When I became an independent consultant a year ago, a colleague asked me what I hoped to accomplish. It took me a minute to come up with an answer. Consulting seemed like such a leap that I was really just hoping to find enough work. If I got to help some organizations tackle important issues, so much the better. So that’s how I answered, because anything more seemed like hubris.
A year later, my admittedly practical goals have been achieved. I’ve gotten to work with some fine nonprofits doing absolutely vital work. Building a consulting practice has been tremendously rewarding, and I’m deeply grateful to the colleagues and clients who have made it possible. A big part of what I’m grateful for is the way that they’ve helped me to formulate a new answer to the question of what I’m trying to achieve.
I believe that our society confronts multiple complex problems, and that nonprofits have an important role to play in solving them. Business does some things very well, but social change isn’t one of them. Government has to be part of the solution, but the policy agenda has to be set by civil society, and nonprofit voices are critical in doing that.
The communications work I do is about ensuring those voices are heard by the right people—that the right minds are changed, the right hearts moved. There’s a through line to my career over the past decade. It involves setting smart strategies and finding the words to help a community (or a country) honor its deepest values and live up to its highest aspirations. Whether it’s reminding San Franciscan what caring for their own looks like, or Nebraskans of the values they share with their new, immigrant neighbors, my work fosters understanding and builds support for greater justice and equality in our communities and in our society.
The tools available today to nonprofit communicators to do this work are, in a word, thrilling. This website, for example, was designed by a gentleman named Khoi Vinh, who until recently was the Design Director at www.nytimes.com. Now, Vinh didn’t design it exclusively for me (this new consulting practice hasn’t been quite that successful), but he did design the WordPress template it uses. It’s called Basic Maths, it’s standards-compliant, and it embodies Vinh’s ideas about the importance of grids in online design. (If you press shift-ALT-G on most browsers, you’ll see the grid that underlies the site’s layout made explicit. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun.) The whole site is run on WordPress, a free content management system that I installed with a little help from a friend, and maintain, for the most part, myself. So: Design by New York Times online design guru, maintenance by me (with a little help from the active community of WordPress users who are constantly offering support and add-ons to its functionality).
Basic Maths and WordPress are just two examples of the vast array of new tools and resources that make connecting with and communicating to your audience easier than it’s ever been. Add in Facebook, Twitter and Skype, and you begin to see why thinking about network formation has been the hot topic in nonprofit circles this past year. The question, of course, is networks built in the service of what larger goal?
Here’s one: Building communities—cities and towns, states, whole countries—that function more effectively, that live up to our values. I believe strategic communications have a critical role to play in finding ways for neighbors to talk to each other while also ensuring that they can actually hear each other. I want my consulting work to be about helping nonprofits find smart strategies to reach their audiences with messages that connect with them on a level that’s deeper than the purely rational. The wonderful tools we have available to us for this work are a bonus, but we should never lose sight of the fact that they are just tools in the service of forging authentic connections with our neighbors—creating communities with less fear and anger, more good will and cooperation, in order to solve our most challenging problems.
Smart communications strategy, plus messages that meet our neighbors where they are, multiplied by some fascinating new technology, equals communities in which all members can feel heard. That’s the kind of basic math on which I intend to build my consulting practice in 2011 and beyond.