This Maytree Opinion is an excerpt of a speech given on April 25 at the 2012 Connections conference, Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations. Watch video of the full speech:
Maytree Opinion, May 2012
By Alan Broadbent
Many of us have a sense that the world is changing, and particularly that our former consensus that government was there to protect us is eroding. As we operate our community organizations in the face of government retreat, we wonder how we must change. How do we find the sustainable platform on which the future can be built? How do we manage in hard times? How might we thrive in hard times?
We know that the demand for our services will not diminish. We know that many of the problems we deal with are a continuing struggle to help people simply to live their lives with some dignity and security. We know that there will always be the great and noble work of helping our vulnerable neighbours.
So here are three thoughts about how we can make our organizations strong to thrive in hard times.
First, the Quality of our work is important. Whether we provide goods or services, or perform analysis or commentary, we should strive to do so at a high level of quality. And we should talk about it truthfully.
The Caledon Institute of Social Policy, which Maytree cofounded with Ken Battle, researches and comments on social policy, in particular income security. Ken’s work is high quality. People might disagree with his recommendations, but they cannot fault the quality of his research or his analysis. Ken makes a point of starting with data and looking to it for patterns and information, and he derives his conclusions from the data.
Too many others who comment in the public arena start with their conclusions, or points of view, and merely look for the data to back them up. The problem with this approach is that once someone finds a flaw in your data, it is enough to cast doubt on your whole argument, and even your whole enterprise.
The best weapon you have against the people who don’t really want to do what you want them to do is the quality of your work. I am not talking about perfection, or some magical notion of quality. A rhetorical commitment to “the best” or “the highest” can often lead to a foolish and expensive pursuit of the unnecessary. But within the realistic parameters of your work and ambitions, striving for quality is important.
Second, it is important to be Solutions oriented. I know this sounds obvious, but too often we become captive to what I call The Culture of Complaint. We get very good at describing problems and assigning blame. At Maytree, we see a lot of applications for funding, and a lot of arguments for change. I would say that a typical document I’m asked to read spends about 80% describing a problem and assigning blame, and 20% saying that somebody should do something about it.
Former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning put it best when he advised groups to “bring me something I can say yes to.” This is excellent advice.
It is important to describe problems, so we know what we’re facing. But it is also important to craft solutions that are realistic, that will work in the real-world political and fiscal environment. That is the way forward.
And third, creating a strong Narrative for your work is important. This is one of the great failings of the community sector. We’re not very good at telling our story. I think as a sector, we fail at creating a persuasive narrative of the work we do, either as a sector or as organizations. And it is the latter, our organizational narratives, that I think are the most important.
We do much good work, often in very difficult circumstance, especially those who deal with the hardest problems in the toughest places. And we are so thinly managed and resourced that creating a narrative is always the job we’ll get to later, when the real work is done. And often the people good at doing the hard work aren’t the ones who are good at talking about it.
The problem with not doing it is that we are vulnerable to those who will, perhaps hysterical and sloppy press reports, perhaps politicians who can ride resentment and distrust to power, perhaps ideologues who want a different world.
When I talk about narrative, I’m not talking about an occasional press release about some report you’ve released, or a grant you got. I’m talking about your mission, and why it’s important, and what you’re doing to fulfill it, and how it is making lives and communities better.
Frank Sharry of America’s Voice talks about creating a narrative for change. Frank says the key to creating an effective narrative is “volume and velocity.” By volume he means both amount and loudness. He means that we have to keep our story coming at people so quickly, so regularly, and so audibly that they can’t miss it.
And if they can’t miss it, it is hard for them to distort it.
Obviously we don’t all own our own newspaper or television or radio station. And I think if we had a consensus it would be that the corporate press has not served us well. In fact, they have put some of our best work at risk from time to time. So, despite the presence of some real progressive advocates in the media, relying on the press to tell our story isn’t a very good idea.
Fortunately the new media can help. Sites like The Mark, The Tyee and The Huffington Post are more open to submissions from unusual suspects than the traditional commercial press. Getting a story on The Tyee then allows you to do an aggressive social media distribution linking to the story. We often find that when we have a story published in such sites, which we then link through our e-communications and social media, we get much more feedback and higher readership than an op-ed piece in the newspaper.
E-letters like Tamarack’s Engage have a wide distribution, and are open to linking to great community stories. Our Maytree e-newsletter and bulletins often link to community stories and events. And you can develop your own lists which target the audience you want to reach.
But it is time as a sector that we realized that not doing it leaves us vulnerable. It is not enough just to do good work, unfortunately. We have to be seen to be doing good work, and we have to create a continuing positive narrative that can protect us against these hysterical attacks.
For too long we’ve seen creating such positive narratives as the job we’ll get to next, as a frill, or as unseemly boasting. We need to get over that, or we’ll continue to pay the price of being misrepresented, under-valued, and maligned. Like anything that is important to our organizations, we have to plan for it, budget for it, staff it, and execute. If it isn’t in your budget, it won’t get done.
What can we do to thrive in hard times? Focus on quality, be solutions oriented, and create strong narratives.
So, What’s Your Story? It’s time to tell your story.