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Echoing Green

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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Empowering Students to Succeed: An Interview with Mark Hecker

mark-heckerIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Mark Hecker, Executive Director of Reach Incorporated. Reach develops confident readers and capable leaders by training teens to teach elementary school students, creating academic benefit for both. Mark’s passion for those being failed by today’s educational structures led him to create Reach in 2009. By trusting learners with real responsibility for real outcomes, Mark believes that our young people can drive the change needed in today’s schools. He is the 2006 Washington, D.C. Social Worker of the Year and a 2011 Echoing Green Fellow and writes for the UnSectored blog.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: Reach Incorporated has a really innovative approach to literacy tutoring in that you use struggling adolescent readers to teach younger children how to read. Given the countless approaches to teaching literacy that have been around for decades why do you think that yours is the right approach and what results are you seeing so far?

Mark: Throughout time young people have been most successful in schools that connect student learning to the students’ experience of the world. As the contemporary education reform movement has created a growing disconnect between the learners and their lives, Reach represents a return to the most effective ingredients of successful education across the years: individualization, relevance, inspiration, and trust.

We know two things about reading. First, students only see improvement when they practice at, or just above, their current reading level. Second, as students age, motivation overtakes obedience as the driver of student engagement. In DC, 85% of public school students get to high school reading below grade level. In a world of specific standards and rigid learning objectives, there is simply no place in the high school curriculum for students to get the targeted literacy instruction they need to experience improvement. Today’s teens – because we have failed them – require the opportunity to experience dramatic academic improvement in an environment that is both empowering and engaging.

Beyond the mechanics of our model, a familiar adage from Ben Franklin captures it well: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” We trust students to be significant participants in their own education. It’s the only way that real learning occurs.

Though still young, we have seen some promising early results. Our program is after-school, but our tutors have seen GPA improvement of up to 125%. Additionally, participating elementary school students have seen reading growth above that of non-participating peers. Finally, our tutors see significant reading growth, improved school engagement, increased rates of promotion, and exceptional school retention rates.

Nell: How have you gone about finding funders willing to invest in an innovative model like Reach? What is your approach to financing your organization?

Mark: When asked this question, I generally reply by smiling and saying, “I’m really charming.” That’s obviously not the truth.

I have an incredible passion for this work, and I get to share the stories of the amazing tutors and students impacted by the work we help them do. By telling the stories of our participants, we are able to inspire others to invest in the possibility that our participants present. Currently, approximately 50% of our funding comes from foundations. We also have an incredible army of 300-400 individual supporters that are committed to our young people; they provide about 35% of the organization’s funding. The remaining financial support comes from corporations and special events.

While the world of social innovation talks often of efficiency, outcomes, and scale, I’ve found that many are drawn to our work because of their strong belief in justice. DC students are not getting the education they deserve. Reach, with the help of our tutors, offers a multi-directional intervention that improves outcomes for all participants. Our supporters believe in possibility, and they are excited by the potential of our model.

As Reach’s Board of Directors and I look to the future, we know that financial sustainability must be a constant consideration. To build the foundation to support our eventual growth, our focus now is entirely on program quality. We understand that, for the immediate future, we will be entirely donor dependent. Proof of concept takes time.

By pursuing greatness, we believe that we will eventually have opportunities to create revenue through training, curriculum development, and maybe even children’s book sales. For now, we will build the program our kids deserve by finding supporters that believe in our path.

Nell: As a small nonprofit how do you manage increasing pressure to measure outcomes with a lack of available evaluation funding?

Mark: We’ve simply made an organizational commitment to evaluating our work. We do this knowing that our financial investment will not yield immediate returns as it takes time to develop organizationally appropriate metrics. So, to be brief, we simply look at evaluation as part of the cost of business. It’s overhead. It’s necessary.

That being said, it’s exceedingly frustrating that we have never once received funding to be used specifically for the purpose of evaluation.

For now, we respond to this tension by narrowing our focus on five specific metrics: progress toward grade-level reading, GPA growth, efficacy beliefs, promotion to the next grade, and school retention. While we don’t have the capacity to measure everything, we can measure these five indicators – and each has a strong correlation to our long-term goals: high school completion, college success, and stable employment.

To be frank, the recent focus on outcomes measurement leads many organizations to simply lie about what they know about their work. True evaluation takes time and money. To balance this tension, we narrow our focus and work within our means.

Nell: You were named an Echoing Green fellow in 2011. How has that experience been? What have you learned and how has it helped Reach so far?

Mark: Being part of the Echoing Green family has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. While I could speak about it indefinitely, I’ll limit myself to highlighting three ways that the fellowship has supported my leadership and Reach’s work.

