A few years ago I was “Googling” on the topic of social media, and stumbled across a very cool visual created by Terence Kawaja of Luma Partners.

Though many of the companies listed here do not exist anymore, and some of the categories themselves have morphed a few times (in just a few years). Watching an entirely new universe of possibility unfold before your eyes is cool.

As we find ourselves struggling to succeed in the nonprofit/NGO sector I am struck that we have a lot to learn from entrepreneurs like these, but that will be the subject of another blog posting.

This blog post is going to focus on is the fact that much of what we have been learning from the ever-changing ever-new world of social media is different—fundamentally different—than what we should be learning. 

Social = Sales

One need not look further than the names of these new categories themselves to begin to wonder if something is not amiss: Social Intelligence, Social Scoring, Social Business Software, Social Data, Social Search and Browsing, Social Brand Engagement, and advertising and marketing and commerce platforms. And on. And on.

I believe many of the true icons of social change—most of who were building global social movements well before the founders of today’s new media companies were born—would suggest that these varied uses of the word social might actually be nothing more than a thinly veiled new media overlay for the term consumer.

Our icons of social change might even go so far as to suggest that what these platforms and companies have been built to do actually has very little in common with the real work of creating and mobilizing communities.

The vast majority of consumer marketing is purpose-built to get people to think as little as possible.

To act on impulse. To sell products based on a quick and clever presentation of features and benefits. Today, the ancient concept of loyalty, has been subtly but powerfully replaced by an incessant drive to create habit. Both things can feel the same, but they are profoundly different.

But many are trying to convince us that this is just the way things are in the new world. The internet and smart phones have apparently so altered our DNA that human attention spans are now no more than three or four seconds.

I am reminded of a quote from Jose Luis Ortega y’ Gasset:

Falsehood often wears the robes
of commonly accepted truths.

Resist the impulse to embrace impulse. Our work to create social change requires the exact opposite of impulsive behavior. Our desire to build movements requires that people think very deeply. That they commit. Not just for a transaction, but for a lifetime. Not just because we have created the path of least resistance to help them do so, but because sometimes an issue is so important it is worth hard work and personal sacrifice.

The ever-growing parade of social media and consumer marketing experts have not created the kind of thing that can help a lifelong ever-deepening commitment to a cause. That is not their job. That was never their job.

That is our job.

It is our job to take these tools and use them to their fullest effect. Not the way a profit-minded social media expert might suggest, but the way Gandhi, or King or Mandela might have done had they had this much potential in their hands.

That process begins by having the courage to see beyond one-off emotional triggers that prey upon impulses but do not create true loyalty (how many of us are addicted to “Likes” these days). It requires having the wisdom to know that loyalty that is based on deep values and beliefs is not only possible, it is more achievable than at any time in history—on a truly global scale.

Don’t look in the mirror, dear emperors

Make no mistake. We should be eternally grateful to the courageous captains of industry, because they are vitally important to our success in the social impact sector. Without these pioneers, we would not have the technology and bandwidth and access that makes it possible to communicate and create action anywhere and everywhere in the world.

They took the risk. They did the heavy lifting. They followed the opportunities that created the new marketplace and broke incredible technological barriers. They put a mobile phone in the hands of a woman farmer in a remote part of the Philippines.

They are not the emperors with no clothes.

But if we continue to wholesale adopt their products, services and tactics without adapting it to the unique needs of the social impact sector, we most certainly are.


If you want some help in how to adapt social media to the needs of the social impact sector, I would suggest a couple of great resources:
For strategic advice, download Lucy Bernholz’s 2015 BluePrint for Philanthropy and the Social Economy  For excellent grass roots tactics, check out John Haydon, he offers great perspective on the “How To’s.”

Please let me know what you think!

Bill Toliver  
Executive Director
The Matale Line

Share this story!