Print media - newspapers, magazines, etc - are not dead. They aren’t dying, either. The ways that people get/share information of all types are constantly changing and, yes, that includes how people engage with print media. But that’s not how we talk about the role that print media plays in our lives.
You see, print works.
Print still plays a major role in content distribution and consumption.
The top 25 print magazines reach more adults and teens than the top 25 regularly scheduled prime time TV shows (and consumers spend a significant amount of time - 40 minutes on average - reading each print magazine issue).
And as Capitol New York wrote: a new survey by the Newspaper Association of America, which advocates on behalf of the industry, shows a) that “seventy-nine percent of adults had “taken action as a result of reading or seeing an ad in a print newspaper in the past 30 days and that print newspaper advertising is seen as “being believable and trustworthy.”
All this serves as confirmation that print media is still an effective way to reach and influence consumers. Those same points, however, also make the print media industry look defensive.
People like print. Famous people like print ( Luke Wilson prefers print media to digital). Young people like print - not just people who grew up when print was the only option (a new study from Pew shows that some 88 percent of Americans younger than 30 said they read a book in the past year compared with 79 percent of those older than 30). Everyone engages with print media in some way, at some point, for some purpose.
We don’t know enough about that engagement with print. We don’t know exactly how the interaction that people have with print has changed, or how it will change further in the future. All we know for sure is that people like print media for many different reasons. And that’s the focus we should be taking as we think about the future of (all) media.
Print offers a different experience than digital media, just as reading is different than watching television or listening. All different forms of media have some place in our lives. Its reasonable to assume that people consume and share print media for the same reasons they consume and share any other form of media — because they find that media valuable. It serves a need. It fulfills a promise. They find it entertaining. Their friend does it.
The how/when/why of newspapers and magazines has changed - but so has the how/when/why of everything else in our society. So why do we keep trying to make the case for the value that we assigned to print in the past? Why can’t we figure out the new how/when/why of print media?
We can. But we have to start by asking some different questions…
Instead of focusing on how to make print media less expensive, can we figure out what makes print valuable - and why?
Instead of exploring ways to replace the print media experience with digital, can we consider how print media fits as part of people’s overall engagement with media; what role it still plays in our lives - and why?
Instead of testing new and different ways to market/sell digital media, can we analyze why people do/don’t buy a magazine or newspaper from a newsstand or at the airport (compared to just accessing the content online, or not getting it at all) and/or why they do/don’t subscribe to a magazine or newspaper in print (compared to just accessing the content online, or not getting it at all)?
While so much attention is being paid to how digital forms of media transform how we get/share information, and the new ways they can be marketed, many in the media industry have seemingly resigned themselves to the idea that print no longer has value in a hyper-connected, fast moving, constantly changing world. Are we are simply waiting for the last remaining magazines and newspapers to die off, to go digital only… and passing the time by clinging to whatever data point or survey result might suggest that the clock won’t run out before a little more revenue is generated? We can do better.
What if we stopped trying to defend the value of print, or re-hashing outdated arguments about how print can be used to influence consumer behavior (that largely serves to put print in competition with digital and other forms of media)? What if we set out to re-introduce print, and its value, in the digital age? What if we asked some of these new questions and set our sights on trying to define a new role (or roles) for print media in people’s lives?
We need to change the conversation about print. And there is no time to waste.
I am now an official member of New York State’s Citizen Preparedness Corps. I even have the Certificate of Completion (auto-signed by both Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as Jerome Hauer, the Commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services) to prove it.
I was awarded my Certificate of Completion for ‘attendance and successful participation” in a roughly two-hour training session yesterday evening. Upon completion of the training, I also received a free “Citizen Preparedness Corps Response Starter Kit” - a backpack filled with some basic disaster preparation supplies (Plastic drop cloth, light stick, D Batteries, First Aid Kit, Face mask, Safety goggles, AM/FM pocket radio w/batteries, packs of drinking water, food bars, a regular flashlight, emergency blanket, duct tape, work gloves, and a water bottle) and information from the City of New York Department of Emergency Management (among others) about the various steps that should take to be ready in the event of an emergency.
