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Convergence

Using Digital to Influence Social Change: An Interview with Jay Geneske

jay geneskeIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Jay Geneske, Director of Digital at The Rockefeller Foundation.

Jay directs the Foundation’s digital strategy to engage internal and external audiences, champion organization-wide collaboration, deliver data that informs organization decisions, and pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas. Jay previously served as the Director of Online Communications for Echoing Green, and has also served in digital and brand strategy roles at Carnegie Hall, Shedd Aquarium, and Steppenwolf Theatre.

You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.

Nell: Your role as head of digital for a major foundation is a pretty new kind of position in the world of philanthropy. Obviously the Rockefeller Foundation sees a lot of value (beyond marketing) in digital. How does digital play into the Foundation’s overall strategy? 

Jay: Like every other sector, digital has changed the game for social impact. At the Rockefeller Foundation, I’ve been tasked to pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas and perspectives on serving the needs of poor or vulnerable people in a time of rapid change.

That’s a tall order, but an exciting one.

This remit certainly includes how we utilize digital media to tell the story and impact of our work, to bring valuable information to those working in the sector, and to elevate our staff, grantees, and partners as thought leaders.

But digital goes far beyond traditional communication or marketing.

For external audiences, our digital focus is on influence. A carefully planned Twitter campaign can influence a policy maker to prioritize building resilience to the shocks and stresses facing their city. A data-informed segmented email can make a practitioner think more innovatively about solving a social or environmental problem. A well-crafted blog post syndicated on Medium, LinkedIn or elsewhere can connect our staff members to an important partner in the private sector.

Digital also plays an increasingly critical role for our internal audience. We’re reimagining how we work with each other and our hundreds of external partners by meeting people where they are and embracing nimble digital technology. For example, we’re bringing all of our files to the cloud for easy access around the globe and on mobile devices. We’ve also just launched an internal hub that brings valuable real-time data directly to staff members’ fingertips and also more easily captures and stores the critical informal knowledge and insights—typically stuck in email inboxes—that drive strategic decision-making.

What’s most important is the connective tissue between internal and external audiences, and confronting and embracing the increasing overlap and intersection to make us more effective.

Nell: The Rockefeller Foundation turned 100 in 2013 making it one of the oldest U.S. foundations. But the Foundation obviously works hard to stay relevant amid changing social challenges, technology, modes of communication, etc. What drives the Foundation’s desire and ability to be so nimble? 

Jay: Our mission has always been to improve the well-being of humanity. To achieve that mission, we must work in a way that is suited to a rapidly changing world, especially where technology and greater interconnectedness have accelerated change and altered the way people live.

This reality manifests throughout our formal initiatives, such as Digital Jobs Africa, which is connecting Africa’s rapidly growing youth population with jobs in the ICT sector. Technology has also clearly changed the game for how and where we do our work. For example, I’ve awarded grants to networks with a robust online presence with the aim to surface new ideas and connect to new people who are solving big social issues.

But in many ways, the sector is just scratching the surface, particularly around data. As David Henderson from FII recently noted, for data to change the world, we must think beyond software and data visualizations. There is a serious lack of investment and focus on how to turn data into action.

Nell: A big initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation is the 100 Resilient Cities project that works to help cities adapt to the “new normal” of continuous disruption. How are you using digital in this particular project? 

Jay: Digital plays a critical role in this initiative where our digital strategy is focused on influencing policy and business leaders and practitioners to focus on building resilience to physical, social, and economic challenges facing the world.

Through this work we’ve learned that content is the key to building influence. Our multichannel editorial strategy centers on creating and curating relevant, insightful, and vibrant content that our audience will find immediately actionable. It’s amazing to see how that content then travels around the social web, especially by politicians and business leaders.

We also know that reach is not the same as influence. Although growth is important, our focus has always been on influencing a specific audience, many of whom may not have huge a Twitter following.

