October 8, 2015

The Sign-up Sheet Is Dead

Imagine you are the Executive Director of an amazing nonprofit. You are standing on stage at your annual gala, staring out into a warm and excited crowd of your supporters. You smile as you begin your speech.

I was at a great gala last week. There were over 800 people in the room, there was great food, great speakers, a wonderful auction, and craft beer.

Could you imagine the potential of filling a room with 800 of your strongest supporters? These are people who are coming out to support your organization and all the wonderful things you are doing, many of whom come year after year. These people are your core supporters. Your champions. Your peeps.

This group of 800 people could sustain your organization (and many others!) for years. They will volunteer, take action, and donate. Imagine if each of them gave your organization $100 a year; $200 a year; $500 a year.

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Your challenge is to activate them. What if, within 5 minutes, you had the mobile cell numbers, names, and email addresses of everyone in the audience? They are already excited about your work, and now you can connect with them directly.

You Sold Out Your Event, But Do You Have Mobile Numbers?

If you are operating like tons of other nonprofits, chances are that you have likely used a tool like Eventbrite to sell tickets online. People registered, bought their tickets, and were added to your lists of RSVPs. They may have supplied a phone number; they might have added additional people; they might have added donations on top of their ticket price.

By the time you are launching into your speech, chances are a ton of people will have exchanged tickets, or not shown up at all. This means that, in the best case scenario, you might have 50% of the mobile phone numbers of the people in the room. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to contact everyone at your event directly and immediately?

Can I Bring a Friend? 

When I was the Executive Director of Pivot Legal Society, we used lots of sign-up sheets at events— at our annual general meeting, at parties, and at fundraisers. And you don’t need me to tell you, paper is the worst.

When we started using Eventbrite and then NationBuilder, things got a bit better. We had a list of people who had bought tickets online printed at the door, and volunteers crossed off people as they came in so that we knew who attended. Even though NationBuilder makes it very easy to determine between RSVPs and attendees, we still were missing all the plus-ones and the people who just showed up. Sometimes, if we had a very diligent volunteer, they would write down the name of the plus-ones, but then we were back to paper.

When I walked into the gala last week, I walked up to the registration table and told them my name. They had me down for two tickets. I had brought a friend who had never supported this organization before. I wanted to show him what they were all about. At the registration table, however, he went nameless. All they had on the sign-up sheet was “Peter Wrinch for two,” and in we went.

The Power of Mobile Texting

Let’s be honest, mobile numbers are gold, and the trends are telling. In 2013, the number of households using cell phones in Canada (where I am from) was 83%, up from 78% in 2010; the number of households that are using traditional landlines is down from 66% in 2010 to 56% in 2013. If you want to connect with your supporters, you need to have their cell numbers.

Let’s go back to the moment where you are about to start your speech at your event. What if, right when you finished your speech and after the crowd gave you a standing ovation, you asked everyone in the room to pull out their cell phones and hold them up in the air. You then asked them to text CONNECT to your dedicated local phone number. Once they sent their text, they would be asked to text their name and email address.

Within five minutes, you have the mobile numbers, names, and email addresses of all of your attendees (or at least a huge percentage). They are excited about your work and now you can connect with them directly.

I recently tested this while presenting to a group of 200 politicos, labor leaders, environmentalists, and social justice advocates. I asked the audience to text keywords based on what sector they were working in (e.g., text UNION if you are working in labor). Five minutes later, I had 90% of the mobile numbers in the room and a clear picture of the composition of the audience. 

The Sign-up Sheet Is Dead

Your core supporters are your organizational life blood. Being able to connect with them is the difference between thriving and surviving (or worse). Text messaging allows you to capture the most direct way to contact your supporters. Text messaging tools allow you to scale your efforts, giving you the ability to capture thousands (or 10,000s, or 100,000s) of mobile numbers in minutes.

Imagine inspiring your supporters at your next event and then imagine connecting with them directly the next time you need to engage them. The potential is endless. The next time you are inspiring your people, get them to pull out their cell phones and send you a text!

