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.


Power of the people: Acknowledge it

We send thank you notes to donors and good organizers do what they can to thank their activists and volunteers. But it seems difficult for groups to acknowledge the power of the people – the huge cross-section of regular people that give up their time – that together make our work bigger and better than it could be if we were just staff out doing our work.

A friend, Apollo Gonzales, recently shared the story of a project he started when he worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Apollo and his team wanted to recognize and acknowledge the people (and their power) that made NRDC’s advocacy successful. Apollo tells the story best:

Before I left NRDC in 2011 I started a project that was aimed at telling the story of how our advocates and members were a major force in the work we were doing. I wanted to tell a story that told the importance of people power. I interviewed staff who I knew had been with the organization for a long time, and who I knew had a passion for how people drove the victories we were winning. This story took shape as a video, and for a thousand little reasons we were never able to get past a script and story boards. It was the one thing I regret not having finished in my time there. Yesterday, my dear friends at Giant Ant sent me the final version.

The resulting story, Loud Voices Together are Heard, is told in a wonderful video produced by Giant Ant and narrated by Shane Koyczan

Continue reading “Power of the people: Acknowledge it”

Listening to the Obama campaign’s digital team: Four ways to strengthen organizational culture

Last week I was fortunate to be part of two discussions in one day about digital teams in big organizations. Instead of talking about the latest big win (and one had a huge win) or cutting edge campaign, both conversations veered towards organizational culture issues. One team addressed culture concerns head on, knowing it makes a difference in digital success. The other sees problems but is stuck, unable to steer, even a bit, the culture issues that weigh down the team.

One conversation was with a key member of the digital team at a national nonprofit advocacy group. The digital team has struggled for a while as the group has tried to figure out where digital fits in the organization. As we talked – and as I reflected on the next conversation – it became obvious that structure (and continual “restructuring”) wasn’t the whole story.

The second discussion happened at an event that included a panel of four key members of the Obama campaign’s digital team, including CTO Harper Reed.

Obama digital team leaders speak at Galvanize in Denver. March 7, 2013.
Obama digital team leaders speak at Galvanize in Denver. March 7, 2013.

I expected this panel to focus on how they pulled the products and technology together. The event was organized by a start-up incubator so it would probably touch on the lessons that iterative design, open source development, and relying on a cloud application servers might offer entrepreneurs.

Continue reading “Listening to the Obama campaign’s digital team: Four ways to strengthen organizational culture”

Investment, results, and transparency: Younger generations change changemaking

A recent study by the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and 21/64, a nonprofit consulting practice, dives into the giving interests and preferences of young major donors. The report, available at, provides useful insights into how young, highly engaged activists and donors view their relationship with charities and social change campaigns.

Modern fundraising integrates online and in-person approaches. Photo via Flickr user jaymiek.
Modern fundraising integrates online and in-person approaches. Photo via Flickr user jaymiek.

This study has been making the rounds. It has been covered recently by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, was introduced by its authors in Stanford Social Innovation Review, and moved Jeff Brooks to provide a valuable critique that we’ll get into shortly.

What’s important about the opinions of a few hundred wealthy young donors? It’s well known in philanthropic circles that the transition of wealth from baby boomers to younger generations is coming – it has in fact begun – and will pass trillions of dollars to donors that have come of age in a world where the Internet has radically changed both communications and donor-organization relationships.

Basically, these are important nonprofit supporters today but in years to come this cohort will be found on nonprofit boards and in other leadership positions. Their attitudes towards giving and programming will help shape nonprofit budgets, staffing, and more.

What’s less clear, of course, is how transferable the experience and opinions of a small set of young donors is to a larger populace that will (one hopes) become tomorrow’s nonprofit donors, members, activists and volunteers. We can, though, highlight some key takeaways from this survey that coincide with our own experience working in and around nonprofits in recent years.

Investment, results, and transparency

The nature people’s relationship with nonprofit organizations is constantly evolving. This is true on an individual level – most people are more engaged in their community as they get older, have kids, stay in one place for a while, and have more disposable income – and at a broader scale. The Internet has changed communications, hastening a shift in expectations people have about information sources, interaction with government and community groups, and the availability of performance or result-driven data. Continue reading “Investment, results, and transparency: Younger generations change changemaking”

Your leadership elephant

Is missing technology leadership in your organization shouting at you? The elephant says it is.

