Posts by Hannah Kane


Don Draper hates Louder, but we love it

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.

Traditional advertising channels aren’t always available to nonprofit organizations, even though their messages are important for people to hear. Mainstream media ads, TV commercials, billboards—these are all out of reach for most small- to mid-size and even many large nonprofits.

In recent years, social media has helped nonprofits immensely: they can now reach targeted audiences and engage constituents in meaningful conversations at much lower costs. But nonprofits still have to compete with for-profit businesses for the most precious of resources: the attention of an increasingly distracted public.

Enter Louder

Louder is a new service that puts more advertising power into the hands of regular people. Louder is just getting started, but it has the potential to substantially disrupt traditional advertising models, and, if skillfully leveraged by the nonprofit sector and individuals doing good work, it could make a huge impact in our efforts to reach new audiences.

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Here’s how it works:

  • Anyone can create a Louder campaign, at no cost. Simply choose a url that you want to promote (or “amplify,” in Louder’s parlance).
  • If you like a campaign, you can hit the “make it louder” button and contribute money to get it in front of new faces. A $3 donation is enough to reach about 1,000 people on Facebook. 86.5% of the donations go directly to advertising costs.
  • Much like a Kickstarter campaign, Louder campaigns will work best if they have an existing community of champions to help spread the word.
  • And there you have it: citizen-funded advertisements getting the right content in front of new audiences!

Louder isn’t specifically limited to social impact campaigns, but looking at their list of recent additions, it seems it’s mostly being used in that way. This is great news for anyone frustrated by the number of ads promoting consumerism that come across our screens on any given day.

Now the rest of us can assert a little control, and help our favorite causes get more attention. An idea worth shouting about, no?

What do you think? Is Louder going to be the next big thing to disrupt an entire industry?

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

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Floating the idea: Weather balloons spread uncensored information to North Koreans

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.

At Idealist, we envision a world where all people can lead free and dignified lives, and we support everyone’s right to help others. So we were interested to learn about the Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF’s) recent effort to spread information to North Koreans living under censorship.

“These balloons are an information lifeline to ordinary North Koreans, who have no means to learn about the world beyond the lies of their government,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen in a press release.

“The international community often focuses on how little we know about life inside North Korea—but the real story is that North Koreans know little to nothing about the world we live in,” he continued. “Most are unaware that there is an alternative to repressive tyranny. We are helping to change that.”

Information: up, up, and away!
(image courtesy HRF)

The creative campaign made use of 20 large weather balloons that distributed information from the outside world directly to North Koreans. On January 15, the balloons traveled over the border between South Korea and North Korea, and carried leaflets with information about democracy, along with transistor radios, USBs loaded with the entire Korean Wikipedia, and even DVDs of South Korean soap operas.

The Human Rights Foundation worked with a group called Fighters for a Free North Korea to pull the launch together. A previous attempt was made in June last year, but was canceled at the last minute for fear of retaliation. At the time of this writing, it was unknown how many of the materials actually found their way into the hands of North Koreans.

Read more about the Human Rights Foundation’s launch here.

What other information-spreading efforts do you know about that have a dangerous side?

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

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What’s better than a 6,000-person snowball fight? A 12,000-person water balloon fight!

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Camp Korey kids getting ready for water balloon madness.
(Photo via setarecord on Instagram)

In January of this year, we wrote about Snow Day, the world record-breaking snowball fight that raised $50,000 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Seattle’s King County.

The event was a tremendous success, but it left its lead organizer and founder, Neil Bergquist, exhausted and burnt out. In the days leading up to the event, he was putting in 70 to 80 hour weeks while maintaining his full-time position as director of SURF Incubator, a start-up supporting technology-focused entrepreneurs.

Neil wasn’t thinking about doing another event, but a perfect storm of circumstances (including the cancellation of the much-loved Blue Angels air show and the possible cancellation of the fireworks display over Lake Union—two local summer favorites) led him to spearhead Party Camp.

On Saturday, August 17, 12,000 Seattleites will throw water balloons at each other in an attempt to raise $75,000 so that kids with serious medical conditions from the city’s Children’s Hospital can attend Camp Korey for one week of summer camp.

While they’re at it, they’re hoping to set a new Guinness world record for the world’s biggest water fight.