Peter Wrinch
Peter spent most of his 20s studying Russian revolutionary art and culture. After Russian history, Peter spent time working in Japan as an English teacher, a bartender, and a surfer. Upon returning to Vancouver, BC, Peter was drawn to the social change work of Pivot Legal Society. After a couple months volunteering, Peter was offered a contract position. A full-time position followed, and 5 years later, Peter was named the Executive Director. Peter is a respected speaker and thought leader on organizational culture and structure, fundraising, organizing, and technology. He is now a Lead Organizer at NationBuilder. He lives on Bowen Island with his young family.
October 6, 2015

Searching for the “Nonprofit Operating System”

You know that feeling of being organized and always caught up? At your peak energy for tackling the day? That’s what we at Airway Science for Kids, Inc. were looking for when evaluating options for having a centralized place to track what matters most to our organization, both within and without. We call it a “Nonprofit Operation System (Nonprofit OS)” and run it on FMYI [for my innovation]—after all, our laptops and phones have operating systems, so why can’t our nonprofit?

We set out to answer three key questions.

1. What challenges are we trying to solve regarding tracking our day-to-day operations in our Nonprofit OS?

We needed to find a way to track the outcomes and goals of our organization in a centralized manner without having to collect large amounts of paper, maintain several spreadsheets, or re-enter the same demographics for different outcomes.

Since we have staff who are “mobile”—meaning they don’t always come to the main office—we needed a tool for us to share as well as to collect information with all our staff. Using email wasn’t working as efficiently as we wanted, since not everyone—including part-time staff and volunteers—had an Airway Science account. People also don’t always check their emails. Finally, depending on the amount of email an individual gets, there’s a risk of emails and attachments getting “lost” in the shuffle.

We needed a system in which all necessary backup information and forms could be centrally located and easily accessible; and we needed a system that we could also communicate and share information with our board and volunteers.

2. How do we best set up our Nonprofit OS to align with our mission?

Our Nonprofit OS site is set up to track a variety of information for us:

  • Program-specific documents to track progress towards outcomes/goals
    • Student demographics
    • Rosters for classes
    • Attendance for classes
    • Length of time in programs
    • Pre/Post surveys
  • Organizational documents
    • Timesheets
    • Access to necessary forms that need to be completed for the organization (employee handbook, background check form, etc)
  • Updates, program and organizational documents, deadlines, and information for staff, as well as a mechanism for staff to communicate with administration, ask questions, share updates, etc.
  • Upcoming meetings and events for volunteers and board members

This system is truly set up as a two-way interactive tool between staff, administration, and volunteers.

3. What is the benefit of having a Nonprofit OS?

The benefits have been tremendous, and we’ve communicated the business case for it to our board.

We have been able to “do more with less,” meaning that because we have a limited (small) staff that is highly mobile, we are able to provide timely information and documents without necessarily having to have a staff person housed at a physical location to collect or distribute information. Having a centralized system means that we are able to provide required documents and information to staff and volunteers in a timely manner while allowing admin the flexibility to be out in the community—meeting with partners, creating relationships, and instructing youth at our various sites in the Portland Metro area. Also, part-time staff who are site-based understand that FMYI is the tool to access the information that they require to complete their roles in the community while at the same time understanding the expectation for them to share and submit necessary data in a timely manner with the central office.

Our data is centralized for staff to access and view. Our platform admin is able to control what areas are viewable and who has access to the various areas of our system. We are able to track trends ongoing and in real time, allowing transparency of data to those with access to the systems, allowing opportunity for input, questions, and comments. We are also able to track submission of data, projects, and tasks and are able to track which ones have not been completed or submitted.

Our Nonprofit OS serves as a communication tool to keep all of us connected, regardless of where they are and what their role in the organization is.

Jackie Murphy
Jackie Murphy has worked in nonprofit, youth serving organizations for over 18 years. She currently serves as the Executive Director for Airway Science for Kids, Inc. providing STEM programs in N/NE Portland and Hillsboro communities.
October 6, 2015

[Your Guest Article Here for MAM Connect]

It’s that time of year again! Wahoo! November is Member Appreciation Month (MAM) over here at NTEN. To celebrate, Members take over Connect! That means the guest articles featured in NTEN Connect monthly and online come from our Members.

The topic of the month is “Member Best Practices.” What are your best practices? What have you learned the hard way, and what advice would you give to others in the NTEN Community?

