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    Down Goes Goliath: The Outsized Impact of No Boston Olympics

    Chris Dempsey served as a co-chair of No Boston Olympics, a loosely organized volunteer group that sprung up to challenge the US Olympic Committee and New England businessmen and public officials, who were leading a bid to bring the 2024 Summer Olympic Games to Boston, Massachusetts. You can read the back story of their work here and learn why The Boston Globe named Chris Dempsey their Bostonian of the Year for 2015 here.   

    Prefer to listen to the interview? DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST

    The Communications Network: The Olympics. Boston. For those who don’t know the history here, can you offer just a brief summary of what was happening? Take us back…

    Chris Dempsey: In early 2013, a couple guys got together who thought that bringing the Olympics to Boston might make a lot of sense. That morphed into an effort that was really led by a couple of leaders in Boston’s business community, who over the course of 2013 and then 2014, started to push a Boston 2024 bid. [They were] sharing potential plans with the media, bringing elected leaders and business folks together to try to see what an Olympics would look like, and then ultimately working with the USOC.

    [No Boston Olympics] formed in a living room in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston in 2013. We were 3 people just saying, “Look, we’ve seen the economic evidence that Olympics do not leave cities better off. We’re concerned that this bid already has a lot of momentum, even at this early stage. We think that we need to do something to help level the playing field and make sure that the other side of the story is being told.”

    Fast forward to all the way to January 8th, 2015 — it happens to be exactly a year ago today, that you and I are talking Sean — and the United States Olympic Committee meets in Denver, Colorado at the airport there. Their 16 board members vote and decide to award the United States bid to Boston 2024 over bids from Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.

    The Communications Network: What made you think that you could take on a mayor, these monied and powerful, long-standing interests inside the city of Boston?

    Chris Dempsey: We knew that we could never match their firepower, but we always felt like we had the facts on our side. We were hopeful that the media in Boston and the public at large would really see the value in having a healthy debate — rather than sort of having a herd mentality with everyone agreeing that this was a good idea. Our backgrounds were in government, politics, public policy, business. Some of us had MBA’s. We had some experience in political communications and in grassroots organizations. Our job was really just to try to get good information out there and hope that the media and the public would sort of take it from there.

    The Communications Network: Why do you think your work galvanized people?

    Chris Dempsey: In the beginning we were the only organization talking about it. Unfortunately, a lot of the civic institutions in Boston that would normally raise some concerns about a $10 to $20 billion dollar project with taxpayer risk — the organizations that would normally speak out against that and raise some concerns — were essentially conflicted out of the debate because a lot of their funding was derived from the very same people who were pushing the bid. These civic organizations were just not in a position to tell the other side of the Olympic story. It was going to have to be a citizen-led movement — a movement that was never going to have a lot of funding and not necessarily have a lot of stature, at least in the early days. We had a very consistent message. That message was, “Look, there are some positives to bringing the games to town. Certainly Boston [as a community] could “pull off” an Olympics if that’s what we decided to do. But there are enormous costs associated with that decision. We need to look at the costs, not just the benefits.”

    In particular there are significant opportunity costs to hosting. Because your city’s civic infrastructure focuses on the Olympics, it is less focused on much more important issues like education, healthcare, transportation, open space — any number of other things that residents really value and care about and which ultimately leave your city and your region much better off. We had a very positive message of, “Boston is a great city. We could pursue this bid, but there are so many other things that we should be doing. Let’s bring the attention back to those things [education, healthcare, transportation, etc.] rather than be worried about building a stadium and a velodrome and an aquatics center — catering to the international community [instead of people who actually live here].

    We knew that we could never match their firepower, but we always felt like we had the facts on our side.

    The Communications Network: How did you get started? Beyond the living room, what happened?

    Chris Dempsey: One of the great things with all these new technologies out there is that the cost of starting an organization and raising its profile are very low. We started by registering a URL, NoBostonOlympics.org. That cost about $10 bucks. We got a Twitter account, @NoBostonOlympics. That’s free. Then we started posting some information on those two places and both started to become a depository of good information. Very quickly there was a back and forth on Twitter between us and the proponents about whether or not the bid was a good idea. The media picked up on that and pretty soon there were articles about how, “Wait a minute. It’s not just a one-sided story here. It’s not just a positive to bid on the Olympics. There’s also this other side of the story to be told.” We went from obscurity to having a relatively high profile over the course of just a few months based on some interaction on Twitter and having a webpage where people could go and learn more information.

