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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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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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How to Create a Compelling Fundraising Ask [Slideshare]

There are many misconceptions about fundraising. One of which is that there is a magic bullet out there (the perfect event, a connection to a celebrity) that will create a financial windfall. Often in the nonprofit world board and staff members so despise fundraising that they desperately search for a shiny object to make it all go away.

But the reality is that fundraising is an ongoing affair. Financial sustainability comes from a strategic financial model, a piece of which often includes loyal, committed donors who passionately believe in your work. And you create that by finding donors who share your view of a social problem and then creating a compelling fundraising ask to convince them to invest.

A Message of Impact does this by describing how your nonprofit creates social value and why a donor should partner with you in creating that value.

Adding to the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations, below is the How to Create a Compelling Fundraising Ask slideshare, which describes the process for developing your nonprofit’s Message of Impact.

Instead of spending board and staff time trying to dream up the next ice bucket challenge, find a connection to the biggest celebrity, or invent the next must-attend gala, use that effort to create a Message of Impact that will create a cadre of donors who will support you over the long haul.

Take a look.

And if you’d like to learn more about creating your nonprofit’s message of impact, download the Design a Theory of Change Guide or the Craft a Case for Investment Guide.

 

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Fundamentally Changing American Politics: An Interview with Josh Silver

joshIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Josh Silver, Director of Represent.US, an organization building a movement to pass tough anti-corruption laws in cities and states across America.  His local approach to political and social change is a fascinating model. Josh is a veteran election and media reform executive and served as the campaign manager for the successful 1998 Arizona Clean Elections ballot initiative campaign. He is also the co-founder and former CEO of Free Press, a leading media and technology reform advocacy organization. He also served as the Director of Development for the cultural arm of the Smithsonian Institution.

If you want to read past interviews in the Social Velocity interview series go here.

Nell: With Represent.Us you take a city­-by­-city or state­-by­-state approach to political reform, instead of a nationwide approach. Why do you think a local approach holds more promise?

Josh: It’s all about momentum. Every poll available has shown that Americans of all political affiliations — conservatives, progressives, and independents alike — support tough, new anti-corruption laws. But, as with so many other issues, these wildly popular reforms are going nowhere fast in today’s Washington.

If we want to break the gridlock at the national level, we need to be pragmatic about where we focus our efforts. Rather than throw ourselves at a brick wall in Congress, we’re taking this fight to the thousands of cities and 27 states where we can use the ballot initiative process to bypass compromised local legislatures and put tough, new anti­-corruption laws directly to a public vote.

Focusing on city and state initiatives is both good policy and good politics. In policy terms, many state and local anti­-corruption laws are even more out of date than federal law and in significant need of reform. We can and should do everything in our power to make the exchange of money and favors for political influence illegal at every level of government.

In political terms, using a local ballot initiative strategy will allow us to start racking up wins immediately, showing an understandably cynical public that change is possible and building momentum for national reform. While self­-interested politicians might be reluctant to change the system that got them elected, the public will overwhelmingly vote for a local Anti­-Corruption Act if given the opportunity.

Advocates of marriage equality and marijuana legalization have seen huge success with the same strategy. 20 years ago, both issues faced seemingly insurmountable odds in Washington. By picking smart targets at the state and local level, they’ve managed to redraw the political map and set their campaigns on the path to national victory.

We’re running the same playbook, and it’s already working. On November 4, 2014, Tallahassee, Florida passed the first municipal Anti­-Corruption Act in the United States by a two to one margin. Now, campaigns for new Anti­-Corruption Acts are already in the works for twelve cities and two states in 2015 and 2016.

Nell: As you mentioned, your approach is part of a larger state­-by­-state reform trend, with movements like the state­-by-state legalization of gay marriage and of marijuana. Why does the state­-by-state approach work now and will we ever go back to federal­ level reform?

Josh: The state­-by­-state approach works because it allows Americans to take matters into their own hands when politicians refuse to act. Instead of worrying about local politicians carving out loopholes for themselves and their parties, the People can craft their own comprehensive reform plan, gather the signatures necessary to place it on the ballot, and put their local Anti­-Corruption Act directly to a public vote. Given the popularity of the reforms we’re talking about, these local Acts are very likely to pass, building the movement from the ground up and creating a domino effect which will spread from state to state and eventually Washington, DC.

