SXSW Observations

The 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 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, and the three panels devoted to mobile technology and social good, Appfrica; Mobile Web for Good; and Mobile Ubiquitous Banking.


kanter said...

Just caught your excellent post and I just published one saying something similar! I'm going to link to your post

Lina Srivastava said...

Thank you, Beth! I just read your post, as well, and love the number of rich resources you've included. I do believe there's a place for fundraising for and action on behalf of individuals- but that it has to be separated out from larger questions of activism and social good. Thanks for clarifying the definitions.

springfieldinstitute said...

Thanks to Katrin for referring me to this interesting piece on moving organizations from charity to systemic change It's what I do, too!

Lina Srivastava said...

Reposting my responses from Beth Kanter's blog, which add to my thoughts stated in this post.

For Beth's post and others' comments, see

First comment:
"This is a great debate. Beth, thank you for setting up this forum and the questions that spur on this discussion. Since I seem to have initiated some of this, as well, I'll dig into some of what you all have said. Pick the topic you want to read about and/or debate below:

Definitions: I agree with Katrin about the lack of a coherent and shared definition of “social change.” Over the past two years, coinciding with the intense activity brought on by “change” efforts in social media, I’ve had discussions with people on the activist side of the equation about the corruption of terminology in the social change sector. (Giving attribution where it’s due: This question was first raised to me by Michaela Walsh, the doyenne of women’s economic development and microfinance (Founder of Women’s World Banking—if you don’t know her, see: and someone who has devoted her entire life to digging deep into issues of sustainable development for women. She asked me what exactly does anyone mean anymore when they say “social change”? It’s an undetermined and overused term and we need to redefine it.) Admittedly, many activists start with the position, “Who really cares what we call it, we just have to do it.” But then you start to look around and realize that the corruption of terminology leads to the unintended consequences that Katrin mentions above. I don’t want to create some kind of caste system within the social change sector, where activists are the only ones who can “do it.” And I’m not interested in creating vocabulary that closes off avenues of participation by anyone who has a contribution- particularly because everyone has a stake in the outcomes of social change efforts, and because everyone can make a difference, even by singular action. (Though I’d argue that the audience member who was cheered because she raised $100,000 for her friend was doing what a good friend should have done and was particularly successful at using the tools available to her. But a supreme act of friendship is not social change. Social change is to reform the system that prevented a dancer, a treasured member of society, from lacking health insurance in the first place. Or, I don’t know, to fund a program in India linking music for coma patients- using raised funds to mail her MP3 player to her is not social change.) Charity/fundraising definitely has a role within the social change context as we currently conduct our business (at least for nonprofits as opposed to social enterprises)- and social media is particularly well-suited for fundraising. But to actually be a “change agent,” you need to know what you’re doing or you cause more harm than good.

In terms of creating a definition and providing an example of idea-generation for systemic change, a colleague (Sean Howard) and I have been prototyping a model to use design tools and storytelling to move NGOs and activists toward systemic change. We’ve set forth a draft prescription, which I’m paraphrasing below (from our program brochure), and I welcome comments:

Systemic change results from: (a) ground-level innovation that moves beyond point solutions, connects root causes and is replicable across regions, issues or societal influences; (b) applying knowledge from a variety of diverse approaches to enable shared platforms for collaboration and communication; and (c) creating a shared understanding across sectors on how we harness innovations and how root causes and change agents within a system are interrelated.

