I call it organizing: “network weaving” and your nonprofit

Remember, all comments on this week’s posts about The Networked Nonprofit will enter you in the running to win a free copy of the book!

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the attributes that drive organizations towards social media parallel those that create the conditions for effective advocacy. Today, I’m thinking more about those overlaps, here in the context of “old-fashioned organizing” as compared to what Kanter and Fine refer to as “network weaving”.

Both concepts have the same fundamental goals:

  • Identifying key individuals who you can connect to your cause
  • Connecting those individuals, also, to each other, in the recognition that collections of people are always more powerful than people in isolation
  • Building strong relationships that, while not “personal” in the classic sense, have a degree of intimacy, forged through both conflict and collaboration, that energizes a movement and transforms people’s lives
  • Finding ways to move people towards increasing levels of involvement, always with a dual focus on how the organizing effort can meet their own needs as well as those of the cause (Beth Kanter refers to this as “The Ladder of Engagement”)
  • Creating structures that give people, who would be relatively powerless alone, voice and power, and a mechanism through which to change their own lives, and the lives of others

    I share with the authors, as do almost all of the (many) grassroots organizers I know or have known in my career, a belief that organizations are stronger when they have a solid connection to those they serve, and that individuals’ lives are enriched by participation in something larger than themselves.

    And I don’t really care whether they call that network weaving, in language that perhaps feels more familiar to those figuring out social media will add to their nonprofit organization’s quest for justice, however they define it, or organizing, which, albeit in online form, it really is.

    But it does, for me, raise some real questions about where the points of divergence are. In other words, if networking weaving, as described here, is so much like community organizing, how is it different, not in technical ways (like the media used) but fundamental ones? Are online social networks, for example, more likely to be composed on homogenous groups, thus denying people one of the most enriching parts of organizing: joining forces with those different than ourselves? Are the relationships forged online significantly different (more shallow? more lasting?) than those built face-to-face? Is the role played by a network weaver substantially different than that of an organizer? Do the boundaries of expertise fade away more fluidly online?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, and they are most likely only answerable by work with a relatively small number of individuals–those engaged in authentic online AND in-person networking weaving/grassroots organizing efforts. Because so many of the former organizations have little to no experience in grassroots organizing campaigns (having adopted the strategies specifically to advance their online efforts) and so many of the latter are working with populations that (correctly or not) they assume to prefer face-to-face work, definitive answers may elude us, at least for awhile.

    But, maybe, that’s okay. Maybe, for now, our challenge is to really contemplate the questions: to think about how (and when) network weaving complements how we engage people “offline”, and vice versa, and to prompt conversations with our constituents about the multiple ways in which they want to connect to each other, and to our shared work.

    Those of you who organize online and/or in-person, where do you see overlap and where do you see significant differences? How can practitioners committed to empowering participation use both strategies? What cross-learning do we need to advance these fields? And does language, how we talk about what we do, matter?

  • 2 responses to “I call it organizing: “network weaving” and your nonprofit

    1. Melinda,
      I don’t think there are a lot of differences between network weaving and community organizing. (In fact, it’s why I titled my blog Community Organizer 2.0.) I’ve always seen the parallel between online engagement and community organizing, including leadership development, grassroots organizing, and even campaign development (where appropriate). However, as I understand it, the network weaver is the connector that understands the importance of connecting people to each other and weaving them together. If it is in the service of a cause, even better.

      I see the biggest difference between traditional “offline” community organizing and online organizing is the inherent loss of control of the message online because of the nature of social media. Things spread quickly online, and potentially the messaging could move in many directions at once, lose message clarity, etc. A real challenge is to build enough engagement and leadership development ahead of time that the message can be trusted to be conveyed and strengthened by the online community.

      My $.02.

      On a related tangent – I think The Networked Nonprofit is one of the best nonprofit tech books that has been written yet. I recommend it to everyone and mention it all the time.

      • I appreciate your insights on the role of a network weaver as a connector, Debra. And I think that the understanding of the convergence of online and offline organizing skills, which I do see increasing, is key to effectiveness in either medium–as you often remind readers in your blog, when we think that technology is a shortcut to building meaningful connections between people, we’ll be disappointed, just as we would be foolish to ignore the very powerful online tools that can help us to leverage those deeper relationships. The reader who won The Networked Nonprofit from my blog giveaway was really excited about it, and I hope to have her share some of her experiences in the next several months, since she’s starting up a relatively new nonprofit venture with a Board who’s very eager to think about how approaching their work through a more “connected” lens could shape their very foundation.

        PS. One of my resolutions for 2011 is to be more diligent in commenting on some of my favorite blogs, so hopefully you’ll see more of me soon!

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