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ComNetworkLA: An Evening with Tara Roth

In May, ComNetworkLA convened for an evening with Tara Roth, President of the Goldhirsh Foundation for a discussion featuring insights about the power of social sector communications to spark innovation and how storytellers can help shape a better future for Los Angeles.

A transcript of the conversation is below.

Angie Jean-Marie
The Goldhirsh Foundation support organizations in Los Angeles that are impacting social issues. We think of ourselves as a venture fund for social sector. I have the great benefit of working with Tara Roth and Stacy, who’s in the back there, and Megan Loughman. We’re a very small but mighty and all-female team. We launched an initiative called LA2050 a few years ago and LA2050 is focused on collecting citizen visions for the future of Los Angeles and figuring out ways to make enact those visions. The primary vehicle through which we do this is the MyLA2050 Grants Challenge which is a million dollar grant competition that we launched 3 years, and we’re coming up on the fourth year, that supports innovative and creative ideas to make LA the best place to learn, create, play, connect and live.

I just want to do a quick introduction of Tara. We’re going to ask a lot of questions about her background so I’m not going to do anything too in depth. Tara’s been with the foundation for over a decade now. I think her story about how she got started with Ben is really funny, so if you want to share that at some point totally feel free. Tara has a really varied background. She’s worked in the financial sector, in entertainment, in tech and helped launch GOOD Magazine as its first COO in 2005, 2006 then transitioned to the Goldhirsh Foundation where she’s been helping to manage the family’s philanthropy. I feel like that’s a good overview. It’s kind of weird to interview your boss, but we’re going to get at it. Just wanted to start. You’ve worked in the social entrepreneurship space and social innovation for most of your career, so I just want to talk about what drew you to the field and really what you hoped to get out of that career path.

Tara Roth
First of all, thank you, and thank you ComNetworkLA and thank you all for being here. I’m really happy to host you. When I first graduated from college there weren’t a lot of opportunities in social innovation. And social entrepreneurship and social enterprise were not terms that were common terms, so I have to say one thing: it’s great to be alive and working now, and that there are so many great opportunities for you all. Because I felt like I either had to make a choice about being kind of an activist, which I’m just really not, or working on the business sector, which also I’m just really not. I first started in the financial services, I then went to work in the first internet boom. I kept trying to do something that felt like it was really aligned with my values and my heart. It was an illness that I had when I was 26, I had a pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot in the lung, almost died, and I realized I needed to get back to my roots.

I’d always done a lot of volunteer work. I was really fortunate to work with the NewSchools Venture Fund, which is a venture philanthropy fund based in the Bay Area founded by a lot of tech investors and entrepreneurs. They understood marketing, they understood the power of brand and personality, and they understood leveraging connections and relationships. That was sort of my first foray into the social sector and this blended social sector where I was applying business skills and business acumen to communications, partnerships and to really, ultimately, to impact. I haven’t looked back since, so it’s launched me and then I’ve taken different paths throughout this whole process and this whole sector but it’s all been now very mission-driven, mission-oriented.

Angie
When did communications first appear as a skill set or an organizational strength that you saw was important to cultivate?

Tara
With my first job out of college one of the things that I was doing was international marketing for a financial services firm and I was helping to create brochures and pie charts about, “These are your returns over the past few years,” so I was doing a lot of copy editing. After I left that I started going strategic partnerships for an internet company and what I started realizing was my definition of communications is very broad. It’s about people and interacting with people, so it’s strategic partnerships, it’s business development, it’s marketing, it’s branding, it’s design. It’s really all-encompassing and I think that’s important to keep sight of.

I went to work for a public relations firm here in Los Angeles called The Rogers Group, which some of you may be familiar with. I was really fortunate to work with public sector and social sector clients there. That’s where I really got more of my straight up communications chops, but I think that it’s really been carried throughout in all of my career in whatever element. Whether you’re making a presentation to someone, whether you’re writing a grant proposal and you need to choose your language appropriately, you need to understand your target audience and your segment that you’re going for. It’s here with GOOD and with Goldhirsh Foundation, it’s been wonderful because we’ve been able to marry design, and engaging elements, and prose and great stories with understanding and experimenting with an audience out there we think is hungry for hearing these stories in a way in which they’re depicted.

Angie
I’m curious because I think the ideas of social enterprise, and social entrepreneurship and social innovation are very popular today but you and the Goldhirsh Foundation were sort of on the cutting edge working on this years and years ago. Where did you find that inspiration or where did you go to seek out these new creative ways of approaching social problems?

Tara
This is why I say it’s a great time to be alive because I felt like very much an outlier in whatever I was doing. I just felt like this is not quite right, this is not quite who I am and I really believe in bringing people from multiple sectors together to attack social problems. It was refreshing when I met Ben Goldhirsh and when he said, “I have this idea about a magazine that’s all about doing good and it’s slick design,” and what not. I thought, “This sounds really cool.” I’d just been working at Participant Media where they were taking the same concept in film saying, “We need to make entertainment first but with a social mission.”

I feel like I was at a very lucky time, at kind of the right place at the right time, but it was something that really resonated with me inside. I thought, “This is the sort of thing. This is exciting, it’s experimental, it’s creative. It has broad social impact, or has the potential to have broad social impact, and it’s communicating about causes that normally are not that attractive to get involved with.” There was a way in which the communications were used, the design was used and what not, to really attract people and bring them in. Tell a story that was going to be compelling, that was going to grab someone and make them want to get involved rather than saying, “Not my problem,” or, “I don’t want to hear that right now.” I feel like part of it has just been really luck but also priming myself too so that when that opportunity arose I was ready to jump on it and that I was actively seeking.