Nell: In your work you talk about “digital storytelling” as a critical component of effective social impact, which goes far beyond a more traditional nonprofit approach to marketing. What does effective digital storytelling look like and what is the return on investment for a nonprofit? 

Jay: While there have never been more ways to reach audiences, it has also never been more difficult to really reach them. I’ve also noticed a fast increase in big brands infusing questionable social change messaging and stories into their communications, and I worry that organizations driving real social impact will be left behind.

The Foundation has invested in storytelling –including launching the free tool Hatch for Good— to help organizations tell stories that are strategically planned, creatively crafted, and designed to achieve measurable outcomes.

In many ways, storytelling is an angle or a focus in social impact communications and marketing. It’s a way to stand out, to inspire action and donations, to drive policy change.

We’ve had tens of thousands of people use Hatch for Good in beta, and what’s become clear is that, for all the good they do, our mission statements are preventing us from telling effective stories. We try to insert them, sometimes word-for-word, into every story. And the result is a story so crowded that our audience never had a chance to take action.

Effective storytelling shows the human consequences of the problem our organizations address—and the solutions that give people hope. Stories about the people whose lives are directly affected by the work, and about the people who join forces with us to create change. These stories exemplify our mission statement, but are not bound by it.

When done strategically, these stories can prove a return on investment, case studies of which are posted on Hatch for Good.

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Guest Post: Nonprofits Must Be Able to Adapt

antony bugg-levineNote: As you know, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. I’ll be back later this week, but I have left you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. The last, but certainly not least, is Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony is CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary that works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. Here is his guest post… 

When we asked nonprofit leaders to identify top challenges as part of Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 32% said “achieving long-term sustainability,” by far the most popular response.

What does it take to reach the promised land of sustainability? It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best measures of organizational sustainability is not stability but adaptive capacity, the ability to act as circumstances require and opportunities allow. A truly sustainable enterprise must have the capacity to nimbly respond to external conditions. A strong balance sheet must allow for flexibility.

In the nonprofit sector, where pursuit of a mission is paramount, the ability to thoughtfully tack toward progress as funding conditions and community needs change is a hallmark of a success. That does not change the reality that our sector is notorious for restricted funding and hampered by a lack of available enterprise-level investment capital.

So, how do organizations build adaptive capacity?

Here are a few ways that nonprofits can build their adaptive “muscle” and be better prepared to change as the environment demands and opportunities allow.

Know your costs.
Nonprofits must understand the true costs of providing programs in order to make informed decisions about whether grants or contracts are able to cover those full costs, and how much subsidy might be required from other sources to fill the gap.

Many times, we see nonprofits use a grant amount as a starting point, and try to design a program that fits with the award amount. Heights and Hills, which provides services for older adults in Brooklyn and their families, asked us to help them take a different approach. Using customized tools, leadership now understands not only the current costs of running particular programs, but also how those costs change based on a variety of factors.

Like Heights and Hills, nonprofits need to be able to answer questions such as:

  • “Which programs may be too costly if they are not fully supported by direct revenue?”
  • “How do our costs change if we expand a program and need to hire additional staff?”
  • “What if the amount of grant funding changes?”
  • “Where might collaboration with another organization serve us well?”

Just say “no.”
The social sector attracts passionate activists who have a knack for seeing solutions where others see problems, and who are often driven by a deep inclination to say “yes” to those in need. But in order to build and preserve adaptive capacity and to truly remain mission focus, leaders must protect the nonprofit enterprise and its ability to continue its work. The common practice of accepting pennies on the dollar to deliver programs perpetuates unhealthy funding patterns and expectations. Armed with data about true costs makes it easier to say “no” to opportunities that ultimately detract from an organization’s ability to move the needle on mission.

New York’s Committee for Hispanic Children and Families did just that, and declined to pursue a large government contract because it sapped too many “indirect” resources. While at first glance, it seemed that the small allotment for “overhead” was enough, the amount didn’t nearly cover actual costs associated with the time that executive, finance and administrative staff were spending to keep the program afloat.

