Bright Ideas: O Facebook What Art Thou?

Here’s the latest edition of Bright Ideas where we take a look at changing Facebook relevance may mean to content, storytelling and marketing. Also, why is BuzzFeed doing tote bags? And new jobs for great people. Subscribe here:

Bright Ideas is a biweekly(ish) newsletter sharing ideas and updates on content strategy and storytelling for advocacy and social good.


O Facebook, What Art Thou? I’m not going to make the case that Facebook is going away. At least not anytime soon. But the obstacles it faces, largely challenges of its own making, should be of enormous concern to any nonprofit campaigner, fundraiser or leader. (And present exciting opportunities for positive change, I hope.)

First, let’s look at how anti-user Facebook’s core product, the ad manager (ha, I mean the news feed), has become. Despite Facebook’s self-proclaimed return to being a place for friends in 2018, it’s pretty much a visual (and targeted) classified ads platform. Example: at 4 pm last Wednesday I pulled up my Facebook feed and scrolled through the first 25 posts. Twelve were from pages I’ve followed at one time or another. Five were ads. Eight were from people I know. Five of those were straight up reshares of page content with no context.

So much for friends.

Second, the world that analyzes these things is full of stories about declining Facebook use among people under 25 and Europeans, among others. This parallels data about falling interest in the US. Meanwhile, Facebook does seem to have followed through on its promise to deprioritize news by sending less traffic to media sites – a hit to online publishers that’s unlikely, in the short term, to do anything about public trust in media.

Where does that leave us? In the short term, probably in the same place we’ve been for a couple years now. Facebook is huge and any organization willing to put real resources behind the creation and advertising of engaging content that can help bring people (and their data) to Facebook is going to be okay.

But can nonprofits as well as media orgs (including nonprofit journalism) continue to rely on social media to drive growth and visits to their websites? And can nonprofits (and even the consultants surrounding them) continue relying on a platform that seems okay absolving itself of political, social and human collateral damage?

Hey, I’m on Facebook. It’s complicated. But somehow I think we need to aim for more human-scale relationship building that don’t outsource targeting of lookalike audiences to an unregulated corporation.

That means, I think, more tools people can use to create news and fewer platforms for sharing news. More members and fewer audiences. More teaching people to tell stories and less talking about storytelling.

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Can tote bags save journalism?

Just say no to Trumpian Drift. How advocates, journalists, leaders tell stories of migrants and refugees says a lot about how society views citizenship and basic human rights. Masha Gessen urges journalists to choose their words and stories with more care because the scale of problems facing us requires smarter – and more scaled – reporting. She points this out in the quote below and it’s important for advocates to be aware of this, hold media to account, and to also be very conscious of how every story is framed in their own communications:

Like most coverage, but perhaps more than most coverage, the writing about immigration has been suffering from what I think of as Trumpian drift. Journalists casually use terms like crossing the border illegally when referring to asylum seekers—when in fact there is no law that says they must use the ports of entry. Journalists increasingly buy into the framing of immigration policy as a strategy for preventing people from entering the United States. And then there is the conspicuous use of the words caravan and migrant to refer to people fleeing for safety.
– Masha Gessen

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Adding value by adding values. This is a headline I can get behind because I see nonprofits, unintentionally in most cases, making pitches for financial support and action that reflect the righteousness of their work as though it’s assumed every member or reader had a hand in creating their theory of change. Ben Terrett writes about how successful product design does a great job solving user problems but often shows no regard for public values (using the apropos and timely example of scooters littering most major cities).

Nonprofits and civil society are – or should be – modeling inclusive behavior that helps all consider the impact our work has on the whole community: the powerless, not just members, wealthy donors or the loudest voices. Thanks to Paul de Gregorio for sharing this one.

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The constant pressure of tracking everything is burning out journalists. And I know that many activists and campaigners feel the same way as reporters John Crowley spoke to for this piece at Nieman Lab. A few things: (1) Stop reporting on Trump’s tweets. They exist only to overwhelm media bandwidth and make everything about him. (2) We hear a lot about tech solutions to info overload, turning off notifications, and self-care. All good (phone notifications are truly evil). But, as Crowley points out, much of this is driven by management and leaders who support systems that place professional and personal value on constant work.

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Does climate fiction lead to climate action? Only if readers are also accessing cultural messages that effective action is possible. Researcher Matthew Schneider-Mayerson surveyed US readers of 19 works “cli-fi” to understand how climate storytelling may help shape advocacy and opinions on climate change.

