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Peter Block and John McKnight

Peter Block and John McKnight

Today I had the pleasure of being part of a discussion group with John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development fame.  He and Peter Block (one of my favorite authors) have just come out with a new book, The Abundant Community.  (note: the book just came out so I have not read it yet but plan to do so as soon as I’m done with school reading)

McKnight focused much of the conversation on the importance of associations for democracy and strong communities.  In this context he is referring to groups of people (usually neighbors) who get together to identify the issues in their communities, figure out how to solve community problems, and organize the community to implement those solutions.  McKnight argues that associations are one of the defining features of the US and were identified as such as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, brought to light the fact that associational life as we have known it for centuries in the US is on the decline (and has been since the 1960s).

With McKnight and Block’s new book they hope to demonstrate that associations are not just nice to haves, but are essential to a community’s core functions.  They outline six areas in which associational life is key to community health:

  1. Personal wellness – 90% of an individuals health is based on life factors, including their connections to their family and neighbors.
  2. Safety – community policing and National Night Out are just a couple of examples of the role neighbors play in safe neighborhoods.
  3. Economy – the majority of jobs are related to local businesses
  4. Environment – the decisions we make at a local level are key in grassroots change
  5. Food – McKnight cited the importance of local grown food
  6. Children – it takes a village to raise a child

I appreciated McKnight’s key arguments, but it left me wondering about the difference between networks and associations.  One of McKnight’s arguments for associations is that institutions have reached the limits of what they can do for us.  This is the same argument that I hear Beth Kanter and Allison Fine making in the Networked Nonprofit.  It seems like everywhere I turn these days I am reading about how powerful social change and social movements happen through networks.  I don’t hear the word association used at all.  Are networks the same as associations?  If not, why not?

The way that I live my life as member of the millennial generation, I live it through networks.  Using social media, I keep in contact with people that I have met throughout my life.  If I switch jobs, move to a new city, or just have a question about how to do something, I turn to my network.  I reinforce my relationships with people through face to face interaction, but the online networks like Facebook and LinkedIn make it possible to maintain those connections between face to face gatherings.  I may join an association for a short period of time, but with my greater need for flexibility and my penchant for moving regularly, I am less likely to invest time and make a commitment to an association.  When I speak to the interservice club council and others like them, they are very frustrated by young people like myself who are not joining local associations.  The advice that I and others have given these groups is to be more like a network.

So now we get back to the question from my recent post about free agents, How does the connection someone has with their online networks affect their relationship to local in person networks?

Or to put it another way, are networks and the free agents that thrive in them the answer to Robert Putnam’s concerns about the unraveling of associational life?  If not, what are we missing and how can we build those features into a way of connecting with one another that embraces both the best of the social web as well as lessons from centuries of voluntary associations?

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At the National Conference on Volunteering and Service this morning, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine introduced a new model for volunteer leader engagement (though that is not how they referred to it).  Kanter and Fine, in their new book, The Networked Nonprofit, describe a new phenomenon that has accompanied the rise of social media.  They coin the term “free agent” to describe social media savvy and socially minded folks who raise awareness, money, support, or elicit action on behalf of a cause or organization which they support.  These free agents are able to mobilize their networks using free tools for causes they care about.

With the rise of social media, there are new ways of connecting to each other and new ways for individuals to demonstrate leadership.  Social media savvy, well connected folks can leverage their online networks to support a cause that they are passionate about.  Or, as in network weaving, individuals can play a critical role within their social network by connecting people and ideas to generate new partnerships and action towards social change.  In the first example, which Beth Kanter and Allison Fine refer to as “Free Agents”, the individual is often front and center.  He makes a commitment, speaks out about his cause, or even pledges to ride naked (almost!) in the DC area if his connections will follow him in his effort. (see video for a great example)

Most of the time the individual is moved to act, but may or may not have extensive knowledge of the cause or solution he is trying to help.  I see the growth of free agents as a push back against the professionalization of the service movement.

How do these free agents fit into the overall picture of the service movement?

Are free agents the volunteer leaders of the future?  How do nonprofits embrace free agents while also continuing to create more structured opportunities for volunteer leadership?

How does the connection someone has with their online networks affect their relationship to local in person networks?

References:

Network Weaving, http://www.networkweaver.blogspot.com/ June Holley

The Networked Nonproft, Beth Kanter & Allison Fine

The Networked Nonprofit session, National Conference on Volunteering and Service

Nonprofit Network Building, Case Foundation

The End of Nonprofits as we know it session, National Conference on Volunteering and Service

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Yesterday, I attended the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival on the National Mall.  On the metro ride there I happened to be reading Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s new book, The Networked Nonprofit.  In fact, I was reading the vignette about the Smithsonian and how since 2008, under the direction of President G. Wayne Clough they have moved toward becoming a transparent organization and embracing new media.  Well, it is one thing to read it in a book and quite another to see that new direction with your own eyes as I did when I reached the Mall.

This year, the Smithsonian decided to devote one section of the festival to “Smithsonian Inside Out”, in which many different departments were represented with staff, volunteers, and displays to educate the public about the inner workings of this institution.  I was surprised by the diversity of what was on display and the enthusiasm of the staff and volunteers who represented SI.  In general the displays were demonstrating the great things that SI is doing, but the staff and volunteers that were on hand were also being authentic in answering tougher questions about the institutions past and more controversial issues such as exhibits on indigenous cultures being housed within the Natural History Museum.

A surprising highlight for me was a staff member from the Facilities division showing different faux finishing techniques that he uses on the walls and interiors of Smithsonian buildings.  He was so enthusiastic as he explained that the type of bag that carries onions can be used to create a snake-skin like finish!  It was great to see facilities staff being represented alongside world renowned Ph.D’s (like the entomologist in the next tent over).

Panda CrateAnother great show-and-tell was the hippo crate.  Recently the National Zoo (part of the Smithsonian) had to move their hippo to make room for an expanded elephant space.  I remember there being some hubbub surrounding the move and concern about the hippo.  What better way to be transparent than to have the actual hippo crate on hand for members of the public to walk inside and ask questions about.

The institution’s move towards new media was also on display in the Exhibits tent.  In an interesting experiment with crowd sourcing, the Smithsonian is hosting a game by which members of the public take pictures of Smithsonian buildings and then upload them to Photo City to create a 3D rendering.  You can see the details here: http://photocitygame.com/smithsonian/

There was a staff member demonstrating how the game worked and I mentioned Extraordinaries to him as a possibility for future crowd sourcing projects.  He mentioned that if they were able to do more photo imaging projects like this one, the 3D renderings could be made available on their website for visitors and researchers alike who were not able to view them in person.

I hope that the Smithsonian Institution continues in this direction towards becoming a Networked Nonprofit.  If you know of other examples of projects they are doing in this space I would love to hear about them.

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