Twelve things learned from using social media in a community crisis

Earlier this year my partner in crime here at Bright+3 left Colorado for Washington, DC, to work as Policy Advisor on Energy and Environment for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Prior to moving to DC, Jacob served as a city council member and then mayor of Golden, Colorado.

Lessons from Indian Gulch WildfireLike me, Jacob has always been intrigued by the ability of digital communications to connect and support people in their community, personal and political endeavors. Jacob maintained an email newsletter and website for years while a candidate, councilman and mayor. During his council and mayoral campaigns, we tested what was (at the time) innovative integration of voter files, email lists, volunteer data and walking lists to help target his efforts.

As elected officials go, it seemed that Jacob knew how to make the most of email and social media in his job. That experience was tested in March, 2011, when the Indian Gulch wildfire started just west of Golden (in the foothills on the west side of Denver). The fire lasted a week and became the nation’s largest at that time. Hundreds of homes were threatened.

The City of Golden had an emergency operations plan and a process by which city and county, the Sheriff’s department and fire officials would update the media. But wildfires move fast in dry windy hills and the need to get information out to residents with homes in and around those hills is urgent. Social media, email and the web raise expectations about information availability and local leaders are pressured to supply accurate and rapid news.

A few weeks ago, Jacob and Bill Fisher, a Golden City Council member, released a brief, highly readable report analyzing the lessons learned about communications (particularly digital/online networks) from the Indian Gulch fire. The report digs into early observations shared on the site Emergency Management in 2011[Read more...]

Listening to the Obama campaign’s digital team: Four ways to strengthen organizational culture

Last week I was fortunate to be part of two discussions in one day about digital teams in big organizations. Instead of talking about the latest big win (and one had a huge win) or cutting edge campaign, both conversations veered towards organizational culture issues. One team addressed culture concerns head on, knowing it makes a difference in digital success. The other sees problems but is stuck, unable to steer, even a bit, the culture issues that weigh down the team.

One conversation was with a key member of the digital team at a national nonprofit advocacy group. The digital team has struggled for a while as the group has tried to figure out where digital fits in the organization. As we talked – and as I reflected on the next conversation – it became obvious that structure (and continual “restructuring”) wasn’t the whole story.

The second discussion happened at an event that included a panel of four key members of the Obama campaign’s digital team, including CTO Harper Reed.

Obama digital team leaders speak at Galvanize in Denver. March 7, 2013.

Obama digital team leaders speak at Galvanize in Denver. March 7, 2013.

I expected this panel to focus on how they pulled the products and technology together. The event was organized by a start-up incubator so it would probably touch on the lessons that iterative design, open source development, and relying on a cloud application servers might offer entrepreneurs.

[Read more...]

Your leadership elephant

Elephant

Is missing technology leadership in your organization shouting at you? The elephant says it is.

Chances are your organization doesn’t have people in senior leadership roles with experience in digital campaigning, technology development, or online movement building. No high-level ability to analyze and manage the relationship between technology and programmatic outcomes may be one of the greatest obstacles to organizational growth and success today. And too few are talking about it. Get your board and managers together and chances that visionary and capable leaders comfortable with technology are the elephant in the room.

Yesterday, NARAL Pro-Choice America announced that Ilyse Hogue will become its next president. Ms. Hogue brings deep campaigning experience and, notably, a background in meshing online and field systems to build movements, raise money, and change politics. I don’t know exactly why NARAL made this choice but I suspect that online experience played a role.

Technology is Pervasive

If you work with technology at all you likely are (or have been) overwhelmed by the complexity and variety of ways to solve every problem. Web and social media metrics, application development, video production, and even web design are just a few of nonprofit tech subjects that are continually evolving yet increasingly basic to digital advocacy and marketing. [Read more...]

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).

The virtues of getting your butt kicked: Barack Obama’s basketball game

Michael Lewis covers a lot of ground in his October Vanity Fair profile of Barack Obama, from Congressional gridlock to nuclear reactor meltdowns to a downed F-15 over Libya. But the heart of Lewis’ piece is the President’s regular basketball game. The other guys on the court – everyone but Obama – are former college players. They’re tall and fast. Most are twenty years younger than Obama.

As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.

“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.

“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.

It turns out that Obama, despite his age and his lack of competitive college (or even high school) hoops experience, is good enough to be useful to his team, passing well and playing smart.

But what’s really remarkable to me is the game itself. This is a guy, as Lewis puts it, who could “find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star.” Instead, Obama seeks out this “ridiculously challenging” game. He goes out of his way to surround himself with people he knows can outplay, out-hustle, and out-muscle him. The president is extremely competitive, and he plays to win, but he also wants to be pushed and stretched and challenged.

A players hire A+ players, as the saying goes, and B players hire C players.

And people who consistently exercise great leadership know that you only get better when you stretch and take risks, and that building great teams is as much about surrounding yourself with people who are really good at what they do – even better than you – as it is about whatever talent and drive you might bring to the table.

(White House photo via Creative Commons)

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.

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.)

Building an Exceptional Staff: The Research Hospital Model

Although the Mayo Clinic facilities may not serve as a great model for other nonprofits, some of their practices might.

I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend whose dad has been suffering from intense gastrointestinal problems for months. Multiple doctors and tons of tests but nothing to show for it except ‘hang in there, maybe it’ll clear up on its own.’

After being hospitalized during a particularly severe bout, the doctor persuaded him to head to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Four hours after arriving there, with zero new tests, his team of Mayo Clinic GI specialists figured out he was having an extremely rare allergic reaction to his blood pressure medication. They’ve seen only 15 other cases; it’s rare and new enough that there isn’t anything in the medical literature yet. One of the problems confounding the diagnosis: he’d end up in the hospital only when his symptoms were severe. His blood pressure would be unusually low as a result of those symptoms, they’d remove him from the blood pressure medicine, he’d feel better, and then after being discharged he’d start taking the drug again and the symptoms would return.

How was it that the doctors in Minnesota were able to figure this out – a complex and extremely rare condition – in a matter of hours while countless doctors before them failed? A big part of the answer is that through their role at the Mayo Clinic, which is essentially a teaching and research hospital, they collectively see a huge number of patients with an extremely wide array of challenging cases. Their breadth of experience, and especially with difficult diagnoses, meant they’d simply seen a much wider variety of conditions than most and their diagnostic skills were sharper as a result.

How does this relate to nonprofits? Most nonprofits don’t invest much of their intellectual capital or their resources into staff development, growing and stretching people through their tenure at an organization or over their career to help them become exceptional advocates and nonprofit leaders. Some of the best nonprofit folks incidentally end up with exposure to a wide variety of specific challenges and circumstances, and some figure out how to seek that breadth of experience out themselves, but most nonprofits could probably do a better job of deliberately exposing their staff to a wider universe of new challenges and difficult problems.

This doesn’t necessarily mean someone needs to spend time working across different fields, moving through fundraising, program management, administration, organizing, and other departments. The GI specialists at the Mayo Clinic are truly specialists in a very specific field. But it does mean figuring out how to exposure your team to a wide variety of challenges within that field, making sure they are building up loads of real experience problem solving (problem solving skills) and exposure to a wide array of circumstances from which to draw when troubleshooting problems and crafting strategies (“maybe this time we could use that strategy we tried that other time combined with this new idea I’ve been thinking about”).

A lot of nonprofit folks end up with this sort of exposure along the way, but I suspect most nonprofit managers could do a better job of deliberately making sure that their direct reports pick up a wide and challenging array of experiences.

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.