In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Aaron Dorfman, President and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), a research and advocacy organization that works to ensure America’s grantmakers are responsive to the needs of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. Before joining NCRP in 2007, Dorfman served for 15 years as a community organizer with two national organizing networks, spearheading grassroots campaigns on a variety of issues. He also serves on the board of The Center for Popular Democracy.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: What is your take on recent concerns about donor advised funds locking too much philanthropic money away from directly reaching nonprofits? Is the recent growth of DAFs a good thing or a bad thing, or is it more complicated?
Aaron: It’s definitely complicated.
On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to how much easier DAFs have made things for donors. I do some of my own charitable giving through a small DAF, and I love the convenience of it. I have no doubt that other donors also find DAFs to be a very helpful development in philanthropy.
However, many of the concerns raised by critics are also valid.
There is little or no evidence that DAFs have contributed to an increase in overall charitable giving, for example, and there certainly isn’t any evidence that the funds have boosted giving to historically marginalized communities. So, if there has been no increase in overall giving, then what DAFs have done is to delay the giving.
Another concern is that DAFs provide donors with significant tax advantages over private foundations – but at the cost of transparency. Most DAFs don’t accept unsolicited proposals, and reporting by sponsoring institutions doesn’t identify grants with individual funds. Practically speaking, that means that most of these funds are inaccessible to most nonprofits. They’re traditionally housed at community foundations, but they’re not directly open to receiving proposals from community-based nonprofits, though proposals may be steered there by foundation staff acting as gatekeepers.
We found this to be true in a recent in-depth assessment we conducted of the Oregon Community Foundation. This was especially the experience of nonprofits serving and/or led by communities of color, who already have the hardest time accessing mainstream philanthropic support.
The lack of access by community nonprofits is even more troubling when you consider the fastest growing of the DAFs: the funds located at the giant financial industry warehouses like Schwab, Fidelity and Vanguard. There, no one is putting nonprofit proposals in front of donors who might be interested.
The lack of adequate reporting reinforces this problem of access: since the IRS does not require DAF sponsors to report which funds made which grants, grant seekers cannot take advantage of reports to identify potentially like-minded donors. (DAF sponsors have begun making greater amounts of information available about their grants, but what they provide is of limited help to grantseeking nonprofits because they don’t identify which funds made which grants.) This is further compounded by the fact that at present the major foundation database (Foundation Center) doesn’t systematically track giving by the likes of Vanguard, Schwab and Fidelity, most of whose funding simply doesn’t appear in the database.
Nell: Some people have argued that since philanthropy itself is built upon an inequitable market economy it can serve to reinforce that inequality. Is there a disconnect, or can we expect philanthropy to appreciably contribute to greater equity? What do you make of the debates about philanthropy that redistributes wealth and philanthropy that simply reinforces power and economic imbalances?
Aaron: There is no question that philanthropy can and has done both of these things.
When the Ford Foundation provides support for grassroots community organizing, or for litigation to protect and expand civil rights, that’s an example of philanthropy clearly contributing to greater equity.
When Atlantic Philanthropies, The California Endowment and other funders supported advocacy that contributed to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), that, too, was a case of philanthropy appreciably contributing to a more equitable society.
These are just a couple of examples of funders who understand their goals and their vision for society to be disruptive to the status quo; funders who understand the role unjust economic systems have played in the issues they would like their dollars to help overcome. The “disconnect” between market economics and progressive philanthropy is not impossible to overcome, and many of the more than 200 grantmakers that have signed on to NCRP’s Philanthropy’s Promise initiative are leading the way in showing other funders how to do just that.
However, when certain foundations support elite universities, when they invest only in white-led cultural organizations that emphasize European-American culture, or when they invest in advocacy to privatize public education at the expense of low-income communities – then you have some clear examples of how philanthropy reinforces inequality.
There was a great series of articles published recently in The Nation that explores these ideas, and what the future of philanthropy might be for those of us who hope to see a greater philanthropic contribution to fairness, equity and justice.
Nell: You have written before about philanthropy’s historical role in funding social movements. What do you make of philanthropy in the Black Lives Matter movement? How involved has philanthropy been, and how involved do you think philanthropy should be?
Aaron: There is a paradox here. Philanthropy has always under-funded social movements. However, philanthropic funding has also been essential to the success of social movements. We documented this in a 2014 paper Freedom Funders: Philanthropy and the Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1965.
