Archives for the month of: June, 2009

The hand wringing, eyebrow-raising, and joke-making over Mark Sanford’s trip to Argentina is beginning to run its course. Having read the emails between him and the Other Woman, it’s hard to mark this one down as just venal corruption and hypocrisy. The whole episode clearly filled Sanford and his love with anguish — moral anguish. He knew he was doing wrong, yet His trip South was an effort to make sense of the wreck his life was becoming.

My friend Rich Harwood posted in his Twitter account (you should follow him: @RichHarwood) this comment: SC Gov. Sanford fiasco raises basic Q for all of us: How do you leave time for yourself so you don’t feel overwhelemd, at loose ends?

Indeed, that is the question. Sanford cracked — and his life broke open.

The episode reminded me of a piece I wrote a bit ago about a Missouri lawyer named David Masters, who cracked under the pressure of what seemed his perfect life. Re-reading the piece, I thought you might like to read it too, as it is a gripping story and also raises some important questions. Here’s how it starts:

David Masters In Suit

David Masters (source unknown)

Strapped to a chair in a small, grey house on the edge of a Missouri town, 52-year-old David Masters begged for his life to end by lethal injection instead of by gunshot. His three captors, angered that he was three weeks tardy with rent and that he’d made unwanted advances on one of them, obliged by injecting him repeatedly with cocaine. The next day, his body was found near an Ozark river. Another toll taken by the culture of addiction.

David Masters had been a lawyer. Hearing that, we imagine him in a small, cheap storefront office near city hall, a bottle hidden in the desk and no receptionist. Maybe an ambulance chaser. A lost soul hanging on to whatever profession he’d once had.

Here is what David Masters once had. Seven children. A wife. The best home in his Missouri town, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A reputation for hard work and scrupulous integrity. Proteges, who have since succeeded. The favor and support of the governor, who had appointed him county prosecutor in 1990 and which office he held until 1998.

David Masters had been a shining success. People marveled at how hard he worked, putting in full-time hours on a part-time job while still keeping his private practice. It appears his life unraveled shortly after he was unseated from his prosecutor’s slot in 1998. Under what seems to have been a crushing amount of personal and professional overhead, he ran out of money and options. Then, he plain ran out, moving without telling anyone, including 65 clients, where he was going. His law license was suspended. In the court documents, he at one point listed himself as “homeless.” That might well have been better than where he was, living in that small grey house with a killing drug dealer for a housemate.

He’d cracked. . . .

Read the whole piece here.

I had a fascinating conversation with a young person and it gave me a new insight into how different people use social media.

Like a lot of young people, her Facebook stream has its fair share of adults mixed in. There’s her parents, and some of her parents’ friends, and other relatives.All jumbled up.

She was complaining (in a good-natured way) about the adults. “They’re always posting such serious stuff,” she said. “They sound like essay questions. Who cares what you think about some issue?”

I asked her what kinds of updates and links her and her friends were into. What were some of the recent updates?

  • Billy!! [Mays]
  • I’m at the mall. TXT me
  • [The name of a friend] <3

(The last emoticon is a heart, in case you couldn’t see it.)

What some might turn up their nose at as “trivia” – but in fact the social currency of a certain peer group.

Wear your Twitter badge with pride by Flickr user jmilles

"Wear your Twitter badge with pride" by Flickr user jmilles

Meanwhile, here’s the kind of stuff in my stream:

  • Listening to a report on Honduras.
  • My fourth grader just had an amazing end-of-year beach party.
  • Monday back at work after two weeks off.

Yeah, I guess that’s pretty dry.

Turns out there’s a deeper divide than some might expect. I used to have the feeling that people under, say, 25 found a lot of what the older set talk about to be sort of benignly boring. Little did I sense that, for some, it’s a misuse of the social medium. How dare we use it in such boring sand dull ways?

That got me thinking. I’m a bit of a social media evangelist, and as I talk to my peers about how they might use it, I often get skepticism. “Isn’t all this Facebook and Twitter just a bunch of fluff?” they’ll ask me. “Who cares whether I’m at the mall, or whether I’m happy or not?”

Meanwhile, younger folks are saying the same thing about these so-called “serious” issues.

I rescanned our respective Facebook streams, and saw that if you really looked, the divide is pretty stark. There’s one stream that’s all issues and links to thoughtful thinkers. There’s another that’s all light-seeming social interaction. Two very different worlds, coexisting in the same space.

