Tag: storytelling

Consumer software products have started getting into the art of storytelling. When you use AirBnB, you’re not just booking a place to stay; you’re booking a personal experience. When you use Lyft, you’re not just hailing a ride; you’re getting a ride with a friend. Both products are focused on their community of users and on weaving their story into the very core of their products. The cloud provides the opportunity to hone a design’s story with core stakeholders with ease and grace.

As an enterprise product designer, I weave the art of story telling into the design process. Design decisions are often made so that the product or feature being designed can tell its own story.

Storytelling weaves functionality and design of a product with an emotional connection to the user. Nonprofit organizations aren’t any different from consumer or enterprise software products. Good design (being defined as having both functionality and form) is no longer enough to build trust with people on the internet. People want to be told a story. With nonprofits specifically, it’s perhaps even more important that a story is at the core of the digital experience. A deep emotional connection to a story creates a stronger connection to the organization and a higher chance at being interested in an organization’s activities, which results in a desire to contribute.

Every user interaction should be thought out with the story in mind, and designs should constantly be shared for feedback to ensure good design as well as a good incorporation of the story into the site or product. Once the overarching message that a nonprofit wants to convey to donors is figured out, the spirit of that message should be experienced throughout the site. Every screen and interaction of a site should be mocked up in low fidelity – including where users will click. At this stage, designs should not be pixel perfect. Pictures of screens drawn on whiteboard, or even paper sketches, are perfectly acceptable. To send lo-fi wireframes, I’ll often draw on whiteboard or sketch on paper, take a picture of it with my phone, text it to myself, then email it to other team members or share it on Dropbox or other cloud-based sharing solution for feedback. Both Dropbox and Box are fantastic solutions for saving and sharing designs, since everything is hosted in the cloud, and shared folders automatically sync when anything gets saved in them. For those that are fond of digital low fidelity wireframes, Balsamiq Mockups is one of the simplest tools to use. Their drag-and-dropping of assets to communicate concepts doesn’t require a designer’s aptitude, and for nonprofits, Balsamiq offers a significant discount.

Sharing an interactive prototype with either remote team members or users for feedback can be done by saving it into a Dropbox folder, then sharing the link. When users or team members are giving feedback, test to see if the story is both compelling and evident throughout each screen and interaction. For mobile products, sketches of screens can be used, then pieced together using POP: Prototyping on Paper to test out the interactions directly on a mobile phone.

After a site or product has launched, tracking metrics behind its success will also give you a good bar for how successful the storytelling is. For a simple site, Google Analytics will suffice. For sites with increased complexity, and especially for products, Mixpanel is invaluable in tracking behavior and doing cohort analysis. To track high-level snapshots of where users are clicking for quick iterations or A/B testing of screens, CrazyEgg does a phenomenal job at providing a heat map of user behavior.

Good design isn’t just about visuals or pixels; it’s about functionality and emotionally connecting with your audience or users. The stronger the emotional connection, the stronger the story.

What is a story bank anyway? Storytelling is a cornerstone of nonprofit fundraising and public messaging. The ability to identify and tell a compelling story is such an important part of conveying our impact that it has almost reached the level of cliché.

Storybanking, however, takes storytelling one step further. It is a process of identifying and organizing volunteers who are willing to share their own stories in their own words, through interviews with media, testimonies before Congress, or speeches at public events. To do it right, it requires an organizational culture and technical infrastructure to collect and catalogue stories so that the right storyteller can be matched with the right opportunity at the right time.

So what does this have to do with the cloud? To answer that question, let me tell you a story of my own.

I began my career in storybanking at Families USA, a pioneer of the technique. When I got there, the stories were housed in a database that I could only access from the computer in my office, which seemed fine at the time because the story bank was essentially a team of one, and I went in there every day!

The decision to change started as a slow boil. I was keeping an ongoing list of changes I wanted to make to the database – pretty basic things like adding new fields and tracking the different stages a story contact went through before appearing in media – and, alas, some errors started to come up. Unfortunately, the 2005-era technology that was used to build this customized solution was swiftly going out of date.  When we approached the original vendor with these changes, even they seemed to suggest that ongoing maintenance of this database was not worth the money. Sound familiar?

