Was it Your Mail I Opened?

By Carrie Fox

Given my line of work, I receive a significant amount of mail from social good organizations. That means I’m on the receiving end of a lot of fundraising appeals, annual reports, and marketing materials—some very well-produced and others less so. But, I look at them all very carefully, and most follow a similar formula:

  • Start with a story
  • Describe what the individual or family needed
  • Show how the organization helped
  • Ask for money

The words aim to say one thing, but the way in which most of the stories are told say something else.

Over the last couple of years, especially, something hasn’t sat well with me about this formula. It clicked last month when I received a solicitation from one well-intended social services nonprofit organization.

For people working to create change in communities, there are a few terms that get tossed around regularly. Terms like promise, social capital, equity, initiatives, injustice. We talk about investing in initiatives that help build community, and we work to build equity in the communities we serve. We recognize injustice and we see the importance of social capital for communities to thrive.

But, where is the humanity in those words? If we believe that building equity and investing in community is key, why do we very rarely hear from community members in their own words, not through the filtered lens and carefully crafted voice of an organization? 

There’s a curious line between what we say and do when it comes to building equity.

Since the inception of Mission Partners, we have been on an intentional journey toward the practice of inclusive marketing. We believe it is our responsibility, as designers of messages and marketing materials, to ensure that the words and images we use do not reinforce negative, false, or misleading stereotypes. On the contrary, they must build a better understanding of the human experience. We believe communications has the power to change the world—if that communication can be used to bring people together, not to push us apart. That means being intentional and aware about how stories are told in marketing materials: who is telling those stories, who is being included in the creative process, and who is being overlooked.

Earlier this year I wrote an article on building equity and breaking bias in storytelling in which I wrote that “as writers, we inherently believe that we’re telling our best stories. If asked, we’ll say we conducted multiple interviews and sought out several sources, but the reality of implicit bias is that we bring it to the table without realizing it is there.”

As I continue to add to my own knowledge on this topic, I wanted to share a few more thoughts for consideration before you hit send on your next fundraising appeal:

  • If you have featured even one individual or family in any one of your publications in the past year, how often have you compensated them for sharing their story, given the way you use their story to drive resources to your organization’s bottom line? And perhaps the bigger question is: what is your organization’s policy for compensating talent? Do you have an equitable definition for even defining the term “talent”?
  • Are the people in your fundraising appeals given an opportunity to review and edit their stories? How many people have you asked to fact check their success story? How might the story look different if you had? And again, perhaps the bigger question is: What is your organization’s policy for reviewing materials before they are published? Who gets to hold that red pen?
  • Rather than feeling tied to the frame set out above, what do you think might happen if you flipped the narrative to be from a different perspective? What voice other than the carefully crafted executive director or beneficiary could you consider that delivers your message in a compelling way?
  • When is the last time you authentically connected with your community? Not on your terms, but on theirs. We all make assumptions based on who we believe our community is, and what they need. To reduce those assumptions, how often are you authentically connecting with your community; asking them to share their own narrative, in their own way? And how often are you asking your community if they feel adequately and factually represented in your marketing materials?

These are tough questions, and not standard for most nonprofit organizations. But, if you believe that equity and inclusion are important to your organizational culture, the actions you take to the above questions are ways to prove your commitment.

Like what you read? Want to learn more. Join me next Tuesday, July 17th at the American Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Marketing Conference, or join us for our next Equity + Design Thinking Day on September 6.

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Connecting and Communicating on Mental Health

By Carrie Fox

After the great chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain passed away last week, his mother, Gladys Bourdain said in an interview with The New York Times that “he was absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this.”

As a mother, that line sat heavy with me. How do you know if your child is pain, if they are not showing outward signs of it? How do you know if anyone close to you—a spouse, a sibling, a coworker—is dealing with mental health challenges? And are there ways to see or spot the signs that someone is struggling, perhaps for longer than we may have realized?

Suicide rates are climbing in nearly every demographic, age group and geographic area, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there’s so much that stands in our way as parents, friends, and colleagues, to do something about it when we think we see signs of someone struggling. Questions like “How do I raise this issue with someone in an appropriate way?”, “What if I’m wrong?”, and “When and how do I even think to say something?”, can often stop us before we start the conversation.

I thought about this a lot yesterday, as I had the opportunity to sit down with our dear friends at the Youth Mental Health Project, an incredible nonprofit founded and run by Randi Silverman and Wendy Ward, parents who believe that mental health is imperative to all health. The Youth Mental Health Project empowers young people, parents, and caring adults with practical knowledge, support, and resources they need to nurture their children’s mental health and intervene when they recognize warning signs.