What I am not is… prepared. In fact, aside from having new/additional materials in my possession, I am no more prepared for an emergency that I was before attending the training. I have not develop an emergency plan (contact information, evacuation details, etc) - for myself or my family. I don’t have a fully stocked emergency kit (which would allow us to make it on our own for 7-10 days without electricity, clean water, etc) or a ‘GoPack’ that I could grab if there was ever a need to evacuate quickly. For the record, I have been planning to craft an emergency plan and stock our apartment with the appropriate supplies for a while. At various points over the past few years I have even made some progress towards this goal. But as it stands right now, I am far from ready. I am also not the only one.
The Citizen Preparedness Corps has a goal of equipping 100,000 citizens in the State of New York with the tools they need to be ready and able to help their families and neighbors during emergencies - in other words, to become their own first responders. The program was launched by Governor Cuomo earlier this year - part of a series of efforts to improve how New Yorkers prepare for/respond to significant weather events (e.g. Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, etc) and other emergencies (e.g. terrorist attacks, blackouts, etc).
I am pretty knowledgeable when it comes to disaster preparation - certainly when it comes to the set of recommended actions that individual citizens should take. I know I need a plan. I know the basic list of supplies that every house/apartment should have on hand. I also have experienced a number of emergency events (9/11, two earthquakes, hurricanes, a tornado, etc). Additionally, I have studied/analyzed how individuals and organizations prepare, manage and respond to disasters and worked with various groups to explore ways to improve preparation, management and response in the digital age. And still… I haven’t taken the necessary steps to be prepared.
A couple of thoughts…
1) The resources available to help people prepare for emergencies are only moderately helpful. The guidance on how to craft a plan, for example, are very generalized… they highlight best practices, encourage basic actions, list common items that you should have available… but they don’t provide much/any direction on how to personalize that plan to your particular needs. Some of the most important questions are surprisingly challenging to answer - and not something you want to get wrong. For example… how do I know the best location in my neighborhood to meet if there is a need to evacuate? What specific types of canned foods should I stock, so that if forced to eat only non-perishable foods for a period of time, I can maximize my energy?
2) The approach to disaster preparedness is super analog. Almost everyone carries a mobile device - phone, tablet, etc. Technology plays a critically important role in our lives, and has significant influence on how we get information, the actions we take, and more. We are all connected in a variety of ways - and increasingly through social networks. But, the ways that individual citizens are asked to prepare/plan for disasters does not really reflect the realities of our society today. In a critical situation, clean water and first aid supplies are definitely more important than having a fully charged cell phone battery or a working internet connection… but those are also critical tools in people’s lives, and an important part of how we communicate, get information and more. There are apps and other resources that will help deliver warnings or deliver information… but very little recognition of the role that technology now plays in our lives, or guidance on how to use our connections as part of our preparation or recovery.
The big focus of projects like the Citizen Preparedness Corps is to get the most basic of information to the largest number of people. On its own that will help to improve our ability as a society to manage and respond in the event of an emergency. And I have a lot of confidence in our civil response effort - government, the military, etc - to mobilize when something bad happens. But I also know there is a lot more that should be done, and that would be possible if we considered different approaches to disaster preparedness. This is an industry (if you will) that is in desperate need for disruption.
First of all, we rely way to heavily on individual motivation and capacity when it comes to preparedness… being ‘ready’ is not nearly as easy as people believe, and getting more citizens to take the necessary steps will require more than a series of community forums and free backpacks being handed out. Second, there is a more significant, and more focused role for media - mainstream, digital, social, you name it - to play in preparedness, management and recovery of emergencies. We can do much more, and much better, than simply raising awareness. Third, for all the new technology that is being applied to emergency response, there has been very little innovation in how individuals are trained and prepared - and so much opportunity to deliver better information as well as provide more support and facilitation in the planning process. Oh… and don’t even get me started on the role that businesses and the philanthropic sector can play - raising money is important, but its far from the only thing that these types of organizations can do.