It wasn’t until we received an urgent story request, however, that the need for a cloud-based solution became apparent. This was 2009, a year in which our stories about the need for health reform were in demand. The Administration was organizing town hall meetings across the country to bring the message of health reform to the American people, and they wanted the President to be introduced by local people who desperately needed access to health care. As these things often are, the request for stories was on pretty short notice. I had already gone home for the day when I got the request. We did such a good job finding a story that they called me for another one that weekend, when I was up in Baltimore. Of course, I went into the office to cull through the database! This was exactly the kind of thing our story bank was for.

Eventually, we connected the White House with some great people: Nathan Wilkes, a man in Colorado whose hemophilic son needed millions of dollars worth of treatment that put him at constant risk of hitting the lifetime caps that are now outlawed under the Affordable Care Act; and Lori Hitchcock, a woman in New Hampshire who had a pre-existing condition that haunted her, and whose insurability (or lack thereof) had a dramatic impact on the trajectory of her career. Both of these wonderful people got a chance to meet the President and be a part of something historic that changed their lives and the lives of millions of people like them. I feel pretty good about being a part of that. But I knew that experience didn’t have to be so hard.

As you and your organization weigh the decision to move onto the cloud, consider the following lessons I learned during my experience.

Cloud technology is not just for collaboration

I was only one person! And yet, the availability of the cloud improved the quality and efficiency of my work dramatically. I went from having to go into the office every time (and sometimes missing time-sensitive opportunities) to being able to respond quickly to requests from reporters even when I was away from the office. 

Software as a Service (SaaS) upgrades automatically

Most providers of Software as a Service are constantly making improvements to their systems even when the consumers are not aware of it. Subscribing to a software service is a similar or lower cost than the thousands of dollars we would have had to invest every couple of years to maintain our old database. Moreover, the upgrades are seamless, as opposed to the old model of accumulating enough error messages and tweaks to go back to the vendor for maintenance.

Most cloud services are incredibly flexible

A big improvement for us was the ability to make changes on our own as the need arose. It seemed kind of crazy that we had to go back to the vendor every time we wanted to make a tiny change in the architecture of our database. As many things do, the process of collecting stories and the software needs that go along with it are always growing and changing. If you find software that you are comfortable navigating, you can make a lot of these changes yourself. Find a system that will grow with you!

If you are serious about being a resource for media, elected officials, or any third party that covers the issues you care about, storybanking is a powerful tool. Once reporters learn that you have a whole database of potential interviews, the phone won’t stop ringing. To be that kind of trusted resource, though, you must be able to respond quickly and consistently. Building a story bank database on the cloud is an essential part of building that reliability and, ultimately, getting your message out to your audience. 

iheartnpr.jpgIf nonprofits want to learn how to create content that both engages audiences and creates devoted supporters, we need look no further than the gold standard offered each day by public radio. Think about it: Radio producers can create stories that keep us in the car for “driveway moments” even when we’ve reached home, just so we can hear the ending.

Public radio has created legions of devotees who give money for something they can already get for free. At the same time, we’re in the middle of a renaissance of digital audio online and via mobile technology.

To take advantage of this is an exciting and pivotal moment, nonprofits should consider adding audio storytelling to your digital communications toolkit. Here’s why.

LISTENING (or why audio is special):

Listen to this 3 1/2 minute clip from WNYC and think about what you can see in your mind’s eye.

Can’t you almost see what reporter Marianne Mccune is experiencing? Radio requires the listener to use their imagination. I think that brings us emotionally closer to the story. Add to this that audio is often more intimate than other media. We often listen alone or on headphones, putting these voices directly inside our skulls. Audio is also better suited to our busy multitasking lives: I can listen at the gym, while washing dishes or checking email.

Another thing to consider about the WNYC story above: I doubt that Margaret Maynard would have let the reporter into her apartment with a video camera (she was in her house dress after all). A microphone is far less intimidating and in some ways offers a level of confidentiality. Without a camera in the way, it’s far easier for the interviewer to maintain eye contact with the person being interviewed. Because of this, I think people open up in different ways and get to the heart of the story even more quickly.

STORYTELLING:

Listen to this one-minute “sonic i.d.” from Atlantic Public Media on Cape Cod.

 

Even In these sixty seconds, there is an anecdote that reveals the mechanics of effective storytelling.

Our brains are hard wired for stories: we can’t stop ourselves from listening or watching a compelling story. But what is a good story?

