I truly believe that story has the power to change the world. I have worked as a journalist, a playwright, a filmmaker, and in communications in local government and at nonprofits. I am currently on a path towards getting an MFA in Creative Writing. Ever since I was nine years old and wrote my first stick figure-illustrated ‘article’ about what Nelson Mandela’s release from prison meant for the future of Africa, I have been in pursuit of that special sauce that turns words and images into something much bigger—something transformational.
Stories, I am convinced, shape us, inform us, inspire us and spur us to action every day. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ opened so many eyes to the ugly reality of racism in the American South in the 1930’s and still continues to educate us as to the origins of racial inequities today. From Gordon Parks’ groundbreaking, provocative, photo essays to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism that pushes us to think about politicized issues like immigration in human terms, we can probably all write a very long list of powerful storytelling that has moved us or changed us in some way.
Today, creative social change communications is aimed at using a variety of media to harness the power of story and marry it with open channels of dialogue (virtual and otherwise). I believe that what we are seeing is a movement towards re-imagining the profession for the future. Many foundations, nonprofits, advocacy and community groups, and activists are experimenting in this sphere. The result is a social sector that is taking steps to replace secrecy with candor, a go-it-alone mentality with a collaborative spirit, and a focus on attribution with a focus on contribution.
Story’s Role in the #NewUrbanPractice
As the Assistant Director of Strategic Communications and Storytelling at Living Cities, I get to bring my love of stories to bear towards creating a #NewUrbanPractice aimed at achieving dramatically better results for low-income people. This work is very exciting to me for so many reasons. Living Cities is deeply committed to what we call ‘Open-Sourcing Social Change’– working at the intersections of learning, information, story and technology to bring people and resources together to deepen and accelerate promising solutions to social problems. What this means in practice is that reflecting on and sharing what we are learning from all of our work and investments is part of everyone’s job description. And, we have a hypothesis that knowledge should be shared in real-time, warts and all. We shouldn’t wait until all of the questions have been answered, all the blemishes covered. By defaulting to open, we can save others from making the same mistakes we made, and invite them to brainstorm and problem-solve with us.
Storytelling at Living Cities
We have a staff ‘newsroom’ of contributors who regularly scan the media and current events and write columns about what they are learning and how political, social, and market events and trends intersect with and impact our work. We invite our partners who are leading ambitious on-the-ground efforts to regularly share what they are seeing and learning beyond what is typically expected from a grant report. Our CEO, Ben Hecht, is a social media aficionado who not only writes his own tweets, but also understands how social media can be an important tool in the 21st century leadership toolkit. We have done a lot of work to build and maintain a vibrant blog that highlights promising solutions, whether from our own work or the work of others. We aim to use our social media platforms to cultivate audiences so that they think of us as partners and co-creators.
Through this work, we have seen our readership and our followers trending up, and this has been invigorating. We have learned a great deal about what types of content and tools are most sought after by folks who are grappling with the same challenges that we are working to address—challenges like poverty, income and wealth inequality, and racial inequities.
Measuring Our Storytelling Efforts
We are now crossing into our fourth year of aggressively pursuing this agenda. We have moved from articulating the theory of change to testing our hypotheses. From building the structures to support this kind of work to sustaining and expanding them. Now, we are hungry for more meaningful signs of impact than numbers of followers and shares. We want to be able to tell an honest and meaningful story about what works and doesn’t in terms of Open Sourcing Social Change, just as we do with our other areas of work. And, we want to use that understanding to continuously improve. We have been able to collect some such data in the past, much of it anecdotally—someone calling us or emailing us to let us know that they found something that we shared helpful or that they would like to work with us in some way. We would like to be able to capture more of that information more intentionally. We are asking questions like:
- Do/How do people use the content and tools that we share? Do they apply any of the thinking/learning to their own work?
- When it comes to our audiences, what is the continuum of engagement (E.g. from follower to co-creator), and are there practices that support people moving along that continuum?
- We engage folks around a wide variety of topics, issues, and practices, from impact investing to civic technology. The needs of folks who care about each of these areas are different. How can we better understand each of these ‘audience segments’, provide them more of what they want, and be better partners to them?
I’m thrilled to share that, in partnership with Threespot, we have set out on a course to be able to do that with rigor. Over the next five months, we will be applying a broad array of measurement and analysis tools and strategies to understand engagement around three very different ‘knowledge products’: Our City Accelerator Implementation Guide, an e-learning experience about community engagement currently in development (you can sign-up to learn more now!), and an upcoming paper about Pay for Success.
We are conducting a comprehensive analytics audit to get a much clearer picture of audience and user experience trends on our platforms. We are creating custom measurement frameworks for understanding whether or not our content is actually accomplishing our goals in terms of reach and usefulness. And, we will be complimenting what we can glean from Google Analytics and our social media reporting tools with surveys, polls, targeted outreach to audiences and other calls for feedback. We want to be able to institutionalize this learning and measurement practice in the long term, so we are documenting the entire experience.
Our measurement work on the City Accelerator Implementation Guide is already underway, and stay tuned for another post about what we are learning from it! We will be sharing regularly along the way.
Personally, I am hopeful that this work can get me closer to a recipe for that special sauce that I will continue to tweak and improve upon on my lifelong storytelling mission.