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Outreach isn’t just reaching people who already agree with you

But a capaign can go to far. In this case, too far is when people believe that believing is enough, without factoring in the differences between the passionate few who run the campaign and the barely interested many who actually vote. –Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, referring to the 2004 Howard Dean campaign

In my wife’s work with the GetDowntown program, she hears avid bicycle commuters suggest ways to get non-cyclists to bike to work. She hears from avid walkers about how to get non-walkers to give up their cars for a good pair of shoes.

In my work, I hear from deeply committed environmentalists about how to get indifferent people to lower their carbon footprint. I hear passionate peace activists tell me how we should get the apathetic public to care.

This input is valuable, and many good ideas come from it, but what these true believers forget, and what I often forget, is that the “barely interested many” aren’t approaching our issues from the same perspective we are, and what motivates us may not motivate them. To reach the “barely interested many,” you have to set aside your interests to see what it is that they are interested in, meet them where they are, and help them take the next step.

It can be fun to connect with the people who already agree with and to talk the shared language of what already motivates you, and there is a place for that in sustaining a movement, but it is not enough.

If you are going to change the world, you can’t just talk to people who already agree with you. You can’t just speak the language of what motivates people like you. You need to reach out, talk to new people in their own language. That’s why they call it outreach.

Where successful startups come from (hint: they don’t come out of nowhere)

An article in Fast Company de-bunks the great dot-com myth of two guys starting a business from nothing in their garage and going on to create YouTube, Apple Computer, or Dell.

The myth isn’t that they start in a garage, or that they go on to become successful. The myth is that successful startups start from nothing.

In reality, all of these successes come out of somewhere. These “go-it-alone” entrepreneurs started out in established businesses in the same sectors. Their success comes from the training, background, and connections they built in their jobs with established companies such as Atari, PayPal, or HP.

What does this have to do with organizing?

I’m always meeting freelance activists with a passion for justice who want to stake out their own claim and start a group to advocate for their issue. They are the nonprofit equivalent of a dot-com garage startup.

And they can learn from the successful startups. The successful startups don’t start from nothing and nowhere. They start with skills and connections.

Likewise the activist startups also need to build a basis of skills and connections, and the best way to build those skills and connections is to work with existing organizations.

Just like an aspiring chef begins as an apprentice.

Rather than starting out on your own, you can learn how to lobby, how to work with the media, how to organize events, how to supervise volunteers, how to pull together a coalition, how to go door-to-door by working with existing organizations. And just as important, you’ll start to build your network of potential partners, funders, decision-makers, and volunteers. It’s great preparation before you go out on your own.

And when I say “organizations,” I include businesses in there. Business marketing has a lot to teach nonprofit marketing. Sales has a lot to teach fundraising. Nonprofits can learn a lot from principled business management–and both sectors benefit from this cross-pollinization.