Angie
How were you doing that? How were you priming?

Tara
I was working hard and constantly looking to fill out my skill set. I feel like in one’s career one has multiple buckets that one can fill. Even if you don’t care anything about accounting, you should still get a basic understanding of accounting just to know that you need to hire someone else to do your accounting.

No, I highly recommend attending an MBA for something like that. I mean a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but I think it’s good when you can say, “Yes, I know enough to know that I should not be touching that,” or something like that. I think that part of it was also just getting out and talking to people. I read a lot. I was thinking about sources of inspiration for me and I will pick something up, I’m about to get on an airplane tonight. I will literally pick up the airplane magazine, which I actually think there’s some really good ideas and things in sometimes that I think, “This is a little embarrassing to be sourcing the Southwest Airlines strategy.” I think that just being open to possibility and also seeing intersections where other people may not see intersections and bringing unlikely bedfellows together.

I have two little children and when I’m at one of their baseball games or if I’m out doing anything I am constantly talking to people, listening to people. Seeing where do we have this intersection, or where can I learn from your industry and I can teach you about my industry? Because we’re actually doing a lot of similar things it’s just different industries. Looking at the entertainment field, producer’s same thing as project manager. There’s so many different semantics that actually translate to similar work and similar skillset. I don’t know if I just answered your question.

Angie
Yeah, you did it. You did it. I want to know about, and we sort of talked about these questions and I’m throwing new things at you. Hope that’s okay.

Angie
What were some early wins at GOOD that kept you excited about doing this sort of work? I’m curious.

Tara
I was sort of like the starter with Participant and with GOOD. I left GOOD to have my first baby and then kind of came back. The fact that there was even interest in the market, because when I started GOOD I was the only person over thirty. I was the only married person, I was pregnant and there were four boys and they would do stuff boys do. We had no Power Point deck, we had very little, so we were going out and selling people an idea. We were selling an inspired idea, and idealistic idea. I mean, we were really starting from scratch. Sort of just like where are our personal networks, how can we communicate with passion that we believe being on the burgeoning point of this new industry?

I think that Participant had laid some groundwork for us in a way. Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana had just come out and had had some market success which was, again, first and foremost for those industries, for GOOD and for Participant, they’re for-profit. They’re not here to just do good, they’re here to make a profit, they’re here to entertain. I think that those were positive market signs that we thought, “There’s something here.” We also looked at the success of Whole Foods and people who were sort of more business savvy making purchase decisions. There were a lot of market triggers and signals that we could rely on to then say, “This is worth an experiment.”

I also figured if I take this risk it was at a stage of life that–I was just about to have a baby so it’s not necessarily a stage of life you want to take major risks–I didn’t have a mortgage and I thought, “This sounds like fun and why not? Why not give this a chance?”

Angie
You mentioned something that I think is really interesting when it comes to communications and that we talk about all the time, is about the value of starting close when you’re doing something new and creative. Talk about that a little bit. I think sometimes you feel inclined to say, ” I’m going to create this thousand-person list and we’re going to reach out to all these individuals, but I think there’s something there when it comes to communicating new concepts and new ideas to starting where you know you have inroads and working those first.

Tara
Yeah. I would say that’s where the personal connections and really understanding that you have many more resources and assets at your disposal than you might think come into play. This is what I tell people when they’re thinking about getting involved in the Board and they say, “But I can’t write a $10,000 check.” I said, “But think about the number of people you could tap into who could write $100 checks,” or, “Think of the different assets and resources you have.” I think one good example is what we did with LA2050. We had nothing. We had an idea and we had a report that not as many people read as we would’ve liked to have read it.

Angie
Is that a problem that you guys share of not getting folks to read the report? Have you figured it out before you do another report?

Tara
We’re still trying to figure it out. We decided to host physical events. We were like people love to come together, they love to talk to each other, we loved bringing people together. We had different speakers who crafted how their events wanted to be, so it was really starting with who do we know? Who can say something interesting and provocative? Who can help draw a crowd? Where can we set a tone that’s informal and casual enough that people will feel like it’s an amicable environment, people’s voices can be heard? It was really starting with physical events and I would say that that’s where a lot of movements get started, that’s where some of the best communications work has to get started. It’s starting with friends and family, it’s starting with, again, someone at the grocery store. “Hey, I see you’re reading that. Would you be interesting in coming to a discussion about education reform.”

What’s been really fascinating to me, I’ve been in LA 15 years. When I first moved here I started an education reform network, from scratch, also. People are hungry to talk about things that matter, and they’re hungry to talk with people they don’t know and people with whom they may be diametrically opposed outside in the workforce. Teachers unions and different reform candidates, or people who run educational software companies. I think that there’s something really powerful about just having a small group come together and just say, “We’re all interested in this. What can we do?” Then from there you build. Then from those physical events we then built a Twitter presence for LA2050 and Goldhirsh Foundation, we’ve got a Facebook presence, we built this incredible newsletter presence but that really came more from the mileage with MyLA2050 Grants Challenge.

I think starting close in, there’s actually a great poet named David White and he has a poem saying start close in. Take the next step, the step you don’t want to take. It’s your first step. Just start with that group that you know, and where you can trust people and experiment.

