Let’s Go Steady: How important are relationships for organizations?

Have you worked in or with an organization that you would call “relationship driven?”

There is a lot of great work being done today around the idea of engagement. How do we get people involved and, over time, get them more involved, engaged and supportive of our organization and its issues?

Engagement is important. Critical, even. But growing and lasting engagement relies upon relationships. You, me, the guy down the street — none of us are going to become more engaged until we’re comfortable with the terms of our relationship. We have a lot going on in life. We need proof that this is great use of time. We’re not looking to date an organization but it’s still a relationship.

What would a “relationship driven” organization look like? What does being relationship-driven mean? How does it work differently than any other organization? Would this make for more effective and stronger organizations?

Organizations and their staff are focused on the work they have to get done together — the planning, budgeting, meetings, conference calls, presentations to executive directors, boards, foundations and large donors. In time, the focus shifts to working with colleagues and succeeding internally.

Meanwhile, it is hard to spend time on those outside the organization. We ask a great deal of people — time, money, support, likes and retweets. But it’s tough to invest time in the sort of two-way work that makes up a relationship. Relationships take effort, not talk. Here are some ways to switch focus and build relationships that matter.

Understand how your organization builds relationships

Another way to put this is: What’s your engagement superpower? Not all organizations are built and operate the same way. They don’t all organize around kitchen sinks, not all rely on volunteers to knock on doors, and not all can build massive email lists to reach people quickly.

Figure out what makes you special, relevant and (yes) potentially powerful in the daily life of your supporters. Use that to create and build relationships. Your superpower makes you special. Use it to attract and keep people that relate to it.

Know the tools you already have and use them well

They’re probably better than you think. Your organization almost certainly has a CRM (or two or three). Do you know what the ‘R’ stands for? Relationship. As in Customer (or Constituent) Relationship Management software.

Most organizations we work with have done little work with the R part of their tools. It’s time to fill in the blanks. Track how people came to your organization and what interests them. Find out who they know in your organization, if anyone. If they don’t know someone, find ways to change that. Work with volunteers, activists and donors to create relationships with their networks and yours. Have them reach out to people directly on your behalf and reward them for that engagement.

Track this work and the relationships that are developed. In time, this will become one of the most powerful areas of your database. And if you aren’t sure how to do do this with the tools you have, make it a priority to find out.

It’s called a “Social Network” because it’s social — and a network

Social networks come with great expectations and uncertain results. The problem? Most organizations focus on numbers, not people. First, you have to care. Really care.

These are real people out there, almost all of whom have some interest in what you’re doing. Be social. Say thank you. Don’t just ask for people to respond and share but retweet and share their stuff when they do. Prove you’re there. Care.

Understand that these are networks. Each person knows other people. Each of those other people knows other people. And so on and so on. As you build relationships and trust with members of your social networks you level up their engagement and improve the chances that they’ll share your content, speak to their networks on your behalf and become a valued voice for your cause.

Also, use social network tools to find and build relationships. Use Twitter search to find key words and phrases as well as the people most interested in them. Follow them. Interact with them. Say hi. Say thanks. Say “hey, just wanted to be sure you saw this.”

Give thanks, often — and mean it

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading this article. And if you made it this far you deserve serious gratitude. You’re one of perhaps three people (not including my mom) that made it here. You’re awesome. Seriously. Hope you’ll let us know what you think about these ideas. Leave your feedback and name down below in the comments section and we’ll talk.

See. That wasn’t so hard.  

Much has been written about how donor retention sucks, especially among those that give for the first time online.

Retention has always been tough. It’s hard to keep the flame going and maintain that rush of excitement that led people in the door. We think much has to do with the impersonal nature of online fundraising, particularly its reliance on email. Most organizations crunching through large numbers of email subscribers and donors rely on form emails with maybe some first name personalization.

This doesn’t cut it. It’s time to get creative and invest in appreciation of donors, volunteers, members, activists. Don’t hold back but do test your work. Think of these as people, not records in a database. Invest in lasting relationships. And say thank you.

