Bright Ideas

Content is a forest. Don’t just count the trees.

One piece of content strategy is knowing why, when, how (and if) you need to post your content in multiple places. That seems like a lot of extra work. A version of this topic about this popped up last week in a Slack community for nonprofit/NGO folks with which I’m involved. Someone posted this question:

Does anyone have any useful insight for blogging? I’m specifically looking at posting to our native website and cross-posting to other sites – Medium, Linkedin, WordPress, etc. Obviously each has their own strengths but it feels like overkill to post to all.

I love this. Where to put content, when, why, and what it should look like come up in every comms and digital program – regardless of whether or not there’s a clear content strategy. Every organization sorts this out. And the good ones ask the question over and over again. Talking through it presents a great opportunity to dig into about content strategy, staffing, planning, editorial style, marketing and more.

Isn’t putting our content in more than one place just extra work?

Pushing content into multiple channels is probably already happening. Your blog posts, articles, reports, and action alerts are all finding their way into social media posts.

A blog post you write today probably also has an accompanying Facebook post with a headline, text and photo optimized for Facebook engagement. It has a 200 or so character tweet and photo. Maybe it also has a one minute video – an interview with a staff member about the story that can go on YouTube or Instagram.

Doing this much is almost taken for granted. You want to raise awareness of the post, drive clicks to your site and so you create little versions of the story that entice people to click through to find out more.

Measure the forest, not just the trees.

Most of us focus on one featured piece of content – usually a blog post or other page on a website. We’re constantly planting new trees in our content forest. We care for each tree – at least for a day or two – by telling everyone “hey, go look at the tree.” We measure page views and Facebook likes, Instagram followers and retweets.

We’re often answering the “should I also put our content over there” using a cost-benefit equation that can’t be defined. Of course, we’re going to create the main post or piece of content. We have to do that. (You have to have at least one tree, right?)

How do we know if a tree on the website, on Medium, or on LinkedIn is worth it?

What if we could measure the value of the forest instead of each tree? We know a healthy forest needs different kinds of trees. Some live. Some don’t.

Some trees serve as home for squirrels and birds. Others produce twigs eaten by deer. Some create shade the keeps things cool and others drop leaves that replenish the forest floor.

Each person interacting with a story or piece of content (a tree) is getting something special from it. We just don’t have great ways of measuring individual value. But if someone important to us gets all their value from a Facebook tree then we better make sure that all the content they need is on Facebook. Other people might be email newsletter and Facebook consumers. Others get their nutrition from Medium. And maybe a little ego-soothing LinkedIn first thing in the morning.

A thriving forest is alive, evolving and growing. So is your content.

There’s no one way to care for a healthy forest. And what works today may not be worth doing a year from now. Know how people engage with content. Don’t just optimize the website for stickiness or assume you can create great Facebook posts that get people to go read the full article. Consider the people who spend most of their time in Facebook and make sure they get what you need them to get while there. If you can show that your people are on Medium then don’t look that as extra work, look at it as necessary and do it well.

Review your approach regularly. Don’t be afraid to shift gears, test, put more time into one part of the forest for a while.

Measuring the forest.

Figure out how to measure for the forest, not the individual trees. Don’t rely on page views, clicks, opens and raw audience size. That’s all great stuff. Do measure it. But don’t base your decisions about how to spend your time on it.

Here’s an idea: ask people qualitative questions about your content and it’s impact on their work, conversations with family or friends, their ability to take meaningful action. Ask them in January. Then ask those same people again in May and October. Do they recall content? Do they remember where they found it? Did they take an action or make a donation as a result? Did they change their own economic or political behavior? Did they send it to someone? How and why?

Many of these actions don’t happen at grandiose scales. The numbers may not wow you but tangible measures of action, empathy and engagement can be the difference between content that’s distributed and content that has impact. And that’s a helpful number to pin down when trying to define the difference between content strategy and content production.

Change happens when people tell their story – not yours

An intention for 2019

In addition to helping the nonprofit community speed up membership innovation, let’s create a framework for helping people find, create and share their own stories in ways that build community, grow power, and strengthen their ties to organizations as well as one another.

Never before have we had so much content, so many stories, so much news to consume. The volume isn’t just overwhelming members, readers and supporters. It’s transforming how organizations, businesses and even individuals create and fund content.

The issues facing content creators, marketers and digital strategists are many. A few: No longer is getting a story in the newspaper sufficient. An organizational blog post that gets 100 views and three retweets isn’t getting you anywhere. A video on YouTube is likely lost to the world unless you’ve committed to a full-blown YouTube marketing strategy.

Here’s the thing

Content is created to serve organizational goals. Stories we create and ask people to share may be about people impacted by the policy or product we’re working to promote (or oppose). But it’s still our story. In our voice. With our context woven through it. Aimed at achieving our purpose.

Advocates, organizations, companies, journalists and storytellers all approach content with intention and filters. We have a goal in mind. That goal shapes the questions we ask and the pieces of the story we pick up and shine a light on.

So, are we creating content, stories that actually give voice to people? Or are we just rewriting our own beliefs in the words of others? Are we reporting on the world as it is or the world as we see it?

When I talk about content strategy and storytelling, I want to be very intentional about the who, what and why. Some recent articles and conversations help here:

Ashley Alvarado is the Director of Community Engagement at KPCC, a public radio station based in Pasadena, California. They’ve been taking on a range of innovative content programs aimed at better / more deeply covering and finding community-driven news. They bought and revived community news site LAist, for instance, not what you might expect from a radio station.