There are some smart people, and well-meaning organizations focusing on this discussion… but not enough of them, and not in all the right ways or places. Disasters happen… and the possibility of a major storm, a terrorist attack, a technological shutdown is present every day. Our best option is to be prepared. And right now, there are huge gaps in our preparedness as individual citizens and communities. Moreover, there are huge gaps in how we think about preparedness, the tools and information we make available, our approach to educating and supporting individuals in taking the necessary steps. I don’t believe it would be that complicated or difficult to make a dramatic improvement in our preparedness efforts either (more on that another time)… but i do know that we better start thinking very differently about this challenge, and fast.
I have decided to appoint myself ‘Entrepreneur In Residence” (EIR) for little m media.
The idea of an EIR is not new… venture capital firms, tech companies and others have been inviting startup-y minded folks into their ranks for years to help make sense of trends, cultivate new product ideas, and prioritize where and when to invest. More recently, media companies, non-profit organizations and various departments/agencies in government have embraced the idea as well, tapping successful entrepreneurs to help drive change within an organization or help solve specific problems.
There is a lot of debate about what exactly EIRs do… and while no two roles/programs are the same, you often hear about EIRs spending time meeting with startup teams, visiting incubators, convening futurists and other disruptive thinkers in discussion. Sometimes these EIRs have a specific agenda or focus, other times their mandate is simply to look for new and interesting things.
I haven’t figured out all the details. Suggestions are welcome. If you have an area where you think I should focus, or a challenge to offer, please let me know.
What I know for sure… this is a big challenge and a big responsibility. There is a lot that I can learn, and want to change, and need to do better. Committing some entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial time and focus is what it will take to make things happen. So that’s what I am going to do. And the rest… well, the rest I will figure out as I go.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of participating in a PBS MediaShift organized Collab/Space event. The event, which was hosted at the Ford Foundation headquarters, offered nine “intrapreneurs” an opportunity to present their media-related startup-y projects and field questions from the audience. The afternoon was spent working with the ”intrapreneurs” in groups to address various project-related challenges.
NOTE: There is a terrific post on the PBS Media Shift site that summarizes all the presentations and ideas that were shared throughout the day. Here is an excerpt from that post that briefly highlights the different projects that were presented:
> We heard from NPR about its Analytics Dashboard, a new tool for the newsroom which the social news desk was trying to get adopted around the company.
> Joseph Agoada of Ashoka spoke on its Coursebuilder, a massively open online course for teachers to teach them how to educate their students to facilitate change.
> Mike Dewar from the New York Times spoke on Streamtools, a graphical toolkit for dealing with streams of data and the difficulty he had getting it adopted.
> David Yanofsky of Quartz spoke about Chartbuilder, an open source tool for anyone to make charts easily. One challenge was making charts mobile-ready.
> From the Wall Street Journal came a presentation by David Biderman on their new CMS (content management system) application and the difficulties the developers had in getting it adopted beyond for the World Cup coverage.
> NY Daily News‘ Cyna Alderman presented their Innnovation Lab — whose goal is to bring startups under its wing, facilitate them and use their innovations at the Daily News itself. People at the Daily News do work on the Lab as 20% of their work time, and thus don’t always prioritize it.
> Vox‘s Scott Kellum presented their cardstacks explainers, and the challenge that Vox had in getting more people to share and view them.
> Facebook’s Jason White described the social network’s FBNewswire project (in collaboration with Storyful) and was hoping to create a better version for news publisers.
> Community radio station WFMU‘s general manager Ken Freedman presented their Audience Engine commenting system and told the audience how good he was at talking down trolls (he called himself a “troll whisperer”).
You can read more about the presented projects here.
My role was to help identify the most interesting issues and challenges facing the “intrapreneurs” and frame the questions and opportunities that the working groups should prioritize during the afternoon session.