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So…who actually does what in high-performing digital comms team? Every organization is churning out content. Very few are well-staffed for it. The good folks at Contentius put together this smart field guide to content roles.

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Get your BuzzFeed tote bag now. It’s free when you make your $100 membership payment. Pretty cynical tone to this piece by Christine Schmidt for NiemanLab but it seems meaningful that a private media company with a household name is scrambling to try every membership experiment it can. Curious how membership as a BuzzWord hooks on here but I’m rooting for the great writers there.

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This great little piece from Transparency International shares five ways to help people engage in campaigns. It’s insights that go beyond anti-corruption activism to support most any issue and the communications around it. All orgs could benefit from a user-centered focus on accessibility, safety, relevance, credibility and responsiveness.

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Anyone going to (or involved in) the #Reframe Conference on Mental Health and the Media? Looks interesting!

Do good work

A few great roles at the intersection of digital, content, creative and campaigning. Have one to share? Click reply and let me know. Have an idea of your next perfect role but not finding it? Send me a note.

  • Chicago-based Hearken helps newsrooms listen to and engage the public on the way to building public trust and stronger stories. They’re hiring US-based engagement consultants to work with their 150 (and growing) clients. Engagement consultants should have newsroom experience but, as the description says, “please don’t be discouraged if your title doesn’t include engagement-related words.”
  • Free Press has several campaigning/organizing roles open: Campaign Manager, Online Community Manager and Digital Manager. Free Press is leading the fight for net neutrality in the US by, in part, engaging tens of thousands of volunteer activists. The team is based in western Massachusetts, Washington, DC, and remote locations around the US.
  • New Citizenship Project is doing smart work helping orgs and campaigns engage people in more meaningful and powerful ways. The London-based group is bringing on a Strategist. Check it out if you’re over that way.
  • United for Iran is hiring a Civic Technology Program Director based in Berkeley. Great group and should be a wonderful opportunity to do innovative work. Note: must be fluent in Farsi.
  • I don’t know much about Communitas America but this Program Manager role that will run coworking and a social venture accelerator looks super interesting. Based in the Bronx.
  • Greenpeace is filling two Media and Digital Analyst roles to guide the global organization’s tracking and learning from social media, news, and all the other bits that fly around the internets. Flexible location.
  • The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is hiring a DC-based Digital Director.
  • Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC, is hiring a Multimedia Strategist.
  • The BlueGreen Alliance is hiring a Denver-based Colorado State Coordinator to grow and run the Alliance’s work there.

Here’s a google spreadsheet full of job lists, email groups and online job boards where you’ll find roles like these posted. It’s editable (for now) so feel free to comment or add a resource.

What’s on your “you should read this” list?

Here’s a short version of mine. Read either of these? Have anything to add? Hit reply and share what you’re digging into (or at least hoping to with any theoretical extra time).

Addendum

Question? Idea to share? Let’s talk. Reply or email ted@brightplus3.com.

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Defining transparency

Transparency in campaigning isn’t just about sharing campaign plans, making videos and being authentic on social media. That’s all important and can build relationships and increase name awareness. But there’s one level of transparency that’s about talking a lot – and openly. And there’s another level of transparency that involves opening yourself up to risk and inviting others to share that risk with you.

I’ve recently been working on a story about transparency in campaigning and what, if anything, is new or can be learned from the 2018 U.S. elections. I’ve looked at the Beto O’Rourke campaign which produced 1,300+ (or so) Facebook Live videos and shared its field plan (and results) online. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has used social media, especially Instagram, with authenticity to foster stronger, trusted relationships with supporters

There’s also been a good deal written previously about “open campaigns” – groups putting their campaign plans out there for all to see – and distributed campaigning or big organizing that gives people the power and tools to act on behalf of the campaign.

For candidates like O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez, sharing their day to day life builds name recognition. For activists, sharing plans and giving supporters tools to act independently is about trust and scaling impact.

But, shifting gears a bit, transparency creates personal and strategic risks. And it’s precisely the risk of opening up yourself, your organization, your plans, to others that makes transparency powerful.

Last week I read Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. The book is Jose Antonio Vargas’s memoir that begins with him being sent from the Philippines to the U.S. at 12 years old to live with his grandparents. From that point forward his childhood was about as “normal” as any California teenage could experience.

