March 15, 2011

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in Our Ideas, The Zeitgeist Stream

How nonprofits can teach the private sector about everything

This post also appeared on Matthew’s Long-Form Blog.

In a column in Toronto Life published for the web on Monday afternoon, Jesse Brown argued that “the only way to get the best selection of television shows and movies is to steal them.” Comments attacking the author started pouring in immediately. “Well Jesse, at least you acknowledge that what you’re doing is stealing,” wrote Quentin. “Do you realize that the real victims of your civil disobedience will be creators?” asked Amy. And cabma wrote, in a more direct tone, “the logic you use to justify your actions is pathetic.”

And they just kept coming. Around 5 pm, Jesse mused on Twitter, “Not to sound paranoid…..but am I getting astro-turfed in the comments here?”

Minutes later, his answer came in the form of a screenshot. The negative comments were being driven by an email sent by theCanadian Recording Industry Association.

“We need you to comment on this article and offer your views on why Brown is wrong and misguided and how his actions negatively impact creators and rights holders,” reads some of the email. The CRIA had issued a call to action to its constituents and, Jesse assumes, some insiders as well (that’s the astroturfing part). But how good a job did they actually do?

I think that enabling stakeholder action is an area where nonprofits lead the way, and businesses need to catch up. Traditional business processes focus on incentivizing a single action from its customers (buying). But the world’s best brands are more than just their products. The best brands connect with their audience on an emotional level, and they do this by finding opportunities to create shared value through mutual action. I think that the private sector is really bad at that, though better now than it once was.

Enabling stakeholder action is how PETA harnessed its audience to slam DKNY’s Facebook Page in the fall. But it’s more than just social media. It’s what is doing to save Toronto’s Transit City plan using plain old email. And it’s what Greenpeace activists in 1973 did to pressure the Canadian government into supporting a moratorium on whale hunting.

Greenpeace is amazing, because they lost and they lost and they lost - Rex Weyler, in his record of the founding of Greenpeace, recounts one elderly woman who was handed a pamphlet and exclaimed “Wales! Oh my God! What’s happening in Wales?” – and then they started winning because people started to care (you should Google some examples). And then Amnesty International started winning too. And caring caught on. Howard Beale was shouting on live TV:

I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.”

In the face of public outrage, corporations that continued to argue that creating shareholder value uniquely serves the greater good forfeited some of the trust the public had placed in them. And they have been slow to climb out of this rut. According to the 2011 Edelman Trust barometer data, seventy-four per cent of Canadian respondents say that government must regulate corporate activity to ensure business is behaving responsibly, one of the highest percentages in the world next to the U.K. and Ireland (82 per cent each). CBC journalist Dianne Buckner recently mused in a blog post that it ”seems to me that anything and anyone related to business these days is somehow considered evil.”

Part of the challenge for private firms is finding a cause that galvanizes action inside and outside your organization. Compared to the slamming DKNY took from PETA, the CRIA barely scratched Jesse Brown. Companies can (and should) take lessons from nonprofits, because nonprofits have been at this a lot longer. Public relations professionals, who have a role in shaping that message, need to brush up as well. And if you’ve done that and your message still isn’t grabbing people you probably need to rethink what you think you stakeholders think.

Mobilizing people is really hard, and we know it’s really hard because astroturfing still happensGuardian journalist George Monbiot defines astroturfing groups as “fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies.” If astroturfing didn’t seem easier than actually getting people going, nobody would do it.

But the reality is that genuinely connecting with real people is more effective. Here’s one example, taken from a recent McKinsey Quarterly post aptly titled ‘What nonprofits can teach the private sector about social media‘. In an excerpt from their book The Dragonfly Effect, marketing experts Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith tell the story of just how quickly a newly-minted one-man cause called charity: water could grow:

[Scott] Harrison launched the organization on his 31st birthday by asking friends to donate $31 instead of giving him a gift. It was a success—the birthday generated $15,000 and helped build charity: water’s first few wells in Uganda. In the three years that followed, Harrison’s simple birthday wish snowballed into donations that today total more than $20 million, translating into almost 3,000 water projects spanning everything from hand-dug wells and deep wells to protection for springs to rainwater harvesting. The organization has now provided clean water to more than 1.4 million people spanning 17 countries. Its success can be explained through four design principles for generating engagement with a brand through social media.

The private sector has a lot to learn from people like Scott Harrison. Brands can and should be engaging with their internal and external stakeholders in meaningful ways that make the world better for everyone, not just their shareholders. One example of this is how Edelman is matching employee donations to the American Red Cross’ Japan relief fund for up to up to $50,000. But I like the example of this small Los Angeles accessory shop that is donating 20% of webshop sales even more, because they explain why this particular cause matters to their particular brand:

for the foreseeable future, we will be donating 20% of our webshop sales to the Red Cross for Japan disaster relief. we work with Japan extensively, as all of our fabric is Japanese, so we very much feel the need to help in any way we can.

This is what Indra Nooyi, CEO of Edelman’s client PepsiCo, calls “performance with purpose” – aligning the benefit of your firm with the benefit of your customers, suppliers and your other stakeholders as well. In The Dragonfly Effect Jennifer and Andy outline four design principles for generating engagement that I quite like: tell a story; empathize with your audience; emphasize authenticity; match the media with the message.

I think where firms struggle is the third step, in sounding like a collection of real human beings who care. Too often, and I think this is a legitimate complaint, brands don’t seem to mean it. When this happens, the kindest interpretation is that they are not communicating their Corporate Social Responsibility vision particularly well (incidentally, CSR as a term should never be heard outside the boardroom); the worst interpretation is that they are just going through the motions or being deceptive. I think the lesson is this: you can’t just smile at your audience; it has to be a Duchenne smile.

I think that businesses, and public relations professionals as well, stand to benefit by learning from the nonprofit sector, with its long history of mobilizing its audience around worthwhile goals. What do you think?

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