I’m joining ActionSprout!

ActionSprout LogoI’m thrilled to announce that I’ve joined the team at ActionSprout, where I’ll be serving as Director of Strategy.  ActionSprout is a startup that was founded last year by my dear friends and fellow Groundwire alums Drew Bernard and Shawn Kemp, and we make tools that help nonprofits organize action and raise money on Facebook.  (For a quick example, check out this ActionSprout campaign from the Sierra Club, going live today, where they’re organizing folks in support of an environmental high school program in Los Angeles that’s threatened with closure.)

To say I’m excited would be an understatement.

First, I’m excited about the opportunity to have a huge impact on how progressive activists (and political candidates! and companies!) communicate and organize online.  Facebook has become a huge communications channel, but until now, the tools for organizing people in meaningful ways there have been pretty limited: you can “Like,” “Share,” and “Comment.”  That’s about it.  But with ActionSprout, organizations can take advantage of Facebook’s Open Graph to create all kinds of new action posts (e.g. “Stand with…” “Support…” “Stop…” “Donate…”) that are far more meaningful and engaging.  And did I mention that we can let groups take online donations directly inside of Facebook? So far as I know, we’re the only tool that makes that possible right now!  I think we’re going to upend the conventional wisdom that “you can’t raise money on Facebook.”

We’ve already thought of a thousand ways to use ActionSprout, and I can’t wait to see the creative things that all our smart friends and allies are going to come up with!

Second, I’m exciting to be working with Drew and Shawn.  They’re fearsomely fast and creative visionaries.  I’m stoked to be able to help them paint boldly on a wide-open canvas.

Third, I’m excited to be working for a startup.  I’ve long been nursing an entrepreneurial itch, and ActionSprout feels like the perfect way to scratch it: innovative, social-mission driven and with nonprofits as the primary customers.  What’s more, Drew and Shawn are both successful startup veterans, and so I have two amazing mentors as my colleagues.

I’ve still got two quarters of grad school remaining, so I’ll be part-time from now until June, then ramping up from there.  I’m going to initially focus on helping our early customers get up and running, building out a partner program for strategy, campaign and social media consultants and getting done what needs doing.

If you’re interested in finding out more about ActionSprout, drop me a line and I’ll give you a tour, or even better, just head on over there and check it out yourself. There’s a short video, some case studies, and best of all, you can test drive it for free.

A neat trick Engagement Organizations can do

Here’s a neat trick that Engagement Organizations can do: because they have solid, integrated website and database systems, they can quickly identify contact records that have missing information, then send out an email blast like this one I just got from Dogwood Initiative:

Contact update email from Dogwood Initiative

As you can see, the email includes a personalized URL that takes me directly to a page on the Dogwood website that displays my current contact info from Dogwood’s database, and lets me update it with a single click.  The information feeds back directly into the database–no data entry or cumbersome import processes are required, so it’s fast and easy both for me and for the Dogwood team.

Dogwood contact update web page

Dogwood sends an email like this a couple of times per year.  In just a few seconds, their members are able to easily update their contact information.  Dogwood reaps the benefits of an up-to-date supporter list and its supporters get the most relevant, personalized information possible.  That sounds like a great deal to me!

“Engagement Organizing” is live!

I’m pleased to announce the release of “Engagement Organizing,” a short whitepaper about the culture and technology of building power for social change in a networked era.  I had the great pleasure of collaborating with my dear friend Matt Price, and I’m really pleased with the final results.  If you are working to make progressive change in the world, please give it a read and share your thoughts with us at http://engagement-organizing.org.

In an era of climate risk, is cost-benefit analysis enough?