Applying lessons from Snow Day

Neil and his team wanted to do another event because they learned so much from Snow Day, and it would have been a shame to let that learning go to waste. They also knew they could raise even more money this time for another worthy cause.

From Snow Day, they learned a great deal about the logistical challenges of pulling off such a large event. Despite a four-hour registration window, for example, most Snow Day participants showed up during the last 30 minutes of registration, overwhelming the systems Neil’s team had put in place.

So for Party Camp, Neil’s team is building in increased capacity and more activities leading up to the event to disperse the demand immediately before the record attempt. They’ve also tripled the team’s size.

Neil points out that, while some things are easier this time, their ideas have gotten bigger. They’re building a 3,000-person beer garden, for example. They have a concert-quality sound system. And the coolest thing? They’re constructing a 40-foot treehouse.

Going big seems to be Neil’s m.o.

For Snow Day, Neil became an expert in the manufacture of snow. For Party Camp, he’s working with the world’s largest patent-holding company, Intellectual Ventures, to design water balloon-filling and tying technology that will allow them to efficiently load the 300,000 water balloons necessary to secure the world record.

 

“I don’t know how to do these things, but I know how to find the people who do,” Neil says. “It’s incredible what can happen when you bring people together and inspire them around a central cause and mission.”

Want to get into the world of charity events?

Now that he’s nearly finished with his second major event, Neil has some insight into the world of fundraising for charity.

“If you want to raise a lot of money, I’d recommend recruiting a well-connected fundraiser to get corporate donations or high net worth individuals to donate, because you’ll raise more money doing that,” Neil says. “But if you’re more focused on building awareness for your nonprofit, and building an experience that everyone’s going to remember, while raising money, then I would recommend this model.”

He also recommends starting small, and scaling up. “The first event I did was for 275 people. It raised $3,000. The next year I did it again and raised $9,000 at a 500-person event.”

Snow Day was next, raising $50,000 and engaging 6,000 community members. Party Camp will engage 12,000 people and raise $75,000 for charity. “What I learned in that first event I’ve taken to each of the others. You learn a lot in those early stages.”

So: think you have what it takes?

“It’s all about your comfort with risk, and your ability to perform in those situations,” Neil says. “You have to have a steady hand as an event planner.”

Want to get involved? If you’ll be in the Seattle area on August 17, sign up to volunteer at SeattlePartyCamp.com

Follow Party Camp on Twitter: @setarecord.

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Conflict averse? Expert tips to help you (tactfully) speak up

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It’s perfectly normal to come up blank when faced with an uncomfortable situation. (Photo via tanatat on Shutterstock.)

We recently received this question from an Idealist member:

I volunteer with children through a youth organization. I occasionally see kids teasing each other, sometimes even to a point I would call bullying. We don’t have a clear anti-bullying policy, so I feel I should address this with the parents of the children directly. My problem is that I tend to avoid conflict—arguing has always made me very uncomfortable. Also, when I have tried to talk to parents, I’ve found that they don’t take these issues as seriously as I do. So, I end up not confronting them. What can I do to get over my fear of conflict?

To help, we consulted with three experts in relevant fields. Read on to see what they had to say about overcoming fears of conflict.

The Child Expert
Tom Brunzell, Senior Advisor, Teaching and Learning for Berry Street Victoria, Australia

Tom argues that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate the roles within bullying (the “bully” often has their own complaints, for example) and that bystanders are just as guilty. From his own experience, he’s learned that to engage everyone involved, having a public conversation is the way to go:

Often, when we take it to the class (in a supportive protocol like a classroom resolution meeting) solutions were brainstormed: NOT by the “bully” or “victim” but by the rest of the class or the third party students—however you set it up. A solution is given to BOTH “bully” and “victim” sometimes it’s as simple as “stay away from each other and use peers to help you do that.”

The actual solution doesn’t become the critical element here—rather the fact that all parties know there’s a greater accountability than they previously thought—the entire community. And in the process, hopefully, you can raise the expectations and consciousness of the community at the same time.

The Coach
Cathy Wasserman, LMSW, Self-Leadership Strategies

Cathy is of the opinion the fear of conflict is very common, and that the first step is to commit to confronting your fear. It’s not a bad thing to be afraid, she says, as it’s a sign that there’s something important at stake. This makes it all the more urgent for you to say something:

Before speaking up, role-play and get support from friends and mentors. Clarify your goal: I’d focus on sharing your perspective, NOT convincing the parents of anything. Whether they’re open to your view or not, your job is to be specific about what you’ve observed, convey your concern for all of the kids, and contribute and elicit solutions.

