Archives for the month of: June, 2009

It is trite to link to Seth Godin but his article last Friday had very useful ideas.

“How big is your farm?” he asks. The idea is that you shouldn’t spread yourself around everywhere.

The number of media channels available to you keeps growing. The number of places you can spend time and money is almost endless. Yet your budget isn’t. Your time certainly isn’t.

Some people would have you spend a little time on each social network, run ads in ten or fifteen media, focus on one hundred major markets and spend time on PR and publicity in every publication willing to listen to you.

Or you could pick one channel and win.

When it comes to leather & rubber, we dominate by Flickr user sillygwailo

"When it comes to leather & rubber, we dominate" by Flickr user sillygwailo

My friend Gary Nordlinger, a successful international political consultant, gives a different version of this basic idea. I have always liked Gary’s version, because it’s very hard nosed.

This is Gary’s answer to political neophytes who say, “How much should I spend on advertising?”

  • Order your media channels in descending order of importance
  • Spend enough to dominate the most important
  • If you have money left over, spend enough to dominate the next most important
  • Repeat, etc.

Don’t spread everything around, even though it feels good.

Guest article by my friend Allison Addicott:

In The Beginning

Remember films such as Robin Hood or others that depict tax collectors for the landed gentry repeatedly riding into small villages demanding more money? In such films, often the final manifestation of unabashed moral corruption on the part of the landed oligarchy was the torching of dozens of little homes as flocks of extras flee, wailing into the night.

A while back, in mid-September 2008, many in the media observed the slow collapse of the financial networks in terms of “shoe-dropping.” “When will the other shoe drop?” At that point, being overly reactionary to the circumstances rising up around our ankles seemed to be ill-conceived. Now, with so many institutions in the midst of being propped up, set to receive another round of money, the tax payer still does not know, really, what happened to the first round. Other folks who have traditionally received government funds, like non-profits, can testify that government money usually comes with reporting so complicated that it requires a staff just to manage and track the data the receipt of funds requires.

Alchemy - The Promised Cotton Candy by Flickr user sflovestory

"Alchemy - The Promised Cotton Candy" by Flickr user sflovestory

In this story, the American taxpayer is asked to observe a kind of moral largesse, a selfless humility these past few months. The taxpayer says nothing as his or her hard-earned money is handed out like giant pink puffs of cotton candy to an industry with a 24/7 sweet tooth. Most Americans want to do what is best, to work together, and want to help this new administration, under the direction of President Barack Obama, succeed. The taxpayer has by and large managed this feat even while trying to dog-paddle in the thrashing seas of bad news about the stormy economy. Is this picture changing, though? The high-drama tea bagging by conservatives aside, will centrist and democratic taxpayers continue this stiff-upper lipped silence? Or, are Americans, beginning to find their voice about morality, ethics, and the world of finance? Read the rest of this entry »

My friend Peter Levine starts a recent article with the famous Margaret Mead quotation that graces the walls and annual reports of a significant fraction of nonprofits:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead

Child Dining by Flickr user GlennFleishman

"Child Dining" by Flickr user GlennFleishman

He goes on to point out that the statement is not quite true, that large forces have changed the world, too. Just look at the fate of New Orleans.

(It reminds me of a passage in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in which a teacher points out to his students that the idea that “violence never settles anything” is absurd — just ask those defeated in a war, whose fates are often quite well settled.)

Peter, who takes pains to make sure we know he is not trying to take cheap shots at Margaret Mead, outlines some useful questions that it would be worthwhile to ask:

  • When can “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” change the world?
  • How can they be most effective?
  • What are good means and good ends for these groups?

Excellent questions and the answers are not necessarily easy to come by. But they really must be addressed if we are to govern ourselves in a way that matches our ideals and rhetoric.

We are living at a time where the national conversation is embracing this notion of “committed citizens changing the world” in a way that it has not for some decades. But we need to move beyond what Peter calls “civic piety.” It’s very easy to mouth platitudes about “the people” and “working together” but actually getting the work of communities done takes more than talk.

But just as important, changing the way government views the role of citizens will take a huge amount of work. So far, the rhetoric has been right, but the results are not yet certain.

It’s counter intuitive that I would be thinking about the Federal government in juxtaposition to the Mead quote. But I would say it is exactly the right thing to be thinking about right now.

The government is offering “small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens” a lever in the form of a seat at the table of governance. The Open Government Initiative is a huge start. While it is up to these groups of thoughtful, committed citizens to figure out how to use that lever, it is also incumbent on the White House to make sure the seat is not actually at the kids’ Thanksgiving card table — marginalized.

So I would add this question to Peter’s:

  • How can government make room for citizens’ voices, without giving up the responsibility to govern?

I don’t ordinarily run “updates” to earlier stories, but this news shifted on of the the points made in  Monday’s posting about the controversy between Ed Whelan and a pseudonymous blogger named “publius.” Whelan had discovered publius’ identity and revealed it.