That changed when Vargas turned 16 and went to get a driver’s license. He was turned away because he didn’t have the right identification. He went home and found out from his grandfather that he was undocumented. His family sent him to the U.S. without going through the “proper” immigration channels. After living in the U.S. for four, ten or 20 years the only legal option is to abandon the life he’s built, return to a Philippines that he no longer knows and wait for 10 or more years to possibly immigrate to the country he grew up in.

Vargas, of course, didn’t leave the U.S. He became a high school and college journalist and later worked in D.C. for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He has directed documentaries, co-founded Define American, and been a guest of Rep. Nancy Pelosi at the 2017 State of the Union address.

In 2011, Vargas wrote My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant. He came out as undocumented, practically inviting the government to deport him. Looking back, he writes in Dear America:

I am not hiding from my government. My government is hiding from me. At least that’s how it’s felt in the past seven years, living a public life while practicing what I call “radical transparency,” which has taken on various forms.

Transparency, it seems, protects Vargas. His visibility has turned him into a spokesperson. Deporting Vargas would cause more problems than it would solve for people and agencies opposed to immigration.

But transparency – or at least Vargas’s approach to it – has done something else in this case. Basically, it seems there are a couple levels of transparency. One involves openness and exposure. It means talking about your plans, releasing documents and inviting outsiders and other people make their voice heard – even weigh in.

This is the transparency of open government and open campaigning. It’s valuable. It means people can engage because they’re no longer in the dark. But it can remain exclusive. The agency, organization, staff still makes decisions and is ultimately responsible for what happens.

Another level of transparency invites people in to help make the decisions. People don’t just know what’s going on, they have a hand in deciding whether actions are good or bad and how to respond. In the end, this transparency makes everyone involved responsible – and puts them at risk.

This is the transparency of movement building. Vargas talks of helping to organize 30+ undocumented young people to travel across country for a Time magazine cover photo. Vargas could easily make his case about the immigration system and undocumented people without dozens of them joining him and putting themselves at risk. But by putting themselves on the line these people are showing that other people are also willing to be radically transparent for this cause. They’re modeling transparency and leadership for others.

Vargas goes on to speak at length about transparency and how, as a journalist, it is easier for him to be transparent on the outside than in his personal life. Living as an undocumented person who works, pays taxes, and obeys laws also means not having the right to vote, drive, cross the border. It also means living with knowing you could be removed from the country and lose your job, relationships, family and friends overnight.

Transparency is complicated and has personal/private as well as public/political layers.

You’re going to grapple with transparency if you’re a political candidate, running a political campaign or working on an advocacy effort. Social media, the web and open data have all changed the public’s perception of how much and what kind of transparency is required.

Consistently opening up yourself  (or your campaign), your ideas and beliefs, and your plans for putting those beliefs into action in the physical world invites others to do the same alongside you. It’s important to think about whether you really want that – and to commit to the level of transparency that you need.

Accelerating membership innovation

Let’s strengthen organizations, raise more money and scale up impact by speeding up how we learn about and position membership programs. 

A membership innovation community of practice will identify and speed understanding of what’s working, best practices and innovation across a broad range of communications, engagement, fundraising, and organizing activities in nonprofits, journalism, political campaigns and social-good business.


Don’t want all the background? Jump to project goals and process.

Comments? Feedback? Suggestions? Send an email or contact us.


We believe membership – people joining, investing in, learning from, and acting in partnership with others – is (or could be) a strong framework for scaling deep and sustainable activism and healthier organizations. This brief provides a path towards testing that idea.

Membership is critical to sustaining relevance, revenue and sustainability.

Membership has a long, global history. Groups like the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Geographic, Consumers Union and League of Women Voters are membership based.

Labor unions are membership-driven as are cooperatives (local grocery co-ops, for example, and outdoor stores like REI in the United States and MEC in Canada).

Community groups (Rotary Club, garden clubs) and trade associations are also membership based. And millions of people become members associations like the American Association of Retired Persons People every year.

People become members by investing money and time. In many cases, people receive career guidance, networking, volunteer opportunities, discounted products, invitations to events and more.


What is membership? For the purposes of this brief, we view membership as having three parts:

  1. People investing in an organization.
  2. An organization investing in people.
  3. A framework that binds together the interests of people and an organization.

Why do people become members of an organization? The simplest reason: because they’re asked. Usually by people they know. Most members enter an organization with at least one active relationship.