UPDATE: The great folks at Sea Change Strategies worked with the International Rescue Committee to test the impact of creative thank-yous on mid-level donors. Check out the story recently written up by the Greenpeace Digital Mobilisation Lab.

Cartoons: The great William Haefeli (get them here).

Risk tolerance and recklessness among nonprofits

TechCrunch posted an Andy Rachleff piece a couple of weeks ago on the odds that an angel investor or venture capital investor will make money. The conclusion: pretty darned unlikely.

The vast majority of venture capital funds, for instance, either barely break even or actually lose money.

Why does this matter to nonprofits?

The “what can nonprofits learn from technology startups” theme has picked up steam in recent years in concert with the current technology startup boom, and is regularly a topic on this blog (see, for example, our recent exchange with Jon Stahl: “Should grantmakers be more like VCs” and “Should grantmakers act more like venture capitalists?“).

A grantmaking investment model that assumes an 80% failure rate among grantees may not be our best option. What I find most interesting about the Rachleff piece, however, and potentially most useful in the social sector context, is the risk tolerance that permeates the private investment landscape. Even the most optimistic of the experienced investors know that most of their investments will fail. They are willing, to varying degrees, to invest in organizations each of which only has a small chance of succeeding.

Fostering a Nonprofit Culture of Risk-Tolerance

Fostering a culture that genuinely encourages and supports risk-taking, within organizations and between organizations and their funders, is a real weak spot among nonprofits. Doing this means that the price of a failed project can’t be very steep. It means that organizations and funders have to provide positive feedback for smart risk-taking. Claiming to support experimentation and risk-taking but penalizing people and organizations with experiments don’t work out as planned fosters a culture of risk-aversion, not risk-tolerance.

Risk-Tolerance Doesn’t Mean Reckless

Risk tolerance shouldn’t mean encouraging reckless gambles. In fact, a smart risk-oriented strategy will include explicit expectations: clearly identifying the assumptions underlying any particular risk, having a clear process or tool for explicitly testing those assumptions and learning from the experience regardless of the outcome, ensuring that effective feedback loops use this learning to improve strategy and execution.

Innovation – both the incremental and the huge-leap-forward varieties – require people and organizations to take risks, and that only happens in a significant way when the rewards for taking those risks are high enough and the penalties for failure are gentle enough.

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

Should grantmakers act more like venture capitalists?

Should philanthropic foundation board members and staff act more like the venture capitalists who fund internet startups?

That’s the question our good friend Jon Stahl posed a few weeks ago. Jon’s focus was on the high level of involvement that venture capitalists often have with the companies they invest in. Lead investors typically have a seat on the board and often participate actively in the company, at least at the strategic level. Jon points out that foundation program officers, with portfolios that often run in the dozens, simply don’t have the bandwidth to engage much with their grantees.

I think it’s a great point; maybe there are ways we could refine the philanthropy model to offer grantees more support from their funders.

But the venture capital investment model has some other qualities that may or may not fit our social sector goals very well. For one thing, the VC model is designed to foster blowout success at the expense of everything else. In financial terms, a 2x ($2 returned for every 1$ invested) or even 5x return isn’t very interesting; the VC model is designed to produce 10x and 100x or even larger returns.

In fact, VCs have a lot of incentive to actually kill companies in their portfolio that don’t knock it out of the park. You probably won’t get funded in the first place unless you’ve got a great idea, a great team, and a great market, but if you don’t show aggressive growth in users or revenue pretty quickly, and then sustain that growth, the odds are decent that your VC will actually be part of shutting you down. A typical venture fund might see half or more of its companies fail outright, thirty percent performing modestly enough that the fund can get its investment back or perhaps make a small return, and only twenty percent doing really well. (The actual numbers are tough to come by, and there’s a lot of disagreement about exactly what they are, but we know that the huge hits are pretty rare and that lots of venture capital funds actually lose money).

The model might make sense on issues where our most desperate need is for a few blowout successes (and where we are comfortable killing off the groups that don’t achieve this level of success). For example, it might be perfectly reasonable for the Gates Foundation to fund malaria eradication programs using a VC-style approach, hoping that one of their high-risk-high-reward investments comes up with the solution we’ve all been waiting for.