I am frankly not sure what to make of its implications. I can think of a few things:

  • The fear that “it’s all trivia” from people resistant to using social media is baseless. Different groups of people are saying things with differing seriousness.
  • The “trivia” is an important way that some people interact, and to dismiss it as meaningless is irresponsible.
  • There’s room in a good social media platform for many different uses. That has implications for people building new communities: they need to be welcoming to different kinds of uses.
  • Everyone has a need to share trivia. Even people in the “serious” stream share meaningless comments about things they are planning on buying or where they live.

What “camp” are you in? More important, what other camps can you think of?

As many of my readers and friends know, I am a firm believer that not all organizations need to exist in perpetuity. Especially in the community benefit sector, my feeling is that most organizations would do well to plan to close their doors in fifteen years from inception.

Even if you aren’t planning to close up shop, it can be very useful from a strategic perspective to think through how you might act differently if you knew you were terminating operations in, say, five years. I wrote a brief post and recorded a video about that some time ago.

From the Beldon Fund

From the Beldon Fund

Given all this, I was delighted to see come across my radar screen the story of the Beldon Fund. This is a foundation that received a significant boost in its endowment and the founder decided that it would spend out its assets completely over a ten-year period. Its goal would be to create national consensus to achieve and sustain a healthy planet.

The foundation closed its doors this month and has issued a fascinating report documenting what it learned. According to Bill Roberts, the executive director:

“Having a closing date absolutely focuses the mind. The board and staff feel a sense of urgency that’s exhilarating, and being able to go well beyond the required minimum payout for foundations is hugely positive. We’re more flexible, more nimble, more opportunistic. . . . If we try something and it doesn’t work, we have to figure out quickly how to fix it. Not having the luxury of time has largely worked in our favor.”

Of particular interest to me was the staffing and operations aspect of the spend-out. It turned out this was an opportunity to create a vibrant, entrepreneurial culture and to attract top talent.

Think about the really effective people you know. They probably don’t stay in place too long. Now, if you are managing an organization, think about what kind of people you might attract with an audacious move like this.

It may not be for everyone, but I am certain that there are more organizations that could benefit from this approach than are now taking advantage of it.

I’ve been fiddling around with social media for a while now. Long before that, I was active online. I had a blog before the word was invented. And I promoted that blog (it was an occasional column about California politics I called Content) through a simple email list that I grew to a couple hundred in my spare time. That was back in 1996 or so.

That’s all to say, I dig these tools and I tend to adopt them early. What’s more, I’ve been using them in a certain way for more than a decade now — and most intensively in the last five years.

I’ve developed a method for marketing and tending to my “personal brand” (oh how I dislike that term, though it is apt here) that I have come to call “Blob Marketing.”

Blobs Vs. Targets

Most of theories of marketing or promotions that I have come into contact use a target as the metaphor. Some members of your audience are your bull’s-eye. They are who you want to reach, because they have money, or can act on your ideas, or whatever. They are the special ones in your universe. Outside of that ring is a group of high-propensity folks, who probably are into your stuff and could be turned into customers or evangelists for your brand. Outside of that ring are people who are on the fence, and outside of that are people who might have just heard about you once, and so on. As the rings get larger, the level of attachment is reduced. Your job is to get people moved from the outer ring into the bull’s eye.

For years I tried to use that model and I found that it did not work for me.

Here’s why: I produce too many disparate elements to sequence them like a target. I’ve got a blog, I’ve got my Facebook account (now I have a public page to go along with it), I’ve got my Twitter account, I’ve got an email list I mail to each Friday, and I’ve got a bunch of colleagues, friends and family who sort of know what I do and are interested once in a while.

I see each of these audiences as amorphous blobs, sort of like this:


Working The Blobs

You can see that some people overlap from blob to blob, but not all. Also, it is not necessarily predictable and tidy. For instance, you can see that some of my work colleagues get my email, and some read my blog. Few follow me on Twitter or are friends on Facebook, which are two of my main methods for getting my ideas out there. But all the overlaps are valuable, even ones that aren’t necessarily where I would put the middle of the bull’s-eye if I were turning this into a target. (Note that this is not an exactly accurate depiction of my blobs, I am just illustrating the point. Plus there are blobs I am missing, like YouTube, Posterous, and elsewhere.)

The trick, it seems to me, is to follow a few principles:

  • Add content to each blob on a regular and predictable basis, but don’t flood that blob (ten Tweets a day is OK, but not ten blog posts)
  • Try to vary content from blob to blob (so the overlap people don’t get bored due to redundancy)
  • BUT, cross promote and don’t worry about a little bit of duplication (people need repetition before they will take action on a new idea)
  • Try to track and monitor so you know where your overlaps are (this will help you know what nodes are most important so you can adapt tactics)

Your set of blobs probably looks very different than mine. But I bet you’ve got one.