Are you a Member? If so, we crave your content. We need your content. Your content completes us. Send us your original or popular prose about nonprofit technology. NTEN operators are standing by!

How it works:

We’ll post your submissions on the online space for NTEN Connect throughout next month. The best-reviewed articles — as determined by page views, time on page, social media mentions, and number of comments — will be published in our monthly Connect e-publication.

How you participate:

  • You must be an NTEN Member (Don’t think we won’t check!!)
  • Send your nonprofit technology-related article (800-1200 words) to stephanie@nten.org by October 21. Please include “MAM Connect” in the subject header, so Steph knows to pay special heed
  • Once your post is up, convince your friends and family to read it

Plus: If you have a nifty link you think would fit in the “Things We Like” section, post that in comments, below. We’ll try our darndest to include as many of them as we can in one epic linkfest.

Thanks, Team! We look forward to reading your work.


Steph Routh
Steph is Content Manager at NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network. She has spent over a decade in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on organizational development, communications, fundraising, and program planning. Steph served as the first Executive Director of Oregon Walks for five years prior to joining NTEN. She is passionate about removing barriers to opportunities and finding equity at the many intersections of social justice work. And she feels lucky every day she is at NTEN, with a Community that does exactly that. Outside the NTEN office, Steph is the Mayor of Hopscotch Town, a consulting and small publishing firm that inspires and celebrates fun, lovable places for everyone. Steph is married to her bicycle and an aunt of two.
September 28, 2015

The 9th Annual Nonprofit Technology Staffing & Investments Report

2015 Nonprofit Staffing ReportNow in our ninth year of collecting and reporting on these nonprofit technology spending and practices data, this research provides valuable benchmarks to help you assess and plan your technology budgets and strategies, and considers the nonprofit sector as a whole to gauge the maturity and effectiveness of technology strategies and use.

Please log in to download this report.
With NTEN’s theory of change in mind, this report examines technology staffing levels, technology budgets, overall organizational approach to technology decisions, as well as technology oversight and management practices. Over 700 individuals from nonprofits participated in taking the survey, ranging from various operating budget size, staff size, and more.

Key findings from this year’s survey:

  • On average, nonprofits have 4.6 technology-responsible staff.
  • On average, each technology responsible staff supports about 28 organizational staff members.
  • We continue to see a positive trend in terms of including technology in strategic plans with 66% of all respondents indicating this practice.
  • The median technology budget as a percentage of the organization’s total operating budget across all organization sizes in our survey ranges from 1% to 2.2%.
  • We asked respondents to indicate the number of technology-responsible staff with technology credentials (e.g., a degree or certificate in IT, computing, or programming). We found a strong correlation between Technology Adoption and number of technology-responsible staff with credentials.
  • We have seen some positive change regarding respondents conducting Return on Investment (ROI) evaluation for technology investments: while we’ve seen no increase in firm Yes’s here, we see the following: last year only 36% reported conducting informal or infrequent ROI, compared to 42% this year. This has moved the “No” responses from 48% last year to 41% this year.

Please log in to download this report.

Amy Sample Ward
Amy Sample Ward is NTEN's CEO. She is also a blogger, facilitator and trainer focused on leveraging social technologies for social change. In 2013, Amy co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Allyson Kapin. She previously co-authored Social by Social: a handbook in using new technologies for social impact. She has worked in and with advocacy organizations, private foundations, and community groups in the US, UK and around the world.
September 24, 2015

Things We Like (September 2015)

A monthly roundup of our favorite nonprofit tech resources and other goodies.