But on lots of social sector issues, activists and funders are happy – and reasonably so – with moderate, sustained success. If a VC-style approach on malaria eradication comes at the cost of stable, sustained funding for effective malaria prevention efforts, it’s probably a much less appealing strategy. In fact, those “moderate” successes only look modest by comparison to absurdly high Google-style returns.

And on many issues there probably just isn’t a knockout punch waiting to be uncovered through high-risk entrepreneurial style investment by philanthropic donors. Preventing extinction and recovering endangered species is just hard work, politically and ecologically; there almost certainly isn’t a fantastically successful strategy just waiting to be discovered. We ought to have more sophisticated ways of measuring outcomes, and more effective ways of rewarding nonprofits that craft and implement successful strategies, but success across lots of fields won’t look like the 1,000x return that early Facebook investors walked away with. There may be some radical advocacy innovations waiting to be uncovered, but odds are good that most of our success will come through philanthropic investments with returns that look more like the equivalent of 2x, 5x, and 10x outcomes in the investment world. And even though these numbers look small compared to the superhits, they are still huge success: anytime a foundation invests $50,000 in a nonprofit and gets $100,000 or $250,000 worth of social change value out of the deal we all ought to celebrate.

The VC model also shifts enormous control over the company itself to the investors. It’s one thing for a social sector funder to have detailed expectations about how their grant will be spent, and perhaps to use the size of their grants to influence organizational decisions about staffing and strategy (which itself is enough to make many nonprofits very uncomfortable). It’s something altogether different when the funders actually control the organization itself.

Finally, the idea that funders might play a more active role in managing the organizations they fund carries as many risks as it does benefits. The best program officers offer real expertise about the issues they fund, they can draw on wide experience working with the nonprofits they fund, and can offer a higher-level strategic vantage precisely because they aren’t in the trenches on a day-to-day basis. But even the best are still at a distance from the day-to-day work, they often don’t have much experience on the other side of the funding equation, and they can be very prone to a favorable results bias.

In fact, while investors and entrepreneurs may not (and often don’t) share the same long-term vision, they measure results in a very consistent way: how much money is this company earning and how much is it worth. Philanthropic funders and the nonprofits they support may tend to have better alignment on long-term vision, but they rarely share a consistent and unambiguous approach to measuring outcomes. And this problem is only amplified by the strange power dynamics that characterize most grantmaker-grantee relationship. Deeper involvement by program officers in the nonprofits they fund comes with some real challenges.

I’m guessing the appeal of the VC model for Jon is mostly around the opportunities for nonprofit folks to learn from the experience and vantage of the funders they work with (not to mention the potential for funders to provide other kinds of resources to their grantees), and given how weak nonprofits usually are mentoring and professional development this makes a lot of sense. The trick, as is usually the case when drawing from outside models, is making sure we understand what those external models are designed to do and adjust the ways we mimic and poach from them accordingly.

There are other models worth exploring, as well. Angel investors often contribute much smaller amounts but expect much lower returns, which means that a moderate success can still be a success, and the angel investment model includes a lot of room for investor involvement and support. Crowdsourced funding models, with Kickstarter as a marquee example, might offer some insights. In many ways these models look a lot like traditional membership-oriented fundraising in the nonprofit world, but as federal law expands accessibility to true crowdsourced investment we can expect to see rapid evolution in the mechanics and structure.

I agree with Jon’s basic point that we should look at the venture capital model for ideas about improving philanthropic funding. I do think, however, that the VC model in particular has some significant limitations in a social sector context. The nonprofit world, at times, goes overboard when it pulls from other sectors, missing the nuance and context and overdeveloping some particular element that seems important. But we can learn a lot, too, by paying attention to other sectors, and we’ve got a lot to gain by poaching, adapting, and testing whatever we think might help.

How to Give Feedback to Your Employees: Nine Tips

This usually isn’t the best way to offer feedback to your staff.

In our research on nonprofit organizations, we found that more nonprofit staffers complained about the weak management skills of their executive directors and supervisors than about any other problem.

