How to make your organization’s story compelling

I got an email today from one of my all-time favorite organizations, Sightline Institute, that just blew me away. This is one of the best tellings of an organziation’s history that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s succinct, personal, filled with rich, specific imagery (especially for an organization that mainly trades in data and policy!) and best of all, it places the reader into the story. Sightline has a long history of top-notch writing, so it’s no surprise to seem them hit it out of the park. Any organization looking to tell its story better could learn a ton from studying this single email closely.

Dear Jon,

Twenty years ago, I lugged a refurbished library table into my cramped bedroom closet, drilled a phone line through the wall, and let myself begin to heed the mission that had been calling me: to make the Pacific Northwest a global model of sustainability.

Daunted but unswayed by the audacity of this goal, I began to do what I have been doing ever since: describing the challenge to others. And then as now, they—you—joined me. You brought your talent, grit, generosity, and faith, and the result was Sightline Institute, then called Northwest Environment Watch.

Sightline grew through eighteen books, scores of reports, hundreds of speeches, and thousands of articles and blog posts. It grew from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of monthly readers, each a force for change in his or her own community. It grew to reach media audiences tallied in the tens of millions and to shape the thoughts of governors, senators, and CEOs.

In time, it grew influential enough to leave fingerprints on Cascadia’s future. In our first decade, we launched Stuff, studied in hundreds of classrooms and in tens of thousands of copies. We planted the seeds for a carbon tax-shift in British Columbia. We coined the term “green-collar jobs,” words that would eventually issue from the lips of presidents.

In our second decade, we inspired bold commitments to compact urban growth in key Cascadian cities. We prompted new rules on toxic flame retardants by studying chemicals in breast milk. We played midwife to pay-by-the-mile car insurance and peer-to-peer car-sharing. We designed regional carbon-pricing policies and brought them close to adoption. We unmasked the dangers of Big Coal’s export plans, revealed the folly of urban highway expansion, and championed a new, green approach to managing the rainwater that falls on our communities. Sightline’s fingerprints, your fingerprints, are on all these things and more—much more.

Now, today, pausing for a quiet moment in Sightline’s Seattle offices—brimming as usual with passionate and intelligent people—I stand in awe of these accomplishments. They have been improbable, considering that Sightline’s annual budget makes us account for just two one-millionths of the regional economy. In the animal kingdom, we would be like a gnat trying to steer an elephant.

Yet I am filled with hope for the years ahead. The challenge is no less daunting than ever, but we have grown, in concert with you—our friends, supporters, and allies—into a force to reckon with. Sightline’s influence has never been a function of our mass. It is a function of the light you help us spread. Comets such as Halley’s are less than one ten-billionth the mass of the Earth, yet they’ve been known to change the course of history. Sightline’s strategy is comet-like: a small nucleus of staff and board plus a long tail of supporters and allies. Shining outward from this body, our ideas, presented well, can attract the attention of millions and even define a new direction.

A Cascadia worthy of our grandchildren and theirs is more attainable than ever before. But it is certainly not inevitable. It’s a possibility only—a possibility whose realization depends entirely on what we in this generation choose to do. In the span of 240 months, Sightline, now giant compared with my bedroom closet but still minuscule compared with the region we aim to influence, has begun to shift the public agenda in a region of 17 million people. It’s only a beginning, but, I hope you agree, it’s a promising one. Just think what we can do together in another 20 years!

In the next two decades, together, we will shine even brighter. We can put a price on carbon. Indeed, we can move the region along the path that leads beyond carbon and dirty fuels entirely, to clean energy. We can make prices tell the ecological truth in other ways, too: from pollution to traffic congestion to habitat destruction, we can better align the power of markets with the conservation of our natural inheritance—of Creation. We can measure what matters, replacing GDP with better indicators of progress. Through better reproductive health technologies and policies, we can help create a Cascadia in which every child is born wanted; we can help men and women have the families they want, when they want them, even as we temper population growth. We can build complete, compact, walkable communities—places where motorized travel is less common because less necessary. All these things and more we can do.

