Note: I was hoping to post this on Sunday…but it’s Thursday now and I’ve spent maybe 2 hours writing this. Also since I’m a terrible person, I didn’t take pictures of anything I did or saw. Please accept these nice pictures of food and cats instead.
According to the book Forces for Good, non-profits are about starting movements. The story of Teach For America’s growth (via One Day, All Children… by Wendy Kopp) is a great example of this. Wendy, against all sense and reason, willed this concept, the idea of bright individuals helping the neediest schools, into people’s minds across the country.
Rather than testing her program — proving her solution is effective and logical, Wendy’s push was to win people’s minds through emotion. She worked up the severity of educational inequity and on the aspirations of recent college grads to change the world. Every mind she claimed would be another domino to fall in the teacher corps movement. To her, the impact and outcomes she hoped for would necessarily follow. This is Conjecture #1 about movements, an idea Connie has told me since day one: movements are not logical. Movements aren’t made of ideas people can reach with logical reasoning. They play off emotions — the ones people feel deeply passionate about. They get people out of complacency and into action. They can’t be designed, engineered, and executed with high fidelity. In fact, the entire process around creating them is pretty contrary to most engineering mindsets. Movements transcend the implementation details. They’re about the why, not the what.
Tacos from a place known on Google Maps as simply “Tacos”
Conjecture #2: Movements are about reframing the world in a way that makes sense. At the heart of every movement are ideas — shifts in an individual mindset that resonates with many many others. Logic can’t create these shifts because it doesn’t grab peoples’ hearts. Instead, I think these shifts look like reframings of the world that align strongly with emotions, morals, or frustrations shared by many, and often these frustrations go unvoiced. By saying that idea that everyone’s been thinking for a long time, people are convinced to join. For TFA, this meant connecting the problem of educational inequity to the excitement of college grads to make a difference. Where before educational inequity went relatively unchecked and college grads became consultants because they couldn’t see how else to change the world, TFA’s pitch bridged this gap. It created a world where this important problem could and needed to be solved — one that just made sense.
So, returning to Project Invent, what does our world look like? To me, this is really the million-dollar question. Connie and I both have the program experience to make and scale impactful programs, but we don’t know how to convince teachers, parents, students, funders, that they should buy in. (Seriously, if anyone’s interested in talking to me about this, I’d appreciated the help.) One way this question manifests itself is in choice of language.
The tagline on the front page of our website says: Project Invent empowers high school students to invent technologies that improve their communities. To me, this isn’t quite the message we want to send. As a reader, I think this feels like a jumble of buzzwords. Every night, we spend at least one hour (basically until we fall asleep or words no longer have meanings in our brains) talking about our message, about tweaks we could make to get people moving.
If we look at TFA’s website, their tagline is: “Teach For America is looking for promising leaders to take on educational inequity.” I don’t think this is the best pitch I’ve ever seen, but I think it’s pretty powerful.
- “Teach For America is looking”: I think this immediately makes readers ask themselves Is this me? Maybe some readers even want this to to be them because they feel wanted / valued. The of the read then becomes introspective — What do I care about? What matters to me?
- “promising leaders”: I’m not sure people resonate a ton with “promising” but I think with “leaders” they really target people who see themselves as changemakers, people who can and want to make some impact.
- “to take on”: The first time I read this, I think this phrase is what blew me away the most (though I also find it the hardest to explain). There are so many other words that could go here (that also probably come to mind more readily) like “combat”, “fight”, “tackle”, “solve.” I think “to take on” is near-perfect though because it matches this David-Goliath dynamic. Even though the problem is large and scary, we’ll take a stab at it. It isn’t about the problem and fighting the problem or solving the problem, it’s about us, as individuals, banding together to take on this injustice.
- “educational inequity”: This is a problem that many experience first-hand. It’s one that lends itself easily to emotional anecdotes. It can take on its own meaning from person to person, but it’s an entire set of problems, injustices, wrongs in the word concisely wrapped into two words.
Though we realize the exact language we use isn’t the end-all be-all of of Project Invent, (Conjecture #3:) we both believe finding clarity in our words will help us understand how to better interact with different stakeholders we talk to.
Thus far, through our nightly discussions (though we also talk about it at other times) we’ve tried several different approaches to finding some answer. We’ve posed several different phrasings, we’ve tried several different problem breakdowns, and we ask almost everyone we talk to for ideas. We do feel like we’re making progress, but it’s really hard to tell when we’re always scared we’re spending too much time with the same words.
So, we’ve still got a ways to go to start a movement. Language seems to just be the first barrier. Even after hardening that down, we would need to do lots of legwork. One of the best places to do this legwork seems like conferences.
Last Saturday, I went to my first conference. Saturday morning, we flew down to LA for CUELA. We brought pamphlets(!), postcards (on paper much nicer than ESP postcards), and a fresh powerpoint, full of vague language, completed on the plane flight over. After lots of preparation, internalization, and putting 6.UAT to good use, I gave my first conference talk…to the two people that showed up. We told them about Project Invent and asked them to spread the word to anyone they knew who might be interested. They both seemed pretty nice and we got lots of good feedback on what worked from our presentation and what didn’t.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to meet too many people at the conference. I’m not really sure why this method was so low yield. Maybe it wasn’t really low yield and it just felt like low yield? Maybe digital avenues are lower yield but reach a higher audience. To some extent I felt like the people I met weren’t particularly great or interesting, though maybe this is more a function of the specificity and small size of this conference. As far as legwork goes, I’m not sure if this means we should put more effort towards attending these kinds of conferences or if we should redouble our efforts in social media.
Anyways, after the conference, we went to get ramen.
Soul Ramen from Tatsu Ramen.
The final point I’d like to make about movements is an assumption that’s underlied this entire discussion (though tbh I’ve probably made a bunch of other assumptions and logic gaps at this point): non-profits are about movements. Is is necessarily better to focus on getting the idea out rather than focusing on program success? If a program just really works well, shouldn’t that be most of the work to successful spread? I’m not too sure which side to believe, but I do think non-profit message reliance on emotion may tip the scales in favor of movements. If this is the case, though, that non-profits are about movements, then this really changes, in my mind, the focus of my work (and other non-profits’ work). Instead of just spreading the word to serve the spread of the program, it seems like the goal should be to spread the word and the spread of the program is more of a nice corollary.
Hopefully this post hasn’t gotten too illegible. Maybe someday I’ll come back and edit. Hopefully in the next few days I won’t sit on this much content before posting.