By Maxwell King and Doug Root
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Change Agent
Last summer, librarians at the Carnegie Library branch in Oakmont, a working-class suburb northeast of Pittsburgh, placed a “Please Help Yourself!” sign next to a bowl of healthful food items at the computer station where neighborhood children were spending most of their vacation days. For many, there was little food available in their homes at lunchtime, so the granola bars and other snacks were snatched up quickly. Not that the children noticed, but at the bottom section of the sign, next to a stock image of a flower with a smiling face was the note: “Made possible by The Pittsburgh Foundation.”
“They are here from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon—no kidding,” the branch’s director, Beth Mellor, wrote in a thank-you note for the modest contributions that came from several of the Foundation’s donors. “They know they are in a safe place with the snacks and our children’s librarian, who is wonderful to them.”
In January, Donald Block, the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, wrote a letter thanking our Foundation for grants supporting the GED program. “Andrew is one of the students whose lives you have helped change,” Block wrote of the Pittsburgher in his late 20s who had been funneled into special education classes during his school years and eventually dropped out to do construction work. Years later, he tried to start his own contracting business, but couldn’t qualify for a business loan without a GED diploma, so he enrolled in the Literacy Council program. “Andrew’s teacher instantly noticed a strong work ethic and dedication in class,” Block wrote. “. . . He passed the exam on the first try and is now moving forward to establish his own company.”
These are truly heartwarming stories about hyper-local, person-to-person philanthropy, but before we all get too entranced, consider that in that same period, the beloved community foundation was flexing its civic muscles on a broad agenda that had as much to do with influencing the city’s sense of itself as encouraging its philanthropy. Peel back the layers of interaction on any number of issues—depoliticizing city government hiring, investing in arts and culture, confronting racial inequity, defending freedom of expression—and the same community foundation as the one listed on the sign with the smiling flower is weighing in, albeit with a heftier profile: 13th largest in the country with more than $1 billion in assets and nearly 2,000 donor advised funds.
And the bigger, bolder profile often has invited not-so-nice missives—from old-fashioned poisoned pens to toxic tweets—that can outnumber the thank-yous from the likes of librarians and literacy workers.
Since summer, the Foundation has been in the public spotlight for leading the purchase of a bankrupt African-American arts-and-culture center with a promise to restructure and reprogram; for running a region-wide campaign that raised nearly $1 million in 24 hours to assist the homeless; for supporting a grantee artist who faced death threats for wading into the Palestinian-Israeli firestorm by way of an art exhibit-as-restaurant named Conflict Kitchen; and for its embrace of a college scholarship program, The Pittsburgh Promise, that some see as shutting out the African-American students who need it most.
From the vantage point of our extensive experience in the foundation and daily journalism worlds, such dichotomy in place-based philanthropy is exactly the way it should be. Few institutions get as close to ground level as a community foundation in enabling people, even those of relatively modest means, to set up charitable funds and do life-improving good in the place where they live and work. And few institutions operate at a higher level of public trust than community foundations, a position that gives them sound footing to push ambitious agendas, remain above the fray, and marshal forces to get big things done.
For both these roles to play effectively, storytelling and messaging are critically important. If they are authentic and compelling, they will blunt unwarranted criticism and attract powerful partners. And the communications responsibility goes well beyond the practice of philanthropy. The stories that a community foundation chooses to tell can actually shape a city’s personality. They influence how the city is perceived by residents, as well as by visitors.
In his keynote address at last year’s national Community Foundation conference, James Joseph, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa who served as Council on Foundations president for 14 years, exhorted community foundations to move beyond the 20th-century grant-enabler role, in part, by more public communications. Their 21st-century responsibility is to be, he said, “a social enterprise that strategically deploys not just its financial capital, but its social, moral, intellectual, and reputational capital, as well.”