Angie
With those early events, I mean did you worry about ceding control of the message? You formulate your ideas and your concept about what your initiative should be like, or what the message should be, and then you’re like, “Okay, organization, go host an event about this,” and you have no idea really what’s going to happen. Was that ever a concern?

Tara
We had a little more tight control over it but also something like LA2050 we wanted to open because, I think we’re in a really privileged in which we say, “This is about your future, it’s about our future,” but first you need to make people understand that it’s you. It’s you and your investment in the future, your stewardship of what this city and this region are going to be like. I think first of all it’s kind of imbuing people with that power, and that agency and then excitement. Then saying what comes of that. I mean we had some events where we had some crazies. Whenever you open anything up to the public there are crazies, but sometimes the crazies have great ideas that then can be helpful.

We chose people who were going to then select a panel, or to curate or host something, and we worked with them behind the scenes. We really said, “We want you to impose your viewpoint. What can you tease out?” Because that’s also how we’re all going to learn and since we’re working across the board, I mean this whole social and urban innovation space is very broad. This goal that Angie mentioned are very broad. We’re not experts in any one of these functional areas, so it’s really we’re relying on other people to feed us information and then to kind of let us know that this is a database fax that they’re sending to us. Then hear people discuss and you can see how people tease it out.

Angie
It seems like you’re an upstarter. You started things at Participant Media, you started things at GOOD. You built the latest iteration of the Goldhirsh Foundation from scratch and you did that breaking away from the sort of mold of traditional foundations, the way that they do their grant-making and the way that they really communicate about their work. I want to go back for my own benefit, really, to the early days of the foundation. How did you conduct that branding and that strategy in those earlier times?

Tara
Part of it, again, is coming from necessity bringing creativity and, part of that, being the outlier. I use the analogy of sort of being the little kid outside of the sandbox going, “Hey, can you guys play with me? Can you talk to me? Okay, no one’s going to talk to me so I’m going to figure out how to do this myself.” With the Goldhirsh Foundation we were really quiet for a long time, partly because our mission was initially to support brain cancer research. I was sort of working behind the scenes almost like on a shadow foundation of Ben Goldhirsh’s. When we decided, we broke with, very amicably, we had a split with his sister because they had very investment interests so we decided we’re going to start anew. How are we going to communicate about that?

We went through a branding exercise with some people who used to work at GOOD who were designers. We came up with the different adjectives about what Goldhirsh Foundation should be, what we thought it was based on the grants we made, the way we interacted with partners and grantees, and then where we wanted to go. Our current website, the Goldhirsh Foundation site, we haven’t changed it. We’ve updated it a little bit, we still need to update it some more but we haven’t really changed it all from the design ethic and the simplicity from three or four years ago.

It was just I at that stage. I had no other help but my Board of two, Ben and Claire, his wife, were very involved in that process. We chose everything from the colors, to the font, to the graphics. Really all working with the branding experts saying, “These are the values we want to convey. We want simplicity. We want idealism but realism.” A lot of similar values to GOOD, actually, which has been helpful in guiding our discussions and our thoughts.

Angie
Talk a little bit about the idea of a crowdsourced grants challenge. Where did that come from? What was it like getting the board to be interested in doing that? Let’s stop there.

Tara
Okay. I kind of zigzagged back between GOOD and Goldhirsh Foundation for a couple of years, so there’s a agency at GOOD called GOOD Corps that I helped launch with the Pepsi Refresh project. The Pepsi Refresh project was also an online crowdsourced grants challenge. When Pepsi decided instead of spending its marketing budget on Superbowl ads they would put it towards launching this digital platform about [inaudible 00:17:58] for grants. I was involved in very early phases of that. That was a tremendous way to get the word out about Pepsi. It was also based on a lot of the same principles where when we launched GOOD we launched something called the Choose GOOD campaign and this was an affinity marketing campaign that essentially-

Angie
Do you want to explain what that means?

Tara
Sure. Absolutely. It’s essentially an organization partnering with another organization that has a community or a constituent base and having the second organization communicate and broadcast to its constituency about supporting the first organization. I guess I should say the firm. I’ll give an example. With GOOD, instead of taking direct mail dollars, which would be millions of millions of dollars, those little things that pop out of your, like the inserts in your magazine and then also just the direct mail, we thought let’s do something totally different. We’re launching a new brand, we’re launching a new magazine. This is a new ethic, this is a new audience. They don’t want direct mail. We don’t want to spend a million dollars on direct mail so we said let’s put it towards this Choose GOOD thing.

My job was to come up with 12 different non-profit partners who had a decent size following, who would then communicate to their following and say, “If you subscribe to GOOD Magazine, the $20 that you would subscribe get’s given directly back to Teach for America, or UNICEF, or Creative Commons.” I’m trying to think about their early ones. That was like a direct affinity marketing play. The crowdsourced grants challenge of Pepsi Refresh and MyLA2050 are built on the same principles. It’s affinity marketing. When we have seventy thousand people vote in the MyLA2050 Grants Challenge some of it is due to our outreach, and our purchasing ads or Facebook ads or whatnot, but really it’s affinity marketing. It’s having the non-profits, and for-profits, and governmental sectors and partners promote the MyLA2050 Grants Challenge to their constituent base and saying, “Come vote.” That list that we’ve built is on the backs of the partner organizations. I think it’s very viral and it’s been very effective in print and online.

