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The Message in the Cryptex

BY Gavin Clabaugh | Tuesday, October 6 2009

[We're pleased to repost, with permission, this short essay by Gavin Clabaugh, a veteran of the nonprofit tech world who serves on the board of NTEN; Aspiration, a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to identifying, developing, and funding IT solutions that address strategic technological needs within the non-profit sector; TAG, the technology affinity group of the Council on Foundations; and the Innovation Funders Network, a funder’s collaborative that is focused on technology, innovation, and social change. ]

Different venues, different audiences, but the same query: Six times in as many months, I stood in front of a group asking (perhaps demanding) that I answer the same question. Audiences can be scary — and the question pointed to the heart of the matter.

In each case, I had been invited —and cheerfully agreed — to talk about web 2.0 and online networks, these new fangled “social” technologies. But, the audiences wanted brass tacks — my academic musings and observations from on high were not enough. The crowd was hungry. They wanted the secret answer.

Folks listened patiently — but only up to a point. I, no doubt, had waxed idiotically on about social technologies being “messy, fast, and casual” — generally ill suited to any sort of organizational context. They are designed to be “personal.” They don’t adapt well to the organizational context, and I don’t think they ever will.

To that, well… I’ve always felt Marion Barry, the former Washington DC mayor, put it eloquently (in three little words): “Get over it.” The fact of the matter is, with social media, an organization no longer can speak with a single voice, or deliver a single message. We need to get over it. It’s all about one-to-one personal communications, only it’s one-to-one with thousands or hundreds of thousands, of people. Sounding silly, I’ve said that since the ‘net began and it’s truer today than ever.

But, such answers have not been enough for hungry audiences, waving netbooks, iPhones, torches and pitchforks.

Folks know there is a secret; what’s worse, they want the secret. They’re unabashed. After all, Obama’s campaign had proven it, right? The virtual cat was out of the digital bag, and it was time for me to come clean. (Pitchforks and torches not withstanding —obviously, I’ve a bit of a love-hate relationship with these presentation things.)

The question on the lips and placards of the angry villagers, the Question with a capital “Q”, is simple: “How can we raise money with these new social networking things?”

I suppose I could blame Election ‘08 — specifically Barack Obama — for setting the stage. His campaign’s success was evident. They had raised money, apparently with online social networks. They had also rewritten the rules of politics, and perhaps changed the world forever.

Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple. Moreover, deep down inside, that question is tinged with an underlying belief, a belief that more “friends,” more “followers” equals $uccess. (That’s bull, by the way, pure and simple.)

Nevertheless, nonprofits are nonplussed; they want to raise money with Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever. In the end, it’s the ends. It’s dollars, not donuts, not even the euphemistic “constituent building.” It’s about money, filthy lucre— and deep down inside they know that they’re missing the boat. (So, it’s damn the Tweets, and full speed ahead.)

This belief persists, despite the facts. The facts are clear: social networks are much better “friend raisers” than they’ll ever be “fund raisers.” But, believe is difficult to fight, logically or otherwise. Social networks are the big thing, like direct mail, or telephones, or fax, or email before them. (And, like those that have come before, we are rapidly filling up web 2.0 with random streams of amazing stupidity – but that’s another discussion.)

The “Social Networks = $uccess” belief is ubiquitous. Recently, I reviewed more than 90 grant applications, proposals focused on the intersection of jazz and technology, a far cry from my typical business. However, the same threads were there — a remarkable and overwhelming percentage cited the same holy trinity: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. I read it so often I started to refer to it by acronym (FYT — pronounced Pffufft).

‘Till now, I’ve had no ready answer for the Question. Nothing I say seems to satisfy — folks want the secret code.

Lean in a little closer. Today I’m going to tell you that answer.

Here it is: the secret decoder ring, the magic ingredient, the answer to the Question of how to raise money with online social networks. Ready?

Step One… First, you get yourself an Obama.

Wait… Don’t hit that big “X” …

I say this with all seriousness. First you get yourself an Obama. That’s the secret of the Obama campaign. It was Obama — not Facebook, not Twitter, and not the bevy of would-be Dick “Bite-me” Morrises or the myriad of MoveOn’s anxious to fill up your inbox, dance across your Facebook page, or displace Ashton Kutcher in the Twitterstream of useless things in 140 characters.

The real secret is this: It’s never the tools, it’s the content. It’s never the medium, it’s the message.

The tools can make it easier to deliver the “ask,” and they can surely smooth the logistics of it all, but it’s still all about the message; it’s the content, stupid. More followers does not equal $uccess, unless you’re Ashton Kutcher. And that only works because Ashton Kutcher is selling Ashton Kutchers. (Or maybe he’s selling Demi Moores? I’m never sure.)

There you have it, the message in the cryptex, the answer to the Question. Tools only streamline the process. Today’s fancy network tools, social or otherwise, can move mountains, remove the barriers, streamline the donation, facilitate the transaction, and instantaneously validate the act of giving, relaying thanks, community, appreciation, and a receipt.

But, fundraising is about content; it’s about the Obama-factor. Facebook? YouTube? Twitter? Pffufft… Tools don’t create community. Get over it.