Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

August 24, 2009

Connecting, part 1: Giving sector needs media smarts

By Todd Cohen

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media thinker who died in 1980, theorized that “the medium is the message.”

The communication tools we use and the way we use them, in other words, speak volumes about the stories we tell.

Sadly, that insight is lost on many people in the giving sector.

Giving is all about connecting and building community, which are all about telling stories.

And as McLuhan showed, the tools we use to tell stories shape and play an essential part in those stories.

Yet charities and givers can get so bogged down in the process of their work that they end up speaking only in the jargon of their trade, and so they become terrible storytellers.

But if, in telling their story, they can capture and convey the passion, caring and resources they invest in the causes they care about, they ultimately will do a better job serving their clients and their cause.

If they are authentic storytellers, nonprofit executive directors can inspire their boards, staff and givers, and engage them in the job of improving their organizations and services.

As part of their challenge of becoming better at telling stories, the giving sector needs to better understand, invest in and make use of new media tools that are creating new ways to give, communicate and participate.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the book he published in 1964, McLuhan traced throughout history the way breakthrough technologies, such as the wheel, the printing press, the automobile and the radio, transformed culture and redefined the way people live, work, express themselves and connect with one another.

Although he died on the eve of the age of the personal computer and long before the Internet, McLuhan already had seen that “electric” media would spark radical changes in organizations, communities and culture.

He is believed, in fact, to have coined the term “global village,” reflecting the impact new media would have on bringing people throughout the world closer together.

In a networked world, he wrote, information would be shared, representing an asset for inclusion and collaboration, not a tool or weapon for exclusion and control.

McLuhan’s media message is critical for the giving sector at a time of economic crisis, a massive breakdown in ethics, and accelerating changes in technology that are rearranging the very nature of work and community.

America’s giving sector is rooted in the idea of community: We give our time, our money and our know-how to help fix social and global problems, pooling our resources with others who want to give back and make a difference.

To slightly tweak McLuhan’s idea that media represent an “extension” of human beings, a way for us to connect with one another and our environment, it also is true we extend and connect ourselves through giving.

Yet the giving sector, which embodies what is best in our civic life, has failed to keep pace with new media’s impact on our lives and jobs.

Nonprofits could make much better use of new media to understand and engage their givers, clients and partners.

New media never can replace but certainly can make more productive use of the indispensable knowledge, common sense, personal relationships and passion that nonprofit professionals have developed over time.

It also is critical for nonprofits and giving organizations to find ways to use new media to reach their target audiences and the public because newspapers, which traditionally served as a trusted source of news and information, are shrinking or disappearing.

While websites, email, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter are filling that information gap, the overwhelming and fragmented nature of new media can overwhelm consumers with too much information.

So charities need to find ways to make the most effective use of media by shaping and targeting their messages to reflect their constituents’ specific needs and interests.

Many nonprofits and foundations, for example, have invested a lot of money developing websites that are heavy on self-promotion and self-congratulation.

Instead, they should be thinking about how to use their websites and other social media to educate people about their causes and get them involved.

Charities also should be looking for ways to truly work together with one another in using new media to raise money, run their shops, deliver services and tell their stories.

While they are indeed the message, media represent only a means, not an end.

The sooner charities can build media into the way they do business, the sooner they can move beyond business as usual and tell stories that truly inspire and engage their supporters and partners.

Next: Connecting, part 2: Stories can build giving, community

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