Nonprofit leaders: Have you accepted online technology as your organizational savior?

Spoiler alert: Both "yes" and "no" are wrong answers. I've worked for nonprofits on both ends of the online-technology-acceptance spectrum:

  • One that immediately distrusted any new and popular technology, whose management felt strangely superior for rejecting such ideas (Nonprofit Management Hipsters, in a sense); and
  • One whose leadership had a chronic case of Shiny Object Syndrome, wanting to implement every new technology, right away, without spending a lot of time on strategy.

For the record, I prefer the latter (it's more suited to my Chaotic-Good alignment), but it comes with its own aggravations.

[Note: I'm intentionally using the phrase "online technology" instead of "social media" in this article, because I want to be inclusive of things like widgets, crowdsourcing and apps as well.]

"The Bean" in Chicago

"The Bean" in Chicago

When your leadership has Shiny Object Syndrome, you'll often come to work to find newspaper clippings on your desk or links in your email all about the Next Big Thing. There will be a note attached that says, "Let's do this!" You'll sigh inwardly, instantly thinking of a dozen reasons why it probably won't work or why you lack the time and energy to give it the best shot possible (mainly because you're probably still wrestling with the previous Shiny Object du jour), but you've fought and lost enough battles of this type to know that you might as well suck it up and do what they're asking.

The problem with Shiny Object Syndrome is that it operates on the assumption that because something is "popular" (like, say, Foursquare), then simply using it will guarantee success for your organization. This isn't always the case. In fact, it rarely is.

As an example: Once upon a time, the Shiny Object Syndrome-plagued organization I worked for loved wikis. And I'll admit, wikis were theoretically a good idea for spurring community collaboration, which is what our nonprofit was trying to do. Unfortunately, the problem we ran into was that only 5% of your average online community actually contributes content…and wikis are usually contributed to by people who are not only comfortable contributing content online, but are open to that content being edited by other people. When you boiled it down, that gave us about 2 potential people in our community who might actually contribute, and by and large, they chose not to. Sadly, this realization did little to temper the enthusiasm of management for the technology.

Philosoraptor on hipsters

Philosoraptor on hipsters

Conversely, when you work for a Nonprofit Management Hipster, you'll go to conferences, get fired up on new, exciting ideas, only to have the following conversation when you get home:

You: *Describes awesome new idea* Management: *Describes 8 million reasons why it won't work* OR *Expresses support but grants no time/financial investment to allow it to succeed*

You'll then spend the next conference griping about why your management won't let you do anything new and innovative. There will be entire sessions devoted to that very subject, in fact, because so many people are in that boat.

Working for a Nonprofit Management Hipster leads to a frustrating cycle of stifled creativity, and by the time management realizes they should jump on the bandwagon of some online tech idea, you have a lot of catching up to do, and chances are, someone else has already claimed any relevant usernames you might have hoped to snag.

Both extremes struggle at organizational effectiveness, because they have the wrong perceptions of what online technology IS.

Nonprofit Management Hipsters see every new online trend as faddish and unworthy of time or effort, since it'll eventually give way to the next trend, and the next. While there's truth to this (online tech does evolve at stunning speed), by electing not to participate at all, they're missing opportunities to deepen their connections with their stakeholders and potential donors. In other words, while they think they're saving the organization money by not spending time and budget testing new online tools, they are actually costing the organization money in missed opportunities.

Meanwhile, those with Shiny Object Syndrome pin far too many expectations and hopes on every new online trend to propel their organization forward. They jump on every new tool or network, with the attitude that "this must succeed, right away!" If their enthusiasm could be tempered by the expectation that most early experiments with new online networks and tools will fail, but provide valuable learning experiences in the process, they would be, ironically, more successful (and their staff would be a lot happier, too).

So if I had the chance to give a message to the Nonprofit Management Hipster types, it would be this:

"Get over yourself. You can't learn anything if you don't try something new once in awhile. Not everything will succeed, but you've got more to lose from not trying than from trying and failing."

And for the Shiny Object Syndrome types:

"Your enthusiasm is awesome - but realize that most things will not succeed out of the gate. Allow time to experiment and learn, then focus on those technologies that will give you the greatest opportunity for success."

What's your experience been with nonprofit leadership when it comes to new technology? What would you tell the Nonprofit Management Hipsters and the Shiny Object lovers?

Photo credit: Bosc d'Anjou on Flickr