by Russ Hodge of member firm The Hodge Group

Over the past handful of years, I have attended and seen a lot of advertisements for webinars and seminars on social media. People with self-proclaimed expertise offer insight and strategy suggestions for businesses and nonprofits alike, mostly based on personal and professional experience of using the tools to successfully leverage more customers or better customer service.

I’ve had the privilege to work with groups of young people in their early 30’s on very dynamic projects such as Wonderland Columbus, an organization renovating the 60,0000 square foot iconic Wonder Bread factory for re-use to house art studios, nonprofit programming and community outreach in the arts. As I’ve learned quickly while working with them, if you’re going to understand how to use social media, you have to strive to understand the generation that is dependent upon it. Younger people saw a communication gap and created a set of tools to fill that space, a space that was not formerly recognized by my peers or me. We are not just learned how to use new tools—we are learning how to communicate in new ways.

There is a profound difference between learned social media users and trained users. The difference is almost as obvious as trained speakers and native speakers of a language. The way native speakers of social media utilize the tools has far more to do with culture, behavior, a way of thinking and an approach to life than it does with technology. Learning how to utilize social media is not learning how to garner followers on Twitter or 1,000 Facebook fans. It’s about learning and appreciating the new ways we share our opinions, passions and stores with each other.

I think a lot about my daughter who is currently abroad in Azerbaijan. She will never be a native speaker of Azeri, but she strives to spend as much time as possible with her native peers who speak the language fluently in order to pick up the important cultural nuances we miss when simply learning a language from a tape. She can write and study the language intensely, but did not learn that there are multiple ways in the language to offer and accept a cup of tea, and the necessity of drinking tea every time you enter the home as a guest.

What I’m trying to say is this: you will gain much valuable insight from the webinars and speaking engagements geared toward new social media users, more information about the way people use the technology of social media than you could ever imagine. But in order to truly understand where social media is going from a philanthropic standpoint, you have to spend time among the native speakers. These incredible young people of Wonderland have a powerful voice online because they have integrated social media into their lifestyle—and they don’t know any different. A picture they post on Facebook of a board meeting or a video case statement housed on YouTube is simply second nature to them, and by keeping donors, volunteers and community members engaged through social media, Wonderland keeps its constituency interested and informed. Spend time among the true social media successes of philanthropy and your language skills will vastly improve.

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