Clay Shirky: nonprofits must become new-style convenors – or lose their members

Clay Shirky really pins down what any organisation relying on members or supporters for its life must do if it is to stay in business as people increasing network online. That means change for campaigning charities, trade associations, and membership bodies who may have worked in the past through a mix of newsletters, events and perhaps not very special services. If they don’t offer more value, members and supporters will stop paying their subs. I’ve suggested this before, Clay says it much better.

Clay is currently promoting the paperback edition of Here Comes Everybody, which he sums up as “Group action just got easier”. It’s all about how people can use the Internet to organise without organisations, as he explained in an extensively covered presentation at LSE last week. Further examples here.

Amy Sample Ward interviewed Clay on a topic close to her heart: what impact will social media have on nonprofits … those charities, memberships bodies etc.

In the video Clay tells the story of a campaigning organisation – the American Civil Liberties Union – that tried to stop members using the organisation’s name when arranging get-togethers through They were saying, in effect, you may have shared values and concerns, but you can’t organise around them using our name. The story has negative and positive aspects.

The negative aspect is that organisations must accept that their members can link a brand and their cause and use tools like to get together face-to-face, and then Facebook, Twitter and other online tools to keep connecting. Or vice-versa: connect online, then meet.

The positive aspect is that smart organisations can realise what’s happening, and revise the offer that they make to members and supporters to add more value than DIY networking can offer.

The old model, as explained by Clay is that organisations would offer a one-way relationship: sending out a newsletter, for example. Then they might offer a return channel – give us feedback.

However, these days members and supporters are able to communicate laterally with each other. I’ve previously used this diagram to illustrate typical arrangements – hierarchies, clusters, and networks – with different propositions: join us, join up, join in.

Here’s how Clay puts it. He says that the old model is – we call you a member, and you give us money, and we will give you a newsletter. It’s a outbound model, with the organisation at the centre like a star, broadcasting light to its members.

However, in the age of social media people have got used to being able to talk back, so the model is updated to allow a return track.

But the line back is much less radical, and represents a much less dramatic shift than the lateral lines, the lines drawn between members that are in a way using the idea of (the organisation) as a platform for co-ordination but don’t need help or permission from (the organisation) to come together.

The biggest determinant for the role of the nonprofit is what do you do about those lateral lines.

The negative thing is, if your principal role is to stop those lateral lines from forming you’ve got a wasting asset, because your membership base will start to move away – because things that they expect in a room will be in every other aspect of their lives.

The positive goal, says Clay, is to help work out which of those lateral connections will be most useful to the organisation, to the cause and to each other at particular times and in particular circumstances … because we don’t want to be connected at all times to everyone. We don’t want to be on a mailing list of 100,000 people getting everything.

What organisations can do is to help their members with particular interests, in particular locations, find each other and get together.

Having some sense that you all care about the issue – you all share something in common, whether it is geography or outlook or skills – and only we as an organisation can see into both of those kinds of values …

… that I think is the really radical convening function. Not just passive convening – use your membership in Greenpeace as a dating network for like-minded individuals – anyone can spin off that idea.

It’s really when a nonprofit can say we think you will find value from associating with these particular groups at this particular time.

But it requires a really dramatic shift …. and saying actually, in the same ways as we talk about the members of the body, we are made up of you, not just made up of your money and our executive committee, we are made up of you, the members, as our existence.

You then start to figure out ways to coordinate the members in ways to create the kind of value that we couldn’t have gotten to in the 20th century … but is now becoming not just available, but cheap, trival and expected by people.

I think Clay’s great strength as a writer and presenter is to link his analysis of the changes that the Internet and social media is bringing, with short, compelling examples. He tells stories we can identify with, and starts the conversations that we need to have.

I became interested in the potentially changing role of membership organisations a couple of years ago, and with Simon Berry started the Membership Project, but we lost momentum last year after some initial work with RSA and NCVO. It now looks as if the research side of the project will be relaunched, and I’m hoping to link up with some parallel practical work on what membership organisations can do to explore their new convening roles.

The RSA networks project has been a rich source of inspiration on these issues, as you can see from various posts here and here. Next week there’s a workshop, hosted at the University of Westminster, to explore where next for RSA-related networking. I’m sure we’ll be touching on the issues Clay has raised. There are a few tickets available here, and online discussion here.

See also from Designing for Civil Society, and Socialreporter


  • February 13, 2009 - 2:25 pm | Permalink

    This is great stuff. Rank and file non-profits in the UK need to grasp this. I’d love to get hold of an anglised version of this video – less easy to dismiss as “not our culture”.

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  • Mark Outhwaite
    February 20, 2009 - 12:12 am | Permalink

    This is a key dilemma. Web 2.0 is as much a state of mind as a technology. Al too often when the baleful gaze of the public sector and long established not-for-profits turn to web 2.0 it turns rapidly to web 1.0 again. Ironically many not-for-profits developed from ‘insurgent’ and unorthodox networks and communities of interest.

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  • February 23, 2009 - 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Excellent interview! Thanks so much

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