The turmoil in Iran and the efforts of the nation’s citizens to overcome government censorship provide a good argument for why it is important to build capacity in communities.

Iran protests for the 5th straight day #iranelection by Flickr user .faramarz

Iran protests for the 5th straight day #iranelection by Flickr user .faramarz

Since at least 2004, Iran has been censoring social networking sites. So, according to this New York Times article, people have had about five years to figure out how to get around such censorship. People haven’t been fomenting Internet revolution all this time, though: they’ve been blogging about everyday things like sports scores and sharing pictures of cute cats.

But this created a reservoir of capacity. Iran has relatively many people who can write, use the Internet, and communicate digitally. They’ve got lots of bloggers. Now that this capacity is urgently needed, it’s available.

(There’s another story in the article about the role rugby bloggers in Kenya played in that country’s recent history.)

Here in the U.S., funders and others who support civic projects might take notice. Not all projects have an immediate “outcome” — but many have an important capacity building component that is often not apparent. Research (by Rich Harwood and others) has shown that for many communities, it’s community capacity that can be the difference between responding to adversity well, or spiraling downward.

What does “community capacity” look like? I like to think about it very simply:

Community capacity is the habit of working together on public issues.

This can take many forms, including formal “projects” but also neighborhood block parties, informal afternoons talking about issues while children play, and (natch) local blogs. It’s not a very widespread phenomenon. Even though there may be a few glimmers of hope, for the last fifteen years and more Americans have been turning away from one another.

So, sure we need “outcomes” when we think about community projects.

But we also need to position our communities to respond to future issues we can’t now imagine. We need to keep building the capacity to work together on public issues.

I’ve been dithering about this for months now, even though my friend Angelique has been telling me I need to do it.

But I finally went ahead and created a “public profile” on Facebook. The difference between that and just a regular profile is that anyone can “become a fan” of my public profile, while if you want to “friend” my regular profile I have to approve you.

My vision for the public profile is to make it one of the main social network nodes in my digital life. I really want to add lots of useful, interesting, informative, and fun material to it.

But I’m a bit at a loss as to what that will look like. So far, I am importing my blog posts (so you may in fact be reading this on the public page already and I have posted a question on the “discussion boards.”

Me brooding at the Harwood Public Innovators Summit. Photo by Aaron Leavy.

Me brooding at the Harwood Public Innovators Summit. This is the icon for my new "public profile" page at Facebook. Photo by Aaron Leavy.

I need your help. What else should I be doing? If you click on the discussion board link, it’ll take you to my post asking that very question. If you wouldn’t mind, try answering over there.

This is all experimental! Maybe it will work and become a really cool hangout. Or maybe it just won’t be dreadful. Or, over time, I’ll see it’s not worthwhile at all. Help me out and let’s find out!

P.S. So you can tell the difference between my “personal” Facebook profile and my “public” page, I am using different profile images. My personal one is the familiar Brad-smiling-at-you photo, taken by my friend Eric Jensen (and it’s also used in the liner notes of my band’s latest CD).

My public page image is a shot taken at the most recent Harwood Public Innovators Summit by my friend Aaron Leavy. It’s me being all broody and thoughtful. I thought it might inspire, you know, thoughtfulness or something.

People in my field have been aflutter since January over the White House’s efforts to craft what’s called an “Open Governmemnt Initiative.” On his first full day in office, President Obama issued a memorandum calling for us to “work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” between the government and the people.

Since then, the administration has worked diligently to figure out just what this might look like. And people in my field, the civic engagement field, have watched very closely. At every turn my inbox and newsreaders have kept me abreast.

Yesterday, I realized with a sinking feeling: I don’t really understand it all.

The bitter irony is that I came to this realization in the midst of reading a blog post purporting to make it all clear for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the idea of open government. But if you asked me to tell you about the administration’s plans to implement that idea, I’d stare at you like a deer in headlights.

That’s a hard admission to make.