The Black Lives Matter movement has thus far received very little support from institutional philanthropy. A group of foundation staff members have formed Funders for Justice as a way to learn together and to accelerate the flow of funding to the movement. They’re making headway, but the movement is still receiving very little support. Some individual donors, mostly younger and working through the Solidaire Network, have been able to move money more quickly to the movement.
The Hill-Snowdon Foundation, a small family foundation based in D.C., has been a real leader on this. They dipped into their corpus and have devoted new resources to creating the Making Black Lives Matter initiative and are attempting to organize their peers in philanthropy to invest in black-led organizing and in the Movement for Black Lives. The foundation is a past winner of the NCRP Impact Awards, which recognizes smart philanthropy that empowers underserved communities and achieves real results.
Also, Black professionals in philanthropy have been organizing through the Association of Black Foundation Executives and its Philanthropic Action for Racial Justice initiative.
I should add, too, that movement leaders have rejected some philanthropic support that was offered to them because it came with too many strings attached. In some respects, it’s been a good thing that the movement has not been dependent on philanthropy, since foundation support so often serves to rein in radical social movements.
Nell: The nonprofit sector has historically stayed away from advocacy work, but that seems to be changing. What role do you think nonprofits can and should play in advocacy, and will there be more of a push for that in the future?
Aaron: Advocacy and community organizing are among the best ways for foundations and nonprofits to leverage their limited dollars in pursuit of their missions. By changing public policies and/or the regulatory framework, we can transform society and build the kind of nation we all want to inhabit. Any nonprofit or foundation that is serious about achieving its mission must understand how advocacy fits into their overall strategy.
NCRP has challenged grantmakers to devote at least 25% of grant dollars to funding nonprofit advocacy and organizing, but fewer than 100 of the largest 1,000 foundations in the country meet that benchmark. The number of serious advocacy funders is increasing, but slowly.
Nonprofit advocates bring the voices of people and communities to policy makers. They are a greatly needed counter balance to the growing influence of corporate lobbyists, who often advocate only the narrowest self-interests of their industry. I think many, many people in our sector understand this and that we will see an expansion of nonprofit advocacy in the coming years, and that an increasing number for foundations and high net worth donors will provide ever-increasing resources for that advocacy work.
Photo Credit: NCRP
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project, which brings a social movement perspective to research on nonprofit organizations. Prior to joining the BMP staff, Sean spent a decade working in a variety of roles at the Center for Community Change, where he developed training programs for grassroots leaders, coordinated online and grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbied on a range of issues. Before joining the Center, Sean worked as a Policy Analyst at the National Council of La Raza, where he developed research and lobbied on issues related to employment and income security.
You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.
Nell: What is the role of leadership in movement and network building? How do you balance the need for organic and distributed power with the need for someone (or multiple someones) to provide vision and marshal resources?
Sean: I think it’s important to start by teasing apart the concepts of movements and networks, or any other organizational structure/formation that might be the “cool new thing” in the nonprofit sector at any point in time.
I’m pretty traditional (admittedly even rigid) when it comes to what makes a movement. For me, movements are bigger than any organization, coalition, network or campaign could ever hope to direct or contain. That’s not to say that organizations – and networks of organizations – don’t have a role in supporting movements, but nowadays it seems like everyone’s talking about movements, but too often in a way that’s disconnected from the kind of fundamental social change that feminist, anti-war, civil rights movement leaders did a generation ago.
If an organization is trying to build a campaign or network to support its mission, generate a ton of subscribers and followers, and raise their profile as a “legitimate” advocate on an issue, that’s great. But that’s a campaign. Not a movement.
I spent a chunk of my career working on campaigns, and maybe it’s because I was trained by organizers, but we were clear about the difference between our measurable campaign deliverables (whether a policy was won or lost, how many people turned out for an action or march, etc.) and the more intangible aspiration that our organizing would spark some movement energy on the ground.
Part of the reason that my organization holds up leadership as a key focus area for our research is that we recognize that organizations, networks, movements need strong leaders and also need strong collective leadership. So when we think about the balancing act, it’s not that distributed power and vision / resources are at opposite ends of a scale. In fact, from a movement perspective, distributed leadership actually enhances the movement’s vision and brings more resources to bear on the fights the movement takes on. This is not to say that there aren’t struggles over leadership and between individual leaders/personalities… all of our organizations are made up of human beings interacting with each other, so conflict is going to be inevitable. The challenge is how to make those tensions and conflicts generative.
