November 29th, 2008 by Michael Gilbert
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:
- Ruthlessly drop any technology that erodes social capital.
- Reduce investment in any technology that fails to build social capital.
- Immediately invest in technology that allows you to identify and nurture existing social capital.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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?