Measurement and support for community, not you

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

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

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

Most metrics are about us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture of community support

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

Here are some guiding principles for helping your community:

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

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

What’s your member mission statement?

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

Membership doesn't always have privileges.
Membership (or any sort of engagement) should be better than this.

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

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

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

What IS the purpose of your people?

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via flickr, Tom Simpson.

Innovation v. Effectiveness

Innovation is just a whole lot sexier than do-more-of-what-we're-already-doing.
One of the peculiarities of the philanthropic foundation world is its energetic enthusiasm for supporting innovation among the organizations they support. Everyone loves innovation, for one thing, and we know that many of the challenges we face probably aren’t solvable with traditional approaches. And funders are as susceptible to the temptations of organizational ego as everyone else … what funder wouldn’t want to get credit for breakthrough innovations in providing key community services, securing a durable change in political values, dramatic improvements in nonprofit organizational structure, or solving an important social problem?

But sometimes the right answer isn’t to create something new but to scale up something you are already doing, or to copy an approach someone else already nailed. The problem: the idea of innovation can be so sexy that it comes at the expense of effectiveness. If a funder conveys through their grant application or awards process that being innovative trumps being effective, it’s not hard to see how the nonprofits themselves might slide in the same direction. If you’re trying to solve a social change, advocacy, and community challenge, sometimes imitation actually is the best solution.

(Photo by Flickr user Jules Antonio).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Bright+3 Book Launch: The Nimble Nonprofit

I am thrilled to announce the launch of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit.

The nonprofit world truly is in a state of flux. Much of what used to work doesn’t anymore. The need to invest in growing ass-kicking staff and to develop sustained organizational capacity has never been greater, yet the difficulties of doing so are growing as quickly as the need. In The Nimble Nonprofit we cover a wide range of what we believe are critical challenges facing the nonprofit sector:

  • cultivating a high-impact innovative organizational culture;
  • building and sustaining a great team;
  • staying focused and productive;
  • optimizing your board of directors;
  • creating lasting relationships with foundations, donors, and members;
  • remaining agile and open; and
  • growing and sustaining a nimble, impactful organization.

We mean for The Nimble Nonprofit to be a guide – an unconventional irreverent, and pragmatic guide – to succeeding in a nonprofit leadership role, and to tackling this incredibly challenging nonprofit environment. We aimed for a conversational, practical, candid, and quick read instead of a deep dive. If you want to immerse yourself in building a great membership program, or recruiting board members, or writing by-laws, there are plenty of books that cover the terrain (and some of them are quite good).

But if you want the no-nonsense, convention-challenging, clutter-cutting guide to the info you really, really need to know about sustaining and growing a nonprofit, well, we hope you’ll check out The Nimble Nonprofit.

This is our first book, and the publishing industry is a state of disarray, so – following the spirit in which we wrote the book – we are taking an unconventional path. We decided to publish strictly as an e-book, and we decided to self-published (with a bunch of help from Ted here at Bright+3). We are offering the book through the big three e-bookstores (Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, and we might add a few more to the mix), and we’ve priced the book at $4.99, which is much less expensive than the vast array of other nonprofit books.

As of right now, the book is available on Amazon (and it’ll hit the other two stores shortly). If you’d like to score a copy of The Nimble Nonprofit and enjoy reading it on your Kindle, iPad, or another tablet, jump on Amazon and grab it (did I mention it’s only $4.99?).

And, because our main goal is contributing to the conversations around these critical questions, we are also making a .pdf version of the book available for free.

We suspect that most readers will agree with some of what we argue and disagree with other parts, and because we challenge much of the conventional wisdom about building strong nonprofits, we’re pretty sure that some folks will disagree with a lot of what we write. And we look forward to the conversations. Please send us your thoughts, critiques, comments, and ideas

Tell us where you think we’re wrong and where we’ve hit the nail on the head, and please share with us other examples of nonprofits doing a great job of tackling these challenges and where they are just getting it wrong.