Nell: As you look at two current social movements — Black Lives Matter, and student protests on college campuses — what are your thoughts on their methods? How successful do you think they have been and will be in the future?
Sean: I think we’re in a very exciting movement moment. When we look back on the 1960s, that decade occupies a special place in our collective imagination because we have enough distance to see how specific moments and events and sparks connect to each other. I’d suggest that the rise of Black Lives Matter is connected to the increasing visibility of student protests on college campuses. And not just in the obvious examples where Black Lives Matter was a rallying cry. Young people play an important role in movements, and they always have.
I worked for several years supporting campaigns to reform our country’s broken and inhumane immigration policy. And young people – whether they were in high school or on college campuses or working to support their families – have been critical to the movement for immigration reform. When I had the privilege to be in the room with young folks to strategize about actions and protest and tactics, there was a ton of creativity and fun that I – as someone in my thirties – had forgotten or lost touch with. I think that the turn we saw towards civil disobedience as a strategic choice was informed by the impatience of young people with an insider political game that wasn’t working for communities.
Progressive activists have gotten back in touch with direct action and civil disobedience in the last few years, and I think that’s an important tool / method to have at our disposal. The reason we build movements is because the polite, official ways of making change haven’t worked. And the way to break through is to assert that Black Lives Matter, or to come out as undocumented and unafraid. The willingness of activists to put their bodies on the line to shut down traffic and disrupt the status quo isn’t just about getting media attention; it’s about demonstrating a commitment to change that inspires others to take their own steps in the ongoing struggle for justice.
To come back to the movement vs. network distinction for a moment … Patrisse Cullors – one of the three women who created #BlackLivesMatter – recently posted a super insightful piece titled “We Didn’t Start a Movement, We Started a Network.” And in that she writes about her concern when the media started referring to the “Black Lives Matter movement” because, as she put it “movements don’t belong to any one person, and we knew that this movement wasn’t started by us.” That commitment to recognizing and lifting up the many amazing organizations doing critical on-the-ground organizing is what makes this movement moment feel really different and important, and hopefully lasting. I think there is something to the fact that many of the most visible leaders today are women who are unapologetically black and feminist. I think the movement for Black lives is a game changer, and I’m really excited to see the movement continue to have more success in the future.
Nell: Because the nonprofit sector is so resource-constrained and competition for dollars is so stiff, there is often a perceived risk to building networks. But how can (and why should) nonprofits overcome this and become more networked?
Sean: That’s an interesting observation, because it seems to me that the resource incentive is for organizations to join networks. Philanthropy doesn’t seem to want to invest in small, local organizations that are doing their own thing. The tendency seems to be for funders to give big grants to national networks and count on them to disperse the money to groups on the ground. Now, I’ve worked for national intermediaries my whole career, so I have seen the way that strategy works to support national campaigns that are disciplined and strategic. But I know that there’s lots of concern – especially on the part of people of color led grassroots organizations – that the “trickle down” strategy isn’t working.
Part of the piece about competition for resources is about leadership, and specifically who is leading the networks versus who is leading the small grassroots organizations that comprise networks. Last year, I worked with some colleagues on a report titled #BlackWorkersMatter, and one of the things that came out from the interviews I did with leaders around the country who are using community organizing as a strategy for addressing the jobs crisis in Black communities is that there are a lot of biases playing out in our sector that leave Black-led – and people of color led organizations in general – at a disadvantage for funding, visibility, all of the currencies that give an organization power and stability right now.
Already, we know from the Daring to Lead survey of nonprofit EDs, that the top-level leadership of the sector is overwhelmingly white. And I think we have to grapple with what it means if the leadership of our networks doesn’t match the demographics of the constituents who come to our organizations for support. BMP just launched a survey on Nonprofits, Leadership & Race, and I’m really curious about what the data will reveal in terms of people’s experiences and perceptions about how implicit biases might be playing out inside of organizations and the nonprofit sector.
Nell: What is or should be philanthropy’s role in building social movements and networks? And is philanthropy currently helping or hurting these efforts?
Sean: I think funders can and definitely do play a role in supporting both social movements and networks, but since investing in networks seems like a clear priority already, I’m going to focus on what funders should do to invest in social movements.