Even with only five minutes to present, and ten minutes of questions per project, there were too many issues/questions/ideas collected to be fully considered during the workshops in the afternoon. Still, I think a lot of the issues/questions/ideas that were collected are interesting, and potentially useful - to the “intrapreneurs” who presented, to others working on driving change inside a media company, and potentially others. So, I pulled together my notes/questions for each group and have pasted them below.
Let me know what you think.
Q: How many other excuses (like the World Cup) could you identify as a way to experiment with, learn from, etc. - before you proceed with getting a project approved internally?
Q: What startup incubation is worth organizing (e.g. a lab approach), or supporting/forcing to solve your issues more proactively? How might you get people from different areas of expertise, or those with shared interest in figuring these out, together.
Earlier this year, as part of 2014 Appropriations Bill, Congress authorized the creation of The National Commission on Hunger. The Commission, which is composed of ten members, is charged with developing a report on new strategies to solve the problem of hunger and food insecurity in America. The commission will also examine ways to partner with the faith, nonprofit, and business community. (A more complete description of the Commission is available here.)
The first meeting of the Commission is next week, so I thought I would provide a few recommendations/ideas to help the group with their work.
Dear Members of The National Commission on Hunger:
I am not an expert in the issue of hunger. I am not directly involved with any hunger services organizations (though I was a strategic adviser to Feeding America for several years). But, I know hunger is a solvable issue. In fact, I think hunger may be one of the most solvable issues facing our society today - and at the same time I don’t think we are getting anywhere closer to finding or creating or implementing solutions that will truly address hunger in a meaningful and measurable way. I continue to be frustrated by the fact that we haven’t made more progress.
Its not just the issue of hunger - so much of what is happening in the social good/social entrepreneurship space seems to me to be focused on the wrong things. As I have said over and over again, we don’t need another, awareness campaign, we don’t need another app or contest or celebrity endorsement to raise awareness. People know hunger is an issue. Important people. Normal people. People with means, and intelligence, and capacity to have great influence over how policy is shaped or solutions are developed - they know that hunger is a solvable problem. But we need those people to focus in the right ways. We need to make progress towards meeting our goals, delivering the kinds of outcomes that we know are possible - so we can start to have different conversations about how to solve hunger.
That was the big idea behind WeCanEndThis - a project that Scott Henderson (@ScottyHendo, CauseShift), Anne Mai Bertelsen (@AnneMai, Mai Strategies) and I launched in 2010 to spark innovation and a broader engagement in the movement to end hunger in America. Here is how we described the effort:
The project is designed to allow - and ensure - that a diverse group of individuals and organizations are working together, along with our cause partners (Feeding America, Share Our Strength, and Capital Area Food Bank of Texas) to help solve a major social issue. Over the next year, as WeCanEndThis moves forward, the effort to find new and different approaches to ending hunger will continue.
WeCanEndThis officially launched at SXSW and hunger was designated as the official cause of the festival, a first for the event. The big event for WeCanEndThis at SXSW was something we called the “CauseLab,” a day long, multi-part, cross-discipline, brainstorming session. We invited lots of smart, innovative, collaborative minded thought leaders to help dream up to develop innovative solutions that address three central challenges:
(This Q&A with Kari Saratovsky for the Case Foundation explains a lot of the thinking behind this approach)
The CauseLab was a huge success – the room was packed, the ideas were flying, and some different ways of thinking about how to address hunger in America started to emerge. Three potentially game-changing ideas for how the hunger community might re-consider the approach to this issue emerged from the discussion - and I think some parts of what were developed are relevant to your work.
Those big ideas included:
These are just some basic concepts - initially conceived of during the discussions that were held during the CauseLab, and refined over time through discussions, research, experimentation, and more. They are a starting place for the Commission when beginning to discuss and craft their report. They provide pieces of a framework that will allow for truly innovative and disruptive ideas to emerge and thrive. But, importantly, they reflect a different way of thinking about this challenge - one that hasn’t found its way into the heart of most efforts to solve hunger.