Passing a statewide ballot initiative can fundamentally change a state’s political culture. It sends a clear message to every elected official in the state, including that state’s federal delegation. Every time we pass a statewide anti­-corruption act, it makes it possible for federal candidates in that state to run for Congress and win without the backing of big money special interests. So, every state we win means more members of Congress who support comprehensive nationwide reform. Once we’ve attained a critical mass of support in the states, federal level reform is inevitable.

Nell: A big part of what you do involves creating coalitions of strange bedfellows, for example Tea Party loyalists and progressives. How do you circumvent our current environment of the dismissive or openly hostile discourse between opposing viewpoints and get people to find some common ground and work together?

Josh: Americans self-­identify as roughly one-third Conservative, one-third Progressive and one-third Independent. Maintaining a fiercely cross­-partisan campaign is critical to our long-term success — winning national reform is impossible with only one-third of the country behind you.

We’ve found that the people fighting at the grassroots are sick of the gridlock in Washington, and much more willing to work across partisan lines than their members of Congress. While our supporters might not agree on everything, they’re united behind the fundamental belief that government — no matter how large or how small — must put the needs of the People first. Public policy decisions should be made based on merit, not lobbyists and campaign contributions. Our supporters are willing to put their partisan differences aside and work together to make that happen.

The effort behind the Tallahassee Anti­-Corruption Act is a perfect example of this principle in action. It was spearheaded by the chair of the Florida Tea Party Network, the former president of the Florida League of Women Voters, the chairman of Florida Common Cause, and a leader of Integrity Florida, an independent state ethics watchdog. This politically diverse coalition played an enormous role in the Tallahassee victory. As the editorial board of  the Tallahassee Democrat, the local paper of record, put it: “When you have representatives of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Integrity Florida and the state Tea Party Network all aligned against you, it might be time to reassess your position.”

Nell: You just won your first victory by passing an anti­-corruption code in the city of Tallahassee, FL. Let’s be idealistic for a second. What if you are able to log victories like Tallahassee’s in cities and states across the country. Is there a critical number of places before the movement becomes truly national? And then do you look at federal reforms? Or is the end goal every city and every state?

Josh: There is no “magic number” — Each state­-level win makes national reform more likely. Every statewide victory means more Congressional delegations from states with an Anti­-Corruption Act, and more public pressure on politicians to get on the right side of this issue or risk losing their seats.

While winning a federal Anti-­Corruption Act is a major goal, bringing reform to every city and state is just as important. This movement is bigger than any one law — it’s about fundamentally changing the political culture of the United States. It’s about demonstrating that Americans will not tolerate laws putting self-interest before the public good, and ensuring a government committed to serving the People at every level.

It’s not a question of idealism. This movement is real, and has no plans of slowing down. We’re planning to bring local Anti­-Corruption acts to 12 cities and 2 states in 2015 and 2016. We are already working with local law firms, political strategists and grassroots activists to make it happen.

If you’d like to be part of it, visit represent.us to learn more and join the campaign.

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What Can The iPhone Reveal About Philanthropy?

Recent studies of nonprofit donoSteve Jobsrs have found that the majority aren’t interested in impact. But what if that current reality isn’t also future reality but rather an opportunity? What if just as Apple created a market for smartphones where one didn’t exist, we could create a market for social change funding where one currently doesn’t exist?

As I mentioned in my 10 Great Reads list for January, data wonk Caroline Fiennes reviewed recent studies on donor behavior and found that donors don’t increase their donations when shown nonprofit performance data. And Caroline is not alone, others have also argued that donors just don’t care about performance.

This could be depressing because if donors aren’t interested in the effectiveness of a nonprofit they won’t shift their money to the nonprofits more effective at creating social change. In other words, we have no hope of solving social problems if we can’t channel money to those entities that are actually solving those problems.

Apple is probably the most obvious example of a market maker, creating consumer demand where there was none. They have continually created innovative products for swooning consumers who previously had no idea they needed those products. Before creating the first iPhone prototype in 2006 Steve Jobs didn’t survey consumers to ask if they wanted their phone to surf the web, send emails, and take pictures. A majority of consumers would probably have said no. Rather, Apple saw a need that consumers didn’t yet know they had (what marketers call a “latent need”) and built a huge consumer base from scratch.

