This article is the third in a short series of musings about 2012, its opportunities and challenges, and how to best meet them.


From “So, What’s Your Algorithm?” by Dennis K. Berman, the Wall Street Journal, 1/4/2012I’ve started this post several times. The first time, I opened with this: “When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as the year when social media hysteria attacked the nonprofit space.” That opener sounded a bit too snarky, so I scratched it out and started over. My second attempt was this: “When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as the year when big data arrived to the nonprofit space — alas, the discipline to use it well is still a no-show.” Ack. The second attempt is worse than the first!

So here’s a third try: When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as year when the discussion about tools risked eclipsing the pursuit of mission. And when I look into 2012, my biggest hope is that it will be the year when our focus returns to substance over form. 

There’s no question that big data and social media were two of the main themes in the nonprofit space in 2011, at least in my part of the world. Much has been written about both trends, and I’ll not seek to retread that ground other than to say that most of the nonprofits I work with, particularly the larger ones, are investing in systems and people to generate and store constituent data. And nearly every organization is investing in systems and people to “do social media.” Depending on the month, at certain times I might have said that the emergence of big data was the dominate theme; other months I would have probably marveled at the fascination with social media. Obviously, the emergence of the two trends is not unrelated, as the same undercurrents are basically powering both:

  • Dramatic, ever-increasing computing power (we all now carry powerful computers disguised as phones);
  • Progressively transparent, networked consumer behavior (we are willing to have our actions tracked at every turn, and often consciously and deliberately track ourselves); and
  • Evolving infrastructure and supporting systems (for example, the widespread acceptance and adoption of that third 2011 buzzword, “the cloud”).

So rather than try to separate the two, I’ve convinced myself that I can and should muse about them jointly.

I worry that over the past couple of weeks I’ve unmasked myself as a Luddite, and I should say I’m definitely not. Actually, I’m a gear fanatic and a tool nut — I love my electronics and my software, and I continually acquire more of both than I have time to master. 

At the same time, one thing I noticed in 2011, more noticeably regarding social media but also underlying the pursuit of large data management systems, was that we tend to run after the next tool that presents itself without thinking. It’s almost as if we’re hoping that this Next New Thing will finally make it easier, less awkward, and more fun to do what most of us have to do, which is ask for money.

“Facebook! You have to be on Facebook! You have to increase your likes on Facebook!” Remember that? And then it was, “Twitter! You have to be on Twitter! Increase your Twitter followership! That’s it!” Oh, and then, “Text to Give! It’s all about Text to Give! Text to Give is huge and is transforming the space!” And someone else says, “What are you thinking?!? CRM! You’ve got to connect it all to CRM!”

And so we all don our sheep suits and follow the flock over to Facebook — and then we follow it back across the field to Twitter — and then we try to follow it over to the Text to Give pen, but by this time we’re all getting a bit tired aren’t we? And then someone shouts “Google+!” But by this time we finally say, “huh?” And we all try not to ask the obvious question, a question that is getting harder to avoid asking in the new year, which is “How do we translate all of these followers and likes and mobile numbers and circles into dollars for mission?” Because of course what has been lost as we chase tools around the pasture is any time to think about what we want to use the tools for. 

Okay — don’t get me wrong. Again, I’m not a Luddite. I think Facebook is a valuable tool; I use both it and Twitter many times a day, for my clients, my company, and myself. I love computers and analytics, and live and breath both most hours of the day. But here’s the thing: Facebook is just a tool. Data is just a tool. Twitter, texting, Google, Excel — all tools. 

No tool in the world will instantly, magically, permanently eliminate the need to passionately, succintly, and repeatedly describe your mission; no tool in the world will eliminate the pressing, continual need for you to vivdly describe the impact you are making and then pointedly ask for support. What I saw in 2011 was a tools arms race, and what concerns me is that I don’t see signs of it slowing down — although there are observers starting to discuss how, as social media and big data and the cloud become integrated into our day-to-day, the novelty about those systems will change back into an imperative to actually say and do something meaningful with them. 

(And following from that, let me add that just because you can now easily send a message to your entire database of 30,000,000 “friends” in one click doesn’t mean you should, or really that you have anything of value to say.) 

My biggest hope of hopes for 2012 is that we all realize that even now, in some garage in India or some college dorm room in New Hampshire or some offshore development platform in the South Pacific, someone is developing yet another tool that will (possibly) help us (potentially) increase awareness and (maybe) raise money. And so rather than worry so much about how to leverage this fan page or that community stream or how to afford the shiny new holographic brain implants soon to be shipping worldwide out of Cupertino, the best thing we can do for our nonprofits in 2012 is:

  • Emotively articulate our vision of a better world;
  • Concisely describe how our organization is uniquely pursuing that vision;
  • Abandon our reluctance to ask for help and boldly put our offer of change to everyone we meet
  • Continually develop our volunteers and staff so that they have the language and confidence to do the same;
  • And more than anything, ensure that the program work we do actually helps bring about social change

Tools are fun and cool and neat and can help a lot. But substance outlasts form every time, and mission trumps tools all day long.