Video done right: Protect Our Winters

Great videos don’t need to be earth shattering displays of far out creativity and mind-boggling production values. Video is a storytelling form that lifts characters, dialog and emotion off the page and into the visual line of sight. Basically, video shares a story.

Marketing videos – especially PSAs – can often get overwrought or overdone. It’s hard to keep it simple.

We like this short piece from Protect Our Winters — an organization created by winter sports professionals that advocates for policies that halt climate change and gets pro athletes into schools, communities and Congress. Check out the video:

It may have helpful to share some images of winter that weren’t all about the high alpine environment and maybe more familiar to viewers. Maybe the scene of a city park hushed by a fresh blanket of snow would connect more people with their personal experiences.

But the scenes left in are aspirational, true to the character of the organization, and one can always add more scenes. Brevity and focus are powerful tools, too. We think this is powerful and a great example of how strong video doesn’t need to be complicated.

What do you think?

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?”

Social media is like soylent green: It’s made of people

Hats off to Brian Solis for a simple but powerful thought about social media today. He answers the question “What’s your best advice to social media managers?” The answer:

Stop talking about social media

Boom. Simple. We couldn’t agree more.

Note that this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think about if or how you measure the ROI of your Facebook or Twitter efforts. Fact is that C Suite types want to know why they’re spending time and money on anything.

The point is that nonprofit organizations, like any enterprise, need to think about the outcomes they need and what they need people to do to make those outcomes happen.

For a nonprofit, it doesn’t matter how many people like you on Facebook or how many retweets you got last week. What matters is whether the people at the other end of those communications channels (along with the people reading your blog, direct mail, answering the phones when you call, reading your email alerts, getting your SMS alerts and more) are, both immediately and over time, taking the actions needed to make the change you want to see in the world.

Think of your organization’s fundraising, outreach and mobilization strategy as one big pie…a pie made up of people. Social media is one to reach those people. Some people use it a lot and many will share great (and funny) stuff with friends. Many use mobile. Others use email.

Social media is not an island. Don’t treat it as one. Make sure that your social media and other digital communicators are working closely with offline communicators and organizers. Look for overlaps between social media profiles, email addresses, web visitors and direct mail addresses. Understand how people use these to take action on your behalf.

Most of all, understand how people communicate, engage and act. Stop talking about social media and focus on the people and what they need.

Photo by ROFL CAT

 

Action. Not Membership.

In a recent interview with Wired, author and social analyst Clay Shirky was asked what his big takeaways were from recent events in the social media world. Shirky notes that the idea of membership has gone away but groups have not. He goes on to note that only groups can take coordinated actions in the world and there is opportunity to reinvent group action:

The other one is that the idea of membership has gone away.  Facebook is not very good at dealing with named groups, they’re not very good at saying, “We’ve got this book club and I’m a member and you’re not.” But membership is one of the precursors to a lot of social action. My bet is that the group pattern — the named group that can do things like open a bank account or take some kind of coordinated action in the world — is an overlooked pattern that someone is going to reinvent. 

Shirky says the idea of membership has gone away. Indeed. But if someone is willing to wear your “members only” jacket that is an action worth tracking.

Membership is already being redefined and reinvented as action. You don’t need to be a member (or wear the right jacket) to take action. But organizations need to pay close attention to actions, what makes them happen, where, when and how they impact their goals.

Membership is a term of relevance to organizations, not individuals. It’s time to reinvent membership. Maybe call it something else. Maybe not. At it’s core, membership is a relationship. Any relationship is built upon action. In nonprofits, sometimes the organization acts but more often individuals act. Organizations need to pay much better attention to the actions people take, why they take them, and how actions occur.

Action Matters

Email, the web, social networks and more have all changed the nature of communications between organizations and individuals. We don’t rely on newsletters to find out what’s going on. We don’t need to belong to an environmental group to know what’s happening to our favorite forest. We can Google it all in a few seconds, subscribe to any number of email lists, look for it on Facebook. Access to information has changed the need for and purpose of the membership relationship.

A greater change, however, is that one no longer needs to be a member to take action on an issue. This has been the case for years, of course. I get emails from the Sierra Club or a friend shares a link on Facebook. I click. I fill out a form and send a letter. I’m involved without being a member. This has been going on since the dawn of email list building time (olden times…the late-1990s).

In recent years this has evolved further as tools for creating the large-scale collective actions needed to change policy are made available to anyone through commercial endeavors (Care2 and Change.org, for example), open source software, and social networks like Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit and many more.

MoveOn and Upworthy are, to varying degrees, current examples of organizations that blend together third party content with some of their own content, add in some calls to action, and bake in a highly optimized social network oven to maximize sharing and drive more people to take action. MoveOn will ask you for money to support its campaign work but neither worries about membership. Both want you to act and relentlessly track what makes that happen.