Happy reading –


(P.S. The Nimble Nonprofit is available right now on Amazon.)

Twelve Tips for Encouraging Innovation at Your Nonprofit

Some innovations are better than others (photo from the How To Be a Dad blog).
One of the more energetic exchanges at the Nonprofit Technology Conference earlier this month took place during a plenary discussion on innovation among nonprofits. The discussion was interesting but heady, and the pragmatics of fostering a culture of innovation within your nonprofit or becoming more innovative in your own work matter just as much as the big picture discussion that took place on stage.

One critical but often overlooked element is making sure you build in strong learning loops. Experimenting with creative ideas doesn’t end up being very valuable if you can’t learn from the experience and apply those lessons in the future. What does that mean? Most of the time, it means setting clear goals, being clear about your assumptions and hypotheses, being clear about your evaluation process, and finally making sure you debrief thoughtfully and share the lessons learned.

But even this kind of language is pretty abstract. Just how do you encourage innovation? A few practical suggestions:

1) Once in a while attend a conference that you wouldn’t ordinarily attend. If it’s in a different field, all the better. Try a conference on marketing, social media, museums, technology, creating a strong professional development program, or pretty much anything that involves a different group of people.

2) Just getting out of your own narrow nonprofit space can be really valuable. If you focus on women’s issues, try engaging with environmentalists sometime. If you run a botanic garden, plug in with the education-focused folks.

3) Once in a while read through blogs in those other areas. And if you can’t afford or make time for any more conferences, blogs are a great way to pay attention to conversations in other spaces.

4) Give each member of your staff a small discretionary “sandbox budget” that they can spend however they wish so long as they explain the goal, why they think it might work, and how they’ll evaluate the outcome.

5) Give an award every month to the member of your staff that tries the most interesting new project.

6) Make open conversation about failures a part of your staff meetings … what was the logic of the idea, what did you learn, how might you iterate from here?

7) Mix up the location of staff meetings and especially retreats.

8) As part of the workflow for any new project, ask who else has tried this and what have they learned, and show how this project iterates on those lessons.

9) Establish a consistent system for evaluating new ideas and then evaluating the outcomes when you test them.

10) Read business books off the bestseller list, or read books on innovation and creativity, or histories of social and political movements.

11) Watch TED videos or read

12) If you work with any philanthropic funders that support groups across multiple issues, ask them which of those other organizations really stand out for their innovative approaches. Or ask local angel or venture capital investors about the most innovative startups in the area, or your local culture reporter which local arts organizations would be the most interesting to talk with. Take those executive directors or founders out for coffee.

Cultivating a Culture of Innovation at Your Nonprofit

Photo by Flickr user elycefeliz (and h/t to Beth Kanter).
A persistent focus of conversation among nonprofit folks – and the highlight of one of the plenaries at the Nonprofit Technology Conference a couple of weeks ago – is the challenge of fostering a climate of innovation within the nonprofit community.

Why does it matter? For one thing, nonprofit folks know that some of the challenges they face aren’t solvable with conventional approaches. For another, funders often explicitly emphasize their interest in funding innovative approaches (a topic for another day). And innovative just sounds cool. Who wouldn’t prefer to be innovative and ground-breaking instead of dull and conventional?

The trick about innovation, though: it’s one thing to say we encourage it, but quite another to actually follow through. Cultivating a culture of innovation means encouraging your staff and colleagues to take risks. It means embedding an expectation about learning from those risks – the successes and the failures – and sharing that knowledge. It means rewarding people on the team for questioning assumptions and suggesting new ideas. And if fostering a culture of innovation is important enough to you, you may even need to penalize people for not taking risks.

Most importantly, you need to convey – not just pay lip service – to your staff and colleagues that you genuinely support them thinking creatively, testing their ideas, and sharing what they learn, even when it fails.

