In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, proto-human primates circle an ebony monolith from another world, entranced and enraged at the mystery, the otherness, of an object that in one transformative instant brings them technology, war and the power to reach the stars. A lot of the people I meet in the nonprofit world are similarly flabbergasted by the Internet.
I'm not saying that nonprofits are stuck in the Paleolithic Era. After military research, advocacy may have done more than anything else to spur the evolution of online tools (with mayhem and disaster running close behind). Most of what I've learned about the Internet over 15 years I've learned from the community of activist techies and thinkers whose commingled DNA now runs through the digital staffs of newsrooms, political campaigns and advocacy organizations.
But for every nonprofit Internet guru, or strategist, or 20-something who can launch a blog, there are five policy experts or advocates who aren't looking to master the new tools. They just want these tools to help them change the world.
It should be a golden age. Maybe it is. (Do people know a golden age is happening while it's happening, or do they just declare one and hope they die before being disproven?) It's certainly different than 2002, when most nonprofits sought Internet help from consultants or summer interns. Today, an NGO without a mid-to-senior level Internet staffer is behind the times.
But if technologies change at the speed of innovation, institutions change at the speed of the human personality. Just because an organization knows who to hire doesn't mean they know what to expect. Those of us who guru from inside organizations need to navigate not only the web, but the impatience of our colleagues with a medium whose power is clearer to them than its purpose.
At the nonprofits where member donations keep the lights on, leaders want online windfalls like the ones that candidates get during high-profile campaigns. When the air in swing states is scented with blood and wedge issues dominate the headlines, it's not that hard to turn a sense of urgency into donor dollars. Natural disasters are the same: Horror becomes sympathy becomes an urge to do something. Organizations don't always understand that crisis comes but once a year, or once every four.
In this climate of organizational impatience, Internet staffers need to remember that colleagues will expect miracles if we don't teach them otherwise. For instance, unless you really can make a federal case of it, legal advocacy doesn't pull in millions online. Unless you know someone named Kutcher or Tebow or Germanotta, you're not going to go from 500 to 5,000 Twitter followers overnight. Online advocacy isn't like bombing, where every shot gets results; it's more like farming: Steady work yields a growing crop over time.
And impatience is a two-way street. When organizations clamor for cool maps, beautiful infographics and social media strategies to keep up with the NGO next door, Internet staff often have to push back and ask for data that would be useful on a map, and sentences short enough to be meaningful in a Facebook post. Hopefully we ask with a smile, but too often I've been like Star Trek's Dr. McCoy barking back "Dammit, I'm a doctor, not a miracle worker!" (Though McCoy was always the Luddite in that crew.)
We need to come to terms with our own impatience. Digital advocacy is still a new field. Even the lowliest web intern was hired in some small way to be an agent of change, and anyone tasked with making changes is in for a rough ride. At one job a few years ago, I was alternately cheered for blazing trails, scolded for being too deliberate, and patted on the head for expecting too much. And it wasn't easy to predict which reaction I would get.
It's tempting to sulk when your suggestions don't part the waters, but just because the Internet is still in its adolescence doesn't mean we should act the same way. Rewriting code is easy. Changing your own approach is possible. But it's always foolish to think you can change other people. Those of us hired to help organizations adapt must remind ourselves every day to be adaptable.
Once we've accepted that organizations are impatient, and that we can be too, there's one more group we should keep in mind: regular Internet users, who may be the most impatient of all. In cyberspace, there are no long drives, no commercial breaks and no closing times. People consume and communicate at the speed of their fingers and imaginations, so if you want to enlist them in a good cause, make it simple to understand and easy to begin.
Just because you produced a video doesn't mean it's going to be the next KONY 2012. People will still probably be streaming Downton Abbey or baseball. Just because you made a Facebook page doesn't mean people will "Like" it, much less click through to your website. They'll still probably be looking at pictures of other people's pets and children.
Email, the web and mobile phones may have made it a little easier to reach people, but they've made it a lot easier to be a nuisance. (Have you ever gotten a spam text message on your phone?) There are no shortcuts to the good stories and vivid images that remind consumers that they're human beings.
If anything, the impatience of the average digital citizen demands even greater patience from the average digital advocate. Life's not a sci-fi movie. One new idea can't get us from Earth to Jupiter in the blink of an eye.
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