Saying “no” to a fiscally unhealthy grant preserves the organization’s ability to serve its clients well into the future. If we want to change embedded, unhealthy funding practices — and perhaps even elements of nonprofit culture that fuel these — we must be more willing to say “no.”

Measure outcomes.
Ultimately, the benefit of adaptive capacity is the freedom to pursue what works. Some programs are more easily measured than others, but nonprofits and our funders need to invest in understanding impact. This is especially critical as we move toward an outcomes-based funding environment.

Scenarios USA, a nonprofit that uses storytelling for youth sex education, found a rare partner in the Ford Foundation when it decided to dramatically change its approach. Scenarios was open to asking, “Are our programs working?” and accepted that its core assumptions were inaccurate. With the Ford Foundation’s support, the organization revamped its program to focus on fostering critical thinking, which has tremendous influence on youth behavior.

Evaluating programs, experimenting with new ways of meeting mission and measuring outcomes over time are necessary to positive social change.

Seek support for major changes.
Money for programs is far more plentiful than money for enterprise-level change. Our survey found that nearly half of nonprofits report that they can have an open dialogue with funders about expanding programs, but just 6% feel comfortable conversing with funders about flexible capital for organizational growth or change.

There are exceptions. The California Community Foundation has partnered with Nonprofit Finance Fund and several others to offer strategy, management, and financial services aimed at strengthening the region’s nonprofits and building the durability of the sector. New York Community Trust has launched an initiative to help small arts organizations navigate various transformations and milestones such as leadership succession, business model changes, and facility renovations or moves. And New York’s Change Capital Fund is a collaboration of 17 foundations and financial institutions that is funding five New York community development organizations to help them refocus their strategies and develop new business models to address persistent poverty more effectively.

It is time to challenge the notion that funders aren’t willing to talk about money for adaptation and adaptive capacity, and to make the case for the right kinds of support.

It is hard to know what will be required of our sector in the years to come, but a steady trend of increased demand seems to indicate that the answer will be, “more.” Limited resources make doing more of the same nearly impossible. We must change the way we approach the challenges of our day, and organizations with adaptive capacity will lead the way.

 

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2015

social change readingMay was another busy month in the world of social change. For a start there was: a behavioral economics approach to social change, continued focus on civic tech, a tool for calculating a nonprofit’s true costs, new definitions of membership in the digital age, the evolving public library, digital sabbaticals, and much more.

Below are my 10 favorite reads in the world of social change in May, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or Facebook.

You can also read 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. Perhaps some solutions to social problems lie in behavioral economics. Writing in The New York Times, economists Erez Yoeli and Syon Bhanot and psychologists Gordon Kraft-Todd and David Rand argue that the opinion of others, in this case regarding the preservation of natural resources, is a strong social change motivator.

  2. Civic tech, (the use of new technology to better engage citizens in democracy) has become quite the buzzword lately. But how do we know which civic tech solutions are actually creating change? Anne Whatley from Network Impact offers some tools for assessment in that arena.

  3. And another nonprofit tool comes from Kate Barr of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund. She provides a great tool to help nonprofits calculate and then articulate to funders the full costs of their work.

  4. Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation writes a thoughtful piece on what separates good strategic planning from bad, because as he puts it “The real benefit of planning is not the final document but rather the discipline the process imposes, the new information it generates, the working relationships it fosters, and the conversations, insights, and commitments it sparks.” Amen to that!

  5. In this age of social media and technological connectedness, how do we create more formal structures for belonging to institutions? Melody Kramer, formerly of National Public Radio, is a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow working on that very question, and she offers some beginning thoughts on the project, including, “Imagine if public radio stations functioned as Main Streets…or in the same way that local public libraries do? It would transform the way people could interact — and participate — in the local news process, and would enhance the stories stations put out on air.” Fascinating.

  6. Speaking of libraries, NPR writer Linton Weeks provides a history of the public library and how it continues to (and must) evolve in the digital age.