Beyond the ideas themselves… I hope the Commission can understand and embrace the need to do things differently.
Significant change is hard. The process can be difficult, loud, and messy. Re-thinking everything - how we communicate, operate, engage, mobilize, measure, and even discuss/explain the issue of hunger, in hopes of significantly shifting the way we address this issue, will be very challenging. Not everyone recognizes the scope of the challenge or the need to approach the issue in a different way. Not every organization will feel comfortable shifting from their current way of doing things - which works well for the organization, but perhaps doesn’t have the desired impact on the issue as a whole. Some people don’t have the skills, the experience, or even the perspective to embrace this type of effort. Others are entrenched in their beliefs, overly reliant on their past experiences, and unable to imagine an approach that isn’t based on existing, and arguably outdated methods or theories. And some people are just plain afraid to take on the powerful forces that stand in the way of change.
The Commission was not created to summarize what we already know about the issue of hunger - that is big, and gnarly, that it impacts everyone in this country, that it complicated to solve, that there are great organizations doing great work, etc. I will be disappointed if your final recommendations fail to acknowledge the failures of the hunger community to date in solving this problem, and issuing a challenge/invitation to find, create, and aggressively pursue more innovative and disruptive solutions to this significant problem.
The Commission was created to tell Congress, and the American people, what it will take to solve hunger. I will know that the Commission has delivered something that has the potential to change the way we work to solve hunger if/when it makes people angry. When you make people angry, its a sign that you are moving in the right direction, and a challenge to push more and try harder. Big, hard to imagine, difficult to implement, expensive - not to mention unpopular or controversial - ideas by themselves aren’t solutions, but they are critical pieces to finding the answers and approaches that are needed if we are going to shift how we address hunger in America and succeed in this effort. That is what I hope, and frankly expect, the Commission will deliver.
I would be thrilled to have an opportunity to work with the members of the Commission to flesh out the ideas that were outlined above, to share more of what we learned from the WeCanEndThis project, to brainstorm new ideas, review existing plans, to add a voice from beyond the hunger community, to make introductions to smart people, or whatever would be helpful.
Good luck… I can’t wait to see what you come up with. And thank you for your commitment and hard work.
- Brian Reich
Do You Actually Know How to Engage a Millennial?
Let me give you a hint: the answer is no.
That’s why Kari Saratovsky (@KDS) and I crafted a series of five strategic memos to help people across all industries think differently about the Millennial generation, and help accelerate a shift in the way we engage young people today.
Here are links to the five memos:
What Do We Really Know About Millennials?
How Are Millennial Views Shaped?
What Aren’t Millennials Buying?
What Is The Best Way To Reach A Millennial?
Is There A Leadership Gap Among Millennials?
(And here is Kari’s post introducing the project)
Why did we write five memos? Well, the research, headlines and ‘expert’ opinions about Millennials all seem to agree: young people are coddled, protected, and constantly connected (in a bad way). But they are wrong. What we know, and the way we think about how to communicate with and engage Millennials is, at best, incomplete.
All we know for sure is that Millennials have limited time, limited dollars and limited attention spans - but also huge future spending power, and a desire to do something interesting and important with their lives. We also know that Millennials have different expectations for their involvement with brands, media, issues – and especially social causes - than any other generation. We know this because so much of what has been communicated at Millennials is missing the mark. Even when some brand or nonprofit has been smart (or lucky) enough to get Millennials to pay attention, converting that awareness into some meaningful, measurable action has proven to be even more difficult.
So yes… Millennials are difficult to reach, and very challenging to successfully engage. And that’s exactly why we wrote these memos. We don’t have all the answers. We do have some thoughts to help shift the way people are thinking about young people and what they want/need.
Millennials are playing a more prominent role in our society, so we better figure this out - and soon. Start by reading the five memos (#1, #2, #3, #4 and #5) and let us know what you think.
