Can we be both successful and create dysfunction?

Good non-profits are successful communicators who engage their base and get them to respond – but, at what cost?

Plenty of research has shown that people in the U.S. are increasingly polarized. States are becoming more red and blue, and less purple. Congressional districts as well, both because people are moving to areas where the majority is like them; and then, of course, there is gerrymandering.

Algorithms that show us what they think we are interested in manipulate our social media feeds and lead us to information that confirms our existing beliefs. Other research makes clear that we all are plagued by an inherent confirmation bias. We have to be very intentional to engage ideas that don’t reinforce what we already believe.

If you are writing a blog post or a publication – not a limited circulation/peer reviewed kind of piece – it will be measured by views and “likes.” And if we are talking about fundraising, it is all about how much money you bring in. You may have standards – not taking money from tainted sources – but you are still judged by how much you raise. So, you will write something that strikes a nerve and makes your base respond.

You write for an external audience that already agrees with you. You engage your audience by connecting at the heart, telling stories and making clear the worst-case scenario. And, you are rewarded with more “likes” and more dollars.

As nonprofits get more successful at communications, do we feed polarization as well? I haven’t seen research on this, but I would like to.

The system we all operate in isn’t set up to fight polarization. It is set up to reward those who successfully engage their base. When someone not inclined to our position stumbles across something we’ve written, it is not likely to be nuanced or appeal to how they think about a problem.

I’m tired of the dysfunction that polarization has brought to Washington and to advocacy. Twelve step programs say that you start fixing a problem by recognizing that you have it. In this case, recognizing that even as non-profits working for social justice we can be both successful communicators and feeding the polarization. I think that the next step might be changing how we measure success.



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