  1. Do you have wisdom to share about bridging the digital divide? The Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide would love for you to participate in their upcoming 2015 conference. The deadline for submission is September 26.
  2. Anyone who was lucky enough to know Jake Brewer loved him. His death last weekend was a tragedy no words can describe. He was a hero to so many. Here is a written memorial from the Washington Post: “‘I lost part of my heart’: Beloved White House staffer Jake Brewer mourned.”
  3. [This space held as a moment of silence for Jake and for his family]
  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates is slated to write a comic for Marvel. Look for Black Panther—a hero with “the baddest costume in comics” doing good—next year.
  5. Here are six ways to use your Apple iPhone to do good, regardless of what costume you’re wearing.
  6. Sadly, here’s one way you can’t use your iPhone, because “Apple Rejects Hinder, A Reproductive Rights App By ‘The Daily Show’ Creator.” Apparently, being a professional woman in satire only gets you so far.
  7. At the Emmys earlier this week, we saw Taraji P. Henson cheering for Viola Davis when she won Best Actress in a Drama. Here is why this is a lesson for women and girls everywhere.
  8. Made with Code is a website that hopes to communicate to girls the lesson that they can literally (and we mean “literally” literally) do anything with code.
  9. If you want to communicate—a lesson, an update, a request for support—you need to believe in the power of visual communications.
  10. Here is an interview with the iconic visual artist Lisa Frank, who may just have represented you or a friend’s childhood life, as it did the interviewer.
  11. Socality Barbie is a visual parody of #lifeauthentic. Its portrayal of a carefully curated life hits a bit too close to home for some.
  12. Or how about this parody of the carefully-curated minimalist home?
  13. But if you’re going to eschew minimalism and have a pile of something in your home, how about a Cat Pile?
  14. We close out Things We Like with animal cuteness, compiled by scientists.
Steph Routh
Steph came to nonprofit work through the side door, after studying classical music performance, working in an Alaskan fish cannery, and teaching theater and creative writing in NYC and Thailand, among other pursuits. Those side trips notwithstanding, she has spent over a decade in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on organizational development, communications, fundraising, and program planning. Steph served as the first Executive Director of Oregon Walks for five years prior to joining NTEN. She is passionate about removing barriers to opportunities and finding equity at the many intersections of social justice work. And she feels lucky every day she is at NTEN, with a Community that does exactly that. Outside the NTEN office, Steph is the Mayor of Hopscotch Town, a consulting and small publishing firm that inspires and celebrates fun, lovable places for everyone. Steph is married to her bicycle and an aunt of two.
September 22, 2015

Storytelling, The Spice of (a Nonprofit’s) Life

We all talk about the significance of data and metrics. They are important to a nonprofit’s funders and its staff. They can help a nonprofit stay accountable and on track. I value data and have never questioned the important role it plays for nonprofits and, for that matter, all organizations.

However, can you imagine your food without any spices? It is very hard to imagine, right? It is the same as offering data without a story.

Spices add special flavor to your meal that people remember. The magical smell of spices attracts people to the table. Spices have been the inspiration for trade, exploration, war, and poetry since the beginning of civilization.

They change the physical appearance of food. Whether salty, sweet, bold, or delicate, each spice has its own merits and enhances the food in immeasurable ways.

Storytelling is the spice that you add to your data. With more that 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the US, it’s critical to spice up your organization to differentiate yourself from others doing similar work. Everyone uses salt and pepper; how can your nonprofit stand out and become remarkable? What’s your special spice? More to the point, what are your stories that capture the heart and soul of your organization and speak to your donors, volunteers, and key stakeholders.

Stories engage the hearts, minds, and souls of the readers. According to Jenifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, stories raise over twice as much as statistics alone.

According to Prof. Aaker, the use of statistics raises an average of $1.14 for the non-profit; however, a story raises an average of $2.38 while a mix of the two raises an average of $1.43.

Why do stories raise the bar and raise more money? Because, stories are impactful, compelling and memorable. As importantly, they connect on a personal level.

According to Waggener Edstrom, 56% of individuals that support nonprofits on the social Web confirm that compelling storytelling is what motivates them to take action on behalf of nonprofits. That means that if you’re not telling your stories, you may be missing out on funding and other support.

Why? It’s pretty simple—people remember things when they’re told in a storytelling format two to seven times more than by text, or data, alone. By telling stories that make an emotional connection, an organization can make its case and emphasize the important work it’s doing. It can use stories to differentiate from other nonprofits doing similar work as well as engage current donors and volunteers and attract new ones.