Mission Partners helped The Youth Mental Health Project in its early stages of growth with scale, but I believe their impact on us was just as powerful.

Here’s a bit from their website:

Half of all cases of mental illness begin in childhood, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. As research has consistently proven, early detection and intervention dramatically improve the long-term outlook for anyone with a mental health disorder. In addition, early detection and treatment can prevent an escalation of symptoms and possible co-occurring disorders, which are oftentimes more difficult to treat. Stereotypes, discrimination and fear, however, cultivate deafening silence around youth mental health. This makes identification and treatment extremely difficult. Families cannot seek help for a problem if they do not know it exists.

The following excerpts are shared from the Youth Mental Health Project’s free online resource Mental Health 101: Talking with Kids, which can be downloaded here.

  • How do I talk with my child about their concerns, and how do I know how much information they can actually handle?

You can begin by asking your children one or two open ended questions (e.g., What was the favorite part of your day today? What is one thing that has been on your mind lately? What do you think of what has been happening in the news lately?) Make certain to stop talking and listen carefully. Find out what their words mean to them.

  • How do I know if my child is dealing with depression, vs. going through a period of sadness?

The fact is that children do not try to feel unhappy, so prolonged or frequent emotional discomfort may be a sign of depression. If you are concerned, it may make sense to keep a log of the frequency, duration, and intensity of your child’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Also, keep note of your child’s ability to function. How often is your child unable or seemingly unwilling to do something or participate in an activity that seems typical or ordinary for other children the same age? The important thing to remember about depression is that the earlier it is recognized and treated, the better the outcome will be. Untreated depression can seriously impede functioning and healthy development and can lead to substance use, school avoidance or dropout, self-harm, and even suicide.

 

  • How do I know if my child is struggling with their mental health to a degree that requires intervention?

Brain research has taught us that what our brains forget, our bodies don’t. For this reason, if your child is struggling, you may witness noticeable changes in your child’s behavior, social activities, academic performance, physical health, or appearance. Signs a child is struggling can include, but are not limited to: Disruption in sleep/nightmares, lack of motivation, inability to focus, connect, or control impulses, loss of appetite, changes in personal care, long-lasting, intense, painful emotions, Intense worry, Increased irritability, anger, or moodiness, feelings of worthlessness, increased stomachaches or other persistent unexplainable ailments, or Disinterest in extracurricular activities or too nervous to attend.

As Wendy and Randi say, “we all have mental health, and in these unsettling times, it is more important than ever to remember that caring for a child’s mental health is just as important as caring for their physical health. To learn more, or to download a copy of their resource guides, please visit ymhproject.org.

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The Trouble with Assumptions, and How to Keep Yours in Check

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”  Isaac Asimov

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I can only assume they’re going to do A…
  • For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume B…
  • I’m assuming they’ll have access to this information through D, E, and F channels.

Assumptions are baked into so much of what we do, and so many of the decisions that we make. We don’t always know the full story or the exact facts, and so we make assumptions to fill the gaps. They help us make sense of complex information, and can serve as an important guide so we know what questions we can ask.

But assumptions can be just as harmful as they are helpful. When we fall into the trap of not challenging our assumptions and instead begin accepting them at face value, or when we fail to recognize them at all, much bigger problems can set in.

The proven way to combat assumptions? Ask more questions.

Yesterday, we hosted our first of several Design Thinking days at Mission Partners. We convened a small group of curious people who each agreed to look closely at their current communications practices for where the traps of assumption lie. Within the first 30 minutes, it became clear that even when we believe we’re being open to information (myself included), we might not always be getting enough of the right information to make an informed decision.

Consider this: How many of the first impressions you make today will be based on false assumptions?

Think about this the next time you’re in line at the grocery store, or riding the Metro, or in your next team assignment at work. What assumptions are you making about the people you see, or about certain policies or practices as you move through your day? Take time to recognize your assumptions as you’re making them, and then consider how those assumptions might be wrong, ill-informed, or worth examining further.

For years, research showed that someone had 7 seconds to make a first impression. That’s not much time at all. But, it’s a lifetime compared to newer data which showed the actual time it takes for someone to judge another person’s character is .01 seconds. Milliseconds. So-fast-you-don’t-even-know-it-happened seconds.  And once that very initial assumption is set, it’s hard to break it. So, it’s even more important that we not only recognize when we’re making assumptions, but we understand how to be intentional about listening, learning, and understanding one another in order to differentiate false assumptions vs. reality.