Alvarado joined a Media Impact Funders webinar last month to share an update on KPCC’s Unheard LA project. Think of it as TedX talks with real local people sharing personal experiences.

The project’s name is intentional – Unheard instead of untold. As Alvarado points out, more stories go unheard than untold because people with stories don’t have access to media and storytelling opportunities. Unheard LA is about stripping away control over who gets to hear stories by investing in meeting people where they are, applying user-centered design to journalism and storytelling, and really shifting engagement from being organization-centered to people-powered.

Alvarado has a great example in the webinar of how user centered design (or, really, just listening to people who don’t usually get talked to by the media and nonprofits) is transformative right now. She talks about the coming 2020 census, how important it is to LA residents, and how many advocacy groups are working in the community to organize and raise awareness about the census.

But, in talking with people, it’s become clear that people have heard of the census but have no idea about how it affects them, why they should care, or what to do.

In other words, despite all the work happening on the ground, there’s a gap between the stories being created by advocates and how people consume, translate and use stories.

In a story for NiemanLab, Known but not discussed: Low-income people aren’t getting quality news and information. What can the industry do about it?, Christine Schmidt talks with Jay Hamilton, head of Stanford’s journalism school, and Fiona Morgan, an information ecosystems consultant and former director of Free Press’s community organizing News Voices program, about their research into the information needs of low-income communities.

The context of the conversation is journalism. Are news and media companies meeting the needs of low-income communities amidst rapid changes in newspaper availability and digital platforms?

But there are big lessons (and opportunity) here for community nonprofits, advocacy groups and anyone doing community organizing. Schmidt, Hamilton and Morgan talk about behavioral economics, helping people access information that impacts their lives, and how people make decisions. These factors, much more than high level policy outcomes, impact how people access and use messaging.

Any framework for community storytelling that builds power needs to emphasize user experience and design. Many of the organizations already working in community organizing have relationships in the community, access to data (or at least awareness of what data is out there), and insights into what information people use to make decisions on a daily basis.

These are the organizations that, with storytelling skills and resources, can transform how communities access information, use information to build power, and

Let’s think about how we scale up storytelling that puts communities at the forefront. The role of nonprofits, media organizations and funders is to train, support, guide and, perhaps most importantly, create the channels that spread learning faster.


This post is part of the latest edition of Bright Ideas. Subscribe here:

Get Bright Ideas

Email Address

Bright Ideas: O Facebook What Art Thou?

Here’s the latest edition of Bright Ideas where we take a look at changing Facebook relevance may mean to content, storytelling and marketing. Also, why is BuzzFeed doing tote bags? And new jobs for great people. Subscribe here:

Get Bright Ideas

Email Address

 

O Facebook, What Art Thou? I’m not going to make the case that Facebook is going away. At least not anytime soon. But the obstacles it faces, largely challenges of its own making, should be of enormous concern to any nonprofit campaigner, fundraiser or leader. (And present exciting opportunities for positive change, I hope.)

First, let’s look at how anti-user Facebook’s core product, the ad manager (ha, I mean the news feed), has become. Despite Facebook’s self-proclaimed return to being a place for friends in 2018, it’s pretty much a visual (and targeted) classified ads platform. Example: at 4 pm last Wednesday I pulled up my Facebook feed and scrolled through the first 25 posts. Twelve were from pages I’ve followed at one time or another. Five were ads. Eight were from people I know. Five of those were straight up reshares of page content with no context.

So much for friends.

Second, the world that analyzes these things is full of stories about declining Facebook use among people under 25 and Europeans, among others. This parallels data about falling interest in the US. Meanwhile, Facebook does seem to have followed through on its promise to deprioritize news by sending less traffic to media sites – a hit to online publishers that’s unlikely, in the short term, to do anything about public trust in media.

Where does that leave us? In the short term, probably in the same place we’ve been for a couple years now. Facebook is huge and any organization willing to put real resources behind the creation and advertising of engaging content that can help bring people (and their data) to Facebook is going to be okay.

But can nonprofits as well as media orgs (including nonprofit journalism) continue to rely on social media to drive growth and visits to their websites? And can nonprofits (and even the consultants surrounding them) continue relying on a platform that seems okay absolving itself of political, social and human collateral damage?

Hey, I’m on Facebook. It’s complicated. But somehow I think we need to aim for more human-scale relationship building that don’t outsource targeting of lookalike audiences to an unregulated corporation.

That means, I think, more tools people can use to create news and fewer platforms for sharing news. More members and fewer audiences. More teaching people to tell stories and less talking about storytelling.

//

If you think this edition of Bright Ideas is interesting (dare we say useful?), please forward it along or share it on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. You could share it on Instgram but that would be weird. Get this from a friend? Want to subscribe? Head over here.

Can tote bags save journalism?

