At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

What Gladwell Got Wrong: International Nonprofits’ Strong Digital Ties

Last year, in a now-infamous article titled Small Change Malcolm Gladwell used the phrase “weak ties” to describe relationships predicated on and perpetuated within social media networks. He argued that this type of activism “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

A few months later, I joined in on a still ongoing debate regarding social media’s role in the social and political change going on in the Arab world.

During that time, most of my research and analysis focused on social media’s role in sparking and perpetuating an uprising—how Twitter and Facebook facilitated the uprisings, if at all.

But for the past six weeks, working at a tiny international nonprofit called VE Global, my understanding of social and digital media’s role in social change has deepened.

VE’s goals as an organization are twofold: first, they work on behalf of disadvantaged youth by volunteering at after-school programs and children’s homes, and second, they train and support the volunteers working in these institutions, instilling and promoting a lifelong desire to volunteer.

While VE Global is not seeking radical social change on a revolutionary scale, they are an organization “that promote[s] strategic and disciplined activity” (Gladwell) to achieve humanitarian ends. They raise the money and awareness to do so almost exclusively through social and digital media communications.

For example, I found out about my position with VE Global through, a website database for thousands of NGOs, nonprofits, and volunteer opportunities. To apply for the internship, I sent an email to the Executive Director and set up a Skype interview. Before arriving in Santiago, I familiarized myself with the organization through their website, YouTube video, blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed.

For VE, Facebook “friends” are potential donors, volunteers, or evangelists. Their Twitter feed reaches hundreds back in the US and fosters community relationships here in Santiago. Former volunteers from all over the world who may have otherwise lost touch after leaving Chile are reunited via Facebook, and are often further inspired to give back to VE because the organization remains visible, through social media, in their busy lives.

A 2005 Google Grant was awarded to VE for their commitment to a near paperless office system. The grant provides VE Global with free AdWords driving interested traffic to the VE website, where visitors who are so inclined may donate through Google Checkout directly to the organization. Executive Director Josh Pilz and Director of Development Jamie Ensey told me that not only does the majority of their funding happen this way, but that they often get random donations from people who must have simply followed the digital path to VE Global and believed in what they saw.

In Chile, where certain companies are required by law to donate a portion of their profits to charity, a website called Fondomixto provides these companies a database of nonprofits from which to choose. As a young organization with a young audience, it is no surprise that most of VE’s fundraising occurs online—according to a 2005 statistic from the ePhilanthropy Foundation, online giving is growing exponentially each year.

Of course, international nonprofits existed long before the digital media revolution, just like social uprisings and cultural revolutions happened before people could Tweet about them.

But the debate about “weak ties” versus “strong ties” in activism seems reductive—for VE Global and other international nonprofits, digital media provides both the weak and the strong ties. Certainly many of VE’s 360 Facebook friends are weak ties. But within that number is a dedicated group of people whose only contact to Santiago comes through social media updates.

Perhaps a better way to look at digital media and nonprofits is that digital media allows the weak ties to become strong ties, and allows the strong ties—the relationships developed from volunteering or donating—to remain strong.


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This post is categorized in: Social Media

About Elizabeth Hunter

I love to write about things that make people say WHUT! And I can officially break news, scour the Twitter/Internet, and put out some coherent information in less than a day. Ask me, dudes.

11 Responses to What Gladwell Got Wrong: International Nonprofits’ Strong Digital Ties

  1. Meghan says:

    Awesome article! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Liz,

    While I think it’s great that VE Global is using social media as a communication tool, I’m really not seeing the connection to Gladwell’s assertion about social media promoting weak ties instead of strong ties.

    When Gladwell wrote his article he was using the language of sociology to describe a sociological concept of interpersonal ties. The Wikipedia entry on the topic does a pretty good job of describing the different types of ties:

    It seems to me that Gladwell seems to be getting accused of a lot of things he never said because the language of “strong ties” and “weak ties” has been responded to as though it were a value judgement when it’s nothing of the sort. In truth, our weak ties are enormously valuable. The study that the term came from found that our weak ties are the people most likely to get us jobs. And thanks to social media, we can now have far more weak ties than was formerly possible. It’s a good thing to have weak ties.

    In just the same way, the weak ties of social media gave a conduit to voice the frustration of a half century of repressive rulers. But the frustration is real and history shows that communication will happen by whatever the best channel available at the time happens to be. This time it happened to be social media. But to confuse the tool of communication with the action taken by people is dehumanizing. Social media didn’t provide the spark for the Arab uprisings — that was provided by the very real spark of a man who set himself on fire. Social media just let the conversation about it move through a worldwide network of weak ties at a very rapid pace. The rest was up to the people.

  3. I agree with Brook. Gladwell was talking about the strength of strong-ties in very specific circumstances like sit-ins and/or potentially violent or repressive political actions. What you describe as the benefits of social media in NGO work is all good and an example of how these tools can facilitate networking and lower the barriers for fund-raising and volunteerism (all done historically through the bridging functions of weak-tie connections). They do not however facilitate or solidify the kinds of relationships and commitments that revolutionary cadres or terrorist cells are made of.

    Perhaps I’ll leave it to Gladwell himself to elaborate:

  4. Dan did a much better job of expressing my original point than I did. Gladwell’s article didn’t question the value of social media for marketing, fundraising, and relationship management, which seem to be the main activities described in the post. It sounds like there are might be some very cool best practices for non-profit use of social media in these areas being developed there, and I’d love to talk to you more about it.