Twenty years ago, I was the one at the library table in the closet signing the papers to incorporate Sightline, but the resulting improbable cavalcade of hope has never been about me. It’s been about you: Your love for this place on Earth. Your confidence that we can do better, that we can build an economy and way of life that can last. Your faith that we, here, can set an example for the world.

For your love, confidence, and faith, I thank you. Here’s to the next 20!

Alan Durning Executive Director

Love me some nonprofit spam

Following is the only-slightly-redacted text of an actual email exchange I just had with a well-intended but utterly clueless environmental activist trying to get the word out about his work.  The original message had about 400 people in the To/CC lines.

From: XXXXXXXX
Sent: Friday, April 22, 2011 8:47 PM
To: Jon Stahl
Subject: RE: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Jon: I have taken you from the list.

Thanks for suggestions, but I like sending to diverse strangers, in the field
of XXXXXX, especially gov people who live in a protected (idea) world. There
is to much time wasted, "talking to the converted".

Actually, I get very few complaints.

Best,
XXXXX
> XXXXXX-
>
> With all respect, we all really need you to stop putting your
> entire address book in the To/CC line of your emails.
>
> It is creating a huge amount of unwanted email, generating a
> "reply all" storm, and it's absolutely terrible online communications
> etiquette.  Please consider starting an email list (e.g. at
> http://npogroups.org or Google Groups) or using a simple email
> broadcasting service like http://mailchimp.com.
>
> Please remove me from your list, too.  Thanks.
>
> cheers,
> jon

Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

Improving email broadcasting integration with Salesforce

My colleagues at Groundwire and I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about integration.  How to connect various software stacks into seamless systems that solve complex problems for our clients.   It’s been really great to see the emergence of lots of great integrations enabled by the widespread adoption of web services APIs.  But lately, we’ve been realizing that, as in so many things, the details really matter.  How you design your integration is just as important as whether you integrate.

It’s in that spirit that my colleague Sam Knox has been doing some thinking about how email broadcasting platforms integrate with Salesforce.com and report their results back.  Short version: right now, most vendors’ integrations are extremely inefficient with scarce Salesforce storage space.  He thinks they can do a lot better, and has written an important blog post that describes (exactly) how.   If you use Salesforce integrated email broadcasting services such as VerticalResponse, ExactTarget or MailChimp or are an email broadcasting vendor that designs your integration, I urge you to give it a read and share your thoughts.

MailChimp and Salesforce integration: not even close to ready for prime-time

In the ongoing quest for solid, low-cost email broadcasting that has strong integration with Salesforce.com, I have had an eye on MailChimp, which offers a really slick, low-cost email blasting service that we had hoped could become a low-end replacement for Vertical Response, which has somewhat limited capabilities in its Salesforce integration.

MailChimp has a very slick email broadcasting system, and a very aggressive price point.  They claim to have a Salesforce integration, and so I logged in today and played around with a bit.

While much of the tool is really solid, the Salesforce integration is so rudimentary that it is actually completely, totally useless to us and our clients. 🙁

MailChimp can only import ALL of the contacts from your Salesforce account — no support for campaigns, reports, or getting any kind of targeted subset of your contacts. That’s bad, but I had somewhat expected it.

What’s worse is that MailChimp can ONLY import the following fields from Salesforce:

  • first
  • last
  • email
  • salesforce ID
  • city/state/zip

That’s it. No custom fields. Zilch. I confirmed this with their tech support, who were very helpful.

Unfortunately, a Salesforce integration this limited is essentially useless for any serious organizational use.  Very disappointing.

The only glimmer of hope is that the tech support person told me the Salesforce integration is scheduled for an overhaul in early 2010, but didn’t have any details on the substance. So we will have to keep on waiting.

