Free Agents: Insights from #TakeBackThePink

I had pre-ordered Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s book, The Networked Nonprofit, and read it within 48 hours of it arriving on my doorsteps. Yet I am amazed by how what I learned from it continues to mature over time, rather than become outdated or irrelevant. Like a good wine or well aged cheese, it just keeps getting better. Of particular interest to me lately is the concept — and value– of free agents.

Free agents are individuals who are working outside of organizations to pursue the mission — organizing, fundraising, energizing. They aren’t on staff, or on the board, or hold any formal volunteer position. They’re just enthusiastic fans who believe in the purpose. In the past, they have been dismissed as either novices who are not committed to working with the system, or risky because they aren’t signed on to “tow the company line” so to speak. In today’s connected world however, each free agent is able to not only spread their message far and wide, but are able to organize and create real impact. While they may believe in the mission wholeheartedly, they also want to be free, creative and engage on their own terms.

The recent Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle provided an interesting experiment through which to reflect on free agents and their work specifically in a fast paced situation. [Note that my participation in this effort was personal, as a free agent, not as a representative of Darim Online. However, I believe that my experience and reflections can provide import insight for the Darim community and thus are worth sharing here.] After hearing the news, my colleague Allison Fine started a Facebook Cause called “Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram” which has raised over $17,000 as Alison, her friends and their friends passed around the link, enabling people to turn emotional outrage into action. Shortly thereafter, the free agents began to circle and convene. There was a big opportunity to make a difference here. What impact did we want to make, and how would we do it?

Enter #TakeBackThePink, a campaign which, briefly, was designed to highjack the #supercure Superbowl campaign to keep the riled up country focused on taking action to combat the real enemy: breast cancer. We have documented the campaign and our reflections here. Beth Kanter has blogged about it here, Allison Fine here, Amy Sample Ward here, and Lucy Bernholz here. Stephanie Rudat was also a critical member of the team. It was an honor and privilege to collaborate with these brilliant women, and many many others who added their voice, energy, personal stories, heart and brain to the effort too. We were passionate, and we had fun doing it. We were free agents. We were coordinating among ourselves, feeling out emotions, boundaries, strategies, division of labor. And while we were so attentive to each other, we were not also dealing with the politics or policies or pace of any institution. We were free free agents. No strings attached.

At a few points, our potential collaboration with organizations did rise as an option. For example, soon after we clarified that #TakeBackThePink was not anti-Komen but rather pro-women’s health, we sought to spread the word and build partnerships in a way that’s very consistent with our networked approach to working. We learned that Brian Reid had compiled a list of statements from local Komen affiliates in many cases distancing themselves from the mothership, or articulating their freedom to making their own local funding decisions in their region. To me, it seemed quite powerful to align with them — it may have helped add legitimacy to their local brands, and would have helped our message grow roots and spread further. Yet while many of the fighters and survivors (or friends of survivors or victims) in our group felt strongly that Komen funds important research and is not all bad, others wanted nothing to do with Komen. And aligning with us may have been risky for those affiliates as we are (to some degree) unknown free agents, with rapidly evolving goals and approaches, and they were in a risky situation to begin with. As much as our goals may have been aligned, there were too many strings attached for all of us. And in a rapidly moving blitz that was evolving hour by hour across the country, any strings were too much, too slow, too compromising.

The lesson I learn here is that there are different kinds of free agents: regular free agents (those who work fairly independently but in conjunction with organizations) and then there are really free agents who have no organizational alignment whatsoever, but can have massive influence nonetheless. There are also long distance free agents who work on an ongoing basis to make social change, and there are sprinter free agents who pour a ton of energy and time into short term, high impact opportunities to make social change. Interestingly, in the recent Komen uproar, Planned Parenthood found they were long on sprinting really free agents, and it (literally) paid off.

Leaders of today’s organizations should educate themselves about free agents (read The Networked Nonprofit for starters) and think deeply about how to work with free agents on an ongoing basis, and in fast paced environments as well. Millennials in particular are well positioned to be free agents, and as they continue to mature, their modes of engaging and supporting organizations may look more and more free-agent-y. As Ben Wiener said at the 2011 Jewish Future’s conference, “We don’t meet, we tweet.”

Do you think about how you engage with your free agents? What can organizations and leaders do to make their missions and work more free-agent-friendly? As a free agent, what organizations make you feel like you can run and soar? How do others take the wind out of your sails?

