Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, and other social media networks are rapidly changing almost everything about our society. They’re impacting politics, commerce, dating and relationships, and most other ways in which people interact with one another. The world of nonprofit corporations – charities, activist and advocacy groups, and others – is no exception.
The most obvious and perhaps least important change brought about by social media to nonprofit organizations involves the way those organizations do what they have always done, namely fund-raise and communicate. Social media provide nonprofits with new and inherently different ways to reach out to the public both to raise money and to raise awareness.
As with commercial use of social media, though, their use for nonprofit purposes requires an awareness of the nuances involved, and how social media represent two way or even multi-vector communication rather than the kind of one-way street that describes traditional communication media such as print, broadcasting, or even most web sites.
An even more fundamental and potentially revolutionary change impacts the way that we organize for common purposes.
That is, after all, what a nonprofit organization always does: it’s a way to coordinate efforts in support of some purpose that is not directly profitable or commercial, but is worthy of common efforts. Whether the goal is to help the poor, support art, protect the environment, advance the cause of a religion, or any other purpose pursued by nonprofits, the method always involves people coming together and organizing for a commonly-agreed end. Social media may in part actually be replacing the formal nonprofit organization for that purpose, just as in some ways they allow sidestepping big corporations and political parties.
This happens because of the way in which social media facilitate rapid self-organization on a horizontal level. The structure of nonprofit organizations tends to be vertical rather than horizontal, with a central authority directing the activities of branches and communication, and hence the generation of agreement and consensus, proceeding slowly enough that such authority is needed for the efficient making of decisions.
But social media allow for such rapid communication that direct democracy becomes possible in any participatory context. This allows people who have a common goal to agree on and implement steps to advance that goal without going through the formal process that traditional nonprofits must use.
In the long run, this is likely to have the biggest, most lasting, and most unpredictable effect on the way in which we pursue charitable, artistic, and other not-for-profit goals.