Posted by: Nathaniel | August 20, 2008

The real value of networks

Lucy Bernholz at Philanthropy 2173 has a very interesting post about networks. Basically, recognizing all of the things that networks do for us, such as “facilitate useful connections, improve information flow, influence better ideas, distribute work, disseminate excellence, and help distill any wisdom that might exist in a crowd,” she asks if networks can be used to predict a nonprofits likelihood of success.

To answer that question, a more fundamental question needs to be asked which is what is the real value of any network?

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Networks are just collections of people with some level of link to one another, whether its a shared experience, a previously existing relationship, or more recently, simply a shared platform to connecting. People relate to each other in different ways based on their motivations for participating in that network and the way the network itself structures interaction.

For example, LinkedIn is structure to facilitate connections between business professionals and is used, perhaps unsurprisingly, primarily for managing and extending professional relationships. Myspace.com and Facebook are both more fundamentally social, but offer platforms where people can do other things, such as promote their events and organizations or use an application like Causes to raise money. Its interesting to note, however, that just because you can use a network to do a particular thing (like raising money for a nonprofit), if that thing is outside of most member’s of the networks motivations for using the network, it is harder to have success.

When most people sign on to Facebook, supporting nonprofits is tangential to their desire to keep track of who their friends are dating and what new jobs people are taking. When Causes released its user statistics in May, they had registered 12 million people who collectively had given $2.5 million, for an average donation of $0.21 per user. This isn’t a knock on Causes, just a reminder of the reality that people tend to use networks for the reasons they were created. Socializing is different giving, and bringing socializing to giving is precisely the nut Causes is trying to connect.

The business model of almost all the contemporary social networks is built around the notion that when you get a large group of people in the same place and have the ability to collect data about them, you have an opportunity for efficient targeted advertising. This is the economic value that will ostensibly provide the opportunity for Facebook and Myspace to continue to create whatever other types of value they provide for their users.

There are many skeptics however. One of the things that advertisers and social networking platforms have noticed is that their users tend to be too busy socializing to pay much attention to those ads on the side. Facebook is constantly experimenting with ways to monetize those social interactions, such as allowing users to have conversations around video ads. Ben Kunz wrote a great article on BusinessWeek online about these questions, with specific regard to Twitter.

Twitter is build around users sharing bite size nuggets of their daily lives with eachother. What’s interesting however, is that the fundamental utility and excitement of the platform has been the type of communication it enables: one-to-many. Rather than having to message all of your friends, you write a short message that is automatically shared with all of your friends and contacts who “follow” you. The one-to-many nature of the platform has made it useful outside of its express purpose (answering the question “what are you doing” for all your friends), such as when a research was able to tweet himself out of an Egyptian jail.

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The point of all this is to say that users of networks tend to do what the networks were designed to help them do, whether its socializing or building professional relationships. This begs the question of what nonprofit networks are meant to do?

For me, it brings up again the question of collaboration. As I mentioned in this post, I sometimes think we get ahead of ourselves in knowing that collaboration is important without knowing what the specific ends we seek from collaboration. I sometimes think the same thing happens with nonprofit networking. Conferences become more focused on making sure that every one there has your business card than about actually finding other individuals and organizations with common interests and complimentary assets and needs.

The real value of any network is in the assets of the members. “Assets” means more than purchasing power and can include everything from social relationships to material items to skills and expertise and beyond. People collaborate when their goals align and the parties involved have distinct and complimentary sets of assets and needs.

Networking for nonprofits should be about more than “getting on each other’s radar,” no matter how important a first step it is. The value we need nonprofit networks to create is to map assets to more quickly and efficiently identify other individuals and organizations with common goals but different pieces of the shared puzzle. The value we need nonprofit networks to create is the ability to get a birds eye view of the ongoing projects and available resources to tackle pressing issues, allowing us to more efficiently harness existing resources, more effectively direct new resources, and break out of the silos of individual organizations.

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Responses

  1. To maximise the value of your network think about what you can give, not what you can get, Reciprocity is the key to successful networking. For one that really works visit http://www.irishbusinesswomen.com

  2. […] The real value of networks « Do Good Well Nathaniel Whittemore asks great questions: "The point of all this is to say that users of networks tend to do what the networks were designed to help them do, whether its socializing or building professional relationships. This begs the question of what nonprofit networks are meant to do? For me, it brings up again the question of collaboration." (tags: causewired nonprofits socialventures) […]

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