You may also want to let them know that many kids dip into aggressive tactics when building social skills and the situation presents a fertile and very manageable teachable moment. If you’re not trained in anti-bullying work, I’d consult resources to build your confidence. Whatever you decide to do, try to see your fear as a catalyst for your own teachable moment!

The Conflict Resolution Expert
Cliff Jones, Senior Consultant, Nonprofit Association of Oregon

Cliff believes reflecting on our own behavioral styles of conflict is fundamental, as is acknowledging that conflict often arises from miscommunication. Changing how we perceive the conflict can also help:

One of the keys to engaging in and resolving conflict is moving the focus from positions – what we want others to do; to our interest – what is important to us and others. For example – instead of “I want kids who tease other kids to be given an immediate time out” – a position. We might focus on “it is important to me for my child at all times to be in a safe environment at school” – an interest.

When we focus on positions, we often end up arguing. When we focus on interest we can often see that our interest are not in conflict with others (while our positions may be) and then we can look for solutions that meet our common interest. It takes time and skill to have conversations in which this communication and mutual problem solving can happen.

Often there are not quick ways to change behaviors that we have learned over time. To deal with immediate challenges it can be helpful to seek assistance from mediators, counselors and organizations that can help to facilitate the resolution of conflict.

We can become more comfortable in dealing with conflict by taking time to learn about our conflict styles and constructive ways of dealing with conflict. Bookstores and the world wide web are full of many resources and approaches for dealing with conflict.

If this an important issue – take some time to get an overview of the resources and pick one that resonates for study. Incorporate new ideas and behaviors into your relationships, practice and gain experience over time. It can be a great joy to learn that conflict can be an interesting exploration of different needs, expectations and priorities and not necessarily a scary, challenging encounter.

Do you have your own tips for handling conflict? Let us know in the comments below!

In the Portland, OR area? Cliff is leading an all-day workshop on Leadership Skills for Effectively Engaging Workplace & Organizational Conflict on December 4th.

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What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the final installment of a three-part series detailing lessons learned from the world of software development that can be applied to the social change work. Previously, we talked about identifying obstacles to action and using data to inspect and adapt. Today we’re talking about the importance of making small improvements along the way.

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It often takes a series of smaller ideas to get to the big one you love. (Photo via ratch on Shutterstock.)

Have you ever been really excited about a new project, but you’re not sure how to start? Some people prefer to plan as much as possible from the very beginning, while others just want to dip their toes in with a small step. These two approaches are common in the software development world. The first approach is called “waterfall,” and the second is known as “iterative.”

Iterative development is at the heart of Agile software development strategies. Iterative methods assume that in a complex project, there will be too many variables (sometimes called “risks”) to account for up front.

Instead, the goal is to identify the smallest possible increment that will prove or disprove a hypothesis. And we build only that part!

Of course, we might have other ideas in mind, but we focus on building a small piece and then we collect feedback from people, see how it’s actually being used (which is sometimes different from how we expected), and figure out the best way to move forward.

Iterating in the social good space

Linda Kay Klein leads the Work on Purpose program at Echoing Green, a social impact accelerator which has awarded $31 million dollars in start-up funding to over 500 promising social entrepreneurs in 40 countries since its founding in 1987.

Work on Purpose is a perfect example of iterative program development. Linda says she was originally brought on to promote a book by the organization’s senior vice president, which illustrated one principle for finding your purpose through the stories of five of Echoing Green’s social entrepreneurship Fellows. She says at that time, Echoing Green had a hunch that it could become more than a book, but they weren’t sure where it would lead. It was unclear how her job would take shape, but both Linda and the organization were willing to take a risk.

Over the next two and a half years, Work on Purpose evolved under Linda’s leadership. Echoing Green’s staff identified nine more principles for finding your purpose, each of which are now illustrated via stories and taught through interactive activities. The stories and activities became a series of workshops, then an online learning platform, and eventually a curriculum on which faculty and staff of over 50 colleges, universities and nonprofits have been trained.