Among the most critical but under-developed skills: feedback-giving. Here is some straightforward advice:

1) Actually give feedback to your staffers. The alternatives (passive-aggressive outbursts, complaining about one staffer to other staffers, abruptly firing them, wishing you had the gumption to abruptly fire them) all suck.

2) Provide feedback frequently. The annual evaluation has its place, but it’s a poor substitute for regular feedback throughout the year.

3) Assume she was acting in good faith with good intentions. Assume her motives were all spot-on, in other words, and focus instead on her words and actions.

4) It’s often helpful to start by asking your employee to talk through what happened, what she did and why, and how she would evaluate her own performance (whether you are talking about a specific event or performance over the course of some time period). It gives her a chance to set the tone and she may have already identified some of the successes and critiques you had planned to raise. You might even shift your view on her performance if you know more about what she did and why.

5) Be direct and clear when providing feedback on the things she did that you liked and on the things she might (or should) have done differently. Even managers who do a good job of providing regular feedback often stumble on this point, just as many people often stumble when communicating with board members, friends, lovers, spouses, and kids. You have to be clear about what worked and what didn’t if you expect your staffer to remain motivated and improve her performance.

6) But don’t be a jerk about it! “Direct and clear” doesn’t mean patronizing, insensitive, or rude.

7) Offer very clear direction on what she might do differently next time, on what lessons to draw from the experience, and on how to improve. If you don’t do this, and she doesn’t improve, her subsequent underperformance is on you.

8) If you are trying to foster a culture of innovation you have to reward people for taking risks. This doesn’t mean that you should celebrate every risk someone takes; if you establish clear boundaries and expectations for risk-taking, you can evaluate your staff based on how well they operated within those limitations. But if your team believes they’ll get chastised when risks they take don’t pan out, you’ll be encouraging risk-aversion rather than risk-tolerance. Likewise, if you find ways to reward your team for taking smart risks even when they don’t work out, you’ll incentivize the innovative culture you are after.

9) Finally, you may have to work hard to avoid making people feel defensive when initiative a feedback interaction. Part of managing this is ensuring that you are calling out the good and the bad throughout your frequent feedback interactions (and making a point of calling out the good more often is usually pretty helpful). Part of tackling this is clearly establishing the feedback process in your organization as a frequent learning loop. Every feedback interaction is an opportunity for someone on your team to figure out how to improve their performance and for you to learn more about what they need from you to excel in their work. And part of sidestepping someone’s instinctive defensiveness is getting to know them well enough to figure out how – with each of your direct reports – to create the right space for a productive feedback interaction.

These tips are easier to write down in a blog post than they are to execute, but none are especially difficult if you commit to making productive feedback interactions an important part of your organizational culture.

(Photo by Flickr user Orange Steeler.)

Disrupting the Nonprofit Space

The civic hackathon in Denver this weekend is a great example of platform building: creating a space that enables others to directly tackle a community challenge.

One of the more exciting developments in the nonprofit space is the proliferation of non-nonprofit models for advancing a social sector mission. Some of those models are basically variations on private sector organizational models with a social mission twist. LC3s, or low-profit limited liability corporations, are one example. The B Corporation model, which requires a firm to have an explicit social or environmental mission and to consider broader social values when making decisions, is another. Some of the models dispense with the twist and instead go with a traditional corporate structure (often as an LLC) but explicitly incorporate a social mission

I’m seeing at least two other types of models, both of which are pretty exciting. Distributed network models rely on individuals that can be activated (or can choose to activate themselves) in ad-hoc fashion whenever the issue and circumstances inspire them to do so. I think the “free agent” idea that Beth Kanter and Alison Fine describe in The Networked Nonprofit is another way to describe this idea.

Another model that I find really interesting is more of a platform model; individuals or groups creating platforms that enable others to launch and execute their own projects. The platform models are often guided but with a light hand. My PlaceMatters colleague Jason Lally orchestrated a civic hackathon in Denver this weekend, bringing together software developers, web and mobile designers, and social advocates to build civic apps for the web and for mobile devices in a weekend-long marathon. He and his collaborators set the ground rules, created the space, and brought all the ingredients together, but the participants themselves decided what apps to actually build (the ideas that attracted the most people and the best talent were the ones most likely to be built). The Greenhouse Project, a Denver-based incubator for international development nonprofits, and RallyPad, an incubator for nonprofits and social ventures in San Francisco, are two more examples.

