Archives for the month of: May, 2009

The share of people who say they are “independent” — that is, they don’t affiliate with a political party — has climbed to its highest point in 70 years, according to a new survey by the Pew Center for People And The Press.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents self-identified as independents, compared with 33 percent who considered themselves Democrats and 22 percent who identified as Republicans.

Fleeing The Ruins by Flickr User Ed Bierman

"Fleeing The Ruins" by Flickr User Ed Bierman

Of those independents, a third (33 percent) say they are conservative, which is also an increase.

I was recently among a group of people who covered the political spectrum. Out of fifteen or so, perhaps five said they were independents — and of these, three or so said they were really Republicans but did not want to say so.

Is that what’s happening? Or are people really abandoning the parties?

Friends, I am delighted to release a report that captures lessons learned by a handful of professional organizations as they work to engage the public.

I am releasing the report only through my email list. In order to download the report from this page, you need a password that I will email to you. (Sign up for my list here to get the password.)

This report is based on a joint learning agreement with the Kettering Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan research organization. I thank them for allowing me to publish this work.

It’s called:

Working Well With Others:
Five Things Organizations Learn When Engaging The Public

From the executive summary:

More and more organizations say it’s difficult for them to fulfill their missions working on their own. These organizations say they need to work in a complementary way with others. In many cases, the “others” are the public.

This approach is being taken by a striking variety of professional organizations and associations, some that are ordinarily seen as quite hard-nosed.

For these organizations, this isn’t a luxury or a change of heart that is impelling them to some new civic duty. It is a very practical response to a very practical problem. We can’t get our work done as well as we would like, say these organizations, so we are looking at ways of going about it with the public.

This report highlights five themes that emerge when nonprofits start to engage the public:

  1. Working with the public — rather than seeing them as consumers or sources of input — can make an organization’s work “more real and credible.”
  2. Working with the public is, for some organizations, an effective response to setbacks and challenges.
  3. Some organizations learn to their dismay that simply engaging the public does not result in progress. The required structures, habits and norms are not there.
  4. Organizations who choose to work with the public go one of two ways — but sometimes both. They mount engagement projects, or they try to foster an internal sensibility of engagement.
  5. Organizations are learning the power of giving a “public name” and “frame” to issues.

This is my first experiment with this new method of releasing reports. I encourage people to share the report and pass it along, but I will be only giving out the password through my email list.

If you have a colleague whom you think would appreciate being on my list, just have them drop me a note or sign up at my web site. It’s easy and I only send one or two emails per week.

Last week, Honolulu completed what appears to be the first Internet-only election.

Honolulu Cityline by Flickr user Irargerich

"Honolulu Cityline" by Flickr user Irargerich

In the past, I have taken a very dim view of many election “reforms.” The fundamental idea — that we need to make it easier to vote because people are not taking the time to cast their ballots — seems flawed. People will take the time to do what is a priority for them. For many, voting ranks somewhere below getting the car washed.

To me, that’s wrong, and I do not think policies should be designed around devaluing the vote.

But there’s a point the article makes that makes me think Interent voting may be something whose time has come. Why? It’s cheaper.

Honolulu did not shift to Internet-only voting out of a sense of reformism or do-gooderism, but because they needed to save money:

[T]he Honolulu City Council cut the Neighborhood Commission’s election budget from $220,000 to $180,000. That prompted the agency to shift to all-digital voting for this year’s races. Preliminary calculations show Web voting may cost only $80,000, [a community relations specialist with the city Neighborhood Commission] said.

That’s a significant savings.

Strangling Statues by Flickr user victoriapeckham

"Strangling Statues" by Flickr user victoriapeckham

I was talking to a friend the other day about a family event he had to attend. For him, such events are not positive. His family is filled with bickering, infighting, recriminations.

At group events, he dreads the point that always comes, when one family members starts talking trash about another one, and demands some kind of response. You either agree, which allows you to avoid being yelled at for now — but the target of the trash talk gets upset. Or you don’t — in which case the target likes you but the person in your face talking the trash gets hot under the collar.

Over the years, he’s learned a few noncommittal comments that are basically neutral, convey no opinion whatsoever, but allow your conversation partner to believe you are agreeing with them. They are:

  • How about that?
  • I can see your point.
  • You may be right.
  • I’m sorry you feel that way.

I love these.

It got me thinking, though, about just how many people are basically negative. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to put a damper on things when they get going.

I would like to come up with some neutral comments that don’t reinforce the negativity but encourage the person to be a bit more positive.

