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.)

Storytelling + Video = Power to change behavior

A common refrain: Our video has a great story, great message, and clear call to action. But only 350 people watched it. WTF?

Story of Sushi
The "Story of Sushi" by Portland's Bamboo Sushi tells the story of how industrial fishing is destroying ocean life and presents alternatives. Something to think about with your next sashimi.

There are no simple reasons to explain why some videos take off and others languish in the dustbin of irrelevancy.

How did you distribute it? What was the keyword strategy? What sharing tools were used? Did you use AdWords, Facebook ads, or other paid marketing? How big is your social media audience? How engaged are they? Was Will Ferrell in your video? Useful questions though maybe the answer is simpler: people just didn’t connect with the story.

Perhaps you’ve seen the story of sushi video created by Portland’s Bamboo Sushi. We’ve embedded it below. The video is both clever and lovely in its simplicity and clarity of message. There is a story here: bad guys that overfish the seas, good guys that do it right, and the hero is the viewer – the person that has the opportunity to ask questions, know what’s going on and force change to happen.

What’s missing? The 2 x 4 over the head that has “take action now by calling your Senator.” The action is the story itself and its ability to make the viewer think about their behavior.

We will be the first to tell you that if you’re in the advocacy business you need to know your call to action in every message be it email, video, blog post or presentation.

But there is often greater power in using story to lead people to act on their own. A good story guides the participant to their own conclusions and you need not hit people over the head with your advocacy. Sometimes a big stick just scares people away while a good story makes them think. Thinking is good.

Sweet examples of online engagement for fundraising

You hear it all the time. So often, perhaps, that you’ve tuned it out…

Use online communications and social media to tell your story, give people tangible reasons to get involved, and engage people…interact with them.

A photo used by Wild Futures to help raise funds. Potential donors were offered an opportunity to 'adopt' this monkey.
A photo used by Wild Futures to help raise funds. Potential donors were offered an opportunity to 'adopt' this monkey.

We don’t come across enough examples of this in action. It becomes hard to describe what this really means and how engaging people is different than the traditional ways in which organizations are used to talking at an audience.

Here are a couple great examples from the online fundraising space.

Vasileios Kospanos shares a great story of how Britain’s Wild Futures and the Monkey Sanctuary engaged Twitter followers in a fundraising campaign. Over the course of a couple weeks, Wild Futures shared stories and photos of monkeys that could be ‘adopted’ through a donation. This wasn’t just a call to donate to a worthy cause. That’s an easy pitch to make, though not effective. Wild Futures invited people in, shared photos, told stories. It is a different experience – one that doesn’t assume a potential donor is already convinced to give (which they rarely are).

Another good example comes from the Ocean Conservancy’s year-end fundraising campaign that was shared in Convio’s Connection Cafe. This campaign included clear expressions of appreciation for donors (up front, not just after a gift was made), explanation of the value of donations and examples of successes over the year. Sara Thomas, Senior Manager of Digital Marketing at Ocean Conservancy writes:

It was important to us that we give our constituency tangible actions; reasons to continue supporting us and evidence that we were worthy of their gifts. And everything from our design and messaging, to the various channels we chose to engage with our constituency on, reflected just that.

These are just a couple great recent examples of online engagement in action. The tools matter less than the stories you tell, the clear demonstration of value and the ways in which individuals can respond and share. Would love it if you shared your own examples in the comments.

Thanks to the very tiger’s blog for tipping us off to Kospanos’ story of his monkey adoption (which is also a great use of Storify). 

The power of quiet

What’s the biggest communications innovation you can think of? How about Quiet. I doubt that’s the answer you were expecting. And it’s just one possible answer.

Quiet Room - Photo by Miranda Lichtenstein in Hirshhorn Museum
Quiet Room – Photo by Miranda Lichtenstein in Hirshhorn Museum

But ponder for a moment (if you have a moment to ponder, that is, amidst the likely crush of catching up, calls, meetings and emails this new year) the possibility that your constituents, readers and visitors (and colleagues) might enjoy some calm quiet to gather their thoughts. Quiet, solitude, focus, intention. Call it what you will but the ability for one to be present with a single thought is a rare gift.

Quiet, in fact, is something that many thinkers, innovators and (we suspect but can’t confirm as we haven’t polled for this on Facebook – ha) are proactively seeking. Soren Gordhammer and friends behind Wisdom 2.0 have created an event and community at the heart of Silicon Valley focused on “awareness, wisdom and compassion in the technology age.” Granted, this doesn’t specify quiet but is about the need for mindfulness in the face of changes wrought by new media and technology.

Books such as The Filter Bubble and The Information Diet (to name just a couple) touch on how people are buried in media and only seeing certain stories at Google, Facebook and other sources based on their browsing history and other actions. Basically, people are being overwhelmed. Whether this is by choice or incidental it makes our jobs as advocates, campaigners and nonprofit fundraisers more difficult.

So we ask you to think about quiet as an innovation. This doesn’t mean go away, stop writing, stop emailing, stop asking for help and support. Hardly. But it does mean communicating with real intention to make every word, post and request count for the reader.

Our sense is that the rise of “storytelling” in advocacy is indicative of an increased desire to focus on fewer and more important issues, to dive in, to be engaged and not just entertained, informed or talked to online. Test ongoing narratives in your campaigns. Focus on good stories, well told, that share values with your readers and relate directly to your cause. This gives people a place to put focused attention. Pay more attention to giving people email that relates to their interests and behaviors (and not just yours).