I used the occasion to make a broader point about being anonymous (which I have a bias against in most cases). But the underlying story — the battle between publius and Whelan — got a lot of blogosphere attention. By the end of the night, Whelan had apologized for disclosing publius’ identity:

I realize that, unfortunately, it is impossible for me to undo my ill-considered disclosure of his identity.  For that reason, I recognize that Publius may understandably regard my apology as inadequate.

I also got a note from the author of the amusingly-named Bloggasm, who got in touch with both Whelan and publius, (on the phone no less, how groovily old-skool) and filed a useful report here.

Because I enjoy publicizing the activities of my band, The West End, here’s our most popular YouTube video, in which we perform Husker Du’s “Sorry Somehow.” I thought it apt for the moment.

Emily and Joe

Emily and Joe

My family and I traveled to see the wedding of a dear, dear friend recently. The bride is a wonderful person (as is the groom, but I do not know him as well). The ceremony just perfectly embodied who my friend Emily is: beautiful, humble, gracious.

It got me thinking about my own wedding, some sixteen years ago and more. We chose a decidedly nontraditional approach to our ceremony. It is a choice that has endured and I continue to be glad of it. My wife, Andrea Jarrell, and I met doing civic activities. These things were the center of our life at the time. We were (and are) both true believers that a good person leaves their community better than they found it, or tries to. We wanted our wedding to embody the civic ideals to which we aspired.

It’s a neat story.

How We Met

The day before primary election day in Los Angeles in June 1991, my not-yet-wife and I had both begun volunteering on behalf of an acquaintance, John Emerson, who was in the midst of a pitched battle for a seat in the California state Assembly. John was Deputy City Attorney for Los Angeles. Andrea and I didn’t know one another yet. We ended up phone-banking next to one another, and got to talking. The next night, at the victory party, we talked more.

John lost by a heartbreaking 31 votes, which entitled him to a recount but he decided against it, opting instead for party unity.

Over the next months, we got to know one another. We both had jobs that caused us to circulate in Los Angeles’ civic realm — I was a major gift fundraiser for my alma mater, and Andrea was an executive at the premier speaker’s forum in town. Our courtship is for another time, but suffice to say we hit it off, became friends, fell in love, and got engaged to be married — all very quickly. By October we’d made the decision.

Will You Marry Us?

We wanted John to marry us, which he could do as a City official. We met him at a downtown diner to ask him. We had no real idea how kind John was being to meet with us, two young kids. He had a very, very big job. But I think he was flattered, or his heart was touched. He said yes. Read the rest of this entry »

Blindfold by Flickr user MoonSoleil

"Blindfold" by Flickr user MoonSoleil

There’s a controversy right now over an exchange between two notable bloggers, each from opposite sides of the liberal/conservative divide.

An author at the “moderate” liberal Obsidian Wings blog who writes under the pseudonym “publius” has long criticized conservative Ed Whelan, who writes at the National Review’s Bench Memos and is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Whelan recently learned through what he terms a “reliable” source the true identity of publius. He asked for confirmation and received a brief email: I am not commenting on my identity. For a variety of private, family, and professional reasons, I write under a pseudonym (like many blogers). If I wanted to publicly disclose my name, I would do so. Thank you.”

Whelan then publicized the name.

It turns out that publius is a pre-tenure law professor at a Texas school. After being exposed, he wrote an article confirming his identity. He had attempted to remain anonymous, he writes, out of concern that blogging might damage him professionally, might upset some conservative people in his family, and might make conservative students who take his classes uncomfortable.

Now the controversy rages: Did Whelan do something wrong in exposing publius?

Most people agree that people who have compelling reasons to remain anonymous ought to have their identities protected. I happen to believe that publius’ reasons are not compelling. It is uncomfortable, but not dangerous that he is now exposed.

I’m not naming him here because I have no reason to do so. But the exchange illustrates an interesting point in digital public life.

I have long been opposed to anonymous blogging, and commenting on other blogs. At the local blog I run called Rockville Central, I’ve tried on occasion to disallow anonymous commenting, but the stream dried up whenever I did that. (In large part, I believe that is because people found it difficult to register.) Our current policy is to make a simple request of commenters: Think about whether you really need to be anonymous to make this comment and, if not, use your real name.

While I am not revealing publius’ name here, I don’t think Whelan did anything wring in revealing the identity of his critic. I likewise don’t think publius did anything wrong in writing under a pseudonym — but I wish he had not.

To write under a pseudonym simply because it is more comfortable diminishes the public value of anonymity, which is to protect those voices that need protection and need to be heard.

The Internet’s provisions of anonymity bring with them formidable powers to blow whistles and fight large powers from small platforms. But being anonymous can also untether writers from accountability — which is a key element in a healthy public square.

