Trust your staff

Trust your staff.

That is point number one in a recent post by Allyson Kapin on Frogloop titled Tips to Create a Culture of Collaboration and Innovation.

Leo Cullum cartoons on innovative thinking in the office.
Leo Cullum cartoons on innovative thinking in the office.

It’s interesting to us that a commentary on ways organizations can create collaborative and innovative cultures should begin by emphasizing trust in staff. Most nonprofits, after all, are intensely staff driven. For many, staff knowledge is their key asset. Salaries (and overhead) comprise the vast majority of expenses. This is perhaps even more true (or should be) in advocacy organizations whose activities revolve around research, policy analysis, lobbying and communications.

What does “trust your staff” have to do with innovation? As mentioned above, staff are all you have. The external pressures on organizations and pace of change around them require teams that are trusted to implement, innovate and learn quickly.

Numerous factors are coming together that make it more important than ever that staff be both strong actors and collaborative contributors to iterative growth and learning in organizations. Online communications is empowering citizens, activists and donors to take action, make donations, get involved and speak out in ways and at times that organizations can’t control. People have more ways than ever to do things organizations don’t expect. You send a direct mail piece and the donor goes to your website to make a contribution. You send an email asking an activist to send a message to his congresswoman and he views the message on his phone before going to bed but can’t see the links clearly enough to click and forgets it.

A fractured (and in some cases dissolved) news distribution system has completely altered citizen expectations of their role in news. People are not just recipients they are reporters (which is VERY different than journalists, we want to make clear and this isn’t necessarily a good change). And personal sharing of news and thoughts can happen quickly, with a large audience and impact networks beyond just immediate friends and family.

The 24 hour news cycle and social networks that are always on mean that organizations must be on their game at all times. They are also being asked to engage directly with activists, donors, media and community leaders in ways most never envisioned just five or ten years ago. Transparency is de rigeur. Financial statements and 990s are online for all to see. Staff, volunteers and just plain outsiders are blogging, Facebooking and tweeting about issues and organizations in ways that can’t be controlled.

In the face of these and other dramatic shifts in the environment in which nonprofits operate, the only way forward is to create and truly support cultures of trust within organizations. What this looks like will vary, of course, for every organization. All have different leaders, histories and missions. And “trust” is not the same as turning people loose to do what they will without guidance, leadership, plans and support.

What trust looks like and how to create and engage a trust-driven culture is itself a big topic. One for a future post. For now, we encourage you to reflect on that state of trust within your own organization and teams. Define it. Talk about it. If you are a manager, leader or staff member don’t stew on it. Bring it up. Hash it out. Take steps to make it happen. It may not be easy but the result will be more creative, innovative and successful teams that move past reacting and push organizations forward.

Shared Values: Where Theory of Change meets Storytelling

Recently, I was at a conference (or, rather, an event that’s more like a collision of deep experience, ideas and passion for social change) and I’ve since been stewing on notes, memories and thoughts pulled from truly insightful discussions.

Two themes of this gathering happened to be theory of change and storytelling. Both were woven into presentations, discussions, random conversations at lunch, and have been present in ongoing interaction by and around attendees. Jonah Sachs led a great discussion about the principles of story that I wish more communicators and advocates could engage in (though he does have a book coming out on that…look for it next year). Jonah used a story, that of Moses and his quest to free his people from the Pharaoh, to help people understand the elements of a strong story.

The rise of Occupy actions around the same time – from idea to tangible gathering in New York City to what seems to be a full-blown international movement – speaks to both themes as well. What, indeed, is the Occupy theory of change and what is the story being told?

This post isn’t intended to be an exploration of the Occupy movement’s theory of change. One could debate whether there is even a theory of change present in the movement. By theory of change I mean “if we do this, this and this we will produce that result.” Occupy is trying to change culture to create sustainable societal change over time. That’s a long process that starts, in part, with storytelling.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that personal storytelling has been an important piece of spreading the Occupy message. The We Are the 99% Tumblr has given people a medium to share their story – and that’s just one place where people are talking about their situation. Many that aren’t sharing their own stories on Tumblr and sites like these can see themselves in the stories told. It isn’t hard to identify with these people and feel like you share their values and see your story in their words.