Just say no to Trumpian Drift. How advocates, journalists, leaders tell stories of migrants and refugees says a lot about how society views citizenship and basic human rights. Masha Gessen urges journalists to choose their words and stories with more care because the scale of problems facing us requires smarter – and more scaled – reporting. She points this out in the quote below and it’s important for advocates to be aware of this, hold media to account, and to also be very conscious of how every story is framed in their own communications:

Like most coverage, but perhaps more than most coverage, the writing about immigration has been suffering from what I think of as Trumpian drift. Journalists casually use terms like crossing the border illegally when referring to asylum seekers—when in fact there is no law that says they must use the ports of entry. Journalists increasingly buy into the framing of immigration policy as a strategy for preventing people from entering the United States. And then there is the conspicuous use of the words caravan and migrant to refer to people fleeing for safety.
– Masha Gessen

//

Adding value by adding values. This is a headline I can get behind because I see nonprofits, unintentionally in most cases, making pitches for financial support and action that reflect the righteousness of their work as though it’s assumed every member or reader had a hand in creating their theory of change. Ben Terrett writes about how successful product design does a great job solving user problems but often shows no regard for public values (using the apropos and timely example of scooters littering most major cities).

Nonprofits and civil society are – or should be – modeling inclusive behavior that helps all consider the impact our work has on the whole community: the powerless, not just members, wealthy donors or the loudest voices. Thanks to Paul de Gregorio for sharing this one.

//

The constant pressure of tracking everything is burning out journalists. And I know that many activists and campaigners feel the same way as reporters John Crowley spoke to for this piece at Nieman Lab. A few things: (1) Stop reporting on Trump’s tweets. They exist only to overwhelm media bandwidth and make everything about him. (2) We hear a lot about tech solutions to info overload, turning off notifications, and self-care. All good (phone notifications are truly evil). But, as Crowley points out, much of this is driven by management and leaders who support systems that place professional and personal value on constant work.

//

Does climate fiction lead to climate action? Only if readers are also accessing cultural messages that effective action is possible. Researcher Matthew Schneider-Mayerson surveyed US readers of 19 works “cli-fi” to understand how climate storytelling may help shape advocacy and opinions on climate change.

//

So…who actually does what in high-performing digital comms team? Every organization is churning out content. Very few are well-staffed for it. The good folks at Contentius put together this smart field guide to content roles.

//

Get your BuzzFeed tote bag now. It’s free when you make your $100 membership payment. Pretty cynical tone to this piece by Christine Schmidt for NiemanLab but it seems meaningful that a private media company with a household name is scrambling to try every membership experiment it can. Curious how membership as a BuzzWord hooks on here but I’m rooting for the great writers there.

//

This great little piece from Transparency International shares five ways to help people engage in campaigns. It’s insights that go beyond anti-corruption activism to support most any issue and the communications around it. All orgs could benefit from a user-centered focus on accessibility, safety, relevance, credibility and responsiveness.

//

Anyone going to (or involved in) the #Reframe Conference on Mental Health and the Media? Looks interesting!

 

Do good work

A few great roles at the intersection of digital, content, creative and campaigning. Have one to share? Click reply and let me know. Have an idea of your next perfect role but not finding it? Send me a note.

  • Chicago-based Hearken helps newsrooms listen to and engage the public on the way to building public trust and stronger stories. They’re hiring US-based engagement consultants to work with their 150 (and growing) clients. Engagement consultants should have newsroom experience but, as the description says, “please don’t be discouraged if your title doesn’t include engagement-related words.”
  • Free Press has several campaigning/organizing roles open: Campaign Manager, Online Community Manager and Digital Manager. Free Press is leading the fight for net neutrality in the US by, in part, engaging tens of thousands of volunteer activists. The team is based in western Massachusetts, Washington, DC, and remote locations around the US.
  • New Citizenship Project is doing smart work helping orgs and campaigns engage people in more meaningful and powerful ways. The London-based group is bringing on a Strategist. Check it out if you’re over that way.
  • United for Iran is hiring a Civic Technology Program Director based in Berkeley. Great group and should be a wonderful opportunity to do innovative work. Note: must be fluent in Farsi.
  • I don’t know much about Communitas America but this Program Manager role that will run coworking and a social venture accelerator looks super interesting. Based in the Bronx.
  • Greenpeace is filling two Media and Digital Analyst roles to guide the global organization’s tracking and learning from social media, news, and all the other bits that fly around the internets. Flexible location.
  • The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is hiring a DC-based Digital Director.
  • Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC, is hiring a Multimedia Strategist.
  • The BlueGreen Alliance is hiring a Denver-based Colorado State Coordinator to grow and run the Alliance’s work there.

Here’s a google spreadsheet full of job lists, email groups and online job boards where you’ll find roles like these posted. It’s editable (for now) so feel free to comment or add a resource.

What’s on your “you should read this” list?

Here’s a short version of mine. Read either of these? Have anything to add? Hit reply and share what you’re digging into (or at least hoping to with any theoretical extra time).

Addendum

Question? Idea to share? Let’s talk. Reply or email ted@brightplus3.com.

Don’t hesitate to forward this to others or pass along the subscribe page link.

Defining transparency

Transparency in campaigning isn’t just about sharing campaign plans, making videos and being authentic on social media. That’s all important and can build relationships and increase name awareness. But there’s one level of transparency that’s about talking a lot – and openly. And there’s another level of transparency that involves opening yourself up to risk and inviting others to share that risk with you.

I’ve recently been working on a story about transparency in campaigning and what, if anything, is new or can be learned from the 2018 U.S. elections. I’ve looked at the Beto O’Rourke campaign which produced 1,300+ (or so) Facebook Live videos and shared its field plan (and results) online. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has used social media, especially Instagram, with authenticity to foster stronger, trusted relationships with supporters

There’s also been a good deal written previously about “open campaigns” – groups putting their campaign plans out there for all to see – and distributed campaigning or big organizing that gives people the power and tools to act on behalf of the campaign.