I think the first – and most important – thing a foundation should do if they’re interested in supporting social movements is invest in grassroots organizations that are doing authentic base building, popular education and leadership development. And give them general support dollars for multiple years to do that work. Foundations also should recognize that the slow work of organizing may not yield the kind of metrics and deliverables that have become so central to how we evaluate campaigns.
Beyond that commitment to organizing, foundations can use their unique vantage point to identify organizational leaders and strengthen connections between them. Obviously, money directly to the organizations is important, but sometimes the funding is needed to convene people to discuss, debate and disagree about the movement’s vision and strategy. Having philanthropy support relationship-building between leaders and organizations is really important for any movement ecosystem.
Photo Credit: Building Movement Project
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Michael Crawford, Director of Digital and Creative at Freedom to Marry, one of the organizations instrumental in the movement to legalize same-sex marriage. Michael Crawford led Freedom to Marry’s in-house creative team and directed its award-winning digital program. He led the Freedom to Marry’s shift to a storytelling-centered content strategy and worked with a team of content creators and digital organizers to build an online supporter base of 1.5 million people, produce award-winning video content, and revolutionize the national conversation about gay people and marriage.
With the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Freedom to Marry’s work is now done. However, they have turned their website into a repository of tools, case studies and examples from which other movements seeking social change can learn.
You can read past interviews in the Social Velocity social changemaker interview series here.
Nell: The June Supreme court decision legalizing gay marriage was a huge victory to organizations like Freedom to Marry that had been working on this issue for decades. How did multiple organizations and entities collaborate to make this victory a reality? Who were some of your collaborators and what did you learn about forging effective collaborations to create social change?
Michael: Freedom to Marry was one of many organizations who worked to win marriage nationwide for same-sex couples. Our organizational partners included national, state and local groups, and we advised groups working in other countries on marriage campaigns.
Our national partners included organizations like Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, ACLU, National Center for Lesbian Rights and Human Rights Campaign. At the state level, we worked with dozens of groups in states across every region of the country.
Our work was especially intensive at the state level. In dozens of states, we worked with national and state partners to create coalition campaigns to advance marriage in the respective state. Depending on the state and its anticipated path to marriage — legislative, ballot or legal — that work included creating effective public education campaigns, growing grassroots support, engaging elected officials, getting out the vote for ballot campaigns, earned media, and digital work.
Our Digital Action Center, which became the central hub for digital organizing in the marriage movement, is one example of how Freedom to Marry worked with state campaigns to win marriage. Through the Digital Action Center, Freedom to Marry established a full-service digital shop that built winning campaigns from the ground up, led digital strategy day in and day out, and delivered concrete results to help secure game-changing victories at the ballot box and state legislatures nationwide.
What made our coalition work successful was that throughout we were not hands-off or operating at arms-length. Freedom to Marry was deeply involved as a partner in the work and campaigns, apart from our role as fiscal sponsor or funding engine. We actively looked for opportunities where we could add value without duplicating existing efforts.
Nell: How big a role did technology play in this victory? Obviously it was a multi-pronged approach (legal, political, public awareness, etc.) but how did technology contribute and what do you think other social movements can learn from what you did?
Michael: Freedom to Marry’s use of digital played a critical role in the organization’s work and the implementation of its national strategy, the Roadmap to Victory. The digital team supported the campaign’s focus on rapidly accelerating the growth in public support for marriage, mobilizing supporters into an effective movement, and making the case for marriage in the court of public opinion.
Telling emotionally powerful, authentic stories in compelling ways was a key tactic in achieving a crucial element of our strategy, building a critical mass of public support for the freedom to marry (ultimately, we grew support from 27% in 1996 to 63% in 2015).
Much of Freedom to Marry’s storytelling work was concentrated, or originated, online. Through written online profiles, videos and advertisements, placements in traditional media outlets, and social media, Freedom to Marry consistently and authentically showcased the faces of people from all across the country who needed to be able to say “I do,” marry in any state they chose, and be sure their marriages would be respected by the all states and the federal government. Our central goal was to spark and frame the millions of conversations needed to change hearts and minds and build momentum and a critical mass of support.
The focus on storytelling was at the core of our digital program. We made extensive use of online video, social media and email.
