Deep in the Heart: Giving in the Wake of Disaster

“And the multitudes asked him, saying, What then must we do?”  Luke 3:10 (ASV)

Inconceivable. The destruction. The devastation. The suffering.

As a state and a nation, we are all struggling to find a reason, a context ― or some sort of meaning in the horrendous natural disaster that is Harvey.  We talk of heroic rescues, Texans pulling together under adversity and Divine order; however, the enormity of the hurricane’s wake still exceeds our capacity to comprehend. It’s almost impossible to fathom the numbers (as of Sept. 1):

  • 27 trillion gallons of rain water falling over Texas and Louisiana
  • 50 lives lost
  • 51.88 inches of rain ― the greatest amount of rainfall over land for a single storm in continental U.S. history
  • 40,000 + people forced from their homes and currently sheltered in the state of Texas in 239 facilities
  • 2,882 animals currently being sheltered in Texas
  • 1,000-year-level flood

Yesterday, I purchased a giant box of Luvs diapers and baby wipes for the first time in about 20 years and made a contribution the TrustedWorld.org, which is efficiently managing the logistics of contributed items. I attended a prayer service, but I’m still searching . . .

So, I remembered this article I wrote almost exactly 12 years ago following Hurricane Katrina. I think many of the messages still resonate today.

Reconciling the Overwhelming | Fall 2005

As we continue to grieve the devastating losses of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, our nation’s nonprofit sector now faces daunting challenges ― both immediate and long-term. Frontline relief organizations will continue to require sustained financial support as they scramble to manage the biggest displacement of Americans since the Civil War. Thankfully, Americans care deeply, and they are exceptionally generous.  Within two weeks following Katrina’s landfall, almost $1 billion was contributed to causes serving those stricken by the disaster. Unprecedented in American history, this pace of giving overtook historic rates in the early weeks for both the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Asian tsunami of 2004. And amazingly, this outpouring of generosity is expected to represent only one percent of the total amount Americans are likely to give to worthy causes this year.

However, we must not neglect the frontline nonprofits after the breaking news fades. Even after support spikes have subsided, these organizations must be relentless about maintaining consistent funding levels. Still, as nonprofit leaders in a post-Katrina world, we might be feeling reluctant to actively raise funds for other worthy causes ― hindered by the overwhelming needs burdening so many. Understandably so. These unprecedented tragedies require our undivided attention, and it may be hard for some of us to go about our daily activities ― haunted by the shadows of those struggling in the ongoing anguish of disaster.

But this fierce commitment to humanity and our communities must help us stay focused ― working in the true spirit of philanthropy.

Let us embrace the power of generosity by leading our organizations with a vision of abundance, as opposed to scarcity.  As Americans continue to open their hearts and wallets in inspiring ways, let’s envision an expanding philanthropic pie. In fact, historical data proves that as donors increase their giving levels, they tend not to slide back to former habits. As we build compelling cases for support, giving will increase.  And what a privilege is it is to be part of the growth of the philanthropic sector ― as giving assumes such a prominent position in the American consciousness.

Impact Beyond the Gulf Coast.

Whether you are providing food and shelter for the displaced, education for our nation’s youth, or solace for the spirit, now is it the time to communicate directly and authentically with your donors.

Honor the situation, but do not apologize or shy away from contact on behalf of the cause you represent. Let’s reassure our donors that our organizations are strong and that we are grappling with new needs and shifting priorities. If we are confident and centered, our constituencies will have confidence in us and our missions.

In the long run, dedication to our causes will inspire donors who have already made our organizations priorities in their lives. This is a time for all of us to reflect carefully on our own giving commitments and clarify the impact we hope to make.  Now more than ever, let us strengthen our support of the organizations that speak to our personal truths, knowing that we can make a difference ― across the street or around the world.

Inspiring Response: 5 Ways Story Can Turbo-Charge Your Message

writeheart“Story is the DNA of all meaning.”  – Annette Simmons

Do your appeals have undeniable power? Do you enthrall, captivate, motivate ― and drive response?

With only weeks remaining in 2016, the cavalcade of carefully crafted requests will soon commence. For most of us, they will arrive from all points, directions and media ― email, snail mail, APPs, Facebook, texts and tweets. What will grab us? And more important, what will snag the  imaginations of our prospects? What will be deleted? Filed? Ignored? Dismissed? Or worse . . . unnoticed?

