Friday, June 17, 2011

State of the Practice: It's Got Me Thinking

The Communications Network has just released its most recent survey of foundation communications professionals, asking them questions about, among other things: what they do, how they spend their time, who their audiences are, what their priorities are, and what their deepest communications wishes might be.

The responses from 155 of these folks include some good news, some bad news, and some downright confusing news. I won't summarize the findings here, since Bruce and Michael do that well enough in the report, but I do want to comment on some specific findings that are stuck in my mental craw. I'd love to hear what's stuck in yours!

1) The majority of respondents (59%) work in organizations with a communications staff of two or less.

This is not the first time we have heard this and yet we often ignore this reality when talking about innovative communications practices, new communications technologies, and solutions to communications gaps and shortfalls in the sector. No staff of two people can adequately manage the number of information sharing opportunities and technologies that are out there without a) the resources to get outside help, b) a super clear strategy for what they will focus on and internal support for that focus, and c) sector wide technologies and services that support and facilitate information sharing capacity for the entire sector not just one organization at a time.

(The effort to keep up with "time-saving" communications platforms sometimes reminds me of when the washer and dryer were invented to "save" housewives time only for those same women to end up spending nearly as much time as they did a century ago on housework.)

2) A majority (65%) of foundation communicators said their top objective is “increasing public understanding of the issues our foundation concentrates on”.

We at IssueLab find this to be very good news. Focusing on the very issues that motivate and inform the sector's work is completely right on. Yet, what's disconcerting is that only 30% of respondents viewed "providing research to others in the field" as a priority. I know we are biased here at IssueLab but I would like to think that research is in fact one of the fundamental tools for increasing public understanding. Perhaps so few respondents prioritized research because the survey question framed research as an objective rather than a tool but the responses do make me wonder about exactly how foundation communicators do view the role of research. Is it a knowledge base they can draw from for content development and awareness building or just another grant product to be promoted?

It's true that many of us struggle with making research more relevant and meaningful but it's critical that we recognize its fundamental value. As long as foundations continue funding research -- primarily as a means to increasing the understanding of complex issues -- we should be prioritizing it as a rich source of knowledge for our communications and education efforts.

3) "Increasing public understanding" is a top communications objective and yet the "general public" is a low-priority in terms of targeted audiences.

This is good news -- if -- it means that communications professionals no longer accept "the general public" as a vague, catch-all audience category that can no more be targeted than it can be measured. But it's not such good news if we have simply replaced the "general public" with other vague catch-all audience categories such as "influencers". The majority of respondents say that their top targets are policymakers (56%), community leaders (54%) and current grantees (53%), relying on a different mix of communications tools (phone, email, websites, blogs, and social media) to reach out to these audiences. But the majority of foundation communicators (56%) also are not using any kind of audience research to develop strategy. So how we are identifying influencers and how do we know what works best in reaching them?

Communications evaluation and measurement are notoriously hard (how does one for instance measure public understanding?) but if we are going to make public understanding our top objective and we believe policymakers and community leaders are key to changing that understanding then really we need to answer 1) who are the influencers and what kind of influencers are we talking about? 2) which communications tools seem best suited to reaching those influencers?, and 3) did we change their understanding? My guess is that most communications professionals have hunches about each of these questions. I am a strong believer in hunches but so that we don't slip right back into the "general public" trap it might be good to articulate some of these hunches and back them up with audience research and evaluation.

4) Almost three-quarters (74%) of respondents say they go through a process that produces a written communications plan. But only about a third (36%) say that their communications plan really guides their daily work.

I will keep my comments on this one short because it is really fodder for a much larger conversation. But in a nutshell I don't find this to be bad news. Why? Because the study goes on to report two related findings: organizations that do plan differ from those that don't in that they are 1) more likely to recognize failure, and 2) more likely to have other organizational departments engaged in communications efforts. These two things alone make planning worth it, whether we consult those plans on a daily basis or not.

