What community advocates should know about the Princeton Offense

2310501543_c25c74204f_bIt occurred to me, while watching Georgetown trounce Western Carolina a few weekends ago (thanks for the game, Eric!), that nonprofit advocates might learn a thing or two from the Princeton Offense practiced by the Hoyas and others.

The Princeton Offense, so named because of its origins at its namesake university early in the 20th century, is a high-energy offense that uses constant motion, frequent passing, and sharp cuts to create shooting opportunities. The offense relies on nimbleness and speed … by making frequent and sudden cuts timed with sharp inside passes, players often find themselves all alone with the ball and an easy layup. If the defense pulls in to cut off those opportunities, the offense finds itself with more open three-point shot options.

The Princeton Offense has some limitations. For one thing, it depends on the entire squad being strong at passing, layups, and shooting three-pointers. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to excel at everything, but they all need to be solid. For another, it requires a great deal of preparation and discipline, effective communication, and tight teamwork. This may be true for basketball in general, but it’s exacerbated in an offensive scheme based on sharp, precision movements.

But it doesn’t rely on overpowering your opponent, which is good given that small community groups are often at a disadvantage in terms of funding, political connections, and political muscle. Instead, it relies on qualities often found in spades among nonprofit advocates: agility, high-energy, and versatile team members.

This analogy is a stretch, I know, but the basic point is sound: play to your strengths. Design strategies that take advantage of your assets, and sidestep or minimize the strengths of your opponents. Whenever possible, set the terms of the engagement rather than play their game.

If you like the basketball-as-political-strategy analogy, the basketball team at Grinnell College offers another fun example. Unable to compete for the best players (it’s a small college in the middle of Iowa, after all), but still able to recruit a bunch of guys with solid high school experience, they twisted convention on its head: rather than field their best players for longer stretches, they substitute fresh legs constantly so that every Grinnell player on the court is able to play at 100% for the entire (short) time they’re on. The details vary every cycle, but they send in substitutes every half-minute or so, and within the first three minutes Grinnell has already fielded fifteen players playing an average of a minute each. They shoot like crazy and they leave guys on the offensive end (violating convention but not the rules). Although their opponents may consistently field better players, each member of the Grinnell squad can play at 100% the entire time they’re on the court (versus, say, an opponent, only playing at 80% because of their need to pace themselves for longer stretches of game time). “The System,” as it’s called, is a controversial approach, and it isn’t popular among basketball purists, but Grinnell – with a 7-2 record this season – is figuring out a way to play competitive ball despite being underpowered and out-skilled.

Analogies like these obviously have their limits, but there might be some wisdom to draw from the comparisons, and at the very least they can help reinforce some basic instincts about crafting effective strategies even when outmatched by your opponent.

(Photo by Flickr user Keith Allison.)

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.

A friend of a friend: How Obama used Facebook to turn out voters

We all know that social networks can be a crucial arena for engaging your supporters and developing new relationships, but for a sense of scale look no further than the 2012 presidential campaigns. Both campaigns made extensive use of social networks like Spotify, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and, of course, the giants Facebook and Twitter.

One major problem for the campaigns in the closing weeks of the race: 18-29 year-old voters are very difficult to reach by phone, and making sure that very specific audience actually voted was a critical campaign element, especially for the Obama campaign. Their solution: aggressively, intelligently, and strategically using Facebook to identify supporters, keep them engaged, and then – during the GOTV (“get out the vote”) efforts in the final weeks – reminding them to actually vote.

Because of their early and sustained efforts identifying supporters through Facebook, 85% of the campaign’s GOTV 18-29 year-old targets were friends of friends of Barack Obama on Facebook. Obama for American Digital Director Teddy Goff explains, “We had about seven million instances of people contacting about five million people, all of their friends who they knew … these were people we had to reach, and couldn’t reach otherwise.”

And note the importance of very clearly identifying the audience. Even though Facebook users span a wide range of demographics, different demographics use the network differently. This was a strategy targeted for a very specific demographic. This not-so-little detail highlights a common problem in exhortations for nonprofits to use social networks more aggressively. The first step should always be defining the goal, and the second step – always – understanding the mechanisms of change enough to clearly and specifically define the audiences you need to influence. Then you can figure out if and how social networks matter, and how to use them effectively if they do.

But there is clearly a growing chance that social networks will matter, and if your target audience for a given campaign includes 18-29 year-olds in the United States, then social networks may well be critical part of your strategy.

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.

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

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.

Our First Book Launch: The Nimble Nonprofit Hits the Streets (and Barnes & Noble)

The Nimble Nonprofit is now available at Barnes & Noble ($4.99)!
Yesterday Trey and I launched our first book, The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, with a ton of help from our Bright+3 colleague Ted Fickes.

We’re only a day into it, but it’s been great fun so far: a ton of awesome reviews on Amazon, a bunch of great Twitter traffic, and even an unsolicited and really favorable full-on book review (thanks Bonnie Cranmer!).

In addition, I now have a “Jacob Smith” author page on Amazon. I wasn’t expecting much when I logged in to set it up, but I must not have paid author pages much attention previously because it turns out they’re actually set up pretty well. In addition to what you’d expect (profile, photo, etc.), they also allow you to bring in a Twitter feed and an RSS feed, which is a nice touch.

And great news if you are a Nook fan: The Nimble Nonprofit is now available at Barnes & Noble!

The book is in review at Apple, and as soon as it launches there we’ll announce it.

We’re thrilled to sent our little book out into the world, and we welcome your comments, critiques, and thoughts … send them our way:

  • email: authors@nimblenonprofit.com
  • Twitter: #nimblenpo
  • web: http://brightplus3.com/