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Networked Nonprofits Have Social Cultures

Advice on revamping the social culture and social media policy at your organization

By: Beth Kanter

June 15, 2010

Nonprofits need to work less like single organizations and more like networks to leverage social media to solve complex social problems. This is the message in The Networked Nonprofit that I co-authored with Allison Fine. Making the shift from a single organization to one that works in a networked way both inside and outside of institutional walls is not a one-step process for many organizations. It isn't as easy as changing a light bulb. Our book provides a 12-step framework for making this transformation.

Networked nonprofits first have to "be," before they can do. The “doing” includes all the tactical details and working with the tools. If you ever heard someone say, “Our nonprofit tried social networks, but it didn’t work for us,” it is probably because they skipped one of the most important steps of “being.” Networked nonprofits must create and nurture a social culture.

A social culture is where everyone in the organization uses social media to engage people inside and outside to improve programs, services, or reach communications goals. Working socially challenges deep-set organizational assumptions about leadership, roles, and structure. It forces organizations to think hard about what’s important to manage, and what can be left uncontrolled. Social culture strikes at the heart of what organizations value and how they operate.

Organizations with social cultures often:

  • Use social media to engage in two-way conversations about the work of the organization with people inside and outside of it.
  • Embrace mistakes and take calculated risks.
  • Reward learning and reflection.

  • Use a "try it and fix it as we go" approach that emphasizes failing fast.
  • Overcome organizational inertia ("We’ve always done it this way.") through open and robust discussions.
  • Understand and appreciate that informality and individuality do not indicate a lack of caring, professionalism, or quality.
  • Trust staff to make decisions and respond rapidly to situations, rather than crawl through endless check-off and approval processes.

Creating a social culture does not happen by simply writing a social media policy. You must have the following in place first:

Leadership Buy-In

Organizational culture won’t change without the buy-in and support of organizational leaders. Thus, the first step for organizational leaders in becoming more social is to face, and hopefully overcome, their fears of what could possibly go wrong if they open themselves up personally and professionally by using social media.

Organizations, particularly their leaders, need to talk about these issues forthrightly with staff. They need to look at how other organizations have opened themselves and learned to live with and reduce these fears. Organizational leaders need to discover for themselves why these tools are very powerful. And the only way to do this is to get hands-on and try them.

The Internal Conversation

Many times, skepticism and resistance prevent organizations from having that open conversation about social media that leads to effective practice. It is often much easier for organizations to dump the social media responsibilities on a summer intern and be done with it, but they lose value by doing it this way. It is important to tackle these hard questions.

  • What is the value of this anyway?

  • What if we get negative feedback?

  • What if our staff wastes too much time on Facebook?
  • Isn’t this a time suck?
  • What if we make a mistake?
  • Won’t this create more work and information overload?

Wrestling with these questions and others are essential to effectively engaging with social media. Asking these questions will help you create contingency plans for social media strategy to help mitigate the concerns. And, in the end, makes for a better formal social media policy.

Codifying a Social Culture

Once a social culture has taken root within an organization, it is important to support it by formalizing it and putting it on paper. Developing social media policies ensures that senior staff have fully embraced and taken responsibility for social media use. It also provides direction for individual staffers to know what they can and can’t do. These policies will change and evolve as social media tools develop over time.

Creating a social media policy or any other organizational policy for that matter requires three steps:

  1. Establish the policy. Determine the policy and what you want to accomplish.
  2. Educate. It’s important to train or make employees aware of the implications.
  3. Enforce. This is less about the top down control, and more about the fact that you need to consistently use the policy and refine and learn as you go. It shouldn’t sit in a drawer.

Social Media Policy Document

Your organization might be tempted to use an online tool such as the Social Media Policy Tool that asks you some questions and based on how you answer spits out the boilerplate language for your policy. But be warned, this document is only a starting point, not a finished policy. The process around policy – that is the discussion, buy-in, and education – is so critical for effective use of social media.

Review your organization’s existing policies as well as other organization's policies. Altimeter Group has a good collection (although mostly corporate) on its wiki. I wrote a post with a summary of what should go in a nonprofit organization's policy as well as a roundup of nonprofit policies. Think specifically what is needed in your organization's policy, don’t just cut and paste. There is also an operational aspect of the policy – all the tips and best practices that should be incorporated.

Here’s a checklist of topics that you’ll need to address in your social media guidelines:

General Guidelines

  • Philosophy
  • Organizational Use of Social Media
  • Responsibility
  • Transparency
  • Privacy and Personal Information
  • Proprietary Information
  • Good Judgment and Respect
  • Productivity
  • Mistakes

Employee Personal Social Media Use

  • Disclosure
  • Disclaimer


Shifting the culture of an organization is not just about writing a social media policy or working with new tools; it means actually thinking about the work and organization fundamentally differently. Doing so can help your organization become a networked nonprofit, more able to work across relationships to solve problems and meet your mission.

About the Author:

Beth Kanter is the author of Beth’s Blog, one of the longest running and most popular blogs for nonprofits and co-author of the forthcoming book, The Networked Nonprofit, published by J. Wiley in 2010.

Beth is the CEO of Zoetica, a company that serves nonprofits and socially conscious companies with top-tier, online marketing services. In 2009, she was named by Fast Company Magazine as one of the most influential women in technology and one of Business Week’s "Voices of Innovation for Social Media." She is currently the Visiting Scholar for Social Media and Nonprofits for the Packard Foundation.