Angie
I mean, obviously to work for LA2050 what do you think about taking some of those business marketing techniques and applying them in the social sector? Is there crossover, is there opportunity there? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tara
Yeah, I think so. I mean, again, I would say we operate under a very lean team and lean budget but we do have some wiggle room for experimentation. We had done paid ads. Angie helped create, and design and place ads on billboards, and on metro and rail to promote LA2050 and MyLA2050 Grants Challenge. Made probably more successfully has been purchasing Facebook ads, promoted Tweets. We use something called Thunderclap, which I don’t know how strong that it. That was really two challenges ago. Things that were really small dollar costs but I think that non-profits could say, “Let’s just spend $350 and see what happens from this.” Other campaigns and elections have used those so I think there are a lot of social media experiments, experimentation tools that can be used.

I also think one thing that we did, this is what I was asking when we were getting called, was we started using Twitter Parties, so one hour designated chats using Twitter.

Angie
We’re doing one on Thursday.

Tara
Is this still a thing?

Angie
Yeah.

Tara
Okay, good. To promote a cause. Those are free, basically, you just need the person to coordinate, and then to come up with the questions and then you come up with partner organizations. Again, the power of partnerships right there is very important. If you get five different non-profits who say, “We’re all going to broadcast to our lists, to our donors, to our volunteers, to our clients. Whoever we serve.” The schools, whatever it is. You can get a lot of people to participate in that discussion. Then you also have content that you can rely on, and repurpose and tweet out. Or you can send, you can promote in presentations you make to donors, or partners or what not. Those are some more viral things. You probably have some more interesting ones to share on that one.

Angie
Well, I don’t know. I think it’s easy from our perspective to sort of come up with those ideas and to want to do that experimentation even when it’s a low dollar cost. For organizations who are more used to traditional communications, or whose boards or supervisors higher up don’t really understand, how do you make that argument for trying something new like that?

Tara
I think especially that’s a really low dollar cost you can say let’s just try this. Even if it’s $100 let’s just see. Also anytime you can make a decision where you can back it up with data, especially understanding your target audience. If it’s a more seasoned board member you need to convince or you need to help your executive director convince, it’s saying, “I know that this person reads the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. Look at this article that was in the Wall Street Journal talking about, I don’t know, Twitter chat or Snapchat or something.” Maybe you can appeal to this person via that way. You kind of have to know which way to go. We read Fast Company, LA Magazine. We have all sorts of different newsletters coming our way, whether they’re marketing, or non-profit, or government, urban innovation, it’s cherry-picking things that might resonate with someone who can make a decision.

Some of this, this is what we tried doing with MyLA2050 Grants Challenge, although it’s a bigger dollar grant, is that looking at organizations or foundations who might give a small grant to just experiment with communications. I remember when I was at The Rogers Group, we were working on early childhood development, actually it was First 5 LA, and they wanted to just do a focus group with teenage moms. The California Endowment, who was a large foundation, came in and just gave a small grant to do focus groups with teenage moms to help inform the public relations work. I think that looking for any sort of intersections there is helpful.

Angie
I would say, LA2050, I think we sometimes think about it as you could never have anticipated that it would be so successful but it exceeded expectations. What surprised you by those people who have embraced the messaging and the people who have embraced the grants challenge and the initiative in general?

Tara
I think just the overall enthusiasm and optimism that I think, in a way we set ourselves up because we put it out there as 2050 which is so far in the future. The experts said, “Oh, 2050. You can’t anticipate that, we can’t plan for that. You guys are crazy.” I think that that actually tapped into the layperson’s ideal of we don’t have to think in any of the constructs that we’re thinking about. I think that is it was partly really a letting people dream big. It was also really establishing a very open and inclusive dialogue in which was wanted to hear feedback.

We did things like we put a photobooth up at Grand Park, I think it was when Mayor Villaraigosa left office, and we had people hold up a plastic board saying, “My vision in LA2050 is,” and people wrote in different languages. We let people keep the picture and we kept the picture for our site. It was, I think just really imbuing something with that sense of agency and that stewardship of the future. I think that’s really key, and talking in simple language. We’re not trying to snow anyone. We’re also, again, in a great position because we’re not trying to sell a product necessarily. I mean, we’re trying to see the work that we’re doing but we all need to continue doing better work, and we’re not being voted out of office anytime soon. I think that we’re just trying to do the most good possible, and in the simplest way that’s the most accessible to most people.

Angie
You’ve said that do the most good possible phrase before and I think it’s one of those things that, for me, has helped drive some of my positioning at the office and some of the work that we do. I think it’s sometimes you forget that you’re working on a social mission. You get bogged down by, “Oh my gosh, who ever knows what fires you had to put out that day,” but being able to come back to that I think is … Great tag line. Awesome communicator figures it out.

With all the things that we’ve been able to do with LA2050, the affinity marketing, the grants challenge, we benefit from having this amazing list of people who are signed up to our newsletter, who’ve engaged with the grants challenge in one way or the other. What do we want to do with those people? Where do you see us, and I know this is in part Stacy’s responsibility-

Tara
Right, that’s why we hired Stacy.

Angie
Yeah, I’m curious. How do you see using communications to get these people, this army of Angelenosto get activated and conceive a push for the future?

Tara
I think that this is also going to be an interesting segmentation exercise, because I think that anytime you ask people to do more you’re going to lose some people and if you take certain incentives away you’re going to lose people. I think that the prevailing thought within the foundation and with our board is that we have this incredible list of people, they’ve already clicked a button to vote on things. They’ve elected to stay with us on the newsletter, to share things on the newsletter, to participate with us in digital media. We need to do something else with them. We’ve found in two grants challenges ago people equated voting in the grants challenge to voting in a public election. We thought that’s A, very scary, and B, a big opportunity. What can we do with that?

