Six reasons why Seth Godin is wrong about non-profits

Seth Godin recently wrote a post titled “The problem with non” in which he claims that non-profit organizations fail at social media adoption and that the reason for that is fear of change.

Here are six reasons why I disagree:

1. There is a difference Oprah and an NGO

„Take a look at the top 100 twitter users in terms of followers. (…)None of them are non-profits. (…) Is the work you’re doing not important enough to follow, or is it (and I’m betting it is) paralysis in decision making in the face of change?“

Seriously? This is like saying it’s NPRs fault that so many people are watching Fox News. Or that the New York Times is  to blame for the success for the National Enquirer. It is a fact that people will always be drawn towards gossip and celebrities. We might lament that fact and wish that they put their time to better use but escapism is an important media function and one that most of the time is better served by light gossip than by the things that most non-profits focus on. And that’s ok.

Not everybody wants to spend his spare time thinking about, for example, the Convention Against Torture. In fact I’d argue that one of the reasons we are getting money from private donors is exactly because they don’t want to deal with this kind of thing. They give us the money so that we take care of it and they can watch Oprah without a bad conscience.

2. We are bigger than you think

A lot of major non-profit organization, like Doctors without Borders, Unicef or the Red Cross Red Crescent, have offices all around the world. In many cases, each of those offices will have their own presence on social media networks. This makes sense in order to reach people with localized messages, in their local language. The Norwegian Red Cross for example has a very active Twitter presence in Norwegian and a Secretary General who even tweets himself. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent posts local information in English and Arabic and Unicef Brasil in Portuguese. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

3. The importance of conversations

Admittedly the total number of all our Twitter-accounts might still be smaller than Ashton Kutcher’s flock followers. And yes, I would prefer it to be bigger. But we should keep in mind that social media is about conversations and not broadcasting.

By favouring specific content channels over a one-size-fits-all approach we are able to serve and connect with our audience better. That is not a weakness, that is a strength.

4. Online is not always the answer

“Where are the big charities, the urgent charities, the famous charities that face such timely needs and are in a hurry to make change? Very few of them have bothered to show up in a big way. (…) It’s easy to buy more stamps and do more direct mail, scary to use a new technique.”

I’m a huge fan of online fundraising. But it’s not always the right answer. I recently spoke with representatives of a big, rich European Red Cross Society and they told me that most of their individual donors are over 50 years old. In addition, independent statistics for that country show that many of the people in this age group aren’t comfortable with using online media and that there is an enormous amount of mistrust regarding the security of online transactions.

During that meeting we spoke about online fundraising and discussed ways to use online tools to attract new and younger donors. But if direct mail works and brings in money – why would I advise them to abandon it?

5. Eager for improvement

“Non-profits, in my experience, abhor change.”

Almost any response I have read about Seth Godin’s post said “Others are worse!” While that might be true, I don’t even accept the premise because it is simply not my experience when dealing with our 186 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

I’ve recently been to a big meeting of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement where my workshop was packed with representatives from almost 50 different countries, all eager to learn about social media, to exchange experiences and to discuss how they can use web based tools to solve concrete problems. The point is, they are investigating how these tools can help them do their job better – not how to make changes for the sake of change.

6. Not being first is not always bad

I would agree with Seth Godin if he had said that a lot of non-profit organizations, particularly the big ones, are slow to accept new technologies. However, that can be a good thing. I don’t think non-profit organizations have to be early adopters. I think that it’s quite alright for us to watch and see for a little while while the for-profit organizations take the first steps and figure out what works and what doesn’t. After all, if a for-profit organization fails in their endeavours then normally only money is lost. If a humanitarian organization invests money into a failure, then the money spent on that failure will not be available elsewhere and as a result a family somewhere in the world not might get a mosquito net or a child will not get a vaccination. That’s a big responsibility.

Obviously that argument cuts both ways. In cases where a technology is proven and can save money it should be adopted as soon as possible. We are for example increasingly using WebEx instead of face to face meetings. Another good example is the recent launch of an elearning platform (is open to everyone) that will help us cut costs for standardized trainings.

On the other hand, I’m glad that we never invested anything into Second Life, when that was the next big thing a few years ago. Waiting and only investing in technologies that have proven themselves is just good and responsible management.

Seth Godin says he’s upset. Well, so am I!

What do you think? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

You might also want to take a look at these two responses – and comments – to Seth Godin’s post:

  • Thank you, Timo, what a well thought out response. I agree with your points, but I do think we're a biased audience because, let's face it, those of us who are reading Seth Godin's blog are likely those who want change and believe in the power and effectiveness of social media. Unfortunately, it's been my experience that there are many who are still fearful of "losing control" to the wide world of social media despite the plethora of evidence indicating the opposite. Of course, this is true for for-profits as well as non-profits as so many others have indicated. But I can see how it's so much more frustrating when it's a nonprofit that can take advantage of cheap/free tools to do so much good, rather than a widget company trying to pump out more product. Perhaps this is why Seth's targeting the NPOs.

    • I totally agree with you Rachel :-). In my opinion, one of the reasons that Seth Godin's post got so much attention is because for the NPO people reading his blog this is personal. When he says NPOs aren't using social media properly, he is in essence saying we (his NPO reader) are not doing our job. And no one likes to hear that. However, with that bias in mind, I still disagree with his point of view…