But, hooray, people are telling/sharing personal stories. That happens all the time online, in conversations with friends and neighbors, in community meetings, emails and more. Advocacy groups trot out “tell your story” campaigns aimed at getting people involved in policy change and, hopefully, a little more engaged in their organization. People post randomly on Facebook about an issue in which they’re interested.

The nature of Occupy storytelling seems different, though. Stories are different and people are arguing about details of what should happen – there are even clear strains of Tea Party activism and Ron Paul libertarianism in Occupy – but there look to be shared values running through it all. There is a sense that we can do better, need to stick together, create a plan and share in the work and sacrifice needed to take care of each other. People matter more than corporations (or politicians) We need governance and leadership but not necessarily your/this government. Of course, that’s a personal interpretation of the story.

One page of the notes and thoughts I jotted down at this conference a few weeks ago included a little venn diagram I used at the time to explore the intersection of these two themes: theory of change and story. Each is powerful on its own and a key component of a campaign (advocacy, fundraising, even in marketing a product to consumers). These two elements are much more valuable together, though.

So, what’s the commonality? Where is the intersection between theory of change and story that, when defined and used, invigorates a campaign or even a movement.

Shared Values

Perhaps it comes down to shared values. I originally wrote “moral values” which is stronger but am hesitant to frame this discussion with the word “moral” because it has been loaded with political connotations.

Shared values (or moral values if you like – or perhaps there is a better term) are key components of a strong theory of change and a good story. If trying to bring people together to take action you identify and appeal to their values, not their intellect and not the facts. Intellect and facts are debatable, easy to question. Values are deeper. Most anyone can identify and connect with the human values of liberation and persistence woven through a story of Moses and the Pharaoh. Those are values that transcend politics and religion.

Appealing to shared values in one’s advocacy messages is nothing new, really. Integrating a story about shared values with a clear theory of change is hard, though.

I would say that your internal team and strongest activists need to be clearest on the theory of change part. They need to know it back and forth to weave it into messages and stories. The audience, constituents, community need to connect with the story. It is what brings them in, keeps them there and compels them to act and spread the story. Aligning shared values across the inside and outside groups (the theory of change and story) will be the special sauce that keeps the campaign juiced and moving forward.

Rethinking Responsibility and Authority in the Online Organization

Seth Godin recently wrote about authority and responsibility in organizations. Achievers in traditional organizations, Godin says, lobby for more authority in order to get things done. In the top-down organization, one needs authority to act, build, implement. This structure doesn’t necessarily work in rapidly evolving and growing organizations, including nonprofits and others working to adjust to the impact of online networks. As Godin put it:

“Management by authority is top-down, risk-averse, measurable and perfect for the org chart. It’s essential in organizations that are stable, asset-based and adverse to risk.”

Those that demand responsibility should be granted authority, Godin concludes.

Having spent most of my career in and around nonprofit organizations that are “stable [more or less], asset-based [sorta] and adverse to risk [highly]” this got me thinking about the different natures of authority and responsibility in organizations, particularly those struggling to adapt to, integrate and manage digital programs and teams.

Perhaps the key word here is adapt. Online communications is a young and rapidly changing field. Few organizations had websites or email lists just 12 or 15 years ago. Those groups that created a website ten years ago have probably rebuilt it three or four times since (and are likely about the redo it again soon). Facebook, Twitter and much of what we call social media didn’t exist five years ago.

Today, more first gifts are coming in online than off. Organizations have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube pages and more. Time and money are going into growing these networks, text messaging/SMS, iPhone apps and more. Meanwhile, it’s unclear who is doing what, how much it is worth, how to budget and staff for it all and whether this is a communications, development or policy department role.

In other words, rapid change is afoot and is pressuring organizations, boards, staff, budgets and plans. It is changing the expectations of members, activists and donors. People are scrambling to respond but evolving slowly, if at all.