Here is what I know so far:

  • For some reason the “open governmemnt initiative” is housed in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
  • At various times, the “public” (people with computers) has been asked to “brainstorm” ideas (at a different site) for what the government ought to do to be more open. They’ve also been asked to vote on different ideas.
  • There are at least three phases to this brainstorming business, but I am not sure what the difference between one and another is. One is “brainstorm,” the next is “dig deeper,” and the last is “draft.” (I guess I get that last one.)
  • Meanwhile, various external groups have been working this system. This has generated a huge amount of chatter. In some cases, people have been promoting their individual good ideas, asking people to vote them up or down. In other cases, organizations and networks of groups that have been working on issues of civic engagement have sets of principles that they would like to see adopted. (I am a signatory to one such set, the Core Principles for Public Engagement.) In still other cases, some organized political groups have tried to flood the system with bonehead and off-topic ideas (like the perennial “legalize marijuana” suggestion).
  • Even more meanwhile, some groups have created ad hoc symposia and other meetings (online and in-person) designed to “gather input,” or “discuss ideas,” or to map out “best practices.”

It’s pretty embarrassing to say all this adds up to a big mish-mosh that’s hard to follow. But I know I am not alone. How do I know this? Because my friends and colleagues keep writing blog posts and sending emails explaining the “process.”

It seems to me that the whole thing is creaking under its own weight, and the “it” does not even exist yet.

The “Experts Trap”

From under the snow bank by Flickr user Michael Filion

From under the snow bank by Flickr user Michael Filion

I do not blame the organizers. They are doing the best they can. It’s a hard thing to create a whole new initiative inside the Federal government. At some point, however, someone needs to take a step back and look at everything and ask themselves a few questions:

  1. Will all this really result in more openness and collaboration?
  2. Are we too enamored with tools and technology, and letting it push aside just talking to people?
  3. How will ordinary, non-technical, non-civic people react to this?
  4. Are we falling into the experts trap?

That last danger is the one I fear the most. There is a large, pent-up demand throughout my field for the Federal government to take civic engagement seriously. Very smart people have a lot of important things to say — but some of that will be unintelligible to regular people.

Relying on “civic engagement experts” will get us an expert-driven, complicated set of plans and processes. And eventually, it is these experts who will take the public input and craft something to present to the President.

But, what I think President Obama was talking about is something far more simple. He was talking about a mindset change on the part of both citizens and government. Both need to see that there’s a role for interaction.

For citizens, this means taking opportunities to raise their voice and work substantively in ways that stretch them. (Most citizens see their civic duty as ending once they cast their vote, if they vote at all.)

For government, it means viewing citizens as — well, as citizens and not as “customers” or “clients” to be “served.” Or, just as often, as nuisances to be tolerated.

Certainly, to embed such a mindset will take hard work. But the hard work is the kind of day-in, day-out management work that any good CEO or senior leader will recognize: You set the tone, you create examples, you align incentive systems, and you cheerlead.

Civic engagement does not have to be rocket science. In fact, it’s best if it’s not.

An offhand question asked by a colleague the other day got me thinking. She asked me, “In five years, what would you like to be known for?” This is a slightly different version of the standard where-do-you-want-to-be-in-five-years query.

The way it was framed drew me up short and made me think.

My immediate answer was “I would like to be known for helping people be the people they aspire to be in public life.”

The reason this got me thinking is that I am a part of the “nonprofit sector” or “philanthropic sector.” Among my colleagues, everyone is talking about change. They’ve been talking change since long before that young senator from Illinois took the reins of power.

For years now, every nonprofit organization has had to have a “theory of change ” that it could whip out and explain. Every funding request, it seems, now requires a statement of the recipient’s “theory of change.”

All this “change” business has always made me feel out of step with my nonprofit friends, but I never quite was able to put my finger on why. Now I know. I’m not too interested in change. That’s not what drives me. I’m interested in helping people.

It seems to me, surveying the field, that the clamor for “change” has pushed out an important — and, I might argue, fundamental — aspect of philanthropy. This aspect is directly related to the root of the word: love of humanity. Organizations and individual people who just want to help others tend to get set aside as funders seek more and more impact for their donated dollars.

This effect is completely understandable and I don’t indict anyone for it. Funders really do need to stretch their donations further. There really are large problems to be tackled, problems that will take change more than charity. And, many individual people do need help due to broader forces that ought to change.

But there’s also a human scale and I fear that there are too few people speaking up for it. It’s the individual person helped to find a job, or a place to live. It’s the citizen who learns she or he has a voice and can use it.

After all, “change” can come about from individual improvement just as it can come about through systemic action. My personal bias, simply because this is where I feel most comfortable, is to know that people on an individual basis can live better lives because of something I might have done.

We need both change and charity.

So, how can we keep the human scale of philanthropy and not shove it aside, even as we try harder to do more with less?

(cc) Jake McKee

90-9-1 Principle for online communities

Among people who work in, study, and manage online communities, there’s something called the “90-9-1 Principle.” The idea is that in most online communities, 90 percent of the users are audience members, passively reading posts and comments. Nine percent of the users are “editors” editing posts (in wiki-style communities) or adding comments (in blog-style or forum-style communities).