A town meeting can be a difficult place, as we argue and disagree. But because I can see your face, and you mine, we keep our remarks within the bounds of civility. Anonymous comments and blog postings remove this built-in control.

My skeptical look by Flickr user imrational

"My 'skeptical' look" by Flickr user imrational

All over, I see middle management being urged to “get on the social media bandwagon” because they may get left in the dust.  But, often the senior management of the organization is skeptical or downright hostile to the idea. By understanding the fears that are driving this hostility, you might be able to break through.

This is from an excellent transcript at the Chronicle of Philanthropy on nonprofits’ use of social media. I’ve pulled out the fear-based questions that people asked. I recommend you read the whole thing, because there’s lots more!

Worries organizations have about social media:

  • My organization is concerned about putting our name out there to possibly be “manipulated” in a negative way on . . . these social networking sites.
  • Is it bad if members within the organization don’t always speak with a unified voice?
  • [H]ow can an organization that has no experience with these media options “get started?”
  • I would like to get my organization started in social networking, but my boss is skeptical. How can I show her it’s not a waste of my time?
  • I work with nonprofits whose executive management teams are resistant to the idea of social networking as none them are willing to invest staff time in the effort. Also, none envision value-added results.
  • [H]ow much staff time need be committed on a daily basis?
  • Our main concern with social networking are the liability issues that may arise. . . . [H]ow can we utilize a social medium like Facebook, without having to worry about any of our service recipients leaving comments that are crisis issues.
  • [H]ow does a development director or volunteer get management to trust (give up control)?

This adds up to just a few real fears:

  1. We’re out of control (of friends, of supporters, of staff)
  2. It’s a waste of time and money (and diverts us from better pursuits)
  3. Something bad will happen and we’ll be blamed (a friend may harm another friend)

What You Can Do

The best suggestion I have, as someone who’s been both middle and senior management in nonprofits, is to take baby steps. If you see utility for your organization in pursuing social medi, you’ll need to cover these bases:

  1. Make the business case for getting involved. Here is my favorite article on that (the key bullets are at the end).
  2. Start small so consequence of failure is low and the dislocation to the organization is minimal. Here are ten tips for new Twitter users, for example.
  3. Make sure you are ready to monitor performance. That means you will have to decide what success will look like. And you will have to spend time listening — but you can decide how much.
  4. Point out that it’s more likely you’ll be able to use your social network to respond to bad news than it is you’ll be the victim of your social network. The story of Domino’s is a good example of both the power and necessity for respect.
my neighborhood by Flickr user chrisdlugosz

"my neighborhood" by Flickr user chrisdlugosz

One of my entrepreneur and social web heroes, Seesmic founder Loic Le Meur, is among the most open and accessible members of the digerati. He is constantly sharing and praising others. He recently was at a conference where Internet star Chris Pirillo was speaking and the subject turned toward community and community building. Chris had some interesting things to say, and Loic responded in equally interesting ways.

Note that these folks were talking about online communities — my question for readers is to what extent, and how, do these observations apply to real-world, neighborhood community building?

Chris Pirillo’s Comments

These are from Loic’s notes:

I don’t want to be part of anything viral about any community ever, that’s just me a blog is just a tool. If you think a blog is a community then you too are a tool.  [Y]ou can’t build a community it is either there or it’s not. You know you have a community if it takes care of itself.

YOU are the asset of a community and not the other way around. [T]he best community leaders come out of the community rather than being hired or thrown in.

If you cultivate your community like a plant it will grow. If you empower and guide your community, you will lead it. if you have something to say, if you have a voice, use it, exercise it. Make those connections. You will be a leader before U know it.

[C]ommunity is the antithesis of ego. It is inside you but it is not about you.

Interesting ideas there. A few points:

  • The idea that YOU are the asset of a community, and not the other way around. So many of my friends in the community-building world look at the networks they are trying to build within the communities as “assets” to be used (either by the community members or by the parent organization).
  • We are quick to call something a “community” that just isn’t. Chris is withering when he tells bloggers who view their commenters as a “community” that “you are a tool.”  How many nonprofit orgs see communities where there are just groups of people? (A related question, for another time, might be: what turns an accidental group into a community?)

Loic’s Response

Loic, in inimmitable fashion (follow him a while and you will come to recognize it) has a few things to say. One thing he takes issue with is the idea that you can’t “build” community — in Loic’s view, you can:

I think you can “build” it though, it is just a question of words. Chris says “cultivate” by sharing regularly amongst other things. I think you can build with passion.

He goes into more detail in this brief video, and if you listen to his points from the standpoint of a nonprofit organization seeking to build community, there is a lot to be learned:

Two Willet birds in silhouette by Flickr user mikebaird

photo by Michael "Mike" L. Baird

Here are some Twitter tips for folks who have been using it for a while. They are not definitive, more my expression of personal style.

