Free Agents and followership. Allison Fine

by Allison Fine. On the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, Alaa abd el Fattah remained in jail. 'Democracy' today in Egypt means that people involved in the uprising, like Alaa, are held indefinitely by the military police. Alaa was a key Facebook organizer of the Egyptian uprising while in exile in London. He returned to Cairo in January 2011 to participate in the uprising, ten months later he was arrested for allegedly using a weapon against a police officer during a protest. The Egyptian government reached into its decades-old playbook for dealing with “troublemakers” and locked Alaa up in jail and threw away the key – at least they thought they did.

Putting Alaa in jail didn’t solve any of the problems for the Egyptian government and he was finally released on Christmas Day 2011. Alaa is not the head of an institution, he is a part of a growing network of friends and supporters that kept the pressure on the Egyptian government to free him.  Networks are like hydras; if one part is shut down, the rest continues to thrive. Putting Alaa behind bars doesn’t slow the network, other participants simply fill in the space he occupied and continue to upload videos, blog, tweet, organize and protest. Individual activists like Alaa, I call them free agents, are winning the fight for freedom worldwide and traditional institutional leaders don’t understand who they are and how they operate. 

Peek beneath the hood of any recent social movement, the Philippines in 2001 when individuals used text messaging to overthrow a despot, Kuwait in 2005 when women used their Blackberries to win suffrage, the unfolding social movements in Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Occupy Wall Street, and you will find free agents like Alaa stirring the pots of democracy. Unlike past revolutionaries, though, Alaa is not a member of a religious institution, political party or union. As Wendy Harcourt writes, 'They are a challenge to top-down, donor-led development agendas.'

Social media channels like Facebook and Twitter are fundamentally reshaping protests and protesters. They are pointillist paintings, with thousands of individuals doing small bits that add up to a whole visible only from a distance. There are no Nelson Mandalas or Lech Walesas speaking on behalf of protestors. However, social networks aren’t leaderless, as critics say, but leader-full with individuals defining their own roles, uploading videos, posting news without being asked or tasked or targeted. There are no party platforms or constitutions, no press releases and pension funds, none of the suffocating trappings of modern organizational life to slow down and suffocate a movement. There are just free agents sharing their own stories and connecting with one another.

Traditional organizations are losing ground in a game of whack-a-mole with free agents uninterested in their rules, unwilling to parrot talking points, pay attention to marching orders, or wait their turn. Free agents don’t need organizations and watch with disdain as the old organizations spew out press releases and direct mail fundraising letters taking credit for the success of free agents. 

It is painful to watch traditional organizations staffed by smart people who have dedicated their professional lives to their causes shut down. However, the model of organization they are working within no longer works. 

Here are the three steps traditional NGOs need to take right now to survive:

1. Let go. Trying to control strategy, messages, donations are losing battles for NGOs. Even lamenting the loss of control is a waste of time. Free agents know that their social networks are filled with people of good will who want to help their cause. NGOs aren’t alone in their efforts; it just feels that way because they are locked behind their silo walls. The only way to plug into the abundance of people and resources out in the world is to reorient one’s group as part of a larger network of organizations and people, and the only way to do that is to give up control. A key mistake NGOs make is to think they have to create a network to support their efforts. The networks are out there already on Facebook,, blogs and other places. The job of the NGO is to plug into existing networks not to create new ones.

2. Connect with Free Agents. The free agents are out there, blogging and tweeting and organizing. It is incumbent on organizations to reach out to them, it simply won’t happen in the other direction, that’s why they’re free agents! Most of all, free agents want (and deserve) respect, which organizations have often been unwilling to provide. Free agents are not competition for organizations, they are their new lifeblood, making things happen, dedicating themselves to causes, bring their large, active, engaged networks of supporters with them. 

3. Learn to Art of Followership. Organizations need learn how to follow and support networked efforts. Share links to research, offer training for free agents, provide space for meetings, even, gasp! connect free agents to donors. In other words, help steer the ship of activism down stream rather than insist on doing all the rowing alone.

Traditional organizations need to remake themselves as social networks and focus on following rather than leading free agents. The writing is on the (Facebook) wall for dinosaurs: learn the art of followership or prepare your going-out-of-business sale.

* This is a follow-up article of Development Vol. 55.2 Citizenship for Change produced in partnership with Hivos. 

Allison Fine is the co-author of the bestselling The Networked Nonprofit, and author of the award-winning Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age.  She is a Senior Fellow on the Democracy Team at Demos, a New York-based think tank. Allison blogs about the intersection of social media and social change at A. Fine Blog. She also hosts a monthly podcast for The Chronicle of Philanthropy called 'Social Good.' Allison has a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MPA from New York University. She Tweets at @afine. Source:


Photo: Denis Bocquet/flickr