I think that the idea is, like anything else in marketing and communications, is converting your customers higher up, you know, get them the black card status so that they’re taking more of a stand, maybe getting more political, more activist, but that’s why Stacy’s on board. I think this is going to be a balancing act of making sure that people who are just curious about what’s going on in Los Angeles, who want to engage in an entertaining way, who want to stay connected but not really take a lot of action stay with us, I think. Then those people who are really, who want to be ambassadors in the future of Los Angeles, they’re willing to kind of put their neck out there, take a stand, have a strong point of view. Make sure that those people are doing that.

Angie
It sounds like there’ve been feedback loops created in order for people to provide thoughts, and changes and suggestions for the future. How do you see those feedback loops helping to iterate on ideas and messaging for the Goldhirsh Foundation and LA2050?

Tara
I think that, first of all, it’s always been very core to us that once we open the floodgates saying, “We want to hear your input and feedback,” just to make sure that when we ask we then respond in some way. That’s showing that we have listened, that we respect, we may not agree and we may decide to do something different but at least we’re going to ask. I would say for LA2050 I think that for this stage, now that we’ve built this, there has to be a little bit more puppetry behind the scenes about here are the strategic directions we think we can pursue because we’ve actually been sitting here studying this, thinking about the different directions. I think we’re going to need to test some of that a little bit with people. Especially with people who are kind of our captains in the field and sort of say, “How do you feel about this? Would you stay with us?”

Then I think for Goldhirsh Foundation I’m actually really excited about being able to think more about Goldhirsh Foundation, because we really focus most of our branding and efforts on LA2050. I’d say that’s our consumer face of the brand. A lot of people don’t even know that LA2050 is from the Goldhirsh Foundation, and we’ve been very conscientious about that and that’s been very deliberate. We wanted to make sure that there was enough, that people didn’t think it was like, “Who is this religious riot?” Or, “What’s going on here?” That it wasn’t some heavily handed Goldhirsh Foundation, but I think that I’m now excited about having more of a thought leadership approach with Goldhirsh Foundation and maybe encouraging more experimentation, and creativity and risk-taking with other foundations.

Angie
With risk and experimentation comes failure. Any failures you’re willing to share with the group here?

Tara
There are some that I’m like, “This one may not be a failure because it actually maybe turned into a success, so I can’t talk about that one right now,”-

Angie
Actually, that’s what happens with failure, right? If you’re willing to learn.

Tara
Maybe.

Angie
No?

Tara
I’ll tell you about one. Yes, yes. One thing that was not, we did a grant to MTV, which when we did the grant it was a hot brand. We did something that was with the Gates Foundation, the Case Foundation, the MCJ Foundation. They kind of brought us in because they thought, “They’re kind of crazy enough, they’ll do this.” This was maybe seven or eight years ago, they were building a platform called Think MTV, it was called the Thinkubator. They were basically trying to get young people who were watching MTV and engaging with MTV to take social action. We did partnerships with Kiva, we did partnerships with Donors Choose, we gave Goldhirsh Foundation grants and said, I can’t remember what some of the things, “If you volunteer, we’ll give you a $25 gift certificate to use for Kiva.” It was like incentivizing and encouraging people to take social action and then saying, “Okay, get further involved with social action.”

We invested a lot of money in that, that was also a for-profit so we also came under some fire as a foundation, but at that stage we were like, “We don’t care. It doesn’t really matter to us whatever the legal organizational structure is as long as we’re doing this legally,” which we were. We had the Gates Foundation, I mean we were relying on very expensive legal counsel because it’s not ours. That’s our being scrappy and creative. It’s no longer around and it didn’t work across the different MTV platforms. They had mtvU and the MTV networks. It didn’t work the way it was supposed to work.

Part of that, I think, was they didn’t have real leadership within MTV to commit to this. I don’t know that there was enough of a financial incentive, honestly. That was definitely a failure, for sure, but it was great because it got us to work very closely with those other foundations and we have since become very close. We’re very close with the Case Foundation and they were very instrumental in helping us think about crowdsourced grants challenges, and then helping with Pepsi Refresh and what not. A good learning.

Angie
Yeah, always have to learn from failure.

Tara
Yes, oh definitely.

Angie
We’re going to open up to questions in a little bit but I wanted to just ask you a couple more things. One of the hardest things about working in the social sector is that the challenges that we want to tackle are really big, they’re complex and I think you eluded to this earlier, they’re difficult to talk about and get people interested in. How have you, how do you want to continue to communicate up these big problems in a way that’s engaging but informative at the same time?

Tara
That’s right. I think that our graphics have been really effective, even though we still have issues with people reading our reports. Everything we’ve tried to do we’ve tried to do in a very user friendly way. With our first report we had a dashboard rating of like, we were talking about doing a report care about, “How is LA looking in terms of environmental quality?” Then we did a dashboard from red to green. Green being the best and red being the worst. I think that even that, you can look at the one page snapshot and say, “Oh, here’s where we’re doing environmental quality.” I think graphics and design are very key. I think that you’ll see that throughout all of the work that we’ve done. Also, simplicity.