Kony Part One – Invest in Your Network

So. The Kony campaign from Invisible Children. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

This campaign didn’t just happen one week. Years of network building went into it (among other things). Years.

Our concern (as Bright+3, an organization that helps organizations understand and succeed in the digital/networked world) is how this campaign has become as powerful and visible (and controversial) as it has.

To that end we want to share two wonderful pieces written in the past 24 48 hours. First, Jason Mogus at Communicopia writes “Why your nonprofit won’t make a Kony 2012” (And it almost certainly won’t. So sorry.)

The second piece, “[Data Viz] KONY2012: See How Invisible Networks Helped a Campaign Capture the World’s Attention,” was written by Gilad Lotan at SocialFlow.

Kony Network map
Kony Network map via SocialFlow

Jason Mogus itemizes how many (most?) large nonprofit advocacy organizations fall short in key capacities that are needed to put together and implement a campaign such as this. Those capacities (where many are falling short) might be summed up as:

  • Weak network. Organizations haven’t engaged people directly in person and are not even talking with them online. We think this is the largest of the big kahunas in this story. More below.
  • Lack of focus. Programs and communications are all over the map. Organizations working on many campaigns likely have many audiences. They don’t have the communications resources to speak clearly to everyone.
  • Policy trumps people. This is a tough one (see Ethan Zuckerman’s piece on real questions about oversimplifying complexity). How does a policy and research driven organization write clearly, passionately, and understandably for large audiences that it wants to engage in action? Most don’t try or when they do it’s muddied by the policy wonks.
  • Social web. Huh? Organizations that build lists (even networks, which are different than lists!) aren’t aligned with social network principles – the sauce that is interaction and multi-channel communications. If you’re going to build networks (or at least tap into them) your organization needs to be comfortable with social from top to bottom.

Jason speaks to the power and value of Invisible Children’s online/offline network that was critical to spreading word of this campaign. Building and caring for this sort of network takes time, focus, and a style of constituent interaction that most advocacy organizations are not built for or interested in.

It is this direct network building offline (especially) and online that, like a massive holiday lighting display, was switched on when the most recent campaign began.

Network Dissected

Gilad Lotan dives into greater detail of how the Invisible Children network functioned to effectively spread word of the campaign. Sure, there was a great video with a fabulously told story (see this piece by Anna Keenan for more on the importance of story and shared values in the Kony campaign), but it was a 30 minute video about human rights issues. Boring.

The network had been primed to act. The people that Invisible Children had met, invited to participate, and continually engaged over the years understood the issues and have been trained to act and share. The pre-existing networks created by Invisible Children over time were, through social media connections, able (and willing) to rapidly (and strongly) share the video and its message.

Lotan also points out that the campaign designed and positioned itself well to tap into the online networks of celebrities that appealed to its core audience. Invisible Children made it easy for supporters to tweet Taylor Swift, Oprah, and others with their own large Twitter followings. This demonstrates comfort with and understanding of networks.

Some, including Lotan, point out that this network is decidedly young (which tracks with social media engagement in general) and skews towards evangelical Christians. The latter is a well-organized network in its own right, one built on personal relationships (see Movement Building and Deep Change: A Call to Mobilize Strong and Weak Ties from the Engage Network for more on this).

What of It?

Jason Mogus makes the point that most organizations do not run their communications, digital, and programs in a way that makes a Kony-esque campaign possible. They are neither network focused nor social. And, for many organizations, this is okay. Policy and political expertise, lobbying and legal capacity, and research expertise are all desperately needed in the advocacy community.

The conflict in organizations comes from the fact that policy and lobbying organizations relentlessly invest in building online and offline lists in email, social media and direct mail. The “list” is the mythical source of unrestricted funding. Much of this list building comes through advocacy actions: “sign this petition” and “write to your Senator” (what some label as slacktivism).

These lists are called upon to respond to get behind big events, actions, fundraising campaigns and videos that should “go viral.” Online teams in these organizations struggle to light a fire under their lists, go big, and make an impact that the size of the list would imply is possible.

