Punching at Your Own Weight in Social Media

This is a guest post from Daniel Ben-Horin, CEO of TechSoup Global.

By Daniel Ben-Horin

portrait1_smiling_240dpi_450x600 (2) This is a condensed version of a panel presentation I gave at the European Foundation Center conference in early June. The panel topic was: “Social Media: Threat or Menace?” No, I made that up. The panel was called, Social media: A fad or the future?

I decided to take a personal tone. People of a certain age, and/or a certain techno-anxiety level feel a lot of pressure to ‘operationalize’ social media in the nonprofit and philanthropic worlds. Nothing much good comes of this, and one of the worst things that can occur is a kind of passive-resistance, or not so passive. People block what they can’t understand. Or make poor decisions.

The audience was about 80 ‘early adoptors’, actual or would-be, from European philanthropies across the continent.

1. Social media is not a ‘tool’.
Social media is about  choosing whether or not to operate in a different way in the world, a way of looking at innovation, collaboration and communication that can’t be left at the office overnight.  That doesn’t mean that if you tweet at work, you have to keep tweeting compulsively at home! But either you are truly excited by the possibilities and embrace them, or you are rolling a stone uphill.

2. Social media mileage will vary.
Most of my friends think that the values of social media and of effective philanthropy — values of transparency, innovation and collaboration—merge to form a completely compelling unified proposition.
But communications cultures vary and the social media norms of the States are by no means universal. What is most important, I think, is distinguishing between the personal and institutional stance toward social media. On a personal level, can you explore social media in an open enough way to discover if it meets any intrinsic needs of yours?

On the institutional level, it is true that since philanthropy is a key player in the public sphere, you should indeed, on some institutional level, join the conversation. But if you don’t find yourself engaged personally, find  people you trust and who do enjoy the process and allow them truly guide your social media practice.

The good news is “you can stumble if you’re humble,” which is a phrase I didn’t coin but really like. You can make mistakes, accept correction, do better next time and, in the process, achieve your goals… as long as you do it in plain view.

3. Social media flattens.
A cat can look at a king, as the saying goes. There’s not much point in standing on ceremony 140 characters at a time; it is a waste to take a command and control mentality into the social media arena. The opportunity here is to push out ideas in real time and see how the marketplace of ideas responds. The opportunity is to respond in real time to others’ ideas… ”others” whom you don’t necessarily know. The opportunity is to observe and interact with others as they interact with each other.

The social media context encourages mass participation by lowering the barrier to entry.  This results in a scenario where there is much more signal and much more noise. What does happen, amidst all the noise, is that the people who contribute the greatest perceived value are able to grow their network of followers without the permission of a single entity (editor). It is very democratic, very much including the messy parts of democracy.

4. Collaboration, innovation and noise
No one is forced to follow anyone or friend anyone. Think of the numbers in context. What does it mean to have 200,000 Twitter followers? Are they the kind of followers who follow a thousand other Twitterers (which is the same as following no one at all)? And, always, come back to what do you yourself enjoy and find meaningful in interacting with others using new tools.

Configuring your social media practice to your interests and personality is a dynamic process; at the beginning, it feels overwhelming but soon you find your way.  As the popular metaphor goes, social media is a rushing river; your words, wise or foolish, will disappear (only to be resurrected when you run for the Senate). What will truly build and what may last are relationships and ideas. 

When Facebook and Twitter came along, email — my palette! — became passé on a certain level. So when I entered the new waters, I did so grudgingly and instrumentally.  It took me a while to see that (a) I could have fun by just being myself; (b) lots of people I care about—personally and professionally—are in the new waters; (c ) If I just relax and trust that I have something to offer, it all works.

Social media and philanthropy share this: They are, at the core, about people. The SM field is advancing so rapidly in response to whatever people want to do, trivial or profound.

So, as philanthropists, what do you want to do and how do you want to do it?

Keep an open mind.

Punch at your own weight.


  1. Terrific post, and I love the “you can stumble if you’re humble” idea. I’m just not so sure that email is over. I worry that those of us who love early adoption forget about that passive resistance that you mention earlier. And a lot of the time it isn’t even passive, it’s downright aggressive. For the moment, email is NOT passe for much of the world. The world is full of people – smart people – who are just learning to use it fully.

    There will always be, in any learning curve, people at one end or the other, and that curve is never still. It is always shifting. Email, newspapers, the phone, even letter writing aren’t passe (hey, I love to get a letter in the mail!) They are just no longer the best way to “push out ideas in real time” as you say. But they ain’t over! I think it’s important to remember that as we rush out into these new waters. There’s still a lot of people wading in behind us.


  2. Daniel Ben-Horin says:

    Some funder friends have asked for pointers to further advice about slithering up the Twitter food chain at their own speed. I’d recommend, first, a wonderful post on Twitter Literacy from the sage social media guru, Howard Rheingold:


    And, second, the fabulous new book on this topic, with specific strategies galore, by Beth Kanter and Alison Fine,

    The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change


    And while I’m writing, let me correct my title, under original post, from CEO of TechSoup Global to co-CEO of same. We have an interesting hydra here and I am very happy to share the office with the ineffable and inexorable Rebecca Masisak and Marnie Webb.

    p.s. to Alexandra — Your points all well taken, esp. wrt email.