Members receive access to services and benefits for the time, money and personal capital they offer groups. Members are often given opportunities to meet, interact and learn from one another. People also learn and improve skills, take on volunteer roles and eventually become leaders. In many advocacy organizations, membership offers people an opportunity to directly engage with others and the organization in actions around a shared mission or vision for the world.

Let’s assume there’s some value (or at least a bit of accuracy) in the above definition of membership, it’s historical presence and why people put their hard-earned money and time into an organization as a member.

It’s worth noting that the public service journalism sector is looking to membership as a path towards revenue growth and sustainability as well as knowledge and service. The Membership Puzzle Project is one example of that sector’s search for stronger member-driven skills and projects.

The Problem

Today, nonprofits (both advocacy and community service groups), associations and journalism/media organizations (nonprofit and for-profit) use a variety of membership models to secure direct and indirect support.

Membership programs are usually built around and optimized for fundraising. People are asked for a minimal amount of time – a $30 donation, a Facebook follow, an email address. They receive a thank you (hopefully). They are passed into the hands of staff running fundraising and advocacy programs.

Membership programs are typically separate from organizing and communications. Software/CRMs may track donations and email opens. But software only does what the people using it ask. Organizations do little to build member relationships (or, in other words, do little to invest in the needs of members). People are either bombarded by messaging in their inboxes and social media feeds. Or receive little at all.

Everyone is concerned about impact. Many people want to work with others to have a direct impact. People in are looking for opportunities to invest not just their money but their time, skills and experience. They’re looking for anchors – places to hook their attention, build relationships, learn more and do good.

Meanwhile, organizations are dealing with solving transactional problems like high membership growth costs and/or churn. Most members would be surprised to learn that the most important calculation of their relationship is aquisition cost and lifetime value. The constant need to replace members creates an endless search for new people, new lists, new audiences – attention taken away from deepening and sustaining membership.

People are looking for consistency and impact are hearing about crises and immediate needs. It gets attention. But we lose attention, tune out, and move on to another crisis.

Worse, people are losing faith in nonprofit organizations. It’s a problem for the causes and communities in which we work who are not consistently served by a committed group of supporters.

Thousands of nonprofit organizations have decades of data about membership programs. Yet, too often, membership teams are sidelined to focus on marginal list growth strategies. Conversations about innovation, sustainability, scale and value TO members get set aside.

We need to rethink what membership can be. It’s time to share lessons, test outside the box, build partnerships across sectors (and inside organizations).

Creating Modern Membership Models

Now is the time to look at new membership models. Membership teams and their partners across the organization, nonprofit and NGO leaders, and even members themselves need new and empowering membership models that can engage and even excite people.

To get there, the sector needs testing and learning, networking and training, and many more opportunities to unleash creativity.

We believe that networks of people working in and around membership programs (everyone from membership teams to organizing, volunteering, fundraising and other roles) will create stronger organizations – and more powerful outcomes – with opportunities and resources to more rapidly learn, test and master membership programming across their organizations, campaigns and teams.

Why Now?

This is a time of declining trust in institutions. And it’s not just government. NGOs, nonprofits and even small orgs face questions from constituents and potential supporters about finances, diversity, leadership, sexual harassment and more. Media and news organizations rely on reader (and source) trust to stay in business.

Membership programs invite and build trust by increasing transparency and direct investment in an organization’s mission, values and operation.

More people than ever are engaging in advocacy and political campaigns as volunteers, activists and leaders. Nonprofit organizations can better learn from organizing campaigns – even those under their own roof – to build stronger membershp programs.

Sustainable funding remains critical to the long-term health of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits are raising money and figuring out monthly donor programs but aren’t innovating membership in ways that deepens affiliation to sustain themselves for long time and grow leaders.

Meanwhile, journalism organizations and others are looking towards advocacy and struggling to find/implement membership models and practices.

There is a place for renewed, revitalized and re-imagined membership in nonprofit advocacy and organizations. Some of this work is already happening in public service journalism through the efforts of The Membership Puzzle, the Coral Project, Open News and others. These projects demonstrate the value that testing and networking around membership and engagement bring to communities of practitioners.

We envision a project that advances membership innovation in nonprofits, collaborates with other sectors and ongoing projects to share learning, and makes it possible for far more people to become more sustainably engaged in social good and community change.

