Something new.

I have some exciting news to share. Later this month, I’ll be joining the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as a communications officer.

Over the past three years, I’ve consulted with many organizations doing great work—and with lots of smart, dedicated people. I am incredibly lucky to have had the chance to contribute, in some small way, to the successes my clients have had on important issues. I have enjoyed being an independent consultant more than any job I’ve ever had.

But the chance to work for the Hewlett Foundation is simply too interesting to pass up. I couldn’t be more excited about supporting the vital work the Foundation is doing across its program areas. Climate change, accountable governance and effective philanthropy are just a few of the things I’m looking forward to learning more about.

While I won’t be doing any more consulting, my email address at this domain will continue to work. If you have any questions about the move, or just want to say hello, please do drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

Foundations in our society.

Rob Reich has a really nice piece in the latest Boston Review titled “What are Foundations For?” It does a great job of getting past the “Titans of Industry/ Eye-Popping Largess” frames that always seem to dominate whenever the subject of philanthropy comes up outside of the field itself.

He talks about the tax incentive structure (though doesn’t question the rationale for it forcefully enough, if you ask me), the explosion of small foundations over the past few decades (not sure I agree with his conclusion that they lack the scale to have real impact) and lays out the strongest arguments for the continued prominence of private foundations: as funders of valuable experimental solutions that markets or governments might later take to scale.

All in all, it’s a smart take on a conversation we need to have about the role of philanthropy and its place in our society during this new Gilded Age that we’re living through.

You should read the whole thing.

Wish you were here.

CrowCanyon

Wish I was, too.

I had the chance to visit Crow Canyon Archeological Center in Cortez, Colorado last week to talk with their staff about a messaging project I’m working on with them.

What a beautiful part of the country– and I got to fit in a quick trip to Mesa Verde National Park. Actually seeing a place makes such a difference to really understanding it.

Giving when it does the most good.

As a consultant to nonprofits, I’m on more than my fair share of end-of-year appeal lists. Just this week, I’ve opened envelopes from an organization working for economic justice, one busy fighting for the rights of immigrants, and two others busy protecting the environment. The sad fact is that I’m not able to support all the deserving organizations that ask for my help. But there’s one organization that I always make sure to include in my charitable giving budget.

Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund is different from most of the groups I work with. They don’t have an advocacy mission, and aren’t focused on or big-picture policy issues or questions of justice. The change they make is measured in the lives of individuals and families experiencing an unexpected crisis who they help with one-time grants made through social service agencies across the Bay Area.

Each year, the Chronicle shares stories about the people helped by the Fund. One they published recently, about Tracie Long and her family, is typical. Ms. Long went through a tough spell recently. After 14 years with the post office and a stint as a property manager, she was laid off. When her unemployment benefits ran out, she found herself on welfare, but she never stopped looking for work.

Her perseverance paid off when she found a good job as a full-time property manager. But the long period of unemployment had taken its toll, and she was several months behind on the rent. Despite the promise of a paycheck just around the corner, Ms. Long and her three children were facing homelessness. Thankfully, Season of Sharing was there to provide a small grant that paid the back rent so she could focus on her new job and providing for her family.

Now, that’s a nice story, and I don’t deny that it makes me feel good to support an organization that helps my neighbors when they need it most. But it turns out that the kind of grants that Season of Sharing makes are also a smart poverty-fighting strategy.

When the Census Department unveiled its new approach to measuring poverty last year, University of Indiana Professor Leslie Lenkowsky wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about some of its implications for philanthropy. It turns out that:

A large percentage of Americans move in and out of poverty regularly. Only a relatively small proportion— 2.2 percent in the most recent study—remained consistently poor from 2004 to 2007. For grant makers and nonprofit groups trying to reduce poverty, the implication of this finding—reinforced by the new approach to counting the poor— is that identifying ways to assist those on the margins of poverty could make a difference.

Which is, of course, exactly what Season of Sharing does– providing a way for neighbors to help neighbors when their giving can do the most good. And because the Chronicle and the Haas, Jr. Fund pay all of the Fund’s administrative costs, every dollar donated goes directly to families at a tipping point in their lives.

Feel-good stories and smart poverty-fighting strategies? That’s a combination that gets my support every time.

How about yours?

(Cross-posted at the LightBox Collaborative blog)

Tools you can use.

As social media becomes a bigger part of my clients’ day-to-day workload, it’s becoming clearer that tools that simply manage accounts (like HootSuite or TweetDeck) are necessary but not sufficient for getting the most out of the medium. Luckily, there’s a new generation of tools that really get to the heart of what social media is all about: building relationships.

