Turning policy experts into reporters

The Munk School of Public Affairs at the University of Toronto is doing something brilliant that NGO leaders should check out. The Fellowship in Global Journalism, an 8-month program that trains subject experts to become reporters. The program gives students the support, training and tools needed to create powerful stories for widely read news and online media outlets. Training focuses traditional and digital reporting skills and the program provides participants with high-level mentorship from working editors. All that is layered on top of the participant’s strong subject expertise.

deep sea mining
An ocean issue that could use more news stories: deep sea mining. This is an Auxiliary Cutter to be used by Nautilus Minerals for seabed mining near Papau New Guinea. Photo via Nautilus Minerals.

Imagine, for example, the stories that a few oceans experts could create for widely read media newspapers and online media if they had deep skills in reporting, data visualization, video production and other storytelling skills needed today. You don’t see many oceans stories because traditional news outlets don’t have staff to cover those stories and new media outlets haven’t built up subject expertise. But all are looking to publish great stories people will read and share.

It’s not that readers don’t care about oceans, it’s that there’s nobody to tell the story. And more (and better) stories are needed to support a public narrative on which advocates can hook their calls to action.

Oceans are just one example. You could swap out medicine, immigration, childcare or prison reform and get similar results.

Great news stories are in higher demand than ever so why not make them about issues that matter. There are more places reporting general news for national and global audiences than ever. Some start with a V: Vice and Vox. A is covered: AlJazeera. And then there B for Buzzfeed and M for Mic. Meanwhile, long-time regional, national and global news outlets are cutting full-time positions but, in most cases, hungry for good stories.

There are too few people who both know their subject and can develop great stories about it. This creates an opportunity for policy experts to engage global media in new and more direct ways. It would be fantastic to see the environmental community or other advocacy sector support a similar endeavor.

Offline community is where the power happens

It was with great interest and some amusement that I read a piece by Andy Ellwood in Forbes titled (ironically, I think) Could Offline Communities be the Next Big Thing?

Occupy Monopoly
Offline community action via Flickr user Conskeptical

After all, it was only a couple decades ago that the public consumption Internet was just getting rolling. Up until that time all “communities” were, you know, happening in real life – that’s what we now call offline. But the thing is that community – civic groups, clubs, political interest groups, just neighbors getting together – was languishing at the time.

People were, as Robert Putnam described, spending a lot of time bowling alone instead of collaborating in and around their community.  This, Putnam argued, sapped citizen engagement and weakened democratic institutions (which may be continually weakening for a variety of reasons – discussion for a later day).

Ellwood’s piece in Forbes profiles several examples of offline communities strengthening entrepreneurship in the United States and abroad. Startup culture is driven by people supporting one another. It’s just about impossible for one person alone to move from seemingly brilliant idea to functional company. You can read blog posts and connect online but real progress needs time and trust of the sort that happens in person.

There is a lot of talk about online communities in the nonprofit world. Rightfully so. Engaging and supporting your social media, email, and supporter communities is important. But real changes to behavior, community decision making, and public policy require we invest in offline networks (see this recent story from the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab about Washington Bus for a great example of offline/online working together). Offline community – it’s where the people are. It’s where empathy, reliance and trust mix together in that mystical recipe for power.

 

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.

The Force of empathy in storytelling

You need not have watched the first Obama-Romney debate on October 3rd to know what happened. Mitt Romney won the debate in the eyes of most that watched. He succeeded, in part, by creating a narrative, telling stories, and using a strong sense of empathy to connect with  citizens. The power of empathy in Governor Romney’s debate performance (and the lack of it displayed by President Obama) has been declared significant enough to perhaps turn Romney’s campaign from a languishing also-ran to a possible winner.

Empaty
Empathy: photo by glsims99, Flickr.

The October 3rd debate served as a case study in the ability of stories to establish empathy. The debate showed how empathy is more valuable than policy proposals in campaigns. While Romney was busy creating empathy, President Obama was falling back on complex policy nuance and factual details. Fine for a meeting department heads. A fail in a nationally televised debate.

But why do data and policy-oriented arguments fail to persuade the opposition? Because they are typically devoid of empathy.

