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Where Do We Go From Here?

“What do we do now?” 

“Are we still even relevant?”

“We need to rethink this strategy.”

“I don’t think our message matters anymore.”

These are just some of the messages I heard yesterday from nonprofit and foundation leaders, all concerned in their own way about how the outcome of this Presidential election will affect their work.

True, waking up to this new reality is jarring in many ways, and the hurdles we’ll face as a nation are many. However, this is no time to question the value of purpose-driven work. We need those strong social programs, those breakthrough ideas and those smart solutions now more than ever to drive positive progress in our country.

We need the example that your organizations set every day for others. People who are climbing their way up the economic ladder, who are advancing their education, who are contributing back to society in meaningful ways. We need you.

The question that may still linger though is “Where do we go from here?” To shed some important perspective on that question, I’ll sit down next Tuesday at The Chronicle of Philanthropy with Bill Milliken—a decades-long leader in social innovation. Bill founded Communities in Schools, the largest, most effective dropout prevention organization dedicated to keeping kids in school and helping them to succeed. And he’s now built a new organization committed to sharing what he’s learned during his tenure at Communities in Schools. We’ll talk about how he advanced his mission even when administrations seemed against him, and even when politics (with a big P and a little p) got in the way.

It was Buddha who said that “every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.”

Let’s keep looking. See you Tuesday, at the final installment of Mission Forward 2016.

If you’re not yet registered, please reserve your seat today.

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Measuring What Matters

“Focus on the outcomes, not the activity.”

It’s one of my most-often used phrases at C.Fox, and it’s just as much a statement as it is a challenge to my team. Specifically, it’s a challenge to break away from traditional ways of thinking about communications metrics to focus instead on how strategic communications can move missions forward.When organizations focus too much on activity, I believe the only place they move is in circles.

While measuring outcomes over activity may seem like common sense, new research shows that 70% of nonprofits are still stuck in the slog of measuring communications activity. In fact, more than 80% of survey respondents admit to tracking “reach metrics” (press mentions, follower growth on social media accounts, search engine rankings) and “output metrics” (events hosted, tweets posted, policy briefs published).

Why?  Because, quite frankly, it’s easier.  There are tools galore to make day-to-day communications activities look meaningful. But not so much if you’re trying to correlate communications efforts to impact or outcomes. But what’s the point of those published reports, tweet chats or news hits if you’re not seeing any direct correlation to mission advancement?

Earlier this year, we piloted a new measurement tool at C.Fox called Spur Change, designed to track the progress of business goals against strategic communications efforts. What we found in the pilot phase is that Boards and their leadership have been craving this kind of tool—a dashboard-style view of outcomes that gets beyond the bean-counting of communications metrics, and provides instead rich insights into the role that communications plays in moving missions forward.

We also found that the most compelling outcomes occurred when three key elements were firmly in place:

  • Communications had a central seat at the executive table. It was never an afterthought.
  • The communications team listened just as much as they talked, and they used what they found to improve and adjust their messages for even better outcomes.
  • Communications messages were narrow-casted, vs. broadcasted. Those who focused their communications to a smaller set of influential audiences saw a direct increase in engagement vs.when they broadcasted their message to the general public.

Is your organization among the 70% still measuring activity over outcomes?  If so, make 2017 the year to put strategic communications at your executive table. Let’s spur change, together.

When Big Ideas Come to Life

It’s always inspiring when you witness big ideas coming to life before your very eyes.  During our years at C.Fox, we’ve been privileged to help several organizations move some very big ideas, and missions, forward – particularly related to children and young adults.

Helping improve outcomes for disconnected youth has been one of my favorite areas of work, and a related career highlight came for me in 2014, when our team helped convene the National Summit on Authentic Youth Engagement in Chicago. It was a gathering of the nation’s most respected experts in the field of youth development – all of whom shared a commitment to authentically engaging young people in planning for adulthood, helping others, and shaping their communities.

