Digging into the Heart of 'Matterness'

I recently had the opportunity to interview Allison Fine, a longtime colleague and friend who has been one of the most interesting voices in the conversation about how the digital revolution influences social good.

As author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age and co-author of the bestselling The Networked Nonprofit, Fine has been urging nonprofits and other social-good organizations to tear down their traditional structures and take a more networked approach to how they deliver services and communicate with their supporters.

Her latest book, Matterness, takes the conversation even farther — talking about how social-good leaders should be approaching their work in the digital world.

After reading her book, I reached out to Allison on behalf of one of my clients, Elefint Designs, to talk about how her ideas correlate to the world of design. We recently ran excerpts from that conversation on Elefint's blog -- and I wanted to also share them in this space.

Here's some of what Allison had to say:

PP: Your most recent work focuses on a concept you call ‘Matterness’. Explain what Matterness is — and why it matters to those who are working for the greater good?

Allison Fine: Matterness means leading by focusing on making other people heard, acknowledged, and empowered. It is the opposite of last century’s assumption that the leader, the person who lived at the top of the organizational chart, was the person who mattered most in the system. In a networked environment, it no longer works that way.

We’re living and working in an environment now where everyone has access to a toolset that allows them to speak in their own voice. Before, we couldn’t see how the wheels were turning inside of organizations. Now, whether leaders like it or not, there is no place to hide. How you work becomes just as important as what you do.

How do you adapt to this new reality? How do you redesign your organization to think in a different way and approach things more democratically?

Leadership has to actually care about this. Those of us who were raised in social media were tremendously excited because we were watching the social media interns do things in organizations that we never thought possible. You had these tremendous legacy organizations that had a kid over there doing a blog or fundraising on Facebook and nobody was really paying attention. It was fantastic.

But slowly, over time, the rest of the organization started to pay attention and they would shut it down because they were losing control of the message and the messenger. That’s the core of the problem, traditional leaders losing control.

You need leaders in an organization in the C-suite who understand that they have to work differently here.

Some groups have done a great job of making that transition.

It might be the result of a crisis. Planned Parenthood was becoming more and more irrelevant before they hired Cecile Richards because there was a growing disconnect between the organization and the young women they were serving. Or it could be the result of an enlightened leader like Henry Timms at the 92nd St Y. Now the 92nd St. Y wasn’t really in any kind of trouble, but Henry understood that they needed to start becoming a different place.

How is what they’re doing different from some of their peers?

You hear people saying, ‘We can’t have our team out there speaking for us, because they’ll say the wrong thing’. But the cost of not having your people out there in conversations is enormous. They are the people who know your work the best. They are your best ambassadors and you’re telling them  you don’t trust them. You can train them. You can give them talking points if you want to and support them.

But just shutting them down is making a mistake. Just having your organization represented by a logo on a place like Twitter is a lost opportunity.

The most effective leaders go through and do a real internal audit about how you engage with the world. What is scaring us the most? And where and how are we in conversations with people, vs. just broadcasting at people?

How do you facilitate that?

There’s no silver bullet. It’s as simple as wanting to know what your people think.

But you can’t do that through an old-fashioned customer survey. If you look at that type of survey, it’s always about how we’re doing or how our process is doing. Did you get your product quickly?

You have to ask different questions. How is this organization making you feel? Are they treating you like a person, or are they treating you like an ATM machine? Do they ever ask you how you feel about the organization? Do they ask for your opinion or advice?

Every organization is sitting on a goldmine of capital. It’s not just financial capital. It’s intellectual capital. It’s social capital. It’s a lot of things. But you can’t tap into all of that if people don’t feel like they know you. If all people feel like is that they are a number in your donor database and all you ask them to do is give you money, they are not going to open up their social networks to you.

And that really means we have to design our organizations differently?

Organizations have to believe that their own staffs have a lot to contribute in terms of co-creation than they ever have before. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone into organizations and had the program staff say ‘I have ideas and I’m not allowed to share them here. Nobody asks me.’ That’s an enormous change.

Of course, you also have all of your constituents out there. I hope people will use a variety of on land and on line communications and have conversations. Every conversation is an opportunity to collect data about our work. But it has to include some question about how we’re making them feel. Every single one of them. Do you feel like we care about you, or do we feel anonymous?

What role does design play in this?

Design is absolutely critical to making people feel welcome or making them feel like this is a fortress and they’re not giving me the keys to get in. And some of it is really simple.

On a website, I need to see the faces of the people who are behind these doors. How can I get in touch with you? When I can’t find a person’s email on a website, I find it tremendously frustrating. I don’t want one of those info@__ company.com. I want to find a person to talk to.

I want to be in conversation with this organization. I want to see that the organization is asking questions, not just broadcasting their press releases. I want to feel like this is someone who cares about me. And that all comes through design.

You can check out more content about design for good on Elefint's blog and read more of Allison's thoughts on her website.