SXSW Interactive and Film festivals in Austin, Texas, were a whirlwind of ideas and activity, and the small but significant segments devoted to nonprofit and social innovation issues presented food for thought. While most of what I saw left me generally hopeful (perhaps because I didn't hear much about our current economic or funding crises), many of the panels made me think we still have challenges in the social change sector in the way we do our work, how we define it, and how we aim for change. Here are a few brief takeaways from the panels and hallway conversations:
As a sector, we still have work to do to clarify the distinction between charity and social good/systemic change. The "Social Media for Social Good" panel, in particular, led off with stories of fundraising and good deeds on behalf of individuals, as opposed to scalable social change. I'm not making a value judgment against fundraising here (had they titled the panel "Social Media for Fundraising," I would have had less of a problem with the focus-- though I will continue to argue the prevailing system of fundraising needs a major overhaul). But I and a few other attendees later voiced the view that charity is an entry point, not an endpoint, in sustainable social change. In other panels, I heard general discussions of impact measurement, but no discussion on how nonprofits and activists could set up or measure those metrics-- or fundraise to pay for the time and effort it takes to carry out impact measurement. There was little discussion about presenting evidence of change, even in the storytelling panels- and only heard one mention of the need to make a specific connection from engagement to actual change. (With regard to the storytelling panels, most of what I happened to see concentrated on ad-driven and brand-supported storytelling, so I won't discuss that now.)
Similarly, many of the proposed solutions that panelists discussed throughout the festival would largely affect the same socioeconomic strata as the attendees. Besides the panels devoted to mobile applications for social good in developing regions, there wasn't much attention to scaling solutions to other socioeconomic classes. Neither was there much discussion of ground-level innovation and scalability of those solutions, except in those same panels. And as Katrin Verclas of MobileActive.org pointed out, there was far more attention given to development and marketing of more applications and more products, and less to the development of enabling and instilling platforms along socioeconomic fault lines for existing products and services.
On the numerous discussions about social media, it appeared that some people position social media as a discipline itself. To state the obvious, social media is a tool and a platform to enable and enhance communications. I'm not sure why social media is still being pulled out from larger communications strategies (for surely the novelty of social networking is wearing off by becoming ubiquitous?), but if so, we need to start seaming it back in. The only exception to this would be the discussions on access, diversity and participation in social networking. Proposed solutions mostly centered on the creation of affinity groups, which seem to belie the point of integration on the web. If affinity groups connect immediately to larger, cross-participatory groups, this strategy may work. Simply creating silos may solve the access and participation problems-- but this won't go far in terms of integration and the cross-cultural dialogue that the web is otherwise well-suited to provide.
The good news is that, despite the economic and cultural challenges we face, I felt a general sense of action and positive movement. The panels I most enjoyed and would revisit are: The Ecosystem of News: Change V2 (Lawrence Lessig inspiring discussion of his newest project, www.change-congress.org) and the three panels devoted to mobile technology and social good, Appfrica; Mobile Web for Good; and Mobile Ubiquitous Banking.