Avi Chai Foundation Gets Social

Cross posted from Allison Fine’s blog, A Fine Blog In partnership with my friends at Personal Democracy Forum, I have had the great pleasure of working with the Avi Chai Foundation since last May. Our engagement has two sides; working with the foundation staff to help them use social media, and developing efforts to strengthen the ability of their grantees and community, particularly Jewish day schools, to become more adept at using social media to build and strengthen their own networks. The foundation has been very courageous and forward thinking about using social media. They are sunsetting in 9 years and want part of their legacy to be a growing “tribe” of Jews that are connected with one another and Judaism. It’s a fascinating notion. They’re not interested in leaving buildings and legacy organizations but want to leave the capacity of a network of people to continue to grow and thrive. We are beginning with a set of experiments with day schools including a training academy for which we will have the great fortune of working with Darim Online, a video contest and online fundraising match. The foundation has taken concrete steps to enter the social media waters. Staffers have started tweeting. Deena Fuchs, the director of special projects and communications, came up with a great idea yesterday. For the next two weeks, the staff is going to have a contest to see who can gain the largest number of new friends on Twitter. We couldn’t decide on a prize. Any ideas? In addition, we agreed on social media policies to provide guidance for staff and boundaries for management. A very interesting point that someone brought up at the meeting is that these really are communications guidelines, that there shouldn’t be an artificial distinction between policies related to social media versus traditional media. Here are their policies. I think they’ve done a great job of keeping them simple, manageable and direct: The AVI CHAI Foundation Social Media Policy AVI CHAI encourages staff and Trustees to be champions on behalf of the Foundation, LRP, day schools and overnight summer camps. The rapidly growing phenomenon of blogging, social networks and other forms of online electronic publishing are emerging as unprecedented opportunities for outreach, information-sharing and advocacy. AVI CHAI encourages (but does not require) staff and Trustees to use the Internet to blog and talk about our work and our grant making and therefore wants staff and Trustees to understand the responsibilities in discussing AVI CHAI in the public square known as the World Wide Web. Guidelines for AVI CHAI Social Media Users 1. Be Smart. A blog or community post is visible to the entire world. Remember that what you write will be public for a long time – be respectful to the Foundation, colleagues, grantees, and partners, and protect your privacy. 2. Write What You Know. You have a unique perspective on our organization based on your talents, skills and current responsibilities. Share your knowledge, your passions and your personality in your posts by writing about what you know. If you’re interesting and authentic, you’ll attract readers who understand your specialty and interests. Don’t spread gossip, hearsay or assumptions. 3. Identify Yourself. Authenticity and transparency are driving factors of the blogosphere. List your name and when relevant, role at AVI CHAI, when you blog about AVI CHAI-related topics. 4. Include Links. Find out who else is blogging about the same topic and cite them with a link or make a post on their blog. Links are what determine a blog’s popularity rating on blog search engines like Technorati. It’s also a way of connecting to the bigger conversation and reaching out to new audiences. Be sure to also link to avichai.org. 5. Include a Disclaimer. If you blog or post to an online forum in an unofficial capacity, make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of AVI CHAI. If your post has to do with your work or subjects associated with AVI CHAI, use a disclaimer such as this: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t represent AVI CHAI’s positions, strategies or opinions.” This is a good practice but does not exempt you from being held accountable for what you write. 6. Be Respectful. It’s okay to disagree with others but cutting down or insulting readers, employees, bosses or partners and vendors is not. Respect your audience and don’t use obscenities, personal insults, ethnic slurs or other disparaging language to express yourself. 7. Work Matters. Ensure that your blogging does not interfere with your other work commitments. 8. Respect Privacy of Others. Don’t publish or cite personal or confidential details and photographs about AVI CHAI grantees, employees, Trustees, partners or vendors without their permission. 9. Don’t Tell Secrets. The nature of your job may provide you with access to confidential information regarding AVI CHAI, AVI CHAI grantees, partners, or fellow employees. Respect and maintain the confidentiality that has been entrusted to you. Don’t divulge or discuss proprietary information, internal documents, personal details about other people or other confidential material 10. Be Responsible. Blogs, wikis, photo-sharing and other forms of online dialogue (unless posted by authorized AVI CHAI personnel) are individual interactions, not corporate communications. AVI CHAI staff and Trustees are personally responsible for their posts.

The Networked Nonprofit

Last week I dove into the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) Conference, commonly known at #10NTC. (I dare you, search for that on Twitter and see how active is STILL is, days after the conference wrapped up. Us NPtechies are an enthusiastic, passionate and smart bunch. You can also find 58 Powerpoints from the conference on Slideshare, 870 photos on Flickr, videos on Youtube … need I go on?)

Screen shot 2010-04-09 at 4.18.20 PMOne of the best sessions I attended was where Beth Kanter and Allison Fine (among the gurus of nonprofit technology) presented their upcoming book, The Networked Nonprofit (due out in June, but you can preorder here). These two women completely understand the future of nonprofit organizations in the digital age, and I could listen to their wisdom, humor and case studies for days.

One element from their presentation keeps knocking around in my head, the idea of three stages of organizational development in this networked era.

  1. Fortress – an organization where there are insiders and outsiders, and the two rarely meet or interact;
  2. Transactional – an organization that is engaged with their community, but with the sole focus of transactions, such as getting people to sign up for an event or make a donation;
  3. Transparent – an organization that fully engages and empowers their community to accomplished shared goals.

I love the simplicity of these three stages, and the acknowledgment that getting on social media platforms is not the ultimate goal. Plenty of people are promoting events on Facebook and measuring success by the number of tushes in the seats. But the real paths to accomplishing our mission and goals, and the more accurate measurements of success go far beyond this. They also require a leap of faith, and the ability to take that first leap.

Remember the first time you climbed to the top of a high dive as a kid, your heart beating so hard you thought it would leap out of your chest, and that moment when you finally hurled yourself into the air? It’s the same moment really. And remember when you went back again and again and again to do it over and over? Yeah, it’s like that too.

So tell us — what stage are you at? What do you need to move from one stage to the next? Where do you see examples of “transparent” organizations or activities?