Responding means adaptation, testing, rapid learning and, increasingly, the ability to empower staff (and even outsiders) to speak for the organization on social networks and online media.

Authority-driven hierarchies don’t work well when a premium is placed on rapid learning and adaptation. They assume that the people at the top (organizational leaders and middle managers that might run departments or teams) have complete understanding of the problem at hand, the tools needed to tackle it and what staff need to do.

Does the rapidly changing nature of online run afoul of most organizational structures? Quite possibly. Online teams and structures vary but are generally placed somewhere in an IT or communications department and responsible to the authority of someone with minimal experience in online networks. Online teams may be given responsibility (to put together emails, run Facebook pages, create web content) without clear authority over resources or strategy.

The networked nature of social media can add to the complexity for these organizations. Most everyone – not just online or communications staff – is present on social networks and talking about the issues that concern them, including those of the organization. Activists and donors are on the networks. All of them are tied to the organization and can be speaking on its behalf but how does an organization manage them? It’s hard enough (or impossible) to “manage” staff in other departments. Managing those outside the organization won’t happen. Many organizations fall back to not engaging those outside in a meaningful way. It limits potential but avoids messiness and time-consuming interaction.

Does this mean organizations should dissolve hierarchy, eliminate management/directors/supervisors and watch themselves slip into chaos? Probably not.

But isolating online in a single authority-based team limits the ability of the organization to adapt, grow and share responsibility across (and beyond) the organization. Indeed, responsibility for much of what we think of as “online” rests in many places. Most staff are potential online organizers, communicators and fundraisers. Encourage their responsibility to act appropriately and independently without relying on authority to act.

And online teams themselves are (or should be) stocked with people that are highly engaged online and understand trends. Encourage them to take responsibility for adaptation, innovation and success by granting authority to make decisions and lead. If this threatens authority placed in traditional management positions then deal with that. Online moves fast and the adaptive teams and organizations will come out ahead.

Colorado Kaleidoscope: the Story of a Good Online Storytelling Site

Some days I wake up and think that storytelling seems to have become the buzzword du jour (well, I don’t think this immediately upon awakening…after a cup or two of coffee perhaps…a time when “buzz”word takes on meaning). Inviting members, supporters, constituents or whatever part of your audience you like to “tell their story” now seems to be step one of the online engagement handbook.

Colorado Kaleidoscope homepage
Colorado Kaleidoscope storytelling site from Colorado Health Foundation
But once something enters the handbook it can be mishandled. Organizations run the risk of commoditizing stories by using them primarily as a tool, a tactic, a method for getting towards “engagement” and increasingly elusive fundraising and/or advocacy goals.

By their very nature, stories are personal. Those of us who write blog posts, fundraising emails and other material about the issues we work on ever day sometimes forget the personal nature of stories. A good story – with plot, hero, crisis and resolution – does nothing if not peel back the onion over the soul of the teller.

A story can give a glimpse into the experience, heart and mind of people. This is personal and can be a bit scary, which helps explain why good stories can be so hard to write. Despite evidence provided by Facebook’s rise (or perhaps evidenced by the often shallow nature of Facebook interaction), sharing is not simple. Most people have a hard time revealing or hinting at details of their lives for an audience. We’re shy. Or wary. Reticent. Or just way too damn busy to bother.

Organizations Behave Like Organizations, not People

Organizations too often approach storytelling projects as, well, the organizations they are and not as people. It’s hard to explain the purpose of the story, what will happen to it, what the organization will offer in return for the story. Organizations dive into the technical aspects – guidelines, format for the web page, forms, where do photos and video actually live – and can pay too little attention to the story itself and the opportunity for creating and strengthening sustainable relationships that can offer more value to the organization and the storyteller.

We can, with a good sized email list or other audience, make a request for user stories – narrative, audio, video, photos or a combination – and get responses. But it’s easy to undervalue the opportunity and/or not be sure how much value there might be. Interaction and relationship-building has a reputation for being staff resource intensive – and it can be tough and not necessarily scale. Rather than undermine the potential, however, by not giving a project enough resources and the participants enough support.