When data, facts and logic fail to shake loose a change in public opinion or support for legislation we turn increasingly to storytelling. We use blog posts, videos, books, and more. We ask supporters and those impacted by these issues to “share your story.”

As communicators, we know stories are important. But it is empathy that gives stories their power in advocacy and campaign communications. In the first debate, Mitt Romney didn’t show up to tell stories. His goal was to establish empathy. He has long been faulted by supporters for displaying little, if any, empathy.

Romney’s stories were a means, not an ends. It is empathy we are after, not just good stories.

The Force of Empathy: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for

Empathy is the ability of a story to put us in another place or time — or even allow us to see the world through the eyes of another.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink defines empathy as:

…the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position and to intuit what the person is feeling.

Pink goes on to describe how empathy allows one to see the other side of an argument — one of advocacy communication’s chief purposes.

The role of empathy is too often misplaced in our storytelling. Our first instinct as advocates is to get the reader or viewer to empathize with our point of view. The mission of most advocacy stories might be something like: “The story needs to get them to understand that we are right.”

A good story transports you, the reader, into the character’s world. There, empathy lets you see the world through his or her eyes. As advocate, your goal is to get people to agree with you. As storyteller, your goal is different. You want the reader to become part of the world of your issues and thereby understand the world differently.

Elaine Scarry is a professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Recently, while commenting on Daniel Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Scarry wrote about the role of empathy in literature and its potential role in changing social behavior over time. Prof. Scarry was commenting on

By “empathy” Hunt and Pinker—rightly in my view—mean not the capacity of literature to make us feel compassion for a fictional being (though literature certainly does this), but rather the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world, and to make this recognition a powerful mental habit. If this recognition occurs in a large enough population, then a law against injuring others can be passed, after which the prohibition it expresses becomes freestanding and independent of sensibility.

Empathy is a strong force in literature. One that makes us recognize alternate worldviews. Empathy is not about sympathy for a character but a more complete understanding of the character’s life. This is power that can change behavior — far more significant than compassion.

Perhaps Obi Wan Kenobi displayed the greatest (and most direct) use of empathy in storytelling. In Star Wars, Obi Wan uses the Force (the science fiction term for empathy?) to make stormtroopers see the world through Obi Wan’s eyes and realize that, indeed, these were not the droids they were looking for.


Use Empathy Well, Young Skywalker

In “Lisa Simpson for Nonprofits: What Science Can Teach You About Fundraising, Marketing and Making Social Change,” the authors (Alia McKee, Mark Rovner and Katya Andresen) point out that giving is irrational. People donate more out of feeling than thinking.

More interesting (but not surprising if you’re a fundraiser), is that giving makes people happy. Thinking a lot about something does not, in my experience, make people happy.

The urge to give is not simply people acting irrationally. What if it is simply an empathic response to a good story or video that connects the potential donor to the organization?

Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on “the Force” to create empathy. A good story with proper dramatic arc is a start.

In a recent video for the Future of Storytelling conference, Dr. Paul Zak (a professor of neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University) describes how people were presented with a video telling the story of a father and his young son, who is dying from cancer. Viewers empathized with the characters in the video and were more likely to make a charitable donation after watching the video.

In looking for biological explanations for empathy, Dr. Zak found increased levels of  cortisol and oxytocin in the blood of those watching the video. Cortisol correlates with distress and focuses the mind’s attention. Oxytocin is a chemical associated with care, connection and empathy. The study also scanned brain activity while watching the video and found that areas of the mind associated with understanding what others are doing were highly active, as were areas rich in oxytocin receptors.

Dr. Zak notes that viewers were asked to watch several videos about the boy and his father. Only those videos with a dramatic story arc produced cortisol and oxytocin in the viewer. Simply watching a video of a boy and his father walk around a zoo, for instance, produced no change in blood chemistry and no empathy.

In other words, powerful stories with dramatic arcs can create chemical reactions in the reader/viewer that increase their empathy. In advocacy, a strong story can help connect characters (and issues) to the viewer.

Dramatic structure is a storytelling arc described by Gustav Freytag and includes exposition, rising action, climax, fulfilling action and denoument. This structure helps the reader (or viewer) focus their mind, forget what they’re doing, and join in the story. They emerge at the end, hopefully, not with your advocacy ask in mind but with a view of the world that changes their behavior.

