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Allison Fine, Author, 'Matterness: What Fearless Leaders Know About the Power and Promise of Social Media'

November 28, 2014

The last time we chatted with social media expert Allison Fine, in 2010, her second book, The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting With Social Media to Drive Social Change (co-authored with Beth Kanter), had just been published. In that book, Fine and Kanter exhorted nonprofits to become comfortable with the social media tool set and to use those tools to encourage two-way conversations, simplify their work, and make themselves more transparent to stakeholders, constituents, and potential donors. A valuable follow-up to Fine's first book, Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age (which won the 2007 Terry McAdams National Nonprofit Book Award), The Networked Nonprofit helped shift the conversation around nonprofit adoption of social technologies and cemented its authors' reputations as thought leaders in the field.

Earlier this week we caught up with Fine as she was preparing to launch her latest book, Matterness: What Fearless Leaders Know About the Power and Promise of Social Media, and found her to be as funny and passionate about the power of social technologies as ever.

Headshot_allison_finePhilanthropy News Digest: Your new book argues that we're living in a time of tremendous change and disruption, and that one result of all this change is a shift in power from institutions to individuals. If this is the age of the empowered individual, why do so many people feel so overwhelmed by forces outside their control?

Allison Fine: We are moving from a world ordered by institutions to a more chaotic one where any person can use the social media toolkit to, say, start a newspaper or a business on their computer, share their artistry online, or organize a protest. This kind of disaggregation is freeing but also noisy and a little bit frightening. What do you pay attention to when unfiltered information is flying every which way? That's why I wrote the book. Everybody can have a voice, but it is up to organizations, particularly cause-driven organizations, to ensure that smart and reasonable voices are heard.

PND: "Matterness" is a multi-layered concept. How would you explain it to someone who isn't tech savvy and whose idea of giving back is to write a couple of checks to her favorite charities at the end of the year?

AF: I don't think of "Matterness" as a tech idea, I think of it as a fundamentally human notion: every person deserves to matter, but we need organizations to sustain any kind of change effort. Rather than embrace that idea, however, organizations continue to work hard to distance themselves from their own constituents in order to sustain the illusion of control. In a disaggregated world, a world that has gone from three TV channels to thousands on cable and online, only organizations that treat their constituents like real people with their own unique talents are going to survive.

Hurrah and thank you to anyone who wants to write a check to their favorite cause! But here is an experience a lot of people can relate to: a friend of mine wrote to her college and said she didn't have any money to give but she could mentor some aspiring undergraduate female scientists. The college wrote back and said, "We'd rather have a check." This unresponsiveness has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the default settings embedded in organizations, settings that assume people on the inside are smarter than the people on the outside and that if everyone just did what they were told, everything would go fine. There are a huge number of people who want to bring their talents, intelligence, networks, and good will to causes who are being locked out right now because the organizations behind those causes are in the habit of only asking for donations. Reordering the relationship between people and organizations is the core of what needs to change.

PND: What are the primary components of Matterness? And is it a concept that can be scaled?

AF: Matterness is, first, a way of thinking and, second, a way of acting. The impetus for writing this book was my observation, based on ten years of working with nonprofit organizations, that too many organizations are trying to pretend that nothing fundamental in the world has changed. They want to believe they can continue to operate with old assumptions in place so long as they have new online billboards they can use to broadcast their accomplishments. But when an institution is organized around the idea that the world is a scary place and the safest response to uncertainty is to build a wall around the organization and sit behind it, work becomes an exhausting ordeal, particularly for underresourced nonprofits. Embracing Matterness, embracing the idea that there are lots of good, smart people out there who want to help your cause, is a more powerful and energizing way to work, and it is the only way to effectively scale and sustain causes over time. Most nonprofits are never going to have lots of people on staff, but they don't need to in order to get their work done. What they need is to tap into the large crowds of people out there who are willing to help. But to put crowds to work on your behalf, leadership needs to start working with rather than at people.

PND: In this book and in your earlier books, you emphasize the importance, from an organizational perspective, of "listening" — listening to customers and constituents, listening to supporters, listening to competitors. In a world in which a single voice can drown out the voices of hundreds, even thousands, is there a danger for organizations in listening too closely or well?

AF: First, thanks for reading all of my books, Mitch! Organizations tend to get confused about the idea of listening. The first mistake they often make is to confuse listening and action. Listening means acknowledging the speaker and the question. It does not mean agreeing to act on every single suggestion. Focusing on Matterness requires organizational leaders to re-humanize themselves and to treat other people like real people. That means no window dressing or Astroturfing or fakery of any kind. If an organization doesn't agree with a question or critique, it needs to tell people why. People generally don't mind being challenged or disagreed with; they mind being ignored. The former means you matter enough to be listened to, while the latter conveys the message that you don't matter at all.

The second mistake organizations make is to confuse whackadoodles with legitimate critics. Most organizations are so overly sensitive to criticism that they will do almost anything to distance themselves from it, whether it's legitimate or not. And too many organizations work too hard to delegitimize their critics so as not to have to address the issues raised by the criticism. That's a huge mistake. Yes, there are wingnuts out there, but not as many as many leaders assume. Most critics are just voicing what other people are thinking. This is a blessing for organizations willing to use legitimate criticism as an opportunity to learn and improve. On the other hand, organizations that refuse to jump into the world of social because they want to protect their reputation have got it all wrong. It is much more likely they will be ignored and meet with silence than that they'll be attacked. In the digital age, the success of all organizations depends on their continued relevance to younger generations of people who live online.

PND: If I were to distill the message of the book into a single talking point, I would say it's about the power of active engagement -- with one's colleagues, one's community, the world at large. Are you optimistic that individuals, empowered by new digital tools and actively engaged in their communities and with each other, can help solve many of the tough challenges we face?

AF: I am wildly optimistic about the opportunities organizations have to make their causes relevant and sustainable and successful in the future. But we have a widespread leadership problem, Mitch. The purpose of this book is to challenge organizational leaders to think about themselves and their work differently, to walk away from the easy assumption that because the world can be a scary place and people can behave badly, that's a good enough reason to hide from it.

I think of Matterness as the third installment in a trilogy. Momentum described what was coming, as well as what social media was enabling individuals to do that, previously, only organizations could do. The Networked Nonprofit focused on how organizations that embrace social media end up changing their shape and operating more like social networks than traditional hierarchies.Matterness is squarely aimed at the C suite — and those who aspire to it — and implores people in those positions to rethink the way they look at the world and their roles in it. We need leaders who engage with the world as co-creators and problem solvers. We need leaders who aren't afraid to be human or talk with real people who are working to make the world a better place. And we need them sooner rather than later.

Mitch Nauffts

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