Allison Fine is a senior fellow with Demos in New York City. In 1992, Fine founded the Innovation Network (InnoNet), where she was executive director and president until 2004. She also has served as CEO of the e-Volve Foundation. Her first book, Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, was recently published by Wiley & Sons. PND spoke with Fine about activist organizations and how nonprofits can be more responsive to people interested in their work.
Philanthropy News Digest: In your new book, you talk about activist organizations and connected activism. What do those terms mean for charities and foundations?
Allison Fine: Activism to me means people working hard to make good things happen, and it includes our whole community. I'm using "activism" in a non-political sense. "Activist organization" is a much more powerful, much more energetic term than "nonprofit." Instead of talking about what we're not, I really want people to think about how we think about ourselves and how other people view us. I want us, as foundations and charities, to think of ourselves as proactive and successful.
PND: You make the point that some nonprofits and social leaders are leading change in new ways through a mindset of self-determination and interconnectedness. How pervasive is that mindset within the philanthropic sector?
AF: It's new and it's evolving, and we haven't figured it all out yet. Certainly, foundations have a great opportunity to work in a different way with their grantees. They have to become part of building what I call an ecosystem — a network of activist organizations in communities. Many think they're there already, but I think they'll begin to see barriers that they still have to lower in terms of their transparency and their decision-making and in terms of their willingness to engage in real conversations with activist groups. That's time-consuming, no question about it, but I think the results are going to be astonishing.
PND: To what extent is this a generational issue?
AF: It certainly seems there are many new foundations and foundation executives with roots in the for-profit side, where there may be a flatter workplace and different ways of communicating, and I think that helps. But even they seem to recognize how money skews the conversation between grantmaker and grantee.
But when I really began to think about the essence of philanthropy, I realized that people who give voluntarily can do it however they want to do it. And I think, as activists, they ought to be careful about spending too much energy worrying about and trying to change the behavior of foundations, because it can be very de-energizing. Activists ought to set their own course, which is the essence of self-determination — to determine what you're in the business of doing and how you'll be successful, and then gathering a wide network of supporters — whether donors, volunteers, board members, or clients — to support that vision. That's a very different way of working. It's a very empowering way of working.
PND: You've come a long way from the days when you were a public official in North Tarrytown (now Sleepy Hollow) New York. How did working in government shape your views about how the charitable sector works best?
AF: It is the basis for forming all of my views since then. Working on a very local level — under-resourced but trying to be innovative — we went out and created neighborhood watch groups and citizen patrols and recycling programs. We didn't have great databases or ideas or existing programs to draw on, and it was hard to connect with new people to get them involved. But we did it. That experience shaped the creation of Innovation Network, which was based on the idea of helping local activists learn and improve what they were doing, of really wanting to help community-based groups see that their time had come. I believe that individuals and under-resourced organizations have an opportunity like never before to spearhead movements, spearhead campaigns, and be successful social change agents.
Just ten years ago, if there was an oil spill in Chesapeake Bay, only the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council had the resources, the infrastructure, to respond in a meaningful way. Today a blogger can do it. There are free tools available online that enable activists to create campaigns, send out petitions, fundraise, and communicate and meet with others - and all at no cost, except for their time. It's a remarkable development. As a result, I think we're going to see more and more power shift away from institutions and toward individuals. It just opens up lots of opportunities for people to self-organize.
PND: You have a chapter in Momentum that discusses the "listening deficit." What is it, and how will addressing it change organizations?
AF: Organizations in every sector have grown up in silos; they see themselves as providing services to communities but have lost the ability to really listen to the people with whom they're engaged. Today, organizations — particularly social change organizations — have the opportunity to have real, authentic, meaningful conversations with people who are interested in their work. The tools to do it are out there, and the only question is, do they want to do it? For instance, I often hear from groups that are interested in starting a blog, but the initial old-school reaction within the organization usually is, "Well, we can have a blog, but we don't want to have comments on it." That's missing the point entirely. People today expect you to interact with them. That's the essence of social media. Otherwise, a blog is just a brochure. That's not having a relationship with people.
Organizations need to have real conversations with people. My advice is, listen to your members, let them help shape what you're doing, let them help shape your strategy. Don't look at them like they're just ATM machines. There is no controlling the message anymore. There are simply too many outlets, too many distribution channels, and too many people with different interests and opinions. Having conversations with people, including people in real and meaningful ways in your work, is the essence of social change work, and it shouldn't be viewed as an extra cost. It is the cost of doing business if you're an activist. And when it's done well, it creates so many more opportunities for your organization. When people feel like they have a chance to participate, they're much more likely to connect you to other people, and all of a sudden you have a large network of committed people willing to go the extra mile for you. What could be more fun?
— Matt Sinclair