Every day, we are bombarded with noise. Technology and the Internet force us to use different platforms to reach different demographics. When it comes to storytelling, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube, Vimeo, and many other platforms are all fragmented and streamlined and offer only limited engagement. With different social networks, our minds (and often hearts) are pulled in different directions, with organizations chasing the conversation instead of leading it. With increasingly fragmented audiences, multiple screens, and a greater inattention to advertising messages, there needs to be a better and more secure and successful means of generating audience attention and engagement. Stories help you communicate effectively the vision and mission and tell your nonprofit’s stories in a memorable, inspiring, and engaging way. Telling your stories in one place, banking them, and then sharing them across other social networks help the nonprofit develop a core and unified message that taps into its mission and purpose. And this has the effect of driving more engagement, raising more funds, and having a greater social impact.

Is data valuable? Absolutely. And, at times, it can be used in a story to drive the message home about the nonprofit’s effectiveness and efficiency. But data alone does not cut it in terms of impactful marketing and fundraising. I personally believe that every nonprofit has a spice, but it often doesn’t know how to share it effectively beyond the organization. Without the spice of good stories, you may be leaving food on the table!

Tell your story, engage your audience, build a powerful community. And don’t forget to be creative with your spices.

“People won’t remember what you say or what you do, but they’ll remember how you make them feel.” Maya Angelou

Alyssa Martina
Alyssa Martina is the founder and CEO of Memloom Stories, a platform that lets nonprofits create, share and bank their stories about their organizations.
September 22, 2015

Beyond the Comfort Zone

Telling Stories That Matter

This article was originally published in Hatch for Good. It is republished here with permission.

There’s something about the prompt “tell me a story” that makes people think more about the limitations than the possibilities.

As a speechwriter in the nonprofit space, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most brilliant people on the planet. They can recite theories of change and apply analytical models to just about any problem. But ask them to tell you a story, and they freeze.

You know they can tell a good story—you’ve seen them at happy hour or swapped tales in the cafeteria. But there’s something about the prompt “tell me a story” that makes people think more about the limitations than the possibilities. Can I say that? Will people care? What if I don’t know the ending … and what if it doesn’t end the way we hoped?

As a result, what comes out is often a formulaic anecdote rather than an authentic moment, which are the kinds of stories we should be striving to tell.

We can break free of the storytelling rut in our organizations by pushing beyond the comfort zones to tell the stories that matter. Here are three stories your organization should start telling today:

Stories with an “I.” It’s a constant refrain I hear from people working in the nonprofit sector: “I am not the story.” Yet storytelling in the first person is almost always more powerful than in the third. First-person stories are more likely to show vulnerabilities and demonstrate authenticity, and grab and connect with audiences. Encourage your colleagues to start with “I”—to talk about themselves as subjects who have been transformed by their experiences. But that doesn’t mean we should forget about our beneficiaries. Rather, empower them to tell their own stories, rather than having them told by your organization second-hand.

Stories of failure. Most of the fairytales we were told as children—often our first entryway to storytelling—had happy endings. But in the world of social change, not everything we try is an instant success. If we’re taking risks (and we should be), we inevitably fail, which can generate some of the most valuable stories of learning, evaluating, and changing course—all of which is vital to accelerating impact. If your organization is still risk-averse, remind them that every failure has its own happy ending—whether that’s a revelation or a transformation. A story without a happy ending is one, frankly, whose ending hasn’t come.

And that’s ok, because we should be telling more…

Stories in mid-stream. There is a misconception that you can only tell stories once there is a resolution at hand. But given that much of the work we do in the social impact field takes years—even decades—to yield the final results, we do a disservice by not telling the stories of process and progress as we go. As one of my senior colleagues once noted, we should focus as much on publishing “thinking” pieces as we do on thought pieces. The same is true for storytelling. Unfinished stories can compel a reader to action to help write the ending, while others offer cliff-hangers that keep audiences coming back.

Of course, we should continue to tell classic stories of triumph and success. And we should continue to tell our organization’s origin stories to evoke our values. But by advocating for stories that make our colleagues (and maybe even ourselves) uncomfortable, we can begin to tell the stories that people want to hear rather than the stories we consider safe.

Traci Carpenter
Traci Carpenter is the Senior Speechwriter at the Rockefeller Foundation, where she leads the speechwriting process and editorial content.
September 22, 2015

Interview with Snap Judgment’s Glynn Washington

Glynn Washington is host and executive producer of Snap Judgment, heard on NPR stations nationwide. Snap delivers a raw, musical brand of storytelling, daring listeners to see the world through the eyes of another.

