Data can be integrated seamlessly into stories that benefit communities, presenters told nonprofits and journalists at a conference on June 21. The event demonstrated how one can tap into information sources about communities whose voices are often unheard.

Data Day 2013, held at Northeastern University in Boston, showcased how successful data-based stories engage people on an emotional level. Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, and The Boston Foundation co-hosted the conference.

The morning keynote showed how a team from The Boston Globe accomplished this goal while writing about the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. Their finished project, 68 Blocks, includes photos, graphs, stories, videos, and an e-book.

“It took months and months to win even the beginnings of trust,” said senior assistant metro editor Steve Wilmsen. After hearing about how a 14-year-old boy was shot, Wilmsen wanted to “pierce the veil of preconceptions” surrounding the neighborhood. As the finished project said, “In a neighborhood known for gunfire, it’s easy to overlook beauty.”

“Half the time, the best things that I got were when I pretended I wasn’t there,” said reporter Meghan Irons. Another reporter, Akilah Johnson, avoided carrying her notebook and used a cell phone and even a church program as substitutes.

The newspaper sourced the “Voices of Bowdoin-Geneva” montage from community pictures found on Instagram. The images show graves, graduations, police, friendships, and family stories.

A survey asked youth whether they thought they would ever spend time in jail. 85.7% said, “No.” 91.7% of the respondents said they had not been in any gangs during the previous year.

The newspaper placed a massive public records request. In the finished project, a map of quality of life indicators shows problems with housing and basic utility services are common in the neighborhood. A second map shows homicides and shootings.

In the workshop “Engage Youth through Data and Mapping,” teenagers from Urbano Project described making public art to communicate data. They made sculptures dramatizing statistics about the MBTA, including crime figures and wait times. They wore the finished sculptures to a festival and talked with passersby about the data.

The teenagers used orange and black plastic discs and small metal weights to build wearable sculptures showing the transit statistics. They also attached painted whistles to t-shirts to depict a graph of various types of crime. All of the materials came from a recycling center in Lynn.

The group painted the whistles different colors to show the different types of crime. 70 percent of the crimes were fare evasions, 9 percent were considered violent crimes, and 15 percent were acts of assault or vandalism.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how transparent the T is with their data,” said Alison Kotkin, a staffer from Urbano Project.

The panel “Storming the Gates of City Hall and Corporate America: Open Data vs. Privacy and Community Change” presented provocative information about our collective privacy – or lack thereof. The presenters also offered tips for nonprofits.

“I usually start all my talks by apologizing on the behalf of all computer scientists everywhere,” said Dr. Latanya Sweeney, who works at Harvard University’s Data Privacy Lab.

“Most data sharing is hidden,” Sweeney explained. “It’s that lack of transparency that causes individuals harm.” She said 1/3 of Fortune 500 companies make hiring, firing and promotion decisions based on health data. 33 states share or sell personal health information. And it’s not difficult for organizations to identify individual patients within these data sets.

Sweeney said computer scientists can solve the problems they have created by following models similar to Google’s.

How can nonprofits get started working with community data? The panel provided many tips. Professor Michael Johnson of UMass-Boston said community organizations can access data and assistance through sources such as:

David Luberoff, a senior project advisor at Harvard University, encouraged Boston-area nonprofits to sign up on the BARI website to connect and collaborate.

A shorter version of this story was published on the MassNonprofit.org website

Sometimes a picture is worth 200 Twitter follows. That’s what Ceres‘s online communications director, Brian Sant, learned when he ran a campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota. Oil companies use these flares to burn away unwanted natural gas they do not plan to save or sell.

North Dakota’s natural gas flares are visible from the night sky and rival major cities in their brightness. Sant circulated the following photo of the night landscape of North America via social media and email. The response was electric. Writers picked up the story.

North Dakota gas flares light the night sky
A photo from Ceres’s campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota.

Sant showed the results of this campaign at New England Women in Energy and the Environment‘s March 14 panel discussion, Social Media Success in the Energy and Environmental Sectors. He also described how he uses podcasts, videos and infographics to make data attractive for social media distribution.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding partner at Practically Green, talked about her exploration of the nuances of behavior change. Working with an enthusiastic group of interns and staff, she develops social software that companies and individuals can use to alter their environmental behavior.

Practically Green is building on the current wave of interest in gamification – making activities more like computer games – and integrating that approach with social media. The resulting product makes conserving water and other resources less like doing a chore and more like using Facebook.

“You’re not alone,” one of Robinson’s slides said. Robinson wants her software to engage people in communication, not just give them tasks to do in isolation. Based on the rapid expansion of demand for her product, this approach is certainly working.

Cindy Jolicoeur, vice president of Marketing Drive, used a different tactic in her work with the Mass Save energy efficiency program. She leveraged consumer interest in sharing information about deals and taking advantage of discounts to build the fan base for the Mass Save Facebook page from around 2,000 to over 15,000. These likes came as a result of targeted promotions and advertising across multiple media. Consumers developed a relationship with Mass Save and used the page to ask questions about energy efficiency.

“People want to connect with people,” said Cindy Hoots, corporate social responsibility account director at Cone Communications. She encouraged the audience to be informal on social media. Being able to respond on the fly is crucial, she said. She recommended keeping an unofficial FAQ on hand to use in response to stakeholder comments.

“Not all these stakeholders are friendly,” Hoots said. “Some can be a thorn in your side. Others may have an activist bent.”

Building relationships with stakeholders is a complex process, Hoots said. First, one needs to identify who they are. Second, one needs to understand their values and priorities. Third, one needs to learn how to reach them. And that’s just the first phase of action. One also needs to prioritize influencers, reach out to them, and offer them resources they want.