Maybe that’s too much to ask. Maybe a better goal is to look at myself first, and just make sure I am not inadvertently contributing to general bad Karma.

telephone by Flickr user Paul Keleher

"telephone" by Flickr user Paul Keleher

I have been riveted by a book called America Calling: A Social History Of The Telephone To 1940 by Claude S. Fischer, a sociologist at my alma mater, UC Berkeley. The book is just what you think – a study of social responses to the rise of the telephone as it went from a new invention to being an everyday appliance. I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

You won’t be shocked to learn that the parallels with current reactions to social media have been uncanny. The book was written in 1992, well before the explosion of communication that typifies today’s world. So it’s not like the book is trying to make such parallels. But they are there everywhere you look.

Just as an example from the very first page of the book: In 1926 the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee discuss the topic “Do modern inventions help or mar character and health?” Among the specific questions the committee proposed were “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” [and] “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”

Just replace “telephone” with “MySpace” or “Facebook” and you see what I mean. The worries of people like Maureen Dowd are nothing new.

Rather than do a whole book report (I’d rather you just buy the book), I thought I would look a little more in detail at one particular facet: how the telephone was sold to America. It is illuminating.

Finding Uses

When it first began to be deployed (1890’s through the turn of the century), telephone companies faced a tough sell. They first had to explain to Americans what need the telephone might fulfill. They had to find uses for it.

From a 1909 Bell System ad:

[The Bell System] had to invent the business uses of the telephone and convince people that they were uses. It had no help along this line. As the uses were created it had to invent multiplied means of satisfying them. It built up the telephone habit in cities like New York and Chicago and then it had to cope satisfactorily with the business conditions it had created.

That reads like the history of Twitter circa 2007-2008. (That “coping” business makes me think of the #failwhale.)

An interesting element of this period was the need to educate users on how to use the telephone. Advertisements included instructions about where to place your mouth when you speak, how loudly to speak, how to place a call, and so forth. Just think, for a parallel, about the copious how-to’s that Facebook deployed when they rolled out their most recent changes.

The Business Case

The first uses imagined were business uses. The telephone would help you make and confirm appointments, save time, and make business more efficient. (Compare this with the early years of faxes and business email – designed to speed business communication.)

Even the personal uses were essentially related to the business of the home. Some ads pitched at wealthy women illustrated how easy it was to order groceries and, for men, how easy it was to call and say you’d be home late from the office.

Social Social Social

In keeping with the all-business vibe, a 1910 ad touted the telephone as a great way to make holiday celebration arrangements more efficiently – noticeably not mentioning anything about giving actual greetings over the phone. But as the decades wore on, things changed. Pretty soon, people were using phones socially. And the telephone companies were catching up.

In 1923, for instance, Southwestern Bell wrote that it had:

decided that it is selling something more vital than distance, speed or accuracy . . . [T]he telephone . . . almost brings [people] face to face. It is the next best thing to personal contact. So the fundamental purpose of the current advertising is to sell the company’s subscribers their voices at their true worth – to help them realize that “Your Voice is You,” . . . to make subscribers think of the telephone whenever they think of distant friends or relatives.

Wow. “Your Voice is You.” Think here about the care with which Facebook treats its users and how strongly they react to changes. “Your Profile is You” could be the new slogan.

Along with this new “sociable” use of the telephone came resistance and a backlash. Early on, people worried that “the telephone permitted inappropriate or dangerous discussions, such as illicit wooing.” (Think about Craigslist and South Carolina here.) Later on, etiquette guides suggested that visiting on the telephone should be “confined to a reasonably short duration of time.”

Noise, Noise, Noise

What may be an even stronger response was to the triviality of sociable telephone conversations and their incessant interruptions of more “reasonable” pursuits. “We are at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone . . . and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure the have the more active do they become in destroying ours,” wrote one professor.

That sounds like one’s uncle turning up his nose at Twitter, if you ask me.

Certainly, the parallels are not exact, but as I think about the arc that social media is following, I can see we are just about at that “sociability” stage. It’s happening gfaster than last century, of course, but people are people – their reaction to new connecting technologies seems quite predictable.

Utilities

If that’s true, then eventually (like the telephone, the automobile and to a lesser extent email), social media will become transparent. We won’t be talking about “what to do with” social media, we will just use it — like we pick up and use the telephone without thinking about it. It’ll be a utility.

In fact, look further back and think about the electrification of America, or the advent of universal indoor plumbing. These novelties are taken for granted too. Utilities.

Go read the book. But first retweet this.

My good friend Cindy Cotte Griffiths is a prodigious volunteer and always has been. She’s the leader of a Cub Scout pack, chair of a city commission, active in her church, and in her childrens’ schools. She’s also my partner in the hyperlocal news site, Rockville Central.

