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Free Software Isn’t Free!
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Free Software Isn’t Free!

By Ewart Newton – Executive Vice President, Diversified Nonprofit Services

The direct costs for using the software may be zero. There is no fee (at time of writing) to set up and use an account on Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and others.

But there are indirect costs to you and your organization:

  • Time to decide which technologies to use.
  • Time to learn how to use these technologies effectively.
  • Time that must be invested to create content and communicate with people on your network.
  • The cost of switching from one technology to another or adding a new technology. Three years ago, if you were making this decision, you may not have known about Facebook. Today it is “the place to be”. Next year?
  • The alternative uses of that time and expertise that may be more productive elsewhere (sometimes called the “opportunity cost”).

Think of it the way you should think about a special event. Many organizations talk excitedly about the money they make from (say) a golf tournament. Many organizations do not look at the total cost of the event… the costs of staff time, volunteer time and so on. This is not to say that all special events are bad ideas. But it is important to understand all the costs of planning and hosting the event and what the organization gets net of these costs.

If you take the same approach with social networking you will make informed decisions and your organization will establish, and may attain, realistic goals. Even if the software you use is free, the other costs can be substantial.

Make a plan and adopt technologies incrementally. Informed decisions are usually more effective than actions based solely on the latest “great thing”. With new technologies, it is often difficult to be precise. But even estimates can be helpful. As a minimum they open your eyes to fact that there are costs and they cause you to consider the real benefits.

Make a plan!

  • Define your objectives. Consider your potential market. How many people in your community are likely to use social networks? What percentage do you think you can attract to your network? What will you get from your relationships with them? Awareness? Volunteers? Donations?
  • Identify the technologies and networks you will use to connect with these people.
  • dentify the skills and costs of creating content and conversing with these people. Remember, this must be an ongoing investment of time and skills.
  • Create a budget. Include the direct costs such as software. But also include the indirect costs

Adopt Technologies Incrementally

Track what is happening in your networks. Learn what works. Identify where you are having success. Switch resources (people, time, focus) to these areas. You can get started now:

  • Learn about social networking, what it is, how it works, who uses it.
  • Try it! Open an account for yourself on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or one of the other sites. I suggest you ask a few of your friends if they have accounts and open your account on the same site. This way you will become part of their conversations quickly. Look at how it works, what happens, what results from it.
  • Talk to other people. Ask about their experiences… personal and business. Find out what they think works and what does not work. If they use it for business, ask how they measure the impact and cost/benefit of using social networking.
  • Keep an open mind. Things are moving quickly. Facebook started in 2004 and is close to 200 million users worldwide!!

Intangible Costs

Social networks have other “costs” that were not prevalent with earlier technologies, including:

  • Social networks are more conversational than traditional websites and so you must be willing and able to “talk” to people constantly. You can’t simply plan to publish your ideas once a month or once a week. You can’t even set the agenda for what you talk about. These things are driven by the other people in your social network.
  • You don’t “own” the conversation. Sometimes, people may say things you disagree with. Sometimes they may criticize your organization. What do you say? What do you do? If your organization is well-run and open about its performance, such criticism will be infrequent and others in your community will rebut it. Being defensive may only increase the hostility. But it takes a strong stomach to stand back and wait for other people to counter such criticism.
  • Social networking can be addictive. Are you and your staff using social networks to enhance your organization or is time being wasted on trivial matters? Think of it like time spent “at the water-cooler”. This can be beneficial – relationships are strengthened and informal communication can help the organization. But you cannot afford to have people here too long each day!

None of this is to imply that social networks are bad for nonprofits. Quite the opposite. An organization that practices transparency and does good work in its community can benefit from using social networks. Indeed they can help instill a culture of openness, listening to your constituents, and partnership with your community. Think of it as “collaboration with your community”.

**Source material and other related information can be found in the bibliography and links published on website.