This is a cool model partly because the platform can take so many different forms: a permanent physical space (like an incubator), a relational platform (providing a network of relationships to tap into), and a convening (like a hackathon) among them.

I think the nonprofit world is in a state of disruption, in some ways like the disruption facing the publishing industry. Unlike the publishing industry, though, I don’t think nonprofits (and their advocates, like state nonprofit associations) quite realize just how deeply vulnerable the traditional model actually is. I suspect it’s inevitable that traditional nonprofits will diminish in significance relative to emerging social sector models, and whether the traditional 501c(3) structure remains viable at all will depend on their willingness to adapt. Either way, it’s going to be great fun watching the new models mature and even newer models surface.

Action. Not Membership.

In a recent interview with Wired, author and social analyst Clay Shirky was asked what his big takeaways were from recent events in the social media world. Shirky notes that the idea of membership has gone away but groups have not. He goes on to note that only groups can take coordinated actions in the world and there is opportunity to reinvent group action:

The other one is that the idea of membership has gone away.  Facebook is not very good at dealing with named groups, they’re not very good at saying, “We’ve got this book club and I’m a member and you’re not.” But membership is one of the precursors to a lot of social action. My bet is that the group pattern — the named group that can do things like open a bank account or take some kind of coordinated action in the world — is an overlooked pattern that someone is going to reinvent. 

Shirky says the idea of membership has gone away. Indeed. But if someone is willing to wear your “members only” jacket that is an action worth tracking.

Membership is already being redefined and reinvented as action. You don’t need to be a member (or wear the right jacket) to take action. But organizations need to pay close attention to actions, what makes them happen, where, when and how they impact their goals.

Membership is a term of relevance to organizations, not individuals. It’s time to reinvent membership. Maybe call it something else. Maybe not. At it’s core, membership is a relationship. Any relationship is built upon action. In nonprofits, sometimes the organization acts but more often individuals act. Organizations need to pay much better attention to the actions people take, why they take them, and how actions occur.

Action Matters

Email, the web, social networks and more have all changed the nature of communications between organizations and individuals. We don’t rely on newsletters to find out what’s going on. We don’t need to belong to an environmental group to know what’s happening to our favorite forest. We can Google it all in a few seconds, subscribe to any number of email lists, look for it on Facebook. Access to information has changed the need for and purpose of the membership relationship.

A greater change, however, is that one no longer needs to be a member to take action on an issue. This has been the case for years, of course. I get emails from the Sierra Club or a friend shares a link on Facebook. I click. I fill out a form and send a letter. I’m involved without being a member. This has been going on since the dawn of email list building time (olden times…the late-1990s).

In recent years this has evolved further as tools for creating the large-scale collective actions needed to change policy are made available to anyone through commercial endeavors (Care2 and Change.org, for example), open source software, and social networks like Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit and many more.

MoveOn and Upworthy are, to varying degrees, current examples of organizations that blend together third party content with some of their own content, add in some calls to action, and bake in a highly optimized social network oven to maximize sharing and drive more people to take action. MoveOn will ask you for money to support its campaign work but neither worries about membership. Both want you to act and relentlessly track what makes that happen.

Stop counting and start tracking

If action is the heart of a relationship we, as organizations, are fortunate. Nonprofits exist to take action and move people to action. We have the ability to track many, if not every, part of an action as a piece of data. With that data we can better understand what motivated people to action (and what didn’t), who took action (and who didn’t), and correlate messages, issues, people, places and more with the success we need (and learn from the failures that we don’t need…but are at least enlightening).

In other words, stop worrying about the number of people on the list and focus on actions.

To do this, we need clear goals and better attention to data.

There is too much data to make any sense of it all. First, have clear goals. If we want to change policy X then name that goal. Understand exactly who needs to act and where to change it. If we need to help 1,000 homeless people in December then name that goal and pinpoint exactly how many people need to act to make it happen. Only then can you know what data you need to track and how to set up your messaging to make tracking possible.