    The Communications Network: My mother told me never to talk about money, but let’s talk about money. How much did you spend to take on these very, very powerful folks, in the city of Boston and the International Olympic Committee?

    Chris Dempsey: Boston 2024 had a very impressive fundraising effort. They spent more than $15 million dollars on their entire effort. Their average contribution size was more than $70,000. Most of their fundraising was made up of very large 6- and 7-figure contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations. On the other hand, on our side, the average contribution size was about $100. We ended up raising over the course of 2 years about $35,000, but we actually spent less than $10,000 on the entire effort. We were outspent 1,500 to 1 by Boston 2024, but we were still able to “win” the debate because we mobilized the grassroots, because we used earned media and social media to get our message out there.

    The Communications Network: History clearly shows you as the victor. There were almost certainly some obstacles that you encountered along the way. Can you talk a little bit about what those might have been?

    Chris Dempsey: We were making this campaign up as we went along. We had kind of a core strategy of being involved, being responsive and trying to put good facts and information out there. We never had a plan of, “Okay, this is what the next 6 months look like. This is what the next year looks like. This is how we go about organizing.” There were some real challenges and some real soul-searching at a number of points in the process.

    The Communications Network: You took what I call “the Indiana Jones approach,” “Don’t ask me. I’m making this up as I go.” You have a background in business. You value a plan and yet, there was no plan. Talk a little bit about that.

    Chris Dempsey: I’ve always loved that phrase, which I think is attributed to Eisenhower [planning for battle]. It’s something like, “Planning is essential, but plans are worthless.” Basically, how I interpret that is you need to understand your strategy. You need to have a sense of how you could potentially win the argument — but it’s going to be such a dynamic environment with so much changing and so much out of your control that it’s not worth spending a lot of time sort of charting what every day, every week, or every month is going to look like. You just don’t know what’s around the corner. Your strategy, your planning is all about being responsive, being nimble, having kind of a core message that you’re always going to iterate off of, riff off of — not some sort of rigid structure or detailed plan.

    The Communications Network: Let’s get back to the obstacles.

    Chris Dempsey: There were a lot of them! Lots of soul searching. I think especially for me and one of my other Co-Chairs, Kelley Gossett — in February and March of 2015, we actually both left our day jobs. Kelley was in the nonprofit world. She had been an advocate for social services. I had been working at Bain & Co., the consulting firm. By the end of March 2015 neither one of us were getting a paycheck and our work with No Boston Olympics was purely volunteer. There were some tough days in there thinking about, “How long can we do this for? Is this really sustainable? Will we ever be able to get to a point with fundraising where we can afford to pay ourselves and make this something that can be a lasting effort?”

    We were very fortunate that within a few months of leaving our jobs the tide started to turn and it looked like we had the momentum — it became clear that there was potential for the bid to end before the all-important September 2015 date when the USOC had to submit the city to the International Olympic Committee. But there were some really dark days in there — not just from an organizational perspective, but from a very personal perspective. We were dedicating ourselves to it full-time and very much wrapped up in it.

    The Communications Network: Where did the momentum come from? What happened?

    Chris Dempsey: Throughout 2014 the USOC had Boston 2024 conduct a process that was very private — they did not involve the public. When Boston 2024 finally released its bid to the public [in 2015], there was a lot in [that bid] that people were not happy about, that caught neighborhoods and residents by surprise when they started to realize, “Hey — the Olympics is not just a really fun event, it also has some significant consequences for our community.” I think magnifying that was that there was some real misinformation or inaccuracies in those 2014 bidding documents. Boston 2024’s credibility took a hit there. They had developed this bid behind closed doors and it hadn’t been tested. It hadn’t had that sort of sunlight that might actually improve it. As people saw more about sort of what was in store for them and their neighborhoods, the public began to realize that [the bid] was just not a good deal.

    The Communications Network: How important was having a public conversation?

    Chris Dempsey: The media was absolutely essential to our efforts. We feel incredibly fortunate to be in a region that has a dynamic and thriving press. Like anywhere in the country, journalism as an industry is suffering and there are fewer and fewer resources to bring to bear there. But there really are some amazing journalists: both long-time journalists in Boston and then also very young journalists who were in their first or second jobs with smaller outlets — who were breaking some of this news and doing investigative reporting.