In this interview with NTEN’s Content Manager, Steph Routh, Glynn talks about his origins as a radio show and podcast producer, describes why storytelling matters in the pursuit of social justice, and offers advice for nonprofit organizations within the world of storytelling.

Before creating Snap Judgment, Glynn worked as an educator, diplomat, community activist, actor, political strategist, fist-shaker, mountain-hollerer, and foot stomper. Glynn composed music for the Kunst Stoff dance performances in San Francisco, rocked live spoken word poetry in Detroit, joined a band in Indonesia, wrote several screenplays, painted a daring series of self portraits, released a blues album, and thinks his stories are best served with cocktails.

Glynn Washington
Glynn Washington is the executive producer and host of Snap Judgment, a show and podcast from NPR.
September 21, 2015

Invited In

Photographing Vulnerable Communities

Rwandan genocide survivor Murangira Emmanuel stands in front of buildings full of preserved bodies from the 1994 genocide at the Murambi memorial site. Shot in the head and left for dead in a mass grave, Murangira miraculously survived but lost his wife and children. (Photograph: Sean Sheridan)

I am a firm believer in the power of the image, that a single photograph can change the world.

Intrigued? Try this: What was it that put the Syrian refugee crisis on the front page after more than four years of being a second (or third) tier story? Caused world governments to spring into action and dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees they let into their countries? Compelled the Pope to declare that every Catholic family in Europe should take in a refugee family? Answer: the single photograph of a dead refugee boy washed up on a beach. Unbelievably, that image alone did all of this—and more.

I am not surprised.

Syrian refugees trying to live their lives as normally a possible in a refugee camp in Lebanon. (Photograph: Sean Sheridan for Medical Teams International)

So it would follow, given the power of the image, that the question is, what are the photographer’s ethical responsibilities in making images of vulnerable populations, like the many to be found in the Syrian refugee crisis?

First and foremost, it is my belief that I cannot operate ethically if I do not make an attempt to show the full truth of a scene or situation. I need to search out and photograph the worst and the best that a scene holds—if I want the story to be fully truthful. And this is the role of the journalist. To tell the truth. So I often tell my hosts wherever I shoot, “Take me to the worst and the best of life in your community.” I want, and need, to see it all or I am not doing my job.

However, it is a common temptation to go right to the worst of the worst, zeroing in on shocking images in order to get published or force the point. And…there are times this needs to be done (think Rwanda genocide: the world needed to see what was really happening or it simply would not have believed it). And I will admit that, like a moth to the flame, I often look for the worst before I look for the best. Part of this is the “rubber-necking” human nature that we all have, especially people like me who are looking for compelling images. And in the case of the Syrian boy on the beach, it can be vital to waking up a world that too often slumbers in the face of suffering. So kudos to that photographer and those of us who don’t shy away from the hard things we often see unfolding right in front of us. Kudos to the truth-tellers.

Despite having her eyes destroyed by land mines in the Rwandan genocide and her land stolen by a greedy uncle—and subsequently restored by a justice nonprofit—this woman has discovered joy in the midst of turmoil. (Photograph: Sean Sheridan for IJM)

But it would be ethically questionable, at best, for any photojournalist to stop at the worst of the worst if they have time to “work” a scene. Doing so feeds the vulture called “Poverty Porn,” (much has been written on this subject; see Emily Roenigk’s fine blog for a primer) that feasts on images of children with flies on their faces and distended bellies, so I won’t take the time to make that point other than to simply say it would be a mistake for a photographer to go for the easy shots like this if they are not representative of a community as a whole. Since I work for nonprofits that are attempting to effect great change, I must not bring home photographs that create a false stereotype. Doing anything less than striving for a true picture of what a community is like as a whole puts me into an ethical conundrum and dangerously close to falling into poverty porn. If I fail on this account, I lose something incredibly valuable: trust.

