ACS: Mashing Up Old Dogs and New Tricks

ACS: Mashing Up Old Dogs and New Tricks

BY Allison Fine | Monday, April 2 2007

The hell with them! That’s what many of my techie friends say when I share with them stories of traditional activist organizations that are being left behind in the Web 2.0 world. But, it seems you can mashup old dogs and tricks and come up with something very new and interesting. The American Cancer Society, one of the most venerable and long standing charitable organizations in the world, has stealthily and successfully become connected and collaborative in new and interesting ways.

When I was doing the research for by book Momentum about 18 months ago the one missing ingredient for the book was the lack of examples of traditional organizations that had transitioned from the old economy to the new. There were a litany of great examples of activist organizations like the Genocide Intervention Network and Just Vision that have connectedness in their DNA. What I didn’t find were examples of the nonprofit "wise men," the old, traditional organizations, working in more open and connected ways.

Until now.

The polarity of The American Cancer Society (ACS) has shifted radically in the last several years to become more accessible and collaborative for cancer patients, survivors, volunteers, and the organization. ACS has followed their volunteers and supporters' conversations, passions, and online meeting spots. Rather than the organization driving volunteers, volunteers, of their own accord, have taken charge and transformed the culture of the organization online, on land, and in Second Life.

The journey for ACS was unusual for the connected age in that it didn’t start from the top but from the bottom and the sides. A few years back, ACS tasked an intern with scanning the blogospheric horizon to see where and how ACS was talked about by bloggers and other surfers. The intern’s study reported that more conversations about ACS were happening online, and off their radar screen, and that the conversations were generally positive. It is the last part that is so important for a traditional organization to note. Whether you want them to or not, whether you are facilitating or driving them or not, conversations about your work and your organizations are happening out there – and they are usually more positive than negative. Not that negative comments or posts aren’t made, but that they are outweighed and balanced by the positives.

According to Erin Anderson, the eCommunity Moblization Manager for ACS (one of the best job titles ever!) the collaboration started internally with an intranet that let different departments learn from one another, and slowly began affecting other parts of the organization.

Now the staff use group del.icio.us tags, volunteers post photos of events on Flickr, ACS has MySpace pages for events, and Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer of ACS, has a robust, active blog, Dr. Len’s Cancer Blog, that attracts thoughtful, and yes even some critical, comments.

I talk to old-school organizations all the time about their connectedness, or lack thereof, with constituents. Their fear of not being in charge is palpable. Basically, they are afraid of any new technology or rhythm where they don’t feel in control. ACS confronted these same fears. Would they have to get permission from constituents to post their pictures? Would we not be seen as the experts on a topic? What would the reaction from senior staff and board members be to comments critical about ACS posted on Dr. Len’s blog?

Unlike most traditional organizations, according to Erin, the senior staff of ACS ultimately decided that they "weren’t going to freak out about what people said about them." And since so much of the posting is done by volunteers, such as the event site on Flickr, ACS organizationally is not responsible for what gets posted. In other words, the more ACS lets go, the more successful the cancer community becomes by participating and owning their cause more.

A great example of ACS opening up and becoming more powerful is Relay for Life (www.relayforlife.org) Relay for Life, 24-hour relay races with cancer survivors and supporters to raise money for ACS, started in Tacoma, WA in 1985. Since that time the concept has spread around the country by word of mouth and information from ACS. In August 2006, ACS launched the web site to support the over 4,800 communities that have Relays for Life to celebrate cancer survivors and raise money. There are several blogs for participants to talk to one another and learn and share lessons, user groups, and a resource library that has plans to become a wiki later this year. This standalone web site, built using the open-source system, had over 400,000 page views in March.

So, how can the ACS example inform and guide other activist organizations? Anderson suggests that organizations begin by scanning cyberspace to see how and what supporters are saying about your organization. Learn more about the vehicles they’re using for these conversations. ACS found individual bloggers facilitating their own conversations about their work, and rather than try to supplant them they invited them into their network and added value with information and resources. Most of all, to start to change the culture of organizations, she said, it was critically important not to lose your sense of humor about your work and organization. The moment that everyone had dreaded did come when very negative comments about ACS were posted on Dr. Len's blog. Should ACS pull the blog?, senior staff asked. Dr. Len’s answer was that at least someone was talking about them, and on the comments stayed.

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