Offline Social Networking Reveals True Diversity (Or Lack of It) — Ask Boston World Partnerships

In this new world of social networking, one can argue that outreach has become a much easier endeavor, and hardly warrants much more than a positional title; we’ve all seen the “Outreach Coordinator” and “Community Engagement Director” job titles listed on so many websites and business cards (particularly in the non-profit industry), but whether or not these professionals make it a point to step “out” of their offices (or online networks) and do some actual OUT-reach is still a mystery.

These days, with the click of a mouse, you can send out over 10,000 invitations to youth, LGBT leaders, marketing professionals, performing artists, political campaigners, students, and the list goes on and on. With a cyber range of that many users — and the convenient existence of dense networks such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others — it’s easy for marketing and outreach professionals to fall into the trap of assuming that their communications will reach and resonate with, well, everyone. But this simply isn’t the case. A vast number of users in your network doesn’t necessarily imply diversity online, or offline.

Boston World Partnerships Excels at Connecting a Diverse Group of Industry Professionals

Take, for example, my mini professional networking adventure this week: On Monday I got my first taste of networking events hosted by Mayor Menino’s social citizen initiative, Boston World Partnerships. The organization has done an AMAZING job on ensuring industry diversity — the professionals I met spanned across a variety of sectors such as technology, pr/marketing, finance, venture capitalism, non-profit, clean energy, etc — and, I must admit, an equally good job of getting women and some people of color to turn up at events. I attribute the success of their outreach strategy to not just their expert use of social media — link sharing contests, twitter, blogging etc — but to the active use of their diverse portfolio of industry “Connectors” to bring people together offline at their events! [Learn about the industry- and social network-specific professionals that the BWP continuously recruits to help spread the word about the organization here.]

Upon arrival to the BWP as a first-timer, it was nice to have a connector introduce me to a few really cool people, including a PR Connector who promised to get me marketing advice for my consulting practice, a fabulous fashion designer who still refuses to design an outfit for me because he “doesn’t make clothes for the female body” (haha!) and a  smart, political campaigning Latina I shared a “Yay — another woman of color!” moment with. She let me know about this amazing program that trains future democratic leaders to run for office which I may actually apply to in the fall — woohoo! I do think the group could (and should) do some work around LGBTQ-inclusiveness (we are, after all, in Massachusetts) in terms of recruiting connectors that could serve as links to the gay business community, but I was generally content with the evening’s turnout.

The YNPN’s Diversity Fail: A Case Study for Volunteer-Run Social Change Organizations

On the flipside, Tuesday’s Young Non-Profit Professional Network’s event was a bit of a let down. Perhaps I expected more of a multicultural crowd due to the very nature of the social-justice-centered network, but regardless of my failed assumption, it’s never fun to be one of the only people of color in the room, and at this NPO-Connect sponsored Karaoke Event, I was one of three. Yes, three. I counted. The friendly African-American lady that introduced herself to me as I was making my escape also confirmed this number (and then we shared a somber, commiserative moment). However, aside from the low POC count and the bad food (cold mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers), the venue’s social climate was open and warm — I walked into a white male quartet karaok-ing to Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” — and the event attendees represented  a variety of job functions in the non-profit sector. All this made my short time there a little bit less awkward, but I wondered if this fun, free-for-all format would prove useful in the long run. I had been inspired to attend this event based on the organization’s mission to “promote an efficient, viable, and inclusive nonprofit sector that supports the growth, learning, and development of young professionals,” yet I left the event having engaged in minimal conversation — many people seemed to already know each other, and with almost no new meaningful connections. Moreover, without an online RSVP/attendee list available, I couldn’t even mine the attendee list for any potential contacts when I got home. Grrr.

Somehow, in spite of the Boston Chapter of the YNPN’s large mailing list and several-year tenure, the event had a less than impressive turnout of mainly liberal white professionals. The chitter-chatter of of business-card-swapping yuppies (typical of most networking events) was almost non-existent; across the room, eyes remained transfixed on the karaoke stage as the YNPN staff and board members performed pop song after pop song in an attempt to liven up the crowd. Entertaining, yes, but not useful by any means. I left shortly after speaking with a board member about getting more involved with the group, specifically in the area of event planning. It was a nice group of people, and I do hope to get involved eventually, but ultimately, I’d regretted leaving the comfort of my couch that evening. And now here I am, blogging about the not-so-great experience I had. Fail.

My Pro Bono 2 Cents…

Incidentally, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who asked me what diversity consulting had to do with event planning or program development. My answer: absolutely everything. The kinds of events an organization chooses to host (and how often) will inevitably draw out patrons of a particular profile over time. Pricing, location, sponsoring organizations, and of course media advertising channels (including social media), all play a major role in determining the offline success of your online marketing strategy. And like every good non-profit marketing strategy, the persons responsible should begin by first considering their target membership base, and then working backwards.

In the case of the Boston Chapter of the YNPN, I would recommend the following:

  • Add sector focus to your monthly event programming (e.g. March: Women’s Issues, April: Schools and Education, June: LGBT and Equality etc); this would create more efficient networking (and mentorship) opportunities for your members, and align more closely with your organization’s mission.
  • Take a cue from Boston World Partnerships and consider partnering (monthly, or on a case-by-case basis) with Connector Organizations (vs. Individuals) that would be responsible for increasing their network’s reach to different sectors, multicultural groups, and peripheral service providers to create and sustain diversity.
  • And lastly, jump on the social media bandwagon. Take out Facebook Ads, use Twitter hashtags to start (and continue) conversations about your events, leverage RSVP and link-sharing tools such as eventbrite to make it easier for your members to connect with each other etc. There are tons of great uses of social media to grow membership: pick one. Wait, do you have a twitter account?

And how will you know that any of this is working? Well, you could ask your members — send out a survey. But the truth is that there is no better test to whether or not your online outreach efforts are working than the attendee, registration, or donor lists you’ll collect via your offline event programming.