Admittedly, Quiet seems counterintuitive. After all, we need to get content out there, post to Facebook and Twitter, cover a wide range of issues, ask people repeatedly for donations, actions, and involvement. There is a lot to do. But we think the wisdom of quiet, kept at hand in planning your communications strategy, will come in handy this year.

The beauty of what you do

Flower from Louie Schwartzberg video at TEDxSFWe came across this video from TEDxSF the other day. In it, Louie Schwartzberg talks about his work over the years as one of the world’s great time-lapse nature photographers. The video he shows the audience is, indeed, amazing. Yet he goes on to talk about how the beauty of nature fills him with gratitude for the opportunity to live in this world.

It seems that each day, month and year we as individuals and organizations are focused on the crises and problems in front of us. People are hungry. Animals are hurt. Wildlands are logged and mined. We all need help to stop it. And we need that help right now. The pace of change and threats seems only to increase. People need more. Organizations are struggling to stay afloat. We must act. Now.

For nonprofit fundraisers and marketers, the reality is that crisis works. And people only give money when asked. So we create dire threats to our communities (this isn’t too hard to do) and send email after email about those crises.

But we don’t often spend time and energy weaving in real beauty and gratitude. We need to tell stories of hope and success, not just threats. There is magic in beauty and gratitude. Without it, we live in a world that has only crisis. We foster cynicism in our constituents and staff, which leads to ambivalence. Grab the opportunities to show gratitude and bring hope to people. Perhaps this video will help inspire that in you, as it did us.

Time spent watching online video going up means you need to tell a good story to the right people

Time spent watching online video vs. streaming viewers.
Time spent watching online video going up while number of people watching holds steady.

People are watching more video online. Recent data from Nielsen shows that the growth of time spent watching online video is outpacing the rise in unique viewers. In other words, most people that will watch video online are already doing so. Growth is coming from those people spending more time watching video.

Nielsen and others cite growth in long-form video watching and not just watching more videos. People are spending more time watching movies and TV shows on Hulu, Netflix and other streaming video outlets. More people watching Weeds on their computer doesn’t have many direct benefits to organizations using video to build awareness and market their issues. Minimally, however, this is a sign that people are increasingly able and willing to view longer length streaming content.

There are a couple important takeaways for organizations. One is the value of good storytelling in video. Another is the need to take distribution strategy seriously from the start. Video content is found through many channels, lives in many places and needs to be much more than something plopped on YouTube and embedded on a web page you host.

Tell a Great Story

This shouldn’t be news to nonprofits. Some of the most successful online videos have been a few minutes or longer because they’ve used storytelling to drive engagement and sharing. A couple great examples of this are the Story of Stuff and the Meatrix. If you want to dive into some of the storytelling themes used in these videos I suggest you check out this recent presentation by Jonah Sachs, a point person behind both Story of Stuff and the Meatrix.

Continue reading “Time spent watching online video going up means you need to tell a good story to the right people”

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.

Storytelling for Readers (who, incredulously enough, have minds of their own)

Storytelling Here

Storytelling this. Storytelling that. We need to tell our stories. Story story story.

Sorry but I’m in a bit of a downward spiral when it comes to storytelling in/by/for/with/around organizations. It’s so much “if only we could tell our story we would WIN!”

It’s not so simple but the fact remains that organizations and the people in and around them really must do a better job connecting with the audience that helps create change (or buys their product or makes a donation or whatever the goal of organization may be). Organizations communicate constantly with email, social media, online ads, billboards, direct mail, radio spots, videos and more.

Every single one of these pieces (EVERY ONE) tells a story. So how we craft stories and language matters a great deal. (It’s just that stories aren’t as good as corporations when it comes to lining the pockets of Congress so stories alone won’t change policy.)

The Premeditated Conclusion

Most stories that spring out of organizations – be they on video, blog posts, annual reports – are crafted in internal vacuums. Staff decide that they need people to think “X” or do “Y” so they sit down as a group and/or with consultants to create a story. The conclusion that the reader should reach is the goal. Everything in the story will obviously lead the reader there.

Not so many trees lose their lives during the editing process as in the old days but “view changes” in Microsoft Word gets a serious workout as the story comes together.

The result may actually be a good story. It may be short or long, breezy or deep. But even “good” storytelling in organizations tends to forget that readers bring their own (often much different) perspectives to the story and will be likely to draw inferences that you don’t anticipate or keep them from finding the story valuable to their own experience.

There are lots of reasons stories (even otherwise good ones) don’t work out as expected and this is one of them. How can we help the reader get where we want them to go? Continue reading “Storytelling for Readers (who, incredulously enough, have minds of their own)”

Storytelling a Start to Engaging Action, not the End

Is storytelling enough? Is storytelling the peak engagement activity? If your organization is engaging supporters with good stories are you doing all you can for your people and issues? Storytelling is essential but it must tie tellers and readers together into a network that takes meaningful action.

Storytelling HereThat seems one possible conclusion that could be drawn from a recent post by Katya Andresen in which she discusses the “humanization highway” concept in Jay Baer and Amber Naslund’s book The Now Revolution. Baer and Naslund are describing responsive businesses with great customer service models. In their view (quite rightly, it seems) the more “human” an organization becomes the better service it provides. This leads to better, more loyal customers. A similar case could be made for nonprofits: interact with members and supporters on a personal, human level and you’ll have more active and engaged participants.

Baer and Nasulund lay out a five point continuum of “humanness” that places storytelling at the top. The full list is:

Continue reading “Storytelling a Start to Engaging Action, not the End”

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”