Some will be cloaked in gratitude. Others will lament the ubiquitous budget gap or unexpected organizational need. Still others are likely to promote a seductive donor challenge, captivating contest, new initiative, capital effort or recognition group.

But they should all have one thing in common ― a compelling story.

What’s the hook? And I’m not talking about a cheesy advertising gimmick or giveaway.  The power to resonate comes from the human, emotional connection.

Big, looming, seemingly logical organizational problems ― like deficits, shortfalls and even unmet needs are just that. The organization’s problems. As communicators, we must focus on the donor’s or prospect’s needs ― they are often triggered at an imperceptible, emotional and even subconscious level.

Though Marshall McLuhan might argue, the message is just as salient as the medium in this case ― especially given the media miasma engulfing us at every turn.  As I wrote in a prior post, I feel effective messaging must address the entire brain ― engaging the emotional, logical and habitual brain circuits.

Behavioral economist George Lowenstein confirms “our subconscious explains our consumer behavior better than our conscious.  Ninety percent of all purchasing decisions are not made consciously.”

Working as a writer, communicator and crafter of hundreds (maybe thousands) of appeals and calls to action throughout my career to to date, I have identified a few key elements that are absolutely essential.  [Where appropriate, I have changed names to protect client confidentiality

The Pain

This is probably the most important concept. And it’s personal.  What is the emotional state ― or discomfort your message can resolve for the prospect or donor?  According to brain theory, everything begins with an emotional nudge, which connects to the cerebral cortex or executive function of making a decision.  And the most important thing about framing a powerful request or appeal is articulating the pain in an intimate, relatable, visceral way. Compare these two.

        “I was deployed in Saudi Arabia on 9/11 . . . And I can still hear the screams . . .”             

         Corporal John Ray’s* battle-weary voice cracks and catches in his throat.

        “We were in combat overnight . . . and we weren’t prepared,” says the slight, sandy-haired U.S. Army veteran ― as he slowly brushes a single droplet of sweat from his brow. 

       “The nightmares never stop, but I just wish I had enough to eat . . . “

                                                                       (versus)

       “Veteran hunger is a growing problem in America . . . And their struggle is significant.”

The top copy is weaving a human story that’s drawing the reader into a specifically defined conflict ― not a daunting global cause that is difficult to quantify ― or feel. More to the point, one tells and one shows.

The  Problem

The next step is the core challenge or problem.  How does this pain manifest, and how does your organization or operation contextualize the issue you are addressing? Get granular. Explain why is your mission is significant, and why should we care? Again, it’s important to construct a very personal, human narrative. Here’s an excerpt form a letter:

It was January 2007. I was on a mission trip that rattled me to my very marrow ― and ultimately changed my life forever. We brought more than 285,000 nutritious meals for hungry, struggling children who were barely surviving in the war-torn squalor.

Shockingly, the meals ran out too soon. There were just too many suffering, vulnerable girls and boys like Maribel  . . . in such dire need.

 We simply did not have enough to go around . . . All  I could do was stand there and weep. So, I had to do  something. 

Are you hooked?  And better yet . . . are you wondering about the next three components? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned for these and other stories. It’s a real cliffhanger . . .

In addition to the five pillars of a great appeal, there are  many other components of your content concoction. Of course, we must artfully integrate urgency, all calls to action, testimonials/success stories, various digital platforms, and customer relationship management (CRM) interfaces. But start with this formula. Start with the IMPACT ― and you will definitely turbo-charge your results.

If you’d like to learn more, sign up below. Tell me about your project. Also, watch for the next installment.  Maximize your appeal. It all starts with the story of one. 

The Art of Social Enterprise

Elaine Gantz Wright is a social media coach — providing the practical tools you need to thrive in the brave new media world — listener, writer, blogger, speaker, creator, actor, mom.

I attended the 15th annual “Food for the Soul” Stewpot Art Program exhibition at the Bradshaw Gallery at the Dallas Public Library downtown today.  Impressive does not begin to describe the breadth and emotion of this remarkable work. Such raw energy and delight for souls in such turmoil.  On view through Dec. 28, this breathtaking show is part of is a community art outreach program serving the homeless and at-risk populations of Dallas through the Stewpot ministry at the Dallas First Presbyterian Church.  But it’s really so much more than that. I think this program exemplifies a new “brand” of social initiative that not only strengthens our nation’s rapidly fraying safety net, but empowers individuals through creative expression and supports financial self-sufficiency through micro-commerce. Love it!

