Telling better stories to build culture and enlist support.

 
 
seedling jpg.jpg
  • How does a non-profit organization prioritize limited staff time in an annual communications plan?
  • How does a group of very busy people develop the discipline to do their part to share stories regularly?
  • How might the organization build a consistent story arc that intersects with supporters in multiple ways?
  • By doing these things, could they also build a stronger board and staff culture by sharing stories across the organization?

SEEDS is a Traverse City-based nonprofit, “established to implement local solutions to global issues at the intersection of ecology, education, and design.” To fulfill their mission, they engage in diverse work: from energy consulting to after-school programming, employing youth in 'green collar' conservation activities to ecological engineering.

They have so many amazing stories to tell that can build their brand and enlist support. They asked Connect_CX and Brightbridge Studio to jointly develop a content strategy to help prioritize staff time, curate the collection of information, and share these stories in a way that enlists support and energizes their passionate base. This would also be a way to connect far-flung SEEDS staff, board and volunteers around the core stories that they all share.

SEEDS will celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2019. Since our founding we have held true to our theory of change that human quality of life is best served in communities that choose holistic, ecologically informed design solutions and that we can help foster these solutions by cultivating spaces that invite innovation, appreciation of the natural world, and access to the right tools. 

— SEEDS Content Strategy RFI Introduction

We developed a broad statement that set the tone for the research and recommendations that followed: “Design a low-friction system through which you ‘garden’ and communicate with your networks to achieve a specific outcome:

  • Inform:  send a message
  • Invite:  call to action
  • Involve:  ask questions, solicit response, build a group
  • Invest:  create a self-growing network of boosters and actors”

SEEDS content strategy executive summary, problem statements and potential solutions.

SETTING THE TABLE FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
SEEDS is comprised of multiple “enterprises” which require an infrastructure of staff support to serve them. We first assembled groups of staff for in-person interviews: to learn about the history and future of each enterprise, helping us understand the factors that drive them, interconnections between them and the types of information they might use for future messaging. 

Of course, in order to collect, curate and deliver these stories, we needed to help SEEDS cultivate their capacity to do so. We helped them visualize that capacity by developing a system map that describes their priorities against staff time being spent in each enterprise. Priorities include expected revenue, actuals vs. projections, difficulty in reaching revenue targets, and how each enterprise contributes to organizational sustainability. 

The larger circles indicate higher priority, based on their goals for 2020:

 
 

This system map denotes each SEEDS staffer or consultant and the time they dedicate to each enterprise. In the center of the map is the Executive Director. This shows that higher priority items (such as Historic Barns Park) are not as supported as they should be.

 
 

With staff priorities understood, we recommended that a Communications Coordinator be added as a full-time position. From our interviews and the resulting map, it was clear that no one person had the time, incentive or bandwidth to implement this strategy. The goals for that position would help define the skill sets they needed:

  • To maintain continuity for SEEDS brand and messaging
  • Set direction and goals for content provided for each enterprise
  • Establish templates for communications that are regularly sent to both internal and external audiences
  • Proof and review content generated by staff and others attached to SEEDS
  • Coordinate and launch content across media using outside design and development resources.

Ultimately they found an Americorps Vista staffer to occupy this position, and create the internal systems around which storytelling discipline would be established.

SEEDS Story Processing System

CULTIVATING THE STORIES
Using the metaphor of gathering, sorting and planting the story “seeds,” the Communications Coordinator works closely with a group of Editors, assigned leaders from throughout the organization. Together, they: 

  • curate appropriate stories for each enterprise;
  • assign writers and deadlines, review for editorial consistency and quality;
  • maintain a communications release calendar;
  • schedule releases in multiple media; and 
  • review analytics based on responses to releases.

SEEDS monthly media release calendar

SPREADING THE WORD
The stories are placed in a media calendar, which is a master Google Sheets file that staff will populate and adjust as needs dictate. At the beginning of each month, the Executive Director, Communications Coordinator and Editors meet to establish their priority messages for each week. They assign responsibility for writers to develop the stories across media, leaving sufficient lead time to assure consistency: a Tweet, Facebook post, email blast or video should all speak consistently to SEEDS priorities.

Remember that your audience doesn’t necessarily aspire to products or things, they aspire to the feelings that an experience with SEEDS elicits.
— SEEDS Content Strategy

We helped them understand how to compose and deliver these messages, whether a group text to elicit responses on an immediate issue or a 2-minute video segment to be launched on multiple platforms. The goal of each message: to make one simple yet lasting impression.

In our Content Strategy, we defined priorities for text messaging, email, Website (+blog), print materials and mailers, video, social media, signage, events and even potential items for sale, sustainably sourced from local materials.

With coaching from Connect_CX, the SEEDS content strategy was launched in July, 2017. This gives them sufficient runway to establish discipline and processes around communications, so that when the 20th anniversary arrives in 2019, they have a diverse base of stories that provides a platform for understanding the value that SEEDS brings to communities throughout the region - and take them to even higher levels of effectiveness in fulfilling their mission.

These, in turn, will lead to a broader appreciation among staff, board members, individual donors and granting organizations to support that mission well into the future.

“The end goal is to prepare SEEDS to deliver experiences in such a way that your clients, donors, program participants, alumni & friends have only the best stories to share thereby building your network of ‘boosters’ in the communities you serve.”
— SEEDS Content Strategy