Goals of this project

Here’s what we believe this work can accomplish:

Revitalize the membership field so that a wider range of organizations and campaigns can reach more people, engage people more efficiently and sustainably, and promote growth of leadership, revenue and program innovation.

Build a learning community of people working in and around membership. This may include people in nonprofits, NGOs, advocacy groups, political campaigns and social movements, associations, trade groups and labor unions, journalism and community media and more.

Rapidly share data and resources needed to test membership and related programs in fundraising, organizing, mobilization, volunteering and leadership.

Identify and assess a variety of new and existing membership models that organizations, funders, consultants and members can apply, learn from, test and iterate upon.

Create a culture of measurement, testing, reporting, iteration and transparency that supports broader membership program innovation.

Process

What would doing this actually look like? Here’s an idea:

Create a network through baseline research and reporting.
  • Survey a broad cross-section of people involved in members
  • Get direct and subjective feedback on
    • What’s working and what’s not?
    • Who’s doing good, great, creative work and thinking in membership?
  • Bring subset to a kick-off meeting/event/conference where diverse group meets, networks, shares learning, creates plans for next steps in community
  • Identify what needs to be measured/evaluated for project impact and success.
Continue growing and sustaining a network of membership innovators and leaders.
  • Online/offline community (could range from just email list/facebook group to one or more in person events in different locations)
  • Identify need for and create training materials
Identify and showcase membership innovation and testing in the wild.
  • Membership Innovation Showcase and/or Membership impact guide. Read more.

Inspiration / Background / More Reading

Who’s thinking about this now? We’ll continue updating this list as we find/receive ideas.


Speed up membership innovation

Compact Flash photo via JD Hancock, Flickr. CC 2.0.

Helping people create change by helping people

Bright Ideas: How stories, strategy, people and tech are creating change.

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25 September, 2018

Do you need a digital team, what roles would be on it and who would be included? Good questions. I’m skeptical that most organizations need a digital team so much as need digital first leadership and cultures. I wrote about it the other day in a piece called Thinking about digital strategy in teams:

“Digital is in every role in the organization, not just a few people easily pulled into a single team. Everyone and every role can, will and needs to understand how digital works.”

If nothing else, check it out the digital teams resources shared at the bottom. Other good/smart people have been thinking hard about digital teams in nonprofits the past few years.

Another good read on nonprofit digital strategy comes from Ryann Miller at Toronto-based Grassriots. Digital is a strategy, not just random tactics, posted at Charity Village, distills more thinking about how and why a digital-first organization isn’t just running better online fundraising and social media campaigns but is building lasting relationships with people built on member needs. Miller identifies building blocks for a digital-first org:

  • Supporter/consumer-centric
  • Transparent
  • Collaborative
  • Empowered
  • Data-driven
  • Agile / iterative
  • Innovative

Have you seen the new book, Driving Digital Strategy by Sunil Gupta?

Gupta, Edward W. Carter Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, explains how legacy organizations need to approach digital strategy in an org-wide / holistic way and not as a single tactic, single department, or as something that just gets added onto existing strategy.

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Leaders need to think about what people really need. If you understand what people are trying to accomplish and build for that, instead of thinking of digital as a channel to reach more people, you’ll be more efficient, advertise better, save money, sell more.

Gupta’s aiming at the for-profit world but the point stands for NGOs. Here’s another summary from an interview with Gupta. He was also interviewed for the HBR Ideacast in August. Great listen for the ride home.

Gupta talks about Peloton, the stationary bike company, in the Ideacast interview. Peloton doesn’t view digital as a way to reach more people but as a way to create a fuller experience that people will crave, rely on, pay more for and tell people about.

This brings me to exciting examples of companies putting people first to build powerful relationships (and businesses) in a Vox article called Crossfit is My Church. Sounds weird, perhaps, but a powerful read.

Casper ter Kuile, a researcher at Harvard Divinity School and Executive Director at On Being’s Impact Lab, looked at Crossfit and Soulcycle (again with stationary bikes!). They wanted to understand if, why and how millennials are replacing organized religion with other experiences that fulfill a need to be part of something bigger than themselves.

I think unions and membership orgs (e.g. Sierra Club) once did this very effectively but for a variety of reasons failed at thinking about membership as anything more than payment for services.

Skipping ahead, what if a membership organization’s strategy (most of which was digital and probably all of which was guided by core elements like transparency, empowerment, being supporter-centric) was directed at creating at experiences that addressed people’s needs, including a need to belong to something bigger / better than any one individual’s self?

