A Piece on the Prize

It is a good week to be Angus Deaton.

On Monday, the Princeton University professor was named the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in economic sciences. Prior to winning the Nobel this week, Dr. Deaton was perhaps best known for his work on consumption theory, welfare, and inequality. Indeed his honor centered on “his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.”

Beyond the focus areas of his work, I was drawn to some of the approaches within his work — notably the focus on the individual to arrive at meaningful, broader implications. His work carrying out household surveys for instance has helped upend the notion that it’s always appropriate to establish policy based on aggregate data and just as importantly, he provides an alternative to doing so.

As communicators we share this desire to focus on the individual for the prospect of where it can lead us. We know that an individual’s story is so often textured with the nuances, subtleties, and realities of life that can be lost in the aggregate. We know the power that an in-depth interview, with even one individual, can hold in uncovering perceptions and motivations. We know that speaking publically as though to one person can be the best way to connect with and win over large groups of people.

It’s Deaton’s work in his own field, with his chosen tools of his trade, which can serve as a timely reminder for us all. It’s a reminder to not become frustrated; to not abandon analysis of what and who is right before us, each and every day. Instead, as Deaton believes, within the hard work, we must embrace those people and things that so often provide the details that enable and inform our best work — work that’s real, far-reaching, and has lasting impact.

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The Voice That Will Transform The World

At the start of the 2015 United Nations General Assembly Meeting last week, global leaders adopted a bold set of Sustainable Development Goals aimed at eradicating poverty, ending hunger, ensuring gender equality, providing access to clean water, and more. As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted: “These goals are a blueprint for a better future. Now we must use the goals to transform the world.”
Sara Neumann was the chosen C.Fox representative at a UN forum co-hosted by The Guardian and Unicef before the development goals were unanimously approved. Among the most moving speakers to underscore the challenges of our time was 17-year-old Danikka Calyon, an ambassador for Save the Children representing Australia.
Danikka reminded the audience that for so much of our history, youth have been voiceless and seen as incapable of making real change on complicated systemic problems. She called the goals a “roadmap for better outcomes” and encouraged all young people to be heard.
Watching Danikka plead for change on that international stage–with no ego, no personal agenda and all passion–reminded us how very powerful the unfiltered voice of a young person can be, and how honored we’ve been to work with so many young people over the years. People who have put their trust in us, like Crystal who helped us crystallize the challenges facing young people who age out of foster care. Or Malik, who persevered beyond unimaginable barriers to complete his education. Or Donte, who shared his very personal experience of moving beyond homelessness.
It’s true. All too often, considering complicated issues like inequality, hunger, or homelessness can spur many of us to throw up our hands in frustration. Yet, there is real wisdom and resilience to be found in the voice of young people who have experienced those very complicated issues first hand. It just takes some listening.
Indeed, the UN Development Goals are a “blueprint for a better future”, but the voices of young people are an inherent part of the architecture.

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The Ultimate Intersection

As the avid reader of the intersection would know — and we know you’re out there — the intersection brings to light the insights and ideas that move missions forward with an eye on the role communications plays or can play in the process. Nearly always, our posts involve an issue area or technical communications element that the C.Fox team knows deeply and works on daily.

So when I stumbled upon this story on BloombergBusiness I really couldn’t believe what I was reading. With each paragraph I read, the intersections with the kinds of issues we work on and the kinds of people we work to help, multiplied. From climate change, to supporting underserved populations, to business collaboration, to engineering know how, to solutions for sustainable communities, to entrepreneurship, and finally to giving people a chance, the intersections seemed to never end. All of that in a piece not even 800 words in length about shade balls. That’s right. Shade balls. Tens of millions of hermetically sealed, polyethylene spheres of engineering wisdom that are now floating in the reservoirs of Los Angeles to ward off the evaporation of precious water in California.

But it’s the story of the entrepreneur, the risks she took, the people she wanted to help, and her purpose that we thought were insightful and inspiring. And it’s the kind of interconnectedness of issues and mission that we knew intersection readers would enjoy simply on face value. So give it a read. We think you’ll enjoy it.