  • When I speak to educators about my work, they generally start asking technical questions about curriculum and content. When speaking to other Echoing Green fellows, conversations happen outside this specific content. They know they’re not experts in literacy just like I know I’m no expert in Kenya’s sanitation infrastructure or Liberia’s health system. By skipping the surface level content, the conversations quickly go to a place of values, leadership, and strategy.
  • Though this hasn’t always been the case, Echoing Green has recently made an effort to build up the strength of the alumni network. It has been particularly exciting to see how responsive Echoing Green alums have been. When I’ve reached out to leaders at some established and exceptional organizations, I’ve been shocked by the alacrity with which they respond. The level of support has been amazing and humbling.
  • Lastly, the community is valuable simply in that it provides knowledge that we’re not alone in this work. Starting an organization has been the loneliest and most difficult experience of my life. Through Echoing Green’s network, I can now reach out to others experiencing similar challenges and know that they have an understanding of the difficulties I face on a regular basis. Because of Echoing Green, I no longer feel alone.

Nell: In a recent blog post on UnSectored you talked about the nonprofit trade-off between effectiveness and faster growth. What are your plans for Reach’s growth and how will you accomplish it?

Mark: Reach’s work is subtly revolutionary. When we say we believe all students have the ability to contribute to the learning of others, everyone agrees. When we ask that those students (our tutors) be trusted with real responsibility, adults get scared. To be sure, the most important thing we must do is to demonstrate that this work can be done. For that reason, we’re currently much more interested in being great than being big. That may mean staying small for a while; we’re okay with that.

To understand what growth can look like, one has to understand the context in DC. Approximately 4,000 students entered high school in DC this fall. Recent statistics would indicate that 3,400 of these students are reading below grade level and approximately 2,300 of them are more than two grades below level. Currently, we serve approximately 50 of these students (and they serve 50 elementary school students). We aim to make DC a better place; that significantly influences the way we think about growth. We have to think about the level of saturation needed to impact a city’s population.

We plan to grow 200-300% in the next three years. This goal, adopted during a recent strategic planning process, will drive our first stage of growth. Over the next three years, we’ll measure the efficacy of our intervention. This programmatic success will drive our future rate of expansion, with a specific focus on those schools with the largest populations of struggling readers. It’s at this second stage of growth, in years 4-10, that we would expect to explore partnerships with DC Public Schools, develop additional programs, and consider expansion beyond DC’s borders.

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Echoing Green Fellowship Application Goes Live Soon

It’s that time of year again. The Echoing Green application is about to go live. In their annual competition, Echoing Green looks for promising entrepreneurs starting up new organizations aiming to create large-scale social impact. The Echoing Green Fellowship awards up to $90,000 of start-up capital and two years of technical assistance to help get your organization off the ground. They fund nonprofit and for-profit startups.

The application will be open online from December 4th to January 7th, but you can get a head start by:

  • Reviewing the application questions
  • Reading the guide about how to answer the questions
  • Watching a few short videos on the application process
  • Signing up for informational webinars targeting underrepresented applicants (including African Americans, US Latinos, and women)

And while you are waiting for the application to go live you can also read my past interview with Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green and my review of her book, Work on Purpose.

To learn more about the Echoing Green fellowship or to access the application when it goes live, go here.

Good luck!

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: September 2012

September was an amazing month in the world of social innovation. There were so many great articles and conversations that I really had a hard time narrowing down to 10 great reads. My original list was 50+.

I know we are all busy and keeping up with the chatter grows increasingly difficult, but this month provided some really thoughtful, long-form pieces that are well worth the read. I think change happens in fits and starts and this month was perhaps about taking a step back and contemplating where we’ve been and where we’re going. And I love it when writers force that kind of reflection.

Below are my top 10 picks for what was worth reading in September in the world of social innovation. But please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest.

You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

Here is my pick of September’s 10 Great Reads in Social Innovation:

  1. In a beautiful New York Times op-ed titled When Capitalists Cared, Hedrick Smith describes a time in the first half of the last century when the American economy was a “virtuous circle of growth, [where] well-paid workers generated consumer demand that in turn promoted business expansion and hiring.” How did we move away from that?

  2. The Echoing Green blog showcases the many social innovations remaking Detroit, once a city on life support. This is an amazing transformation story where social innovation becomes an urban development savior. So exciting!

  3. I’m a huge proponent of the connection between strategy and outcomes, so I loved Arshad Merchant’s description of how Boston-based nonprofit Bottom Line dramatically improved student outcomes by taking a more strategic approach to their work.

  4. The Nonprofit Tech 2.0 Blog gives a great roundup of recent studies and reports about nonprofits, philanthropy and technology.