Stop counting and start tracking

If action is the heart of a relationship we, as organizations, are fortunate. Nonprofits exist to take action and move people to action. We have the ability to track many, if not every, part of an action as a piece of data. With that data we can better understand what motivated people to action (and what didn’t), who took action (and who didn’t), and correlate messages, issues, people, places and more with the success we need (and learn from the failures that we don’t need…but are at least enlightening).

In other words, stop worrying about the number of people on the list and focus on actions.

To do this, we need clear goals and better attention to data.

There is too much data to make any sense of it all. First, have clear goals. If we want to change policy X then name that goal. Understand exactly who needs to act and where to change it. If we need to help 1,000 homeless people in December then name that goal and pinpoint exactly how many people need to act to make it happen. Only then can you know what data you need to track and how to set up your messaging to make tracking possible.

Second, organizations much invest in their ability to track, interpret and use data. Today, most every way organizations interact with individuals can be tracked in metrics baked into email, web, and social media. There are limits to how far we can track users. There are privacy issues. There are problems with how well CRMs track, report and integrate with other data sets. Yet most obstacles are internal and can be resolved.

Too many organizations look at online communications and behavioral data with the jaded eye of the old-time coaches and managers in Moneyball. Data (proof) on the latest month of social media sharing is discarded with a “well, my issue matters most so let’s just keep talking about it.”

Today, we have powerful data about actions and the strength of relationships between organizations and individuals. We have a long way to go but only by tracking, segmenting, and testing can we improve. Organizations must step up their investment in data, make staff comfortable with it, use it. Strong data insights applied to clear goals will drive action, strengthen relationships and help organizations succeed in a world where membership is less important.

 

Facebook Launches Promoted Posts. Meh.

Increasingly, I come away from any conversation about Facebook and “how to use it” and “how to maximize ROI for our nonprofit” feeling a little dirty.

The Facebook IPO and ensuing investigation has a lot to do with this but the fact that all went down the way it allegedly did doesn’t seem surprising.

What’s a bigger problem is that nonprofit organizations (and many other businesses and campaigns) are putting significant resources into a platform which has little interest in their needs and a terribly cavalier attitude towards data. No this is not a privacy rant.

The launch of Facebook Promoted Posts will be met by some organizations and social media marketing wizards as a great opportunity. (For info on how promoted posts work check out this very good piece over at SocialFresh…no need to recreate the explanatory wheel here)

Basically, advertisers are paying to place and keep content in and/or near the top of your Facebook stream. Ads right there under photos of your cousin’s kids and your friend’s note about last night’s concert is an ad for feminine hygiene products (tailored to your age and gender…I’m hoping I don’t see that ad).

Hey, Facebook is a massive corporation that must maximize profit (heck, make a profit). Expect to see more of this. It’s just business.

Is this where nonprofit organizations should be focusing their relationship building time and money? The answer is probably well, yeah, at least some of it. That’s unfortunate. Be sure to find and reach people in meaningful ways in places and with systems that you can control.

* Image by socialfresh

Innovation storytime: How a 155 year old magazine is kicking bootie online

Want to stop worrying about SEO, have your content shared widely, and become a key source of information by your most desired audience? Here are a couple ways:

Create great content (be it written, video, audio, photos, cartoons, whatever). In particular, craft wonderful stories about timely events that your readers care deeply about.

Basically, all content is now social. What is shared is what people find worth sharing.

The act of a person sharing builds your network of readers and someone that has found your content worth sharing (and one that has found it through a friend) is likely a more committed reader than one that clicks a search link or ad.

This seems to be a lesson from recent experience at The Atlantic. Since taking down its paywall in early 2008, The Atlantic’s web audience has grown from 500,000 to 13.4 million monthly visitors.

Sector leaders are those taking advantage of intersection of great content and social interaction

The Atlantic’s growth happened in many ways but the growth parallels the rapid rise of social networks, namely Facebook and Twitter. The Atlantic invested heavily in creating high quality online content by having high profile writers create content specifically for it’s main website and also launching new online-only properties.

This investment in online content happened alongside the growing social networks becoming the primary forum for reader sharing and discovery of stories. Timely, well-written content begs to be shared in an environment where readers can and want to tell friends/networks about the stories they are reading and experiencing.

It’s no coincidence that The Atlantic’s growing online presence parallels the growth of social networks. The growth of Huffington Post, Mashable, and many other online content sources has come at the same time and they, too, have placed a premium on sharing (across the board quality is debatable).