Charity:Water is one example of this approach in action. There are loads of ways for NGOs to solve advocacy / political / community problems. But few are built from the ground up to give supporters direct roles – and personal meaning – in addressing water supply problems in communities thousands of miles away.

Putting the needs of supporters first would change how most groups staff themselves, think of revenue streams, approach role of volunteers, define membership, develop content, and more.

This isn’t an especially new idea (see older versions of Sierra Club, trade associations, and labor unions).

But does an updated version work in complex legacy organizations (and newer startups) that are solving advocacy problems (protecting forests, stopping mining, reforming health care finance)? It can and, I suspect, has to work in more orgs, more campaigns, more communities.

Don't stop believing

Good more or less related reading:

I’m not the only person who once subscribed to National Geographic who ended up confused about what membership means there. Membership Puzzle shares Lessons and cautionary tales from 130 years of membership at National Geographic. By the way, Membership Puzzle is doing an amazing job looking into how journalism/media nonprofits and startups are rethinking and testing membership engagement.

“When newsrooms start valuing their relationships with the communities they serve over the quantity of content they can produce, it shapes journalism for the better. And that focus on relationships is helping newsrooms have an impact and develop new opportunities for revenue and sustainability.” American Press Institute releases A Culture of Listening, a report diving into how/why journalists strengthen reporting and value through deep listening practices, tools and techniques. Useful for community organizers and activists

Want to kill democracy? Starve civic institutions (and parks and public lands). From Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU: “Just as certain hard infrastructures, such as those for power and water, are ‘lifeline systems’ that make modern societies possible, so too are certain social infrastructures especially crucial for democratic life.” Libraries, environmentalists, outdoor recreations groups, the YMCA and many more should be talking about this at a time when government zeroing out spending on community institutions.

Don’t stop believing. Never thought I’d share a New York Times piece about Steve Perry (yeah, that Steve Perry) but this story has it all: music, love, tragedy, redemption, croquet, the Eels, big hair.

Addendum

Question? Idea to share? Let’s talk. Email ted@brightplus3.com.

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Power-full storytelling for change

Can we create powerful (and “power-full”) storytelling for advocacy that shifts power to people and communities so they may better control the change they seek?

Power-full storytelling

The “traditional” framework for advocacy storytelling is built around persuading those who aren’t directly affected – or who aren’t currently engaged – to empathize and act. This is a good way to go when what you need are people to write Congress, come to a march on Washington or give you money so you can do more of your good work.

But persuasion isn’t about power. Persuasion acts on those not affected. Somewhere along the way it’s possible—too easy, really—for the change that needs to happen to be disputed, watered down, stalled in a committee. Meanwhile, real people go hungry, real homes sink into the ocean, real wildlife lose a place to live.

Philanthropy may recognize the power problem

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, recently wrote Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough in the New York Times. In it, Walker calls on the philanthropic community and, perhaps, a broader economic and political establishment, to not simply address the effects of inequality and injustice on society but to solve their root causes.

Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation wrote about the Foundation’s decision to focus on systemic change and supporting transitions to a new political economy in choosing how to direct its support of climate change advocacy.

It’s not a new idea to social justice advocates: We can (and should) feed the hungry but wouldn’t it be more prudent to tackle systemic causes of inequality and poverty that are leading to a growing number of hungry families and children each year?

Pressuring the System or Shifting Power?

Advocates and campaigners can do much more to tell the stories of people impacted by inequality, poverty, hunger, war or environmental disaster. And many are doing just that with interviews, personal histories, photos and video, and other narratives that tell stories of the impacted and less powerful in their own voices.  Recent work by Humans of New York tells the story of refugees to help fundraise for the community. In the film @Home, activist Mark Horvath interviews dozens of homeless people, family members, and others in the community to tell the story of homelessness from the perspective of those living it.

Continue reading “Power-full storytelling for change”

Turning policy experts into reporters

The Munk School of Public Affairs at the University of Toronto is doing something brilliant that NGO leaders should check out. The Fellowship in Global Journalism, an 8-month program that trains subject experts to become reporters. The program gives students the support, training and tools needed to create powerful stories for widely read news and online media outlets. Training focuses traditional and digital reporting skills and the program provides participants with high-level mentorship from working editors. All that is layered on top of the participant’s strong subject expertise.

deep sea mining
An ocean issue that could use more news stories: deep sea mining. This is an Auxiliary Cutter to be used by Nautilus Minerals for seabed mining near Papau New Guinea. Photo via Nautilus Minerals.