The digital team was its own department within the organization, and we collaborated with all of the programming areas to achieve our joint goals and to amplify the work of the respective programming areas. For example, we partnered closely with our communications team to find and elevate the best stories of couples, supporters and unlikely messengers. The digital team built a database of couples and other potential messengers with compelling stories that we widely shared on our website, through social media and in videos. We worked with the communications team to pitch the best of these stories to news outlets, and then we used social media to push out those earned media stories.
Here are a few takeaways for other movements:
- Integrate digital into the fabric of the organization’s work: Your digital staff should be included when all critical decisions are being made for the organization regarding messaging, strategy and campaigning.
- Place storytelling at the center of your digital work: People are hard-wired to connect to stories and stories can help others to better understand the how and why of your work.
- Prepare content in advance for big decisions: This will enable you to move quickly once the decisions like court rulings or legislative outcomes are announced giving you the best possible chance to shape the narrative around those decisions.
- Leverage social media to scale your outreach and advance your narrative: People are increasingly getting their news via platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Developing and executing smart strategies for disseminating your perspective on the news helps you to be seen as a trusted news source, and it gets your message out more widely.
Nell: One of the reasons this victory happened was because it was a state-by-state strategy, instead of a nationwide strategy. How and why was the decision to go state-by-state made and what can other social change efforts learn from that approach? Why does it work and why now?
Michael: Our Roadmap to Victory was the national strategy to win the freedom to marry. The three tracks of the Roadmap included winning marriage in more states, growing public support and ending federal marriage discrimination all with an eye towards creating the climate for a Supreme Court decision. The state-by-state tactic was in service to the national strategy of winning at the Supreme Court.
The idea was not to focus just on one court case or one legislative battle or lurch from crisis to crisis. Rather, like every other successful civil rights movement, the marriage movement needed to see itself as a long-term campaign with a focused, affirmative goal and a sustained strategy, and needed to build momentum, foster collaboration, enlist new allies, identify new resources, fill in the gaps, and stay the course to victory.
It’s crucial to first identify the overarching goal, then develop a strategy or roadmap to achieve that, then develop the right programs or tactics to implement the strategy and then to provide supporters clear and effective ways that they can help implement the strategy to achieve the goal.
Nell: What’s next for Freedom to Marry and other organizations that won this victory? Where do your efforts go now? Is there other social change you all would like to see?
Michael: Freedom to Marry is in the process of winding down. Most of our staff has moved on to other causes, and we will soon be shutting our doors. The next big fight for the LGBT community is advancing effective legislation to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. One of the organizations leading that effort is Freedom For All Americans.
Over the last year especially, we have been talking with leaders in other movements sharing what we have learned working on the freedom to marry. We hope that our experiences will benefit others seeking to make the world a better place.
This is my favorite time of year. Despite the darkness of the last few months, December is often about reflecting on the year that is drawing to a close and hopes for the new one coming.
And as is my tradition on this blog, I like to look ahead at the trends that may affect the nonprofit sector in the coming year. I have never claimed to be a clairvoyant, but I am an admitted optimist, so my predictions are less about telling the future and more about wishful thinking. This year, more than ever, I want to see opportunity amid the uncertainty and the challenges we face.
So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about for the nonprofit sector as we head into 2016.
- New Opportunities for the Nonprofit Sector to Lead
A growing recognition of the value of the nonprofit sector paired with a rising confidence among nonprofit leaders will create opportunities for nonprofits to step up and create opportunity out of the seemingly mounting pile of challenges (like terrorism, natural disasters, political gridlock). The nonprofit sector’s natural place — its core competency — is in righting imbalances and it often coalesces in times of trouble. We are already seeing really exciting collaborations and innovations aimed at increasing civic engagement and winning equal rights, to name a few. Call me an optimist, but I think the challenges we face are merely a precursor to the emergence of a stronger social sector ready to find new solutions.
- Increased Use of Protests
And as evidence of social movements emerging from challenges, we are seeing an uptick in social protests. This year we’ve seen some impressive organized demands for social change. From Black Lives Matter, to student protests on college campuses, to Chicago protests demanding the mayor’s resignation, people are rising up to demand change. While their methods somewhat mirror the protests of the 1960s and 1970s, their access to and use of technology is quite new. It will be interesting to see how these movements evolve and how much change they will be able to accomplish.