That’s why it is great to see an online storytelling website with a purpose in mind and a fair value proposition for the audience while providing the support needed to help the audience craft great stories.

Continue reading “Colorado Kaleidoscope: the Story of a Good Online Storytelling Site”

Slow Action: Engagement with Intention

Slow Food International’s website has a quote from Carlo Petrini, Slow Food founder and president, at the top of the homepage that does a great job summing up what the movement is about:

“Slow Food unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

Tortoise and the Hare sculpture in Copley Square, Boston. Photo by Leo Reynolds, Flickr.
Tortoise and the Hare sculpture in Copley Square, Boston. Photo by Leo Reynolds, Flickr.
Set aside the “food” part for a minute and let’s talk about “slow.” I know, nobody wants to deal with slow. In our culture – and organizations – slow seems counter to progress. And progress, moving forward and change is what we want. Most often, change needs to happen now. Or tomorrow. Or at least by that key deadline for donations at the end of the month.

Take a look at our communications with constituents. Emails are action alerts. We strive to create a sense of urgency. There is so much “noise” out there that we presume that if the tone isn’t critical, dire and needing action today then we’ll be ignored.

There is nothing slow about what we’re doing. In fact, we can be so frantic that constituents can’t keep track of who we are and what we’re doing.

What’s missing is not so much the “slow” but rather engagement and intention. Campaigns roll out quickly, perhaps even unexpectedly from the view of the member.

One concept at the base of slow food is “oneness.” A deep understanding of food issues – and agriculture, nutrition and humane eating – is fostered over time by establishing relationships with other people, recipes, animals and the meals themselves.

What’s often missing is an intentional plan and commitment to helping people create relationships with issues – and with other people in and around the issue – over time. Immediate needs and critical issues are not sustainable over time. Relationships – deeply felt bonds – can be held onto and built upon.

Perhaps we need to up our expectations: both what we hope for the time and investment that people will make in our issues AND the level of guidance and support that we provide to constituents.

In most organizations we can’t have personal engagement plans for each and every person that comes through the door (or the inbox) but we can create general guidelines and strategies to implement them. Maybe we say that 50% of new subscribers will take a second action within 45 days (and while that may not seem impressive it would be a big reach in most organizations). Then we need to measure for that and create, assess and adjust our tactics to meet that goal.

This might be a start. We could create similar plans for Facebook and other social network constituents – and I would argue that those networks need clear goals, plans and resources to move fans to action-taking contributors to issues.

Engagement and relationships are a process. The tortoise didn’t beat the hare with quick action but through intention and commitment to a plan. If organizations are going to be good stewards of their goals, issues and donor resources then there needs to be a commitment to strategic intention that builds and deepens relationships over time.

Innovation through Stubborn Commitment

Thinking about innovation lately. Not just what it is and if/how/why it is good but rather the factors that create a culture of innovation.

Innovation defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Innovation defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
A lot has been written about managing to create and foster an innovation-friendly organization (more on that below). Great resources and research out there.

But it seems that sometimes – maybe most of the time – innovation needs a champion that is just really committed. Or stubborn. Someone wants to see a certain result and won’t take “no” for an answer. Often, there is a reason for the “no” and it takes a new way of doing things to get to the goal.

Recently, I wrote about “Innovate and Thrive: The Future of Nonprofits” by Randal Moss and David Neff. Moss and Neff take a hard look at how to design and maintain a culture that focuses on innovation. Of course, innovation for the sake of innovation is not the point. Yet most every organization and business – from coolio tech startup to retail to auto repair shop to restaurant – is constantly competing, coping with change and trying to, well, keep its head above water in its ever-shifting environment.

Moss and Neff do a great job covering some key pieces of innovation culture and ways to design that culture into the organization. Design – of processes, positions and programs – seems intrinsic to an innovation-friendly environment.

Sometimes, though, you just have to be committed enough to an idea to break past the “usual” way of doing things, change your framework and reach your goal in a new way. Continue reading “Innovation through Stubborn Commitment”