A friend wrote in an email that network communications like that shown in the Kony campaign isn’t in the DNA of policy-oriented organizations. We agree but that’s too bad. Network building, engagement, and policy advocacy shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.


Blackbaud, Convio, Dessert and Digital Strategy

It was just two weeks ago today that a great deal of (electronic) ink began to spill and brou’s began to ha ha over the purchase of Convio by Blackbaud. For most of humanity (approximately 99.9% of it, anyway) this is about as relevant as the color of dried out chewing gum.

2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference
The masses assemble at 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Clearly, organizations have a thing for technology. Photo via VolunteerMatch

So, let’s write about it here, shall we?

Let’s say you work in nonprofit fundraising or marketing. Or perhaps you run an organization. Maybe you deal with membership or perhaps accounting. Then again, you might run field organizing or online campaigns. Maybe social media. You run the website, write the emails to donors, or research reports that end up on said web, email or social media channels.

If you do any of those things at a nonprofit (and there aren’t many other things to do, really) then your work is affected by the software that Convio, Blackbaud and their peers produce. You see, these systems don’t just run email lists. These are CRM’s, CMS’s, donor management, social media, membership and advocacy systems. It’s no surprise, then, that 0.01% of the population (and a fair chunk of the 17 people  reading this) get worked up about the impact these companies (and their business practices) have on nonprofit organizations.

What does it mean?

Some are justly concerned about companies merging and making many millions of dollars on the backs of nonprofits struggling to improve the world, feed the poor, help children and protect clean air. Others point out that this reduces competition between the two biggest players in the market while creating opportunity for newer and/or smaller (and more nimble) operators.

Continue reading “Blackbaud, Convio, Dessert and Digital Strategy”

Stopping SOPA

UPDATE: Senator Mark Udall took a clear position opposing PIPA this weekend and Wikipedia is getting a lot of attention for its plan to “go black” on Wednesday in protest of PIPA and SOPA (along with a bunch of other sites, such as Reddit and Boing Boing.

I support sensible tools to limit internet piracy. While I think there is often much to gain by making your intellectual property as widely accessible as possible, I think people who create and own intellectual property – books, film, software code, technical innovations, and the like – deserve to have control over what happens to that property. As an author (my first book will be out next month) and the co-founder of a startup whose success will depend, in part, on building effective software, I believe I should have the right and ability to govern who else uses the intellectual property I create.

But it’s easy to craft anti-piracy tools that get it wrong, and two bills currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress fail miserably. Under the pretense of protecting intellectual property, and I say this as someone whose livelihood is now connected to the creation of intellectual property, both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) overreach in very destructive ways. A bunch of folks have written thorough, cogent explanations of what the bills would do and why they are so harmful to innovation, free speech, and the security of the internet.

The most ominous of their many problems is the way in which they basically enable anyone to force web sites to remove access to other web sites simply by claiming piracy. The structure of intellectual property law in the U.S. is a mess, heavily privileging those with resources over those without, independent of the actual merits of a particular infringement claim. But SOPA and PIPA would actually make it worse by undermining the ability of entrepreneurs to create and protect intellectual property.

Critics span the political spectrum, from the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to, and they include technology giants like Google and Facebook, entrepreneurs (e.g., a letter signed by 200 prominent entrepreneurs), publishers (e.g., O’Reilly Media), and investors (e.g., Brad Feld and Fred Wilson) alike. Nonprofit folks like Beth Kanter have been stepping up as well.

In a sense, the fight is about the old media (primarily Hollywood studios and record labels) trying to protect their incumbent but dying business models. Steve Blank has an interesting take on the refusal (inability?) of old media giants to innovate.

Thankfully, the White House is now saying it opposes both bills as well and the tide seems to be turning.

And while this is an important fight in its own right, it’s also a tremendous example of a smart political strategy married to a terrific organizing effort.