On Thursday, September 19, a small group gathered to begin crafting Creating the Future’s communications strategy.
In this post, first we’ll share what transpired during that meeting. Then we’ll share some observations about the meeting overall.
Purpose for the Plan:
Creating the Future’s first few years were spent in proof-of-concept. We experimented with re-imagining systems. Then we shared what we learned from those experiments via our online communities, one-on-one conversations, keynote speeches, workshops, and via tons of structured education programs – so that others would learn what might create change in the systems they encounter every day.
Moving forward, those two prongs will reach beyond those initial small-scale endeavors, to contribute to a global shift, re-imagining the systems we all find ourselves in, so that those systems are bringing out the best in us.
Our experimenting will primarily focus on one huge effort – to re-imagine the systems that support all social change efforts, so that those systems align more closely with the future we want to see for our world. You can read more about that here.
Our “sharing what we learn” will move toward sharing our content for others to teach (rather than solely teaching it ourselves). This will include creating distribution systems that make it easy for others to create workshops and other programs around our materials.
It is those two huge efforts that this communications plan is intended to propel forward.
Communications Strategy: Who will be affected by whatever messages we send out into the world?
Whether they are our intended target audience or not, anyone who sees our messages will be affected in some way. That effect could be negative, it could be neutral… or it could be wildly positive, creating all sorts of ripples of opportunity to accomplish our mission.
By keeping in mind everyone who will potentially be impacted by the message, we can be more mindful in crafting our plan, staving off negative responses and hopefully encouraging positive responses, whether someone is in our narrow target audience or not. As noted in this post, when the goal is social change, a groundswell of positive response is an awesome bonus for any effort!
The following are answers to the question of who will be impacted. As you read this list, who would you add? (Please add your thoughts in the comments – we’ll come back and add them in here!)
• Leaders in the social change efforts – organizational / enterprise leaders, foundations, social investors
• People working in organizations of any kind, who feel like they have no positional authority to change systems (“I’m just a _____. I have no power…”)
• Teachers of all kinds within the social change arena – university professors, high school “social change” programs, nonprofit resource centers, social enterprise hubs
• Students in a variety of subjects – nonprofit management, social enterprise, public administration, business, communications
• Supporters of community change efforts – foundations, volunteers, donors (both our supporters and supporters of social change efforts in general)
• Activists, plus people who want to take action but can’t figure out what path to take
• People in community, whether they are dealing with personal issues and decisions, or community issues.
If our work is 100% successful, what would that make possible for all those individuals and groups?
This is a very brief summary of a rich and energizing conversation. Download the recording of the meeting and get jazzed as you listen in the car or on the treadmill at the gym! (And again, please add your thoughts in the comments as you listen!)
Here is just some of what we thought would be possible if our messages are successful:
• Personal Agency to Create Systems Change
If our messages are successful, people will move from feeling powerless to change the systems they encounter, to feeling like there are simple steps they can take, to address whatever they might be dealing with (organizational, personal, community). They will feel like their voice matters, and hopefully from there, take action.
• Courage to Create Systems Change
Because of the way the survival functions of our brains work, it takes courage to buck existing systems. That is why people will go along with systems they know are dysfunctional, rather than buck those systems. Even just the simple act of asking a question in a different way can feel like a courageous move. If our messages are successful, people will see a path to gaining courage to create systems change, one question at a time.
• The Power of Following
If our messages are successful, people will see that they don’t have to lead systems change from ahead of the crowd – that the role of “follower” is hugely important in any movement for change. The example of the #MeToo movement and #GivingTuesday, where people can join something that is already in motion, feeling safe and supported in taking those powerful small steps.
• Seeing the Big Picture
When we are in a predicament and can’t see the forest for the trees, that narrow lens can cause confusion and anxiety, as we are seeing a slice of reality without context. Seeing the larger picture can provide a sense of calm, and then a sense of agency. That bigger picture could be understanding how the mechanics of our brains affect our reactions, and what that means for being at our best or being at our worst. That could be understanding the real dynamics of power. Or understanding the cause and effect of history that has led to “why those people don’t just ______…” This outcome is especially important for systems change, seeing the real systems that are at play. If our messages are successful, people can move from futility to calm, and from calm to action.
• Demonstrating – Showing vs. Telling
If our messages are successful, people will see what the work and the results look like in practice, vs. just hearing about it conceptually. What it looks like to equalize power between the people wanting to do good and the people receiving the benefit of those efforts. What it looks like to work openly. What questions lead to inclusion, and how that plays out in real time (more about that in the observations section below). The human brain is programmed to learn from stories. If our messages are successful, those stories can demonstrate that systems change is possible, and that, as “just an employee” or “just a citizen,” they have the power to create that change.
• Starting New Conversations
Systems change doesn’t begin in legislatures or foundations, in nonprofits or social enterprises; change begins in people’s living rooms. People in conversation, saying, “Someone ought to do something about that.” Long before there is action, there is conversation. If our messages are successful, the messages themselves will spark those conversations.
