Thursday, April 7, 2011

Using Social Media to Ignite Social Change

I find it interesting how many humanitarian efforts have emerged since the onset of social media. Often, I wonder if they are exasperated reactions to a seemingly indifferent government, or if they are a celebration of the new reality that we, as individuals, can finally make a difference from a grassroots level. Perhaps these efforts existed all along, hidden from the global audience. Or, perhaps, they were tucked away in our hearts, just waiting for the means to act. Either way, they are springing up by the dozens, and social media is the mechanism for at least a portin of their success.

I am working with a nonprofit organization called HELO whose mission is to provide higher educational learning opportunities to inner city youth. Historically, this group has not been provided the same types of educational achievement tools as their suburban counterparts. The money is not there because of the socio-economic circumstances existing within these school districts. HELO is committed to providing these much-needed tools as a means of breaking the norms these communities are accustomed to. But like most humanitarian efforts, HELO's passion outweighs its means.

Enter social media. I have been working on this project with HELO thinking in terms of how I can build an online community that will provide the most bang for the buck. Their survival depends solely on donations. So as I read Kanter and Fine's book The Networked Nonprofit I began to visualize all kinds of possibilities, and I became excited! What I realized is that we can start building HELO's social media ecosystem now, and for free! Part of building a brand strategy for HELO is building a preliminary marketing strategy as well. All the variables accounted for, social media is definitely the way to go to start developing a strong network of peers. It will of course be a learning process but I feel like Kanter and Fines' book serves as a good jumping off point.

My outtakes from the book, pertaining to the strategic development for HELO, include starting to build a network of online hubs to use as virtual partners. Initially, I envision these partners will include organizations who support at-risk youth in any capacity, but could expand exponentially as the ecosystem grows. I also liked the tools they provided for tracking social media networks. It seems to be a great way to get a strong hold on the company's current ecosystem, as a means to develop a strategic path towards a more equitable network of allies, peers, and supporters.

The only problem I had with the book, and this may not be a problem in action, is asking people for help on specific tasks. It may be completely different for those folks who are invested in the cause, but asking for free help seems a little out there for me. It makes me nervous because there is no accountability. My main issue, which the authors discussed, is letting go of the control issue. I love what they are saying, but I can see myself worrying about consistent branding, messaging and so on. But when I step back, I realize the strength of social media is its word-of-mouth, which is the best kind of messaging a company can have.

I can certainly empathize with the hesitancy established companies have with the whole idea of social media. Companies who have experienced sustainable growth over the years using "tried and true" methods find themselves lost in the new digital age and are not sure how to respond. The newspaper industry is a prime example. Embracing new technologies which completely change the way things have operated for centuries has got to be difficult. Fortunately, I understand the benefits of social media and know, if executed properly and strategically, it can fit successfully within a company's integrated marketing program. I certainly hope it does for HELO.

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