Ira Glass says that the structure of every story on “This American Life” is a “series of actions where someone says ‘This happened, then this happened then this happened’ and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means and then onto the next sequence of actions.” This “moment of reflection” also interests Harvard professor Marshal Ganz because it reveals shared values that knit us together. Because of this, he argues the personal stories of individuals responding to challenges (“Story of Self”) is the bedrock of effective community organizing.

Character is most important to independent radio producer Samantha Broun who has worked on multimedia projects with nonprofits. “I have found that the most powerful testimonial I can provide for non-profits is story of someone (a character) whose life has been effected by that organization. No talking heads. No scripted bits. But real, raw, emotional tape from a person whose life has been changed.”

To tell the story of your organization’s work, look for the individual experiences of a program participant or a supporter that illustrate the values you’re working for. At the same time, respect their ownership of stories and think of “facilitating” others in telling their stories directly to a larger audience online.

PRODUCING:

Listen tothis story I made about Antoine Jenkins canvassing for Barack Obama in Las Vegas, Nevada:

Like many other radio producers, I used a digital recorderheadphones and an omnidirectional microphone. Many reporters are now using smart phones to record audio, especially in situations where bulky recording equipment isn’t feasible. SoundCloud’s app on iPhone and Droid is an incredibly easy way to record and post directly to the web and other social media (think Instagram for audio). This could be a great tool for nonprofits to use at community events or gatherings.

Here’s two practical tips I’ve learned from recording interviews:

  1. Get close to what you’re recording but not too close. It’s best to place your microphone or smartphone four inches below the mouth of the interview subject, i.e. ” ‘ice cream cone distance.’ This helps you avoid recording the popping that the P sound often makes.
  2. Be aware of surrounding noise. Ambient noise can often be an important part of radio stories, especially when you’re capturing live action. But for interviews not directly related to action, it’s best to record in a quiet non-echoey space and later gather ambient sounds. Carpets and drapes often help absorb sound. Wearing headphones helps ensure that you get great sound with digital recorders.

To edit the audio you gather, you’ll need audio editing software. GarageBand and Audacity are free. I use Hindenberg but many radio producers prefer Pro Tools or Audition. To learn more about producing great radio stories, check out Transom.organd Rob Rosenthal’s Howsound podcast. Rob teaches the excellent Transom Story Workshop (which I attended in 2011 to start learning the art of radio storytelling).

SHARING:

Listen to this one-minute story “First Love and 27 Other Firsts” by my radio-producing friend Whitney Jones..

This story has been a hit on Cowbird, an online story sharing community. Whitney also shared it on SoundCloud and the Public Radio Exchange. You can embed tracks from these sites on other websites like blogs.

As part of a project funded by SoundCloud, I embedded stories on this website to honor Studs Terkel’s book. I see these as “audio blog posts” or “audio posts” rather than a “podcast.” Not only does it sound less intimidating and time intensive, a “post” or “story” implies a one-off that’s part of a larger content strategy using other media. Also with SoundCloud, listeners can subscribe for updates via RSS and iTunes.

Public Radio Exchange is a great platform to get your stories directly on public radio. Whitney sold his story to the Public Radio RemixKFAI and Third Coast Festival/Re:sound. Obviously stories from your organization won’t sell if they’re straight up promotions or advocacy. To help navigate journalistic concerns, you could invite an experienced independent radio producerto help tell your story and market it through PRX.

CONCLUSION:

So if you remember anything from all my proselytizing for audio storytelling, it should be: just do it! Experiment! Start listening, storytelling, producing and sharing audio stories and see if something miraculous happens.

P.S. For an even more audiovisual presentation of this information, check out this Prezi from my session at the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference, and the notes from the session.

dec2013-thumbnail.jpg

The true test of any nonprofit is to demonstrate impact. But the first test is to set up a way to measure it. Every nonprofit aims to have impact, but few have the systems in place to calculate little more than outputs.

Prior to joining NTEN in 2013, I worked in the human rights field with Social Accountability International (SAI). Much of 2010 was focused on Project Cultivar, which worked in the Dominican Republic sugarcane plantations and its company towns, bateyes. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, cholera spreading into the bateyes posed an imminent threat as most of the workers migrated from Haiti.

With our local partners, we were able to connect with the farms we worked with to quickly distribute water bottles with purification tablets to workers. We were proud to note that through this intervention, there were no reported outbreaks.