I must admit I’m still struggling to synthesize by own artistic voice, so my heart is full when I see these developing artists talking about their work with such confidence and aplomb. Watching a program on ADD on KERA/Channel 13 tonight, I was struck by the quote, “We have found that success is not really depend on how much we know; it’s dependent on how we feel about yourselves – our self-esteem.” Well, these artists are definitely moving in the right direction—and what a win-win-win to support them. The artists receive 90% of the sales of their work, and The Stewpot receives 10%.

I found a small piece by Charles William I could not live without – an intricate ink drawing of intertwined harlequin figures. I was mesmerized by his precision and sense of whimsy–with a disturbing edge.

Take a moment to visit the show and be part of social entrepreneurship that’s part solution, part treasure and part blessing.

Hours are 1:00 – 5:00 on Sundays, closed on Monday, open 10:00 – 5:00 Tues and Wed., 12:00 – 8:00 on Thurs and 10:00 – 5:00 on Fri and Sat.

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Peer Factor

In his epoch-defining book, The Long Tail, WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson explores the statistically rooted theory of the same name. He suggests, “Our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a high number of niches in the tail.” He romances this theory in the context of dominant market forces, including the diminishing physical requirements of distribution and the proliferation of individual content producers empowered by the Internet and new media technologies. His clarifying point is critical,“The Long Tail starts with a million niches, but it isn’t meaningful until those niches are populated with people who want them.” Ay, there’s the rub.

The Democratization of Production and Distribution.

Everything really comes down to the basic economic concept of demand and supply. The difference now is that the cost of reaching niches is reducing dramatically -– thus driving the democratization of production and distribution. In his addendum chapter, Anderson addresses the “the Long Tail of marketing.” The premise of this chapter is that the fragmentation of markets is requiring the fragmentation of marketing. More important, as I have proposed in earlier posts, the user-driven Web is turning the paradigm of traditional marketing communication on its ear.

“(With) individuals trusted more—institutions trusted less—the most effective messaging comes from peers. Nothing beats word of mouth, and as we’ve seen, the Web is the greatest word-of-mouth amplifier the world has ever seen.”

Understanding the Dynamic of Influence.

The integration of the multimedia Web and mobile technologies has forged a brave, new frontier. The medium is really no longer about the message. It’s about the relationship. Therefore, businesses and institutions must shift focus away from managing the message and move toward relating with the influencers. This means leveraging personal affiliations, relationships, and their voices. It also means listening and monitoring through resources, such as:

TechnoratI
Google Trends
Social Networks

The hyperlink is, indeed, the new response device. Traditional metrics, such as audience size and readership are becoming increasingly stale and even irrelevant. Now, response is measured in real-time interactivity—clicks and click-thrus. Action. Anderson says “The hyperlink is the ultimate act of generosity online.” Placing a hyperlink in content signifies tacit endorsement of the associated content and simultaneously gives the author a new brand of authority—the power to refer.

The Power of the Peer.

Given this new focus on the influencer, we as fundraisers could not be in a better place. The development “sweet spot” has arrived. We know that that people give to people, not institutions. And now, the cultural evolution of communication is giving our volunteer fundraisers more power and influence than ever before.

We just need to find the right tools to make them the most successful “askers”— and us the most effective “impresarios” of generosity. Let us know what you think. Ask a question, or leave a comment. Tell us know what you are doing to lake advantage of this rare moment in history.

Elaine Gantz Wright writes about social media that matters. Find her at elgantz@ yahoo.com

Tactics for Tough Times

“It is the nature of man to rise to greatness if greatness is expected of him.” –John Steinbeck

Whether you are large or little, flush or floundering, it’s never too late to chart a course to flourish in the New Year. Even though recovery is still looming as a faint glimmer on horizon, we need to be vigilant about honing our skills to work smarter and make the most of the new economic realities. Here are some scrappy, do-more-with-less things you can do to jump-start your marketing program in 2010:

Contact your lapsed donors. Appeal to them via snail mail or better yet, through email. Reactivated donors can have higher lifetime value than new donors, because they’re already invested.

