By focusing on community, story and data, nonprofits can move the needle on transformative, lasting change.

This week, I returned from the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) in Austin, TX, mind reeling with new ideas and insight.

The NTC (hosted by the Nonprofit Technology Network, or NTEN) brings executives, communicators, community organizers, IT experts and fundraisers together for three days of programming on the next frontier of Nonprofit Tech.

At eye level, the NTC is a candy store of cool new tools your nonprofit can leverage to extend its impact (have you heard of Canva or Screaming Frog?!). And if you dig deeper, the conference is a family reunion of thinkers, dreamers and doers coming together to accelerate the pace of change.

My experience at the NTC surfaced three common themes that all social changemakers can apply in our work: community, story and data. By focusing our 2015 engagement efforts around these themes – and their intersections – we can drive a movement toward transformative, lasting change.

Here are a few strategic ways to implement them in your own work:

1. Put Your Community First

Different departments across your organization might think of your stakeholders differently. Maybe they approach them as blog readers, or grantees.

It’s time to change these conversations, and start thinking in terms of communities.

Why? Because, in much of our work, communities are a central unit of change. Communities, at their core, are networks of people and resources that connect us to one another. Communities have shared values, their own character and their own stories. Communities are central to every organization or initiative.

Moving the dialogue from “reader” or “grantee” to “community” can help us humanize the people we serve and work alongside. By putting communities first and understanding their values, we can design interventions and engagements that better meet their needs.

So how do you start putting community first? Here are three ideas that folks from the NTC are implementing back home:

  • 1) Do your research: Ask questions. Who is your community? What’s important to them? What do they need or want to know?
  • 2) Lower the barriers to entry: Make it easy for community members to learn about your organization and access your resources (staff, services, etc).
  • 3) Create space for sharing: Ask your community members to share their stories and model good behavior by sharing back. (I’ll come back to this!)

One of my favorite tools to start thinking about “community” is a vendiagram from Debra Askanase at CommunityOrganizer2.0 about understanding what’s important to your stakeholders (excuse the word!)

Stakeholder Vendiagram from Debra Askanase

By articulating A) What’s important to you and B) What’s important to your community, you can identify and target the overlap for maximum impact. I suggest going through this exercise with your team as a first step to steer the conversation around the concept of community.

2. Tell Stories with Emotional Appeal

Stories can change the world. They shape our worldview, our outlook and our actions. As a nonprofit or socially conscious organization, it’s especially important to tell great stories that resonate with your community.

And research shows that most “great” stories have an emotional appeal. These stories speak to our shared human experiences. They are descriptive and concrete. They evoke feelings and paint a picture.

So, once you identify your community and understand their needs, here are a few tips for crafting a great story:

  • Look for stories about real people. Give your stories a human element.
  • Include evocative language and visuals to intensify the emotional appeal.
  • Remember the Hero’s Journey and give your story a narrative arc.
  • Keep it positive overall, happiness makes people want to share!

By employing these tips, you can unite, inspire and mobilize communities through the power of story. And, as NationBuilder’s Harmony Eichsteadt noted, sometimes storytelling can be a bigger and better ask of your community than asking them to click or donate.

If you’re looking for a place to start The Rockefeller Foundation’s new Hatch tool will help you digg in and discover stories that might resonate with your community.

3. Don’t Ignore Your Data

One of my favorite lines from the conference was, “If you’re not doing anything with your big data, you’re hoarding.”

I love this analogy – and not just because I’m a geek with a phobia of hoarders. How many of us have implemented tools or processes that spit out loads of data for us, without having a plan for what to do with that data? Living Cities has been there – as have many other organizations across all sectors. We all know that data can be a powerful tool, but how do we figure out what data is actually useful?

To start using data effectively, it needs to align with your organizations’ goals. And, at its most basic level, data is a useful tool for continuous improvement.

You can start with three easy steps:

  • 1) Agree on your key goals;
  • 2) Identify what data sources you currently have; and
  • 3) Evaluate what data is most useful for your organization to continuously improve and/or that indicates you’re successfully achieving your goals.

Focus first on your low-hanging fruit and optimize your most basic indicators of success. These could be anything from monitoring trends in your web traffic, to calculating donations from an e-newsletter.

As you get more advanced, you can implement A/B tests and begin to marry qualitative and quantitative data to discover new stories and messaging that resonate with your community.

All three of these strategies are interconnected. You need to understand communities to craft your stories. You need to monitor your data and continually improve on your messaging to mobilize your communities. And, I’d argue, you need to share what you learn broadly. You’ll often receive some of the best feedback and ideas from others in your network. (A further testament to the power of story and community – like the Nonprofit Technology Network!)

At Living Cities, we’re leveraging all of these strategies across a series of “Pilot Projects” that I’ll be reporting out on in the next few weeks. For each project, which include an innovation guidebook for local governments, an e-learning course about community engagement in collective impact and a blog series on a new framework for “Pay for Success”, we’ve designed the content, engagement opportunities and messaging with our community in mind. Through intentional measurement and evaluation, we’ll marry these activities with data to co-create a new urban practice that achieves dramatically better results for low-income people, faster. We’ve already seen early success and are excited to update you on our learnings.

If you’re interested in learning more about applying these strategies, stay tuned for a series of Live Tweet highlights from various #15NTC sessions. We’ll be posting those on Living Cities’ Storify over the next few weeks, with a first look today!

Special thanks to Farra Trompeter at Big Duck for encouraging me to log and share my reflections. This post is a work-in progress, so please share your feedback directly ( or in the comment section.

Image Source: Brian Rusch, Twitter.