A beneficiary of an innovative safe water project in Tanzania takes a cool drink on a hot day. (Photograph: Sean Sheridan for Water Missions International)

At this point, trust is broken not only with the people who have spent good money to send me on an assignment, but with the communities where I walk and shoot. And as an ambassador of what I call “all things good,” I simply cannot do this. Ever. Again, being ethical means being truthful, which starts with a commitment to tell the full story. This starts with building trust with those who are sending me—and those whom I ultimately photograph.

Think about it for a moment. If someone came into your neighborhood and said, “Hey, I just want to take a few photographs to show what life is like here in this place,” and later you saw what he or she shot and it was decidedly not what the neighborhood is actually like, would you trust that person? Would you be hopping mad? Of course you would be. And rightly so.

Which brings me to my last point: I go to where I am already sent or invited in by people who have an existing relationship with the nonprofit who hired me. If this isn’t possible because of some fast-moving crisis on the ground, then I make sure I am getting at least a nod of assent by holding up my camera and gesturing “Okay?” Making eye contact and showing deference like this goes a long way in keeping trust.

To by sly or sneaky and try to “steal” a shot of people who are in turmoil or acting privately is to rob them of their dignity. And at the end of the day, restoring and building people’s dignity may be the photographer’s highest calling. On rare occasions, like the image of the boy on the beach, it does take a difficult photograph to be the catalyst to change. But more often than not, it also comes through images of joy in the midst of hardship, hope in the midst of turmoil, or reconciliation in the midst of conflict, especially in situations where the situation looks and feels far different than my home. I often have to remind myself that it is a great privilege to even be there in the first place.

In a few weeks, I’ll be talking more about the power of this type of compelling storytelling and how it can change the world for good in front of a huge audience of changemakers at Blackbaud’s annual conference for nonprofits, bbcon. I can’t wait. Blackbaud is even giving nonprofits a chance to win an on-location photo shoot with me.

Sean Sheridan
Sean Sheridan is a photojournalist, author and speaker who has spent nearly two decades elevating people and brands through storytelling. From revealing the dignity and power of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people to demystifying the most influential leaders and celebrities of our time, Sheridan is known for capturing the untold stories of transformation that inspire and unite mankind. His photojournalism has taken him to more than 60 countries, and his live shows and written works have captivated audiences within mainstream media, sports, politics, Fortune 500 companies and countless cause-minded organizations. Sheridan’s work has been featured in SMITHSONIAN magazine, GOOD, and The Daily Beast, on the cover of The Washington Times, in numerous books including best-sellers The Locust Effect and UNthink, at TED and other leading conferences, and in countless development agencies and gallery exhibitions. While shooting in Liberia in 2015 with various courageous nonprofit organizations to capture stories of hope and impact, he joined the ranks of the “Ebola Fighters” who received Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” accolade. You can find him @SeanSheridan on Instagram.
September 21, 2015

Merging Data and Story to Win More Equitable Policies

Compelling facts have always been a key ingredient in winning policy campaigns, and the rise of web technology has opened the floodgates for data that would have been out of reach to all but the most dogged advocates just 20 years ago.

But while we are awash in data, it is often like Coleridge’s famous line: “Water, water, everywhere; nor any drop to drink.” The sheer volume of data is overwhelming, and the data that is accessible is often not the right data. Advocates working for equity—just and fair inclusion for all—need data that is broken down by race, age, geography, income, and other dimensions. They also need a way to frame the data—a narrative that explains how and why these inequities matter.

As an organization founded to advance economic and social equity through policy change, PolicyLink is working to fill this need and equip changemakers with a data-backed narrative to help them win.

Equity Is the Superior Growth Model

About five years ago, Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and CEO PolicyLink, saw the kernels of a new and powerful narrative for equity advocates. The 2010 Census results were out and they showed that the country was continuing to grow more diverse. Meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street movement was bringing inequality to the public’s attention and new research was showing how rising inequality was a risk not just for those being left behind, but for the growth and prosperity of entire regions and nations.

Angela wove these threads together into a new story about the centrality of racial and economic inclusion not only as a moral imperative—which it continues to be—but as an economic one. America is bolting toward having a multiracial, people-of-color majority within just a few decades. Our growing, diverse workforce and population is a tremendous asset in the global economy—one that can only be fully manifested if people of color can access the resources and opportunities they need to participate in and contribute to growth and democracy. Dismantling lingering racial barriers and creating pathways to educational and economic security and success is critical to their future and the future of their communities and the country as a whole. The take-home is clear—equity is the superior growth model.

