MDN: celebrating 20 years of supporting nonprofits

Last week the Management Development Network held its 20th birthday party, and I talked to one of the co-founders, Shirley Otto, about the formation of the network by those working in the voluntary and community sectors, and what’s happened since then.

These days consultants, facilitators and trainers are widely used by charities, associations and smaller organisations – but back in 1991 that was unusual. There were suggestions at a seminar that something needed to be done about standards among this new “maverick” breed – perhaps some way of ensuring “good practice”.

The mavericks took it open themselves to get organised, and MDN was born. You can find lots more here on the network’s site. The range of specialisms covered by members provides both an idea of the depth of experience among the 100-plus members, and also the range of activity in the sector.

I ran an informal workshop on social media in the serious part of the event, before festivities began, and found a lot of personal interest but not yet much engagement with the possible strategic importance of new technologies. However, just as I was writing this post Shirley forwarded a report about the use of the Internet by Charities, written by Professor John Taylor with Dr Eleanor Burt for the Nominet Trust. It says that the Internet “could be the making or breaking of charities”.

How ‘traditional’ organisations present themselves online is key in order to resonate with modern donors and volunteers. Unprecedented levels of data capture and interrogation are shaping charities’ strategies as well as their day-to-day operations. Many are also using social media to better understand the needs of their service users. However, with this increased knowledge, comes a new level of responsibility.

There are many organisations and publications that aim to support third sector organisations to use the internet in working toward their charitable objectives. These resources build upon arguments about developing sustainable business practices within a shrinking funding landscape; increasing organisational reach and demonstrating impact in imaginative and powerful ways, or improving and extending the way in which charities can communicate with donors, beneficiaries and other stakeholders – each of these arguments is well placed and there is evidence to demonstrate successful use of digital technologies to achieve these objectives.

The review, written by Professor John Taylor, in collaboration with Dr Eleanor Burt, places these opportunities within a wider context of how charities can begin to develop new practices that use internet-based technologies. It sets out a number of examples of successful approaches as well as exploring what it takes to start, or develop, uses of the internet that support charities in working towards their own organisational mission. Importantly, it also highlights how new charitable organisations and new relationships between charities have evolved to make the best use of the internet, in so doing, aiming to create greater social value and impact.

I think there’s scope for some fruitful collaboration between MDN members who have great expertise in planning, finance and governance, and the social technology consultants who know lots about the tools but usually not so much about the organisational issues. Should we set up an online forum? No, I think a launch party for a joint exploration would be better.

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