We heard from many visionary national leaders, like Steve Perry, Judy Vredenburgh, John Gomperts, and Paul Schmitz.  But my favorite quote from that remarkable event came from a young woman named Crystal who had been involved in the foster care system as a teen. She summed it up so perfectly: “Let’s see young people not as a problem to be solved, but an asset to be developed.”

There’s another admirable leader who has championed this concept and truly “walked the walk” in developing young people as the assets they are: Bill Milliken.

In 1970, when Milliken was a youth advocate in New York City, he came up with the idea of bringing community resources inside public schools. One of his secrets: the power of nurturing relationships. Today, the organization he founded, Communities in Schools, bills itself as “the largest, most effective dropout prevention organization dedicated to keeping kids in school and helping them to succeed.”

I’m delighted that Bill will join my colleague Carrie Fox for an intimate and thought-provoking conversation on November 15 at the Chronicle of Philanthropy offices here in Washington, DC as part of our ongoing #MissionForward series.

A limited number of seats remain, and I hope you will join us for this very special conversation to hear Bill’s latest big idea, and learn how his way of thinking can help all of us who share his passion for building better futures for kids.

Register today to join us.

Defining Moments

Two years ago, I sat at a small table in New Orleans across from the Heron Foundation’s Clara Miller. We were together at the invitation of Mauricio Lim Miller, of the Family Independence Initiative, who had invited us to New Orleans to meet a vibrant community of families who were running businesses, improving the health of their communities, preserving their heritage, and working together to strengthen their community from the inside out.

Following that trip, I wrote this reflection to Mauricio:

“A few times in my life, I’ve been lucky enough to feel like I was on the ground floor of something very special — something that had the potential to change the way people think, or act, or engage, in an effort with the aim to improve our world in some way. Not until New Orleans did I feel that I was on the ground floor of something that could change the dynamic of this country in such a powerful way.”

That trip was a defining moment for me. By showcasing the value of investing in initiative, it directly influenced how I approach my own work and philanthropy. What I hadn’t realized on that trip was just how much Mauricio’s big idea has helped to define the work of others, including Clara Miller.

Earlier this summer, I came across this commentary,  in which Clara Miller wrote: “It wasn’t that our mission (to help Americans help themselves out of poverty) needed revisiting; regrettably, that was more needed and relevant than ever. What needed some fresh thought was how we expected to achieve it, and what progress we had been making thus far, if any.”

It’s a hard – but necessary – question for any organization to ask itself: what progress have we been making, if any?

Both Millers have been adamant about asking themselves that question, and they’re working hard to ensure the answer is a good one. Clara is blazing new ground in how her foundation invests in and measures success in tackling poverty. And Mauricio continues to build momentum around his unorthodox approach to poverty alleviation, which is helping hundreds of families double their savings and increase their income.

These two social innovators are at the forefront of the impact investing movement, from two unique perspectives. They are defining what it means to drive a mission forward, which is why I am so excited to host an intimate conversation with them next month at The Chronicle of Philanthropy here in Washington, DC, as part of our ongoing #MissionForward series.

A limited number of seats remain for you to join us on September 15, and I hope you’ll accept this message as an invitation to attend, and to be inspired, as I know I will be.

I Can Do Better.

On Wednesday night, four of the NBA’s biggest stars took the stage at the ESPY Awards with an important message, about the role they want athletes to take in supporting social issues in America.

LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, donning black suits, kicked off the night by taking several minutes to speak directly to the audience about getting involved in issues like gun violence, racial injustice, and police brutality that impact Americans every day.

The words were some we’ve heard a lot in recent months“We can do better.” “We must not sit idly by.” “We can’t turn our heads to the severity of this issue when our lives get busy again.” These are the same words used regularly by government leaders, community activists, parents, teachers, police chiefs.

For as often as we hear that line, “we can do better”, it never quite moves people to action. And yet, something about this message felt different.  Enough to compel me to dig in deeper.