Linda and her colleagues evaluated each piece of the program at every step along the way via surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one meetings. They even refined their evaluation methods as they went, drawing upon research in the fields of education, psychology, and organizational behavior to develop proxy measures that would enhance their evaluative methodologies. She credits this formative evaluation process for the fast growth of Work on Purpose from a book into a successful program.

Linda believes Echoing Green’s “evaluate early and often” technique is relatively common in the social entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs have a long history of evaluating buyers’ responses to products and changing them up as needed; social entrepreneurs do the same thing with social programs and products.

“Our Echoing Green social entrepreneurship Fellows are all in start-up phase,” Linda adds. “They haven’t had a long enough history for longitudinal research, so—like the Work on Purpose program did—they evaluate and make changes in real time. That’s what being scrappy is all about.”

She says that traditional nonprofits haven’t always done this, instead evaluating programs at the end of a long pilot phase, perhaps missing opportunities to make adjustments along the way.

Evaluate early, evaluate often

Here are some things to keep in mind for an iterative approach to program development:

  • Identify your MVP (Minimum Viable Product). This might not be applicable to every social good project, but it’s probably applicable to more than we realize. Your minimum viable product is the smallest deliverable possible that will prove or disprove a hypothesis. This means getting something in front of real people as soon as possible, like Echoing Green’s first round of workshops, and collecting feedback before iterating further. Be careful not to confuse this with “the least amount of work we can do.” It’s not small for the sake of small; it’s the minimum needed to isolate variables and learn as much as possible.

  • Evaluate against problem statements, not solutions. In software development, it’s tempting to evaluate success based on simple metrics like traffic and feature use. But every feature is attempting to solve a problem, and if people are using the feature but the problem isn’t solved, the feature has failed. Similarly, in the world of social good, projects must be evaluated on their impact, not their use. Echoing Green set goals not only about the number of schools who would adopt their curriculum, but also the impact the curriculum would have on participants.

  • Use proxy measures. Linda credits the TCC Group with helping to shape the way Echoing Green approached evaluation for its Work on Purpose program, specifically helping them identify trustworthy measures that would allow them to project longer-term effects than they were actually able to assess. As an example, research shows that people who feel more related to one another are more likely to work on one anothers’ behalf. With this research as a proxy measure, the Work on Purpose program can now assess participant’s long-term likelihood to work on behalf of others simply by measuring whether or not they felt more related to others after a workshop.


How have you used an “evaluate early and often” approach to iterate on your programs?

For another example of iteration in action, check out our post about Farmigo, a company that’s bringing the farmers market to you.

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What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the second of a three-part series in which I’ll share some lessons drawn from the world of software development that can be applied to the social good sector. Today’s post is about using data to make better decisions. Read the first part about recognizing obstacles to action for what they are here

One of the defining features of Scrum (the software development methodology we use here at Idealist) is the regular opportunity for “retrospectives.” Once a week the team gathers to talk about what went well during the previous week, and what we want to change for the next week.

The key here is the short cycles—it allows us to experiment with semi-crazy ideas, because we’re only committing to them for a week. If they don’t work, we throw ‘em out the next week. It’s very low risk.

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Photo via Nomad_Soul on Shutterstock.

An obvious benefit of this “inspect and adapt” habit is that it allows us to continuously improve our processes. A less obvious benefit is that it creates a culture of empiricism. Whenever we can, we bring real data to the retrospective.

We might start off with an instinct or a hypothesis like, “I wonder if we’d get more done if we aimed higher next week” (which is a valid question, not a foregone conclusion).

We can then test that hypothesis immediately and a week later gather to look at the results. We aimed higher—did we or didn’t we get more done?

Inspect, adapt, change the world

Nonprofits and other worldchangers use inspect and adapt processes as well, of course. The staff at Single Stop USA, for example, are working to end poverty. They keep students in school by helping them and their families navigate the world of public benefits, providing them with access to tax preparation support in addition to legal and financial counseling.

Since their founding in 2001, Single Stop has continued to work towards that goal with laser-like focus, but understands that their approach must be nimble enough to evolve based on empirical data.

Nate Falkner is the Vice President of Strategy and says that Single Stop USA makes better use of data than any organization he’s worked with. For example, they’ve used data to identify potential partners to help distribute their programs.