David Roberts at Grist thinks not.  Great article, with deep links to hardcore World Bank wonkery.  Food for thoughts for Evans students (and profs):

As time horizons and uncertainty increase, cost-benefit analysis becomes less and less useful, more and more “a knob-twiddling exercise in optimizing outcomes,” as economist Martin Weitzman put it. Differences in social/political/ethical assumptions, like discount rates, start determining model outcomes. “Results from the cost-benefit analysis,” says the World Bank, are “extremely dependent on parameters on which there is no scientific agreement (e.g., the impact of climate change on hurricanes) or no consensus (e.g., the discount rate).” It’s still possible to construct models and get answers, but the danger becomes higher and higher of getting the wrong answer, i.e., optimizing for the wrong thing.

Authenticity and social change

This didn’t make it into the paper on Engagement Organizing that we’re about to release, but I thought it was an important point on its own.  Curious to hear your thoughts.

One thing is common to all of the engagement organizations we interviewed: authenticity. These are organizations that are so comfortable with their identity and able to explicitly connect their work of the moment to deeply-held core values that their supporters feel it and respond to it with higher levels of engagement than in other organizations. In a world where people are less trusting all the time, authenticity is a critical foundation of social change.

Should grantmakers be more like VCs?

At Web of Change 2012 last week, I had an interesting conversation with Drew Bernard about nonprofit boards vs. the boards of internet startups, and the very different roles that nonprofit and VC funders play.   Drew’s a great person to chat with about these topics, because he’s worn all the hats: startup entrepreneur, angel investor, startup board member, nonprofit tech consultant and nonprofit board member.

We think that advocacy nonprofits and startups have one huge thing in common: they are both highly entrepreneurial organizations, in that, as Eric Reis puts it, they both need to operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty.   Nonprofits are funded by grantmakers, startups by venture captial (VC) firms.  A typical VC firm has partners, each of whom has a portfolio of investees.  Grantmakers have program officers.

In a VC firm, each of the partners will carry a portfolio of roughly 7-12 firms, and in exchange for the firm’s investment, the partner will sit on the board of each of the firms in his or her portfolio.  VC board members not only look out for the interests of the investors, but they also serve as mentors, advisers, connection-makers and often-vigorous advocates for the startups they advise.  Even in situations where the VCs have relatively small amounts of money on the line (e.g. in angel-funded startups, which are what Drew works on), the VC board member<>startup relationship is often intense, hands-on and collaborative.  “I’m on the board of one startup right now,” Drew told me, “and I’m probably in their office at least once a week.”

Compare and contrast to the nonprofit sector.  All of the foundation program officers I know carry portfolios of roughly 20-50 grantees.  Serving on the board of an grantee is rare, and in most cases it’s done out of personal interest rather than as a part of the job.  There’s some coaching and mentoring and network-making that’s part of the relationship, but with 20-50 grantees, that’s just not a lot of program officer time per grantee.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m about the last person in the world to put VCs on a pedestal, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if a grantmaking foundation tried to use the VC model for its grantee relationships: big investments, small portfolios, intensive, supportive, hands-on involvement.

“The Lean Startup” — for nonprofits too!

I’m most of the way through Eric Reis’ 2011 book, “The Lean Startup.”  As the title suggests, it’s attempt to apply “lean” management thinking (as developed at Toyota and popularized by a thousand books and consultants) to entrepreneurial startups.  But what really grapped me by the proverbial lapels was how directly most of his ideas apply to nonprofits.  After all, Reis’ core definition of an entrepreneur is someone who has to manage under conditions of extreme uncertainty–or, as Ronald Heifetz might put it, people who face adaptive challenges.

Reis’ solution is that leaders have to design their organizations so they can hypothesize, build, measure and learn in iterative cycles, as fast as possible.  Central to this is the idea of “validated learning” — using data to confirm or falsify specific hypotheses about each element of the experiment.  There’s some great discussion of how to approach experiment design and how to avoid “vanity metrics” (list size, anyone?) in favor of measurements that actually correspond to success.

I love, love, love the idea that social change organizations need to think of themselves as learning machines, where the objective is to do learning experiments as fast as possible, backed by rigorous data.  (Bonus: imagine if philanthropy worked this way!)

This perfectly corresponds with much of what I’ve been thinking and writing about lately.  I can’t wait to have the opportunity to chat about it with 100 of my smartest colleagues at Web of Change.

