Saturday, December 20, 2014

Seven Year Pitch

I started this blog seven years ago (Dec 13, 2007 was my opening entry), ostensibly to help drive traffic to the Fellowship for Intentional Community website.

While I reckon it's accomplished some of that, it's also become a platform for my observations and insights about cooperative group dynamics (distilled from my 27-year career as a process consultant), and a journal about my life in community, as a rural homesteader, and as a husband trying to be a good partner for my dynamic wife. Basically I write about what comes along that catches my attention. About every three days, something does.

Anniversaries and long winter nights (not to mention bad backs) are especially conducive to reflection, and it occurred to me, as I looked back over my career as a contributor to the blogosphere, that my earliest inkling that this might happen coalesced in an FIC committee meeting more than nine years ago, as I listened to my more technologically savvy brethren blue sky about the upcoming communication potentials bubbling up in the brave new world of social media, where the future was rushing in at warp speed to overtake the present.

While I'm by no stretch of the imagination a computer maven, I was able to connect the dots between: a) my being the public face of FIC; and b) social media being forecast as the infobahn of tomorrow. That was the moment when I first sensed a blog coming down the track with my name on it. While that engine took more than two years to actually pull into the station and pick me up, I've been steadily shoveling coal into my blog boiler ever since—to the point where whistling up contributions has become a routine part of my 72-hour circadian rhythm.

One of the most frustrating aspects of what I do in the world—as a writer, as a speaker, as a teacher, and as a consultant—is not getting enough data about how my efforts have landed. Have I offered a valuable insight? Have I altered anyone's life for the better? Have I stimulated a constructive conversation? Have I opened blocked passages? Have I been able to succor someone who felt isolated and misunderstood? Have I helped a group get unstuck and turn a corner? Have I inspired people to realize a bit more of their potential?

Most of the time, I don't know.

But something happened last week that made me smile. I got clear proof that—for at least one person on one occasion—my efforts made a difference. It was the best Christmas present I could get.

Essentially it's a story about customer service, and why it's important that the stream of electrons be connected at both ends to real people. Though not a complicated, as a feel-good story it's just right for the holidays.

As FIC's main administrator, I author quite a few communications written on behalf of the Fellowship to its various constituencies. A typical example of these went out about a month ago to all communities listed in our online Communities Directory. Although it's constant work to keep the information up-to-date, comprehensive, and well organized, listings are free to communities and there is no charge for users to access it. In recognition of this value, we asked groups to consider making a donation—we suggested $20 for every year that they'd been listed—to help cover costs.

The message went out under my signature to 3400 groups, and two days later I got this response from Sue Morris—someone I'd never met—who received my solicitation as a member of Neruda, a forming community in Marshfield VT:

John and I feel, as a founding community, that $20/year is way too much to ask. In our case that would amount to $140. While we are happy to make a donation, we're not sure if you would be content with some smaller amount, say $25 total. How does that sit with you?

I replied:

It’s important to us that all donations are a good fit for both parties, and thus, we don’t want you to contribute any more than you feel is appropriate. While we feel in integrity asking listed groups to consider supporting us at $20/year, we appreciate that the listing may mean more to some than others and will be happy to accept the $25 you’re comfortable with.

While I was fine with this exchange and thought that would be the end of it, last week Sue sent me this follow up:

We now have community-wide agreement to send $25 this year. Should I send a check to your address?

This made my day! Not because it was that much money, but because it was: a) thoughtfully done; b) engaged their whole group; and c) was relational. Sue and John were taken aback by the request, but instead of just hitting the delete button, they reached out to me to discuss their reaction, inviting a personal conversation. Then, based on my reply, they decided to widen the conversation. After the community duly met and discussed it, they let me know the outcome. Thus, I found out in December that my one-paragraph reply in November had landed well, at least in this instance. Not only did we get $25, but, more importantly, we got better connected. Hooray!

This is the very best kind of fundraising, where both parties feel good at the end of the conversation, and the request has resulted in stronger ties. As FIC's Development Coordinator I work hard to see that solicitations are respectful of prospective donors' interests and capacities—even when I get turned down—so it was satisfying to hear that I was able to achieve that with Sue & John.
If every group responded like Neruda, FIC would have all the resources we needed—because our connections with our constituency would be rock solid and we'd be able to harness that to pull together with incredible effectiveness.

The sequence in this story is instructive:
1. I started out with a generic appeal that was sent out en masse.
2. One of the recipients responded with a question, which I answered promptly, personally, and courteously.
3. The individuals brought the issue to their group, which determined its response through a deliberate process.
4. The individuals communicated to me the group's response.
5. Now I'm exploring my reflective response to this sequence, which will be posted en masse.

Think of it as a social media sandwich, where the most nourishing parts were layers 2-4—featuring direct conversations that stimulated Neruda/FIC relations better than a grow light—wrapped in messages that were broadcast to audiences worldwide, where it's uncertain if any seed will fall on fertile ground.

I've been pitching community and cooperative culture for seven years now, and it's satisfying to realize that unlike Tom Ewall in the 1955 romantic comedy, The Seven Year Itch, I've lost none of my original enthusiasm for being wedded to the cause.

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