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Remembering Our Roots

Earlier this month, I took my 5-year old daughter to see the Statue of Liberty. It was at her request that we visit Ellis Island before she begin kindergarten in the fall and it was just as I remembered it from childhood: breathtaking.
I grew up in northern New Jersey, only a short drive from Ellis Island. My ancestors are among those who emigrated from Italy, coming first through Ellis Island before building families in America. My own roots are tied deeply to that special place, and yet I only visited once, as a child.  Going back and experiencing the magnitude of the statue and all that it stands for – through the eyes of my young and inquisitive daughter – was an experience I will not soon forget.
Fast forward one week, and I found myself sitting in a strategy session with two national organizations undergoing a strategic merger. Halfway into the session, our focus was squarely on ensuring success through the transition process, by reflecting on the values and core elements that each organization would bring to the table. The session’s facilitator introduced an exercise in which we needed to imagine life 5 years from now, knowing only one thing: we had failed in our effort to achieve the bold goal of a successful merger outlined 5 years prior.
As the group contemplated what could have led to the apparent failure, we found ourselves deep in conversation about the core strengths of the two organizations. The thinking was that the potential for failure could stem from not adequately knowing, protecting and periodically revisiting those organizational roots.
Like a family, every organization has its beginnings when the roots are established. Too often though in strategic visioning exercises, we focus so heavily on the future potential of what can be, or playing out the desired outcomes of our goals, that we fail to properly reflect on our roots.
The events of these last several weeks reminded me that in our history, our futures are formed.  Checking in from time to time on what first mattered, what you first set out to achieve and what you’ve learned along the way can have a significant impact on future success.
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A Change in Mindset (3 Things to Consider)

The last several days have not been short on change. There’s been notable change on the home front at the South Carolina State House. Internationally, there have been landmark agreements involving Greece and Iran. Even on an interstellar level, there’s been change in how we see and understand the world around us with new, up close views of the distant Pluto.

Changes in business are also starting to take shape, and catch our attention. Take Google, which added the fewest number of employees to its ranks since the end of 2013 and is widely being observed as taking a new, closer look at expenses. That’s right. Even Google is looking at its cost structure. Or, the communications changes believed to be needed within the Republican party (this time offered by pollster Kirsten Soltis Anderson). Even La-Z-Boy talked changed this week, with comments that its future margin goals are set on repositioning the furniture brand in the minds of younger, urban would-be consumers.

Whether world changing or business changing, when we look across these changes and others like them, the constant seems to be the involvement of a change in mindset. And when there’s a change in mindset, communications is never too far in the distance.

In our work, we often deal in the realm that builds toward the intended or desired change in mindset. In other cases, we deal with the results of a mindset shift that’s unfolding or already taken hold. On either side of a shifting mindset, there are communications practices to keep front and center. As you strive for or wrestle with the outcome of change, here are some important lessons to keep in mind:

  • Set the Table First. Gather your facts, build your rationale, test it, defend it, adjust it, and then adjust it again. The words and visuals you choose to  announce change or shift minds —and keep them there — will need to do hard work. Give them the best chance to succeed by doing the upfront work first.
  • Distill the Purpose. Whether you are aiming to change public opinion, or you are articulating a newly changed viewpoint — simplify, simplify, simplify. Make every word of your message matter and use the simplest language possible to widen understanding and limit confusion.
  • Take the Message to the People. Identify the most precious people to win over and find a mix of novel and reliable ways to engage with them. Force your messages to run away from what is expected and they will find their way into the hearts and minds of your audiences.

Changes in mindset don’t come easy. However, with the right communications work done up front and often, you are more likely to find success whether announcement day is still to come or it’s behind you.

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Another Bond to Be Broken?

Bonds of all kinds are in the news these days—though generally not for very good reasons.

Take Greek bonds. They haven’t traded in over a month and understandably so as the latest Greek debt crisis unfolds. Then there are the holders of bonds tied to Puerto Rico’s electric power authority and its $9 billion of debt, who are none-too-pleased to extend—again—more time for a credit agreement to be structured. And just this week, activist investor Carl Icahn took to Twitter forewarning a crisis in high-yield corporate bonds. It’s a tough time to be a bond.

