Getting Started, nonprofit resources

Social Media Requires Patronage and Community

2 Comments 20 February 2013

I just finished reading the essay “Late Bloomers” by Malcolm Gladwell. The crux of the essay is that there are two types of successful creative geniuses: those who produce works of genius at the beginning their careers (think Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safron Foer, Picasso, or The Rolling Stones), and “late bloomers” who find success in their works of genius after years of hard work (think Paul Cézanne and Van Gough). What every “late bloomer” has in common are two critical support elements, the patron and the community. It struck me, after reading this essay, that this is absolutely true about using social media well, for all the same reasons.

Everyone wants to know what will “get them 5,000” likes and “how to grow really big” on social media. Organizations read about and aspire to replicate viral online campaigns such as the Kony 2012 campaign, or Blame Drew’s Cancer. The fact is that many viral campaigns and works of social media “creative genius” conform to Gladwell’s assertion that late-blooming creative genius requires a patron and a community. Take the Kony 2012 video, Invisible Children’s short documentary produced to support the Stop Kony movement. Shortly after its March 2012 release, the video went viral, garnering over 100 million views on YouTube within a few weeks of its release.

Kony 2012 was a classic late bloomer.


Gladwell writes, “If you are the type of creative mind that…has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.” Most late-blooming artists, like Cézanne and Van Gough, have a financial patron who believed in their genius. So too must organizations be the patrons of their own social media experimentation in order to reach their next level of social media and digital engagement. Growing social media spaces takes time and investment, learning and experimenting, and it doesn’t always come from a flash-in-the-pan brilliant viral campaign idea. Kony 2012 was a result of Invisible Children carefully building a its email list through real engagement, digital outreach, prior digital campaigns, and strategic social media communication. If you have a brilliant and creative communication team, your organizations must be its own patrons, supporting social media efforts for a minimum of one year or more for social media efforts to reach their true level.


Gladwell writes that the final lesson of the “late bloomer” is that his or her success is highly contingent upon the efforts of others. He notes that Cézanne had a community of supporters who believed in his genius: his father the banker, his childhood friend Emile Zola who convinced him to come to Paris, the painter Pissarro who taught him to paint, and the sponsor of his first one-man show Ambrose Vollard.

Behind every successful social media campaign is a community of partners that teach, guide, support financially and contribute to the campaign. Javan Van Gronigen, founder of Fifty and Fifty, a humanitarian creative studio, brought Invisible Children into the agency as a pro bono client. Invisible Children was one of StayClassy’s first 50 children, and powers its online fundraising. In 2011, Invisible Children gained national attention with the support of Oprah Winfrey supported their organization. Scott Chisholm, CEO of StayClassy, says of Kony 2012: “This success happened over five years, with the last two years spent making sure each campaign feeds the next.” Kony 2012 was possible, as a “late-blooming” creative campaign idea, because of the community that supported it along the way.

Most social media ideas are not successful early on, and we must experiment and learn, increasing our effectiveness with each round of learning. Patrons and community are critical internal and external elements for any organization’s digital communications growth and learning.

Look around: how supported is your digital communications team? What elements are in place to support later-blooming creative genius?


  • Melinda Lewis

    Debra, I wonder what this means for philanthropy, when we’re thinking about nonprofits’ social change work, in particular, given that so much of the ‘space’ and patronage that nonprofits get to do their work (social media or otherwise) comes from philanthropic support. What elements could a foundation or other donor look for to help them ‘predict’ when an organization or an effort has the greatest potential to bloom ultimately, in order to make them more comfortable providing longer-term support in the absence of immediate outcomes? Or, absent this kind of patronage, how can nonprofits cultivate it themselves?


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Melinda, that’s an interesting question, and one that some foundations are already diving into in terms of supporting technology (not social change). For example, the Avi Chai foundation has been supporting “social media schools,” a cohort of hand-picked private Jewish schools that are working with technology and need a bit of intensive support to bring their tech use for the schools’ successes to the next level. I remember from my organizing days that The Boston Foundation supported just such a cohort of organizations to work on a citywide lead paint organizing initiative. Some foundations deeply support real social change, and those have always been the patrons.

    But what if we turned it on its head? Could organizations like charity:water that cultivate tremendous passion translated into fundraising consider those fundraisers the patrons of the organization? That’s an interesting thought…what do you think about that conceit?

    As for “predictive elements,” gosh – that’s the $1million question, isn’t it? I’d love to know how donors might think about this. I’d venture to say that internal culture: willingness to experiment, dedication, stability, and staffing are indicators.



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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