return on investment (ROI) of the social web for nonprofits?

"What do you think is the return on investment (ROI) of the social web for nonprofits?" is Britt Bravo 's latest Net2ThinkTank question. It's a hot topic for nonprofits and companies alike because of the time soaked up by tending social networking sites, but I think there's at least three dimensions to social web ROI for nonprofits, namely metrics, the paradigm shift and the new enclosures.

metrics

Non-profits aren't focussed on a financial return but they have a duty to use donations effectively. So it's good to see initiatives like frogloops ROI calculator for social network campaigns, which uses the tried & tested perspective of email marketing to calculate value for money. Metrics may be harder for the social web but nonprofits would be unwise not to try it - in part because the social web also leading to greater pressure for transparency.

paradigm shift

Even when the return rates are low, nonprofits should be investing in social web experiments because they herald a paradigm shift in how people will organise to have a social impact. In Participatory Web for Development I described how an era of mass collaborative innovation will lead to new ways of tackling social issues. Either nonprofits take part, or they risk being left on the beach.

the new enclosures

The big feature of the web 2.0 boom is the way that value generated by users is being cashed in by the site owners. As I warned in social networking and social change, one consequence can be nonprofits getting booted out if they get too 'controversial'. Monetisation of the social web is often done in a way that ignores the mass of contributors and threatens it's nature as a kind of common ground. As well as making creative use of this space we'll need to find collective ways to defend it. Mass investment of time, creativity and content implies a return for the common good.