• Connecting with Others Who Want the Same Results
If our messages are successful, people who are seeking the same results will feel encouraged to connect with us, to explore what is possible together. Jaded professionals in the social change arena could experience what it feels like to be invited to participate meaningfully (especially foundations and donors) vs. lip service so we can get something from them. (More about this in the observations section below). For either of the two prongs of our future work, the power of “all of us together” is necessary, especially as we are not looking to necessarily own a program or project, but instead want to participate with others who are on the same path. If our messages are successful, those messages will help create those connections.
Overall, our messages have the potential to provide a sense of hope and possibility, that systems change is possible, and that YOU have the power to create that change, one question at a time.
Conditions for Success
At our next meeting, we will begin exploring what conditions need to be in place for those results to happen. What would people need to know / feel / have / be assured of, for each of those outcomes to be real? While this wasn’t specifically the topic of this first meeting, the following are some conditions for success that arose during our discussion (and some ideas for actions that accompanied those thoughts).
• People need to hear language that meets them where they are, that makes sense to THEM. The language used in our messaging must come from the people who will hear the message. And that requires asking them, co-creating and co-designing with them.
• People must feel invited to jump in with their own experience, to share wisdom they may not even realize they have. The idea for a hashtag like #MeToo or #GivingTuesday, that makes it easy for people to share their own experience with systems change (for example #WhatItTakes).
• People need to be able to easily share what they hear / learn with others. Instead of having to translate or explain, they can say, “Here –look at this.” Or a single phrase could say it all.
• People need to feel their own value, their own enoughness. That they have something to offer to the world, to their community, to their lives. They need to feel, at the very least, that we value them.
In addition to the questions we asked as part of this strategy work, the following are broader observations about the meeting itself.
• When very few people show up…
Creating the Future’s meetings are open for anyone to watch or be part of. Our meetings are not scripted performances – they are normal meetings, like anyone might have. They are just held out in the open.
What you’ll see in this particular meeting is that there were only four of us in the room, and we all happened to be white and “of a certain age.”
That is the opposite of what we expected up until a few hours before the meeting. Our participant list had included people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, ranging in age from 21 to 86. In the last hours before the meeting, calls and emails streamed in, telling of client meetings, legal problems, health issues, internet problems, and more. We began wondering if we should worry about a plague of locusts!
The result was that a meeting that was supposed to have 12 people had only four of us.
If you have hosted meetings that are not mandatory or internal team meetings – meetings with a variety of people from all walks of life – you have no doubt encountered this same thing. And how often have you rescheduled that meeting rather than continue with so few people, only to have the same issue arise the next time?
A key rule of community organizing is to begin with whoever is in the room. That approach is most effective when the plans that are created include immediately getting more people involved. If the plan is a loose structure, identifying who to include to co-create and co-design the fleshing out of that structure, it is possible to kick off those discussions with whoever shows up. Because the reality is that even if 100 people show up, that is still just a sampling of the community we wish to influence.
That is what you will notice throughout this first strategy meeting. Catalytic Thinking led us to FIRST consider who will be impacted by whatever actions we take, so that we can do everything in our power to include those individuals at every turn, and so that the plan we all co-create together addresses their situations. As you listen to the conversation, you will hear repeatedly the need to broaden the conversation, to connect.
And so yes, we began with a small group. By asking inclusive questions, however, we are being as mindful as possible to aim our next steps at as inclusive a process as possible.
• It’s not about us
When planning for a social cause, the goal is not about making an organization stronger, but helping people achieve something powerful in their communities and their lives. That is why Catalytic Thinking is such a good fit for systems change work, as it BEGINS by asking about the impacts of our actions on people outside the organization – NOT our own goals.
As you listen to the meeting, you will notice that we spent this entire first meeting discussing everyone except Creating the Future itself. You’ll also notice that when the subject did focus on Creating the Future, the energy in the conversation died. That led to the reflection about the power of a plan that aims at changing conversations in the places where change really happens – on the ground, in living rooms, with real people.
That is by design. The way the human brain is wired, if we begin a conversation focused on OUR needs (either as an organization or simply as a person), we begin to see other people as widgets to be manipulated for our own benefit. We create plans that are intended to “get people to do X” or “convince people of Y.”
When the context of the plan is instead focused on everyone else, our actions will be aimed at creating conditions for THEIR success – the whole reason a social benefit group is doing its work in the first place. With that context as the true north, our own actions will be aimed at creating those favorable conditions for those individuals. From there, when we ask, “What do we need to have in order to take those actions?” the nuts-and-bolts of our tactics and implementation will emerge.
* * *
In our next meeting, we will first prioritize to determine which of the high-potential outcomes we discussed will be most applicable to our two-pronged goals. We will keep the others in mind as we continue our planning, to ensure our actions are as mindful as possible, but the actions we plan to take will aim specifically at those prioritized outcomes.
We will then dive deeply into the conditions that need to be in place for our vision of success to be realized. What do all those individuals need to feel? What do they need to be assured of? What do they need to experience / see / hear? What do they need to know? Click here to learn more about how to watch / be part of that meeting.
The action plan we create will then aim to create those conditions for their success. Because their success is our mission.
If you’d like to join us, we hope to see you Wednesday, September 25 from 1pm-3pm Eastern time.
UPDATE: To read what happened next, a summary of Meeting #2 can be found at this link.