Second, organizations much invest in their ability to track, interpret and use data. Today, most every way organizations interact with individuals can be tracked in metrics baked into email, web, and social media. There are limits to how far we can track users. There are privacy issues. There are problems with how well CRMs track, report and integrate with other data sets. Yet most obstacles are internal and can be resolved.

Too many organizations look at online communications and behavioral data with the jaded eye of the old-time coaches and managers in Moneyball. Data (proof) on the latest month of social media sharing is discarded with a “well, my issue matters most so let’s just keep talking about it.”

Today, we have powerful data about actions and the strength of relationships between organizations and individuals. We have a long way to go but only by tracking, segmenting, and testing can we improve. Organizations must step up their investment in data, make staff comfortable with it, use it. Strong data insights applied to clear goals will drive action, strengthen relationships and help organizations succeed in a world where membership is less important.

 

Data Informed, Not Data Driven

This Adam Mosseri talk about how Facebook uses data to make decisions is a little dated but his observations are still extremely useful. His key insight: clear metrics and strong data-driven feedback loops can be powerful, but they have their limits as well. Facebook often uses solid empirical data to make decisions about their website design, their products, and the workflows that users experience on Facebook. They can test two versions of a website design, for example, and if design option A produces higher engagement than design option B it’s an easy choice.

But Mosseri also explains how an excessive fidelity to data-driven decisions can privilege incremental and uninspired changes at the expense of innovation and ambitious thinking. Facebook sometimes is aiming not only for high levels of engagement but for more fundamental changes in the way people interact with it and with each other. Facebook’s Timeline, for instance, inspired anger and fierce resistance among many Facebook users and sharp derision from the press, and the use of a conventional data-driven decision process would have killed it before it got very far, but Timeline is now a central and deeply-valued part of the Facebook experience.

Most nonprofits don’t seem to rely much on data for their decision-making about their websites, email newsletters, programs, and fundraising efforts, and when they do those efforts aren’t often carefully crafted and executed (some do, of course, but for every one that does there are many, many more that don’t). The remedy isn’t to swap all the intuitive and qualitative decision-making for analytic feedback loops, but to find a good balance. “Data informed, not data driven,” as Mosseri says.

Innovation storytime: How a 155 year old magazine is kicking bootie online

Want to stop worrying about SEO, have your content shared widely, and become a key source of information by your most desired audience? Here are a couple ways:

Create great content (be it written, video, audio, photos, cartoons, whatever). In particular, craft wonderful stories about timely events that your readers care deeply about.

Basically, all content is now social. What is shared is what people find worth sharing.

The act of a person sharing builds your network of readers and someone that has found your content worth sharing (and one that has found it through a friend) is likely a more committed reader than one that clicks a search link or ad.

This seems to be a lesson from recent experience at The Atlantic. Since taking down its paywall in early 2008, The Atlantic’s web audience has grown from 500,000 to 13.4 million monthly visitors.

Sector leaders are those taking advantage of intersection of great content and social interaction

The Atlantic’s growth happened in many ways but the growth parallels the rapid rise of social networks, namely Facebook and Twitter. The Atlantic invested heavily in creating high quality online content by having high profile writers create content specifically for it’s main website and also launching new online-only properties.

This investment in online content happened alongside the growing social networks becoming the primary forum for reader sharing and discovery of stories. Timely, well-written content begs to be shared in an environment where readers can and want to tell friends/networks about the stories they are reading and experiencing.

It’s no coincidence that The Atlantic’s growing online presence parallels the growth of social networks. The growth of Huffington Post, Mashable, and many other online content sources has come at the same time and they, too, have placed a premium on sharing (across the board quality is debatable).

This shift doesn’t come easy

But The Atlantic remains an anomaly because its roots are as an old guard print magazine founded in 1857…not quite 150 years before some of the leading online only news sources of today. The changes that The Atlantic did not come easy and may have even come through a bit of desperation. In fact, the 2007 “digital first” strategy announced by The Atlantic was explained in part as “…it’s easier to be ‘digital first’ when your legacy business is not strong, when you have nothing to defend…but red ink.