For candidates like O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez, sharing their day to day life builds name recognition. For activists, sharing plans and giving supporters tools to act independently is about trust and scaling impact.

But, shifting gears a bit, transparency creates personal and strategic risks. And it’s precisely the risk of opening up yourself, your organization, your plans, to others that makes transparency powerful.

Last week I read Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. The book is Jose Antonio Vargas’s memoir that begins with him being sent from the Philippines to the U.S. at 12 years old to live with his grandparents. From that point forward his childhood was about as “normal” as any California teenage could experience.

That changed when Vargas turned 16 and went to get a driver’s license. He was turned away because he didn’t have the right identification. He went home and found out from his grandfather that he was undocumented. His family sent him to the U.S. without going through the “proper” immigration channels. After living in the U.S. for four, ten or 20 years the only legal option is to abandon the life he’s built, return to a Philippines that he no longer knows and wait for 10 or more years to possibly immigrate to the country he grew up in.

Vargas, of course, didn’t leave the U.S. He became a high school and college journalist and later worked in D.C. for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He has directed documentaries, co-founded Define American, and been a guest of Rep. Nancy Pelosi at the 2017 State of the Union address.

In 2011, Vargas wrote My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant. He came out as undocumented, practically inviting the government to deport him. Looking back, he writes in Dear America:

I am not hiding from my government. My government is hiding from me. At least that’s how it’s felt in the past seven years, living a public life while practicing what I call “radical transparency,” which has taken on various forms.

Transparency, it seems, protects Vargas. His visibility has turned him into a spokesperson. Deporting Vargas would cause more problems than it would solve for people and agencies opposed to immigration.

But transparency – or at least Vargas’s approach to it – has done something else in this case. Basically, it seems there are a couple levels of transparency. One involves openness and exposure. It means talking about your plans, releasing documents and inviting outsiders and other people make their voice heard – even weigh in.

This is the transparency of open government and open campaigning. It’s valuable. It means people can engage because they’re no longer in the dark. But it can remain exclusive. The agency, organization, staff still makes decisions and is ultimately responsible for what happens.

Another level of transparency invites people in to help make the decisions. People don’t just know what’s going on, they have a hand in deciding whether actions are good or bad and how to respond. In the end, this transparency makes everyone involved responsible – and puts them at risk.

This is the transparency of movement building. Vargas talks of helping to organize 30+ undocumented young people to travel across country for a Time magazine cover photo. Vargas could easily make his case about the immigration system and undocumented people without dozens of them joining him and putting themselves at risk. But by putting themselves on the line these people are showing that other people are also willing to be radically transparent for this cause. They’re modeling transparency and leadership for others.

Vargas goes on to speak at length about transparency and how, as a journalist, it is easier for him to be transparent on the outside than in his personal life. Living as an undocumented person who works, pays taxes, and obeys laws also means not having the right to vote, drive, cross the border. It also means living with knowing you could be removed from the country and lose your job, relationships, family and friends overnight.

Transparency is complicated and has personal/private as well as public/political layers.

You’re going to grapple with transparency if you’re a political candidate, running a political campaign or working on an advocacy effort. Social media, the web and open data have all changed the public’s perception of how much and what kind of transparency is required.

Consistently opening up yourself  (or your campaign), your ideas and beliefs, and your plans for putting those beliefs into action in the physical world invites others to do the same alongside you. It’s important to think about whether you really want that – and to commit to the level of transparency that you need.

Accelerating membership innovation

Let’s strengthen organizations, raise more money and scale up impact by speeding up how we learn about and position membership programs. 

Compact Flash - Accelerating the speed of membership

Don’t want the all the backround? Jump to project goals and process >>Comments? Feedback? Suggestions? Send an email or contact us.

A membership innovation community of practice will identify and speed understanding of what’s working, best practices and innovation across a broad range of communications, engagement, fundraising, and organizing activities in nonprofits, journalism, political campaigns and social-good business.

We believe membership – people joining, investing in, learning from, and acting in partnership with others – is (or could be) a strong framework for scaling deep and sustainable activism and healthier organizations. This brief provides a path towards testing that idea.

Membership is critical to sustaining relevance, revenue and sustainability.

Membership has a long, global history. Groups like the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Geographic, Consumers Union and League of Women Voters are membership based.

Labor unions are membership-driven as are cooperatives (local grocery co-ops, for example, and outdoor stores like REI in the United States and MEC in Canada).

Community groups (Rotary Club, garden clubs) and trade associations are also membership based. And millions of people become members associations like the American Association of Retired Persons People every year.

People become members by investing money and time. In many cases, people receive career guidance, networking, volunteer opportunities, discounted products, invitations to events and more.

What is membership? For the purposes of this brief, we view membership as having three parts:

  1. People investing in an organization.
  2. An organization investing in people.
  3. A framework that binds together the interests of people and an organization.

Why do people become members of an organization? The simplest reason: because they’re asked. Usually by people they know. Most members enter an organization with at least one active relationship.

Members receive access to services and benefits for the time, money and personal capital they offer groups. Members are often given opportunities to meet, interact and learn from one another. People also learn and improve skills, take on volunteer roles and eventually become leaders. In many advocacy organizations, membership offers people an opportunity to directly engage with others and the organization in actions around a shared mission or vision for the world.

Let’s assume there’s some value (or at least a bit of accuracy) in the above definition of membership, it’s historical presence and why people put their hard-earned money and time into an organization as a member.