Ok, so there are actually more than just four things that got stuck in my mental craw - which is in its own sense a measure of a report's success. But since we are all so short on actual time to read, (some might say poverty-stricken in this "attention economy" :), I will leave you with just one more finding that both delighted and intrigued me. It made me think of every blog post, discussion board message, and piece of strategic advice I have read over the last ten years encouraging nonprofits to behave more like businesses.

"There is another finding that seems to demand more research: Those with written communications plans most frequently said that before joining the foundation they had previously worked in a nonprofit organization, whereas those without written communications plans most frequently said they had worked in a for-profit company."

Thanks to Communications Network for cultivating discussion and debate on all these topics.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

IssueLab Likes LikeMinded - A Lot!

Exciting news! The Craigslist Foundation has launched a new website aimed at helping community activists share stories of success, failure, and best practice, and IssueLab's collection of nonprofit knowledge is an integral part of it!

The site, LikeMinded -- an online tool for offline action, officially launched today. The site focuses your attention first on broad social policy issues -- Arts, Health, Education, Crime & Safety, Environment, Economy, Government, Community. However, in just a click you find yourself dealing with social policy on the ground -- local stories, unique perspectives, and supporting resources.

Speaking of resources....chances are very good that you will find an IssueLab-hosted research report under every LikeMinded category. This IssueLab/LikeMinded data partnership is just one example of how IssueLab makes the findings and analysis of the nonprofit sector discoverable and accessible to those who seek it.

So when you get a chance, give LikeMinded a look-see. Post a story, read a story, get a new/expanded/different perspective on activism and community.

And a special note to IssueLab Research Contributors: Sharing just one or two reports through IssueLab and yet you have dozens more reports that you could share? Consider this your motivational blog post! Add more/all of your sought-after research, and let us help you get it in front of the people who can use it!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Nonprofit Blog Carnival: Openness in the Third Sector

The diversity of submissions to this month's carnival speaks to how truly relevant the cultural and rhetorical move towards "openness" is to the work of nonprofits.

The demand for openness is affecting nonprofits in almost every dimension of our work, including: fundraising, research, marketing/communications, operations, evaluations, and outcomes. But we have a long way to go before openness in our practices and approaches could be considered the norm.

Each of the posts in this month's carnival makes its own argument for why nonprofits not only have to accept this cultural shift but also why its to our real benefit to do so. Here are some choice quotes from this month's submissions:

"Ultimately real dedication to openness means to publish every piece of relevant data in a searchable format for the world to look at, to search and to analyze." Good Developments

"“How open do I need to be?” … It seems fairly obvious to those of us steeped in the world of social technologies — you just are open, authentic, and transparent. But for many people where Facebook and Twitter represent alien planets fraught with danger, this is a very valid question. - Charlene Li

"The social media policy for one organization may not be appropriate to your association. Your policy should to be tailored to address your exposures and needs." - Social Fish

"Openness is a broad concept. It implies being truthful and honest in what you say, communicating information freely to stakeholders, and being held accountable to those you serve. It touches on much more than just your communication strategy, extending to how you run your programs and what sort of governance mechanisms you have." - WiserEarth

Nonprofits are doing everything from circulating open RFPs for potential merger partners to applying creative commons licenses to all of their research. What are you doing? Let us know in the comments!

Opening Up: Nonprofit Transparency
Kerry Vineberg from WiserEarth brings us this awesome big-picture look at the question of openness, while providing valuable advice on the small and practical steps your nonprofit can take to be more open.

Wikileaks and Its Consequences for Openness of Nonprofits
To put this all in a bigger cultural context the good folks at Good Developments bring a nonprofit perspective to the wikileaks phenomenon. Would your organization survive having all of its data published?

Nonprofits and Information: Sharing Our Stories
The Edmonton Social Planning Council talks about why stories are worth sharing and how several nonprofits (including IssueLab) are working to share as much and as often as possible.

Science of Giving 6: The donation box-How do social norms, price & scrutiny affect what people do?
Katya Andresen puts her spin on the benefits of openness, looking at how being open about the donations you receive might affect future gifts.