The plenary session this morning at the Nonprofit Technology Conference (#13NTC) was all about failure – how you define it, what to learn from it, why it’s important, and the critical need for the nonprofit/social good/philanthropy community to do a better job embracing it. I was privileged to sit on stage with Allyson Burns from the Case Foundation (@allieb37), Erin Shy from Sage Nonprofit (@ErinShy), Megan Kashner from Benevolent (@BenevolentNet)… and our host, moderator and fearless leader, Beth Kanter (@kanter)… and help to focus and drive the conversation.
I think everyone – on stage and in the audience – agrees that a) failing is an inevitable part of the important work required to change the world and address critical issues that challenge our society, b) that it is far more productive to look for ways to learn and adapt when things fall apart then it is to dwell on mistakes or cast blame, and c) that making the most of failing gets easier the more you do it and the more support you have in the process. That’s a pretty big deal if you think about it – that a seemingly difficult, potentially uncomfortable conversation about people and organizations involved in the nonprofit/social change/philanthropy space needing to fail more, fail smarter, and fail better was not met with any obvious disagreement or anger.
But let me be clear: having consensus on the need to fail more, fail smarter, and fail better won’t do anything to change how we think, how we act, or the work we are doing to address serious issues that are challenging our society. In fact, having agreement on those core points is probably a bad thing. We will get lazy. We will assume that our acknowledgement of the fruits of failure will organically result in a noticeably different way of operating.
Thinking about, talking about, understanding, even appreciating the value of failure won’t change anything. We have to push beyond failing as some sort of amusing intellectual discussion and start to do things differently. We need to force failure.
In my closing comment at the plenary I issued a simple challenge: start failing. Just do it. Just fucking do it.
You can fail big. You can fail small. You can fail a lot. You can fail a little. The key is to start failing. And to keep failing – over and over and over again. To fail all the time. To force yourself, your organization, the people you work with, the community of people and groups working to address an issue or cause to fail. To fail more. To fail smarter. To fail better.
I am challenging you to fail. And if you aren’t willing – if you aren’t committed – then I want you to get out of the business. Do something else. Work on something different. The issues that we need to address are real. The big challenges that are facing our society are serious and only growing and become more complex. We need to be faster, smarter and better if we are going to succeed – and to do that we need to understand the role that failing plays in our work, and use our failing to do something amazing.
I also give you permission to fail. It won’t be easy. It can get messy. Even the people who very confident in their ability to turn failing into awesomeness will tell you how failing can be exhausting and punishing. But failing is important – necessary in fact – and we are long overdue in the nonprofit/social change/philanthropy community to start getting better at failing. So, if you need a note from me to pass along to your boss or your board or your funder, I will write one for you. If you need a pep talk when things get difficult and confusing, I will provide one. If you need a tutorial on how to really make a mess of things, and come out stronger on the other side, I have plenty of personal and professional experiences to form a curriculum with. But if you refuse to start failing, and really force things to happen, or you don’t take this challenge seriously, I want you to step aside. I want you to find a different line of work. If you aren’t going to enthusiastically use your ticket on the failure train, I want you to give your seat to someone else who is willing to step up and start to make things happen.
I fail all the time. I know it. And I feel pretty confident in my ability to learn and adapt when I fail. But I am just one person. The benefits of my failing are limited – unless I fail in ways that others can benefit from. I can do more to help others understand my mistakes, and what I learned from them. We all can. And when we do, it allows everyone else to focus their energy failing on different things. To make new mistakes. To get smarter.
I challenge you. I implore you. I beg of you. Start failing. Fail on your own. Fail with others. Fail in ways that we all will learn and benefit from. Do something. Anything. Just fucking do it. And don’t look back.
Thank you for failing.
One of my favorite activities when attending the South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin (SXSW) is to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. Don’t look at me like that… I am not trying to invade anyone’s privacy or commit an act of corporate espionage. Rather, I am curious to learn what people are talking about, and how they talk. You can learn a lot about what is trending and where to focus your attention based on what you overhear someone say in between bites of a breakfast taco.