They were market makers, as Fred Vogelstein described in the New York Times Magazine:

Apple’s innovations have set off an entire rethinking of how humans interact with machines. It’s not simply that we use our fingers now instead of a mouse. Smartphones, in particular, have become extensions of our brains…Its technology is changing the way we learn in school, the way doctors treat patients, the way we travel and explore. Entertainment and media are accessed and experienced in entirely new ways.

Jobs and his team created a completely different marketplace, set of cultural norms, and way of interacting with the world around us.

In the world of social change we need a completely different marketplace, set of cultural norms, and way of channeling money. So we need to create the market.

We need to show funders that the current flow of money to social change efforts is not sufficient or efficient. If we truly want solutions to our social challenges, we must create an effective financial market for those solutions.

I believe that funders can be inspired to change their behavior. They have a latent desire to see their dollars actually achieve something. They have been so used to the lowest common denominator of giving based solely on reciprocity or emotion, but that can change.

As Harvard Business Review blogger Umair Haque explains, Apple’s success comes from their ability to rise above the common denominator and create something people love and truly (though they may not yet know it) want:

Most companies…don’t care about what they make. They merely care about what they sell. And so they…offer the people they call consumers the lowest common denominator designed by focus-group led committees at the everyday low price in malls full of stores full of shelves full of…other lowest common denominators designed by committee at the everyday low price. Nobody ever loved anybody who was merely trying to sell them something. Especially not the lowest common denominator. People love people—and organizations—that make their lives better. Even when those things are as simple as phones.

The data and the focus groups may say that donors don’t want impact. Yet. So its up to us to create the market. It is up to us to get donors to love the impact that makes clients’ lives, donors’ lives, and ultimately our communities better. It’s up to us to create demand for funding real social change.

Photo Credit: Matthew Yohe

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November 2014

social changeWow, November was a great month for writing about social change. I had a harder than normal time narrowing my list down to 10. From the election, to philanthropy’s role in Ferguson, to saving Detroit, to giving to the fight against Ebola, to speculation about Giving Tuesday (which is today, by the way), it was a busy month.

Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in social innovation in November. As always, add what I missed to the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.

You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.

  1. November saw elections across the country, and social media perhaps helped to get out the vote. But a chilling Princeton study found that America is no longer an actual democracy, we have become an oligarchy ruled by wealthy elites.

  2. But there is hope, some political reform is happening at the state level, like the amazing success of state-by-state legalization of gay marriage. I think we will be analyzing this movement as a social change case study for years to come. In fact they have been so successful that marriage equality nonprofits and donors must now figure out what’s next.

  3. Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof offers a thought-provoking 5-part series about racism in America, touched off by the situation in Ferguson. He argues for a national conversation akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to “examine race in America.”

  4. Detroit has finally exited bankruptcy, but Rick Cohen sees many hurdles still facing the city. And Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill worries that the philanthropists who helped get Detroit out of bankruptcy don’t really have a vision for a revitalized city.

  5. The philanthropic response to the Ebola crisis has been much slower than is usual for disaster response philanthropy. Vicky Hausman and Sylvia Warren suggest some reasons for this. And Google works to remedy the situation with their first foray into converting visitors into philanthropists. It will be fascinating to watch what else Google does in this philanthropy realm.

  6. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms take a fascinating look at what they see as a fundamental shift in power. “Old Power” is “closed, inaccessible and leader-driven,” but “New Power” is “open, participatory, and peer-driven.” As they see it, New Power is fundamentally changing how people and institutions interact, but it isn’t necessarily all positive: “New power offers real opportunities to enfranchise and empower, but there’s a fine line between democratizing participation and a mob mentality. This is especially the case for self-organized networks that lack formal protections.”

  7. Today is Giving Tuesday, the annual day of philanthropy launched in 2012. Many have questioned the efficacy of the movement to get more Americans giving, including Tom Watson, who now sees some promise.

  8. The Pew Research Center’s Social Networking Fact Sheet offers a great glimpse into how social media use is evolving.

  9. October saw a stinging two-part ProPublica/NPR series about the American Red Cross’ handing of Hurricane Sandy disaster relief. It turns out that the story was helped by crowdsourced information. And David Henderson, Full Contact Philanthropy blogger, sees the tension in the Red Cross story that every nonprofit faces between running programs and fundraising for them: “The market realities of running a nonprofit create adverse incentives, driving organizations to raise funds at the expense of what their stated core missions are.”