Express gratitude. Curtailing donor-acknowledgment activities as a means of cost-cutting can be counter-productive–and even devastating. In fact, messages of appreciation will be more potent than ever.

Take risks. Yes, even in a time of uncertainty, new tools can help you differentiate yourself in a sea of solicitations and a cacophony of causes. Social media can help you expand your base and leverage the viral power of peer-to-peer fundraising in dynamic, new ways. Discover exciting ways to streamline your process and empower your volunteers. In this Internet age, the medium is definitely the message, as well as the method!

Innovate. Effective fundraising is dependent on innovation. Everything is testable, and any idea can lead to a stronger program. Whether it succeeds or fails, there is something to be learned. The biggest mistake you can make during tough times is to retreat to a defensive position and make decisions out of fear.

Put the “Donate Now” button on everything. Don’t be shy about the “Donate Now” button. So many schools and universities, in particular, are shy about using this. It’s one of the easiest ways to increase online giving–by asking!!! Some key places to put it include:
• Your homepage.
• The homepage of your online community.
• Every email, every e-newsletter you send.

ENGAGE in social media. If you have not already, create a Facebook page that will automatically post status updates to your Twitter account. (Set that up, too.) And, investigate your LinkedIn groups. You may find that that there is already an active community of support burgeoning on these sites. Build a bridge, and interact with online savvy groups.

Investigate mobile applications. Whether you are providing mobile access to a unique resource, to volunteer offerings, or to giving opportunities, everyone is going mobile. We need to communicate to our donors and alumni where they are — in the palms of their hands — through mobile applications, texting, and mobile-friendly rendering of our communication devices. This will be essential in 2010! According to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, vendors shipped a total of 43.3 million units during the third quarter of 2009 (3Q09), up 4.2% from the 41.5 million units shipped in 3Q08, and up 3.2% from shipments of 41.9 million units in 2Q09.

Whatever you do, keep trusting — and testing, testing, testing . . . And remember to take time to breathe and celebrate everything you have accomplished this year.

Elaine Gantz Wright writes about social media that makes a difference. Contact her at elgantz @ yahoo.com.

Literary Device


I admit it. I like texting. I don’t know if it is the writer in me, the social media maven, mom, or bon vivant, but I am hooked. It took me a while to embrace it, but I have found the direct access to those I care about quite appealing. I can receive a quick text at work when my son gets home from school—or a little casual banter with a flirtatious friend—without the formality a phone conversation entails. I guess it’s part of the “instant,” byte-sized culture we are creating.

So, I suspect that’s why I haven’t stopped thinking about Stanford University professor Andrea Lunsford’s five-year examination of college students’ writing in the Stanford Study of Writing. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. What she discovered might surprise you. The reality is that the most popular technological tools and social media platforms continue to receive plenty of sanctimonious slander—from Facebook’s narcissistic drivel, to PowerPoint’s bullet-point prose, to Twitter’s unintelligible prattle. But in true train-wreck fashion, we just can’t seem to stop looking.

As many traditional academicians, such as University College of London English professor John Sutherland have moaned, social media and texting are “dehydrating language into bleak, bald, sad shorthand.” However, the new media guard thinks differently. The truth is that communication is evolving and morphing as breakneck speed, and we are right smack in the middle of maelstrom. Granted, it’s hard to achieve the perspective needed to make sense of it all. Professor Lunsford suggests:

“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization. Technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.”

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing happens online, and it almost always involves text. Moreover, they are writing more than any previous generation, ever—in history. They are immersed in a complex, often confounding, new space where writers and their audiences are now enmeshed. “The consumer has become the producer,” says Professor Clay Shirky. The rules of the game have changed, and communication mores have been literallyturned upside down.

Lunsford pins her findings to the pervasive psycho-sociological trends defining our culture. She says, “More than earlier generations, young people today are aware of the precarious nature of our lives. They understand the dangers that await us. Hence, writing is a way to get a sense of power.” Interestingly, comparing the Stanford students’ writing with their peers from the mid-1980s, Lunsford found that the writing of today’s students is about three times as long today—they have “the ability to generate more prose.” I guess expressing ideas about hard things requires hard words. And when grappling with hard things, “I don’t think it can be worked out in 140 characters,” Lunsford contends. How ironic.

Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom. Lunsford calls this “life writing.” Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up. The fact that students today almost always write for an audience—a real switch from the prior generation—gives them a different sense of focus and message impact. It’s almost as if we are narrating our own lives. In interviews, students defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading, organizing, and debating. It’s about finding a voice and taking a stand—even if it’s a review of the latest movie.

The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing, because it had no audience but the professor. It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. How about texting those LOLs and emoticons? Are they eroding the sanctity of academic writing? When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.

At the end of the day, texting has it’s time and place. And, there’s the rub. It represents a fascinating dichotomy of communication. It is simultaneously immediate and intimate, yet passive. It finds you any time of the day or night (no matter where you are—except driving, I hope) in the soft, fleshy palm of your hand. But at the same time, it gives you the power to choose when and how you want to respond. To engage or not to engage—the new “text-i-quette.”

Some psychologists warn against this intimate anonymity—that it encourages risky behavior. Elisabeth Wilkins wrote in a blog post that “texting can rob our kids of the ability to interact socially”—diminishing the importance of body language and facial expressions. I think the evolution of email and texting has radically changed the way we communicate and how we express ourselves, but I’m not sure it’s something we can condemn or alter. It simply is. It is the new communications behavior and landscape, which is inextricably intertwined with the technological innovation that enables it.

What do you think of texting and the changing patterns of communication? How are they affecting us as human beings?

Elaine Gantz Wright writes about social media that makes a difference. Contact her at elgantz @ yahoo.com

Organizing Chaos in 2010

Those who ponder the power and possibilities of social media—and its role in our organizations, lives, and culture are all positing predictions for 2010. But, at the end of the day, the big question on everyone’s lips seems to be, “What is the next big thing”? Will it be about catching the Google Wave, the open source document sharing platform—or will our growing mobile obsession drive the success of location-based applications like Foursquare and Brightkite?

Even the experts are unsure. However, I’m not sure forecasting the next Twitter is really the useful question—particularly for those us who focus on leveraging social media in a business context. Most thoughtful professionals I know—particularly in the educational advancement and alumni space—are looking for ways to harness the tools that are already in play more effectively and strategically. Approaching the social media landscape is a little like trying to take a drink from a fire hose—like organizing chaos. We all see the strength of the tools, but we wonder how it all fits and how it will make a difference in our organizations. With this concept as a backdrop, here is how I interpret my crystal ball:

1. Social Media Will Become Less Social.

First of all, I’d like to revisit the term “social media.” There is something about this nomenclature that sounds almost trivial or lacking in substance. I’d like to coin a new term – “engagement media.” It’s more active and deliberate. David Armano said on his Harvard Business School blog recently, “With groups, lists, and niche networks becoming more popular, networks could begin to feel more ‘exclusive.’ Not everyone can fit on someone’s newly created Twitter list and as networks begin to fill with noise, it’s likely that user behavior such as ‘hiding’ the hyperactive ‘updaters’ that appear in your Facebook news feed may become more common. Perhaps it’s not actually less social, but it might seem that way as we all come to terms with getting value out of our networks—while filtering out the clutter.” And I think David is spot on here. We will be looking for more sophisticated, relevant experiences—greater value and ROE, return on engagement.

2. More Enterprise Social Software Platforms Will Emerge.

As an extension of the above development, major software providers, such as IBM, SAP, and Oracle will continue to innovate and launch enterprise-grade social networking and Web 2.0 collaboration applications/suites. Already, Oracle has Beehive; Microsoft enhanced SharePoint with social media functionality, and IBM offers Lotus Connections. Targeted niche solutions will emerge to address industry and stakeholder-specific needs. Currently, many organizations are piecing together solutions with blogs on TypePad/WordPress—or investing significant amounts of time and money in developing in-house communities using tools such as Ruby on Rails.

3. Social Media (“Engagement Media”) Fundraising Will Become More Integrated.

Organizations of all sizes will see the value of fully integrated multi-channel strategies. Using social media channels alone for fundraising will not be as effective as designing coordinated campaigns and communication strategies that include traditional fundraising techniques. This includes email, your website, Google ads, face-to-face events, and managed promotion to the online and mainstream media. Beth Kanter confirms this predication and gives a great example. Just last week, GiveMN, a new online web site that hopes to encourage more Minnesotans to give and help create a stronger nonprofit community for Minnesota, raised over $14 million dollars in 24 hours using a multi-channel campaign.