An Advocacy Dilemma

I’m working on a fairly big chunk of writing about advocacy campaigns, organizing and strategy.  (More on that very soon!)  In the meantime, one idea that popped out along the way that didn’t really fit into the main thrust of the piece was the observation that, for many organizations, there’s a deep tension between building an army of passionate followers and being credible with the not-already-converted.  One manifestation of this tension, with which we’re all probably familiar, is the organization that is extremely fired up but decisionmakers don’t take them seriously.  More common, though, is the organization that is well positioned to be credible, but extremely weak.  The creative challenge, I think, is to be both passionate and credible.

Blocking more Facebook ads with Adblock Plus

I hate looking at online ads that I am never, ever going to click on, and I’m pretty aggressive about using adblocking software like Adblock Plus to avoid seeing them.  Recently, I’ve noticed that quite a few Facebook ads are getting around the default Adblock Plus filterset, so after a bit of experimentation, I’ve found that adding the following three custom rules to Adblock Plus cleans things up quite a bit:

facebook.com##div#pagelet_ego_pane_w
facebook.com##div.ego_section
facebook.com##div.pagelet_platform_engagement

Theming Plone websites with Diazo (for non-developers)

Plone 4.2 has just been released. Congrats to Release Manager Eric Steele and all of the excellent folks who worked hard to make it happen!  For me, this is one of the most exciting Plone releases ever, because this is the first release of Plone that includes the amazing Diazo theming system as part of the Plone core.

Diazo completely revolutionizes the process of theming a Plone website, and it’s already making the lives of everyday Plone integrators better  What’s more, while Diazo is now part of Plone, via the plone.app.theming module, it’s also a standalone website theming system that can be used the theme pretty much any website.  So, not only is Diazo a revolution in Plone theming, I also think that it has the potential to revolutionize how any website is themed.  (Diazo-powered Drupal or WordPress anyone? 😉 )

What is Diazo?

Diazo is a simpler and smart approach to theming a website–without sacrificing creative control.  Here’s how it works: Your graphic designer, who doesn’t need to know anything about Plone, builds you a theme consisting of one or more HTML + CSS templates.  Plone emits its HTML pages, known as the “content.”  Diazo then lets you merge bits and pieces of Plone’s HTML content into your theme’s HTML and CSS template.  Diazo’s merging behavior is governed by a simple text-based rules file consisting of simple directives such as <append>, <replace> and <drop>.  It’s a drop-dead simple syntax that anyone can master, and it doesn’t require you to understand anything about how Plone works–basic HTML and CSS literacy is all you need.

I’m intrigued, tell me more.

Diazo does its magic by building on top of XSLT (eXtenstible Stylesheet Language Transformations), a standard originally developed in the late ’90s that defines a language for transforming XML documents into other XML documents.  (HTML pages are one kind of XML document.)  Raw XSLT is too generalized and too complex for everyday use as a everyday website theming technology, so Diazo provides a simple and user-friendly set of basic rules that get compiled into XSLT behind the scenes.  If you’re already an XSLT wizard, you can use the full power of XSLT expressions in your Diazo rules files, but most folks will never need or want to do this.

Plone 4.2 comes pre-configured for Diazo (via plone.app.theming), so if you’re using Plone, you don’t have to lift a finger.  If you are using Plone alongside other web applications, or not using Plone at all,  most modern webservers already have support for XSLT transformations, so deploying Diazo via WSGI, Ngnix, Varnish or Apache is simple and straightforward.

Diazo’s been around for a while, and it’s been battle tested in production as an add-on product for several years now.  It’s ready for prime-time.  There are already a couple dozen Diazo-powered Plone themes available for download, and I’m expecting to see lots more as Diazo becomes “mainstream best practice.”  It’s pretty easy to take any generic open-source HTML/CSS website theme and adapt it for Diazo.

Sounds great, what’s the catch?