Early on, they looked at studies that showed that programs that gave community college students at risk of dropping out just two to three hundred dollars would often mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

A lightbulb went off, and the Single Stop team realized community colleges were ideal partners. Single Stop’s programs could serve as a dropout prevention strategy for the colleges (on average, Single Stop clients receive benefits and services worth over $1,000), while the colleges could provide Single Stop with access to a large number of potential clients and an infrastructure through which to expand.

Similarly, after gathering data that showed the words “tax preparation support” carries less stigma than “government benefits” (think politically charged terms like “food stamps” and “welfare”), Single Stop refined its messaging to potential clients. They focused their outreach message on the tax preparation parts of their program, drawing in clients who later became interested in their other resources.

Let out your inner data nerd

When it comes to developing an “inspect and adapt” process, we recommend keeping the following in mind:

1. Schedule time for reflecting on process, and treat it as sacred.
It can be tempting to skip the retrospective when other things seem more pressing, but we’ve found that treating it as sacred has kept us sharp.

2. Minimize the risks associated with innovating on process.
We limit our experiments to one week, which allows us to try out some pretty dramatic ideas. You’ll often hear someone say, “It’s only for a week, guys” during our retrospective sessions. This reduces anxiety for people who tend to be averse to big changes.

3. Adapt the process; don’t move the goalposts.
As Nate says, “Our mission is ending poverty, and that doesn’t change. We’re being smart and nimble about how we approach that discussion and how we approach stakeholders on their terms.”

How have you used “inspect and adapt” techniques to innovate on your internal processes?

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What can world-changers learn from software developers?

This is the first of a three part series in which I’ll share some lessons drawn from the world of software development that can be applied to the social good sector. Part one is about recognizing obstacles to action for what they are.

I work on the web development team here at Idealist. My business card has the title of “Scrum Master,” which sounds equal parts terrifying and mystifying (in reality, it’s neither). One of my primary responsibilities is to remove obstacles for our web developers.

Scrum” is one of several popular software development methodologies collectively known by the umbrella term “Agile.” Agile processes seek to address some of the issues inherent to highly complex projects such as software development, by providing a set of shared values, engineering principles, and communication methods.

As I’ve learned more about these methodologies, I’ve discovered there are many applications to the work that members of the Idealist community are engaged in every day. After all, what’s a more complex project than eradicating poverty, ending homelessness, or convincing world leaders to cooperate on climate change?

A technique for recognizing obstacles

Every morning, we have a 15-minute meeting called “the daily scrum” where each developer makes a commitment for the day, and talks about their obstacles.

One technique we use is making a list of certain words that we think might indicate a hidden obstacle, like “try,” “maybe,” and “hopefully.”

We write them on a whiteboard. Whenever a developer uses one of those words during the daily meeting, we call it out. For example, a developer might say, “Today I’ll try to finish the new blog feature…,” and the rest of the team will challenge him to explain why he’s only going to try.

This isn’t some Yoda-esque motivation strategy (“Do or do not. There is no try.”). Rather, it’s an attempt to understand what is causing the hesitation. Typically there’s an underlying obstacle, like the developer isn’t familiar with the relevant part of the code. Once that’s been articulated, we can work as a team to solve it—perhaps by having him pair up with another developer who’s more experienced with that part of the codebase.

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

Applications for world-changing work

Identifying your own obstacles, or your organization’s, is a key step in any plan to change the world. Here are some strategies:

1. Make it a regular practice.
In Scrum, we ask ourselves every day what our obstacles are, and what’s getting in the way. In your context, this may be a weekly ritual, or something that you do at a twice-annual staff retreat.

2. Learn to recognize symptoms of hidden obstacles.
In the world of web development, there are a few common signs of unspoken obstacles: a general lack of progress, having more work “in progress” than there are developers on the team, or releasing buggy code. In the world of social good, the signs might include: not hitting your fundraising targets regularly, skipping writing your annual report to stakeholders, or getting unsatisfactory feedback from clients. Recognize these symptoms for what they are: evidence of some underlying obstacles.

3. Make obstacles visible.
Some Scrum teams have an “Impediments board” where they list their obstacles to action on index cards. Cards get removed when the impediment is removed. By making the obstacles visible, everyone sees them and they tend to get resolved faster.

4. Prioritize obstacles.
Not all obstacles are created equal. For example, an obstacle that is preventing your organization from receiving donations might be more important than something that prevents your organization from getting a new logo in time for your summer campaign. Some Scrum teams limit the number of obstacles “in play” at any one time. This forces you to prioritize, and choose the most significant obstacles to focus on.