It’s a less comfortable mode of behavior, beginning with, says Joseph, “shedding our inherited fear of public life, especially the delusion that the community foundation is so constrained in what it can say or do about public policy that we must restrict our presence to promoting and facilitating charity, rather than engaging in philanthropy that informs or enriches public policy.”
Now celebrating its 70th year, The Pittsburgh Foundation got over its fear of performing in public long before our arrival. But in this anniversary period, we are aiming to move it up a notch with a broad initiative we’re titling “100 Percent Pittsburgh”—meaning that 100 percent of the population of our region participates in what we refer to as “the new Pittsburgh,” a revitalized city in terms of economic growth and general vitality. We’re convinced that a community foundation has the standing and the buy-in from public and private sectors to achieve a new Pittsburgh worthy of the caring spirit of the old Pittsburgh.
This initiative involves asking Pittsburgh as a community to invest as much in its personality development as its physical development. A growing economy is wonderful, but so is inclusivity. Burgeoning development is fantastic, but so is equality in opportunity.
The plan requires spending some of that “reputational capital” that Joseph refers to on recruiting powerful partners and placing the Foundation in the public spotlight as 100 Percent Pittsburgh’s chief storyteller. Since a community foundation is leading the charge, the expectation will be high for an authentic and compelling narrative arc—not the faux versions we see so often in slick marketing campaigns for goods and causes.
In their totality, the stories and messages for 100 Percent Pittsburgh must shift our Foundation from what The New York Times columnist David Brooks describes as philanthropists being perceived not as the means, but as the end. We won’t just be serving as a vehicle for our donors’s usual giving. We will be asking them to tell their Pittsburgh stories by way of their authentic experiences and to help develop pathways that reach vulnerable groups.
Brooks has written that the conventional process for understanding an intractable social problem with the intent of solving it involves collecting data, academic-style research, and often expert journalistic narrative. But the conventional usually isn’t enough to achieve deep understanding that leads to success. “The highest rung on the stairway to understanding is intimacy,” writes Brooks. “ . . .Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad.”
It follows, from our experience, that the storytelling by a community foundation bent on improving the personality of a city as much as its quality of life must enable people to tap into these qualities. To understand people who are vulnerable, we must be vulnerable to all sorts of things, telling stories that lead people to, as Brooks puts it, “bow down before the knowledge of participation. . .walk alongside others every day, who know the first names, who know the smells and fears.”
Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. Doug Root is vice president of communications at The Pittsburgh Foundation.
ComNet15 Recap: Journalism, Art, and Impact: Blending Journalism, Storytelling and the Arts to Engage Communities to Bring About Change
This presentation was given at the ComNet15 breakout session “Journalism, Art, and Impact: Blending Journalism, Storytelling and the Arts to Engage Communities to Bring About Change.” The session was led by Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, Annie Chabel, and Dr. Lindsay Green-Barber, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Tanya Barrientos.
A Ford Falcon van retrofitted into a mobile art installation. Coloring books translated into six languages. Graphic novels. One-act plays and spoken word poetry. Does any of that make you think about credible, fact-based public service journalism? If not, it will after this presentation on the future of journalism with The Center for Investigative Reporting.
At this session, we share how we’ve learned that breaking with traditional story telling while upholding the high standards of investigative journalism has tremendous value. We innovate at the intersection of arts and journalism, unleashing the creative potential of our reporters and multimedia producers. This makes us more effective—at reaching diverse new audiences, communicating the emotional truth of fact-based stories, and sparking real world changes that improves lives.
To illustrate, we draw on our experiences producing “The Dark Side of the Strawberry,” a yearlong investigation into the health and environmental impacts of highly controversial pesticides used to grow California strawberries. This project included feature length text stories and a first-of-its kind data interactive, a digital animation now nominated for an award from the Online News Association, an original theater piece commissioned from one of the nation’s preeminent Hispanic playwrights and performed in Spanish and English, door-to-door surveys of 800 homes located at the epicenter of our reporting, a mobile app, and the development of a high school curriculum that engaged teens with the series.