It’s worth noting that the public service journalism sector is looking to membership as a path towards revenue growth and sustainability as well as knowledge and service. The Membership Puzzle Project is one example of that sector’s search for stronger member-driven skills and projects.

The Problem

Today, nonprofits (both advocacy and community service groups), associations and journalism/media organizations (nonprofit and for-profit) use a variety of membership models to secure direct and indirect support.

Membership programs are usually built around and optimized for fundraising. People are asked for a minimal amount of time – a $30 donation, a Facebook follow, an email address. They receive a thank you (hopefully). They are passed into the hands of staff running fundraising and advocacy programs.

Membership programs are typically separate from organizing and communications. Software/CRMs may track donations and email opens. But software only does what the people using it ask. Organizations do little to build member relationships (or, in other words, do little to invest in the needs of members). People are either bombarded by messaging in their inboxes and social media feeds. Or receive little at all.

Everyone is concerned about impact. Many people want to work with others to have a direct impact. People in are looking for opportunities to invest not just their money but their time, skills and experience. They’re looking for anchors – places to hook their attention, build relationships, learn more and do good.

Meanwhile, organizations are dealing with solving transactional problems like high membership growth costs and/or churn. Most members would be surprised to learn that the most important calculation of their relationship is aquisition cost and lifetime value. The constant need to replace members creates an endless search for new people, new lists, new audiences – attention taken away from deepening and sustaining membership.

People are looking for consistency and impact are hearing about crises and immediate needs. It gets attention. But we lose attention, tune out, and move on to another crisis.

Worse, people are losing faith in nonprofit organizations. It’s a problem for the causes and communities in which we work who are not consistently served by a committed group of supporters.

Thousands of nonprofit organizations have decades of data about membership programs. Yet, too often, membership teams are sidelined to focus on marginal list growth strategies. Conversations about innovation, sustainability, scale and value TO members get set aside.

We need to rethink what membership can be. It’s time to share lessons, test outside the box, build partnerships across sectors (and inside organizations).

Creating Modern Membership Models

Now is the time to look at new membership models. Membership teams and their partners across the organization, nonprofit and NGO leaders, and even members themselves need new and empowering membership models that can engage and even excite people.

To get there, the sector needs testing and learning, networking and training, and many more opportunities to unleash creativity.

We believe that networks of people working in and around membership programs (everyone from membership teams to organizing, volunteering, fundraising and other roles) will create stronger organizations – and more powerful outcomes – with opportunities and resources to more rapidly learn, test and master membership programming across their organizations, campaigns and teams.

Why Now?

This is a time of declining trust in institutions. And it’s not just government. NGOs, nonprofits and even small orgs face questions from constituents and potential supporters about finances, diversity, leadership, sexual harassment and more. Media and news organizations rely on reader (and source) trust to stay in business.

Membership programs invite and build trust by increasing transparency and direct investment in an organization’s mission, values and operation.

More people than ever are engaging in advocacy and political campaigns as volunteers, activists and leaders. Nonprofit organizations can better learn from organizing campaigns – even those under their own roof – to build stronger membershp programs.

Sustainable funding remains critical to the long-term health of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits are raising money and figuring out monthly donor programs but aren’t innovating membership in ways that deepens affiliation to sustain themselves for long time and grow leaders.

Meanwhile, journalism organizations and others are looking towards advocacy and struggling to find/implement membership models and practices.

There is a place for renewed, revitalized and re-imagined membership in nonprofit advocacy and organizations. Some of this work is already happening in public service journalism through the efforts of The Membership Puzzle, the Coral Project, Open News and others. These projects demonstrate the value that testing and networking around membership and engagement bring to communities of practitioners.

We envision a project that advances membership innovation in nonprofits, collaborates with other sectors and ongoing projects to share learning, and makes it possible for far more people to become more sustainably engaged in social good and community change.

The Goals of this project

Here’s what we believe this work can accomplish:

Revitalize the membership field so that a wider range of organizations and campaigns can reach more people, engage people more efficiently and sustainably, and promote growth of leadership, revenue and program innovation.

Build a learning community of people working in and around membership. This may include people in nonprofits, NGOs, advocacy groups, political campaigns and social movements, associations, trade groups and labor unions, journalism and community media and more.

Rapidly share data and resources needed to test membership and related programs in fundraising, organizing, mobilization, volunteering and leadership.

Identify and assess a variety of new and existing membership models that organizations, funders, consultants and members can apply, learn from, test and iterate upon.

Create a culture of measurement, testing, reporting, iteration and transparency that supports broader membership program innovation.

Process

What would doing this actually look like? Here’s an idea:

Create a network through baseline research and reporting.

  • Survey a broad cross-section of people involved in members
  • Get direct and subjective feedback on
    • What’s working and what’s not?
    • Who’s doing good, great, creative work and thinking in membership?
  • Bring subset to a kick-off meeting/event/conference where diverse group meets, networks, shares learning, creates plans for next steps in community
  • Identify what needs to be measured/evaluated for project impact and success.

Continue growing and sustaining a network of membership innovators and leaders.

  • Online/offline community (could range from just email list/facebook group to one or more in person events in different locations)
  • Identify need for and create training materials

Identify and showcase membership innovation and testing in the wild.

  • Membership Innovation Showcase and/or Membership impact guide. Read more.

Inspiration / Background / More Reading

Who’s thinking about this now? We’ll continue updating this list as we find/receive ideas.