  5. Mashable highlights a very innovative campaign by UNICEF on social media network Pinterest. It really makes you think about social media, and nonprofit marketing in general, in a new way.

  6. Writing on the PhilanTopic blog, Derrick Feldman describes 8 trends and how they will affect fundraising. From crowdfunding, to one-click technologies, to Yelp and beyond he blows traditional fundraising out of the water.

  7. Social Innovation Fund Director Paul Carttar left his post in September, but social innovation is still very much a focus at the White House, given the White House Forum on Philanthropy Innovation.

  8. There was a bit of controversy in September about whether board members should be forced to raise money for their nonprofits. Kate Barr of Minnesota’s Nonprofits Assistance Fund argued that not all board members should fundraise. But a new study from the Nonprofit Research Collaborative found that nonprofits with active fundraising boards are more likely to meet their goals.

  9. And for those of you who struggle to recruit great board members, LinkedIn launched Board Connect, which looks amazing. Geri Stengel describes how to make it work.

  10. In a very thoughtful post on the Forbes blog, Tom Watson compares and connects two important September events in the world of social innovation: the Clinton Global Initiative and the Giving Pledge reaching 90+ members.

Photo Credit: x1klima

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Calling All Nonprofit Social Entrepreneurs

There is a really interesting research study about social entrepreneurs going on at the University of Massachusetts and you may want to join in.

John Walker, Finance Director at Echoing Green and Nardia Haigh, Assistant Professor of Management in the College of Management at UMass Boston are investigating social entrepreneurs who went through a process of deciding whether to establish their organization as a non-profit, a for-profit, or a hybrid. They want to understand the range of circumstances under which social entrepreneurs identify which type of business model fits best for different situations.

While they have already interviewed many for-profit social entrepreneurs, they are having a hard time finding nonprofit social entrepreneurs, which is where you come in.

If you are a social entrepreneur and struggled with the decision about whether to form a for-profit/nonprofit/hybrid entity, Nardia would like to interview you about your organization’s strategies, structure, and direction.

According to Nardia, there are many circumstances under which hybrid organizations are established, and to date, two distinct variations of the hybrid business model are evident: Multi-entity and Integrated:

  • Multi-entity hybrids link for-profit and nonprofit entities – often through contracts and/or ownership. A nonprofit may establish and own all or part of a for-profit subsidiary (e.g. Embrace and Embrace Innovations), or a for-profit may establish a nonprofit and provide it with equity or other means for it to derive non-discretionary revenue.

  • Integrated entities are either for-profit companies with a strong social or environmental mission deeply embedded within its business model (e.g. TOMS Shoes or Maggie’s Organics, and companies registered as L3Cs), or are nonprofit organizations that use for-profit methods to generate revenue (e.g. Ten Thousand Villages or Ecosia.org).

In this study, they seek to understand the decision-making process entrepreneurs go through in choosing which to pursue.

Nardia’s research at UMass Boston focuses on business models and strategies that address large-scale sustainability issues in positive ways. And John has significant experience as an entrepreneur, an executive, and as a board member in a range of industries, where he specializes in financial analysis, capital raising, and structuring acquisition and investment deals.

If you are a social entrepreneur and would like to participate in this research study, contact Nardia at Nardia.Haigh@umb.edu.

Nardia has promised to share the results of the study with Social Velocity readers when it’s completed. I can’t wait to hear what they find out.

Photo Credit: piermario

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: July 2012

I was out of town for the first half of July (and mostly away from social media), so I’m probably not qualified to give a 10 best list for the month, but I’m still going to try (ha!). As always, please add what I missed (particularly this month) to the comments.

To me, July was about outcomes and measurement. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a growing drumbeat for social change organizations to measure what (if anything) they are changing. Some readers commenting on that post argued that measurement is not a new thing for the nonprofit sector. True, it’s not new, but its importance (to funders, ratings agencies, government agencies, etc.) is increasing dramatically. So those in the social change world must heed the call and understand the new reality.

As always, you can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

Here’s July’s 10 Great Reads in Social Innovation:

  1. In two back-to-back posts on the Full Contact Philanthropy blog, David Henderson explains how nonprofits have to get “smarter about how we allocate our scarce resources.” First by getting strategic about who they serve and then by focusing on outcomes.

  2. Bill Shore of Share Our Strength adds to the drumbeat by arguing “nonprofit organizations are failing to grapple with the threshold questions on which all else depends: what specific objective are they trying to achieve and how will they measure whether they have or have not done so. “

  3. In the Los Angeles Times, Jared Billings takes social innovation darling, Teach for America, to task by asking whether TFA can actually change student achievement if the majority of their teachers leave the profession after only two years.