There isn’t one.  That’s why Diazo is so exciting.  One thing to think about, though, is whether Diazo’s definition of “theming” matches yours.  Unfortunately, if you’ve been using certain other CMSes, you might have some odd ideas about what’s part of a “theme.”  (Hint: not an e-commerce system!)  With Diazo, theming is about HTML, CSS and Javascript–it’s not about adding new logical functionality to your website such as image sliders, calendars, shopping carts or content types.  Sure, these kinds of features can be an important part of a website’s “look and feel” but they’re not legitimately within the scope of a Diazo theme.

So, if you need to make a Plone website look beautiful, Diazo is all you need.  If you need to fundamentally change what content Plone is emitting in the first place, then you’ll need to dive into Plone customization.  Diazo doesn’t completely replace all of the customization that you might to do Plone, but it narrows the scope of what you need to do inside of Plone quite a bit.

The future is even brighter

If you’ve got a vivid imagination, you might already be thinking, “OK, simple text-based rules files are cool, but what about a graphical editor for building themes?”  Well, that’s in the pipeline.  Martin Aspeli is putting the finishing touches on a version of plone.app.theming that includes a graphical editor for Diazo rules files.  This is currently slated to ship with Plone 4.3, and will make it point-and-click easy to build or modify Diazo theme rules.

Final thoughts

I’m really excited about Diazo.  It’s the fulfillment of a vision for “rules-based theming” that’s been percolating in the Plone and Python communities for a number of years now, starting with Paul Everitt’s original implementation of Deliverance way back in 2008.  It was a radical idea then, and it’s still cutting-edge now.  Diazo brings rules based theming into the mainstream, both for Plone and for other web applications.  I think we’re going to look back a few years from now and wonder why we ever themed websites any other way.

Stuff I’m reading (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Stuff I’m reading (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Hidden gems of the Plone Collective

Periodically, I trawl through the Plone Collective repository (both via Github and via PyPi) to see what folks are building but not publicizing widely via Plone.org.  As usual, I found some hidden gems that I think deserve a bit wider attention.

Fair warning: I’ve tested each of these products in a Plone 4.1.5 development instance, but I’ve not deployed any in production or reviewed the code.  All are written by experienced Plone community members, though, so they should be at least reasonable sane.  I’d love to hear about your experiences with any of them.

collective.folderorder – Jens Klein and BlueDynamics Alliance

http://pypi.python.org/pypi/collective.folderorder/1.2

Plone’s default folder view shows items in the order they were added, and while you can manually rearrange items, there’s no way to automatically resort items in a folder view.  (Although you can add a collection as the default view of a folder, this is not always obvious to new users, and quite a few clicks.)  With collective.folderorder, you get a new “Order” option the Actions menu for a folder, and you can easily choose from several default folder ordering schemes, including: reverse order, unordered, and partial ordering. Even better, it provides an easy way for developers to add new ordering schemes.

I’d love to see this one PLIPed for future inclusion in Plone, possibly with a few more ordering options (e.g. last modified, creation date). It’s a small but welcome UI affordance.

collective.folderpositionLaurence Rowe

http://pypi.python.org/pypi/collective.folderposition/1.0

Another small but welcome improvement to folder ordering.  This one adds a nice little set of buttons below a folder listing that allows you to move items instantly to the top, the bottom or up/down a designated number of slots. Again, super convenient when you need to rearrange a lot of folder items.

collective.prettydate – Franco Pellegrini  & Héctor Velarde

http://plone.org/products/collective.prettydate

collective.prettydate reformats the display absolute dates/times (e.g. 3/1/2012) to relative date (e.g. one month ago, four days ago, etc.)  This is really nice for news sites or sites with upcoming events.

collective.embedly – Quintagroup

http://plone.org/products/collective.embedly

collective.embedly makes it stupidly simple to embed almost any externally hosted multimedia (YouTube, Vimeo, Slideshare.net, etc.) into Plone.  It uses the fantastic service “Embedly” which is itself built on the open “oembed” standard.    Developers who want a bit more power may also want to look at collective.oembed.

collective.routes – Nathan Van Gheem

http://plone.org/products/collective.routes

This one is a bit conceptual, but pretty awesome.  From the prolific and talented Nathan Van Gheem comes collective.routes, which makes it possible to build URLs in Plone that do catalog queries, e.g. http://mysite.com/blog/date/of/blog/post.  This isn’t really an end-user product, but it makes it easy for integrators to build really nice URLs for their custom Plone apps.