  10. Always there to inspire creative entrepreneurs, Steven Pressfield writes about the importance of aspiration, “As artists and entrepreneurs…the content of our personal culture starts with us. We set the level of aspiration. The crew—meaning ourselves—follows us.” Amen!

Photo Credit: Karoly Czifra

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A Monster List of Social Change Books

Monster ListIt’s Halloween again and that means it’s time for my annual Monster List of Resources (you can see past lists here, here, and here).

Today I’m focusing on social change books. I know, books are so over. We have become a society that is about fewer and fewer words, or really, fewer and fewer characters. But there is something to be said for spending 200+ pages really diving into a topic, exploring it and letting it change your point of view. Below are my favorite books in the social change realm.

I have reviewed some of these books on the blog, some I have not. Some are really old, others are brand new. And some are not about social change at all, yet I included them because I think they hold value for social changemakers.

Each of these books has helped me see my work and the work of social change in new ways, even if that was far from what the author intended. Perhaps you will think so too.

Here are my favorite social change books:

What are your favorite social change books? Please add to the list in the comments below.

Photo Credit: CBS Television

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Social Technology for Social Change: An Interview with Amy Sample Ward

In today’s Soamysampleward-headshotcial Velocity interview, I’m talking with Amy Sample Ward, CEO of Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), the membership organization of nonprofit professionals who put technology to use for their causes. Amy leads a team dedicated to connecting individuals, organizations and campaigns in order to transition the nonprofit technology sector into a movement-based force for positive change.

Previously serving as the Membership Director at NTEN, Amy is also a blogger, facilitator and trainer having worked with groups and spoken at events in the US, UK and around the world. In 2013, she co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Allyson Kapin.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.

Nell: For many nonprofit leaders, social media is still viewed as a sideline, rather than an integral, aspect of the work. How do you convince nonprofit leaders that social media can actually be a means of furthering their social change missions?

Amy: Social media really encompasses so many different tools and platforms. The probability that your community isn’t using ANY kind of social technology is pretty low. Every organization doesn’t have to use every tool out there. Quite the opposite! I encourage every nonprofit not to think of social media as time suck and “one more thing to add to the list”, but, instead, as a way to connect directly with community members on a much more regular basis than your other outreach in email or events. Select which platform or platforms you use by asking your community and listening first – this helps ensure that any time you do invest in social media is spent in the platforms where your community is active and you have the highest chance of success.

Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource constrained, nonprofits have traditionally been somewhat insular and risk averse. How do nonprofits reconcile that approach to a growing need to be more open, collaborative, transparent and risk embracing?

Amy: If there’s fear about change, taking risks, or transparency, my suggestion is to take inspiration from and share responsibility with your community. As a nonprofit organization, you cannot fully achieve your mission on your own – you need your community to help you create lasting change in the world, so why not invite the community to help you create change in your work!

When you invite your community in, you start to embrace transparency. You also lessen the stigma of risks because you now have community members championing new ideas and helping you test and iterate to find the best approaches. You don’t have to fear changing when you are working closely with your community because doing so means working with people, and we all change every day.

Nell: On the flip side of that, is there a risk of becoming too consumed by social media and new technologies? Can nonprofits – and all of us really – become too enamored of every new shiny object at the expense of actually creating social change?

Amy: At the end of the day, we all have lots of work to do and don’t want to get distracted or bogged down by any one thing, whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, email, or meetings! I think the real risk is in letting your tools guide your strategic decisions. Social media tools are launching every day, sometimes with a lot of press coverage. It’s understandable that you could read a post or see another organization trying a new platform and think you should do it, too. Or, to let the functionality of a certain platform dictate how you decide to create and run a campaign. It’s critical that all staff have the resources and training to think and plan strategically about their work, identifying the tools last that align with their goals, community and audience, and your mission.

Nell: Technology is often considered “overhead” in the nonprofit world. How can nonprofit leaders convince funders and board members that investing in technology can have a significant return on investment?

Amy: The best thing organizations can do to prove this is by actually proving it: track and evaluate your own return on investment, share information about your budgeting and planning, and include clear information and analysis of the necessary technologies to do your work in every grant proposal and report. You can’t expect funders to invest in something if you aren’t able to convince them from the beginning.

Photo Credit: nten.org

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