In addition to showing what we did, we take you behind the scenes in our newsroom to explain why we employed so many creative strategies for just one story. We share other examples of our work, and show you how we are measuring indicators of success far beyond audience and social media metrics. As a special bonus, we preview a sneak peak of our Impact Tracker tool, which has transformed how we think about, plan for, and measure the effectiveness of our work.
- How to set impact goals for media and communications projects.
- Methods and strategies for measuring change.
- Why measurement and analysis is valuable for media organizations.
For more information, see: https://www.revealnews.org/topic/impact/.
Medium has come to represent the best of new communications technology. It’s not just an online publishing tool — it’s a network of ideas, a place to engage in discussion. President Obama uses it regularly. Bono used it to lay out a plan for Africa, and Melinda Gates responded. The Heritage Foundation used it to publish their annual report.
Medium is an ideas exchange, where thinkers, creators, and storytellers come to find their audience, move ideas, and move people. It allows your audience to respond, react, and build on your ideas. Increasingly, it’s a platform for influential people and organizations to publish, converse, and engage.
Put shortly, publishing on Medium gets your message read, discussed, and spread. The best part? Anybody can be good at it.
Medium’s own Gabe Kleinman joined us to interactively walk you through what it takes to be good at Medium.
- The basics of publishing
- How to create engaging and successful posts
- Tips on experimenting with different types of content
Watch the replay below. If the video appears blurry to you, try watching here.
Length: 56 minutes
For more information, get in touch with Gabe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Change Agent
My name is Taj Carson. I have a confession to make. I’m a scientist, and worse than that, I’m a social scientist.
I come from academia, where we are convinced that if you measure human behavior using the right instrument, one that is reliable and valid, you can predict human behavior and make clear, undeniable statements about the truth.
I thought there was a truth that you could measure. And that you could measure it using human beings. I learned the hard way that people are messy, complicated, chaotic creatures who unfortunately have feelings and motivations that are changing all the time.
So how do you measure these disordered, hectic creatures in a meaningful way? How do you gather data, a scientific and methodical process, from subjects who are the exact opposite? That is what I’ve spent the past 15 years working with my clients to figure out.
“Errors using inadequate data are greater than those using no data at all.”
I’ve finally arrived at a place where I can say with confidence that we can measure anything—human behavior, relationships, communication. We will do the best we can, with the resources we have, to collect the information we need to tell the story of what the client is doing and why it matters. This may sound unscientific, but that’s because it’s not a perfect science. People aren’t lab rats. We are messy, complicated, chaotic … you get the picture. People think of communication as an art. It involves the most amazing of human activities—storytelling, compassion, advocacy—used to make our world better, to help each other, to create change.
So what is the role of evaluation in the world of communication? Does it have a role to play at all? It can be really hard to see its place, so sometimes we don’t collect any data because we don’t think it’s appropriate.
Or, if we can’t see the big picture, we collect data without thinking it through. We collect random information, or we pull up Google Analytics data because it’s easy. But as Charles Babbage put it, “Errors using inadequate data are greater than those using no data at all.”
When evaluating communication, measurement must be a priority. When it isn’t, we end up with no data, the wrong data, or bad data. When this happens, we are unable to explain what happened. We can’t tell the story about who we motivated to learn, to understand, and to act.
You can evaluate communications work effectively. Think about public health work. To evaluate its effectiveness, you must measure communication. Public health folks are always telling people how not to get sick, how to avoid getting HIV, how to prevent child abuse, how to have a healthy baby. And these campaigns depend on being able to measure who got the message, how they got it, what they understood, and how and whether they acted on it. Public health officials depend on being able to measure communication. So how should the social sector go about it?