So much of this stuff, when we started looking at first doing LA2050 we were looking at, “We want to look at the City budgets projected for 2050,” and it was like, this is mind-numbing. We just need a basic baseline understanding of is it good or is it bad, and here’s why it’s good or here’s why it’s bad. I think that that’s important. Not using acronyms. Every industry, again, has its own little abbreviations and acronyms. I don’t think people really try to confuse listeners by just throwing out the acronyms, I think it’s just shorthand, but we need to be really aware that we’re talking to a broad audience and so just really simple language. I always go back to my dad’s, “Keep it simple, stupid.” Simple and make it colorful, make it engaging.

I have to say that I am invited to a lot of different screenings about, oh my gosh, just horrendous, like the HIV orphans in Africa and I don’t really want to see any of these things anymore. It just, it gets up to here, so then I think, “Okay, how can we get people to feel not so downtrodden about these causes?” Tell an uplifting story. Make your case for why your organization, your cause, is compelling, why someone will want to get involved, but then think about how you tailor it to different people so that people want to get involved and not just push it aside. Because there is a lot of cluttery competition out there.

Angie
What do you want for LA2050 and the Goldhirsh Foundation, LA2050 the initiative or the year, and really how do you feel like communications is going to get us to that point?

Tara
I think that I like the goals that have been laid out with LA2050. Those goals were brought to life by community engagement, community conversations, as well as experts. I like that they are pithy. That you may not necessarily understand completely what they mean, and then you can peel back and you can read the narrative about them, but I like that they’re one word. I like the aspiration of that. I think that Goldhirsh Foundation is just getting started in terms of where we want to be. I mean, I think we want to continue to kind of push the limits of what people can do and the way people think about their resources and assets here, especially where we have such a discrepancy of the haves and have-nots. I think about wealth and the way that we think about it for the foundation, that it’s social capital.

It’s your connections, your influence. You’re promoting different causes, you’re taking a stand on certain things. It’s the financial capital, so whether it’s a grant, or a donation or an investment. Then it’s the human capital. It’s actually getting in there and saying, “I can help you with your press release,” or, “I can help you think through your events strategy,” or, “Oh, you’re having an issue with your board.” There are so many different things to do that we can do to help that we just don’t even realize we have. I think continuing to encourage people to do that and to make it the place we all want to be, that’s also the place that we all want to be.

Angie
Yeah. Well, we’re happy to open up to questions. Anyone want to go ahead and take the lead?

Audience
The Goldhirsh Foundation is obviously very invested in Los Angeles, literally invested in LA. We as communicators here in LA, I think, are in a very unique position because of this geography of the place that we live in. I’d love to get your point of view on what makes Los Angeles special and unique. What makes being a communicator in LA challenging and wonderful?

Tara
I will continue to invoke the quotation that LA is where the future comes to happen. That’s Robert Eggers from, I wish I had said it, I so wish I had said it, LA Kitchen. He’s absolutely right. We have the worst and the best. For every problem we have we also have every solution and I think that is our strength. We grapple with this a lot thinking about what’s happening with the tech community? How can we change? Especially since I worked in Silicon Valley. How can we make sure that there’s [diversity inclusion 00:37:17]. I think capitalizing on the assets that are our strengths and our weaknesses, and recognizing those.

That’s actually one thing I will say, just kind of going back to one of Angie’s other questions, that we were small, and scrappy and not well known, so we couldn’t act like the traditional foundations. That was where the little kid outside the sandbox, that’s where your guys’ opportunity is. It’s communicating why you’re outside of the sandbox, and what makes it great outside of the sandbox and why you have that vantage point. LA has a lot of momentum and mojo right now, I think, especially around branding and communications.

We have a investment in the Mayor’s fund, in Mayor Garcetti’s fund, to work on a branding initiative for Los Angeles. There is a branding plan for LA done by a phenomenal brander who used to work at GOOD Corps and she got 72andSunny, great agency, to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars pro bono to work on this branding initiative. It just hasn’t been implemented yet but they have some really interesting ideas and programs, so I’m very optimistic about projecting, even though the City of LA is only one [inaudible 00:38:30], it still is, Mayor Garcetti’s taken such a leadership and has been so visible. I’m really hopeful that this will help being a rallying brand and the programs, and how they role this out will really solidify our position on the map.

I’m a native San Franciscan so I always like to say born and raised as spies in Los Angeles. When I came here, I still kind of have my moments when I’m like, “Oh, we need more trees,” but this is the Wild West and it’s really amazing and wonderful. Again, the best and the worst. That’s kind of the beauty of LA, that friction point of the best and the worst. I think we just need to kind of keep letting people know that we’re not just an entertainment industry. Look at this, we’ve got such creativity. The creative economy is alive and well, we’re manufacturing center of the United States. There’s so much good here, and so much that we can really extoll virtues about and tell stories about.

Angie
You had a question in the back?

Audience
Yeah. Hi. You actually kind of pre-staged my question which was about engaging political leadership and the partnership you just mentioned with the Mayor’s fund is one way to do that from the brand standpoint. My question generally was going to be the great work that the foundation has done with 2050 in engaging all sorts of audiences, how does your foundation tow the line between engaging community and dealing with, not just elected officials, but political leadership? Not just now but down the road. How do you put those two together?

Tara
We’re on the phone with the lawyer a lot because we are a family foundation so we do have a lot of restrictions. Even this #partyatthepolls, which we just announced the winners today, which is all about making voting in the June election more engaging. We have a lot of conversations about what we can and cannot do as a family foundation. We’re much more prohibited than a public charity is. I might even answer it from the Goldhirsh Foundation perspective.