Hoots recommended two online tools for identifying influencers: Traackr and SocMetrics. These sites can give one basic information about the behavior of influencers and help one develop a plan for building relationships.

There are many ways communicators can engage stakeholders and build support for sustainable actions. This discussion demonstrated how Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, and other social media tools can support energy and environmental organizations in reaching their goals successfully. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising picture.

“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source: Someecards.com)

Pull out the firecrackers and Mardi Gras beads! It’s time for the Nonprofit Blog Carnival, where we’re writing about our big dreams for 2013.

My big dream is to advance a meme.

Memes are catchy ideas that stick in one’s imagination and influence one’s worldview. SmartMeme’s book Re:Imagining Change contains many examples of nonprofits deliberately disrupting existing social memes and creating new ones.

Here’s an example of an environmental organization’s disruption of a popular meme:

Greenpeace satirized GMOs with this ad campaign.
Greenpeace satirized genetically modified corn with this ad.

The meme I want to promote this year is about a broader topic than Greenpeace’s – and it might appeal to a wide range of people.

Here it is:

Our environment is the root of our economy.

Everything we manufacture, produce, sell and trade comes from the planet we inhabit. If we disregard our environment, we will have no economy left to show. This is all we have – our somewhat damaged planet and its many resources.

Since I like automotive analogies, I’ll make one here. Imagine that you’re moving from New York to Arizona with everything you own in the back of your truck. As you drive across the desert, your truck starts having mechanical problems and your cell phone dies. It’s time to get out the wrench set.

Similarly, if we want a healthy planet, it’s time to repair our decisions and set a better course. Like the driver in the middle of the desert, we have no alternative. The repair will have to include economic adaptation and innovation. Businesses have the energy to transform society.

How do I plan to advance this meme in 2013? I plan to tweet and write about the green economy. I want to focus on solutions, reconstruction, and the repair of our existing systems.

How will this influence what I write? There are multiple avenues I can pursue to expand on this meme and make it part of my work.

  1. Using constructive angles in journalism and in this blog can motivate readers to take positive actions at home and at their jobs.
  2. Breaking news about university research can disseminate creative solutions.
  3. Supporting cross-pollination between sectors can build collaboration.
  4. Writing about urban sustainability projects can shine a light of possibility on the road to economic and environmental recovery.
  5. Building work relationships with larger organizations that support this meme can give me the tools and resources to take this message to larger audiences.

I work for an organization which supports sustainable business decisions and plan to make connections with other groups in New England which are doing the same. These groups include Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, New England Clean Energy Council, and E2Tech.

Do you have any other ideas about ways to advance this meme about the environment and the economy?


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

How can nonprofits build diversity awareness into their communication? There are no easy answers. But I find it helps to think of diversity-friendly communication as a tapestry. If you weave diversity awareness into each aspect of your outreach, you’ll see better results than you would if you tacked it on at the end.

That’s the approach my former coworker Dr. Sherrill Sellers recommended when we wrote the CIRTL Diversity Resources. Although the Diversity Resources were written for university instructors, nonprofits can use similar approaches. I recommend checking out our case study collection if you are thinking of organizing facilitated conversations about diversity.

When we were producing the Diversity Resources, we sifted through many university workbooks on creating welcoming climates. We found that a band-aid approach to diversity-friendly communication may be a step in the right direction, but it is just a step. More needs to be done.

After the Be the Media! conference in Boston on Dec. 6, I wrote the following list of questions to help organizations communicate inclusively. Items 1, 2 and 6 are partly based on comments by our facilitators, Elena Letona and Kathleen Pequeño.

  1. Whom do you ask for their opinion? If you look at whose voices are absent from your decisions, you may find some gaps. Consider having conversations, surveys and focus groups to include unheard stakeholders. For example, if you are working on an environmental issue in a low-income community, remember to ask for community feedback. This is especially important if there is a language barrier.
  2. Are your communication channels working? Make sure not to rely exclusively on the Internet if you want to reach a diverse base of potential supporters. Consider mobile-friendly websites and phone apps. Low-income young people often browse using their phones. Test drive new approaches to see what works.
  3. Is your communication jargon-free, easy to understand, and interesting? Remember, your audiences are not required to listen to you, even if you’re communicating vital health information about disease prevention or disaster awareness. Think about the style of language you’re using. If you use research language with non-specialists, your message may be ignored or misinterpreted. Ask your audiences for feedback.
  4. Is your message relevant? Why should your audiences care about the issues that matter to your organization? If you get to know them and learn what matters to them, your communication will be much more on target than it would be otherwise.
  5. Have you stepped outside your office to visit your audiences lately? How well do you know them? The more you develop  relationships, the better your communication will be.
  6. Have you considered partnering with or hiring messengers from underrepresented groups? Try crowdsourcing media, inviting people to tell their own stories via videos or blogs, and asking questions to draw out answers. You can use the results to develop stories for funders, decision makers, and media.
  7. Do you ask for constructive criticism? If you only focus on positive stories, you won’t see the roots of problems.
  8. Are your events, jobs and internships accessible to people who earn less than a middle-class income? Holding fundraisers with lower ticket prices, reducing reliance on alumni networks for hiring, and paying interns who can’t afford to take unpaid internships are three steps you can take to make your organization more welcoming.

Weaving ideas like these into your communication and outreach can help you develop real relationships with communities rather than being seen as an outside agency. The more you make your communication two-way – listening, respecting community comments, and taking an interest in others – the better your results are likely to be. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.