Me in Second Life (Bradrourke Dynamo)

Me in Second Life (Bradrourke Dynamo)

The other day Cindy wrote about the pull online commitments can exert, in the face of offline, real world interactions. We seem constantly pulled away from reality to tend to online business. For many, this can be vexing. For volunteers intent on helping those around them, it can be even more of a dilemma.

Cindy has developed some questions she asks herself in evaluating new online obligations, to try to help keep it all in balance:

  • Does the organization have a positive influence on a priority in my life, such as my children?
  • What do I get out of the experience personally?
  • Am I truly helping a broader good or cause?
  • Will the online interaction improve an aspect of my real life community or career?

I really like these.

 

Geek Station by Flickr user striatic

"Geek Station" by Flickr user striatic

This was sort of odd. I met someone recently, and he gave me his card.  I later sat down to start entering the info in my contact files.

 

Usually, in such a situation, I would shoot them an email about how nice it was to meet them, etc.

As I was processing the info, I realized that I didn’t want to do that so much. I would much rather friend them on Facebook and add them to my social network. This would allow me to keep in touch with them much better.

Just having their email address would not insure any connection, unless I chose to put it on my “to do” list. On the other hand, plugging them into my social network created not only a connection but also insured that there would be ongoing interactions, without increased friction.

So I sent them a friend request.

But I wondered: Have I just reached a tipping point with email? Did something else just eclipse it?

It’s one thing to write and theorize about this stuff, but I put much more stock in my actual behavior. I try to observe what I do on the natural. When I actually change how I approach things, without thinking it through ahead of time — well, then there may be some real change afoot. Because, much as I like to talk about all this new shiny tech stuff, in the end I am quite slow to change my default behaviors.

I think my default behavior may have just changed.

Interesting.

Today I’m in Dayton to meet with some folks at the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute. One of the things we’ll be talking about is an online version of an issue guide about how we can pay for health care in America.

Last weekend I led a candidate training program run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. One of the sessions was a mock interview, where candidates were grilled by a panel of professional, veteran reporters. The reporters are there to ask as hard a set of questions as possible.

One candidate is a physician and is running on health care issues. It was very interesting to watch how this changed the demeanor of the reporters — at least for one of them (the one who previously had been the most confrontational). This reporter became immediately interested in a conversation that went in-depth into the give-and-take and tradeoffs behind a number of choices facing Americans today.

Just a few minutes before, this reporter had criticized a candidate bluntly for a gaffe. Suddenly he had become a thoughtful, meditative  interlocutor.

I don’t know why this happened, but it struck me. Maybe health care is an issue that cuts through even the most hard-bitten and can spur thoughtful dialogue.

What other issues might do the same?

Last weekend I led a candidate training program run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. I’ve been doing this for a while now. At the end of it, I was reminded of a post I wrote for Rockville Central some time ago, which I have spruced up a bit and am reprinting here:

Free Advice

By Brad Rourke

In the spirit of public service, I wanted to offer some free campaign advice to all candidates. This advice is worth exactly what you are paying for it.

January 2009 Candidate Training Class. Two have already won office.

January 2009 Candidate Training Class. Two have already won office.

Since the late 1990’s, I have been involved with a nonpartisan candidate training program at UVA’s Sorensen Institute geared towards first-time candidates. I was just a small part of it. The program brings in campaign experts in a variety of areas (mail, polling, communications, GOTV, etc.) who offer their wisdom to a group of mixed Democrat and Republican (and some Indepenendent) candidates. Over the course of a great number of training sessions, I have gleaned a few lessons from listening to the presenters and also from talking with the many, many candidates in the rooms. (Especially the ones who had already lost a race and were trying again.)

In my experience, many people who run for local office seem a little bit daunted by the process. Others go the opposite direction and act as if they are running for President. Neither approach results in a very successful campaign.

Local campaigns should be fun. These are our neighbors, telling us about what they think is important for our communities, and arguing over the best way forward. What could be more of a hoot?

I am offering these tips in the spirit of helpfulness to all candidates. They are not hard-and-fast rules. I am not a campaign consultant; these are just things I have picked up by osmosis along the way. Take them or leave them. Tell me I’m all wet (or think it to yourself).