While this story was inspiring, it didn’t necessarily represent the great work SAI did as a whole. For nonprofits, measuring their broader impact can be easier said than done. That’s why we’ve focused this entire issue on nonprofit impact.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what’s in this issue:

We also go behind the scenes with charity: water and Transparency International, and shine a spotlight on two projects from the ISEAL Alliance and the Foundation Center. Plus, check out the new NTEN Voices section for tips and tools from our team and community!

Get started! The NTEN: Change publication, designed especially for busy nonprofit executive directors, departmental directors, boards, and other leadership staff, is free and ready to download!

Each year for the Nonprofit Technology Conference, over one hundred organizations sponsor the conference and participate in the Science Fair. It’s always overwhelming in the best of ways to see how many options for tools, services, and providers we have access to in this community and the Science Fair brings them together to share their work and opportunities with attendees. We are happy to share the following blog post from Alec Stern, Founding Team, Vice President of Strategic Market Development, at Constant Contact with you ahead of the conference. Be sure to connect with the Constant Contact team at the NTC!

Gone are the days that blaring TV ads and full-scale newspaper advertisements are the sole components of a marketing program. Now, every nonprofit needs to learn how to tell a compelling story that connects with their supporters in order to be able to engage with them effectively.

It’s the story that allows you to stand out in the crowd and how you can continue to thrive, despite a competitive environment that’s noisier than ever before.

Find your story

Every organization has a unique story. It’s your story that draws supporters to your organization, entices them to donate to the cause or volunteer, keeps them coming back, and encourages them to spread the word. Your job is to figure out how to tell that story most effectively.

Think about what makes supporters donate to your cause. What makes you special? What are your core values? What makes your recipients of your services happy? A good story can unite everyone in the organization under a common cause and give a single vision for success.

Tell your story

Once you’ve figured out the story behind your organization, it’s time to think about how to tell it. Sometimes the story can be amplified if it is told from the recipient of your services and how they have benefited from what you provide them. Storytelling comes in many forms— online, through email or social media marketing, at events, or in person. The key is consistency. You can’t have a colorful, carefree personality on Facebook and then send email newsletters that are written in a cold, robotic language. Consistency is one of your most powerful tools when you’re telling a story, because the more consistent you are, the further your message gets spread and the more your organization stands out.

Break through the noise

When supporters can easily understand your organization’s story, then it’s easier for them to become passionate about what you’re doing—especially when that story matches their interests and passion. In turn, the story helps build relationships and create loyalty.

With the internet in everyone’s hands these days, it’s more important than ever to be recognized and remembered. It’s also easier than ever to tell a story. Facebook, email marketing, and other online marketing tools make it possible to engage with your supporters, and encourage them to spread the word.

So, once you do discover the story behind your organization, all you have to do is figure what tools you should using to tell it and, more importantly, how to get it heard.

With 24/7 internet access on smartphones and tablets, folks these days are drowning in information. As screens and attention spans shrink, so too must our content. In the past couple years, blog posts have given way to Facebook updates, Tumblrs, and tweets. And the meteoric rise of Instagram and Pinterest shows that people are weary of words and hungry for eye candy.

Turns out, there is a scientific explanation for our love of visuals. Our brains treat text as a series of symbols, meaning we have to decode words to grasp their meaning. Pictures, on the other hand, speak for themselves. There is an art and science to choosing photos (Resource Media is compiling a report that merges the latest research and expert advice on the topic, due out this summer). But for this article, we’ll focus on visual communications’ latest craze: infographics.

They are everywhere. I can’t open Facebook without being confronted by visualizations of everything from the fiscal cliff to the zombie apocalypse. But, infographics only work if the basic ingredients are good (you know that old saying about lipstick on a pig…). If you don’t have something new and interesting to say, great design can’t save you.

Since I’m a communicator not a designer, I’ll focus on the content side of the equation.

Any marketer worth their salt can tell you a powerful infographic is social media solid gold. But what is it that compels people to share, like, or tweet? Or to write a check or take action? It’s not a beauty contest. Your graphics have to mean something, and the data they convey has to matter.

To get at this meaning and mattering stuff, I like to start with the four W’s (actually, number four starts with an H, but you get the idea…):

  1. Who are you trying to reach?
  2. What do you want them to know (and do)?
  3. Why should they care?
  4. How will you get in front of them?

Number one helps you get at audience. “The general public” is not specific enough. Do you need to illuminate an issue for policymakers? Reassure your donors that their dollars are being put to good use? Convince green lifestylers to waste less food? Once you’ve identified the target, you can begin developing a concept that will resonate with their values.

