Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age: An Interview with Allison Fine of Momentum

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"Rather than worry about what the next widget is going to be, I really hope as a community we can focus on how to become more open and connected in order to use any new widget for success."--Allison Fine

Below is a transcript of my interview for the NetSquared Podcast with Allison Fine, author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age.   Enjoy!

For folks who haven't read Momentum yet, tell us about some of the main ideas in the book.

Momentum is about the intersection of passionate activism and all the new digital technology that allows us to spread the word and engage people, quickly, inexpensively and widely, to provide a blueprint for people who are finding this a bit confounding. I have tried to explain what the tools are, but more importantly, how we have to change the way we work in the new Connected Age to become more effective.

What are some of the key things you think we need to change?

Well, certainly the most important thing, Britt, is that we have to move from being proprietary, from feeling like owning information is the same as having power--which it isn't anymore--to being much more open and connected, and working through networks, and being better at sharing information, sharing contacts, sharing members. It is counterintuitive at first, but all that sharing leads to much great power for networks.

What is an example of how greater sharing allows for greater power?

One very quick, easy example is, do you remember the Do Not Call Registry from a couple of years ago? Without any marketing dollars at all, 137 million people ended up registering on that database not to get telemarketing calls, all spread by friend-to-friend email. So rather than the Do Not Call registration itself requiring everyone to just come to it, and trying to own this concept, they just let it go online. People are very good at sharing information with their friends and their family. It is an incredibly inexpensive way to make social change happen.

Here's the key though, Britt, for organizations that grew up in the last century, in a more traditional, hierarchical business model, that feels and sounds very threatening.

So, when you talk to non-profits that are using that business model, or even ones that are less tech-savvy, where do you start with them? How do you help them to grasp and adopt that idea?

Well, I think that's a great question. I think the way to start is to get people to begin to talk about what it is that feels so hard about social change right now. It is the hardest work there is to do, and it is going to feel hard. It's very draining, and it is very expensive work because so much of it is labor-intensive, and when you begin to have a conversation with people about, well, are there ways that you could be sharing your work, ways that you could engage people more easily, so that they better understand your work and can participate in it, it begins to open up new ways of thinking. People who have gotten in the habit of doing all the heavy lifting themselves at organizations can begin to find one or two small ways to allow people to participate, where the organization gives up control, but what they get in return is greater participation, that will feel less threatening.

What do you think are things that are small steps to help non-profits change their mentality around this?

Certainly, opening up a blog conversation with their constituents is a nice first step; but it is awfully important that that conversation be authentic. There is no sense in putting up a blog that looks and feels like brochure-ware to people. So it has to have the ability to comment. Whoever is blogging on behalf of the organization has to be willing to be very open and transparent, to admit mistakes if mistakes are made, and to listen when people are participating.

Another way is to invite people in to participate in strategy development. It might be an advocacy campaign or a marketing campaign, but to throw an idea out and allow people to help you to shape it; and again, Britt, the key is you have to be willing and interested in their input, so it is not an exercise in window dressing.

You can also have people participate in advocacy campaigns, like writing emails or sharing a petition. There are a whole host of ways of sharing information with their friends in their network about work. But again, I hope organizations will take that sharing seriously, respond to any feedback that they get, and incorporate any suggestions that they get into their strategies and their work.

Can you talk about how the group you wrote about in Momentum used the social web for social change?

It's a park in Philadelphia, Free Schuylkill River Park, and they've used a whole host of social media tools to organize a neighborhood coalition to try to force the railroad to create a crossing to go from the neighborhood to the park that is bi-cut by a railroad track. So they used email to gather up neighbors to come together to meet, and they have used video technology to show how often the trains are coming, and they use blogs to keep the whole neighborhood advised of what is going on, and certainly petitions, and have organized groups to go to the City Council to meet on the issue as well.

I think what is so wonderful about that example, as you mentioned, is that it was using a whole host of tools, and I think one of the hardest things about this new technology, Britt, is that, as you mentioned before, there is no one-size-fits-all. Groups are going to need to experiment with the tools to find out which kinds of tools are working best for their engagements. The very good news is that most of the tools are so inexpensive, it is very quick and easy to change strategy and change direction.

What are some of the trends you are seeing in philanthropy and the social web?

Well, we are seeing a little bit more transparency, because information moves around so quickly and can be reported much more quickly now. We are seeing some foundations that are reporting their grant-making more quickly than before by just posting it online. I think the Kellogg Foundation is posting that very quickly now, the McConnell Clark Foundation. So that certainly provides a greater window to people trying to figure out what a foundation's grant-making is looking like right now, not the two years it used to take to post that information to the Foundation Center.

I am hearing, certainly, more foundations understanding that they have to fund social media, although they may not know how. But they do understand that it is part of a toolkit of ways that advocacy and social change are certainly going to happen.

And a few funders--Gara LaMarche, for instance, at Open Society Institute, maintains his own blog, which I think is fantastic, and again opens up more of a conversation between the foundation and grantees.