This shift doesn’t come easy

But The Atlantic remains an anomaly because its roots are as an old guard print magazine founded in 1857…not quite 150 years before some of the leading online only news sources of today. The changes that The Atlantic did not come easy and may have even come through a bit of desperation. In fact, the 2007 “digital first” strategy announced by The Atlantic was explained in part as “…it’s easier to be ‘digital first’ when your legacy business is not strong, when you have nothing to defend…but red ink.

It’s probably fair to say that this was a big change for The Atlantic. For writers and other staff, both new and old, this was likely a seismic shift. Established journalists and columnists becoming bloggers. The injustice of it all.

We bring this up because many (if not most?) nonprofits are adapting and innovating far too slowly, if at all, to the changing world of online communications, conversation and sharing.

Like The Atlantic, nonprofits are publishers

Don’t kid yourself by saying that nonprofits aren’t publishers like magazines. Of course you’re not a magazine (though The Atlantic is no longer just a magazine). Yet one can argue that everyone with a website is a publisher.

Plus, we can think of many groups that for decades invested heavily in print magazines and newsletters (and STILL ARE… really) as a primary channel for communicating with members and the public.

All organizations with content and social want their audience to share, tweet, and generally spread the word. They want likes and comments that are seen by networks of followers. They want to be tagged. They want to be talked about because this spreads word down and through networks.

Not all organizations view it quite this way or use these terms (networks, campaigns, shares, engagement pyramids) but this is what anyone posting content to Facebook is all about: interacting with audience networks to spread the word.

An equation for consideration: Content plus Social equals Engagement

Put it all together and there has never been a better time for compelling writing, video, and images to help advance advocacy, change, and direct action. Our online networks, email, and nonstop mobile information access allow us to reach, talk with, move and engage people at all times and in countless ways.

What is holding organizations back? Great content and a people-driven social perspective. 

The changes needed are not insignificant. When it comes to content, many organizations are still staffed for and creating print-driven pieces: often good stories but rarely online-ready. Online content (blog posts, advocacy pieces, research articles) are tacked onto the responsibilities of policy people or organizers that aren’t storytellers by trade (and, lets face it, often not good writers).

Meanwhile, social media efforts are driven by numbers of likes or fans, bounce from platform to platform (let’s get on Pinterest…how about an Instagram campaign), and often don’t do the little things right (pre-built Twitter share links, anyone?).

We’re anxious to see an organization go “all in” with content and social, maybe even take on a sort of Digital First strategy. Most nonprofits have great potential: they’re not selling things but rather hope, change, and actions that result in happier, safer, and stronger communities — shared values we can all get behind.

* Photo by Erin Kohlenberg

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.

People and the future of organizations

Our organizations (and their budgets) are made up mostly of people. What we do, what we plan, how well our programs work, how much we spend are all functions of people.

Organizations rely on people for inputs and actions. Image: Bartolomeo Eustachi: Peripheral Nervous System, c. 1722 via @brain_blogger, Flickr.

Think of organizations as organisms and the staff (or team members) as organs and limbs. The organization might act and speak collectively but voice, touch, sight and hearing are all based on the people that make up the eyes, heart, fingers, and toes.

Each individual needs to excel on her own and in the system for the organization to be healthy. Creating and maintaining a healthy system is hard stuff that takes up much (or most, at times) of an organization’s resources. Our nonprofits (and businesses) spend hours and hours (sometimes most of the day) coordinating, planning, collaborating, conference calling, managing and generally trying to figure out how to maximize the system’s function.

Meanwhile, communications technology, databases, social networks, email and the Internet have altered the landscape in which organizations and their staff operate. Organizations are more exposed to the public (members, donors, media, everyone). The tools of organizing and fundraising for social change are more readily available to everyone – reduced friction means change makers don’t need to rely on organizations. The 24/7 news cycle (most of which happens on social networks) also means that fingers and eyes can’t wait for the rest of the body to figure out how to react.

Are Organizations Ready for People?

At last month’s Nonprofit Technology Conference we had opportunity to meet Maddie Grant and talk with her about her new book, co-written by Jamie Notter. The book is called Humanize: How people-centric organizations succeed in a social world. This is an important book that we hope you’ll read.

How to “get more likes on Facebook” or even “how to engage your social network followers” might be the most common blog and discussion topics of the day but mostly miss the mark. We firmly believe that organizations that are people-ready will have few concerns with getting likes, creating useful engagement ladders, finding volunteers, and getting meaningful support in a networked world.

A few days ago, Maddie Grant posted The Future of Work: A Manifesto which, in some ways, focuses in on how the web, social networks, and changing cultural and economic experiences are altering the role of organizations and people in them. The organizational body is evolving due to external conditions and pressures. But organizations still need people and people still need organizations (though perhaps to a lesser extent?).