With almost 27k people attending just the interactive festival (there are also film and music festivals running somewhat concurrently) there are a lot of conversations to choose from. And yet, there is a surprising amount of overlap in the topics. The biggest topic of discussion is logistics — how many people there are this year (‘its so big and impersonal… I remember when it was still cool’), the challenges of finding a good panel discussion or party, and, of course, the weather. Interesting, but not particularly enlightening stuff at the end of the day. The second most popular topic tends to be which new apps or companies are gaining traction — everyone wants to know, and be connected to, the next big thing. And there are a lot of new apps and companies trying to gain traction here, including so many variations on the same names that its hard to keep them all straight.
If I get really lucky, I will hear some folks talking about what they do, and what works/doesn’t work in their particular company or project. In past years, those discussions about how people work have been dominated by one word: failure. Everyone embraced the idea that failure was valuable, that it was important to learn from mistakes. There were panel discussions devoted to the topic. There were flyers pasted all over town practically challenging people to fail — and be proud of it. Hashtags. Laptop stickers. T-shirts. Failure was everywhere. People were proud to fail. But not this year. I haven’t heard the word failure mentioned yet. Not by a panelist. Not in conversation between two people over an organic smoothie. Nothing. Its almost like people have become afraid of failing - or even talk about it.
Is that possible? Is it possible that failure is no longer a hot topic in the world of startups, designers, media and everything else being discussed here at SXSW? I don’t believe it. Maybe there a different way of building and managing a successful enterprise that has replaced this concept altogether? Or a new buzzword that has replaced failure — a way of talking about the same concept but using a new set of vocabulary?
I can appreciate that nobody wants to fail. It can be awkward, embarrassing, even painful to fail. But failing is important - necessary in fact. We learn from failure. Everybody knows that (I think). And so… my fear is that if people aren’t talking about failure, they aren’t being curious. They aren’t as interested in learning as they have been in the past. They aren’t hungry to try new things, no matter the consequences. If that’s the case, then our ability to create more interesting things, solve more challenging problems, address more complex issues will diminish. If we don’t talk about failure, and we don’t embrace it as we have in the past we won’t get smarter.
I am sure there are people who are talking about failure… I just haven’t found them yet. I will keep listening in people’s conversations and see what I can find out. If you hear anything, let me know.
NOTE: This was originally published at
This post is about the missed opportunity of SXSW.
This is the ninth consecutive year that I have attended the South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. And the more it changes… the more it stays the same.
SXSW is a unique gathering of people who work in/around technology, design, media, film, music… and an increasing number of people associated with the worlds of philanthropy and social change/social good. I have attended all these years because SXSW, unlike almost any other big gathering (and by big I mean 25,000+ attendees), offers such a diverse and interesting mix interests and talents. There is a just a wonderful opportunity to cross-pollinate thinking and partner on efforts related to addressing the serious issues that exist in the world today in meaningful, measurable ways here in Austin than anywhere else I visit/attend. This is the ultimate playground for people trying to solve complex problems and have a meaningful, measurable impact on the world.
Unfortunately, it isn’t happening. Very little is changing about SXSW - at least in terms of how the people who attend understand, appreciate, and get involved in the discussion about philanthropy and social good/social change. The potential that exists to dramatically change/improve the way we address serious issues simply isn’t being realized.
What happened (or failed to happen)? I don’t really know. When I first started attending SXSW, I could count on one hand the number of people — like me — those who were working in/around the philanthropy and social good/social change space who attended. There weren’t very many people who focused on politics and government, media, or really anything beyond the world of tech startups or PR/creative/advertising agencies either. But as SXSW has grown, others have realized how compelling this gathering could be, and our numbers have swelled. People who care about and work on serious issues are still the minority, but our presence is recognized. And at one point, maybe two or three years ago, (and especially when the earthquake/tsunami struck Japan in the middle of SXSW), philanthropy and social good/social change were one of the hottest topics of discussion around the whole event.