Next, you need to articulate the take-away. We’ve all seen graphics that contain a bunch of numbers and figures without a coherent narrative. So before you whip out the colored pencils, take a moment to draft a paragraph that tells the story of your information. This text won’t end up in the final product; it just informs the design. Check for clarity by brainstorming headlines or tweets that might accompany the infographic. Is the moral of the story simple enough to convey in 140 characters?

The “why” (or “so what”) question is key. It’s an opportunity to check the timeliness and relevance of your concept. Can you tie it to current events? Does it impact people’s homes, health, or happiness?

Finally, it’s never too early to think about delivery, because this too will influence design. If you are hoping to blast your infographic out across the interwebs, make sure it works on the small screens of today. That means no epic scrolling required. And for digital distribution, you should be able to sum up its significance in a tweet, Facebook post, or email subject line.

Once you’ve answered the four W’s, it’s time to get visual. Here again, I find a formula helpful to make sure the story you’ve composed with words comes to life graphically. The elements I like to think about are:

Setting: Many of my favorite infographics are cast against a familiar backdrop—a family home, specific country, or even a season. This immediately orients the viewer and helps connect the information to their lives.

Consider this Sightline graphic about a proposal to ship 48 million tons of coal through Seattle each year. It uses local landmarks to show the sheer scale of the proposal, and drive home the idea that this mountain of coal will be going through Seattleites’ backyards.

Problem or opportunity: Business as usual doesn’t make for a very exciting story. Effective infographics illustrate the need or chance for meaningful change.

Another great Seattle example: this graphic from a campaign to clean up Puget Sound created a Tox-ick monster to show that polluted run-off from yards and streets adds up to a big problem in the Sound. It tees up the campaign’s call to “stop feeding the monster.” Which brings us to our next key component.

Solution or call to action: Don’t be a Debbie Downer. If you are going to shine a light on a problem, by all means offer a solution.

You don’t have to hit people over the head with it. Consider this graphic about the disparity between the factors that influence our health and our wellness spending habits. It doesn’t explicitly urge the viewer to exercise or eat more fish, but it highlights the benefits—cost savings on doctor’s visits and medication—that people can realize if they invest in a healthy lifestyle.

Ready to draw your own story? Walking through the four W’s before you hire a designer, and having a setting and plot for your story should set you up for success. If you are looking to DIY, TechSoup has compiled a great list of free resources.

Have examples of powerful nonprofit infographics that tell a story visually? Please post the links in the comments section below. I’ll add them to our Pinterest board that helps to shine a light on worthy causes and good design.

And if you’re hungry for Pantone talk, come to the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference and join my “Draw Me a Story workshop”, where I’ll team up with infodesigner extraordinaire David Schellinger to dish on everything from color to composition to distribution.

If nonprofits want to learn how to create content that both engages audiences and creates devoted supporters, we need look no further than the gold standard offered each day by public radio. Think about it: Radio producers can create stories that keep us in the car for “driveway moments” even when we’ve reached home, just so we can hear the ending.

Public radio has created legions of devotees who give money for something they can already get for free. At the same time, we’re in the middle of a renaissance of digital audio online and via mobile technology.

To take advantage of this is an exciting and pivotal moment, nonprofits should consider adding audio storytelling to your digital communications toolkit. Here’s why.

LISTENING (or why audio is special):

Listen to this 3 1/2 minute clip from WNYC and think about what you can see in your mind’s eye.

Can’t you almost see what reporter Marianne Mccune is experiencing? Radio requires the listener to use their imagination. I think that brings us emotionally closer to the story. Add to this that audio is often more intimate than other media. We often listen alone or on headphones, putting these voices directly inside our skulls. Audio is also better suited to our busy multitasking lives: I can listen at the gym, while washing dishes or checking email.

Another thing to consider about the WNYC story above: I doubt that Margaret Maynard would have let the reporter into her apartment with a video camera (she was in her house dress after all). A microphone is far less intimidating and in some ways offers a level of confidentiality. Without a camera in the way, it’s far easier for the interviewer to maintain eye contact with the person being interviewed. Because of this, I think people open up in different ways and get to the heart of the story even more quickly.

STORYTELLING:

Listen to this one-minute “sonic i.d.” from Atlantic Public Media on Cape Cod.