There are three steps to keep in mind:
1. Start by doing something profoundly ordinary and unscientific.
Make a plan. What do you expect to happen as a result of your work? Who will be impacted? How will they be impacted? What are the outcomes you expect to see? And very importantly, where does your influence end? That’s as far as you want to measure because you don’t want to measure something you can’t influence.
One of my favorite tools for doing this is the logic model. It’s a great tool for helping you to think through what you are doing and what impact you expect it to have. The Kellogg Foundation has a logic model guide that has been around forever. It’s a great guide to what they are and how to develop one.
The logic model can be used to test your thinking internally, making sure that all your activities connect to short and long-term outcomes, and to help you identify breaks in the theory of change if you aren’t seeing the results you expect. Did some activities not get implemented as planned? Did you not see the short-term outcomes you expected and therefore miss your mark on long-term change?
It can also be used as a simple visual tool to give to stakeholders and potential funders. A good logic model can give someone a good sense of what you are doing (and why) in one page. Seriously, I’ve mapped out some very complex programs in just one page. It can be done.
As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Make sure you have a road map.
2. Measure with specific goals in mind.
Once you know what you are doing and what impact you expect, you can measure it—not just with analytics, but by collecting information from the people who receive the message.
Analytics are easy to track because the data is collected automatically. But they can’t tell you everything. Even a simple online survey can be used to get feedback about your campaign and determine whether or not you are reaching your intended audience. But we are talking about changing people’s hearts and minds, so to really get to your outcomes, you will need to get some important information from people.
Look at your outcomes. Are you teaching people something new? Get some people in a room, ask them some questions, then have them interact with your website and ask them the same questions again. Do they know the answer now? It can be a survey, or you can do this as a more informal conversation.
Behavioral change is harder, but still doable. How easy it is to get information about changing behavior depends on many things. One is how narrowly defined your target population is. If you are trying to reach out to a particular community, it’s easier to go out into that community and ask people about the messages they received. If your reach is nationwide, things like online surveys are more likely to be your tool of choice.
You can be innovative, too. There are some interesting methods, such as case studies, network analysis, and the success case methods. Start poking around and you may find something other than a survey or a focus group that will tell you what you need to know. Some of these methods (such as network analysis) are better implemented with an evaluation professional. There are lots of ways to collect information.
Think about where your people intersect with your message, and then reach out to them.
3. But it doesn’t end there. You must then share your story.
Sometimes we collect data, but we find that no one is listening, or the information doesn’t get to the right people. Or people sit on the data because the data seldom tell a simple success story. Many times, like with all good information, we learn about what went well and where we fell short. And you have to be brave to share that information. But share it you must, because you have to tell the story.
You are storytellers. And this is an amazing time, because data geeks and storytellers are coming together in the field of data visualization. People are using data to tell amazing and beautiful stories about everything under the sun.
We use the principles of visual storytelling all the time. Once clients are clear on what they are doing and what impact they expect to have, the story follows. Then we just need to make sure they have the data to talk about each step with. Do they collect information about their activities? We can tell the story of how much they did and how many people they reached. Do they know what changes they expect?
We can tell the story of what people learned and how they behaved differently. We weave in strengths and challenges that people encountered and that the program overcame. And then we visualize it. What that looks like depends on the audience. Sometimes it’s an infographic. Or it might be a graphic memo that is visually rich and easy to digest.
Once you collect data, analyze it, and use it to tell the story of your work and the changes it brought, you can better understand the impact of your work, get valuable information about how to improve it, and demonstrate the value of what you do.
As Stephen Few put it, “Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.” So measure away, and give those numbers the voice they deserve.
Dr. Taj Carson, Ph.D. is the CEO of Carson Research Consulting in Baltimore, MD. Dr. Carson’s work focuses on objective assessments of foundation and nonprofit programmatic and organizational effectiveness to give them the information they need to engage in more focused strategic planning. She has experience working with local, state and federal government, nonprofits organizations and foundations, focusing on the unique issues surrounding measurement and evaluation.