Muckrack is a directory of journalists’ Twitter accounts. A free account gives you lists of accounts broken down by publication, with lists of top stories and full feeds. All of which is nice, but the real utility lies in their pro accounts, which let you search for journalists by beat, set up alerts, and even create and manage media lists right from within their site. At $99 a month, it certainly isn’t cheap, but it is a great tool for understanding journalists’ most pressing concerns and connecting with them quickly and easily.

Attentive.ly, from the smart folks at Fission Strategy, is another new tool built on a similar premise. Many organizations have spent considerable time and effort over the years building email lists of their supporters. But those lists don’t play nicely with social media– there’s often no easy way to connect email addresses with your supporters’ social media accounts, and there’s certainly no way to see which of them might have a large Twitter following or a big list of Facebook friends they could be sharing your action alerts with. Attentive.ly takes your email list and uses it to find the social media accounts of your followers. It makes it easy to see who’s voices are most influential, and what they’re talking about– and it allows you to connect with them quickly and easily to ask for their help. Monthly costs are much lower than Muckrack, but this is really a tool for organizations with fairly large email lists– at least 1000, and the larger the better. They’ve got a free trial, too, so there’s no excuse for not checking it out.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the 2013 edition of LightBox Collaborative’s celebrated editorial calendar is out, which I helped create back in 2011, and contributed to this year. It’s the perfect tool for building a social media strategy that puts your best foot forward, making sense of the content flowing through your social media channels, and creating a plan for real engagement with your key audiences.

Best of all: it’s completely free. What are you waiting for?

Endorsing an idea.

A long time ago– well, 2006, which certainly feels like a long time ago–Holly Minch and I helped our colleagues at the Opportunity Agenda with an early articulation of their “Opportunity Frame” by creating a communications toolkit for them. One of my contributions to the kit was a look at a commencement speech given by a recently-elected U.S. Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

In it, Obama tells a story about America, and the competing visions that have marked our politics since the beginning. The “Ownership Society” of radical individualism, the free market, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. And the opposing idea that our success as a nation depends

on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.

Re-reading that speech now, after years marked by crisis and hope, wars ended and ongoing, sweeping change and political gridlock, economic collapse and a painfully slow recovery, I’m struck by how central that vision remains to Obama’s case for a second term– and how much this whole election reflects the debate he described at Knox College in the summer of 2005. One could hardly ask for a purer standard bearer for the “Ownership Society” than Willard “Mitt” Romney.

I’m also struck by Obama’s stark acknowledgement of mistakes made along the way– failures of will, failures of imagination, moral failings that have set us back on the journey towards “a more perfect union.” I’m sure each of us can’t point to disappoints in the failures of the last four years. For me, they’re best represented by drone strikes and Guantanamo Bay, and my fear that the national security state bequeathed to Obama isn’t going away any time soon.

But there’s no denying the successes of those years, as well. Health care for millions of Americans, policy changes that help ensure equal pay for equal work, that allow our gay and lesbian servicemembers to serve openly, and that let our young immigrant neighbors come out of the shadows. New regulations on the banks that caused the financial crisis, and a new government agency created to look out for the rights of consumers. Each of these changes represents progress, however halting and incomplete, just as certainly as each is under threat in today’s election.

But this post is not meant simply as an endorsement of one candidate. Rather, it’s an endorsement of voting itself– helping to decide the direction of this ongoing, imperfect experiment of a country that we call home. And more importantly, it’s an endorsement of all those candidates and policies that recognize our responsibility to our neighbors–those that support justice, equality and opportunity for all– and those that believe in “our sense of mutual regard for each other.”

We’re all in this together. Now get out there and vote.

Miscellany.

A few odds and ends that don’t make a whole post in themselves, but are deserving of attention.

★★★

Michael Lopp, of Rands in Repose fame, has a great piece on how he uses email. He discusses subject lines, message lengths, and editing, but really what he’s talking about is thoughtfulness, and how one might use an oft-abused medium more elegantly. Definitely worth a few moments of your time.

★★★

The Communications Network is an affinity group of foundation communications professionals. Or at least it was until their recent conference, where they announced that they planned to expand their mission, and their membership, to nonprofit communications more generally. As someone who consults with foundations, I’ve been an member of the Network for many years, and have always felt welcomed at its conferences and impressed by the content they share. Expanding the Network seems like a logical next step for the organization, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

★★★

Merlin Mann is thinking about his value as a keynote speaker. As someone who presents trainings, talks and workshops on a wide variety of topics, I found his take on fees, preparation and working with conference organizers illuminating. If you give presentations as part of your working life, or are considering doing so, you should read this post.

