I recently had the opportunity to address a wonderful group of marketers, fundraisers, and nonprofit professionals at the excellent Social Media 4 Nonprofits Conference (SM4NP) in New York City. I was asked to speak, generally, about philanthropy in a networked world. What a topic! I could speak for eight hours on that subject and still have a day of content left to share, so having to fit everything I wanted to say about the trends impacting the nonprofit sector into a 30-minute presentation was daunting — and exciting.
I tried to weave in two basic ideas. The first is that we now live in a peer-to-peer world. The world is networked — we’ve digitized the social fabric of society, and we’ve done it in less than ten years. We are now networked together digitally, and more than that we can easily access and expand those networks. Most of us carry around devices that can reach someone 10,000 miles away in a tenth of a second.
To those of us who have lived through it, there’s a tendency to view this change as just a set of software or technological developments. However, it isn’t — it is a societal change. It is fundamental and irrevocable. Increasingly, our constituents are able to work together to find options highly tailored to their interests; spread their views and find others who share those views; co-create what they consume; and dictate the ways to choose and support the things they like. The democratization of this reach has massive implications for how we engage people in the process of social change.
We may have to act differently, move faster, and think smarter, but there is potential out there, just waiting for us to unlock it.
I realize that there are days when this idea may seem hopelessly naïve. One of the common threads of my discussions with nonprofit leaders is the sense of cynicism that seems to increasingly pervade our culture. Even the most optimistic among us are finding it hard to keep our upper lips stiff. When religious services become massacres, political spectacle masquerades as informed debate, and worldwide economic conditions appear to be moving sideways at a rapid pace, who can blame us for adopting an attitude of resignation?
And yet, despite all of that, more optimism is exactly what we need. As a member of the small constituency of sappy, overly sensitive guys out there, let me argue that in a world of choreographed demagogues and overly-inflated blowhards, perhaps we need a few more people who cry at weddings and sing love songs at the piano, at least to restore some sort of cosmic equilibrium.
The fact is, it has never been easier — and more socially acceptable — to be a skeptic. Hipster coolness, self-righteous apathy, veiled elitism, and detached cynicism are the new style. We can choose to go through life alone together, commenting and criticizing on everything around us, disappointed but not surprised.
And at the same time, it has never been easier to mobilize the passionate masses. It has never been easier to show people that we are all connected, that we each play a role, that together we can do more. It has never been easier to see that we are all the same, that we deserve the same opportunities and choices. It has never been easier to find underdogs to cheer for and fights worth fighting.
We’ve got “detached cynicism” covered. What we need are a few more hearts on sleeves and shovels in hands. In the social change space, we are not competing with each other. We are competing with the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. If we look around, we will see the abundance we seek, right in front of our noses.