Compact Flash photo via JD Hancock, Flickr. CC 2.0.

What is membership?

I’m working on a project aimed at assessing (and rethinking?) how diverse communities of people working in nonprofits, associations, journalism and social good approach membership.

The process includes understanding what membership is – and what it isn’t.

Most people working in the field – and members themselves – have a sense of it. But there is no one clear definition of membership.

Organizations use membership in wildly different ways. For some, being on an email list is membership. For others, taking an online action is membership. For others, you pay a minimum amount and earn the right to vote on board members and bylaws. For most, the words member, donor and supporter are used interchangeably during the fundraising process. One can only assume this is in an effort to attract donations from people who find the idea of membership a compelling one.

Does any of this variation matter? Presumably, organizations and their membership teams have tested the terms and know what they’re doing. They know when to use “make a donation” and “become a member” and can clarify for people what the difference, if any, is between being a donor and a member.

I’m not sure the variation matters. But I do believe that vague use of membership invites vague levels of support.

Not defining membership within an organization – and being clear about its goals, requirements, and strategy – sets the stage for fuzzy, unclear and potentially meaningless relationship between people who are supporters and people who work in organizations. And that’s going to weaken the creation and implementation of any program involving people: fundraising, organizing, digital, communications, content, social media, volunteering, board development and more.

So let’s take a leap and write down a definition of membership. My definition certainly isn’t the only one (what’s yours?). And this one is colored by an emphasis on maximizing people power in a modern, digital world.

Three elements of membership

[1] An investment in the organization and its mission by the member.

This could involve money, volunteer time, skill-sharing, advocacy on the organization’s behalf or other resources and services. A strong membership model supports a member who chooses to do more than one of these things and the ability to add or subtract from their investment. A strong membership model also values and optimizes for whatever investment a member is able to contribute.

[2] An investment in the member’s needs by the organization

The organization offers benefits and/or services that the member can use to improve their quality of life. This could be very tangible goods and services (tote bags, books, product discounts). This could be events such as meetings, conferences or even trips. This could be the opportunity to learn a skill or meet people –  these are often direct or indirect benefits of volunteer programs, for example.

It’s worth considering if the “benefit” your organization offers members benefits the person or the organization. Many organizations send supporters a magazine or newsletter. These can include educational and/or entertaining information for the member but are often aimed at helping the organization meet its need for a more informed membership.

Membership
The first mention of membership on a Sierra Club donation/join form comes in the form of small print at the bottom of the form.

[3] A framework that binds together the interests of member and organization

Benefits to the organization and member are the ingredients. A framework that ties people together are the recipe. And, like any cook knows, while there are a thousand ways to cook a chicken, not all of them taste good.

The details can vary but somehow, a strong membership program will create and support ways for members and organizations to better understand and depend on one another.

Shared mission or purpose should be a goal of most any member-organization relationship but it isn’t sufficient or even necessary to a membership relationship.

Historically, many organizations offered members a decision making role in the organization. Members could vote on board members, bylaws and major policy changes. This still happens as many (though likely not all) REI or Sierra Club members know.

Supporters of an organization likely share the mission of that organization. But few supporters can recite a mission statement to you. And, often, people will take action simply because they’re asked and not because they share the mission of the organization.

What membership means

Here’s what membership should not mean:

What membership should NOT feel like

Too often, membership simply means being one of many. A name on a list. Someone who can give money when asked. Sign a petition when asked. Come to a meeting when asked.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Technology, transparency, and community building offer a multitude of opportunities for people and organizations to share interests, work together for common purpose, and participate in programs that better support both organizations and people.

I’m excited by the work of Membership Puzzle, a group looking at what membership means for journalism. And journalism organizations like The Texas Tribune who are focusing on membership engagement as a core element of its future growth and sustainability. Know of a project in the US or global NGO/nonprofit sector that’s assessing and testing membership? Would love to hear about it.

 


Flock of sheep photo via PublicDomainPictures.net. CC0 1.0 Universal.

Helping people create change by helping people

Bright Ideas: How stories, strategy, people and tech are creating change.

This is Bright+3’s email newsletter. Subscribe now.

25 September, 2018

Do you need a digital team, what roles would be on it and who would be included? Good questions. I’m skeptical that most organizations need a digital team so much as need digital first leadership and cultures. I wrote about it the other day in a piece called Thinking about digital strategy in teams:

“Digital is in every role in the organization, not just a few people easily pulled into a single team. Everyone and every role can, will and needs to understand how digital works.”

If nothing else, check it out the digital teams resources shared at the bottom. Other good/smart people have been thinking hard about digital teams in nonprofits the past few years.

Another good read on nonprofit digital strategy comes from Ryann Miller at Toronto-based Grassriots. Digital is a strategy, not just random tactics, posted at Charity Village, distills more thinking about how and why a digital-first organization isn’t just running better online fundraising and social media campaigns but is building lasting relationships with people built on member needs. Miller identifies building blocks for a digital-first org:

  • Supporter/consumer-centric
  • Transparent
  • Collaborative
  • Empowered
  • Data-driven
  • Agile / iterative
  • Innovative

Have you seen the new book, Driving Digital Strategy by Sunil Gupta?

Gupta, Edward W. Carter Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, explains how legacy organizations need to approach digital strategy in an org-wide / holistic way and not as a single tactic, single department, or as something that just gets added onto existing strategy.

