A Global Conversation: Free Agents and Nonprofits in a Networked World

7 Comments 13 March 2011

Visualizing Networked Nonprofits and Free Agents by Jonny Goldstein

I am attending the South By Southwest Interactive panel discussion entitled “A Global Conversation: Free Agents and Nonprofits in a Networked World.”  Beth Kanter of Zoetica Media is the moderator, along with fellow panelists Danielle Brigida of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Mark Horvath of Invisible People and Jessica Dheere, of Social Media Exchange Beirut in Lebanon. During the session, I captured the presentations and audience Q & A. This blog post is merely a recording of the session, with highlights of the key points. On an editorial note – the session surfaced some incredible pearls of wisdom from both panelists and audience members about how to work with free agents and nonprofits, and those are underlined.

The session begins with an overview of the concept of The Fortress, a nonprofit organization that won’t work with outsiders. When a “Fortress” encounters a “free agent” who uses social media tools to organize, mobilize, raise funds, and communicate with constituents outside of the fortress, what happens? The free agents crash into the walls of fortresses. How can we change this dynamic?

Shawn Ahmed, a free agent with The Uncultured Project, shares this pearl of wisdon about free agents and nonprofits remotely through a video message:  It is not the role of the free agent to navigate bureaucracy!

Danielle Brigida: Life in The Fortress – how to break down the fortress walls.

Danielle works in a fortress organization, the NWF, which is 75 years old. The NWF has built up a lot of walls over time to protect the brand and funders.  The walls protect the Fortress organization, but the walls protect The Fortress from possibilities!

The NWF is taking baby steps to bringing down the walls: they are learning how to be network weavers. They are mapping out current relationships within the organizations and outside, and figuring out who the staff is talking to within and without in order to engage and deliver better.

The NWF initially tried to be succinct in its communications with free agents, which ended up cutting off connections. However, by paying attention to free agents through the oil spill, they found that the volunteers helped them do their job better. For example, after the Gulf Oil Spill: a volunteer made a great video which helped the NWF to do its job better. People communicate with them all the time, and the NWF is experimenting with the best ways to engage with people like that twitterer.

Beth: how does your management deal with people who are using the brand? Danielle: this did happen recently and she asked the legal department NOT to send a “cease and desist” letter. She is trying to educate legal how to bring people like that into the organization instead of be upset with them for using the logo.

Tony Yet from 1KG More (a Chinese nonprofit) in the audience volunteers his story about how free agents engage with a Chinese NGO: if you are traveling in rural China as a backpacker, you may find rural schools and can give the schools pencils and small materials that the schools need. The backpackers can initiate these associations and initiate traveler meetups in cities. They encourage free agents to deliver their program.

Mark Horvath: What are the lessons learned by Free Agents working with nonprofits?

(Side note: Happy Birthday to Mark Horvath today! Help him celebrate his birthday with a donation to his cause, Invisible People.tv)

Mark travels around the US with a camera and empowers homeless people to tell their own stories. As a free agent, he has encountered three kinds of organizations:

1. The kinds that embrace him, such as Mobile Loaves and Fishes in Austin, Tx. They invite him at any time to share and work with them.

2. The kind that invite him but still have control. They really don’t want to share.

3. The kind that don’t want him to work with them at all. One NPO in NYC threatened to pull funding from nonprofits that work with Invisible People.

What he has learned is that he has to be willing to work with all types of nonprofits, no matter what kind of nonprofit they are. He has to always remember what he’s doing: fight poverty, non people, and stay focused on that. He has noticed “executive director disease” where fear breeds micromanaging and control. Legal departments feed this fear.

His most important rule is “keep the cause first.”

Advice that Mark would give to free agents to help them be successful:

Remember to “respect everyone,” even those that didn’t pay attention to you in the beginning. Have permeable boundaries in order to keep the cause first.

A free agent audience member adds: Wherever you see walls, just go through them.

Jessica Dheere: How do Free Agents and NGOSs in the Middle East work together or not?

In the Middle East, fortresses are, in large part, the governments that are in charge. (Note to readers: Jessica is speaking about the Arab Middle East.)

The relationship to information in the Middle East is different. Information is a foundation of building campaigns – but access is circumscribed legally and technically. There is a lack of data. A lot of the information is in English, which also restricts access.

The relationship between civil society and government is co-dependent. Civil society organizations exist at the pleasure of the government. The activities can be monitored. Many organizations want the government representatives to be involved to provide political cover.

Civil societies won’t put money into certain issues. There is no such thing as micro philanthropy. There is a culture of giving money to the poor, but this does not extend to other issues. Funding comes from the outside (such as the State Department, international NGOs). The fortresses that they deal with are the international NGOs and overseas donors who tell them how to act.

Audience question: how do you see the free agent role changing? Danielle responds: as a larger organization, we have to come up with ways to work with people who are passionate who want to do something. Organizations need an engagement strategy with people outside of the organization.

Audience question: Rather than picking and choosing which free agents to work with, why not encourage all of them and foster the ecosystem of people who care about your issues? Danielle – this is really what we want to do. On social media, everyone is equal. Make your own influencers by empowering everyone. The influencers are really busy, so empower passionate people.

Final words from Beth: nonprofits don’t have to be monogamous. Partner with many free agents!

Additional recording notes: The session is was live tweeted using the #netnon hashtag, volunteers were taking photos and uploading them to twitter and instagram, and Andrea Burton curated and translated tweets to and from the Arab world and posted them at http://www.curated.by/meedan/sxsw. Simultaneously, a group of social media activists held a tweetup in Beirut, Lebanon and in Egypt, and they listened via skype and asked questions over twitter. Shawn Ahmed monitored and answered twitter questions during the session, on twitter. Jonny Goldstein from envizualize created graphic reporting visuals during the session (photo header).


L-R: Beth Kanter, Danielle Brigida


L-R: Mark Horvath, Jessice Dheere


Jonny Goldstein taking visual notes of the session





Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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