The moral of the story in Star Wars is that good, against all odds and weakened by youth and few resources, can triumph over evil by being clever and more persistent. Nobody, aside from a movie critic, walked out of the theater talking about that but they all felt the inspiration and power of that moral.

If empathy is the secret sauce of storytelling then the goal of advocacy stories is not to have the reader or viewer agree with you but simply to connect with your worldview. Mitt Romney’s goal in establishing empathy in the first debate was not to get people to agree with him. It’s nice if they do but the goal is to let people feel like he understands them and their world. For many, especially the undecided, their opinion (and vote) is based on comfort and confidence, not agreement.

As advocacy communicators, we can also use stories to create empathy and create or strengthen connections. Our campaign organizers can then engage people through that connection, exposing them to more stories and maybe getting them to take actions and actively support policies that create a healthier climate.

This post originally appeared in ClimateAccess

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.

A new study asks: Should the nonprofit and charitable sectors engage in political activity?

Should nonprofits engage in political activity on issues that broadly impact the nonprofit sector?

That’s one question posed by a new study, Beyond The Cause: The Art and Science of Advocacy, and the conclusion is, well, inconclusive. It turns out that there just isn’t much consensus across the sector on this very basic – if difficult – question.

What Makes For a Successful Political Advocacy Strategy?

The study, which The NonProfit Times reported on in some depth last week, did reach some other interesting conclusions. For example, the report does a useful job of identifying some of the common elements among successful political advocacy efforts. They include:

  1. “Sustain a laser-like focus on long-term goals.”
  2. “Prioritize building the elements for successful campaigns.”
  3. “Consider the motivations of public officials.”
  4. “Galvanize coalitions to achieve short-term goals.”
  5. “Ensure strong, high-integrity leadership.”

None of these results are surprising, but it’s nice to a list like this include some clear implications for both short-term and long-term priorities. The inclusion of item #3, “Consider the motivations of public officials,” is especially welcome because that step – understanding how the decision-makers themselves make decisions – is so often overlooked or undervalued when crafting political strategies. If we don’t understand who they are, and how they make decisions, it’s really tough to craft a successful advocacy campaign.

Why Not Engage in Political Advocacy?

Among those nonprofit sector folks who argued against political advocacy on sector-wide issues, one major concern seems to be about the resource implications. Effective political advocacy does, indeed, require considerable resources, and nonprofits have very compelling reasons to focus all of their resources on their core mission rather than risk dilution through an expanding range of advocacy fights.

A second concern, also understandable, is that sector-wide advocacy fights “would taint the non-partisan image of charities.” It’s very easy to see how the nonprofit sector as a sector would open itself up to sharp attacks by political opponents if it were to engage in a focused way on federal or state level policy debates.

Threats to the Nonprofit Sector

But the largest threats to the nonprofit sector, as identified by study participants themselves, highlight just why I think larger-scale sector advocacy is going to be critical in the years ahead.

Those threats? In addition to overwhelming specter of the federal budget and national deficit issues, participants in the research identified four other key challenges:

  • Threats to the idea that the federal government has a meaningful role and has meaningful responsibilities around social issues.
  • Threats posed by the potential for deep federal spending cuts to nonprofit sector issue areas.
  • Threats to nonprofit tax exemptions and charitable deductions.
  • Threats to government funding for specific types of nonprofit activity, especially around vulnerable populations.

Why Those Threats Justify a More Assertive Nonprofit Sector Political Strategy

All of these are likely to grow in coming years as pressure to tackle federal budget and deficit issues continues to escalate. Engaging on policy issues that impact the nonprofit sector broadly clearly does carry some risk. It will be more difficult to defend the reputation of the nonprofit sector as non-partisan, and some of the sector’s strongest alliances really do cut across partisan lines and might come under pressure as a result. But the risks of not engaging seem even greater. The nonprofit sector is too easy for deficit hawks to target, for example: tax exemptions, charitable donations, preferential treatment, federal funding for programs that generally benefit people who are less politically franchised. Sidestepping state and federal politics won’t insulate the nonprofit sector from attack, and guarantees that we won’t be able to make sure of what should be an enormous political strength: the huge political, geographic, and religious diversity that makes up the nonprofit sector.