It’s probably fair to say that this was a big change for The Atlantic. For writers and other staff, both new and old, this was likely a seismic shift. Established journalists and columnists becoming bloggers. The injustice of it all.

We bring this up because many (if not most?) nonprofits are adapting and innovating far too slowly, if at all, to the changing world of online communications, conversation and sharing.

Like The Atlantic, nonprofits are publishers

Don’t kid yourself by saying that nonprofits aren’t publishers like magazines. Of course you’re not a magazine (though The Atlantic is no longer just a magazine). Yet one can argue that everyone with a website is a publisher.

Plus, we can think of many groups that for decades invested heavily in print magazines and newsletters (and STILL ARE… really) as a primary channel for communicating with members and the public.

All organizations with content and social want their audience to share, tweet, and generally spread the word. They want likes and comments that are seen by networks of followers. They want to be tagged. They want to be talked about because this spreads word down and through networks.

Not all organizations view it quite this way or use these terms (networks, campaigns, shares, engagement pyramids) but this is what anyone posting content to Facebook is all about: interacting with audience networks to spread the word.

An equation for consideration: Content plus Social equals Engagement

Put it all together and there has never been a better time for compelling writing, video, and images to help advance advocacy, change, and direct action. Our online networks, email, and nonstop mobile information access allow us to reach, talk with, move and engage people at all times and in countless ways.

What is holding organizations back? Great content and a people-driven social perspective. 

The changes needed are not insignificant. When it comes to content, many organizations are still staffed for and creating print-driven pieces: often good stories but rarely online-ready. Online content (blog posts, advocacy pieces, research articles) are tacked onto the responsibilities of policy people or organizers that aren’t storytellers by trade (and, lets face it, often not good writers).

Meanwhile, social media efforts are driven by numbers of likes or fans, bounce from platform to platform (let’s get on Pinterest…how about an Instagram campaign), and often don’t do the little things right (pre-built Twitter share links, anyone?).

We’re anxious to see an organization go “all in” with content and social, maybe even take on a sort of Digital First strategy. Most nonprofits have great potential: they’re not selling things but rather hope, change, and actions that result in happier, safer, and stronger communities — shared values we can all get behind.

* Photo by Erin Kohlenberg

Measurement and support for community, not you

Want to stir the pot amongst social media campaigners and their managers? Start a conversation with them (preferably when you’re all in the same room) about how they measure social media efforts. “Tell me,” for instance, “how you show the ROI of this work.”

Measuring social mediaPerhaps you’ll enter a coherent dialog on social media ROI across the organization (though we doubt it). If so, chances are good that the metrics discussed will be things like number of fans/followers/likes, number of comments, “people listening,” retweets and shares. You may get more programmatic correlations such as amount of money raised through Facebook or people that clicked a Pinterest link, came to the website and subscribed to the email list.

These numbers, however, say little about the value our work is adding to the life of the person at the other end of that like.

Most metrics are about us

The thing is, our social media metrics (heck, even our email and web metrics) are almost entirely about us, the organization. We assess our value and power by the number of fans, followers, subscribers as well as letters signed and cash in the door. And this informs our resource planning, staffing, program evaluation.

This is not terrible (at least not the cash in the door part).  These are informative data points if used in context.

But these are one-way relationship measurements. It’s as though we’re just in the business of selling shirts and all that matters is getting more customers in the door so we can sell more shirts.

But if I’m interested in sticking around as a company I really want to know what people think of the my shirts. How did it fit? Did it shrink in the wash? Did it fall apart?  Do you love it? Will you buy another one? Has it done the job?

How do nonprofits measure the value they are bringing to people’s lives? How do we get beyond discussions of tactics for getting more likes, retweets and impressions and move to learning about what is impacting people and creating the power to change communities? 

We must be able to clearly state how what we do relates to people’s lives. We need to understand precisely how our work matters to people before we can measure how we have helped people change their lives.