Here are three more ways you can challenge your assumptions, and help to keep them in check:

  1. How well do you really listen? As in, listening without simultaneously forming a response in your mind. In yesterday’s session, we performed an exercise in radical listening. For 60 seconds, participants were instructed to just look at their partner. Learn one another’s faces. Stay connected to one another’s eyes. Then, we repeated the exercise, but gave each person 60 seconds to talk to their partner. And something interesting happened: the room softened, the relationships deepened, and people began seeing each other in new ways, picking up on little details they hadn’t noticed before. Assumptions we had made about one another in those first few seconds of meeting melted away.
  1. If you’re the curator of content for your organization, where are you sourcing your news? The easy assumption is that the sources we’re pulling from give us a well-rounded picture of the situation. But, what stories could we be missing? Are your sources the same sources week after week, or do you challenge yourself to go beyond the traditional news set? How often are you reaching out into your community to request news for future editions? How often are you exploring the news within the outer rings of your audience set—beyond your primary audience and into your secondary and tertiary audience—to see how the conversation and news is different there?
  1. What are the things you mean to know, but just keep assuming that you’ve got it figured out? There was a great episode of This American Life last fall, in which David Kestenbaum spoke with producer Diane Wu about her list of things she “means to know.” It made me think of all the things I mean to know, but never seem to find the time to explore enough to fully understand. So, I started a list too. And while right now the list seems to grow faster than I can check things off, it’s become a great exercise in intentionally learning and breaking my own assumptions.

There’s little we can do about first impressions. Our brains are hardwired to fill gaps of information with assumptions, and that won’t soon change. But, it’s what we do with the seconds, minutes, and hours that follow that make all the difference in this world.

Learn more about our Design Thinking Days, where you can safely explore and challenge your assumptions, and register for our next session at Mission Forward.

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How to Become Fierce in Your Focus

by Carrie Fox

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”

French novelist and author of Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert wrote this line[1] in an 1825 correspondence to Gertrude Tennant. Flaubert was known for his style and aesthetics—and his attention to the fine detail shows up often in his life’s work.

This notion of orderly focus has been on my mind in recent weeks as we’ve been guiding several clients through a range of organizational transitions. In each project I’m reminded that focus is hard for many organizations to achieve—especially when everything feels to be changing around them.

Whether shifting directions in a strategic plan, or revisiting the words used to define your organization’s core beliefs, no greatness can come from a shaky or unorderly process. But with a little muscle memory, focusing your organization’s words, actions, and future can be much more manageable.

So, this week’s blog is devoted to some of my favorite tips for keeping order, even in times of transition:

  • On focusing your words: The words we use to define our mission, vision and everyday value have a major impact in getting someone to understand what we’re saying. Spend less time talking around an issue or peppering your language with too much technical-speak and force yourself to get to the heart of what really matters. Then, ask a handful of people one step removed from your daily work how they would describe your product, service, or issue. You’ll likely find those answers contain some of the most authentic elements of your mission: the kinds of words that have been right in front of you, but got buried in complexity somewhere along the way. Also, pay attention to the vehicles you’re using to distribute your messages. By simplifying or reducing the number of communications tools you’re using, you can focus more intently on how well you’re using them and your messages will have a better chance of sticking.
  • On focusing your actions:  If you’re in the camp of always wondering “Why are we doing this?” and the answer isn’t easily produced, it’s probably time for a good assessment of your organizational priorities.  Are organizational goals clear, and does each team have sub-goals and objectives that line up with the big picture?  Do individuals, especially in more junior positions, understand how their daily activities connect back to the bigger picture? If you—or they— can’t answer those questions, your organization is likely losing a lot of time and efficiency. Focus first on ensuring that the entire team understands this year’s priorities (before you dive right into this week’s priorities) and you’ll see your organizational focus skyrocket.
  • On focusing on the future: The assumption most of us make is that if we have well-ordered and organized days, we’re likely to be productive. But we’ve found that in routine, the power of originality can be lost in the mundane.  Try introducing short, unexpected and creative activities into your work week that intentionally change the routine—a lunchtime walk through a new part of town, a mid-day drawing or coloring session, an afternoon exercise class— anything that can clear your mind and give you a fresh perspective on the day’s work.  We’ve found that it works every time to restore a sense of focus that translates well into fresh thinking.

Achieving the kind of steadiness that Flaubert referenced is not easy, but creating a path to fierce originality is well worth it. While strategic direction will likely be guided from the top, everyone can play a role in advancing an organization’s future.  And with a renewed sense of focus, you’ll feel confident knowing that each task you take on today is getting you closer to that ultimate goal.