Get Bright Ideas

Email Address

Leaders need to think about what people really need. If you understand what people are trying to accomplish and build for that, instead of thinking of digital as a channel to reach more people, you’ll be more efficient, advertise better, save money, sell more.

Gupta’s aiming at the for-profit world but the point stands for NGOs. Here’s another summary from an interview with Gupta. He was also interviewed for the HBR Ideacast in August. Great listen for the ride home.

Gupta talks about Peloton, the stationary bike company, in the Ideacast interview. Peloton doesn’t view digital as a way to reach more people but as a way to create a fuller experience that people will crave, rely on, pay more for and tell people about.

This brings me to exciting examples of companies putting people first to build powerful relationships (and businesses) in a Vox article called Crossfit is My Church. Sounds weird, perhaps, but a powerful read.

Casper ter Kuile, a researcher at Harvard Divinity School and Executive Director at On Being’s Impact Lab, looked at Crossfit and Soulcycle (again with stationary bikes!). They wanted to understand if, why and how millennials are replacing organized religion with other experiences that fulfill a need to be part of something bigger than themselves.

I think unions and membership orgs (e.g. Sierra Club) once did this very effectively but for a variety of reasons failed at thinking about membership as anything more than payment for services.

Skipping ahead, what if a membership organization’s strategy (most of which was digital and probably all of which was guided by core elements like transparency, empowerment, being supporter-centric) was directed at creating at experiences that addressed people’s needs, including a need to belong to something bigger / better than any one individual’s self?

Charity:Water is one example of this approach in action. There are loads of ways for NGOs to solve advocacy / political / community problems. But few are built from the ground up to give supporters direct roles – and personal meaning – in addressing water supply problems in communities thousands of miles away.

Putting the needs of supporters first would change how most groups staff themselves, think of revenue streams, approach role of volunteers, define membership, develop content, and more.

This isn’t an especially new idea (see older versions of Sierra Club, trade associations, and labor unions).

But does an updated version work in complex legacy organizations (and newer startups) that are solving advocacy problems (protecting forests, stopping mining, reforming health care finance)? It can and, I suspect, has to work in more orgs, more campaigns, more communities.

Don't stop believing

Good more or less related reading:

I’m not the only person who once subscribed to National Geographic who ended up confused about what membership means there. Membership Puzzle shares Lessons and cautionary tales from 130 years of membership at National Geographic. By the way, Membership Puzzle is doing an amazing job looking into how journalism/media nonprofits and startups are rethinking and testing membership engagement.

“When newsrooms start valuing their relationships with the communities they serve over the quantity of content they can produce, it shapes journalism for the better. And that focus on relationships is helping newsrooms have an impact and develop new opportunities for revenue and sustainability.” American Press Institute releases A Culture of Listening, a report diving into how/why journalists strengthen reporting and value through deep listening practices, tools and techniques. Useful for community organizers and activists

Want to kill democracy? Starve civic institutions (and parks and public lands). From Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU: “Just as certain hard infrastructures, such as those for power and water, are ‘lifeline systems’ that make modern societies possible, so too are certain social infrastructures especially crucial for democratic life.” Libraries, environmentalists, outdoor recreations groups, the YMCA and many more should be talking about this at a time when government zeroing out spending on community institutions.

Don’t stop believing. Never thought I’d share a New York Times piece about Steve Perry (yeah, that Steve Perry) but this story has it all: music, love, tragedy, redemption, croquet, the Eels, big hair.

Addendum

Question? Idea to share? Let’s talk. Email ted@brightplus3.com.

Subscribe here.

Thinking about Digital Strategy and Teams

I’ve had several conversations the past few weeks about digital strategy and teams in nonprofits and media startups. They all come back to culture, teams, fundraising and the idea of digital-first organizations. Fascinating and fun topics but curious to be seeing this pop up now. Seems like the nonprofit community hasn’t talked much about digital teams recently – or not as much as five or ten years ago.

Then a great question popped up on the Progressive Exchange email list. Basically, how do we structure our digital team as we grow and evolve. People wrestling with this. It’s a huge issue impacting strategy, funding, leadership, vision and more. I threw together some ideas and resources on the question. How are you answering (or asking) the question these days?

QUESTION

We have a few staff who work on some aspect of digital but it’s not centralized so we lack in strategy and structure.

How do other nonprofits successfully structure digital teams. Are these teams stand-alone or are they housed under other departments? If housed in another department, which department makes the most sense?

IDEAS

Digital is in every role in the organization, not just a few people easily pulled into a single team. Everyone and every role can, will, needs to understand digital works.

What that means, for example, is that today digital tools/communications gives people a computer in the palm of their hand. It empowers them to be super organizers (P2P texting), fundraisers (P2P fundraising / online donations), lead their own campaigns (volunteers that lead parts of your network) and take on new roles (citizen journalism, citizen science, blogging, sharing on social media, etc.).

This changes everything about the role of the organization, its staff, and which assets of the group are valuable.

In practice, this looks different at different organizations.

Digital first leadership

What often matters most in a successful transformation is digital-first leadership. That could be an executive director who comes straight out of digital campaigning, organizing, or fundraising. Someone who gets networks, iteration, engagement, people power…can speak tech or at least not get lost in the jargon.

But in reality most execs are there to raise money, inspire, manage, set a big vision and give everyone else the tools to implement it. So a director doesn’t need to be steeped in digital so much as aware/supportive and know what to hire for while being able to let people do the work they were hired to do.