In no particular order:

  1. Most incumbents win re-election. Sorry, it’s true. Challengers have the deck stacked against them. Okay, now you know this. Move on.
  2. Most first-time candidates lose. Sorry, it’s true. Persevere anyway.
  3. You must know how many votes you need to win. If you do not have a written plan for how you will get that number of votes, you are planning to lose.
  4. Know who and where your voters are. Get the voter list. Work it. The person who knocks on the most doors of voters will usually win.
  5. If you cannot bring yourself to ask friends and family to make a financial investment in your candidacy, you should seriously rethink whether being a candidate is for you.
  6. You cannot be your own campaign manager. Find someone to do it for you. It can be for free. Then, let them do their job.
  7. Mailings are worthwhile. Don’t do them too early.
  8. Many companies make a lot of money selling unnecessary goods and services to small campaigns. Watch your spending.
  9. Lawn signs do not help you get elected. Put up only enough to seem credible. Don’t be a jerk: Take them down after the election.
  10. Don’t buy emery boards, pot holders, magnets, or hats. They are a waste. T-shirts are only good if you can get a number of supporters to wear them at the same time. (Like at a parade.) Don’t give them away; supporters should pay for them.
  11. Buttons are nice for the wearer, but little stickers get the job done just as well for cheaper.
  12. Television and radio advertising for local candidates is generally not worthwhile. You can’t afford enough repetition to make a dent and you don’t know you are reaching actual voters.
  13. You need only the bare minimum on the Web; do not spend time and resources on a fancy web site. But it should not be an embarrassment – people look to your web site to check you out and see where you stand.
  14. Know who the two or three reporters who are covering your race are. Treat them with respect and get to know them. Remember their job is to write news stories, not just publish your press releases.
  15. Do not ever, ever lie. You will be found out.
  16. Know and follow all the rules and laws. Make sure there is someone paying attention to that for you…but you are responsible.
  17. Google yourself twice a day, morning and night. Create a Google alert for your name and other important keywords. Study your opponents’ web sites.
  18. Don’t get caught up in the excitement of speaking to large groups of people unless you know for sure they are possible voters in your district. It does you no good to ask voters in another district to vote for you.
  19. Always present yourself as if you are in office. People expect you to look like a grown-up. Dress up a little. Don’t wear goofy stuff.
  20. At receptions and events, don’t be photographed with a glass in your hand.
  21. Always thank people and be gracious.
  22. If you are going to be on TV, do not wear a white shirt or one with a teeny pattern.
  23. Yes, issues matter, but people are voting for a person. Let them get to know you. Don’t hide behind a bunch of white papers and position statements.

Well, that’s about it. You may have other ideas. Add to them!

Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, recently spoke to gathered YMCA’s and gave a chilling overview of the nonprofit sector:

Early on in the crisis, we argued about whether the problem would be short- or long-term, about whether we could simply limp through to a resumption of what we’ve come to understand as normalcy. No longer. We are indisputably in the midst of profound structural shifts that will carry deep and enduring effects. There has been a fundamental breakdown in those systems that serve as the thermostat for much of our daily lives – not just in whether we can get a bank to make a loan, but also in the nature of the regulatory environment, the role of government investment, the need to manage against scarcity.

The nonprofit landscape of yesterday or today will not be the nonprofit landscape of tomorrow. Undercapitalization, chronically a problem, will become a death spiral. When revenues decline by 10 or even 20 percent, a nonprofit can put itself on a diet of discipline and flexibility and emerge at the other end with its mission pretty much intact. When demand skyrockets and revenues decline by 40 or 50 percent, however, you’re a different organization altogether.

An Honest To God Guillotine by Flickr user Augapfel

"An Honest To God Guillotine" by Flickr user Augapfel

This is the best description I have yet seen about the gravity of the new reality nonprofits face. Many nonprofits wonn’t be able to just belt-tighten their way out of it. They will have to change fundamentally or perish.

It is much like the defense industry in the earlly 1990’s, when the chief revenue source (the US government) fundamentally changed how it operated. Defense firms perished, merged, or retooled.

The good news is that, on the other side, the surviving organizations can be far more robust and effective than they were going into the crisis.

Even in good times, when I advise clients that are going through strategic planning, I tell them that no strategic plan is really complete without a “stop do” list. You really haven’t made the tough decisions unless you have included things that you are not going to do anymore.

But at times like this, when we’re in the “death spiral” that Rapson describes, it’s even more important. Organizations simply cannot afford to expend extraneous energy.

Here’s one way to think about it. Start with those things that only your organization can or is willing to do. Put everything else on the chopping block.

Here is how Rapson describes the questions that Kresge is facing:

Foundations . . . also need to ask themselves where their uniquely flexible resources can make the greatest difference. Is it in investing organization-by-organization in those elements of the safety net infrastructure that touch people directly? Or is it in putting money into efforts to change systems that bear so heavily on people’s life opportunities?

The answer to this question will drive very different day-to-day responses. Nonprofits can ask similar questions of themselves. Indeed, they must.

So what’s on your “stop do” list? What can your organization uniquely do?