Do you see any downsides to using the social web for social change? Are there any, just overall, or the phrase you used, letting your constituents do the "heavy lifting", are there any downsides to that?

I should forewarn you, Britt, I'm a digital utopian. [laughter]

I believe so strongly that this is not only an inevitable way that we are going, but it is the very best way that we are moving, because a good use of social media, by definition, will mean that there is greater openness and greater participation. Of course, there are some dark rain clouds out there. The issues of privacy are a concern, the issues of information overload are an issue for donors; but we have to remember we are just in the infancy of Web 2.0, the social web, and we are beginning to work out methodologies and routines, and there are new technologies developing that are helping us to filter information, bringing us the information that we want instead of going after these never-ending searches, and so I think that the upside so outweighs the downside for Web 2.0 that I see no reason for us, collectively, not to be moving as fast as we can in this direction.

What do you think the next evolution is for this? Where are we heading? Where do you think we're going to progress to and evolve to?

Well, the biggest open question that I have is whether organizations that grew up in a proprietary model can transform themselves. Certainly, it is very difficult. Unless you are in a crisis, it is very difficult to change the fundamental way that you operate as an organization; but if one decides that organizations can't transform this way, then we are leaving out close to a million non-profit organizations, and I am not willing to write them off, and that's why I wrote the book, because I think people and organizations can change.

I think the key in moving forward is a new model of leadership. The model of a great man in a corner office who is going to dictate how and what we do, that doesn't work anymore; but a lot of people who look at what I call "connected activism, " they see it as chaotic at first, that it is just everybody doing whatever they want, and it isn't at all. It requires a lot of leadership that isn't heavy-handed--more of a silk glove, I guess--of facilitating conversations, of listening, of being agile, of not being afraid not to be the smartest person in the room, which is not easy. So we need a whole new set of leadership skills that are going to take us, as a community, as a sector, into this new Digital Age.

I do worry, Britt, about the overemphasis I think we have in this sector now on "market-oriented" responses to social change efforts and all of the emphasis on working like for-profits, as if that is a Holy Grail for social change people. I think it's a mistake, and I think it leaves out the best of us, and the best of us is that we do the hardest work there is because it is our mission, and not because we can make money doing it.

Momentum is a story, not just of what the sector has to do, it is also a story of my journey, of having started and run a proprietary organization, to now recognizing my own need to be more open and connected. So in spreading the word about Momentum, it has really been a wonderful exercise for me of sharing ideas with people, of connecting with them, of helping them as we are connecting, of doing all these wonderful things that come from working through networks. More than the social media tools, I think continuing to practice working in open and connected ways has been extremely fulfilling for me with the release of Momentum.

What are some examples of how working in open and connected ways has changed how you do things?

Well, people will call me or email me all the time and say, "Can I hire you as a consultant to do this work?" I was a consultant for a long time, for 12 years, and I think I have done that, so instead of consulting or paying for whatever expertise I have beyond the book, I say to them, "I'm just happy to barter with you. If I share an idea with you, we'll chat, and then maybe you could tell a few people about the book." It is so much wonderful fun to meet new people through the book and get their feedback, and learn about what they are doing.

The other day I got a call from a person at American Jewish World Services, who was kind enough to call the book "mesmerizing, " and she asked if I would come in and potentially consult with them. I said, "No, but I am happy to come in and chat, and brainstorm with you, and in response you could share the book with five people. That would be a wonderful barter, I think." The book has just opened up all these wonderful opportunities to share ideas with people, learn about what they are doing, and give them my two or three cents.

What are your predictions for non-profits and the social web for 2007?

Well certainly, video is going to continue to be increasingly important. I think a trend that non-profits really need to recognize and try to harness is what I call "extra-organizational activism." Some of the most exciting things going on are what individuals are doing by themselves online, through a meet-up or through a blog or an email, and how organizations learn how to leverage that passion, I think, will prove how successful they can be in this new era.

One example, for instance, is climate change, where increasingly we are seeing a host of things that people can do, and products that people can buy, on their own, whether it is light bulbs or solar panels, buying hybrid cars, that will have an impact on climate change. You don't need to do that through an organization. People are telling people about that. Al Gore's movie, he's doing that just as a private citizen, giving people that message. How the climate change organizational community taps into that passion and those activities, I think will be the difference between their being successful in the next several years.

Is there anything else you want people to know about Momentum or your work?

If people have examples of ways social media are being used for social change, I hope that they will send them to me at afine@afine.us. I would love to hear them. I want to just temper people's expectations. Once again, we really are at the beginning of this new movement, and it is not going to happen overnight; but rather than worry about what the next widget is going to be, I really hope as a community we can focus on how to become more open and connected in order to use any new widget for success.

You can learn more about Momentum and Allison's work at AFine.us, and on her Social Edge blog, Fine On Funding.

Transcription by CastingWords