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What I'm Saying.

Exploring the Fortress Model

Nonprofit Communications

Social Media / New Media IconsToday, as is accustomed to my personality, being a Myers Briggs ENTJ, I acted too quickly when trying to spread the news of the latest campaign that is launching today. I was quick to jump the starting gun and was asked to rescind my posts to both Facebook and Twitter about it, which I quickly did and I have no problem with doing if it is an organization’s policy. This got me thinking. How many organizations are exhibiting the same behavior patterns acting in line with what Kanter and Fine call the “Fortress” model in their book the Networked Nonprofit? “[P]ushing out messages and dictating strategy rather than listening or building relationships?” According to Kanter, “[f]ortress organizations are losing ground today because they spend an extraordinary amount of energy fearing what might happen if they open themselves up to the world” before they want to in what they would prefer as a pre-planned strategic campaign. Today’s event is an instance where I was wrong according to policy. How do I walk away from this ready to move forward? I will not repeat these actions in the future, however, it is something worth exploring from the organizational perspective. Are there advantages to moving away from the fortress model?

Fortress model organizations tend to place the responsibility of managing the social media / new media agenda in the hands of one or two people from one office (for the purposes of this article, let’s call it Communications) and it is controlled by the very same people who choose when to launch public campaigns and press releases for the organization. Kanter further argues, “These organizations are floundering in this set-me-free world powered by social media and free agents.” Prepping for news cycles will only serve to inhibit the organization in the long-term, in the age of instant news and word-of-mouth communication. By choosing not to enable each and every staff member to speak for the organization on social media outlets (within reason, such as setting the employee loose once they are up-to-speed on the talking points of the organization), the message only suffers through lack of both awareness (employees will likely not know what is being posted by Communications) and the means to spread the message by every available channel (including staff members’ personal social network profiles such as Facebook).

What Kanter calls free agents, I would like to add to its definition to include the organizational staff member who seeks to help disseminate the message that Communications seeks to control with one or two individuals who are empowered to speak for the organization internally. Enabling the organizational free agent involves trust.

Source: ProBlogger: Trust – Principles of Successful Blogging #2Trust that staff will act accordingly and appropriately isn’t always apparent in an organization. Silos exist from department to department and must be torn down if a successful social media / new media agenda is to come to fruition. Who else can be a champion for the organization but the staff and the public who are evangelicals for the cause and are already converted. The problem is how does the organization empowering these “free agents,” staff and public evangelicals, with the correct information to distribute to their friends, families and colleagues. This involves work on the part of Communications to think through scenarios where the public evangelical or organizational staff might post on their behalf.

Enabling the “free agent” can also yield dividends and build a substantially important relationship for future sources of revenue. Perhaps supplying the “free agent” involves hosting a toolkit where, for example, a person wanted to set up an event and collect donations on behalf of the organization through a Web site like or, they will have the right informational copy and correct logo to display at the event itself. This involves creating organizationally generic press releases that the individual can distribute, planning documents (e.g. timelines for releasing items to friends, family, the public about the event), graphic logos, authority to speak on behalf of the organization (again another issue of trust to overcome), a listing of staff organizational contacts to assist in the planning of personal events if trouble is encountered in planning the event.

The truth is, some organizations will work to prevent the distribution of authority to act on behalf of the organization when it is closely monitored and controlled. In reality, the image of the organization is already controlled and held by the public and not the organization itself. It is the actions of the organziation that shape the opinions held by the public. The closer the organziation gets to the public (especially nonprofits and governmental agencies), the better off and more efficient the organization will be in spreading its message. It needs to act in partnership with the public and not be the fortress withholding information that might not be appropriate for all audiences. I say, and others agree, let the audience decide if it is appropriate for them or not. Further, as Jeff Brooks states, “openness defuses [public demands for transparency] — much more effectively than trying to keep secrets.” Give the “free agent” the power to act and you will not be disappointed in the results. Social networks are already enabling this discourse to take place (e.g., Facebook, Foursquare and other social networking sites) if you are already engaged in social media / new media or not; why resist what is already happening? For instance, any person can set up a Foursquare location, set up an individual event through CrowdRise or FirstGiving, say anything about your organization on Facebook or even set up an action on your organization’s behalf on With or without Communications’ knowledge, these things can potentially happen as well as actually happen. Acting in partnership with individuals who are already acting and hoping to make a positive impact for your organization is a much better method than restricting access to information.