Successful fundraising is not for the thin-skinned
And right after you open up about your donations you may need Pamela Grow's advice on how to manage feedback from donors. Make sure to check out the comments on this post for some real-world insight about openness in fundraising.

True Tales of a Department of Education Grant Reviewer
For an example of a process that is integral to our work in the sector but unfortunately almost completely lacks openness, Jake Seliger shares a post from an anonymous reader about grant reviewing.

Foundations Fail at Failing
Speaking of foundations, Michael Remaley's recent post about foundations' openness about failures and lessons learned challenges grantmakers to start walking the talk on the kind of openness we used to call transparency. Be sure to check out the comments

How to use to Social Media without getting Panned
Maureen Carruthers brings us some great tips on how to be open and authentic in social media, without the dreaded over-sharing.

Rob Pierson from BeaconFire gives us valuable insight into how being more open in our email campaigns might actually help address legislators' fears that emails aren't authentic, making our campaigns that more effective and meaningful.

Risk Management and Open Community: More Similar than You Think
Social Fish gives us some insight on how to manage the risks associated with creating open communities.

How open are you? Conduct an Openness Audit to Find Out
And finally, now that you've read all these other posts make sure to check out this interesting approach to understanding exactly how open your organization really is. Charlene Li, get ready for this -- shares -- her Openness Audit tool.

Thanks to everyone who shared a post with me. Although not all of them fit the topic closely enough to be included I read and appreciated each one.

Sandra Sims has just posted the February Nonprofit Blog Carnival's call for submissions. It is up at Mission Connected and is titled, Submit Your Blog Posts About Nonprofit Jobs to the February Nonprofit Blog Carnival. Check it out!

(Picture generously shared under a CC BY 2.0 license by Monica's Dad)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Set That File Free

We handle a lot of PDF files at IssueLab. We save 'em, duplicate 'em, convert ‘em into other formats for various purposes (eg., Scribd), copy text out of 'em, and generally hype ‘em when they contain nonprofit-produced research! So yeah, PDFs are sort of a 24-7 thing in this neck of the ‘net.

So, you can imagine our frustration (and confusion) when we receive PDFs that are "locked". If someone has produced a research report, saved it as a PDF, and put it on the World Wide Web presumably to share it broadly, why then render it all but useless by locking people out of printing it or copying text out of it (to name just two things one can do to a PDF via document security options)?

Before you “secure” your PDF-bound research report against being printed or having text copied out of it, we beseech you to think again. By locking your document you effectively relegate it to on-screen reading only. What if a reader wants to quote something from your report in their own work or presentation? Most readers don't have the time to re-key text that could so easily be copy/pasted from one document to another. What if they want to print something out to read rather than reading it on their computer screen or maybe they want to print it out to share it with someone who doesn't have ready access to a computer? A locked document prevents both these things from happening.

So please, before you “secure” your PDF against being used, and useful, return to the impulse that led you to place your file on the internet in the first place: sharing. Set that file free by making sure your security settings aren't keeping your work from being read or shared.

Image graciously provided under a cc license

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Nonprofit Blog Carnival: Call for Posts on Openness

This month IssueLab will be playing host to the Nonprofit Blog Carnival, a long-running monthly series which collects blog posts on topics relevant to the sector.

As this month's host we are calling for blog posts that address the issue of openness in nonprofit communications! If you're anything like me you have attended more than your share of conference sessions that speak to the necessity of dialogue and openness in effective online communications. But what does that mean? What does it look like? How do we get our organizations to loosen up about brand management and start engaging in the kind of online dialogue that builds awareness online?

There's really no rule on what posts should look like. Essentially, we're looking for any advice, experience, tips, anecdotes, stories or examples of how nonprofits have opened up! Bloggers can submit their posts by emailing the permalink to by Thursday, January 27th. You're also welcome to send in articles written in the past. We look forward to your insights and stories!