One thing that we’ve done that is on our website but we’re not speaking about so much or people don’t know about as much, we have had two different White House Fellows. We had someone who worked on the Jobs Act, who helped get the Jobs Act through and he’s now been placed permanently as an entrepreneurship advisor to the President. We have another one who’s working on inclusive entrepreneurship, getting more women and formerly disinvested communities involved in entrepreneurship and tech. I think looking where we can, where we don’t have to be too political. I’m curious, well I don’t even want to go there about our next administration, I mean, I think we all know what the next administration could be. I was going to say, “We would want to work with any administration.” That’s how we felt about, but I’m not sure about that.

Even with Mayor Garcetti we had a fellow there working with the first Chief Innovation Technology Officer. Since we see there’s such a leverage point with innovation technology we say, “We don’t care who the Mayor is.” We knew that one of the mayors was going to do this so we said, “We’ll work with whoever it is and we want to support this.” We’re also working with the Department of Transportation. We have a transportation technology strategist working on a mobility plan that’s incredible comprehensive, looking at access, and equity, private sector, public sector. I think that it’s less about working with political figures because we really do have some, you know, lines there, but looking at how we can kind of disrupt within.

Angie
Next question.

Audience
I have a more general question around communication and social change. I was just wondering what your opinion is. I think a lot of the time communication around social change gets this criticism of just, you know, getting clicks or just raising awareness but not actually causing action. What is your opinion on that? Around communication, what should that ultimate goal be? Is there something cynical about just getting the message out and not really creating change?

Tara
I think that that’s the first step to creating change. I think that awareness is the first step. It’s like the MTV audience, we needed to bring more people in the fold. All of us get it. Okay, we know, but also we’re limited in what we can do and we’re limited in the resources we have, so we need to convert the unconverted. If it’s clicking, I mean I use the term slacktivism that they taught you. I feel like if just clicking is like your entry point, that might be the gateway drug for then taking the stand on something, for then volunteering at something, for learning about something saying, “Oh, maybe I want to go to their event,” or maybe, “I’ve heard about this group.”

I think that in the end we all need to be driven by the billion dollar question about metrics and how we measure our impact and our change, which we still grapple with a lot with our own work and then also with the work of our grantees. I think that you have to start somewhere and I will adamantly defend just getting the word out there is a start. It’s a start. It’s not the end point but it’s a start. Especially when you’re getting the word out there to people who just don’t think about this every day of the way we do.

Angie
One question then we’ll go back there.

Audience
You mentioned you have some limited resources with time but yet you guys have these massive projects. What is sort of your secret sauce? Kind of invigorates your small staff, like let’s keep going, let’s push the apple of let’s innovate as the same time as do all of these big idea things.

Tara
I think there’s a little bit of a capacity and/or energy. I remember even Ben said, “You can’t keep going like this. This is not sustainable,” but I think there’s a timing. I think that we all feel this is an inflection point for LA, this is an inflection point for citizenry, and civic idealism and people wanting to get involved. I feel like there’s an urgency. I think that we keep it really fun. #Partyatthepolls? This idea came to be three weeks ago, four weeks ago, and I was like, “Okay, we’re just going to do it. Just do it.” These guys? More power to them. Again, we were lucky that we had the resources. I moved money from one thing to another in the budget to make that happen because it’s like let’s make it fun, let’s see what we hear.

I think that there is a level of experimentation and that, again, we’re lucky to be able to do. I think there’s also that sense of urgency and then the energy that we all bring. I think it’s also, I feel like this is a term I wish I had also come up with, work life integration. I feel like I’m always working, no matter what. I’m exhausted sometimes, a lot of times, but it’s also really important work, and it’s really interesting and people want to know about it. People want to engage with it no matter what they do in the day, people want to do something good. I think it’s just fun to be on like that and to, I don’t know, I mean these guys might have a better answer. It’s just, it’s tiring too. It’s tiring.

Angie
I mean, think being in this environment actually helps.

Tara
Yeah.

Angie
I think being constantly surrounded by inspiration and creativity, and we feed off of each other, I think. You know, I’m surprised by the things that Tara thinks up and I’m like, “Where can I go to find that inspiration?” There’s sort of a constant internal drive, but yeah, there’s a huge sense of urgency. We have serious pow wows in the office and you get fired up because these are people’s lives, and these are actual issues. Yeah, we’re a little bit farther removed but the things that we want to do have a real impact on everyday life for Angelenos.

Tara
Just what Angie said, it’s sort of this privilege, I keep using all these quotations. Marian Wright Edelman said, “Service is the rent we pay for life on this earth.” I just feel like we’ve all been given so many gifts and blessings, and we better use them for good. If it’s using it for good is getting the MTV crowd, that’s great, getting our clicks, that’s great. Whatever it is I just feel like we have a platform for speaking on behalf of others who can’t speak, or who won’t be listened to or who don’t have a voice. I feel like that helps drive a lot of what we do.

Angie
Do you want to do last two questions? Is that okay?

Audience
I’m going to go back a little bit to the previous question and also interject something else here. I think a lot of us are very impressed that not only of your approach to things but also the fact that you’re also in a leadership role, and you appreciate the role of communications and how important it is to doing the work of a foundation. I think for a lot of folks here who are in-house communications as foundation talking about metrics and how you sort of prove or take risks, what advice would you have for folks who are maybe in-house and whose leadership doesn’t necessarily appreciate what communications can do or how communications can drive through the rest of the organization’s work?