Even In these sixty seconds, there is an anecdote that reveals the mechanics of effective storytelling.

Our brains are hard wired for stories: we can’t stop ourselves from listening or watching a compelling story.

But what is a good story?

Ira Glass says that the structure of every story on “This American Life” is a “series of actions where someone says ‘This happened, then this happened then this happened’ and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means and then onto the next sequence of actions.” This “moment of reflection” also interests Harvard professor Marshal Ganz because it reveals shared values that knit us together. Because of this, he argues the personal stories of individuals responding to challenges (“Story of Self”) is the bedrock of effective community organizing.

Character is most important to independent radio producer Samantha Broun who has worked on multimedia projects with nonprofits. “I have found that the most powerful testimonial I can provide for non-profits is story of someone (a character) whose life has been effected by that organization. No talking heads. No scripted bits. But real, raw, emotional tape from a person whose life has been changed.”

To tell the story of your organization’s work, look for the individual experiences of a program participant or a supporter that illustrate the values you’re working for. At the same time, respect their ownership of stories and think of “facilitating” others in telling their stories directly to a larger audience online.

PRODUCING:

Listen to this story I made about Antoine Jenkins canvassing for Barack Obama in Las Vegas, Nevada:

Like many other radio producers, I used a digital recorder, headphones and an omnidirectional microphone. Many reporters are now using smart phones to record audio, especially in situations where bulky recording equipment isn’t feasible. SoundCloud’s app on iPhone and Droid is an incredibly easy way to record and post directly to the web and other social media (think Instagram for audio). This could be a great tool for nonprofits to use at community events or gatherings.

Here’s two practical tips I’ve learned from recording interviews:

  1. Get close to what you’re recording but not too close. It’s best to place your microphone or smartphone four inches below the mouth of the interview subject, i.e. ” ‘ice cream cone distance.’ This helps you avoid recording the popping that the P sound often makes.
  2. Be aware of surrounding noise. Ambient noise can often be an important part of radio stories, especially when you’re capturing live action. But for interviews not directly related to action, it’s best to record in a quiet non-echoey space and later gather ambient sounds. Carpets and drapes often help absorb sound. Wearing headphones helps ensure that you get great sound with digital recorders.

To edit the audio you gather, you’ll need audio editing software. GarageBand and Audacity are free. I use Hindenberg but many radio producers prefer Pro Tools or Audition. To learn more about producing great radio stories, check out Transom.org and Rob Rosenthal’s Howsound podcast. Rob teaches the excellent Transom Story Workshop (which I attended in 2011 to start learning the art of radio storytelling).

SHARING:

Listen to this one-minute story “First Love and 27 Other Firsts” by my radio-producing friend Whitney Jones.

This story has been a hit on Cowbird, an online story sharing community. Whitney also shared it on SoundCloud and the Public Radio Exchange. You can embed tracks from these sites on other websites like blogs.

As part of a project funded by SoundCloud, I embedded stories on this website to honor Studs Terkel’s book. I see these as “audio blog posts” or “audio posts” rather than a “podcast.” Not only does it sound less intimidating and time intensive, a “post” or “story” implies a one-off that’s part of a larger content strategy using other media. Also with SoundCloud, listeners can subscribe for updates via RSS and iTunes.

Public Radio Exchange is a great platform to get your stories directly on public radio. Whitney sold his story to the Public Radio Remix, KFAI and Third Coast Festival/Re:sound. Obviously stories from your organization won’t sell if they’re straight up promotions or advocacy. To help navigate journalistic concerns, you could invite an experienced independent radio producer to help tell your story and market it through PRX.

CONCLUSION:

So if you remember anything from all my proselytizing for audio storytelling, it should be: just do it! Experiment! Start listening, storytelling, producing and sharing audio stories and see if something miraculous happens.

And finally, a shameless plug: Don’t miss our workshop at the Nonprofit Technology Conference when we’re going to delve deeper and learn through a hand-ons exercise. See you in Minneapolis in April!

P.S. For an even more audiovisual presentation of this information, check out this Prezi.


There’s a dictum in software development attributed to Microsoft that any organization developing a product or service needs to eat their own dog food. Simply put, it means that any producer or service deliverer has to be prepared to experience the product or service as a consumer might.

What’s remarkable about this guidance is that it actually describes a pretty unnatural act: a human being eating something expressly not designed for their palate. But the recommendation is made because humans buy dog food, not dogs.

