Bottom up Destruction

Last night I was at the House Of Genius Boulder Neighborhood event at the Bing offices in Boulder, CO. I went expecting something way different than what we did. Normally, House of Genius is an event where you go and listen to 3 startups pitch their ideas and then you give them feedback. Last night, it was all about the Boulder Community Foundation a not-for-profit organization that busts its ass every day to make Boulder a better place for everyone who lives there by providing help and grants to community focused organizations who are doing good. I hope I got that right…

The big question of the night was basically posed as

How do we get politicians to keep their hands off the money that we get from the county every year and how do we get the people of Boulder to vote yes when these things come up on the ballot

The question was worded completely differently and it took about an hour to break it down to it’s basic elements so that I could understand what exactly they wanted and how we could try to suggest things in order to help make a big difference in their messaging and approach to taxpayers and politicians.

Overall, I believe that we came up with some great ideas and figured out one of the biggest problems that Non-profits have when trying to communicate with the public. Actually, they have the same problem that anyone in a jargon-laden world has. They don’t speak the same language as the people they are teaching, engaging, and asking for support.

I run into this nearly every day as the owner of a web development company. The problem is that I live in a box where we all speak the same language, then whenever I venture out into the wild (i.e. customer meetings, family gatherings, hanging with non-tech friends) I find myself either completely boring the people I am with or confusing the utter shit out of all of them. I have to stop myself and think, “How can I make this conversation as interesting to these people as it is to me, all the while helping them to understand why I am telling them this story and what the hell it is that I am saying.”

So many times, the options for sending the message out from non profits is either one of “hope” or “despair” trying to shock the normal people into deciding that this atrocity is so horrible that it must be stopped, or trying to get people to help with the snowball that is building. It’s the difference between Sarah Mclaughlin singing a sad song with puppy pictures and a news story about how great the community garden was this year (for lack of better examples).

My personal opinion is that the reason that these shock and aww campaigns are used is simply a question of public ignorance of “why” these foundations and organizations exist. It is too hard to explain to a mass of people why there are organizations trying to fight homelessness in Boulder and how that effects them in their daily lives in a 30 second commercial. Instead, we pull at heart strings and hope that is enough to get people to act. Instead, it turns people off like the Meth Campaigns to what you are trying to do. Last night we talked in the big group about how most of us fast forward or change the channel when that puppy video comes on tv because it is just too horrible to watch. I have never talked to any friends or family who have sent money into the ASPCA as a result of that commercial. It’s not that it doesn’t make everyone want to go and slit their wrists to save the puppies.

I feel like the big issue here is really one of communication and education by making the issues topical to people in their own lives. As a business owner, if I could see how this money could directly or indirectly effect me, that would be huge! For example, if the local grocery store was earning a percentage of the money that was allocated by the county because it funneled through the people who needed it to that store, it would be really easy to show them why this is important. Then that store would become an advocate for the bill(s) pretty quickly. Or, if as was suggested in the groups last night, you could show the honest statistics to each school and the parents of the children in that specific school about how 3/20 of the kids in the school are homeless or below federal poverty standards, that hits home. It hits home really hard. “Yes, in this school. Right now. Every day.”

This is all well and good, but how does a not for profit get this information together? and then, how do they afford to get this message out there? After learning what I learned last night, admittedly I am still ignorant to the inner workings of NPOs, I think that the big campaigns don’t do anything. We discovered that most of the campaigns that had been started had not been seen or realized by nearly anyone in the group. Were they ignored? Were they even seen in the first place? I think the issue is that they are not topical enough. The Meth Campaigns although fucking awful, are well known because they are so awful. The ASPCA commercial is the same way. Global Warming is topical and hits home because it’s in the news constantly and its fashionable to be green. How do we fight something like homelessness and poverty levels? Make it hit home, make it hit my door step like a micro burst, but do it in a way that appeals to my wallet and my sense of family. Don’t hit me over the head with nasty pictures and sad songs.

It’s a fine line, but after what I saw last night, it seems like it can be done.

Bottom Up Destruction is a term that was used last night to describe what happens when a seemingly small eco-system completely fails and has overarching effects throughout the entire world. Think about what would happen if all the bees died, or the plankton.

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