Tara
I would say first of all just stick with it, and don’t give up and know that you’re being driven by the right things. Then I think, I want to go back to that example, the Wall Street Journal example. I think that it is hard when you go the mushy, gushy, okay we have these clicks, but that’s what compels people. The story is what compels people to act. The story is what can get someone to pick up a phone and say, “I want this person to be elected. I’m going to write a $5 million check.” I think it’s trying to maybe appeal to people on that level and with something that might resonate with them even personally, that has nothing to do with the work.

Also just showing, I mean it is really hard to show anecdotally because of this message then this happened, but the more that you can follow the people after an event. Or, we’ve found from the MyLA2050 Grants Challenge that we’ve heard that people, “We didn’t win but because of this we got exposure, we got a $40,000 grant.” We’re like, “Oh, we need to capture this somehow or other.” I think it’s also asking. When I did my education reform thing, events that I hosted that were events, it was communications, it was dialogue and then I would follow up and say, “Did you make a connection? Did you make a business deal? Did you get a job placement?” Something like that. Trying to tease out and be creative about it. Any way that you can show something because it can be really hard.

Then I think that you can feel like look at the dollars spent on advertising and look what I can do getting the word out to X, Y or Z. Also since there are new platforms for smaller donors. I think there are ways to also show, look, because of this we got exposure, we got more dollars. I’m putting everything in dollars perspective because that is sometimes what resonates with leadership.

Audience
Are there plans to bring Goldhirsh initiatives to other cities?

Tara
Oh my gosh, I would love that. Maybe now that we’ve got more people on board I can think about that. I mean, we’ve talked about LA2050 in other cities. We had talked with one private sector firm about doing some work in Detroit. My mom called and said, “You need to do things in Detroit.” I was like, “Mama, we’re okay, but we need to figure out LA first.” I think that, and this is where I would say communications is going to be really key, to the extent that we can talk about some of what we’ve done and why it’s been successful.

Some of the fellows that we’ve placed, some of the other initiatives we’ve supported and why I think would be helpful. One of the things we did do with the foundation before that is still represented on our website, before we got really deeply immersed in LA2050, was we imported models of organizations that worked outside of LA and brought them to LA. City Year we brought to Los Angeles, LIFT we brought to Los Angeles, Peer Health Exchange we brought to Los Angeles, so just in the same way that we have learned what worked and we thought there might be a good fit I would love to export things. That would be great.

Angie
Okay. Last question.

Audience
Quick comment and then a question. I can speak to earlier you had mentioned the MyLA2050 challenge and I previously worked in Green Dot Public schools and we won. I can tell you that we had a great return on investment, but we just simply did some email messages through Constant Contact. It wasn’t a great system at the time but it drove us to learn more about digital campaigning as well we spent a little bit of money on Facebook ads. All in total this investment was maybe $1000 if that. Got $100,000. Can’t complain.

My question is more on how do you turn a public world, in some cases where I work at now at First5LA we’re really concerned about early care and education. Everyone said, “Yes, we need preschool. Yes, we need this, this, this.” They’re like, “Yes, there’s this need,” but there’s not a political will to do it so it’s like putting the money where the mouth is, so to speak. How would you use communications to match that up? To match up the public will to the political will and, in this case, making decisions?

Tara
One thing I want to also comment on about your Green Dot submission is you also partner with No Right Brain Left Behind.

Which I think, and congratulations, we love you guys. I think that the power of partnership is also key. I don’t know if they helped with get the votes.

Nonetheless the power of partnership is so key. The next one is a little bit of a tougher one to tackle but I think that that’s when you’re segmenting communications it’s stakeholder communications. Okay, you’re really looking at three decision-makers or something, so how do you communicate with them? What are they reading? How are they digesting media? What are their sources? Who are the people who are around them who could influence them? I think that it’s a different play than the mass consumer, “We all love Los Angeles,” and, “Get involved.” I think that it’s more sophisticated in a lot of ways.

It’s, I would either say going in the back door of, like what I said about the Wall Street Journal with the donor about this interesting thing and appealing on a personal level, or really kind of targeting the, like looking at that stakeholder and where is that person getting the information? Maybe it’s sitting down with a staffer, because I think we all know that the staffer presents the memo and then says, “This is what the public is saying.” It’s also personal relationships and trying to court people and bring them in in the right way. I don’t that I have a really satisfactory answer for that one.

Audience
We’re in it for the long haul.

Tara
Yeah. Then also just working with people who are already working that in some tangential way. That’s where I do feel like if you see, this is actually part of why we decided to do LA2050 was we were seeing this continuum of like, okay, we’re working with groups who address education reform and graduation rates but then they graduate and they have nowhere to go, there are no jobs. Income and employment has to be connected to this. We’re not doing income and employment, and income development.

I think that even looking at people who are farther up the food chain in terms of saying, “We’re going to be the early childhood, people are going to be feeding into you and feeding,” I think just looking at partnerships that way. There are different collaborations, like Children Now I know does work, and First 5 has done such great work. We even looked at the Youth Authority with the, gosh, the social justice arena and the prison system. Just thinking about there is a pipeline if you don’t graduate. Even talking to them and saying, “What are the indicators you’re looking for and how can we assert pressure and exert pressure on people who can make decisions?”.

Angie
Sweet. Well, thanks for your time, Tara.

Thanks again for hosting us, and thanks to Lauren, also, for creating that lovely intro. I guess, stay tuned. We’re definitely going to have another one or two events this year and so if you’re interested in getting involved or maybe hosting an event I’d love to chat about that. I hope everyone sticks around. There’s plenty of wine left. Thanks for coming … Thank you, have a good trip.

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