That digging led me to this Vanity Fair article by Krista Smith that shared that backstory of the statement made during the ESPY Awards.

Turns out that the idea was born directly from the four athletes several days ago, after Anthony posted an Instagram photo from the “Ali Summit” in June 1967 when the nation’s top black athletes including Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flanked Muhammad Ali at a news conference in support of his decision to object his induction into the Vietnam War. As Smith writes, “Bill Rhoden of the New York Times called the civil rights milestone “the first—and last—time that so many African American athletes at that level came together to support a controversial cause.”

As Smith shared, “the four contemporary stars were inspired by the historic gathering, and decided over their daily group text-messages to unite nearly 50 summers later to stand for social justice. They coordinated their wardrobe to stand in unity, so people would listen to what they were saying rather than be distracted by what they were wearing.”

I can’t say if the message will have an effect, but there was something in the message that I particularly appreciated: the athletes took it upon themselves to make a statement. They challenged themselves to do better, before they challenged their community of fellow athletes to do better.

Indeed, there has been no shortage of that line “we can do better” in recent months, and I suspect its use may only increase with time. President Obama used it just last week in response to the deadly police shootings, and he’s used it countless times in conversations and speeches related to gun violence.

But, what we know is if we want to motivate real change, we need to call on ourselves first. We all have a role to play in shaping our future. And yes, we can do better. But first, I’ll focus on doing my part.

Perhaps if we can all say that, positive change might actually be on the horizon.

“Are You Still In the Office?”

Intersection readers in the DC-region, and many beyond, can probably recall the events of September 1, 2010 in Silver Spring, MD. It was the otherwise unremarkable Wednesday when James Lee took hostages at the headquarters of Discovery protesting Discovery Channel’s programming. Their headquarters was directly across the street from the headquarters of C.Fox Communications at the time. When Lee drew a handgun late that afternoon, police moved in, ending Lee’s life and saving those of the hostages.

At 3:37 pm that afternoon, before the situation ended across from our ninth floor office overlooking Discovery, I got an email from my dad in New Jersey. It asked simply, “Are you still in the office?”

At the time, I didn’t think about it much. I just replied briefly two-minutes later and moved on, while people far braver than I used skills far more important than mine to end chaos nearby.

When I re-read that email now almost six years since, the simplicity strikes me in contrast to the events of that day. Amid the complexity in so many lives and in so many ways a simple message stuck with me. It said so much, saying so little. The point was clear, without even being there. Perfectly thinly veiled masculinity. Something about it in the days following made me click File, Save As and I stored it away.

I say all of this as a reminder to intersection readers that you all have the ability to be powerfully profound communicators. You can all use communications for a change. You can all impact lives by what, when and how you communicate. Never forget it. Don’t always be so consumed by being technically correct, with process, the selection of every single word, your delivery, what channel you choose for your message, or always saying just “the right thing.” Those are all important things, but sometimes you just need to communicate. Don’t forget to communicate. Pick your spots. Find your voice. Connect with people. And remember simple sticks.

This Sunday would have been my dad’s 73rd birthday. He passed four months after that email. Happy birthday Dad. And yes, thankfully, I’m still in the office.

What I Know For Sure

When I was young, my mother would start each day by saying, “Do something good for yourself and for others.” It was her way of instilling the importance of service in me and my siblings, from a very early age.

Her spirit of generosity inspires so much of who I am, and what I do. So, when I started C.Fox more than a decade ago, it was only natural that service to others would be at the core of our business model. We work hard each day to give as much of our time and talent as we can to help drive the missions of meaningful nonprofit organizations forward.

Six years ago, we significantly increased our public commitment to service when we launched the inspired thought Award, a nationwide grant of pro bono dollars to support worthy nonprofits. Our 2015 award granted $50,000 in pro bono communications services, but it’s our very first it Award grantee that inspires this week’s intersection.