Just 1 percent are “creators” — people who start threads and articles from scratch.

A corollary of this idea is that, for online community managers, one of the leverage points is the Creators. More Creators will multiply into more action by Editors.

In consulting and in business management, there are lots of similar theories and ideas that hinge on a catchy duo or trio of numbers. I always wonder if these numbers are accurate, what they are based on, and if there is any way to test them.

But the 90-9-1 idea seems intuitively true. I wonder how it would hold up in real life communities.

In a physical, place-based community like a neighborhood, the roles might go by different names.

Remember, in the online community the 90-9-1 rule does not take into account the people who are unaware of the community or only have glanced at once or twice. Similarly, in many neighborhoods, there is a large segment of the public that isn’t engaged and is unaware of some of the community issues. They go to work and go about their business, but aren’t connected in in any significant way.

Outside of that group, the in-person 90-9-1 rule might look like this:

  • The majority of “audience” might be called the attentive public. They attend community meetings, and keep up on events and news.
  • The next group (“editors”) might be called the active public. They stand up and comment in meetings. They write letters to the editor, and take substantive part of
  • Finally, there are the leaders. These are the people who step forward and take focal-point roles. They run for office, lead neighborhood groups, chair committees, serve on commissions.

These “leaders” are not just the officials in office. It’s lots of different kinds of people. Someone who is a leader in one context might be active in another and simply attentive in a third. But the key leverage point for increasingly community vibrancy is on getting more leaders.

For a number of years, there has been a new theory of community leadership building. The idea is that people emerge as leaders from communities — they aren’t anointed, appointed, or made.

This simple notion has driven new kinds of community leadership programs, ones which don’t focus so much on creating a Chamber of Commerce-style network, or even a policy school-type of cohort of highly knowledgeable lay people (even though both of these are important and necessary). These new kinds of leadership programs focus on cultivating leadership skills among people who might not otherwise see themselves as community leaders . As more of these people step forward, into the public square, more active and attentive people follow suit.

Growing the ranks of leadership is one key leverage point (not the only) in fostering a vibrant community life.

The White House’s Office Of Science And Technology Policy last week invited comments on a number of blog posts that summarized citizen recommendations to enhance participation and transparency. (This is part of the administration’s “Open Government Initiative.”)

One blog post was on “Enhancing Citizen Participation In Decision Making.”

People shared a lot of good ideas. I wish I could link directly to a particular comment, because my friend Peter Levine added what I thought was the most important intervention.

Peter suggests four principles to keep in mind about any mechanism for face-to-face public participation:

1. Some method to ensure reasonable levels of representativeness.

2. A neutral and responsible presentation of the issues.

3. A carefully through-out process that promotes learning and collaboration. That almost always requires trained moderators.

4. Some protection against deliberate manipulation by interest groups. In a completely open online discussion, it’s easy to email a huge number of supporters and ask them all to post comments. In a conventional public hearing, usually the main speakers represent specific interests. We need to draw a true cross section of people for an open-minded discussion. Random selection is one way to avoid manipulation, but there are other ways as well–always involving careful recruitment.

Any of these ideas is worth more exploration, but I am interested in the third.

Dialogue almost always requires trained moderators. Intuitively we know this is true. Dialogue, when it goes well, pushes us to examine our own assumptions about what motivates other people. When was the last time you did that, unprovoked? I didn’t think so.

Flipchart in the garden by Flickr user Sjors Provoost

"Flipchart in the garden" by Flickr user Sjors Provoost

In dialogue initiatives that I have been a part of, we often ask participants a variety of questions at the end, including whether people changed their mind about anything or whether they see others who disagree with them differently than before. Very few people admit to having their minds changed — but people often report that they see others in a different light.

That kind of mindset change cannot be self-generated but requires someone to push it.

Even more, when I look at different dialogue initiatives, and at the different group conversations that take place within them, I’ve found that one of the key leverage points is the quality of the leader. It is not rocket science to lead a dialogue on public issues, but it is a skill that takes a bit of mindfulness.

What makes a good dialogue leader? It’s not the same thing as being a “neutral facilitator” because it takes a little more moxie. I can think of five key traits:

  • Ability to think on your feet
  • Genuine interest in what other people have to say
  • Ability to track the conversation actively and bring in things that people said previously
  • Ability to set expert knowledge aside
  • Willingness to lead, humility to set ego aside

Lots of my readers are active in the public dialogue field. What are your key conversation leader traits?