[1] Other translations of Flaubert’s quote include: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Year in Review

By Carrie Fox

This holiday season, as we celebrate the first anniversary of Mission Partners, we are thankful for you and for your partnership in moving missions forward for the benefit of our communities, our nation, and our world.

2017 was as promising as it was challenging. As our nation grappled with issues of access and opportunity, our work was bound together by a common theme: a commitment to providing an equitable future for all. To that end, here’s a snapshot of our year:

  • We developed bold new strategic plans for nonprofits, foundations and socially responsible businesses who committed to increase their impact.
  • We built fresh, new narratives that lead with strength and simplicity—and are based on insights gleaned through research—about workforce development, higher education, healthcare, housing, philanthropy, and public media.
  • We helped to mobilize a DC community for collective impact, in order to preserve its neighborhood and provide opportunity for all residents to remain and thrive, even under the immense pressures of gentrification.
  • We led and facilitated Board meetings and community convenings—across the country and across sectors—that challenged long-held ways of working, and identified new solutions.
  • We hosted and facilitated salon dinners, community events, and working groups to drive changes in our systems, including philanthropy and the workplace.
  • We designed creative campaigns that presented the impact of established organizations in new ways, driving increased community impact and engagement.
  • We recommitted ourselves to equity, inclusion, and identity in our practice with clients and in our own learning by participating in Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Training with CommonHealth ACTION, and doubled down on our commitment by partnering with CommonHealth ACTION to bring this life-changing experience to our network. As a direct result of the training, Mission Partners will launch an Equity Advisory Board in 2018. We look forward to sharing more details in the new year.

Through it all, we’ve realized that the work we’re doing at Mission Partners has never felt more fulfilling, or more urgent.

As a woman-owned and women-led organization, our mission is to advance issues and causes that result in an equitable future for all. And, as we reflect on this first year at Mission Partners and look forward to where we’re going, we realize that to truly advance issues of equity, we must address and learn from our roots, and then intentionally change behavior. It’s how we invest in today, as organizational leaders, that can affect our ability to create a more equitable future.

For this reason, we will soon launch the Mission Forward Leaders Exchange, a new series of cohort-based learning groups that will drive purpose-driven leaders like you through a year of skills-building, reflection, critical thinking, and “visioneering” for the future. Each exchange will welcome up to 12 people per cohort to convene on critical topics that are reflective of our shared responsibilities as leaders, and will be facilitated by my partner, Carolyn Berkowitz, and me. More details will follow in January, but if you are interested in learning more, please email me at carrie@mission.partners for advance access to registration materials.

As you reflect on your own experiences in 2017, and recommit to being an agent of change in the coming year, we hope you’ll consider joining us in 2018 to transform your good intentions into great impact.

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A World of Good

By Carrie Fox

Charnice Milton was a young community reporter working for the Capital Community News in Washington, DC. On May 27, 2015, she was on her way home from covering a story in D.C.’s Ward 8, when she was killed at her bus stop by a random drive-by shooter. Her case remains unsolved.

Charnice’s death hit me hard. I had met her for the first time just weeks prior, when she and I had been working on a story together about new development coming to Ward 8.  In that first phone call, it was impossible not to be inspired by her commitment to overcome challenges and cover the good stories of Ward 8, despite the violence that permeated her local news.

And then she was gone.

I think about Charnice often.  I think of her parents, her neighborhood, and of the world of good she brought to her profession. Motivated by what happened to Charnice, and inspired by her life’s passion, my husband Brian and decided that the “tugging feeling at our hearts” was too important to let go.  So, in late 2015, we seeded and launched the World of Good Fund, housed at the Greater Washington Community Foundation. We have made a family commitment to personally grow the fund, while inviting and allowing others to contribute to it as they see fit. It is also our family’s main philanthropic vehicle through which we invest back into our community, while serving as a tool to engage our daughters in conversations of philanthropy, equity and community.

Brian and I believe that one doesn’t have to change the world to do a world of good and that sometimes small, focused projects can have long-lasting positive effect. So while sometimes it might feel as if there’s not nearly enough good in this world, we know that good is all around us, if we’re open to it.

If you share our belief, we’d welcome your involvement in the World of Good Fund. This holiday season, we’re on a mission to elevate and amplify stories of good.  And we are willing to put some dollars down to make it happen. This month, for every person who shares their #holidaymission on Twitter, Mission Partners will put a dollar into the World of Good Fund, up to $1,000.  Help us share and spread the good this year. A little bit of that could go a long way.