Visible, invisible and hidden power

I’m reading an interesting short essay by John Gaventa, in which he talks about three different forms of power: visible, invisible and hidden.

Visible power is the power that plays out in formal decisionmaking processes.  Social change activists participate in this through lobbying, advocacy, organizing, etc.

Hidden power is the power to set the agenda, include or exclude certain participants, etc.  This kind of power is often exercised behind closed doors.

Invisible power “involves the ways in which awareness of one’s rights and interests are hidden through the adoption of dominating ideologies, values and forms of behavior by relatively powerless groups themselves.”  In other words, invisible power is the creation of culture, beliefs and awareness.

Stuff I’m reading (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

The non-war for nonprofit talent

I can’t quite nail the analogy, but it seems to me that if you took this article, replaced “startup” with “nonprofit” and tweaked the context a bit, it would make for an interesting conversation about the nonprofit sector.

The short version might go something like this: as in the tech startup industry, there are too many nonprofits chasing too little top-flight talent.  They can’t compete on cash.  </analogy ends> So instead they just don’t really compete at all.

 

A paradox, riffing on Marty

Riffing on Marty’s recent post about the ever-lower cost of advocacy group formation… it is true that it is cheaper than ever to start an advocacy organization.  As Clay Shirky observed, that is the real power of the internet, it lowers the cost of finding like-minded people.  However, I think the paradox is that as the cost of forming a group declines, more groups are formed, which actually tends to increase the cost of achieving social change campaign goals.

Why?  So many organizations competing for limited dollars, limited talent, limited attention, press coverage, etc.  This means you have to be better than ever to punch through the noise and achieve critical mass.  Most of the rewards go to the top 1%.  This is not about scarcity vs. abundance, it’s recognizing that public agendas can only have so many items on them at once.

Still sorting through the implications of this.  I do think Marty is right that we need to come up with new approaches to dealing with this fragmentation.

Stuff I’m reading (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Stuff I’m reading (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Collective Impact

I’ve been reading and thinking a bit about “collective impact” lately.  (Here’s the seminal article introducing the buzzword.)  It’s a solid, mostly-common-sense framework for thinking about collaborative/coalition efforts.  There are five elements that define a “collective impact” approach:

  • Common agenda.  If you don’t have a shared vision for change, you can’t really expect to collaborate effectively.
  • Mutually reinforcing activities.  Successful collaborators need to coordinate their activities, play to their strengths, and know their role in the larger effort.
  • Continuous communication.  If you don’t communicate regularly you can’t hope to build enough trust and shared language to collaborate effectively.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Jon, why are you wasting my time with such obvious folderol?”  Most coalition efforts I’ve seen fulfill these first three conditions pretty well.  Hang in there, it’s the next two that are the most interesting:

  • Shared measurement systems. Hmm, now we’re getting somewhere.  Collective impact suggests that collaborative efforts need agree on a shared set of indicators of success and the systems for monitoring and reporting on those indicators.  Without shared indicators, collaborators have no way to really know if they are succeeding or failing, and no feedback systems that allow them to “course correct” as needed. 
  • A backbone support organization.  Proponents of collective impact assert that successful collaboration efforts need to have a strong, staffed organization at their center, in order to run the collaborative process with sufficient intensity and focus to drive it forward in the face of distractions.  It’s not clear to me whether they think a strong “lead coalition partner” fulfills this condition or not.  (I suspect not.)

It’s these last two points where most collaborations falter, and probably not concidental that they require sustained, long-term resource commitments.  How do collaborations you’re involved with stack up?