    [The press] really helped drive the conversation. They were very good about showing both sides of the story. We had a responsive strategy where Boston 2024 would push an idea or have a significant media effort to publicize the bid and we needed to be there and to be responsive with a quote, statement or with a call to a journalist to talk about why the things that Boston 2024 was saying or pushing didn’t make sense or what the other side of the story was. We were lucky to be included in a lot of the stories, to really raise our organization’s profile so that it looked like we were a much larger and more dynamic organization than we actually were.

    The Communications Network: The Potempkin village strategy. It was just the three of you and yet to the many, many people observing from across the globe, it was easy to assume that this was an effort of dozens, if not hundreds of people.

    Chris Dempsey: There were three of us who were the core, who were working on it kind of 24/7. But there were many other people that were able to rally around the No Boston Olympics brand. I think that was a result of our ability to create an organization that looked like it was strong but also like it was open. It looked welcoming to people at the grassroots level. So there were those dozens of volunteers helping, but there was certainly never the fancy office space or the significant contributors or the powerful elected leaders that were pulling strings behind the scenes. We were a true grassroots effort, working out of cafes, out of people’s living rooms, and painting our own signs when we needed to before going to a public meeting.

    The Communications Network: Let’s talk about what ultimately happened.

    Chris Dempsey: Over the course of the spring and the summer, public support for Boston 2024 dropped from mid 50% to the high 30s. It eventually plateaued around 40%. Meanwhile, opposition rose from the mid 30s up to the low 50s and really stuck around 50%. It was very clear to really everyone — Boston 2024, the USOC, elected leaders — that this was not a popular bid. The USOC was in this essentially untenable position where they were trying to stick with Boston and the Boston 2024 group they had awarded this bid to, but without the political and popular backing that they needed to prevail.

    At the same time they’re facing a date from the International Olympic Committee, which is their partner on the international level, to submit a bid by September 15th. In the middle of summer, at the end of July actually, the USOC finally announced that it would be pulling the bid because it did not believe that it would ever be able to achieve the public support that it needed in Boston. A few months later the USOC, kind of after closing ranks for a little bit, came back out and gave the bid to Los Angeles. Over the next few years, people will be hearing a lot about the Los Angeles 2024 bid. That was meant to be the Boston 2024 bid — we were able to stop that.

    The Communications Network: What surprised you about this work, this experience?

    Chris Dempsey: For me the experience was a reminder and confirmation that a group of citizens truly can have an impact and truly can make a difference despite being up against some very powerful forces. And it does not necessarily take a significant amount of resources to have an effect. You’ve got to have facts on your side, you’ve got to have good information and a sound argument. But if you can position that information in the right way, you really can create a movement and an organization that can punch above its weight and make a difference in a policy area that’s important to you. I don’t know if that’s a surprise — because I would like to think that’s been always true — but No Boston Olympics was a very good reminder of the power of a grassroots effort.

    The Communications Network: Are there a few lessons you take away? The 2 or 3 things that if you were going to do this all again, these would be in the playbook?

    Chris Dempsey: You have to take advantage of some of the opportunities that new technology has created to very quickly form an organization and raise that organization’s profile. We were able to go from 0 to 60 in a matter of months because of those platforms. That’s everything from Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress to a great organizing tool that we used called NationBuilder. I recommend NationBuilder to any social organization or nonprofit that wants to organize people. That was an effective way for us to bring new people into the fold. I think that’s one lesson.

    The second is to continue to use, and most organizations do this already, but continue to use more traditional media as a platform and try to develop earned media where you are producing information and facts so that you make it easy for reporters to have information at their fingertips and to have that other side of the story. Reporters want to publicize the story and they are looking for resources to do that. If you can provide those resources, you can increase awareness of and confidence in your brand.

    The Communications Network: Where else could you see this approach working?

    Chris Dempsey: In some ways it was a unique situation because, look, an Olympic bid is this incredible combination of sports, politics, government, transportation, and housing. It raises all of these issues. The bid was an almost unbelievably high-profile issue in Greater Boston. It was unique. On the other hand, I do think that the strategy that we used could be applicable to other situations where there are a small group of interests pushing a particular idea that impacts communities more broadly.