Bottom line: I had been hoping that we could recommend MailChimp as a solid, low-end, integrated-with-Salesforce email broadcasting solution.  But unfortunately the answer is, “Nope, not yet.”

I have had an eye on http://MailChimp.com, which offers a really slick, low-cost email blasting service that we had hoped could become a low-end replacement for Vertical Response.

They claim to have a Salesforce integration, and so at Drew’s suggestion, I logged in today and played around with a bit today.

While much of the tool is really slick, the Salesforce integration is so rudimentary that it is actually completely, totally useless to us and our clients. 🙁

The details…

MailChimp can only import ALL of the contacts from your Salesforce account — no support for campaigns, reports, or getting any kind of targeted subset of your contacts. That’s bad, but I had somewhat expected it.

What’s worse is that MailChimp can ONLY import the following fields from Salesforce:

– first

– last

– email

– salesforce ID

– city/state/zip

That’s it. No custom fields. Zilch. I confirmed this with their tech support.

This renders the Salesforce integration completely and utterly useless. Very disappointing.

The only glimmer of hope is that the tech support person told me the Salesforce integration is scheduled for an overhaul in early 2010, but didn’t have any details on the substance. So we will have to keep on waiting.

Bottom line: if you were hoping we could recommend MailChimp as a solid, low-end, integrated-with-Salesforce alternative to Vertical Response, then I’m sorry to report that the answer is “Nope, not at this time.”

A Few Thoughts About Idealware’s “A Good Email Discussion List Tools”

The good folks at Idealware have added another nice article to their “A Few Good Tools…” series, this one titled “A Few Good Email List Discussion Tools.”

While the article provides a pretty good overview of the space, it leaves out a few supporting details that I think are worth noting:

  • Idealware’s article mentions that many CMS platforms have some email discussion list support, including Democracy In Action, Convio, Kintera, Drupal and Joomla, but neglects to mention that Plone also has such features, through its add-on product Listen.
  • Idealware’s article mentions the great folks at Electric Embers, DGroups and OnlineGroups as nonprofit-oriented discussion list providers, but neglects to also mention the team at The Open Planning Project, whose OpenPlans service offers a very powerful, user-friendly web-and-email discussion list experience.
  • Idealware’s article gives rather short shrift to several powerful open-source email discussion list solutions that enable more sophisticated groups to take control of their own discussion list hosting. Sympa and Mailman are probably the two leaders.  Idealware dismisses Mailman in passing, saying it and (unnamed) similar tools “aren’t as easy to use as many others, and don’t include features like archives or online groups. They can also make it difficult to view or export a file of the list of subscribers.”While it’s true that Mailman and Sympa don’t have the polished usability of some commercial discussion tools, they do include web-based archives and offer simple subscriber views and one-click export of the subscriber list.  Some hosting providers may disable archiving, but that’s not the software’s fault. The host-it-yourself path is not for everyone, since it does require some technical expertise to configure and maintain, but that’s also true of many of the solutions Idealware does mention.

Overall, good article, worth a read.   I hope Idealware will consider incorporating some of these additional details to round it out a bit more.

Some Observations on Nonprofit Software

My colleague Steve Andersen recently penned a short article entitled “Some Observations on Nonprofit Software” that lays out a few of the core assumptions we hold about how software tools for the nonprofit sector can and should play nice together.

The core of the argument goes like this:

  • Missions are serviced only by engaging constituents to action
  • Engagement activities aren’t unique to nonprofits, so the tools aren’t either
  • The best way to build software for nonprofits is to find tools that successfully addresses most of your needs and then add the nonprofit-specific functionality
  • Software targeted at a larger market than nonprofits will improve faster than software specifically for the nonprofit market
  • Software that has open Application Programming Interfaces makes the “build-on-top” model work
  • There is a market for nonprofit-specific software that serves a defined function and is accessible via robust APIs

Go read the whole thing.

(The article supports comments, so you can leave them there if you like)