- Greater Emphasis on Networks
And these protests, like any social change effort, will be more successful if they embrace the use of networks. I think there will be a growing recognition that nonprofits must build networks in their social change efforts. They must understand the points of leverage for attacking a problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can and then figure out who the influencers are in their space and how to connect their work with those others. Because the network approach requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding, I think (hope) we’ll see more nonprofit leaders move to an abundance mentality that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder, more networked path.
- More State-by-State Strategies
The stunning victory this year legalizing same-sex marriage demonstrated the tremendous success that a state-by-state (as opposed to a national) approach to social and political change can have. Indeed, because of political gridlock at the federal level, other social change efforts (like Represent.us and the legalization of marijuana) have found success at the state level where changing minds and changing policy is sometimes easier and more efficient. But this isn’t a new idea. In fact according to research compiled by Bloomberg Business, social and political change in America follows a pattern: “A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.” Though the idea isn’t a new one, I think it may gain traction as more social movements find a state-by-state approach increasingly attractive.
- Smarter Funding
But to pursue more successful models, like the use of networks and state-by-state strategies, nonprofits must have the necessary funding runway to get there. So I’m hopeful that funders will increasingly recognize that nonprofits need more flexible and effective funding (like unrestricted dollars and capacity capital). There are already encouraging signs. The Ford Foundation has moved to provide more unrestricted support (and encouraged other funders to build the capacity of nonprofits) and the federal government released new guidelines this year providing more indirect funding to nonprofits. So let’s hope we see more foundation, individual and government funders providing nonprofits more of the kind of money they really need to create solutions.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
May 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.”
- 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!
- 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
Every once in awhile the hurdles seem insurmountable, and we reach a point where the forces of ill seem to overpower the forces for good. Friday was perhaps one of those moments. As a mother of elementary school children, Friday’s events cut me to the core.
But I think it is worth remembering that it is these very moments that can be the impetus for social change. A singular event can galvanize people to work towards something better. Indeed countless social movements have materialized because of some injustice, some unspeakable act, some horrifying event. It remains to be seen if this will be a watershed moment for gun control activists or mental health advocates, whether new legislation will be passed or new organizations and movements born. Just as Mr. Rogers told us to “look for the helpers” when something bad happens, I think it is wise to look for the change. What will come out of this horrific event? How will our society be changed because of what happened?
And while we wait, I find comfort in Mr. Roger’s Messsage of Hope, recorded shortly after 9/11.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Aria Finger, COO of DoSomething.org. Aria oversees the programmatic and business development activities that empower millions of young people to take action each year around causes they’re passionate about. She reads economic theory for fun, loves vanilla cupcakes and thinks that “After Innocence” should be required movie viewing for anyone who cares about social justice. Aria currently serves on the board of Care for the Homeless, is an adjunct professor at New York University and was recently named to Crain’s New York Business list of “40 under 40”.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: DoSomething was founded almost 20 years ago, long before the explosion of social entrepreneurship and social media. How has the organization evolved and kept up with the new energy and excitement around social change and new technologies for connecting people?
Aria: DoSomething.org has always had the same goal – enable young people to take action around the causes that they’re passion about. The exciting part is that now, in 2012, we have an entirely new toolkit at our fingertips – mobile, social, the web, etc – to reach millions of young people who want to make a difference. Experimentation and iteration keeps us on our toes. About a year ago, we decided to text 500 of our users who we hadn’t heard from via email in 6+ months. We sent them a text message and in 9 minutes, we had a 20% response rate. Just incredible. We found that with texting we could activate 20% of a group of “defunct” users. This SMS test was the basis for our pivot to mobile – using cell phones as a means to activate and engage teens. We now text out to over 220,000 teens on a weekly basis.
Nell: How does an organization like DoSomething, that is all about the youngest generation, remain relevant as the organization and its staff age?
Aria: One word: interns. At any given time, we have 20-30 college students working for the organization. And we pay them. These interns are coming to pitch meetings, becoming instant focus groups, creating full-fledged national campaigns and being the frontline of interaction with our users.
In addition, in this new world where everything can be crowd-sourced, we use that to our full advantage. When we were re-launching our website, we put the mocks on Facebook and asked our fans what they thought. When we’re stuck on a campaign name, we go out to our 500,000+ twitter followers and ask them what we should call it.
Nell: At DoSomething you are committed to metrics and have some impressive quarterly performance dashboards. How do you balance what is easy to measure, like outputs (# of members, # of campaigns), with what’s harder to measure like outcomes (what social change DoSomething is creating)?