And just when I thought I couldn’t take any more bond-related news, I came upon this piece by Ali Montag, special to CNBC. She elevates the resurgence of focus on social impact bonds, a type of “Pay-For-Success” model where private investors invest capital and oversee the management of public projects. The projects are usually aimed at improving social outcomes for at-risk individuals, with the goal of reducing government spending in the long-term.

This latest piece put the spotlight on Pennsylvania, where it is assessing whether and in what areas to introduce social impact bonds as a way to tackle funding for improvements.

With social impact bonds, I find myself as interested in the pros and cons of the instrument itself as I am in how the two sides are choosing to frame their perspectives. For now, those in favor tend toward language like return on investment, long-term potential, improve future outcomes, and save money. Those against the bonds push against the administrative complexity, the chance for rigging the system, focusing on easy wins, and unjustified cost.

As more social impact bonds mature in the coming years, it will be worth watching how the narratives on both sides morph based on the real evidence of outcomes. Until then, it’s a great time to be watching the story unfold, to be listening to the growing chatter on the platform, and to take note of this rapidly evolving slice of the marketplace where investment meets philanthropy meets social good.

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Like Mom Always Said

As Managing Director, I enjoy the chance to regularly pen our weekly intersection column. But this week, as I set about that honor, I kept getting distracted by my Mother’s Day to do list. And then it hit me, like an under-inflated pass between the numbers from Tom Brady (What? Too soon?). Mom was my first great influence in learning the art of communication.

Informal? Sure. Basic? Sometimes. Vital? Without a doubt.

Considering how much I learned from my mom (let’s be honest, she taught me how to speak!), why wouldn’t communication be high up on the list? Where would I even be without the communications skills she taught me?

It was Mom who relentlessly quizzed me on my spelling at the breakfast table,
Mom who served as my first editor.

It was Mom who taught me the importance of being quiet, listening to my surroundings and absorbing information.

It was Mom who taught me not to slouch, to stand up straight, to project and be heard.

It was Mom who taught me the importance of sincerity and saying thank you.

It was Mom. Each time. Every time.

This week, and especially this Sunday, the intersection for me is about the early, positive influence of my mom. Without her early lessons and her guidance, I’m not sure what life would be like today. What I am sure of is that I’ve got some to do lists to tend to and some thanking to do.

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National Volunteer Week

As we come to the close of this year’s National Volunteer Week, we’d like to share the following post from our dear friend and leader of Points of Light, Tracy Hoover:

The year was 1974. Hank Aaron had just broken Babe Ruth’s home run record and UPC codes were introduced as a major new technological innovation. America was in an energy crisis, and in the midst of the Watergate scandal. And on April 20, 1974, President Richard Nixon introduced the first National Volunteer Week with the following words, in an address to the nation:

“The spirit of volunteerism, one of the hallmarks of American life, has rarely been stronger than it is today… American volunteers are improving the quality of life… in the United States and working to improve the quality of life for others in distant corners of the world.”

Seventeen years later, President George H. W. Bush ushered in what many have long recognized as the birth of the U.S. service movement, when he shared the following words, also in a presidential address:

“We all have something to give … if you know how to read, find someone who can’t. If you’ve got a hammer, find a nail. If you’re not hungry, not lonely, not in trouble, seek out someone who is. Join the community of conscience. Do the hard work of freedom. And that will define the state of our Union.”

In the 25 years since then, overall volunteer rates have increased by more than 60 percent and young people are engaged twice as much. Service has been embraced and employed as an effective strategy for addressing big national issues, from raising graduation rates to supporting the re-integration of post-9/11 veterans. We’re in a time of great momentum, but there’s far more to accomplish.

During this year’s National Volunteer Week, Points of Light has been celebrating the brilliant diversity of our nation’s volunteers throughout history and into today. We have been lifting up the stories of iconic change-makers who have impacted the country in lasting ways and community volunteers who are improving lives and communities, every day.

President Bush said that the definition of a successful life includes service to others. I think about those words often, and find great hope and inspiration in the daily acts of service I see around me.

Especially this week, I want to thank you for your service – for doing the hard work of freedom that defines our union. Share your volunteer story on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using #NVW2015 as part of the Points of Light “What’s Your Story” campaign.  You just never know how it will inspire someone else along the way.

