Membership Rolls Dropping. What Does 'Support' Look Like?

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Membership Rolls Dropping. What Does ‘Support’ Look Like?

Yesterday on the DC Metro, I found myself seated behind someone who was reviewing the minutes from a board meeting. I don’t normally read over shoulders but this was just about being shoved in my face. The font was large and clear and had lots of bold. I recommend that people think twice about what sensitive documents they peruse in public — I am not proud to say I could not stop myself from glancing along.

Be Careful, Stick Figure by Flickr user chad_k
'Be Careful, Stick Figure' by Flickr user chad_k

The heading proclaimed these as the minutes from the meeting of a very high profile national advocacy organization. This is an organization that has been around for decades and has been very effective in changing national views on a range of issues. (I am not saying what group this is.)

The page my travelling companion was reading recapped a contentious discussion about membership. Turns out that this organization has fewer than 60,000 members. That caught me up short. It seemed wildly out of step with the organization’s powerful profile.

It also opens up a window into the crisis of confidence that large nonprofit institutions are  facing throughout society. Everywhere you turn, you see formerly-major institutions losing relevancy and crumbling. They are good organizations that do good work. But they are running into brick walls all over the place. The United Way, the League of Women Voters, many public broadcasting stations, and more. Community benefit organizations are facing more difficulty in fundraising, and increasing skepticism. And memberships are falling off the cliff.

Shrinking memberships is a real problem for these organizations, as dues are one of their important revenue sources. Here’s one thing that I believe is going on: The perceived value of my membership has increased. That is, it takes a lot more to get me to “join” an organization now than it used to.

There are many reasons for this. An argument could be made that declining membership rolls are reflective of a sector that is ripe for a shakeup. That may be part of it. But there is a broader force as well.

There are now more ways to show one’s support of a cause, campaign, or organization than there used to be. From easy “liking” and “fanning” on Facebook to retweets, online petitions, and blog comments, the spectrum of options available to prospective members has widened and deepened. Actual, dues-paying membership is ‘way over there at the edge.

Effective organizations are taking account of this and are finding new ways to find revenue (creating for-profit non-profit hybrids), and using new metrics besides just  “members.” For mission-based organizations, focusing on “members” will undercount your actual influence and distort your operations, taking you off mission. More important is having a good understanding about how people move from one form of support to another, what levers you can push to encourage that, and what the utility is of each form of support.

Transparency Is The New Accountability

My latest piece is posted at Public Square Today, my blog at Washington Times Communities:

Transparency Is The New Accountability

Transparent by Flickr user scottfeldstein
"Transparent" by Flickr user scottfeldstein

In the new Citizen-Centric World, the relationships and roles of institutions and citizens are changing. People are demanding that public institutions cater to them, rather than fitting their behavior to the needs of the institution. There are examples of this in education, in politics, in nonprofits and philanthropy, and elsewhere.

One big change is that accountability is becoming something completely different than it used to be. Time was when “accountability” for public institutions was to institution-defined metrics. But people are now bringing their own metrics and judging institutions on their own criteria. Transparency is the new accountability.

Some institutions are trying to be responsive to the new accountability. They are trying to be transparent. Because this is a new area, they are having mixed results. Case in point: the “jobs created or saved” numbers as they relate to the stimulus package. . . .

Read on for implications of this!

Welcome To The Citizen Centric World

Today I had the great fortune to be able to co-present with my friends Joe Peters and David Campt on using new technologies to engage citizens. We led a workshop at the National League Of Cities’ Annual Congress in San Antonio.

We each covered a different aspect of what it means for public-facing institutions to engage using new technologies. I kicked it off with an overview of what the new, citizen-centric world looks like (based on work that I have been doing with John Creighton) and went through a few very basic examples to get people’s ideas flowing.

I purposefully did not go into social media, as that  was being covered by Joe. David led a lively discussion about the use of keypad technology in face-to-face meetings.

Below is my presentation:

You can download the presentation here.

We got a number of questions in writing from the audience, which Joe and I will be answering on our respective blogs.

Trapped Girls Seek Rescue On Facebook

IMG_0420 bu Flickr user abbybatchelder
"IMG_0420" bu Flickr user abbybatchelder

Recently two Australian girls trapped in a storm drain in Adelaide chose to update their Facebook statuses with please for help rather than dial the local equivalent of 911. This has local officials worried, according to a spokesperson in the ABC News article:

“If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000 [the local equivalent of 911], so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway.”

This is a good example of what John Creighton and I see as a shift from an institution-centric world to a citizen-centric world. Public leaders can no longer expect citizens to act in ways that are convenient to instituions. Citizens instead expect institutions to conform to their needs.

However, not many public institutions have caught up to this fact. So, for example, the Adelaide, Australian emergency services office is “worried” that the girls did not use the right phone number.

It may be that, instead, citizens ought to be worried that the emergency services office has no way of monitoring a communications channel that is increasingly ubiquitous.

Indeed, the channel is so ubiquitous that citizens are forced to create workarounds to compensate for the failings of the official mechanism, as in this episode of which social media news site Mashable reminds us:

[I]n Atlanta, Georgia in May 2009, a councilman was concerned that his cellphone battery would be flat by the time a 911 call connected. Instead, he Tweeted: “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson st. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet”.

This is one example of room for improvement when it comes to public instituions. Instead of trying to “educate” citizens to use the “correct” means of calling for help, perhaps public leaders ought to devote efforts to making sure there is a listening mechanism set up across the spectrum of daily-use communications platforms, not just one.