Open-source associations

The Social Impact practice at Weber Shandwick recently released the results of a study of how non-profit organizations view social media. The study found that “the majority (88%) of non-profits embrace social media” even though 79% of them are not sure of the value for their organizations.

Sounds more like a hug than an embrace, doesn’t it?

Although most associations are not-for-profit, non-profits are not associations. I’m not trying to establish guilt by (pun alert) association. But there’s a lesson here.

Think of social media like open-source software: an opportunity to “get smart people outside of your organization to help do your work”. It’s in our nature to want to control the interface, but participation grows exponentially larger when we find a path to letting go.

I’ll borrow from John Hilton and his reading of “Innovation Happens Elsewhere”, a book written by Ron Goldman and Richard Gabriel, which offered this caution about the nature of open-source development:

“If any member of the core team thinks of the outside developers as bozos who should be ignored, then you can be sure that the community will pick up on that attitude and react negatively. You should remember that there are more smart people outside your company than inside it, and one major reason for making your project open source is to be able to engage with [smart] people as much as possible. In an email discussion about a project where the core developers were not engaging with the community, Alan Cox, one of the primary Linux kernel developers, put it like this: “Give feedback and you get more than repaid. Ignore people and you lose them forever.”

That’s the promise and the challenge of social media. Associations can grow much more influential by convening, by fostering the conversation and by reflecting the collective wisdom of the crowd. But they have to give up the idea that they can control the conversation.

This is just as true at not-for-profits. One person telling another that “I loved working at the FoodBank this weekend” is worth dozens of direct-mail appeals. The technology is a tool that helps connect people to one another. Those connections will happen whether we embrace social media or not. We’d just rather be there when they happen and catch a bit of the halo effect.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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