I'm Just Not That Into "Theories Of Change"

An offhand question asked by a colleague the other day got me thinking. She asked me, “In five years, what would you like to be known for?” This is a slightly different version of the standard where-do-you-want-to-be-in-five-years query.

The way it was framed drew me up short and made me think.

My immediate answer was “I would like to be known for helping people be the people they aspire to be in public life.”

The reason this got me thinking is that I am a part of the “nonprofit sector” or “philanthropic sector.” Among my colleagues, everyone is talking about change. They’ve been talking change since long before that young senator from Illinois took the reins of power.

For years now, every nonprofit organization has had to have a “theory of change ” that it could whip out and explain. Every funding request, it seems, now requires a statement of the recipient’s “theory of change.”

All this “change” business has always made me feel out of step with my nonprofit friends, but I never quite was able to put my finger on why. Now I know. I’m not too interested in change. That’s not what drives me. I’m interested in helping people.

It seems to me, surveying the field, that the clamor for “change” has pushed out an important — and, I might argue, fundamental — aspect of philanthropy. This aspect is directly related to the root of the word: love of humanity. Organizations and individual people who just want to help others tend to get set aside as funders seek more and more impact for their donated dollars.

This effect is completely understandable and I don’t indict anyone for it. Funders really do need to stretch their donations further. There really are large problems to be tackled, problems that will take change more than charity. And, many individual people do need help due to broader forces that ought to change.

But there’s also a human scale and I fear that there are too few people speaking up for it. It’s the individual person helped to find a job, or a place to live. It’s the citizen who learns she or he has a voice and can use it.

After all, “change” can come about from individual improvement just as it can come about through systemic action. My personal bias, simply because this is where I feel most comfortable, is to know that people on an individual basis can live better lives because of something I might have done.

We need both change and charity.

So, how can we keep the human scale of philanthropy and not shove it aside, even as we try harder to do more with less?

My Taxonomy Of Community Participants: The 90-9-1 "Principle" In Person

(cc) Jake McKee
90-9-1 Principle for online communities

Among people who work in, study, and manage online communities, there’s something called the “90-9-1 Principle.” The idea is that in most online communities, 90 percent of the users are audience members, passively reading posts and comments. Nine percent of the users are “editors” editing posts (in wiki-style communities) or adding comments (in blog-style or forum-style communities).

Just 1 percent are “creators” — people who start threads and articles from scratch.

A corollary of this idea is that, for online community managers, one of the leverage points is the Creators. More Creators will multiply into more action by Editors.

In consulting and in business management, there are lots of similar theories and ideas that hinge on a catchy duo or trio of numbers. I always wonder if these numbers are accurate, what they are based on, and if there is any way to test them.

But the 90-9-1 idea seems intuitively true. I wonder how it would hold up in real life communities.

In a physical, place-based community like a neighborhood, the roles might go by different names.

Remember, in the online community the 90-9-1 rule does not take into account the people who are unaware of the community or only have glanced at once or twice. Similarly, in many neighborhoods, there is a large segment of the public that isn’t engaged and is unaware of some of the community issues. They go to work and go about their business, but aren’t connected in in any significant way.

Outside of that group, the in-person 90-9-1 rule might look like this:

  • The majority of “audience” might be called the attentive public. They attend community meetings, and keep up on events and news.
  • The next group (“editors”) might be called the active public. They stand up and comment in meetings. They write letters to the editor, and take substantive part of
  • Finally, there are the leaders. These are the people who step forward and take focal-point roles. They run for office, lead neighborhood groups, chair committees, serve on commissions.

These “leaders” are not just the officials in office. It’s lots of different kinds of people. Someone who is a leader in one context might be active in another and simply attentive in a third. But the key leverage point for increasingly community vibrancy is on getting more leaders.

For a number of years, there has been a new theory of community leadership building. The idea is that people emerge as leaders from communities — they aren’t anointed, appointed, or made.

This simple notion has driven new kinds of community leadership programs, ones which don’t focus so much on creating a Chamber of Commerce-style network, or even a policy school-type of cohort of highly knowledgeable lay people (even though both of these are important and necessary). These new kinds of leadership programs focus on cultivating leadership skills among people who might not otherwise see themselves as community leaders . As more of these people step forward, into the public square, more active and attentive people follow suit.