This is, in part, why you’ll see “digital director” roles. Where it works is where this role is someone with a meaningful guidance position. Access to and input on high level org, program, organizing, fundraising strategy. And some responsibility for managing digital leadership within teams. It’s going to depend on overall structure in an org. There is no one size fits all solution.

Do you need a digital department?

Where it seems most likely to get messy is when there is a digital department that sits next to a fundraising department, an organizing department, a tech department, an HR department, etc. (or teams). Then you get into questions/debates about what’s digital?

Fundraising and organizing are very digital. Tech is digital. Things quickly become turfy, siloed, easily contentious. Meanwhile you’re struggling to put the interests/needs of the audience/members/supporters first.

I have some other notes on the sort of membership and engagement strategy organizations could/should aim for if they really want to empower people to create change and sustain relationships with a “digital first” organization. But that’s for another day.

Depending on timeline and resources, it could be super helpful to talk to people building / running digital strategy and teams in digital first organizations – groups that started online or groups that have been making a transition to digital first.

Some ideas of who to talk to (not all inclusive – just some orgs I know well, know how they approach digital, know leadership, know they’ve been through digital transition, have seen in action recently, etc.):

SumOfUs
Greenpeace UK
Australian Youth Climate Coalition
Global Zero
Dogwood
Rainforest Action Network
Common Cause
The Washington Bus

RESOURCES

Nowhere near an all-inclusive list. Just what comes to mind first. All help thinking about digital teams though some are more focused on org strategy.

Digital Teams Report (2018)
NetChange Consulting

What makes nonprofit digital teams successful today? (article based on Digital Teams Report)
Jason Mogus & Austen Levihn-Coon, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Digital is a Strategy, Not Just Random Tactics (2018)
Ryann Miller, Charity Village

Understanding Digital Strategy (2018)
Harvard Business Review, 30 minute HBR podcast interview w/ Sunil Gupta, business professor and author of Driving Digital Strategy

Developing a Strategy for the Digital World (2018)
Harvard Business Review, Interview w/ Sunil Gupta

The Digital Plan (2018)
The Digital Plan book project is led by Brad Schenk who helped transform digital strategy/team at Rainforest Action Network.

Five models of digital teams (2017)
Jason Mogus, NetChange Consulting

Detangling Digital (2018)
Sam Dorman and Chris Zezza, Mobilisation Lab

Becoming a Digital First Organization (2016)
Alice Hendricks & Misty McLaughlin, NTEN

What Digital Really Means (2015)
Karel Dörner and David Edelman, McKinsey

Product teams: The next wave of digital for NGOs? (2015)
Sam Dorman, Mobilisation Lab

How to Build a High-Performing Digital Team (2013)
Perry Hewitt, Harvard Business Review

Five Dysfunctions of a Digital Team (2011…but still useful)
Jason Mogus, Michael Silberman & Christopher Roy, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Power-full storytelling for change

Can we create powerful (and “power-full”) storytelling for advocacy that shifts power to people and communities so they may better control the change they seek?

Power-full storytelling

The “traditional” framework for advocacy storytelling is built around persuading those who aren’t directly affected – or who aren’t currently engaged – to empathize and act. This is a good way to go when what you need are people to write Congress, come to a march on Washington or give you money so you can do more of your good work.

But persuasion isn’t about power. Persuasion acts on those not affected. Somewhere along the way it’s possible—too easy, really—for the change that needs to happen to be disputed, watered down, stalled in a committee. Meanwhile, real people go hungry, real homes sink into the ocean, real wildlife lose a place to live.

Philanthropy may recognize the power problem

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, recently wrote Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough in the New York Times. In it, Walker calls on the philanthropic community and, perhaps, a broader economic and political establishment, to not simply address the effects of inequality and injustice on society but to solve their root causes.

Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation wrote about the Foundation’s decision to focus on systemic change and supporting transitions to a new political economy in choosing how to direct its support of climate change advocacy.

It’s not a new idea to social justice advocates: We can (and should) feed the hungry but wouldn’t it be more prudent to tackle systemic causes of inequality and poverty that are leading to a growing number of hungry families and children each year?

Pressuring the System or Shifting Power?

Advocates and campaigners can do much more to tell the stories of people impacted by inequality, poverty, hunger, war or environmental disaster. And many are doing just that with interviews, personal histories, photos and video, and other narratives that tell stories of the impacted and less powerful in their own voices.  Recent work by Humans of New York tells the story of refugees to help fundraise for the community. In the film @Home, activist Mark Horvath interviews dozens of homeless people, family members, and others in the community to tell the story of homelessness from the perspective of those living it.

Continue reading “Power-full storytelling for change”

Great Content : Stronger Content Strategies

We help organizations develop and implement content strategies that create the conditions for more people to learn, act and lead change in their communities.

But not every content problem needs to be solved with a grand strategy. Our approach identifies content goals, needs and solutions by working across organizations, looking at data and finding examples from collaborators, competitors and other sectors.

Some of our content services include: 

  • Content strategy assessment, development, implementation and staffing.
  • Original writing and editing of blog posts, articles.
  • Creating, designing and producing email newsletters.
  • Editorial calendar creation and support.
  • Webinar planning and production.
  • Audio and video planning and production.
  • Developing partnerships with bloggers, freelance writers and other content professionals.
  • Staff support and training for blogging, writing and new media projects.
  • Content marketing and advertising.

We’ve worked with large and small organizations around the world, including:

Let’s talk (or call us at +1 720-480-6975).