  7. Great philanthropic futurist Lucy Bernholz has been offline for a bit, and it turns out she took a digital sabbatical. She reports that “without the addictive stimulation and distractions of digital life it feels like my brain grew three sizes.” What a great (and necessary) idea!

  8. Writing on the UnSectored blog, Marie Mainil describes the importance of building and supporting social movements to create global social change. As she puts it “Collecting data on the dynamics of local, regional, national, and international social change campaigns is the next frontier of organizing for social change. With a visual multi-level collection of ladders of engagement from across the world, social change actors would be able to better plan and coordinate tactics and actions at scale, thereby increasing their chances of success.”

  9. In May the Center for Effective Philanthropy held their biennial conference. Ethan McCoy provides great roundups of day one and day two. I almost feel like I was there!

  10. Never one to put things lightly, William Schambra cautions against what he sees as the hubris of tech philanthropists and his fear that they desire to “fundamentally…reshape the social sector in their own image, based on their supreme faith in advanced technology.”

Photo Credit: Erin Kelly

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The Changing Nonprofit Landscape [Podcast]

nonprofit podcastEarlier this month I participated in a podcast conversation with Joed Lopez of Panvisio as part of their on-going Q2 Podcast series with social sector leaders.

We talked about:

  • How broken fundraising is
  • A more effective financing approach
  • Nonprofit fear of money
  • The passion of nonprofit leaders
  • The need to articulate a nonprofit’s message
  • Capacity capital
  • Social entrepreneurship
  • Nonprofit boards
  • And much, much more…

I really enjoyed the conversation and hope you will too.

You can listen to the podcast below, or click here to listen to it on the Panvisio site.

 

Photo Credit: Makingster

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Finding Shelter From Information Overload

Information We live in an age of an (often sickening) glut of information. Sometimes just thinking about Twitter, Facebook, Google, or BuzzFeed makes me really tired. And I love technology and media. But they can be absolutely overwhelming.

I recently finished Nate Silver’s phenomenal book, The Signal and the Noise, in which he offers a new way to approach our age of information overload. Silver’s book is about how we can better predict things like weather, economic fluctuations, and climate change by finding the right “signal” amidst the exponentially expanding body of data, or “noise.”

Silver describes how our current Internet age is very similar to life after the invention of the printing press, when books were suddenly cheap and everywhere. The result of this sudden enormous increase in the availability of information was, unfortunately, 200 years of holy war. Although Silver doesn’t believe we’re headed for another 200 year war, he argues that we must understand the parallels and the dangers of too much information. As Silver puts it:

We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.

In other words, we need to figure out how to organize the firehose of information that faces us everyday. I don’t know exactly how to go about that, but for my own sanity I have developed a few strategies.

First is taking regular time away from all of the information just to process and think alone, without screens, books, or chatter. We all must claim our very real need to turn off the noise and look inside for the meaning, the right approach, the way forward.

Second is seeking out the past. I was a history major in college and still love the subject, so my predisposition when I am overwhelmed is to look at how we approached things in the past. There is great peace there. In particular, I love the weekly email from Brain Pickings where writer Maria Popova delves into the works of past writers to help understand our world today. Aside from finding new things to read, it is incredibly comforting to realize the struggles we face today are really not all that new.

And finally, I believe that dissent holds promise for finding shelter from the information glut. One of the things Silver warns against (and we see this everyday) is that in an age of information overload, people tend to shut out things that are at odds with their opinions or experience. Our country’s current deep political divide is an example of this. So we need to break down those walls and surround ourselves with people who make us pause and who make us think. We need to seek out people who share our values, but not necessarily our life experience, education, politics, income level, or opinion on how the world should work.

We don’t have to succumb to the exhausting deluge of information. As Callie Oettinger put it, “The Internet is ours to shape. We can’t let the howling spread.”

Photo Credit: Roy Miller

 

 

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Is The Nonprofit Sector Really Broken?