5. Share responsibility.
A good Scrum Master will facilitate the removal of obstacles by creating a culture of shared team responsibility. Similarly, an executive director or project manager might be ultimately responsible for removing obstacles within an organization, but by empowering the team, they will be resolved more quickly.

We’ve found paying special attention to identifying and removing obstacles has greatly improved our development work at Idealist. What do you think? Do you have any tips or tricks for finding and resolving obstacles in your organization or projects?

p.s. Stay tuned for the next part of the series, where I’ll share some ideas for how to “inspect and adapt” on your internal processes.

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Try this! Snowball fight for charity

The idea

What kid doesn’t love a snow day? Of course it’s a day off school, but, more importantly, waking up to a world that has been transformed by a fresh layer of snow adds a bit of magic and wonder to a child’s life.

On January 12 of this year, the city of Seattle was treated to an epic, fun-filled Snow Day. But this event was specifically designed for adults.

It started with a snow fort and castle-building competition, which later became the setting for the the world’s largest snowball fight. 6,000 people joined in, and a new Guinness world record was set. The day ended with a pub crawl that allowed community members to warm up, as well as make new friends.

The event was the brainchild of Neil Bergquist, who managed to pull of the impressive feat while also serving as the Director of SURF Incubator, a community-supported network of digital startups. Neil relied on his own entrepreneurial skills, and the support of his network of friends and contacts, to turn Snow Day into a reality.

“I wanted to do something disruptive. Snow Day was an opportunity for the city to come together and showcase everything we love about the Northwest,” he says.

The event was a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Clubs of King County. In addition to raising an impressive $50,000, it also helped participants connect with the youth organization’s mission to inspire and enable all young people to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens.

Why you might like to try this

  • Creates a meaningful experience, while raising money. “Our mission was to raise money for kids by helping people remember what it’s like to be one,” Neil says. Snow Day went beyond the traditional charity auction or dinner, and provided a memorable, shared experience for Seattleites.
  • Shines a spotlight on the beneficiary’s work and mission. There’s no doubt the Boys and Girls Clubs of King County got more than money out of the event. Neil is proud of the fact that the event garnered global media attention, and created positive buzz for the nonprofit. It helped bring attention to the Boys and Girls Clubs’ other fundraising efforts, as well as generated fresh interest amongst potential volunteers. As Neil says, “The publicity they received was hard to put a dollar value on.”
  • Prioritizes fun and community. Neil recognizes the powerful community-building effect of something as iconic as a snow day. “Snow days are a time where the world shuts down. The stresses of our daily life come to a close, and people just focus on the here and now. And on each other.”

SnowDay

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How you can replicate it

While Seattle’s Snow Day was the first of its kind, Neil says he can imagine similar events happening all over the world. He says the spirit of Snow Day is something everyone can relate to, and provides a healthy way to bring communities together.

If you’d like to bring a Snow Day to your community, consider these lessons from Neil and his team. Remember that Neil started this without any official institutional backing. He does have entrepreneurial skills, a pretty high risk tolerance, and a great network of supporters, but he says there’s no reason others can’t achieve the same kind of success.

  • Think big. A Snow Day that attracted 100 people wouldn’t have made nearly the impact that this 6,000-person exercise in “managed chaos” (Neil’s words) had. When the team realized they had the potential to break a world record, they knew they had to pull out all the stops.
  • Get your ducks in a row. Neil refers to the date and the venue as the “anchor pieces,” around which everything else needs to work, so deal with those first. He recommends securing an iconic venue, like the Seattle Center, as a backdrop. For a risky endeavour like Snow Day, you need to make sure you’re properly insured. Do your research. As Neil says, “You don’t just call up Allstate and say, ‘Hey, we’re having the world’s largest snowball fight.’”
  • Make your own high-quality snow. Neil says if he organizes another Snow Day, he won’t bring in 160,000 pounds of snow in 34 dump trucks like he did this year. Instead, he’d investigate the several ways to create snow on site.
  • Do your homework. Neil and his team are now experts on snow. They read studies on the dangers of snowball fights (they made sure goggles were available at the event after learning that eye lacerations are the number one cause of injuries during snowball fights). They conducted snow-quality tests in the Cascade mountains, and did scenario planning (how would various weather conditions affect the event?). They took the details seriously.
  • Leverage every resource you can. Neil relied on the time and skills of his committed team of friends. He made use of personal connections to convince 36 corporate sponsors to get on board with an unprecedented, and, frankly, rather risky, endeavor. The team used their personal networks to blow up social media, eventually selling out the event a week in advance. They got a radio partner on board, and benefited from the free promotion. Neil believes creating mutually beneficial relationships was the key to getting the promotion he needed.
  • Build a strong brand. Neil managed to get the “Snow.co” domain and the @SnowDay twitter handle, which he says added to the legitimacy of the event from the get go.
  • Be prepared for a lot of work. Everyone on Neil’s team had a full-time job, in addition to their Snow Day responsibilities. Neil reports, “There was a team of six of us that were working all the time. I probably put in 80 hours per week for the five or six weeks leading up to the event. I loved the idea, and I wanted to make it happen.”