If you provide a direct service such as meals to the elderly, job training, or a bed for the homeless then you can measure the amount of such service provided. When it comes to social media, look for measures that tie your use of social media as closely as possible to that service. How many people knew about or took advantage of help based on social media? Look at social media metrics but also at client data. How did your organization’s use of social media affect use of services by your clients or audience?

Organizations that provide primarily advocacy services have a trickier time measuring benefit to audience and as a result use primarily indirect metrics. They infer from likes and shares that the audience is valuing (or not) their social media. These organizations, too, should directly and regularly query followers/supporters about the impact of social media on their actions and views.

Culture of community support

But advocacy organizations could also more directly seek guidance from social media about what advocates need, want, could use to help them be more effective. Social media (and email and the web) is an opportunity to have a direct conversation with the people that matter most to your work (and, no, we’re not talking about legislators or even your staff): your members, donors and activists.

Here are some guiding principles for helping your community:

  • Be deliberate about asking them what they need to be better advocates;
  • Provide what they ask for and test it, measure results and share feedback;
  • Be transparent with your community: share your intent and learning openly;
  • Identify and track people as they become more engaged (as well as the actions that they take to get there); and
  • Create a culture that encourages sharing advocacy stories, not just rants or odes of support. Instead of “great job” or “this guy stinks” we should strive to hear “this is what I did and here’s what happened.” (And if/when we get those stories, thank the people that share them.)

Focusing on how the community can become better advocates and supporters of one another will build and spread power, create longer lasting change, and take advantage of the interactive nature of current communications channels.

What’s your member mission statement?

Can you say what the purpose of members (or, more simply, people) are in your organization?

Membership doesn't always have privileges.

Membership (or any sort of engagement) should be better than this.

I don’t mean something generic such as “to help us achieve our mission” but more to the point. How do people help meet the mission? What can they do? What is their role? What can a person (or a member, donor, supporter, volunteer) hope to really, tangibly do to be part of your team that is working so hard for change in the community?

The other day I wrote about the role of people in our organizations.  We spoke of people generally but were mostly thinking of staff and other direct team members that are actively part of the day-to-day workings of the organization. How these people fit into and excel in our rapidly evolving organizational systems is critical to the success of nonprofits, social ventures and other organizations. The role and value of people in the organizational context is changing, as Maddie Grant gets at in her Future of Work: A Manifesto.

But staff/team members are only part of the puzzle. In a highly networked and social media driven world, organizations are asking more from supporters and relying on them for their word of mouth, their networks, their time, their likes and retweets, and, of course, their money. All of that (and more) is important to organizations.

What IS the purpose of your people?

But what is the purpose or role of members/supporters in any given organization? What is the mission of the member? WHY do organizations have members (or email list subscribers or social media supporters)?

While at The Wilderness Society I kicked around the idea of a “member mission statement.” The organization has, of course, its own mission statement that you can find if you look for it. But it says nothing about what people (aka members, fans, followers, donors, supporters, and so on) can actually DO with/for/alongside the organization.

A member mission statement would have two audiences. The first (and most important) is the organization and its staff. The days when a “membership department” sent out recruitment and renewal notices while (perhaps) a volunteer organizing unit had people make phone calls or mail literature are gone. Every person in your organization has a public-facing role and is, whether they know it or not (or like it or not), interacting with members. It helps them to understand and appreciate the organization’s plan for people. And, to be clear, by staff we don’t mean just the membership and/or development department. We mean everyone.

A member mission statement is also for the members/supporters. We don’t understand why more organizations don’t clearly spell out what the expectations (or hopes) for a member are at the beginning of the relationship. Talk about the need for people to take action online, give money, tell friends, and meet or get involved with local chapters, for starters. Lay it out there. This isn’t about a newsletter and some emails. This is about you and how you will make a difference. On the flip side, say what you will provide to them.

More than anything, be clear about what the organization needs, wants, hopes for from people. Don’t keep those needs inside. Share them with the members and subscribers themselves. If you can’t or don’t want to be transparent about it then a problem exists. Go for it, instead. Tell everyone what the deal is and get going. There is a lot to do.

Photo via flickr, Tom Simpson.