  5. Elizabeth Hunter says:

    Hey, guys. I’m cool with Gladwell. I agree with many of his points. I’m not confusing the “tool of communication with the action taken by the people.” Obviously, the good work that VE does relies mostly on the dedicated volunteers willing to spend hours and hours of their time in difficult, stressful, and sometimes heartbreaking situations, without any monetary compensation. If my emphasizing the communication tools they use to promote/organize/fund their cause came off as dehumanizing these volunteers in any way, I am gravely sorry.

    What I was trying to say was that more than ever, social change is increasingly taking place with the help of social media, and furthermore, that social/digital media is replacing most other modes of communication–particularly for nonprofits and NGOs that work outside of the US. What I take issue with regarding Gladwell’s sentiments is the idea that “[social media] makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” That may be true in the US, but the impact of digital media on small organizations like VE is tangible and important. Ultimately what I was trying to convey is that there’s a huge gap between social media helping someone find their lost Sidekick, a la Shirkey, and claiming that it lessens activists’ impact on social change.

  6. I wrote my initial comment pretty quickly, and don’t think it reads well. To clarify, I was talking about the Arab uprisings when I said people are confusing “tool of communication with the action taken by the people.” It wasn’t intended to apply to this post.

    What’s been so frustrating about much of the response to Gladwell has been that he was talking about sociology, and a lot of people went after him defending marketing. Yes, sociology and marketing share some common ground, but a lot of people scored a lot of cheap points and got a lot of undeserved back patting for completely missing Gladwell’s point and going after him for things he didn’t say.

    Perhaps where we differ here is in the definition of “activists.” Gladwell wasn’t talking about the sort of iterative change that happens through non-profit action, but about people storming the barricades and tossing out the dictator. To me, it’s not that Gladwell got anything wrong with respect to what your doing, but that Gladwell’s argument doesn’t scale to have any relevance to it.

  7. Alex Stonehill says:

    I should probably step in here and take some responsibility – the text of Liz’s post uses Gladwell’s article as a framework to talk about the relationships built by international ngo’s digitally. I suggested “What Gladwell Got Wrong” in the title in an attempt to get more people to read the article than I thought would with the original title “International Nonprofits in the Digital Age,” while not fully understanding the nuances of that argument. You guys make some good points about how that title is quite literally ‘scoring points’ by beating up on Gladwell. We may as well have gone all out and called it: “Why Sarah Palin is an Idiot: International Nonprofits Strong Digital Ties” or “Justin Beiber is Coming to Your Birthday Party to Build Strong Digital Ties like a Nonprofit.” People would have read those, right?

  8. Thanks for the clarification, Alex. I hereby promise that not only will I read on any Flip the Media post that mentions Justin Bieber in the headline, I will actually print it out and thumbtack it to my bedroom wall.

  9. Elizabeth Hunter says:

    Thank heavens no back patting or points scoring occurred this time. Can I still have Beiber at my birthday party?

  10. Leslie Myers says:

    Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth – VE sounds like a very cool experience.

    What really got me in your article is that Chile requires certain companies to donate a portion of their profits to charity. That is news to me and I like it. I’m just guessing here, but I bet they justify this because of the government’s business enablement practices – like building and maintaining infrastructure as well as providing a safe environment. To me, that is reason enough for businesses to want to give back to the communities.

    It is also a potential lesson to be learned by American companies. In our country, corporations are required to maximize their profits for their shareholders, making it in their best interest to skimp on taxes. This also limits charitable giving unless there can be a sound return, like improved customer sentiment; framed in that way makes voluntary giving less desirable (or feasible). Obviously, forcing organizations to give back through legal requirements takes some of the warm fuzzy-ness out of the equation, but it would probably result in more cash in the hands of charities in need.

    Lastly, are you sure you want that guy at your birthday? Don’t you know that Ashton Kutcher is all the rage again? At least I keep hearing his name…

  11. Derek Belt says:

    I’m jumping in late here and I have no intent on mentioning Justin Beiber (oh, dammit!), but I did think the issue of social media use in nonprofits and NGOs is an important one.

    I’ve worked for a nonprofit that valued social media, and I worked with a nonprofit that didn’t. Very different leadership styles led to very different work environments. Open leaders that understand the need for personalized engagement and customer (donor) focused messaging embrace social media. Leaders that don’t want to change or have no interest in learning new ways of thinking are obviously not jumping on the social media bandwagon.

    Which is unfortunate for everyone in their community, because social media isn’t a fad. It’s changed the way we communicate with each other online. It’s so easy to reach out and say hello to your constituencies. Plus, it’s more fun than sending them expensive, risky direct mail. Start a Facebook page at least, try Twitter if you really want to connect with individuals, and share, share, share your stories. Nonprofits have better stories than anyone.

    For me, this is a management issue. There are incredible people in nonprofits, but there are also old-schoolers who just don’t like what the “kids are doing.” Well, think about how much weight Google and Bing and Yahoo give to social media conversations… it’s where your customers are and the more active you are on the social media channels the better your search results. You have heard of search results, right?

    Elizabeth’s story about finding VEG through, researching the company online, and interviewing for the position via Skype is a beautiful taste of how nonprofits can use social media. It’s marketing, plain and simple. The most effective, real, and targeted marketing your resources (time and money) can buy.

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