★★★

Apropos of my last post about App.net, the service appears to have turned a corner with a recent drop in membership price and the release of an extremely polished client from TapBots, called NetBot. Still not much in the way of a nonprofit presence on the service, but it’s starting to seem like App.net might be around for the long haul.

App.net and the future of social networks.

A few weeks ago, I backed a Kickstarter-ish project called App.net. It’s essentially a Twitter clone, but one with a very clear business model: App.net will charge for membership. I gave them $50 because I’m interested to see if it can work, as are many of the early adopters, techies and application developers who helped make Twitter what it is today. Because as Twitter continues to search for its own business model, it’s becoming clear (as I’ve written before) that its interests as a company are diverging from those of its users.

A couple days before the end of it’s campaign, App.net was actually in danger of not meeting its $500,000 funding goal. Then Twitter posted some new guidelines for what kinds of applications it will allow people to create and use to interact with their accounts. With those changes, the writing was on the wall, and App.net saw a stampede of signups. It ended up raising more than $700,000.

You can read Twitter’s whole blog post here, a sad example of marketing-speak, and language used to obscure rather than illuminate. The upshot is that Twitter, the company, wants everyone to use their website, or their own apps, rather than independent apps that many people know and love, like Twitterific, which, incidentally, actually coined the term “tweet.”

A lot of innovation has come from independent developers, in fact– Twitter’s own official client is based on an app called Tweetie– but they’re giving that up in order to create value for their customers. Unfortunately, those customers aren’t the millions of Twitter users, but the advertisers who want to sell their products to us.

What does this mean for nonprofits? On one hand, not much. Nonprofits use services like Twitter and Facebook because that’s where the people are. Upstarts like App.net aren’t useful to them because they haven’t reached critical mass– and charging $50 a year for an account, it’s not clear that they ever will.

On the other hand, new services like App.net may be the leading edge of a shift in social networking– away from massive advertising-supported networks like Facebook and Twitter where the product they’re selling is your attention, and toward smaller, more direct and personal networks and applications, like Path or Glassboard. Some of these startups are even turning away from growth-first, underpants gnome business plans towards clearer transactional models where they’re looking to make money from day one. Ultimately, that’s better for consumers, if not for advertisers and venture capitalists.

I don’t mean to overstate my case. The trend I’m talking about is still small in comparison to the massive networks that Facebook and Twitter have created by offering free accounts, though it does involve many of the early adopters and innovators who made those networks fun to be a part of in the first place. It’s not time to delete your Facebook page. It might never be time for that.

But nonprofit communicators should be aware of these changes, and should think carefully about what channels work best for reaching your key audiences. Networks like App.net or applications like Glassboard might never be right for reaching vast new audiences for your work, but they could be just the ticket for shaping a tighter, more engaged network of supporters.

And wasn’t that the real promise of social networks in the first place?

What Pixar knows about storytelling.

Spoiler Alert: A lot.

Emma Coates, a former story artist at Pixar, tweeted a series of 22 things about story she learned in her time at the studio. They’re all quite good, but some really stood out for me.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

That, my friends, is a narrative, in a nutshell. You’ve got the introduction of your protagonist, placing him or her in context through setting, an inciting incident to kick things off, which leads to a chain of events, which gets you to your resolution. The only thing that’s missing for me (and for any nonprofit communicator) is the moral of the story. But wait:

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

There’s your moral, right there. For nonprofit communicators, this is the place to start. Answering why this is the story you need to tell will help ensure that you’re telling the right one, for the right reason: to share something important about your organization’s values, and hopefully help your audience seen their own values reflected back to them.

Coates shares a number of important points about the mechanics of storytelling, too:

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Following the advice in any one of these pithy missives will greatly improve your story. Taking heed of all three will lead directly to a seriously engaged audience.

And here’s one more, just because it’s so smart:

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Stories with the former we love; those with the latter we roll our eyes at.

If you’re interested in becoming a better storyteller, why not learn from the experts?

SPIN Academy South.

Last month, I had the distinct honor of working with 40 inspiring advocates working on immigration issues in the South during our first ever SPIN Academy in the region. With the Supreme Court decision on SB1070 and the Obama Administration’s policy changes related to DREAMers, it was an exciting time to be convening this group, to say the least. We spent four days at a beautiful site in the mountains of northern Georgia working together to develop messages and strategies to build support for better immigration policies and deeper ties between U.S.-born residents of the region and their immigrant neighbors. When you add in the unique history and culture of the region,it was a fascinating experience, and one I won’t soon forget.

To get a sense of who was there and what we talked about, check out Will Coley’s fantastic video of participants talking about their experience at SPIN Academy South.

Big thanks to Will for the great work on the video, and to all of our participants and presenters for contributing to a truly wonderful event. I feel lucky to have been a part of it.