4. Relevance and Ease Will Become Increasingly Important in Peer-to-Peer Fundraising.

There is no more compelling spokesperson for an organization or school than a passionate supporter. This is the core strength of peer-to-peer fundraising. And there are a range of scenarios—from a class agent soliciting annual fund gifts for his or her school, to a stakeholder requesting donations in lieu of birthday presents or wedding gifts for an organization. In fact, Facebook Causes now offers a birthday wish feature, and we will likely see more peer-to-peer fundraising applications sprouting up in the coming months. In 2010, I suspect donors will demand more meaningful interaction—not so much with organizations, but with recipients and “the mission on the ground.” Epic Change’s TweetsGiving 2009 connects friends around the world with Mama Lucy Kamptoni, who used income from selling chickens to build an innovative school in her village’s community in Tanzania. Last year, TweetsGiving, raised $11,000—with a goal of$100,000 this year.

5. Email as We Know it Will Become Passé.

As Erik Qualman says in his popular Social Media Revolution video, GEN X and Y already view email as passé. And the trend will accelerate—or rather, morph technologically. The New York Times iPhone application recently added functionality which allows a user to easily share an article across networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Many websites already support this functionality, but this next iteration of sharing behavior will gradually replace email list communications—particularly through the exponential expansion of mobile phone adoption. And this will provide renewed opportunities for withering content purveyors, such as traditional newspapers and network television. So, stay tuned. Fasten your seat belt.

It’s likely to be a wild ride! What are your prognostications?

Does “Unfriend” Really Have Lex-Appeal?

This morning, Rex Petrasko, my savvy, smart, sincere executive vice president, closed our daily meeting with the announcement that the New Oxford American Dictionary had proclaimed the Word of the Year for 2009 to be “unfriend.” I smiled at him knowingly from across the room, because I had heard the confounding announcement hours earlier on NPR as I brushed my teeth.

When I heard the brief news byte, I paused for a moment, swallowed hard and considered the irony. First of all, how interesting that the Word of the Year would be a social media—even Facebook word. And “unfriend,” no less. How perplexing that the Oxford folk embraced the negative version of the verb-ized noun “friend.”

Unfriend: (verb) To remove someone as a “friend” on a social networking site such as Facebook. As in, “I decided to unfriend my boyfriend on Facebook after we had a fight.”

“It has both currency and potential longevity,” notes Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for Oxford ’s US dictionary program. “In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year. Most “un-” prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar “un-” verbs (uncap, unpack), but “unfriend” is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!). Unfriend has real lex-appeal.”

Christine, I think I beg to differ. “Unfriend” has a limited appeal, if at all, and it is particularly disconcerting in this age when people are desperate to connect on some level—electronic or otherwise. Friend, blog, text, comment, post, and tweet are all new inhabitants of the morphed communication lexicon. They are all terms for a new mode of behaving—a new way of being—not so much communicating.

I commented on my Facebook page status today that the Word of the Year might be indicative of the dark underbelly of social media. Merridith Branscombe, a Facebook pal and spirited, sassy woman from my Northwestern sorority days, commented, “It is fairly strange that friend somehow transformed to a verb; and that ‘unfriend’ is Word of the Year? I guess it’s not on the underbelly anymore, but in plain sight.

She is absolutely correct. It is in plain sight. We are connecting and disconnecting in plain sight—in front of God and everyone, and “there’s the rub,” as Hamlet said. Social media is less about communicating and more about behaving. At one point, my ex-boyfriend seemed more disturbed about my “unfriending” him on Facebook than about the actual breakup of the relationship. It gives me pause. Are we all more concerned about the virtual ramifications of relationships than the realities? Something to ponder—especially when we are all so hungry for valuable, real, authentic connection, and online experiences that are truly worth our time and attention in this choatic, often superficial world.

More and more, we are defining ourselves by how we interact, as opposed to what we say. The way we describe ourselves is really irrelevant. We are—how we are, as opposed to who we are. Same goes for businesses. Our customers are defining our brands—not vice versa.

“Unfriend” means that we no longer wish the “offending” person to be part of our online inner circles—our intimate online world, our defined universe. Our walls and tweet streams are sacred ground in many ways. They document our inner most thoughts and our profoundest dreams—our vulnerability and our humanity. As I have mentioned in other posts, “ambient intimacy” has come to describe the visceral nature of social media. Considering that an old boyfriend still might be lurking around as a so-called friend feels invasive, almost voyeuristic. But, how incongruent this seems in a word of open-source and “shareware.” It’s a paradox, indeed.