    One thing that we showed is that it is now easier in today’s world to organize that sort of broader public to speak up to magnify their voice so that they can match the better funded and more powerful, but ultimately narrow interest groups that are pushing a particular idea. Whether your issue is more funding for social services — or anything in the entire range of public policy where the broader public needs to have their voice heard — I think our model could be instructive and I hope it would be effective.

    The Communications Network: The folks who make up The Communications Network are especially  interested in this work through the lens of communication. Obviously, a huge element of this work was communication. What does the word “communication” mean to you?

    Chris Dempsey: In a broad public policy issue like this, communication is about relating the particular public policy to people’s everyday lives and finding something that they can understand and grasp on to. One thing that was effective about the No Boston Olympics movement here is that there were different messages that appealed to different types of people. For example, there was a whole segment of the population that was opposed to Boston 2024 because there was going to be a lot of traffic for 3 weeks. To be clear, that’s not one of the reasons that compelled me to fight this. I actually thought the 3 weeks would have been kind of a fun! For me it was about the years leading up to hosting and the years after hosting that we were going to be significantly harmed by the bid.

    But we did want to appeal to those people who were [concerned with traffic]. We wanted those people on our side, so we had a particular part of our message that worked with them. That was around the fact that the International Olympic Committee actually required a lane to be reserved on every highway in the state so that IOC dignitaries and sponsors could have unobstructed trips — while everyone else is sitting in traffic. If you’re someone who is already worried about traffic around the Olympics — and then you hear that the IOC officials will get to avoid it, that really makes you angry. That brings you on our side.

    Then there’s a whole other group of people who were concerned about some of the civil rights and civil liberties impacts around the Olympics — the fact that Olympics tend to be associated with governments clamping down on free expression so that they put on a pretty face for the TV cameras. Our coalition wanted to appeal to those people also. Then there were a whole bunch of people in the middle who were fine with the Olympics one way or the other, but they didn’t want to have to use tax dollars for it. For those people, we talked about the fact that the International Olympic committee requires this taxpayer guarantee for Olympic cost overruns. So I think at the end of the day the 50%+ of people around the state who were on our side had different reasons for being with us. We were able to kind of communicate with each of them, ultimately, on sort of an individual basis.

    The Communications Network: If you don’t mind my putting words into your mouth, it sounds like to you communications was more than just a press release, more than a tweet, more than a quote in a newspaper article, it was about gathering intelligence. It was about understanding an audience. It was about building relationships. Is that a fair reflection of what you were thinking?

    Chris Dempsey: I think our Co-Chairs’ backgrounds in political campaigns was probably what allowed us — or enabled us — to think that way. At the end of the day we were trying to build a coalition of different constituencies. Effectively, people were going to “vote” for our effort for a whole set of different reasons, and you have to appeal to all of those reasons.

    The Communications Network: What’s next for you? What’s next for the team?

    Chris Dempsey: We get asked a lot whether No Boston Olympics will continue on and try to fight for some of the things that we talked about as a better alternative to the bid. I think the organization itself will probably go away. We don’t think that we’ll be able as a formal organization to move on to the next thing because we did have such a broad coalition. We had very serious supporters who were conservatives and very serious supporters who were progressives and a whole bunch of people in the middle. So we won’t necessarily agree on whatever the next issue is. But you will see certainly the three co-chairs and many others who are involved in No Boston Olympics continuing to be part of the broader civic debate – about how we need to grow and how we need to change as a city. In the meantime, I think Kelley and I are happy to be back in the working world and getting a paycheck again! We spent 6 months not getting paid in 2015. So now it’s sort of back to our daily lives. At the same time, we’re back to those lives with a kind of renewed feeling about how important some of these civic debates are — and our ability to have an impact.

     

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    For Authentic Storytelling, Spend the Reputational Capital

    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.

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    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.

    You’ll learn:

    1. How to set impact goals for media and communications projects.
    2. Methods and strategies for measuring change.
    3. Why measurement and analysis is valuable for media organizations.

    For more information, see: https://www.revealnews.org/topic/impact/.

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    REPLAY: How to Be Good at Medium

    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.

    You’ll learn:

    • 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 gabe@medium.com.

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    Change Agent: The Imperfect Science of Evaluating Communications

    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.

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