Chances are your organization doesn’t have people in senior leadership roles with experience in digital campaigning, technology development, or online movement building. No high-level ability to analyze and manage the relationship between technology and programmatic outcomes may be one of the greatest obstacles to organizational growth and success today. And too few are talking about it. Get your board and managers together and chances that visionary and capable leaders comfortable with technology are the elephant in the room.

Yesterday, NARAL Pro-Choice America announced that Ilyse Hogue will become its next president. Ms. Hogue brings deep campaigning experience and, notably, a background in meshing online and field systems to build movements, raise money, and change politics. I don’t know exactly why NARAL made this choice but I suspect that online experience played a role.

Technology is Pervasive

If you work with technology at all you likely are (or have been) overwhelmed by the complexity and variety of ways to solve every problem. Web and social media metrics, application development, video production, and even web design are just a few of nonprofit tech subjects that are continually evolving yet increasingly basic to digital advocacy and marketing. Continue reading “Your leadership elephant”

If you watch one damn slide deck all year make it this one

Or, the science of great content that gets shared.

Only watch this if you want you want more people to read and take action on your content.

In June, a team from Upworthy gave a presentation at Netroots Nation about their approach to writing headlines and other content – all the while getting your stuff shared out the wazoo. I thought it was a terribly useful deck then, especially for nonprofit organizations that struggle to not just build a social media following but, more critically, have trouble getting their social communities to do much of anything.

The deck was updated for Rootscamp this past weekend. Check out the deck here or embedded below – but only bother if you have any interest in doing what it takes to make your social media communications get attention. Hell, all your communications could benefit from these insights into headlines, interesting writing, testing, optimizing sharing, and testing some more.

A few highlights for your consideration…

  • These folks know what they’re talking about. Upworthy launched in late-March, 2012. In eight months they have 791,000 Facebook fans, 43,000 Twitter followers, and 10,000 Tumblrs. Their early growth far (FAR) outpaces that of Huffington Post, BuzzFeed or Business Insider.
  • Middle aged women are the biggest sharers on the Internet. If your mom wouldn’t share your stuff you’re probably failing.
  • Write 25 headlines. Test the better ones. Use the best one.
  • The share image matters. A lot.
  • Make sharing on your website as easy as possible. So easy your mom could do it. Test these things, too.
  • Test. Collect data. Figure out what the data says. Test again. Repeat. Rinse. Test again.

For what it’s worth, we have seen even small sharing optimization tweaks have huge impacts on sharing when working with clients on email, websites, social media, and so on. Make sharing easy. Write great content. Here’s Upworthy’s deck:

Let’s Go Steady: How important are relationships for organizations?

Have you worked in or with an organization that you would call “relationship driven?”

There is a lot of great work being done today around the idea of engagement. How do we get people involved and, over time, get them more involved, engaged and supportive of our organization and its issues?

Engagement is important. Critical, even. But growing and lasting engagement relies upon relationships. You, me, the guy down the street — none of us are going to become more engaged until we’re comfortable with the terms of our relationship. We have a lot going on in life. We need proof that this is great use of time. We’re not looking to date an organization but it’s still a relationship.

What would a “relationship driven” organization look like? What does being relationship-driven mean? How does it work differently than any other organization? Would this make for more effective and stronger organizations?

Organizations and their staff are focused on the work they have to get done together — the planning, budgeting, meetings, conference calls, presentations to executive directors, boards, foundations and large donors. In time, the focus shifts to working with colleagues and succeeding internally.

Meanwhile, it is hard to spend time on those outside the organization. We ask a great deal of people — time, money, support, likes and retweets. But it’s tough to invest time in the sort of two-way work that makes up a relationship. Relationships take effort, not talk. Here are some ways to switch focus and build relationships that matter.

Understand how your organization builds relationships

Another way to put this is: What’s your engagement superpower? Not all organizations are built and operate the same way. They don’t all organize around kitchen sinks, not all rely on volunteers to knock on doors, and not all can build massive email lists to reach people quickly.

Figure out what makes you special, relevant and (yes) potentially powerful in the daily life of your supporters. Use that to create and build relationships. Your superpower makes you special. Use it to attract and keep people that relate to it.