Chances are, if you are reading this and are yourself a Twitter user, you have an opinion on some of these, so please push back in the comments!

If you’re new to Twitter, try my Ten Tips For Twitter Newbies. (Some of these tips appear over there, too. I will refund your money if you complain by joining my email list. Heh, heh.)

  1. If you are on Facebook, use Selective Twitter Status so you can control what tweets appear in Facebook. On tweets you choose to share with Facebook, avoid Twitter lingo like @ and RT.
  2. Don’t share full links — always use a link shortener. Why? Well, it looks weird to see a full url. and allow you to track rudimentary stats, too.
  3. Eventually, if you follow lots of people, you will need a desktop client so you can separate them into groups. Tweetdeck and Seesmic are the main contenders and they are really neck-and-neck in terms of features.
  4. If you manage more than one Twitter account (like if you have one for your business and one for you), Seesmic and Hoot Suite are good options.
  5. It helps if you have a rule for following people. Otherwise your numbers can get hard to handle. My personal rule is a version of @loic’s: I have to be able to articulate to myself a) who the person is; b) why I want to follow them.
  6. If you want someone to see a particular update, time and pace yourself. Don’t tweet important things until after noon (eastern) so you can reach people when they are in front of their computers.
  7. Don’t just share your own blog posts and stuff. Link to lots of places and people will see you as contributing, instead of taking. Don’t be a taker.
  8. Don’t worry if spammy “internet marketing pros” follow you. They’ll go away.
  9. Don’t have a photo posted yet? Do it. Is your photo NOT of your face? Change it. You need a photo of your face.
  10. Don’t use Direct Messages like email. They’re hard to respond to. Ask permission (using an @ message) or wait to be invited.
  11. About those hashtags (#). By convention, people use a hasthtag to collect updates into a category. For instance, everyone attending South By Southwest might add #sxsw to the end of their updates. You can make your own up, too, if you are attending an event or want to create a category. But check first to see if someone has come up with a hashtag already! (Use the search bar at the right to check.)
  12. Don’t send “thank you” or “welcome” Direct Messages to new followers unless you really have something important to say.
  13. It’s considered bad form to delete an old update, except under extreme circumstances. A typo is not an extreme circumstance.

What tricks and tips have you learned after using Twitter for a while?

Kai Degner, Mayor of Harrisonburg, VA, from Daily News Record

Kai Degner, Mayor of Harrisonburg, VA, from the Daily News Record

Kai Degner is mayor of Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. Before becoming mayor, he was also active (and still is, as you will see) in the civic participation community. He was elected about a month ago on what he refers to as a “process-based platform,” which means his basic promise is to change how government works.

His efforts are worth watching to learn more about how dialogue and participation can play out in real-world examples. Often, people criticize the field for creating heavily facilitation-based and consultant-heavy processes that are divorced from how people really interact. Kai is operating as an elected politician and so has real-world constraints within which he’s got to stick. His efforts have to be relevant and useful, otherwise they won’t go anywhere.

Over the weekend, he convened an example of collaborative, ground breaking work that should give everyone hope for what city government can look like.

Harrisonburg Sustainability Summit

About a month ago, Kai issued an open invitation for people to come to a citywide summit on sustainability (the first of what he says will be a series of summits on various issues). The wrinkle: he used the “open meeting” format to organize and execute it.

What’s the open meeting format? It’s an approach to meetings that some may find confounding. Essentially, there is no set agenda. At the beginning of the conference, all attendees brainstorm ideas they would like to pursue and out of this emerges an agenda of topics. People go to the sessions that interest them stay as long as they want, and move on to the next.

The whole process can be summed up:

  • Use the Law of Two Feet: Move to where you are most creative and productive.
  • Whoever comes are the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • When it’s over, it’s over

Here’s Kai inviting people, a great explanation of what hoped to achieve:

His point: This is “me as mayor convening a conversation for everyone that’s here.” I like that.


The Summit itself was a success and I could not be more happy to hear about it. Kai developed a blog that became the organizing site for it, and served as a live agenda and report-out resource.

What’s more, mainstream media reported on the summit and did so in a way that was not the norm for such a thing. Usually, the media cover civic participation stories with an air of “isn’t that cute” underlying everything. “Look at those citizens, isn’t it cute how they think they have a voice?”

In this case, perhaps because a sitting mayor convened it or perhaps because it was so surprisingly effective — or perhaps for those and other reasons altogether — coverage was substantive:

Even better, this approach to governance is hugely cost effective. In a recent email, here’s Kai’s breakdown of vital statistics and costs:

Stats: 7 Hours, 158ppl+, 120 orgs+, 34 sessions, 23 reports online in blog (as of now)
Budget? $16 for orange fabric. $14 for name tags. Everything else donated.

So, bottom line, for folks in other communities: You can do it, too.