Social Media and Non-Profits: How can organizations find their human voice?

I had the opportunity to meet with an outstanding organization yesterday to talk about social media.  This organization is a faith-based group that is focused on social justice and eliminating poverty.  They already have a rather large presence in the world of traditional print media and are looking to expand into the world of social media.  The group has a lot of great ideas to use social media to affect social change while simultaneously accomplishing their marketing goals.

While the ideas shared in the meeting for user-generated content and social media organizing were great, I did walk away from the meeting with a concern for how organizations such as theirs can learn to, well, forget they are organizations.  I agree whole heartedly with the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto that, if you want your communications to succeed, they must be spoken in a human voice. And, according to the book, “They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.” This is definitely a hard thing for organizations to do when they have so much concern about brand management and message control. Unfortunately, the time is here when message control and brand management can no longer be done through top-down mechanisms—that is as long as the organization wishes to remain relevant. Organizations must let their people be people and be heard.

So, how does an organization empower its people to speak to the world? First, it must give more than permission to speak…it must encourage it. An organization with members that are fully engaged in the mission is a much more attractive organization than one that appears to be no more than an institution with employees. If you want active constituents, you had better start in your own office.

Second, the organization must forget about controlling what is said and concentrate on authentically living out its mission. Authenticity should take care of the messiness of open communication. If this seems unreasonable, the problem is with authenticity and transparency, not with communication or message.

Finally, the organization has to forget about how this communication will fit into its business plan or how it will be measured. It has to trust that authentic communication will benefit the organization in ways that can not be measured. Organizations that continue conducting their marketing and PR in the new networked world as if the old rules of marketing still apply are going to be in for a healthy dose of irrelevancy really soon.

I am hopeful that the organization that I met with will do great things with their social media ventures. I am sure they will experience a lot of successes along with the obligatory educational failures that come with such experimentation. My hope is that some of those successes will come in the form of open, human communication from the organization.

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