So, what it’s really saying is that it’s worth taking extraordinary measures to close that feedback loop—because if the purchaser remains in the dark about the quality of what they are buying, better dog food will never be made.

There is a related problem in philanthropy. Someone is essentially paying for a product or service to be delivered to one or more recipients other than themselves when they make a donation. And the consumer is rarely in a position to suggest improvements in the product or service if they don’t like it because they can’t as easily deprive the organization of the revenue. They might walk away from the provider, even perhaps choosing to go without, but it may take a long time for that message to percolate back to the payer.

At GlobalGiving, we had an inkling about how long it took that flywheel to get moving when we worked with a youth sports nonprofit in Kenya called SACRENA. They had been on the GlobalGiving site reporting on and off on their progress when we started soliciting feedback from nonprofit customers. Our first attempt was as basic as printing up bumper stickers that amounted to “1-800-How’s my driving?”; we just sent GlobalGiving staff to the ground and they let beneficiaries know we wanted to hear from them.

Nothing happened for a long time. Then we got a couple of visitors giving mixed feedback about a project focused on youth development through sport. Then a couple of young people who had been participating in the soccer program started writing to us to let us know they liked the soccer games but they weren’t sure what it was adding up to. As luck would have it, we had an evaluator in the field in Kenya at the time—so we asked her to drop by. Her conclusion: no misuse of funds or active mismanagement, but the leader of the program could be more open about what he was trying to accomplish by bringing kids together in soccer games, and the finances could be more tightly managed. We gave that feedback to the project leader, as well as to the donors to that project.

We sat back and waited after that last step. We weren’t sure what donors would think. Would they all invoke the GlobalGiving Guarantee and get on our case for letting an organization like SACRENA seek funds on GlobalGiving?

To our surprise everyone supported keeping the project on our site. In addition, a donor who happened to be a professor in Oregon wrote in to say he had some grad students who were looking for an organizational development project, maybe they could go out to SACRENA over the summer. The students went, gave financial advice to the leader, talked some more to the kids, took them around to visit other youth sports programs in the area to give them ideas about what could be done at SACRENA, and went home.

We heard little for a while after that, but several months later were informed that the kids had left SACRENA and had chosen to start up another sports program in the vicinity with support from another organization that they had visited with the grad students.

We were stunned. We’d hardly expected this drastic a turn of events—we actually thought perhaps the project leader would improve a little, we would send in a team and they would note progress, we’d report back to donors. Instead we ended up closing this project down.

What we’ve embarked on since is a storytelling project in which we have gathered over 40,000 stories from members of the community in selected areas in Kenya and Tanzania. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and in collaboration with Cognitive Edge and Irene Guijt, GlobalGiving have expanded on a promising 2010 Kenya pilot which gathered 2,700 usable stories from individuals primarily in Nairobi and the Rift Valley. In 2011, we expanded the work in Kenya and initiated the Storytelling Project in Uganda and Tanzania.

GlobalGiving is providing a toolkit that helps its partner organizations initiate storytelling projects on their own, and has embedded the SenseMaker® methodology from Cognitive Edge into its core platform. Resulting information is being shared widely online and in other platforms such as the Development Gateway’s AidData mapping system, designed to provide intelligence about how development efforts match community needs.

Here is an actual story collected from young man in Nairobi in May of 2010:

Creating security. Many people leaving in slums have lived in fear due to lack of peace and lack of criminal cases many have been raped but to day  we can have something to enjoy and smile at although there is still little to be said to be add on it. There is a certain group in our community called “vijana amani pamoja” (VAP) who have really provided security among the community they have held different workshop educating people to leave in peace and respect each others property they have also advise the youths to involve in various money generating activities which will keep them busy and get money to cater for their instead of stealing other people property.

Imagine collecting thousands of stories like the one above from citizens, community organizers, and NGO staff about what really matters to them.

Or perhaps your context is one that includes district water engineers, water policy makers, municipal governments, and water users. Now imagine looking through a prism at these stories to find patterns and compare and contrast patterns between organizations, themes, geographic areas, stakeholders, age groups, and more. And imagine getting a continuous flow of stories that allows you to see needs as they emerge and change as they manifest.