It is my hope that organization’s Communications departments come to this realization sooner rather than later. The impact can build your reputation exponentially.

Disclaimer: I am publicly stating that I am in no way speaking on behalf of the organization that I work for and this subject is the substance of my own personal opinion.

- Will

2 responses to “Exploring the Fortress Model”

  1. Vince says:

    Good post, Will. I guess the question that comes to my mind after reading this is, who is more to be trusted? The organization or the individual? We place heavy emphasis on institutions to provide oversight and regulation, in many instances to catch fraud, corruption or abuse, but as we’ve seen with the financial crisis, if individuals are left to function on their own, or if organizations enable “free agents” to function with the institution turning a blind eye, what limitations are there to control behavior or misinformation? There are many private organizations that provide unconventional freedoms to their employees, such as 3M, Google, and other organizations. Afterall, the post-it note was developed because the then 3M CEO allowed his employees to devote a certain percentage of their time to whatever they felt like working on, so long as their contributions led to something. So I don’t think having a Communications department that limits what can be publicly disseminated without their knowledge or based on your own free will is such a bad thing. I mean if you look at the concept of identity, we often describe ourselves based on our gender, educational and ethnic background, and then eventually who we work for. So I think there’s a certain responsibility on the indivdiual worker to be prudent about what gets voiced publicly.

    • Will Hull says:

      Nonprofits and the Government sector entities belong to the public. No one person or entity can own either. Nonprofits are ran by boards who then select a CEO/President to oversee the day-to-day operations of the organization and the Government sector is responsible to the people via the elected officials who pass legislation and budgets enabling them to function. I think the public should be entrusted to work as evangelicals for the causes that they believe in. Social networks are making this possible.

      It is true as you state, “there’s a certain responsibility on the indivdiual worker to be prudent about what gets voiced publicly” and rightly so. Perhaps it is a factor of controlling what is said and knowing what is said at all times that creates a resistance to opening up to the public to spread the effect of their work because there is an unknown factor out there. Something could be said by someone who is John Q. Public and the organization could continue to function without even knowing what is being said. Their reputation is on the line when this sort of activity is happening. There is a fear that what is being said is not in line with the needs/current goals of the organization. Most of the public means to do no harm by acting on behalf of the organization. However, without removing the possibility, the possibility will remain for someone to speak ill or act inappropriately on behalf of the organization without the organization’s knowledge or it might happen to be brought up by an evangelical who saw the comment/actions and they, in turn, notify the organization about it so that the organization can begin to address it.

      I will bet that 99% of people who work to spread the word about an organization will do no harm if they are empowered with the correct information about the organization. The problem is, there is a lot of work involved in making sure what is said about the organization is true, accurate and timely. Advocating and activating a partnership with public “free agents” will build a relationship of trust on both sides and a greater willingness on behalf of the “free agent” to pitch in to help accomplish the mission of the organization. Social media / new media is a tool that makes this easier every day. Blogs, social networks, xml site feeds (think of that can broadcast the details of an organization’s event picked up from such a feed), etc. are all enabling the average person to contribute in ways never before possible. Look at what happened by enabling staff at 3M to devote some of their time to something that interests them using your example above. What if 3M decided that the staff member couldn’t use 3M’s resources and tightly held them close. We wouldn’t have a great way of keeping our notes organized.

      A lot can happen through collaboration and network weaving ( It will take some energy, that is true. But the results can bring about something no one could have imagined when in the founding stages of fostering the cooperation of the public.

      Thanks for speaking up Vince. It is great to know that you’re reading and willing to speak up on the subject.


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