The Future of Work speaks primarily to businesses but if you are in or fun a nonprofit we hope you will read, think carefully about and discuss it. Nonprofits don’t produce or sell widgets (or apps) and don’t get feedback from the market. This means that they rely heavily on the people in and around the organization. Questions of how those people – especially staff but also members, fans, donors, followers – fit in the organizational body will dictate success more than ever.

 

The scarcest resource at nonprofits is bandwidth. Period.

Ever been in or around a nonprofit and heard something like:

Think of what we could do if we raised another $500 (or $50,000 or $5,000,000)!

What would you do?

In our experience, the answer is often something like “we would do this new campaign or program by hiring another person or part-time researcher or a consultant.” Or the need for new money/people is driven by the desire to take on a new project.

Let’s face it, ambition and heart are huge in most organizations. Nonprofits and the people in them want to do good. One more campaign. One more program. We can do it.

Stop. Organizations (even, ahem, cushy ones) are stretched thin. Even if you’re managing time well and not burning out chances are good that you’re tackling too much and maybe turning out some mediocre results (which, by the way, would probably be improved by the extra funding that would pay for more people – right?).

You never ever have enough bandwidth

This piece is inspired by Mark Suster’s recent piece on the scarcity of management bandwidth at startups. Mark points out that as a VC he meets with leaders of new companies all the time and his most common reaction to hearing them describe what they’re doing is basically, “whoa, that’s way too much.”

At a tech startup this is seen most often in new features. Every new feature, project, or marketing idea adds complexity and, most likely, is something that will need to be supported forever regardless of whether or not it works.

Complexity adds to staff time which is a burden on management. A new idea or project (no matter how brilliant) is a shift of focus. Even if you cut previous programs you’re redirecting staff and management time to something new and adding to lead time.

The time and mental energy it takes to get a project rolling is rarely accounted for in nonprofits (or startups, apparently). Shifting gears (or adding gears, as the case may be) means more planning, more meetings, more reporting. Less doing.

Mark Suster focuses on scarce management bandwidth at startups. And for good reason. I think the problem at nonprofits is bandwidth in general. This can inevitably become a debate over scarce resources (if only we had more money, better computers, better facilities, more volunteers) and for some direct service agencies its true that more resources often means more service provided and more people helped.

Yet in most cases this is an issue of not focusing, unclear goals, weak management, being pushed by leaders (inside CEOs and outside funders, for example) to do more. Resulting work can often be of the mile wide and inch deep variety – broad but shallow.

Many startups will flounder and go out of business at this point as revenue/capital/enthusiasm dry up. Nonprofits, however, can plod along with diminished resources. This may create a culture of diminished expectations, where doing okay is worth a pat on the back, a raise or, heck, a step up into directing programs.

Bandwidth is precious. You get used to stretching it, doing too much, accomplishing less than you should.

Protecting and creating bandwidth

What’s to be done? Here are a few ideas.

  • Say no. That is hardly as easy as it sounds. We know that all too well.  But pushing back on ideas (however great) and requests is the best way to stay focused and not get spread thin. This means saying no or some version of it to staff, board, donors, community leaders and more. If you have clear, program-driven explanations people will understand and probably even appreciate your focus and honesty.
  • Realize that “nonprofit management” is an oxymoron. Nobody gets into nonprofit work because they love management. Few people with nonprofit management responsibilities receive training or support. Most just end up responsible for a team and would rather be doing direct work themselves. This means that as a leader/manager you need to be willing to seek out and accept help in becoming a better manager. And trust your team to do more of the direct work.
  • Make timesheets matter. This isn’t the same as “make sure everyone fills out a timesheet.” No no no. If staff can’t stand timesheets its probably because they don’t seem to matter. It is an HR or grant reporting thing. As a manager, sit down with staff and figure out how to connect time to goals and outcomes. What is the work that actually goes into getting a job done? Be creative with tracking time and continually reflect back with the team on how time connects to outcomes.
  • Kill regularly scheduled meetings and conference calls. Or at least shed some of them. Ever notice that a new project often means a new weekly conference call (and dozens of emails ahead of time to figure out when to have that call/meeting)? Is work getting done in those regular meetings? Or are they “check-ins?” Think carefully about who is there, why, and if you need to meet at all.
  • Reflect. Reassess. Repeat. Get into the habit of checking on progress towards goals, what’s getting your team there and what’s getting in the way. Do more of the former that’s getting you there and less of the latter. Genius. Not really. But we’re surprised by how often it’s simply assumed that work and being busy equals progress. Further, try not to set up weekly check-in meetings to assess progress. See above. Have more conversations. Ask pointed questions. Listen more and listen well.
Good luck and back to work.

Photo: Drowning under a mountain of paper by net_efekt, Flickr.

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.