There was a bit of a dust up in the (social change) Twitterverse yesterday. Ryan Seashore from CodeNow wrote a post on TechCrunch arguing that the majority of nonprofits are “broken,” and should act more like for-profit startups in order to create impact. The post follows a similar line of other arguments over the years (most recently Carrie Rich’s argument that nonprofits should all become social enterprises) that the nonprofit form is so dysfunctional that it should be tossed out. But there is a real danger to this idea of abandoning the nonprofit sector.

As he often does so well, Phil Buchanan, from the Center for Effective Philanthropy, shot back against Ryan’s post, Tweeting (among other things):

Twitter

Debates like these are crucial not because of the entertainment value (although I do love good drama), but because they force us to uncover and analyze our underlying assumptions. Yesterday’s debate, and others like it, which take the nonprofit sector to task for being inefficient, broken, unbusinesslike, lay bare some false and destructive assumptions about nonprofits and about social change in general.

Ryan sees nonprofits as aging dinosaurs with “too much overhead, too much bureaucracy, and a lack of focus on impact. Everything feels slow.” But for real change to happen you have to integrate the institutions that already exist with the networks, or “startups,” that want change, as I discussed in an earlier post. The two (institutions and networks) must work together. Ryan’s argument that nonprofits need to be more like startups is fundamentally flawed because if everything were a startup, change wouldn’t happen.

To quote David Brooks from a recent The New York Times piece, “Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked…social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs…[but] this is misguided…Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as ‘overhead,’ really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.”

To be sure, in his blog post Ryan outlines some areas where many nonprofits could improve (becoming more focused, continually innovating, diversifying revenue sources, thinking big), but these are best practices that any organization (startup or established institution, for-profit or nonprofit) should embrace. It is simplistic and misguided to think, as Ryan writes, that “the nonprofit world must embrace the nimble ways of successful startups to become more effective, and do better.” I know its not sexy, but real social change is much more complex than startup versus institution.

So let’s move on from this either/or mentality. Effective social change requires institutions AND networks, it requires Millennials AND Boomers, it requires startups AND established organizations, it requires public AND private money (and lots of it), and it requires for-profit and nonprofit solutions. We are wasting our time (and our keystrokes) by creating false dichotomies. Let’s work together toward strategic, sustainable social change.

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Social Enterprise is Not the Answer to Fundraising Woes

square pegThere is an article in Forbes this month that bothered me. Carrie Rich, co-founder and CEO of The Global Good Fund, argues that more nonprofits should move from a “donor-driven organization” to a “revenue-producing social enterprise.” Instead of “relying on donor funding” more organizations should “create revenue-producing services.” In essence she is encouraging more nonprofits to figure out how to sell their services.

The problem with her argument, though, is that it encourages nonprofits to think one-dimensionally about funding sources instead of developing an overall financial strategy that may or may not include earned income.

Rich’s argument is that earned income, or what she calls “revenue-producing social enterprise” is a more sustainable and impactful way to create social change. She goes on to list all sorts of reasons (10 actually) that revenue generation (or earned income) is better than contributed income. These reasons include that revenue generation allows nonprofits to be “more responsive to change,” “attract employees who seek growth,” “accelerate growth and impact,” “become more financially sustainable and mature,” and the list goes on.

Rich is echoing a repeated dichotomy in the social change space between traditional, broken nonprofit approaches, and new, more sustainable and impactful social entrepreneurship approaches. Her line of argument stems from a distaste for fundraising done badly.

Believe me, I get it. Fundraising is broken. But just because traditional fundraising is flawed doesn’t mean we should eschew all contributed income.Yes there is deep dysfunction within the nonprofit sector – I talk about it all the time. But the answer is not to simply dismiss the sector and all of its trappings (and revenue sources).

Let’s remember that a nonprofit organization is often created to provide a public good that is not offered by the market. In other words, nonprofits are selling what someone is unable to purchase.