You win political fights by defining yourself more quickly and more effectively than your opponent, by building strong coalitions, and executing a smart, proactive political strategy. The nonprofit sector is well positioned, with a powerful “supporting people and communities everywhere” brand and with an enviable degree of diversity.

We won’t avoid becoming political targets simply by not engaging, and our latent credibility and strength won’t be enough to protect the values and needs of the nonprofit sector if we don’t proactively use these assets in a smart, strategic, assertive political strategy.

Defending the Value of the Nonprofit Sector

I’ve always found it a bit frustrating that the nonprofit sector is so apprehensive about advocating for its own needs as a sector (nonprofit tax exemptions and charitable deductions are two of the most obvious and important examples) and asserting its political strength in defense of those needs. It’s as though we think our inherent value as nonprofits will always carry the day. That may have been true in decades past, but it’s not as clear now that it will be true in the years ahead.

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.

Is local advocacy the gateway drug to political engagement?

Local advocacy campaigns are nothing new. Once upon a time, local organizing and advocacy lay at the heart of social change movements (well, still does though it’s gone a bit underground). Folks in a city, town, or county would be outraged, get together to do something about it, talk to their neighbors, lobby city councils (the members of which were – and often still are – friends and neighbors). Eventually, if needed, they pushed their cause to the state or national level.

For many of you, this may sound like the world circa 1975. “I’m Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock tells the story of local citizens working together to pass a law saying that school buses must stop at train tracks.

Okay, you have to watch it…

Here’s another story. The environmental movement got its start, in part, as the result of community-based campaigns to do something about polluted rivers. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River famously caught fire in 1969 (and many times before that, in fact). Citizens advocated for change from local leaders and soon realized that Congress would need to act. In time, the results included the Clean Water Act, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and other programs that have resulted in vastly cleaner (and healthier) water across America.

The ability of locals to organize, craft policy and programs, and take meaningful actions to promote change at various levels (local, state, federal) engaged a generation of people in their community, government, nonprofits, and other civic actions.
Continue reading “Is local advocacy the gateway drug to political engagement?”

Watching the Game Film (for Nonprofits)

This post was originally published on Amy Sample Ward’s terrific nonprofit technology blog earlier this week.

For professional football players, the six days between games are jammed with practice, gym workouts, and travel. They also include time spent watching the film from the previous game, play by play, evaluating, learning, and preparing for the next game. I don’t know as much about other sports, but I’m guessing that professional basketball, hockey, baseball and other players have similar routines during their seasons.

It’s true that for pro athletes, everything they do during the week amounts to preparation for game day. Game day performance is what matters. It’s also true that many pro athletes are supported by extensive coaching staffs, sophisticated video recordings, and powerful analytic tools to help them understand what they did and how they might improve.

But a lot of what nonprofit folks do is similarly performance-oriented: every time you present on a panel at a conference, every time you pitch a prospective donor or funder, every time you talk to a reporter. You prepare (or not), and then you perform well (or not). And even without the same kind of evaluation and training resources at our disposal, we still have tools and capacity to carefully evaluate our performance and plug it in to fast-cycle feedback loops so we can continuously improve. Nearly every nonprofit has a video camera now, tripods are cheap, and it’s easy to set up to record right before you begin your presentation. When you talk with reporters, it’s easy to evaluate the print story or broadcast (not just reviewing it, which everyone already does, but studying it to figure out what you did well and what your screwed up). You may not have someone with you on every funder pitch, but it’s not hard to arrange at least some of those conversations with a colleague who won’t do too much talking during the meeting, so someone else can pay more attention to how well you do. For much of what you do, you can figure out ways to intentionally review your performance, identify what you did well and what you need to work on, and then craft a strategy for improving.

Incidentally, it’s the coaches who really immerse themselves in the film after every game, studying the game film on the flight home or first thing Monday morning, grading every player on every play, and then reviewing the films with the players. What if the more senior folks in your organization were explicitly responsible for coaching the newer members of the team? And what if their job evaluation was based partly on how effectively they are at coaching the more junior folks?

An organizational culture that emphasizes evaluation, feedback loops, learning, and intention improvement doesn’t happen by accident. For most nonprofit folks, the limitation isn’t about resources but about how serious they are about improving.

(Photo credit: Flickr rburtzel)