Know the tools you already have and use them well

They’re probably better than you think. Your organization almost certainly has a CRM (or two or three). Do you know what the ‘R’ stands for? Relationship. As in Customer (or Constituent) Relationship Management software.

Most organizations we work with have done little work with the R part of their tools. It’s time to fill in the blanks. Track how people came to your organization and what interests them. Find out who they know in your organization, if anyone. If they don’t know someone, find ways to change that. Work with volunteers, activists and donors to create relationships with their networks and yours. Have them reach out to people directly on your behalf and reward them for that engagement.

Track this work and the relationships that are developed. In time, this will become one of the most powerful areas of your database. And if you aren’t sure how to do do this with the tools you have, make it a priority to find out.

It’s called a “Social Network” because it’s social — and a network

Social networks come with great expectations and uncertain results. The problem? Most organizations focus on numbers, not people. First, you have to care. Really care.

These are real people out there, almost all of whom have some interest in what you’re doing. Be social. Say thank you. Don’t just ask for people to respond and share but retweet and share their stuff when they do. Prove you’re there. Care.

Understand that these are networks. Each person knows other people. Each of those other people knows other people. And so on and so on. As you build relationships and trust with members of your social networks you level up their engagement and improve the chances that they’ll share your content, speak to their networks on your behalf and become a valued voice for your cause.

Also, use social network tools to find and build relationships. Use Twitter search to find key words and phrases as well as the people most interested in them. Follow them. Interact with them. Say hi. Say thanks. Say “hey, just wanted to be sure you saw this.”

Give thanks, often — and mean it

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading this article. And if you made it this far you deserve serious gratitude. You’re one of perhaps three people (not including my mom) that made it here. You’re awesome. Seriously. Hope you’ll let us know what you think about these ideas. Leave your feedback and name down below in the comments section and we’ll talk.

See. That wasn’t so hard.  

Much has been written about how donor retention sucks, especially among those that give for the first time online.

Retention has always been tough. It’s hard to keep the flame going and maintain that rush of excitement that led people in the door. We think much has to do with the impersonal nature of online fundraising, particularly its reliance on email. Most organizations crunching through large numbers of email subscribers and donors rely on form emails with maybe some first name personalization.

This doesn’t cut it. It’s time to get creative and invest in appreciation of donors, volunteers, members, activists. Don’t hold back but do test your work. Think of these as people, not records in a database. Invest in lasting relationships. And say thank you.

UPDATE: The great folks at Sea Change Strategies worked with the International Rescue Committee to test the impact of creative thank-yous on mid-level donors. Check out the story recently written up by the Greenpeace Digital Mobilisation Lab.

Cartoons: The great William Haefeli (get them here).

Coming: charitable donations with Facebook Gifts

Today, Facebook announced the ability to make charitable donations (to one of 11 nonprofits at this point) through the Facebook Gifts program that is still rolling out to users.

Because you probably haven’t seen it, Facebook Gifts is e-commerce baked into Facebook that lets users buy gifts from Facebook and announce the gift through the Facebook platform.

The charitable donation program will let you make a donation in someone’s name to the charity of your choice or let the person you are gifting choose the charity.

Facebook gifts donation screen

At this point, Facebook seems to have rolled the program out using pre-selected non profit partner organizations, including:

  • American Red Cross
  • Blue Star Families
  • Boys & Girls Clubs of America
  • Girls Inc.
  • Kiva
  • Oxfam America
  • St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital

By and large, these are all well-established, high visibility organizations.  Wired reports that gifts are limited to $25. It is unclear how much, if anything, Facebook or 3rd parties are taking for processing fees.

Will donations through Facebook Gifts empower a new revenue source for non profit organizations? That seems unlikely but, really, it’s too soon to tell if (or even how) the Gifts program on Facebook will work. Offering a donation portal makes sense from Facebook’s perspective.

We think there are two potential upsides to this. First, it may raise awareness of the organizations involved. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it may make people more aware of or comfortable with the idea of giving to organizations through Facebook.

The onus will still be on organizations to actively engage supporters and move them to donations or other appropriate interactions. While this may make more people aware of the idea that Facebook is a donation platform it won’t make marketing and communications easier. Keep an eye on how these 11 organizations communicate with their Facebook audiences for insights into what works (or doesn’t).

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.

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.