SenseMaker® is a way of thinking and going about collecting, analysing, debating, and sharing large numbers of stories on a continuous basis. It’s exciting to think of what leverage we might get by providing this sort of feedback to the thousands of organizations we work with worldwide so they can get ever smarter about how they allocate their resources. And donors in turn can play a catalytic role as they also start allocating their funding differently.

But the key here we believe—and our challenge for the next five years—is to ensure that this information is presented in a way that maximizes the likelihood that community leaders, donors, and everyone else in the broader social sector can actually act on it. Information abounds—but too often is not acted on.

Narrowing the gap between knowing and doing is the real key to closing the feedback loop. In the meantime though, we’ll keep eating the dog food.

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Hear more from Mari at her session at the 2013 Nonprofit Technology Conference, “Listen. Act. Learn. Repeat. How Feedback is Driving Social Impact“.

 

The advocacy community has gone mad for story. But stories are only as strong as the latest retelling. While compelling characters and evocative details give our stories life, it is email subject lines, tweets, Facebook posts, and headlines that give them legs.

The best stories have a clear message—or moral—that can be repeated over coffee or conveyed in 140 characters. And the messages that move tend to inspire and empower.

In today’s web 2.0 world, our supporters are the most powerful communications asset we have. Broadcast mediums are shrinking, and people are turning to social networks for information about everything from politics to human rights. But the social web is awash in content, and the only way to break through the noise is to build a chorus of voices carrying your tune.

Stories represent a vast improvement over the facts and figures we used to rely on to convince people to pay attention to our issues. Cognitive research has shown that stories circumvent our nitpicky critical brains and connect to feelings, which are the key engaging supporters as evangelists, and, ultimately, to changing hearts and minds.

However, while you might keep an audience rapt for five minutes with a riveting video about the tar sands, or a compelling first-person account of sea level rise impacts on a coastal community, supporters are unlikely to recount feature length stories to their friends around the water cooler.

To really engage audiences as activists and ambassadors, you have to equip them with a shareworthy message.

We have a recipe for creating messages that move people: values+problem+solution. It’s simple enough to work for any medium, and does three key things:

  1. Builds an emotional connection
  2. Describes a clear threat to something we care about
  3. Ends on a hopeful note

The climate community is great at describing the problem. Witness recent headlines about Arctic ice melt, rising food prices, catastrophic wildfire. We have spent the past decade describing the monumental challenge facing mankind in exhaustive detail.

And we have gotten better at connecting climate to values. Rising food prices hit our pocketbooks and dinner plates. Wildfires threaten our safety, homes and families.

This tweet from @Oxfam is a good example: #Biofuels targets increase costs of running your car, increase world #hunger, & don’t help tackle #climate change ht.ly/dNm6c

It makes a strong case against biofuels—often touted as a greener alternative to fossil fuels. But it takes one solution off the table without offering another. The reader is left feeling frustrated rather than empowered.

Now consider this Facebook post from Moms Clean Air Force: America’s resolve has gotten us through the most difficult times, and it will help us build a clean future! We already have the solution…RENEWABLE ENERGY! LIKE and SHARE if you believe renewable energy is our children’s future!

It appeals to values like patriotism and family, and puts forth renewable energy as a solution to the challenge Moms Clean Air Force was created to address, air pollution. It gives the reader hope.

We’br seen the power of hope in campaigns ranging from marine conservation to food policy. Supporters are hit with bad news on a daily basis, and solutions are welcomed like rain on parched earth.

Consider 350.org, which has built a super active community of 210,000 Facebook fans in support of its mission to advance “the solutions that science & justice demand.” Amidst news about record-breaking drought and disappearing glaciers, it is the hopeful messages that fans tend to share.

In September, for instance, the four top posts on 350.org’s Facebook page were about the economic and environmental benefits of solar and wind power, touting them as win-win solutions. They generated more than 2,400 shares each, and nearly 3,000 likes, versus an average of 770 shares and 1,500 likes for all posts that month.

These wildly popular posts did more than just advance clean energy as a solution to the climate crisis—they outlined concrete steps to realize that potential while appealing to supporters’ can do attitude. One solar post urged fans to join the rooftop revolution, and said “Just 20 minutes. Let’s build this.” The other talked about the importance of subsidies to help America lead the world in solar, and said “change is possible.”

A problem message might get shared—we’ve all gotten the “check your cupboard for canned tomatoes with BPA in them” chain email from an aunt—but solution messages are the ones that really move people and get moved around, because they soothe our fears and fuel our aspirations.