Aria: At DoSomething.org, we LOVE data. In fact, we have two data analysts on a staff of 40. They inform everything we do and we love that we get to show off their awesomeness in our quarterly dashboards. That being said, you can’t always measure in numbers the value of a warm and fuzzy story about a teen’s first volunteerism experience being with our Teens for Jeans campaign. Qualitative anecdotes do have a place in performance dashboards as well. What I’m really excited about is 5 years down the road when we’ll be able to track our young people long-term – see them go from engagement in one campaign to five campaigns to perhaps starting their own Do Something Club when they go off to college. It will be really exciting to measure whether DoSomething.org members are happier, healthier, participate in their communities more, register to vote more, etc.
Nell: In the last few years there has been a huge increase in online action platforms like Change.org that organize people around causes. How does DoSomething compete with or complement these new channels and movements?
Aria: We love the Change.org folks and all of the other fabulous online platforms that are promoting social change (half of our staff found their job on Idealist.org!). For the most part, the thing that sets DoSomething.org apart is our focus on teenagers. A lot of the other sites do a great job activating older folks – mid 20somethings and beyond – and our focus has remained on high school and college students.
Nell: The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely driven by dissatisfaction among the Millennial generation. What are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, how they’ve organized and their potential to make change happen?
Aria: Personally, I’m a supporter of any movement that tries to change this world for the better, as long as they’re doing so in a peaceful and constructive way. A lot of millennials are pissed off because they perceive that the “older folks” have done a good job screwing up our world and now they’re left to pick up the pieces. We see a lot of young people really tuning out politics because they don’t see any good coming out of it and they think they can do a better job trying to fix things themselves. There has been plenty of criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I’m sure many of them are valid, although I do think they created a national conversation around income distribution, fairness, jobs for middle class people, etc that wasn’t happening before them.
There is no shortage of great ideas to change the world. I get countless emails and calls each week from passionate, committed people who see a need in their community, in their world, and have an idea for solving it. But they are frustrated because they can’t find the funding to get their idea off the ground.
Well, funding follows social change momentum. If you lack money it is merely a symptom of a larger lack of momentum. To create social change it is not enough to be a single person with an idea, or even a single person with an idea and a group of friends.
You need to put some key pieces together to create real social change momentum:
A Significant Problem
It is not enough that you and your friends care deeply about some social ill. It needs to be a problem that is significant enough to get those outside of your world interested. It has to be a problem that a larger group cares about and sees a need to solve. And in order to get there you need to break the problem down. Who has a vested interest in people in Africa getting clean water, or unemployed youth getting jobs, or inner city kids learning to read? Segment the market and think about the kinds of people you need to get on board with your solution. Then go after them.
A Proven Solution
And you have to offer a real solution. Ideas are great, but people don’t invest in ideas, at least not since the dot com bust. You have to stop talking about how great things will be and start piloting the idea. Until you have some results to point to (like changed lives) it will be hard for people to take you seriously. I’m not suggesting that you need a comprehensive evaluation study. But you do need to move beyond “Let me tell you this great idea I have” to some concrete demonstration that the solution you are suggesting has actually worked somewhere and for someone.
A Compelling Case
You must craft your solution and the significant need it addresses into a compelling story. Your passion, enthusiasm and commitment need to be contagious. Some people are born with a natural charisma, and I’ve seen many social entrepreneurs who have it. They believe so strongly in what they are doing and tell such a compelling story that those around them can’t help but join the cause. But if that doesn’t come naturally to you, you still have to figure out a way to break out of the “but it’s so obvious that people should just automatically get it,” and learn how to create a story that convinces people to join.
A Diverse Group
Finally, but most importantly, it has to be more than just you and your friends. Momentum comes from building a committed army of supporters with diversity of experience and networks. While the Occupy movement has some strength in numbers it remains to be seen whether it will actually result in any significant change. This is partly because the movement has not broken through to networks beyond the young and disenfranchised. Until they can get people within the “establishment” to really take them seriously and become as passionate as they are about the ideas behind the movement, I don’t know if they will get any traction.
Passion is an absolutely critical ingredient to creating social change, but it will only get you so far. To build real momentum, and the funding to survive and thrive, you need to assemble a diverse network of supporters who believe in your solution and are committed to seeing it grow.
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