Imagine, for example, the stories that a few oceans experts could create for widely read media newspapers and online media if they had deep skills in reporting, data visualization, video production and other storytelling skills needed today. You don’t see many oceans stories because traditional news outlets don’t have staff to cover those stories and new media outlets haven’t built up subject expertise. But all are looking to publish great stories people will read and share.

It’s not that readers don’t care about oceans, it’s that there’s nobody to tell the story. And more (and better) stories are needed to support a public narrative on which advocates can hook their calls to action.

Oceans are just one example. You could swap out medicine, immigration, childcare or prison reform and get similar results.

Great news stories are in higher demand than ever so why not make them about issues that matter. There are more places reporting general news for national and global audiences than ever. Some start with a V: Vice and Vox. A is covered: AlJazeera. And then there B for Buzzfeed and M for Mic. Meanwhile, long-time regional, national and global news outlets are cutting full-time positions but, in most cases, hungry for good stories.

There are too few people who both know their subject and can develop great stories about it. This creates an opportunity for policy experts to engage global media in new and more direct ways. It would be fantastic to see the environmental community or other advocacy sector support a similar endeavor.

Three ways to stop wishing for a big campaign

In the movie Big, Tom Hanks plays 12 year old Josh Baskin who puts a coin in a magic wish machine at the amusement park arcade one summer night and asks to be big. Nothing happens after making the wish so he heads home and goes to bed.

Be big

You know the story. Josh wakes up the next morning and is, well, BIG (and played by Tom Hanks).

Sometimes, your campaigns go big. You probably didn’t plan for it (though you may have wished for it). The ride may be fun but it’s probably not what you expected.

big-skateboarding-slide

Sometimes, things don’t turn out as you hoped. You didn’t raise much money. New people didn’t stick with you. The media didn’t respond as you hoped. The big suit doesn’t always fit right — you may walk away disappointed but a bit wiser.

Big. And not so fun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question “What does it mean for a to ‘go big’ if you’re a nonprofit?” What is a viral campaign? That’s because I’m organizing a session here in Denver with the folks from Tech4Good titled Going Viral: The Ups and Downs of Hitting it Big. The program is tomorrow so you’ve probably missed it.

We don’t have to find Zoltar and wish to be big but we do need to know what “big” is, tap into what helps make campaigns go big and be ready when it happens (even if it’s not as dramatic as in the movie or the ice bucket).

So… What IS Big?

When it’s really big you know it. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was big. Very big.

Google trends - ALS
A 12 month Google search trends chart tracking ALS and Obama searches. The ALS spike is reminiscent of the Super Bowl and other huge national events.

Continue reading “Three ways to stop wishing for a big campaign”

What DO you know about your content?

Content is everywhere. For starters: blog and Facebook posts, tweets and webinars, infographics and Slideshare presentations, online and print advertisements, email newsletters, action alerts and fundraising appeals, photo galleries and research reports, annual reports, magazines and books. That’s just a start.

And let’s not forget the dozens or hundreds (or sometimes thousands) more web pages that tell people who you are, how you work, why you do what you do and (super important!) why the reader should support you with their own time and money.

Meanwhile, these readers (donors, supporters, activists, media, legislators and others), are (we hope) relentlessly reading, sharing and taking action with through constant connections to smartphones and tablets.

What’s missing? A clear sense of what works, when, why and a plan for how to move to that spot. When we talk with executive directors, fundraisers, communicators and digital strategists, all report that their organizations are spending more time and money than ever on content. They wonder if they’re doing the right thing (and how to tell).

Content Sur
What works and why? We’re finding out, starting with the (mini) content survey.
Take it now.

What Works and Why?

It’s time to start answering that question. We’re starting with a survey (two surveys, really) that brings together data from across the nonprofit sector about content spending, staffing, strategy as well as goals, methods and metrics. We’ll also be talking with leaders and practitioners to collect stories that give context to the data. When we find patterns in the data that helps explain success (or failure) we’ll dive deeper and hear from people doing the work.

Wait. Two surveys? Sure. The first is a mini-survey. Just three questions to help scratch the surface and identify some key questions YOU (not just us) have.

A survey, after all, should be about what the user needs. Just like great content.

Take the (mini) content survey now. Thanks!