Growing the ranks of leadership is one key leverage point (not the only) in fostering a vibrant community life.

How To Decide Where To Spend Advertising Money: Dominate Your Channel

It is trite to link to Seth Godin but his article last Friday had very useful ideas.

“How big is your farm?” he asks. The idea is that you shouldn’t spread yourself around everywhere.

The number of media channels available to you keeps growing. The number of places you can spend time and money is almost endless. Yet your budget isn’t. Your time certainly isn’t.

Some people would have you spend a little time on each social network, run ads in ten or fifteen media, focus on one hundred major markets and spend time on PR and publicity in every publication willing to listen to you.

Or you could pick one channel and win.

When it comes to leather & rubber, we dominate by Flickr user sillygwailo
"When it comes to leather & rubber, we dominate" by Flickr user sillygwailo

My friend Gary Nordlinger, a successful international political consultant, gives a different version of this basic idea. I have always liked Gary’s version, because it’s very hard nosed.

This is Gary’s answer to political neophytes who say, “How much should I spend on advertising?”

  • Order your media channels in descending order of importance
  • Spend enough to dominate the most important
  • If you have money left over, spend enough to dominate the next most important
  • Repeat, etc.

Don’t spread everything around, even though it feels good.

The Morality-Free Zone: Wall Street and the New American Dilemma

Guest article by my friend Allison Addicott:

In The Beginning

Remember films such as Robin Hood or others that depict tax collectors for the landed gentry repeatedly riding into small villages demanding more money? In such films, often the final manifestation of unabashed moral corruption on the part of the landed oligarchy was the torching of dozens of little homes as flocks of extras flee, wailing into the night.

A while back, in mid-September 2008, many in the media observed the slow collapse of the financial networks in terms of “shoe-dropping.” “When will the other shoe drop?” At that point, being overly reactionary to the circumstances rising up around our ankles seemed to be ill-conceived. Now, with so many institutions in the midst of being propped up, set to receive another round of money, the tax payer still does not know, really, what happened to the first round. Other folks who have traditionally received government funds, like non-profits, can testify that government money usually comes with reporting so complicated that it requires a staff just to manage and track the data the receipt of funds requires.

Alchemy - The Promised Cotton Candy by Flickr user sflovestory
"Alchemy - The Promised Cotton Candy" by Flickr user sflovestory

In this story, the American taxpayer is asked to observe a kind of moral largesse, a selfless humility these past few months. The taxpayer says nothing as his or her hard-earned money is handed out like giant pink puffs of cotton candy to an industry with a 24/7 sweet tooth. Most Americans want to do what is best, to work together, and want to help this new administration, under the direction of President Barack Obama, succeed. The taxpayer has by and large managed this feat even while trying to dog-paddle in the thrashing seas of bad news about the stormy economy. Is this picture changing, though? The high-drama tea bagging by conservatives aside, will centrist and democratic taxpayers continue this stiff-upper lipped silence? Or, are Americans, beginning to find their voice about morality, ethics, and the world of finance? Continue reading The Morality-Free Zone: Wall Street and the New American Dilemma

Whelan Apologizes For Publicizing Anonymous Blogger's Identity

I don’t ordinarily run “updates” to earlier stories, but this news shifted on of the the points made in  Monday’s posting about the controversy between Ed Whelan and a pseudonymous blogger named “publius.” Whelan had discovered publius’ identity and revealed it.

I used the occasion to make a broader point about being anonymous (which I have a bias against in most cases). But the underlying story — the battle between publius and Whelan — got a lot of blogosphere attention. By the end of the night, Whelan had apologized for disclosing publius’ identity:

I realize that, unfortunately, it is impossible for me to undo my ill-considered disclosure of his identity.  For that reason, I recognize that Publius may understandably regard my apology as inadequate.

I also got a note from the author of the amusingly-named Bloggasm, who got in touch with both Whelan and publius, (on the phone no less, how groovily old-skool) and filed a useful report here.

Because I enjoy publicizing the activities of my band, The West End, here’s our most popular YouTube video, in which we perform Husker Du’s “Sorry Somehow.” I thought it apt for the moment.