And yet, somehow, despite having thousands of attendees from the philanthropy and social good/social change space, as well as substantial interest among people in all other sectors (business, media, etc)… the conversation about how to address serious issues in a connected society hasn’t really evolved. Interest isn’t enough. The focus remains largely the same. The promise of these amazing conversations and interactions has not materialized.
What is happening? There are some panel discussions about the work of nonprofits and related groups — but they are hosted by people from inside the social change/social good community, and they are being attended by people who are already inside the social change/social good community. In other words, we are still talking mostly to ourselves. There are some discussions and projects featuring the best digital, creative and other thinkers about how to apply their expertise to addressing serious issues - but the focus is disproportionately trained on raising awareness and money (two things that everyone loves to talk about, though I would argue are neither the solution to a complex problem, nor the most interesting thing to try and achieve). In other words, the focus of all that intellect and creativity is being misapplied. And, worst of all, philanthropy and social change/social good efforts are being co-opted by big brands, small startups, and everyone else as part of a social responsibility strategy. In many ways, the important work of philanthropy and social good/social change has become commoditized, and is being used as a marketing tactic, further undermining the potential for real, meaningful, measurable impact on the world.
Am I being unfair? I don’t think so. I acknowledge that there are many small, smart, innovative folks who are trying to change how we think about addressing serious issues… and using some new, and very cool ways of collecting and organizing data, deploying technology and more to solve problems. I do everything I can to support and celebrate them. Some of them are on display here at SXSW, and I am sure many others are walking around, trying to get noticed, or get help, and just haven’t made it on to the radar yet. But they are far from top of mind as they should be. Meanwhile, I look around and I see a lot of the same people, having the same conversations, celebrating the same (false indicators of) success in advancing the causes that we care so deeply about — and by doing so, failing to recognize just how limited their impact really is. I watch as opportunities to dramatically re-think and re-imagine our approach to serious issues literally walk past each other without making any sort of connection.
A lot of people have criticized SXSW for becoming big and impersonal — for losing its innovative spirit, for becoming so spread out and impersonal that it is hard to find quality panel discussions, make the right connections, or break through with a new idea or company. I don’t think that is the problem, at least not in this context. In fact, the bigger SXSW grows, and the more people who attend, with all their different interests, and abilities, the more SXSW becomes an even greater opportunity to change the way we address serious issues.
But change will only happen if we want it to. It won’t happen on its own. The organizers won’t figure out how to properly push a conversation about philanthropy and social good/social change without help. The technology, design, media, and other communities won’t magically show up and participate in a conversation about changing the world without being invited and challenged and pressed for better answers and ideas. People will continue to pass in the hallways, fail to connect — and leave events like SXSW without a different lens through which to view the challenges that exist in the world, and without projects and partnerships that have game-changing potential for the future of our society.
None of the things we know are possible, and desperately want, will happen unless/until the philanthropy and social good/social change community really pushes to see these important topics more thoughtfully integrated.
SXSW is one of the places where that push can and should be made. The opportunity is here. Gathered in one place. What the f—k are we waiting for?
Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., was quoted in Politico’s Playbook this morning talking about how corporations’ view of D.C. has changed. He said:
"People have lost kind of faith in the ability of government to provide solutions for their daily concerns. That’s provided both a responsibility and opportunity for businesses and NGOs, to work together to get things done. It’s opened up that space and created demand for it. So, the biggest difference is: You don’t count on Washington to get things done anymore."
Dach knows what he is talking about.
Over the past seven years, he has been responsible for public policy, reputation management, corporate communications, philanthropy, government relations, plus the company’s social responsibility and sustainability initiatives at Wal-Mart. And over the past seven years, more than any other company on the planet I would argue, Wal-Mart has demonstrated its commitment to addressing serious issues - around climate change and the environment, hunger and obesity, and more.
I expect that Wal-Mart will continue its commitment to addressing serious issues after Dach departs in June. But I wonder if/how many businesses and NGOs will accept the responsibility and embrace the opportunity that he is talking about. That’s something I would like to see.