What community advocates should know about the Princeton Offense

2310501543_c25c74204f_bIt occurred to me, while watching Georgetown trounce Western Carolina a few weekends ago (thanks for the game, Eric!), that nonprofit advocates might learn a thing or two from the Princeton Offense practiced by the Hoyas and others.

The Princeton Offense, so named because of its origins at its namesake university early in the 20th century, is a high-energy offense that uses constant motion, frequent passing, and sharp cuts to create shooting opportunities. The offense relies on nimbleness and speed … by making frequent and sudden cuts timed with sharp inside passes, players often find themselves all alone with the ball and an easy layup. If the defense pulls in to cut off those opportunities, the offense finds itself with more open three-point shot options.

The Princeton Offense has some limitations. For one thing, it depends on the entire squad being strong at passing, layups, and shooting three-pointers. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to excel at everything, but they all need to be solid. For another, it requires a great deal of preparation and discipline, effective communication, and tight teamwork. This may be true for basketball in general, but it’s exacerbated in an offensive scheme based on sharp, precision movements.

But it doesn’t rely on overpowering your opponent, which is good given that small community groups are often at a disadvantage in terms of funding, political connections, and political muscle. Instead, it relies on qualities often found in spades among nonprofit advocates: agility, high-energy, and versatile team members.

This analogy is a stretch, I know, but the basic point is sound: play to your strengths. Design strategies that take advantage of your assets, and sidestep or minimize the strengths of your opponents. Whenever possible, set the terms of the engagement rather than play their game.

If you like the basketball-as-political-strategy analogy, the basketball team at Grinnell College offers another fun example. Unable to compete for the best players (it’s a small college in the middle of Iowa, after all), but still able to recruit a bunch of guys with solid high school experience, they twisted convention on its head: rather than field their best players for longer stretches, they substitute fresh legs constantly so that every Grinnell player on the court is able to play at 100% for the entire (short) time they’re on. The details vary every cycle, but they send in substitutes every half-minute or so, and within the first three minutes Grinnell has already fielded fifteen players playing an average of a minute each. They shoot like crazy and they leave guys on the offensive end (violating convention but not the rules). Although their opponents may consistently field better players, each member of the Grinnell squad can play at 100% the entire time they’re on the court (versus, say, an opponent, only playing at 80% because of their need to pace themselves for longer stretches of game time). “The System,” as it’s called, is a controversial approach, and it isn’t popular among basketball purists, but Grinnell – with a 7-2 record this season – is figuring out a way to play competitive ball despite being underpowered and out-skilled.

Analogies like these obviously have their limits, but there might be some wisdom to draw from the comparisons, and at the very least they can help reinforce some basic instincts about crafting effective strategies even when outmatched by your opponent.

(Photo by Flickr user Keith Allison.)

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.

A friend of a friend: How Obama used Facebook to turn out voters

We all know that social networks can be a crucial arena for engaging your supporters and developing new relationships, but for a sense of scale look no further than the 2012 presidential campaigns. Both campaigns made extensive use of social networks like Spotify, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and, of course, the giants Facebook and Twitter.

One major problem for the campaigns in the closing weeks of the race: 18-29 year-old voters are very difficult to reach by phone, and making sure that very specific audience actually voted was a critical campaign element, especially for the Obama campaign. Their solution: aggressively, intelligently, and strategically using Facebook to identify supporters, keep them engaged, and then – during the GOTV (“get out the vote”) efforts in the final weeks – reminding them to actually vote.

Because of their early and sustained efforts identifying supporters through Facebook, 85% of the campaign’s GOTV 18-29 year-old targets were friends of friends of Barack Obama on Facebook. Obama for American Digital Director Teddy Goff explains, “We had about seven million instances of people contacting about five million people, all of their friends who they knew … these were people we had to reach, and couldn’t reach otherwise.”

And note the importance of very clearly identifying the audience. Even though Facebook users span a wide range of demographics, different demographics use the network differently. This was a strategy targeted for a very specific demographic. This not-so-little detail highlights a common problem in exhortations for nonprofits to use social networks more aggressively. The first step should always be defining the goal, and the second step – always – understanding the mechanisms of change enough to clearly and specifically define the audiences you need to influence. Then you can figure out if and how social networks matter, and how to use them effectively if they do.

But there is clearly a growing chance that social networks will matter, and if your target audience for a given campaign includes 18-29 year-olds in the United States, then social networks may well be critical part of your strategy.

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.