Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues in a Connected Society

It's no secret that over the last fifteen years the Web has changed the way nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies connect with the public. Or that, with the emergence of Facebook and Twitter, more and more nonprofits have come to rely on social media to raise awareness of their causes and build community. And yet, for all the efforts to engage audiences in new and interesting ways, most of our most pressing challenges remain to be solved.

So notes Brian Reich, senior vice president and global editor at Edelman Digital, in his new book Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues in a Connected Society. Indeed, notes Reich, "technology and the Internet have changed not only how we communicate — the physiology of platforms, mechanisms, and tools — but the psychology of communicating itself: why, when, and where we choose to engage with one another online and off." Which is why, says Reich, everything about how organizations function needs to be rethought.

Unlike Media Rules! Mastering Today's Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience, which Reich wrote with Dan Solomon to explore how changes in communications technology and society are affecting nonprofits' relationship to their audiences (and vice versa), Shift & Reset explores the many challenges confronting resource-constrained nonprofit leaders in a crowded marketplace of ideas and offers actionable strategies for them to consider. His aim, he says, is to make readers uncomfortable by speaking frankly and asking questions others are afraid to ask. And for the most part he succeeds.

In a chapter titled "Embracing a New Approach," for example, Reich questions the effectiveness of the "pinkification" campaign rolled out by Susan G. Komen for the Cure last fall to raise awareness of the scourge of breast cancer — a campaign that even (and perhaps most notably) the National Football League got on board. But while Reich commends Komen and the NFL for mounting a successful effort, he wonders "how many people, after seeing their favorite NFL player wearing pink gloves and shoes during a game, take the next step and actually become involved?...[And] is all this activity moving us closer to finding a cure?"

In general, writes Reich, nonprofits are spending too much time "serving the cause" instead of "solving the cause." Nonprofits, he argues, should be working to put themselves out of business by "infiltrating and guiding the operations, thinking, and outcomes of everyone and everything that, in [their] estimation, needs to be influenced in order for [their] cause to be" not just a hot topic but something that attracts supporters who are in it for the long haul. "Rather than producing information for the sake of producing it or waging campaigns that perform for one purpose only," writes Reich, look "at what an audience wants and how to reach them, then deliver the information that will help to educate, engage, and mobilize them in the most appropriate ways."

Take the NFL. Having both deep pockets and a diehard fan base, the league has the standing and wherewithal to influence millions of people and drive concrete action. Instead of a cute, month-long branding exercise, its support for Komen and efforts to raise awareness about breast cancer should "be bigger." That means doing more than asking players to wear splashes of pink on their equipment; it means encouraging "more voices, more access to information, more collaboration, and more ambition." It means inviting fans "to help expand the reach and impact of [the league's] work in support of causes and issues."

Easier said than done; engagement, after all, can be tricky. To help readers understand how nonprofits can maximize engagement to mobilize supporters and achieve their goals, Reich turns to Barack Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign and MyBarackObama.com, in particular, for lessons. According to Michael Slaby, chief technology officer for the latter, the Obama campaign settled on three criteria to measure success: money, message, and mobilization. It "worked backwards," for example, from its goal of contacting a certain number of people to drive votes. And once it established a relationship with supporters, it had a system in place to track their behavior so it could engage them based on their level of commitment. That, in turn, enabled the campaign to tailor individual requests aligned with supporters' interests.

Reich also challenges conventional wisdom when it comes to management and personnel issues. Nonprofits in today's increasingly interconnected world need to become "Franken-orgs" — dynamic learning organizations that seek out and encourage "the highest-performing individuals and teams, the most impressive capabilities, and most compelling and influential partners." Unfortunately, because nonprofits in general are afraid to get rid of underperforming employees, many operate at a disadvantage. The good news is that new communications technologies make it easier than ever for nonprofits to become what Groundswell author Charlene Li calls "open value networks," enabling them to partner, collaborate, and fill their human and intellectual capital gaps cheaply and quickly.

A self-described media junkie (clearly evident by the number of related articles and books referenced throughout), Reich continually reminds us that technology is not the answer to our problems. Nor is social media responsible for creating the conditions that make it possible for activists — in the Arab world or as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, to name two recent examples — to upend the status quo. Instead, writes Reich, echoing the argument advanced by Malcolm Gladwell in a now-infamous New Yorker article, social media "facilitates" social change and enables nascent social movements to organize more efficiently and effectively than they might have otherwise. Which is not to say that nonprofits can afford to ignore it; they just need to stop blaming the tools when a campaign fails to move "people off their couch."

Reich closes his book by conducting a thought exercise: What if a nonprofit chose to ignore new technologies and the inflection point at which society finds itself? While such a decision wouldn't necessarily lead to disaster, he writes, the organization almost surely could forget about creating the kind of change that "improve[s] our individual lives and society as a whole." And what's the point of that?

No, what the world needs, writes Reich, are "people who have no fear of failure; people who can bring others together in new, innovative ways. It needs people who can work hard, be smart, and commit to driving real change — people who can shift and reset everything for better results. The world needs people to start right now, without delay or hesitation…."

Are you one of those people? Then this is the book for you.

Regina Mahone
Staff Writer, PND
Foundation Center
New York, New York