Thus, nonprofits typically have two customers:

  1. Those who benefit from the services (“Clients”), and
  2. Those who buy the services (“Donors”)

When social change organizations are able to conflate the two – when the client becomes the buyer – a social enterprise is born. And while that is great, it is rarely the case. Therefore, market-based solutions will never provide all the social change we need.

Every social change organization must analyze their overall strategy and develop a financial model that best delivers on that strategy. That financial model may have earned income elements, contributed income (individual, corporate and foundation grants) elements, government funding or, most likely, some combination of all of these. And every nonprofit should at least analyze whether earned income is right for their financial model. But social enterprise will never be right for all nonprofits, or even a majority of them.

Instead of completely throwing out “traditional charity models,” let’s make them better. Rich argues that one of the many reasons earned income is better is that it allows organizations to “afford the best technologies to help them succeed.” If social change organizations need more capital investments for technology (which they definitely do) then let’s make capacity capital ubiquitous in the sector. But let’s not erroneously assume that more earned income equates to more capital investment.

Let’s move past these social enterprise vs. charity debates and instead focus on helping social change organizations develop smart, sustainable financial engines that include the right revenue (and capital) mix.

Photo Credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham

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What Social Change Requires

ConstitutionIt is obvious to most in this country that our political system is quite broken. A gridlocked Congress, a shilling mainstream media, a checked-out electorate, and the list goes on. But last week I saw some hope.

I participated in a really interesting gathering in Baltimore hosted by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. As part of their Madison Initiative (a $50 million project to “support and improve the health of representative democracy in the United States”) Hewlett brought together 90 nonprofit and government leaders, consultants, journalists, heads of think tanks, and other foundation leaders to connect and analyze.

It was a fascinating few days. Through conversations and design-thinking sessions we were encouraged to stretch our thinking about solutions to the often depressing state of American government. I met some inspiring people who are creating solutions to our broken political system. (A few have agreed to be interviewed on the blog, so stay tuned.)

I am only tangential to this world of political reform, so for me it was interesting to see how conversations happening here can inform social change more broadly.

A few things occurred to me over the course of the three days about what effective social change requires:

Networks AND Institutions
Networks, loose connections of people and groups, exist outside of our 200+ year-old political institutions, but social change happens when networks organize themselves enough to pressure outdated institutions to adapt. This happened in the civil rights movement, recent global democracy movements, and the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage. But when networks and institutions don’t connect, social change doesn’t happen (like in the Occupy movement). So networks must organize enough to influence institutions, and institutions must open themselves enough to let networks in. Social change requires that the two work in tandem.

Millennials AND Boomers 
Echoing Robert Egger’s guest post this past summer on this blog, both Millennial and Boomer generations have a deep commitment to social change and the critical mass necessary to make it happen. But they would be even more effective at creating social change if they worked together, instead of against each other. Millennials need to recognize that Boomers fought for system change in their day (civil rights, women’s rights) and Boomers need to recognize that Millennials are creating similar kinds of system change, just with new tools and technologies. The two must find connections and collaborate more often. And I think Gen Xers (of which I am one) can play a critical role in translating between the two generations.

East/West/Rural/Urban Geographies
This is a huge country and sometimes that reality gets in the way of change. Red vs. blue, rural vs. urban, Eastern time zone vs. Western time zone, coastal vs. flyover states, there are many ways to slice our country. It amazes me how often people focus on geographic differences instead of common values and goals. But true change comes when we break down those walls and have a conversation based on shared values rather than opposing frames of reference. The only way we move beyond impasse is for each side to listen with a completely open mind (free of assumptions and stereotypes) to the other side. And occasionally leave our comfort zone and meet others where they are.

At the end of the day, political reform is no different than any other social change we seek. To create positive change we must move beyond the dichotomies. We have to think much bigger. Perhaps the answer to our political woes is the same as the answer to our other social challenges, as E.M. Forster put it, “Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer.”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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