  4. On the Mission:Innovation blog Nicole Wallace reviews Andrew Zolli’s new book Resilience and his argument that nonprofits must embrace a “new mind-set, one that emphasizes improvisation, ad hoc networks, and adaptation.”

  5. On the Forbes blog, Victor Hwang recapped this month’s Global Innovation Summit and the 10 Lessons on Growing Innovation that emerged from it.

  6. Maybe not everyone should be a social entrepreneur says Lara Galinsky, who (shockingly) works for Echoing Green, one of the biggest supporters of social entrepreneurs.

  7. And maybe not every nonprofit should scale, says John Brothers in a great two-part series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog.

  8. On what is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs (Unsectored), Mark Hecker recounts the story of true collaboration between public, private and nonprofit sectors when a drug raid was turned into small business development and job creation.

  9. It looks like women may be changing the face of philanthropy in exciting ways. “Women are exerting a greater influence on how philanthropy is done as they accumulate wealth and use their clout to change the way funds are raised and distributed.” Cool!

  10. Echoing the comments of Vikki Spruill from the Council on Foundations, Rick Cohen argues that foundations need to be more transparent in their work.

Photo Credit: briarpress.org

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A Career Guide For a New Generation of Change Makers

Billy Parish and Dev Aujla’s new book, Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World, is a career guide for the generation that finds themselves on the precipice of some pretty monumental global challenges.

Parish and Aujla argue that 3 major trends are creating an unprecedented opportunity for people to find “the sweet spot between altruism and selfishness.” The trends are:

  • A rise in global empathy, or the ability for people separated geographically to be bound by common desires and goals
  • The Internet as a platform for global collaboration
  • Breakthrough smarter and greener technologies

These trends have resulted in “enormous new opportunities to change the world.” Far from the bleak unemployment picture facing the Millennial generation, this book turns that challenge into an enormous opportunity. This generation won’t enjoy the same careers that those who came before them did. They will create their own careers by combining the need for an income with a desire to make the world a better place.

Part self-help book, part social entrepreneurship primer, Making Good at times verges on the feel good, but for a generation faced with staggering unemployment, a really messed up global economy, and the inheritance of other equally crippling social and political problems, they probably need a little hand holding.

The authors start by laying out the opportunities that exist within seven major industries that are undergoing tremendous turmoil (crumbling education system, weak transportation infrastructure, inadequate healthcare system, broken food chain, to start.). It seems there is an endless list from which this new generation could carve out solutions.

Then they go into the 6 steps for moving from idea to action (Reflect, Adapt, Connect, Design, Launch, Organize), which is sort of like the What Color is My Parachute for the social change set. The book is a nice companion to the more case-study heavy Echoing Green book, Work on Purpose. But what is interesting about Making Good‘s approach and different than most social entrepreneurship books, is that these authors see social change work in a broad spectrum, from new start up companies and nonprofits, to freelancing, to being a social intrapreneur (within an established company).

Perhaps in some ways, though, this book is trying to cover too much ground. Probably because it is one of only a few books in the emerging social change career genre. My hope is that as social change becomes a more established industry there will be many more books like Making Change that help those entering the working world and those trying to make a move within it to embrace social change careers.

In the Introduction to the book, Van Jones, special advisor to Obama on Green Jobs, writes “”We don’t know yet if we are going to be in a continued vicious downward cycle politically, economically, culturally, and spiritually–or whether this is just volatility preceding a beautiful rebirth and rebuilding…we could be seeing the beginnings of a positive ecological U-turn, one in which democracy is renewed by a new generation taking the stage with new information technology and cooperation tools and the economy is renewed by new models of commerce that respect people and the earth.”

The authors of Making Good seem to think that by giving the Millennial generation a road map for translating their desire for change into a sustainable way to make a living we will find that ecological U-turn. I tend to agree.

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Are You the Next Echoing Green Fellow?

Echoing Green has launched their annual search for social entrepreneurs. Each year, Echoing Green identifies promising social entrepreneurs with bold ideas to solve society’s most pressing problems and provides them with up to $90,000 in seed funding, strategic support, leadership development, and a powerful community of nearly 500 other Fellows and alumni. To date, Echoing Green has invested nearly $30 million in seed funding to almost 500 social entrepreneurs and their organizations.

Echoing Green is a great organization and a real pioneer in the social entrepreneurship space. To find out more, you can read my interview with Lara Galinsky, SVP at Echoing Green, and read about English at Work an Echoing Green fellow and Social Velocity client transforming the lives of ESL service workers.

Echoing Green’s online Fellowship application will be open from December 5, 2011 to January 9, 2012. You can find out more about the Fellowship application process here and you can sign up to receive the latest news on the process here.

Good Luck!

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