Building a Data-Backed Narrative

Data was at the heart of this framing from the beginning. Recognizing the importance of disaggregated and regularly updated data to keep the message fresh and give it legs, PolicyLink joined forces with the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California (PERE). PERE is a research and policy shop headed by Dr. Manuel Pastor who is a prominent researcher, speaker, and writer on issues of changing demographics, racial equity, and the economy. PERE conducts all kinds of research, but our partnership drew on their deep-bench strength in quantitative research and the development, maintenance, and facility with large datasets.

Our team worked together to produce a framing paper, America’s Tomorrow: Equity Is the Superior Growth Model (PDF), that bolstered the narrative with powerful statistics, maps, and charts and shared it with our networks of advocates and the broader world.

Going Local: Tailoring the Narrative to Regional Realities

The national story was critical for starting this narrative shift work, but we knew that advocates and policymakers needed data for their own community to put it to use. PERE painstakingly built the data infrastructure to make that possible, drawing from multiple data sources including historical economic data and demographic projections, aligning this data to consistently-defined boundaries for 202 geographies: the 150 largest regions, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the United States as a whole.

Equipped with this data, we began working with collaborations of local leaders who were developing regional sustainability plans. In about a dozen diverse counties, regions, and states, we developed Equity Profiles that document their changing demographics and performance on a host of equity indicators. These profiles helped these changemakers understand the trends in their communities, link these trends to the experiences of their constituents and community members, and develop shared narratives about how and why equity and inclusion mattered to their economic futures.

From the Heartland metros of Omaha and Kansas City to diverse regions like Miami and Houston, demographic change was a salient issue. Even in predominantly-White communities, Latinos, Asians, African Americans and other communities of color are usually driving population growth, and breathing new life into disinvested commercial corridors. Combining the demographic data with metrics showing how different groups are excelling—or in many cases, being left behind—on key indicators of economic success, health, education, and more was a good starting point for having productive local discussions about race, equity, and opportunity.

Coming together around the data helped these collaborations grow stronger, identify areas of focus, and bring on new partners. In Rhode Island, the profile led directly to policy action. After seeing how communities of color were responsible for all of the state’s population growth yet faced major barriers to economic opportunity, then-Governor Chafee opened a new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Opportunity focused on inclusive hiring and contracting in government jobs.

The local data strengthened our own advocacy as well. In California, the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, which we coordinate, married economic imperative data and messaging with the voices of youth leaders to successfully win a slate of state policies that reform harmful “zero tolerance” school discipline approaches, invest in career pathways for men returning from prison, and more. As youth advocate Angel Diaz put it, “If adults look at young people as assets to be developed instead of problems to solve, we can change the future.” We found that the mix of data, narrative, and testimonials is a potent advocacy tool.

Democratizing Data via the National Equity Atlas

From the beginning, our goal was to democratize this data and make it widely available to advocates and policymakers. Released last October, the National Equity Atlas is a one-of-a-kind resource to track, measure, and make the case for inclusive growth at the local, state, and national level.

The Atlas makes detailed data disaggregated by race, nativity, education, income, and more available through a user-friendly interface. At the click of a button, you can access 29 field-tested indicators of demographic change, racial and economic inclusion, and the economic benefits of equity for the 202 geographies in our database. The “equity is the superior growth model” narrative is embedded throughout the site, providing context for how the data matters for equitable growth, along with policy ideas, real-world examples, and links to additional data and policy resources

The Atlas is also a living resource, and next week we will be adding data for the 100 largest cities to the site (join us for the release webinar), and more indicators and data cuts (including disaggregating the Asian population) are in the works.

Data itself is not social change. But data combined with a story can power the bolder, smarter, more targeted strategies that communities need to leverage their increasing diversity as an asset and secure a bright economic future for all of their residents.

Sarah Treuhaft
Sarah Treuhaft is Director of Equitable Growth Initiatives at PolicyLink. She leads the organization’s work to advance racial and economic inclusion as an economic imperative and coordinates the development of the National Equity Atlas. You can connect with Sarah on Twitter @streuhaft.