Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Getting Social

This past Friday I had the privilege of attending the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR)'s Technology Leadership Summit. The summit was held right here in Boulder, CO, in collaboration with the Coleman Institute’s 9th Annual Conference. The event was well attended, and summit attendees were given a tour of Imagine!’s Bob and Judy Charles SmartHome to see first hand how technology can positively impact the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities.

And the very end of the summit, there was a discussion about social media and how organizations serving those with disabilities could use some of these Web 2.0 tools to better communicate with (and better serve) their constituents.

At Imagine!, we have embraced social media wholeheartedly (not just this blog – we have Facebook pages for Imagine! as a whole, for our SmartHomes project, and for our Out & About department, and we have a blog and Twitter page for our SmartHomes project), so I was a bit surprised to hear that there was a lot of resistance to using these new tools among some of the attendees present for the discussion.

Below are some of the concerns and objections I heard during the discussion on Friday, and some thoughts I have as to why those concerns and objections, while sincere, may be missing the bigger picture of what social media can bring to the table.

Using social media will make our employees less productive – they’ll spend all day talking to their friends!
Believe it or not, I remember hearing the exact same argument some 15 years ago when we proposed setting up an email system at Imagine!. I think you would be hard pressed nowadays to find an organization that does not use email for a substantial portion of their communication. I firmly believe that we are at the beginning of a new shift in how organizations will communicate, and social media tools will be the platform for that communication. I can already see how these tools can actually improve employee production, disseminate information quicker than before, and lessen the chance that bad information travels too far.

And frankly, those of us in the field of developmental disabilities trust our employees with the lives of our consumers. If we do that, surely we can trust them to use new tools available to them for the good of our organizations, right? If not, then they probably shouldn’t be working for us in the first place.

What about privacy and protection for our organization? This will jeopardize those!
I guess the question in response to this concern is “What do you have to hide?” Using social media makes your organization more open and transparent to its stakeholders. Families, consumers, donors, government entities, and other constituents can find out about your organization in a quick, easy way. More importantly, they can engage in the conversation about the direction of your organization. Maybe they have ideas we haven’t thought of – and they’ve never been given them a platform to suggest those ideas. Social media provides that platform.

It seems to me that we have an obligation to the individuals and communities we serve to let them know how we are doing. Social media provides a very real, tangible way to share information and engage in genuine discussion. We’re all better off when that happens.

What about consumer exposure? Don’t we put them at risk?
I understand this concern, but I think it misses the point.

Off the top of my head, I can think of ten different organizations serving individuals with developmental disabilities here in Colorado who use the word “community” in either their mission statement or even as part of their name. It is in Imagine!’s mission statement. It is what the “C” stands for in ANCOR. We all want to provide the individuals we serve the opportunity to engage in their communities in meaningful ways.

Well, social media is all about community. There are groups out there on the internet for every interest, hobby, or pastime you can think of, and a lot more you probably never thought of. And technology has made accessing those communities relatively easy, even for those with significant disabilities. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me for organizations with a stated mission of providing community access and opportunities for people with disabilities to not at least explore this new avenue of access to communities.

Am I saying having consumers engage in social media is a risk-free endeavor? Of course not. But neither is taking a consumer to the recreation center, or to a baseball game, or even to work. We all accept those risks as part of what we do because we think it is important to provide opportunities for community interaction, and we take steps to mitigate those risks. I don’t see why we can’t do the same for social media.

And here’s an even more important consideration, one that in my mind is the main reason we should be encouraging consumers to use social media. In the virtual world, a person’s disability is invisible. Say, for example, a consumer joins a Facebook group dedicated to the Denver Broncos. All the other people in the group just see the consumer as a fellow fanatic – someone just like them. The consumer can engage in these online communities and conversations without barriers and without judgment. To me, that meets Imagine!’s (and I suspect most of our organizations’) mission and goals in an incredible powerful, and empowering, way.

At Imagine!, we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what we could be doing with social media. But even our small efforts have had big successes, and I’m looking forward to bigger and better things as we explore this medium more fully.

Below is a list of some other blog posts about social media and the non-profit world. Even if you organization is for profit, there is still a great deal you can learn from the information presented. I encourage anyone who is interested to explore more. Don’t get caught behind the curve – start exploring now to learn how these tools can help you better serve all of your stakeholders.

Then again, what do I know?


How Non-Profits Can Use Social Media

Helping Nonprofit Managers To Overcome Fear Of Social Networks

Social Media Tips

Social Media for Nonprofits Before You Jump In with Two Feet – Important, Boring, Basic Stuff First

Five Things To Do With Your Nonprofit Blog

Ten Things a Nonprofit Should Do Before Setting Up Social Media

Twitter for Nonprofits and Fundraising


  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for including my article "Social Media for Nonprofits Before You Jump In with Two Feet – Important, Boring, Basic Stuff First"
    in your list of recommended links.

    I get these same comments at all of my workshops for nonprofits on social media. Your questions and answers are right on. I hope some of your blog readers will be inspired to give social media a try.

    Marion Conway

  2. Thought proviking article on use of social networking tools! Thanks for sharing.

    David Rumberger
    PDC Pharmacy
    Life Enrichment Trust

  3. Marion and David
    Thank you for your comments. I am convinced that we have yet to truly understand the impact that social media will have for people with cognitive disabilities and those of us who provide support. While financial resources are tight, now is the time to explore low cost or no cost tools, and social media is at the top of our list. I am taking every opportunity available to push this message. I will revisit this issue in a month or two to see how we are doing.
    Mark Emery

  4. Great Post Mark!

    I don't think we can overestimate the power of these applications. Because the Social media applications are so intuitive and accessible it can help facilitate communication for consumers. In a resource strapped system - any way to use these tools to improve communication just makes sense.


  5. Thoughtful post, social marketing is such a great opportunity to enhance two way communication, community and transparency. Keep up the good work!