A month before the event, with 4,000 tickets sold, the Snow Day team still didn’t know how they were going to transport the 160,000 pounds of snow needed.

“The difficult part is maintaining the confidence that you’re going to find a way,” Neil finally says. “If you have a vision, you’re going to give everything it takes to deliver on that vision, even though you don’t always have all the answers.”


Want to plan a Snow Day in your own community? Reach out to Neil Bergquist for information and advice: neil@snow.co.

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Is passion enough to change the world?

When it comes to finding a social-impact career, many of us spend time trying to answer big questions: What’s my passion? What kind of work do I want to do? What cause am I interested in?

But are these the kind of questions we should be asking?

Cal Newport (Photo Credit: Cal Newport)

To explore this a bit further, we interviewed Cal Newport, a Washington, DC-based writer and assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He is the author of Study Hacks, a blog that dishes up thoughtful commentary on the themes of success and leading a meaningful life. In this interview he addresses the importance of expertise, the difference between mission-driven and passion, and how to make the best use of your time to increase your impact.

Idealist: Is there a difference between pursuing a mission driven career (i.e. committed to a cause or impact) and pursuing a passion? If so, how would you make that distinction?

Cal Newport: There is an important difference between pursuing a mission-driven career and pursuing a passion. The former doesn’t require you to figure out in advance what kind of mission will drive you. It is, instead, a commitment toward pushing your work toward something purposeful and important. The latter, by contrast, requires that you have figured out something in advance that you really want to do — which is rarely effective, especially for young people who don’t yet have much exposure to the world.

Idealist: A common thread in your writing is the importance of simplifying and focusing work to achieve excellence and impact. Do you think people and organizations tackling big social issues like poverty, for example, can apply the same methods?

Cal Newport: Absolutely. The best ideas tend to come from people with the most specialized expertise in the problem. This argues that if you want to make an impact, don’t start with the big idea, but instead start with the big commitment to immerse yourself in a problem you think needs solving. Don’t force the idea. Force yourself instead to develop your skills.

Idealist: You’ve written about psuedo-striving/busyness and how this actually stops people from being productive and successful. Why do you think people get caught up in this and how can people break through it, especially if we are trying to address issues that seem insurmountable?

Cal Newport: Pseudo-striving is that state you get in when you fill your whole day doing *stuff*, usually on the computer, that isn’t really pushing yourself to get better at your core skills. As a writer, for example, I could easily spend a full day monkeying around on twitter, and launching web projects, and tweaking WordPress. What really matters, however, is the longer term work of carefully researching and crafting prose — trying to make each project better than the last.

Cal’s latest book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” is arriving on bookshelves on September 18th. Learn more and order your copy.

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January 21: IMPACT Conference early bird sponsor deadline

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This could be your organization! (Via impactconference.org)

The IMPACT Conference is the largest annual conference in the United States focused on engaging college students in service, advocacy and social action. We have a special connection to this event which builds on the legacy of the COOL (Campus Outreach Opportunity League) National Conference and the Idealist Campus Conference, which we housed for three years.

This year’s conference will be held at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida on March 31-April 3, 2011. For more information on the conference, visit www.impactconference.org.

Nonprofits seeking to reach out to some of the most active and engaged college students (and campus administrators) in the country might consider sponsoring this dynamic event. Sponsoring organizations have several opportunities to connect with students during the conference. The early bird deadline to sponsor is January 21.

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