As the social web continues to explode with opportunities for connection and synergy, conversely, the need to maintain personal autonomy and control somehow intensifies. What do you think?

Accounting for Generosity

We forget that there is no hope or joy except in human relationships.
— Antoine de Saint Exupery,Wind, Sand and Stars

moneyOne of my newest colleagues posed a provocative question last week. He actually has no shortage of insights, and I certainly appreciate living in an environment where questions are as highly valued as answers. Indeed, his inquiry is at the heart of what we do. What inspires alumni to give to their alma maters? More broadly, why do we give in general? At face value, this seems like a simple question, but the longer I work in the field of philanthropy, the more I understand its complexities. Actually, a myriad of responses come to mind—to address a critical need, to save a life, a response to the right appeal from the right person at the right time, a passion for a cause, a sense of obligation, guilt, helplessness, or quite simply— we are asked.

Traditional fundraising methods prescribe a deliberate approach built around the carefully managed steps of cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship. I remember hearing a development consultant stating that he could not imagine a better profession. He described an almost spiritual dimension—saying he felt truly privileged and honored to be in the presence of others when they are exhibiting generosity. And I think he had a point.

In fact, I addressed the sacred component of giving today. Though the Church historically and adroitly integrates giving opportunities into its core experience each week, the last quarter of the calendar year provides an opportunity to renew one’s annual tithing commitment. Making the direct correlation between generosity, one’s income, and one’s spiritual journey is quite powerful, indeed.

But research has shown there may also be a scientific component. I was fascinated to see the results of a study by Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University. The concept of a “neuroeconomist” is intriguing in its own right, but his work links the trait of generosity with oxytocin, a hormone released by the brain in response to social stimuli. The study showed that participants who were given oxytocin gave significantly more money to a stranger than participants who took a placebo. Whether or not there is a “fundraising drug,” (what a concept?) I think the epiphany here for all of us in the social media space is that meaningful, real engagement opportunities can create an environment that nurtures of generosity and an increase proclivity to give.

“The hormone causes a general feeling of attachment to other people, even strangers,” Zak says. That may help explain why people donate to victims of natural disasters or to others who are in need. “Oxytocin is a social glue that holds us all together and makes us care about other people,” says Zak, who has shown links between the hormone and trust in past research.

“If you have enough nurturing, if you’re in a safe environment, you might be more likely to release oxytocin the next time you encounter a positive social stimulus,” Zak says. Interestingly, he says that about 2% of people constantly have oxytocin being released by their brains, so they stop reacting to it. “Those people lack empathy,” Zak says. Although they can still learn appropriate behaviors, the reactions are not natural for them. Ha! I think I have met some of those people. Oxytocin means “swift birth” in Greek.

Whether you consider the hormonal reaction or not, it really all comes down to relationships—more about the intangible than the tangible. It is often first an emotional impulse of the heart, followed by a logical justification. We are all interconnected as part of a larger human web, and I’m not necessarily talking about the WWW variety here. We are human beings driven by:

Compassion. Regardless of cultural and familial experience, people everywhere are moved to respond when others are in need.

Pleasure. Brain scans confirm what we experience feeling of pleasure when we give. In a sense, it’s really “hard-wiring.”

Habit. If we watched our parents give, we likely internalized that impression. We understand—on even an unconscious level—that this is what good people do.

Belief. Whether we consider charity to be based on religious beliefs, philosophy, or universal values, we as humans recognize an essential imperative to take care of each other. These ideas are larger than self-interest and benefit.

Responsibility. When others are hungry, sick, frightened, without shelter and livelihood our society is put at risk. Our education institutions are driving solutions to many of society’s most pressing issues.

Legacy. When we give we know that we influence the future, sometimes only immediately and sometimes for a very long time. By creating a memorial endowment fund we keep our name and memory alive in the community long past the obituary.

The unknown. We may even have unknown reasons for giving—some even unknown to ourselves.

What do you think? And how is social media impacting generosity?

Elaine Gantz Wright writes about social media, fundraising, and other communications phenomena. Please post your comment below and join the conversation.

Hire me: elgantz@ yahoo.com.