N Street Village is the largest provider of housing and services for women experiencing homelessness in Washington DC. In the last several years, they’ve also become a national model for effective solutions. In 2010, we awarded them our first pro bono grant to help build their brand, tell their story, and engage new audiences. But, that makes it sound like any run-of-the-mill assignment. Our work with N Street Village transformed how we think about service, and set the foundation for the role we aim to have in all client relationships.

Yesterday, at their 10th annual Empowerment Luncheon, which raises funds to help homeless and low-income women achieve stability and make life-changing personal and professional gains, I sat back in awe as Oprah Winfrey delivered keynote remarks. She spoke about her commitment to intentionality; how being intentional in her own decision-making had changed her life, and how she viewed N Street Village as an “intentional organization.”

She went on to say, “In life, we all want to know: Do you hear me? Do you see me? Everyone who works at N Street Village understands that principle. They know that every woman who comes through those doors wants to be seen, heard, and to know that her life matters.”

And then, Oprah Winfrey announced a surprise commitment of $1 million to support the organization’s mission.

It was remarkable, it was overwhelming. It was perfect.

Mark Twain said “the two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.”

I’m certain that I have yet to discover my why (though I like to think I’m on to something) but, in the words of Oprah Winfrey, there is “one thing I know for sure: we are who we are based on how we treat people.” Service of any kind—whether a big commitment like Oprah’s to N Street Village, or a small act of service designed to “do something good for others”—it all matters equally, and it will always bring out the best in others.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Kim for N Street Village)

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Life, as We Don’t Know it?

Sometimes, the most unexpected stories stick with us, for unexpected reasons.

Last month, I heard a fascinating interview on NPR with Columbia University astronomer David Kipping. Kipping and his team are hot on the trail of alien moons. Yes, alien moons.

Astronomers have discovered planets orbiting distant stars, but they’ve never discovered a moon outside of our solar system—which we’ve learned (or at least I did after hearing the interview) is the critical element in the search for life beyond our planet.

The tale of these alien moons has been running through my head for weeks, but not necessarily why you might think. On the surface, Kipping’s pursuit is indeed fascinating and important, made even more so as the interest and investment in space exploration rises and the idea of a life beyond Earth seems within reach.

But, I’m sorry to say, the science of alien moons isn’t what stuck with me.

Rather, I starting thinking about the intersection between those alien moons and the kind of remarkable investigation and discovery I see happening in the social sector.

For most of us in the business of doing good, we have certain “stabilizing” factors. Most of us remain grounded by the people we serve, the missions we fulfill, and the value we provide.

But, what would life be like if we looked beyond the stability of what we do, or what we’ve built in order to affect significantly greater change tomorrow?

I’ve been asking some variation of that question in strategy sessions I lead for clients since I first met Mauricio Lim Miller, who instilled the idea of “questioning the expected” in me a few years back. And, it’s a theme that’s been backed up in recent months through inspiring conversations with Plinio Ayala of Per Scholas and Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools.

Questioning the expected, and being willing to explore new ways for an idea to thrive is really at the heart of our new Mission Forward series, which launches today, and will feature the voices of dozens of thought leaders, including the three mentioned above.

Over the course of the next 18 months, I’ll be moderating conversations with each of them—individuals who have pursued their own “alien moons”; who have pushed themselves and their organizations to look beyond their own stability, to think bigger and bolder about what it takes to find life in a new idea—and the philanthropist or partner who chose to invest early in their idea.

The curious thing, I believe, is that there are commonalities in each of the changemakers who are pursuing new and different solutions to old questions, and it’s why I am so excited for this Mission Forward series.

Just like Kipping and his alien moons, if you’re on the hunt for something that can bring new life and new clarity to your organization’s purpose, and your drive forward, I do hope you’ll join me this summer and fall.

