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 Yet I am amazed by how what I learned from it continues to mature over time, rather than become outdated or irrelevant.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?

Apply Now: Get Your Leadership On With NTEN’s Technology Leadership Academy

nten leadership academy logo Yes, folks, it may be summer but it’s time to start thinking about going back to school! NTEN is offering a special 9 week webinar-based Technology Leadership Academy. The Academy will accept 50 nonprofits with budgets under $2 million, to be represented by 2 participants from each organization, including the executive director and a tech-responsible individual.

Attendees of the Academy will be able to:

  • Articulate the value of technology in their organization for themselves, funders, and other key stakeholders.
  • View technology as integral to every department in their organizations.
  • Recognize options for funding IT projects in their organizations.
  • Staff technology effectively.
  • Manage the organizational change that technology can produce.

Topics include:

  • Future of IT in Nonprofits / Presented by Edward Granger-Happ
  • IT Planning and Implementation / Presented by Steve Heye & John Merritt
  • Introduction to IT and Systems / Presented by Andy Wolber
  • Information Management Systems / Presented by Laura Quinn
  • Effective Internet Presence / Presented by Katya Andresen
  • Evaluation: Technology ROI / Presented by Beth Kanter
  • The Human Side of Technology / Presented by James Weinberg
  • Weekly Ask the Experts sessions including Charlene Li, Founder of Altimeter Group and Auther of Open Leadership

The Academy is being offered through the generous support of Microsoft and will run from September 29 – November 22.

Learn more about the Academy and guidelines for application here and if you qualify and are interested apply here!

Don’t miss out – the deadline for applications is Friday, July 30th. Applicants will be notified of their status by August 6, 2010.

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?

Take My Copy of Twitterville

Yes, it’s true. I want you to take this book out of my hands. I’ve read it, it’s great, but now it should be yours. As I’ve written before, I won this book from Beth Kanter and the author Shel Israel, with a promise that I’d pay it forward. So it’s your turn to elbow and claw your way through the throngs of hungry readers with your insightful comments, but first a few reflections to whet your appetite:

  1. While I’ve loved Shel’s previous work, I did expect this to be a well written “capitalize on Twitter’s exponential growth” book. In fact, it’s incredibly insightful, with great profiles of people and companies using Twitter in really creative ways. It stretched me. It’s also completely accessible to beginners. A fine line that Shel seems to have walked perfectly. I was pleasantly surprised.
  2. It challenged some decisions I’ve made – decisions that were strategic and thoughtful when I made them. For example, using the organization name and logo instead of the person’s name and photo, even when they are tweeting for the company. I’m still chewing on this one. In the meantime, I’ve edited @DarimOnline to show that it’s mostly, not entirely, Lisa at the keys. I’m curious how others think about offering this “human face” and transparency while still promoting the brand and, perhaps most importantly for many small organizations, creating continuity if/when staff turns over.
  3. I was reminded that you can start small and casual. As one guy from Ford is quoted, “Twitter was… the country store, where people came in and out and shared their gossip, and there I was, sitting by the pickle barrel.” (pg. 85)
  4. It’s more about listening than about talking. It’s so counter intuitive to so many of us that it can’t be said enough.
  5. One person in the organization can actually lead major change. So many examples were about one person in a large organization using this little tool in their remote cubicle, and it seeped into company culture because it was so darn useful.

So… that leads us to the question: How is Twitter useful for you? Alternatively, you can share your best piece of Twitter wisdom, or a Twitter-related question you’re wrestling with. We’ll choose our winner around Sukkot. And… please leave your Twitter username with your comment so we can check you out!

How I Won a Copy of Twitterville (and you can too!)

Shel Israel (co-author of Naked Conversations with Robert Scoble) has a new book, Twitterville.

Beth Kanter was giving away copies Twitterville the other day. I saw it on Facebook (I’m a fan of hers) but it was also on Twitter and her blog. (She’s a pro at making the most of multiple channels, without leaving me feeling inundated from every direction. It’s a real art.)

Beth periodically runs contests like this. She asks people to leave a comment responding to a particular question to enter the contest. It’s not random — she picks those whom she thinks are most deserving or will make the most of the prize. What I love about these contests is that by having a public entry process, she creates a forum for interesting people to share their work and ideas. I always learn something from reading the other entries.

So I left a comment saying how much I appreciate this approach to surfacing great ideas and practices. And heck, if giving away the book can do it, if I win, I’ll re-give-away the book to surface more good things, specifically in the Jewish community where we work.

She loved the idea and I won the book! (Well, to be honest, by the time she announced the winners she had about a dozen books – there were so many good responses that the author kicked in some copies, she found more promo copies, and others bought copies to add to the contest!) You can read about the results here.

And the punchline is … Shortly we’ll be putting up our own blog post to give away the book (once I get it, and read it). We’ll be asking about how you’re using Twitter in strategic and goal oriented ways. So start thinking about it, and experimenting on Twitter so you’ll have something juicy to share when we announce the contest. And, as always, you’re welcome to share your experiences (what’s working as well as what you’re challenged by) in the comments here.

P.S Another great Beth post on Twitter: How nonprofits are using hashtags

What you’re favorite Beth Kanter nugget of wisdom? Leave a link in the comments.