[Check out Tracy’s complete blog post to learn all about this week’s Celebration of Service, and the activities that have filled this week.]

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It’s Time to Focus

One of the most fascinating parts of my work is the ability to look across clients at any given moment, and know that I will always spot similarities between their most pressing communications challenges.

This week has been no exception. Almost across the board, we are seeing people and organizations struggle with one very specific issue: focus.

In some cases, it’s a challenge of focusing in on the right messages (“Who are we, what is our impact, and how we can say it more succinctly?”). In other cases, it’s a challenge of focusing on the right activities (“We’re doing so many different things, but we don’t know how to prioritize any of it.”). Others still are struggling with how to best focus on the future (“Everything we’re doing is reactive, and we can’t focus long enough to be proactive.”).

Focus is indeed hard to achieve, especially when everything right in front of you feels so urgent that the idea of slowing down to prioritize feels impossible.

But with a little muscle memory, focusing your words, your actions and your futures can be much more manageable. Here are a few of our favorite tips:

  • On focusing your words: The words we use 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. Also, ask a handful of people one step removed from your organization how they describe your work. You’ll likely find the 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.
  • On focusing your activities: If you’re in the camp of always wondering “Why are we doing this press release?” or “What are we really getting by pumping out all of those these newsletters?” maybe it’s time to conduct an assessment of your communications channels. What kind of return on time and investment are you getting from each, and what kind of conversations are they helping you lead? If you can’t answer those questions, that time is better spent elsewhere. If something’s not working for you, then don’t do it anymore. Simplify the communications tools you’re using and instead focus on how well you’re using them.  Your messages will in fact have a better chance of sticking.
  • On focusing on the future: No organization has ever had transformational growth without staying true to their core beliefs. That kind of determined focus is not easy, but creating a path to the future requires that the entire team understand the vision. While strategic direction will likely be guided from the top, helping the entire team to realize those future goals in a tangible way is a great first step for foundation building. Then you can feel confident focusing on the here and now, knowing that each task along the way is getting you closer to that ultimate goal.

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Pondering Your Purpose (or The Power of Why)

At C.Fox we’re firm believers in what we call the “Power of Why.” The Power of Why means getting to the root of your organization’s purpose, or why you exist, and being able to tell that story authentically to your most important audiences.

After all, it’s not what you do that sets you apart; it’s why you do it. It’s the difference, for example, between the product offerings on a company website and the value that company brings to its customers. Steve Jobs had this in mind when he first introduced the iPod. In marketing his new product he wisely focused on the consumer experience – “One thousand songs in your pocket!” – rather than a spouting a laundry list of features. This is how Apple started deftly distinguishing itself from other competitors as a true innovator.

For years, the business community has struggled with this notion. And “An old debate about what companies are for has been revived,” an article in the latest issue of the Economist, just the most recent example, raising an age-old ideological question: is the purpose of a company “to maximize shareholder value or pursue broader social ends?”

The article illuminates the unfortunate timing of a article published in 2000 by law professors Henry Hansmann and Reinier Kraakman espousing the shareholder-value model: the author notes drily that it was published shortly before “several companies that proudly practiced shareholder value maximization went up in flames.” (Think Enron, Arthur Andersen, and others.) And yet, the article also points out a promising new effort that’s increasingly picking up steam. Oxford University professor Colin Mayer is leading it and it involves encouraging companies to “articulate their purposes” – or their Power of Why.

This heartens us, and we hope the movement bears fruit.  Here’s why: over the course of our 10+ years helping organizations tell their stories, we’ve seen how the Power of Why can move audiences and change minds.  It’s the difference between the soup kitchen that says, “We serve 2000 people per day” and the one that says, “We believe that every person deserves not just a free meal to get them through the day, but the services, tools and support that they need to thrive over a lifetime.”

By disciplining yourself to articulate, and lead with, your organization’s “why” as opposed to the “what,” you’re not only helping your clients and customers better understand your organization’s personality, but the inherent value you offer to them.  And that’s what keeps them coming back. By understanding the value, and the Power of Why, your audiences will be better equipped to help you with your most important job: to achieve better results, and more widespread impact.

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