What’s the Next Layer on the Stack?

pancakesI was privileged to speak to a class at Southern Methodist University last week on social media for nonprofits. Nina Flournoy, the charming, accomplished corporate communications professor, was taking a very practical, professionally focused approach to the material. Clearly, the bright, enthusiastic students were hungry to comprehend the marketing power of social media.

They asked great questions – What makes something go viral for a business or nonprofit? How do I know what to post? When to post? How do I find my audience? Looking back on the day, my insights were many, but I was surprised to notice that though we may be asking similar questions, our points of view were remarkably different. Facebook, Twitter, and social media are as much a part of their daily lives as the telephone or the iPod. In fact, they live perpetually connected lives. Therefore, looking at these social media sites as marketing channels to be managed or positioned can feel incongruent. Social media is simply how they live, how they interact with the world and each other. It’s second nature—breathing, eating, sleeping—and tweeting! The reality is here:

As part of a slightly older generation of professionals, I am still experimenting with ways to integrate, coordinate, and differentiate somehow. But whether you are Generation X, Y or Z, I think these are questions we as marketers must address right now, in the moment. We are all trying to figure out how to weave social media tactics into the overall marketing mix—and manage them effectively. As we know, setting up a Facebook account or a Twitter profile is just the beginning—definitely not the whole story.

Content is king—but even more important is the conversation it triggers. Social media is less about information and more about participation. And geez, that is very hard to schedule! It is an activity, behavior, and process. Therefore, the question is—does the user experience have value? I think that’s where businesses and nonprofits are stymied. They look at social media and ask, “how is this relevant?”

And yet, that’s probably the flawed interpretation. Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In are really relevance-neutral. They are only as effective as their context. Sage North America recently released survey data that “88 percent of U.S. and Canadian nonprofits are using some form of social media, although less than half of this number have been using it for more than a year.” The surprising news is, “Of those who have not adopted a social media campaign, 45 percent indicated that it was because they were unsure of its relevance or advantages. Others said that they were unable to devote the time or resources.” The other hesitancy seems to be an uncertainty about integrating existing online transactions with social media environments. “91 percent of nonprofits said that they raise funds online, yet only 58 percent of these respondents said they use social media for fundraising.”

The challenge is to embrace the social media landscape in a valuable, productive way. That is, from a business perspective, we need to find a way to aggregate the vast, messy world of social media into a usable set of metrics, messages, behaviors, and/or outcomes. As I have written in earlier posts, it’s the new success measure—ROE, return on engagement.

At the end of the class, the SMU students asked me the question, “What’s next? What’s the next big thing?” What a fabulous and provocative question. There is some buzz about this among thought leaders. They suggest it is the question is really “What’s next on the stack?” We need to think about the media communication world as a stack or a progression. Many point to aggregation, dashboards for marketers, and consolidation tools. Chris Vary of Weber Shandwick and the Dallas Social Media Club says he suspects Twitter has probably peaked in terms of growth, so we should keep our eyes on the social media horizon. I have read there are 11,000 registered third party apps built on top of Twitter and probably more for Facebook; therefore, I’m thinking the cycle dictates some sort of consolidation or filtering.

Thinking back on my visit to SMU, where I earned an MBA and an MA, I am dizzied and overwhelmed by the acceleration of change. When I was sitting in those same chairs in the Hughes Trigg Building (well, maybe replaced since then) twenty-ahem years ago, I was thinking about taking my box of punch cards to the guy who worked on the other side of the little window in the mainframe building. No PCs. No Internet. No email, even. Still had the old Smith-Carona and Liquid Paper, for heaven’s sake! So hard to fathom.

gartner-social-software-hype-cycle-2009
Gartner Social Media Hype Cycle

And now, I can’t imagine a day without my iPhone and HootSuite. I guess I’m sort of a hybrid. As I wrapped up my remarks, I waxed a little nostalgic and encouraged the students to stay open, curious, and highly, highly adaptive.

The human condition is evolving at hyper-speed—intertwined with high-velocity technological innovation focused solely on expressive capability. As NYU professor Clay Shirky observes, “The moment we are living right now, this generation, represents the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.”

So consider this—social media as we know it right now will not be recognizable in 3-5 years. What do you think is next? Are you ready?

Elaine Gantz Wright writes about social media and other communications phenomena. Please post your comment below and join the conversation. elgantz@ yahoo.com