To finding your own alien moon—

Make Your Team Work in Harmony

Silos. Think about what it feels like to be in one. Head down, blinders on. Singularly focused on what you or your department needs to achieve.  As the great social change pioneer Bill Milliken has said, “it’s as if the drums are on one side of town, and the piccolos are in another.” Not exactly an inspired or joyful place to be, though it’s the way most of us work on a day-to-day basis.

When it comes to addressing and solving complex problems, nothing is more effective than when a team is working in harmony with one other. Singularly focused perhaps, but on moving the same goal forward.

Inspired by Bill, we’re pre-empting this week’s Intersection post with the amazing video below, worth watching and sharing right now. Then, pick your head up. Peer across your organization, your community, or your sector, and ask yourself: Are we working together, in pursuit of a shared goal?  Could my team state that shared goal? If not, maybe it’s time to break those silos, and make the real music happen.

Why Would You Ever Take Your Temperature?

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” 

– Ken Olsen, Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

Right. Let alone in one’s pocket or purse or attached to an extremity.

It’s tricky stuff, this business of prognostication. Trickier still is the assessment of what’s actually worth investing in, especially in the face of statements like this. Just imagine if investments in personal computing had ceased based on Ken Olsen’s view of the future.

I was reminded of Olsen’s assessment this week while reading about the work coming out of Boston Children’s Hospital, where they are investing time and money studying…fevers.

At first glance, it might seem trivial to challenge whether a degree or half degree could matter much in a person’s life. “Why should I care?” “What could such a small difference communicate to me?” “What difference could that make?”

It’s entirely possible that the answers to those questions are flatly: You shouldn’t. Nothing. Zero. But it’s also possible that the work being done by these Boston researchers could fundamentally reframe an important dimension of how we diagnose and determine whether and what kind of treatment to dispense to people. And the contrast between these scenarios is what makes deciding to pursue and fund such a project difficult.

In our work, we come across sizeable social challenges and we have opportunities to meet the people considering early investments to address them. And with increasing global, societal, and systemic challenges being presented to funders on a nearly daily basis, it can be hard for any organization, even one with a great idea, to stand out as the one doing the most important work in the best way.

So, inspired a bit by the work at Boston Children’s Hospital, here are a few tips to keep in mind when your organization is trying to stand out and attract investments to drive a mission forward.

  • Frame the problem by attacking the causes: Most anyone can understand a problem when they see one. But when you’re talking with someone who doesn’t operate as deeply in your space as you do, there’s great benefit to building an argument around how your work can uncover and address the root causes of the problem, so that the optimal solutions can be built, tested, and unleashed. Boston Children’s is very upfront in their communication about their program, that everyone knows fevers can signal a problem, but to this day doctors still know very little about the causes of specific fevers.
  • Communicate the possible upside/downside: Universal healthcare has arrived in the United States—along with doctor shortages, demographic shifts that will strain care delivery models, the growth of drug resistant illnesses, and rising costs that appear unsustainable. For Boston Children’s the downside is that, amid all of these priorities, their study does nothing more than simply validate over 150 years of existing medical knowledge. The upside, however, is a potential reshaping of our everyday approach to who truly needs and can benefit from care, given the most likely cause of the fever, and what kind of treatment is recommended based in part on their temperature. Laying out both the upside and downside is a way to help interested parties understand the relative value of their potential investment.
  • Ask for help: In Boston Children’s work, they have developed an app to crowdsource the data for their study. Not only is that helpful in gathering their necessary sample size for a study, it becomes a very public example to prospective funders that it’s not just “us” who find the issue serious, but potentially thousands or tens of thousands of participants well beyond what’s needed for statistical significance. So consider the use of surveys and data that can help demonstrate the volume of support for an issue and its possible outcomes and solutions even before your work begins.

In making any sort of ask for support, it’s important to always remember that context is critical. Being able to show how your approach to an issue fits into the larger picture, and what potential long-term impact your work can have on society is critical. It’s key to showing that your idea is not only worthy of investment, but that it is the best investment.

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