete” understanding? Completeness is a judgment that’s made by teachers, learners, communities of practice, and institutions. Each has their own ideas about what lines in the sands of knowledge are useful to them and there’s plenty of room for disagreement. Those judgments are part of what makes up a paradigm in a field. As people reach the edges of the lines in the sand, some of them turn back, and take advantage of the notion that they are “done” (at least done enough) and others keep going. Those people either transition to new fields, or – because it is useful to them somehow – they spend increasing amounts of time in the areas outside the lines. If enough people do this, we arrive at the kind of large scale reshuffling of turf that comes with a paradigm shift.Second, why not see this neverending quest as a good thing? The fact that you are never really done can be seen instead as the great delight of the pursuit of knowledge. There is always another mystery, always another enlightenment, always another thread to pursue, always another unravelling. As I think Asher and others often teach, the greatest joy is in learning, not in learnedness.Third, not everything is connected in equal degree. If you look at some of the network graphs that are popular these days, you may see a path from any single node to any other node, but the paths are not all of equal length. You may see that everything is connected to something else, but some things are more densely connected than others. Paths of connection loop back upon themselves, the way dictionary definitions do. All of which allows you to see clusters in all this connectedness. A cluster that has been given a name becomes a field of study.Fourth, you’re done when you say you’re done. All of these considerations create a kind of provisional nature to any field of study, any topic of interest. This provisional nature means that we each get to decide when we’re done and in so doing, tell the story of our own learning, in our own terms. To tell that story ourselves, rather than to hope for and then accept a sanctioned one, is to be authentic. This makes the vast interconnectedness of things a fundamental blessing.I’ve saved the fifth, most radical answer, for last. It may not be quite right to say that everything is connected; rather it is useful to say that everything is connections. Tim Berners-Lee draws on the dictionary example that I cited, when he describes the role of his insights about connection in the origin of the World Wide Web:

In an extreme view, the world can be seen as only connections. We think of a dictionary as the repository of meaning, but it defines words only in terms of other words. I liked the idea that a piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related…. What matters is in the connections.

This brings us full circle to the ironic title of this piece. Frustration with the interconnectedness of things missed the point. It’s not that it’s hard to engage in making sense when everything is connected; it’s because everything is connected that anything makes sense at all.

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I want to share a few thoughts about working and living together.

Many of us have devoted our professional lives to the challenges of people working together to make a difference in the world. If we want to use the Latin word, we can call that the practice of collaboration (to co-labor). Ultimately, collaboration is part of the practice of conviviality – the simple act of living together.

It is difficult to address the matter of work in a holistic fashion, because we have created a cultural divide between work and “life”. What kind of sense does that make? When people use the word “life” this way, they really mean just anything that doesn’t remind them of work, because mostly they don’t like what they think of as work. I see this as a form of denial. We are trying desperately to compartmentalize and cut off a part of our life that we often hate and over which we see ourselves as having no control. This just makes things worse.

Preaching “work/life balance” doesn’t help either. That reinforces the denial and further disempowers us.

What is needed is a reintegration of work into our lives. Yes, this will require different models of work, just as it will require different models of life in general. But it will bring us back to our senses and reconnect us with each other. Chopping vegetables with a partner in the kitchen, while you’re all preparing a meal for your family and neighbors – that is work. That is also life. Together.

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Although the Council on Foundations has regularly invited me to cover their annual conference for Nonprofit Online News, 2007 was the first year that they opened themselves up to self-identified bloggers, podcasters, and online colleagial journalism in general. I responded to this invitation by taking my usual resource oriented approach at Nonprofit Online News and exploring a wider range of analysis and opinion on this blog.

I am wrapping up my own coverage of the conference with a survey of some of the more interesting commentary from those sources. Although I enjoy reading what other observers are saying about a professional gathering when I’m in the midst of it all, I prefer to avoid the echo chamber, take a deep breath, and get some perspective on the range of opinions in the days that follow the event.

As best as I can determine, the total number of posts about the conference come to less than forty. But for a non-technical conference inviting bloggers for the very first time, I think this is actually a number of which Jeff Martin and his colleagues at the Council can be proud. That becomes more true when you get a sense of the thoughtful quality of much of the commentary.

Of course it was good self-referential fun to read about Lucy Bernholz’ interview with Ariana Huffington, in which the very nature of the interview – as a reflection of the intersection of new media and philanthropy – is the topic being explored. Ms Huffington is quoted as saying, “…blogging, which is very intimate, very raw, very passionate, and very immediate. Foundations can make great use of this intimacy to personalize the charitable experience, to put flesh-and-blood to the raw data. To give us stories to go along with the statistics.”

I also appreciated Lucy’s skepticism about whether new media will preserve the (perceived) momentum toward new ideas that comes from the intense connections and discussions that happen at conferences. I have lost count of how many mailing lists I’ve been on in the last ten to fifteen years that were started in the enthusiasm of a conference session, but petered out within weeks as they lost the battle for everyday attention.

Perla Ni of Stanford Innovation Review reported on a few interesting conference sessions, including new interest in consistency between the investment and grantmaking sides of philanthropy, remittances as an anti-poverty strategy, and the range of issues at the intersection of immigration and philanthropy by any blogger.

Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy, who was responsible for the optimistic comment that provoked Lucy Bernholz’ earlier referenced skepticism, was also responsible for the most thorough and (for me) the most interesting coverage of the conference.

Some of Sean’s best posts included explorations of specific conference sessions on structuring grantmaking to more closely relate to performance, how focusing on addressing root causes can sometimes lead philanthropists to withdraw funding from those closest to the communities in need, how to get beyond a tension between defensive complacency and tiresome arrogance in our discussions about “old” versus “new” philanthropy, how we should be designing communication about impacts and lessons into grantmaking programs from the start, and the Packard Foundation’s radical new experiment in transparency.

Sean’s podcasted interview with the afformentioned Jeff Martin shows up way before any CoF web page on a search for “Jeff Martin Council on Foundations”, which I think just shows that Jeff’s venture into opening up to new media is just taking its first steps. The interview itself explores that venture and relates it to a vision of greater transparency for the sector in general. I think it’s very exciting.

Part of that effort toward transparency is the Council’s decision to publically post session videos, although for now it’s just plenaries (in Windows format, of course). My favorite of these is the presentation on the two Studio Conversations. One of these explored issues of religion and philanthropy, which concluded among other things that the fear of religion in public life is actually a fear of the imposition of particular, parochial values on the state, not the fear of the passion for justice that infuses so many religious traditions. The second of these was about the tension between grantmakers and the organizations they fund, and both the damage and dynamics of the power imbalances that result from the funding relationship. I look forward to watching the promised video of that one.

All in all, the Council’s steps toward its own transparency parallels its commitment to promoting such transparency in philanthropy in general. The active presence of bloggers is both a step in the right direction and, given the anxieties that grantmakers seem to have about blogging, an early indicator of a powerful shift. I look forward to seeing how it plays out in the years to come.

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