Storytelling, images and perception: I’m don’t mean to pick on tweetluck, either, but Stacey’s story of Glory was condescending. I’ve checked out EpicChange’s stated methodology and it appears that it could be an effective model. But Stacy and her business partner (who was there and who I engaged with in a short exchange in the audience) didn’t lead their story with their model or their effected changes. When presented with the opportunity to describe how Epic Change uses social media to implement its model, Stacy went back to the paternalistic and exploitive images that have plagued social good efforts for far too long. When are we going to stop seeing images of poor African children smiling because some organization swooped down and gave them some “thing”? It isn’t as bad as Sally Struthers and her milk-stained, mosquito-covered, swollen baby images. But it’s closer on that continuum of storytelling and imagery than it is to stories of partnership, effective resource acquisition (whatever the mechanism, by for-profit or social enterprise investment, NGO grants or peer-to-peer fundraising) and effective action. When you James, with your position of authority as the CEO of Convio, urge nonprofits to treat their constituents as parents treat their children, it sends an odd message. Can you explain what that means further? The statement seems paternalistic-but I might be wrong and I’d like to know what relationship you’re proposing. As Ben pointed out by quoting Yunus—and as Jon Gosier so effectively stated in his sxsw panel Appfrica-- aid and charity sustain the power imbalance in disfavor of those in disadvantaged circumstances. Add to that the call for upper class westerners to feel “lucky” and donate for the poor African children, and then perhaps (?) the call to nonprofits to build paternalistic relationships with their communities, and that imbalance instills further. I’m not trying to call anyone out for being “western,” because I think that’s a ridiculous and insulting charge to level. I’ve had to deal with that charge when I’ve worked on the ground, and when I’ve worked with documentaries where the protagonist is non-native, and I’ve always thought it was a useless argument. But there is a point buried there and I think we have to clarify, again, how we do our business before we move into communities and situations to change them. In terms of storytelling specifically, we need to engage in needs assessments, to create a dialogue with constituents and beneficiaries, and to provide avenues for voice to be heard. This is not the same as “providing voice”: People in disadvantaged communities are not voiceless. But they don’t always have access to the tools that will broadcast their voices in the same volume as we in the blogosphere do. And that’s something we can use social media to tackle, perhaps?

What’s wrong with fundraising?: Nothing, in the abstract. Shannon asked: Since when did fundraising for nonprofits not be seen as social good? Well, my answer would be that fundraising for nonprofits isn’t itself “social good.” Fundraising is one way of financing efforts to move toward social change- and it’s still necessary. But I do believe the nonprofit sector needs reform. I’m not making the facile “nonprofits need to be more like businesses” argument, because that doesn’t quite capture the problem. But there are too many npos (1.6 million in the US alone)—I’d argue we should look at merger, formal collaboration and dissolution-- and our outdated funding models aren’t adaptive to this current financial crisis. I’ve said before that fundraising as we know it, is going the way of dinosaurs (I do think peer-to-peer fundraising, particularly through social media, is a viable mode of fundraising) and I think we as a sector need to work on alternative, effective financing platforms. (This is also because issue fatigue is real. The discussion on socialedge followed my discussion on cause fatigue at and my website that arose from Global Grassroots’ work in trying to move through obstacles to Darfur activism efforts and from Nick Kristof’s “Darfur Puppy” article in the NY Times. Sometimes people don’t want to hear about it anymore…)

On the other side, James says “I find it disconcerting that almost everyone seems to be missing one very critical point: social media tools can be used for more than simply fundraising.” Sure they can. (That’s not the message that was sent by the Porter Novelli panel, but I understand Beth’s point about how difficult it is to contextualize in that format.) But, what exactly do social media tools accomplish in social change? There’s a rather large group of activities that we currently cram into social change- from cancer research to genocide, from disaster relief to education reform, etc. Also, the difference between social media and mobile in this context is that most people on the ground don’t have access to social media. But they have access to mobile. So what is possible with mobile applications is ground-level innovation and ground-level information transmission within communities with a lower price of entry. This isn’t as possible with social media such as FB, Twitter or blogs.

To this: Another thing we’ve created is a tool to map activity and issue against levels of engagement. We’ve not done this specifically for applying social media tools to action or issue, but I’d be willing to talk to any of you about doing this.

So I propose two other things: The first is that we, anyone privy to this discussion and whoever else we can rope in, move forward on Beth’s questions in a formal debate (I think Katrin and Beth already discussed this?) to explore our terminology and tools and come up with adoptable, instillable definitions. And I propose secondly that we dig deeper into questions of access, participation and ground-level solutions-building. Because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to talk about social media and social change if the communities we’re trying to help change aren’t talking too."

Second comment:
"Regarding a plan, James, before we even get to a discussion of what social media can do for social change, I think we have to agree what "social change" is, as Beth said above. So I'll pull out from my post above the summary of what I think I can do in the context of this discussion: 1) second Katrin in calling for revisiting definitions of theories of change and adopting definitions; 2) invite comments on the prescriptive language for "systemic change"(above, in my previous post); 3) explore questions of access, participation and integration for people "on the ground" and in disadvantaged communities. After that, 4) work to map the use of social media tools against action and impact, taking into account issue, context and goals.

(Regarding NPOs- Good point from @raincoaster- reinforces the fact that the terms "nonprofit" and "social change" are not interchangeable. Change is effected across sectors and across disciplines.)"

Tessa said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Lina Srivastava said...

Thanks for the comment, Ruth. I appreciate your reading the site.