Free Agents: Insights from #TakeBackThePink

I had pre-ordered Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s book, The Networked Nonprofit, and read it within 48 hours of it arriving on my doorsteps. Yet I am amazed by how what I learned from it continues to mature over time, rather than become outdated or irrelevant. Like a good wine or well aged cheese, it just keeps getting better. Of particular interest to me lately is the concept — and value– of free agents.

Free agents are individuals who are working outside of organizations to pursue the mission — organizing, fundraising, energizing. They aren’t on staff, or on the board, or hold any formal volunteer position. They’re just enthusiastic fans who believe in the purpose. In the past, they have been dismissed as either novices who are not committed to working with the system, or risky because they aren’t signed on to “tow the company line” so to speak. In today’s connected world however, each free agent is able to not only spread their message far and wide, but are able to organize and create real impact. While they may believe in the mission wholeheartedly, they also want to be free, creative and engage on their own terms.

The recent Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle provided an interesting experiment through which to reflect on free agents and their work specifically in a fast paced situation. [Note that my participation in this effort was personal, as a free agent, not as a representative of Darim Online. However, I believe that my experience and reflections can provide import insight for the Darim community and thus are worth sharing here.] After hearing the news, my colleague Allison Fine started a Facebook Cause called “Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram” which has raised over $17,000 as Alison, her friends and their friends passed around the link, enabling people to turn emotional outrage into action. Shortly thereafter, the free agents began to circle and convene. There was a big opportunity to make a difference here. What impact did we want to make, and how would we do it?

Enter #TakeBackThePink, a campaign which, briefly, was designed to highjack the #supercure Superbowl campaign to keep the riled up country focused on taking action to combat the real enemy: breast cancer. We have documented the campaign and our reflections here. Beth Kanter has blogged about it here, Allison Fine here, Amy Sample Ward here, and Lucy Bernholz here. Stephanie Rudat was also a critical member of the team. It was an honor and privilege to collaborate with these brilliant women, and many many others who added their voice, energy, personal stories, heart and brain to the effort too. We were passionate, and we had fun doing it. We were free agents. We were coordinating among ourselves, feeling out emotions, boundaries, strategies, division of labor. And while we were so attentive to each other, we were not also dealing with the politics or policies or pace of any institution. We were free free agents. No strings attached.

At a few points, our potential collaboration with organizations did rise as an option. For example, soon after we clarified that #TakeBackThePink was not anti-Komen but rather pro-women’s health, we sought to spread the word and build partnerships in a way that’s very consistent with our networked approach to working. We learned that Brian Reid had compiled a list of statements from local Komen affiliates in many cases distancing themselves from the mothership, or articulating their freedom to making their own local funding decisions in their region. To me, it seemed quite powerful to align with them — it may have helped add legitimacy to their local brands, and would have helped our message grow roots and spread further. Yet while many of the fighters and survivors (or friends of survivors or victims) in our group felt strongly that Komen funds important research and is not all bad, others wanted nothing to do with Komen. And aligning with us may have been risky for those affiliates as we are (to some degree) unknown free agents, with rapidly evolving goals and approaches, and they were in a risky situation to begin with. As much as our goals may have been aligned, there were too many strings attached for all of us. And in a rapidly moving blitz that was evolving hour by hour across the country, any strings were too much, too slow, too compromising.

The lesson I learn here is that there are different kinds of free agents: regular free agents (those who work fairly independently but in conjunction with organizations) and then there are really free agents who have no organizational alignment whatsoever, but can have massive influence nonetheless. There are also long distance free agents who work on an ongoing basis to make social change, and there are sprinter free agents who pour a ton of energy and time into short term, high impact opportunities to make social change. Interestingly, in the recent Komen uproar, Planned Parenthood found they were long on sprinting really free agents, and it (literally) paid off.

Leaders of today’s organizations should educate themselves about free agents (read The Networked Nonprofit for starters) and think deeply about how to work with free agents on an ongoing basis, and in fast paced environments as well. Millennials in particular are well positioned to be free agents, and as they continue to mature, their modes of engaging and supporting organizations may look more and more free-agent-y. As Ben Wiener said at the 2011 Jewish Future’s conference, “We don’t meet, we tweet.”

Do you think about how you engage with your free agents? What can organizations and leaders do to make their missions and work more free-agent-friendly? As a free agent, what organizations make you feel like you can run and soar? How do others take the wind out of your sails?

What Parents Always Wanted to Know

Over the past five years, we have had much success with our open houses and tours. The ratio of applicants that have attended our open houses and tours has been high and our focus groups have indicated that we are successful in this area. However, when we started to think about ways in which we could show off the 21st century learning skills that are emphasized in the classroom, we realized that open house could be a significant opportunity for this. In understanding the importance of balancing traditional skills with 21st century skills, we upheld the conventional format of our open house by showcasing our choir, hearing an 8th grader deliver the Dvar Torah, and having our administration share information that they consider important for prospective parents to know about our school community. In recognizing that telling our parents what we thought they wanted to hear may not be the most satisfying approach to open house, we started to consider alternate ways in which we could educate our parents about our school and integrate 21st century skills. After brainstorming and sharing our insight, we decided to flip the open house experience. As a result, the prospective parents became the content directors, which made for a rewarding open house experience.

Upon arriving to the school, signing into our lobby, and being greeted, each parent was given an ipad. Parents were told that the ipads would be used as part of the questioning process but in the meantime, to please explore the wonderful educational apps available to the students while waiting for the open house to begin. Once we were ready to start, the parents were asked to click on the Twitter app on each of their ipads. In order to facilitate the navigation of locating the Twitter app, we made sure that the Twitter app was anchored at the bottom of the ipads so that it would show up on each screen. Prior to the open house, we created a Twitter account for each ipad with Twitter usernames like Davis Academy Guest 1. Once the parent clicked on the Twitter app, they would see that they were already logged in with their unique username and could see a message welcoming them to the open house.

Twitter FeedOnce everyone was settled in with their ipad, I proceeded to explain that we really wanted to hear what the parents wanted to know. Our hopes were that parents would feel comfortable tweeting their questions in an anonymous format throughout the open house. This would serve several purposes: 1) while parents were in classrooms hearing from teachers and students, learning about the curriculum and seeing the classrooms, they could instantly tweet their questions that would be addressed later 2) parents would feel uninhibited in seeking answers to their questions and 3) it would demonstrate the ways in which we are incorporating technology into our instruction and encouraging students to share their voice.

Tag CloudAs the tweets were being received, I tagged them with descriptors enabling me to generate a Twitter cloud. An example of this is the question that was tweeted that said, How do you meet the needs of diverse learners?. This question was tagged as differentiation. After being in the classrooms, the parents returned to the media center where I displayed the Twitter cloud on a large screen. The remainder of the open house consisted of the administration, the teachers, and current Davis parents addressing questions that were raised via Twitter.

Although we have had positive feedback regarding our open houses in the past, using technology in this way generated a new level of enthusiasm and excitement. Providing the technology as a tool to encourage open communication while still allowing parents to get a strong sense of all that is offered at The Davis Academy, created an environment rich in collaboration and an environment that ensured that all questions could be addressed. We are pleased with the outcome and will continue to explore innovative tools that will enrich our open house experiences.

Drew Frank is the Lower School Principal at The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy in Atlanta Georgia, where he previously served in multiple teaching and administrative roles in both the lower and middle school. Drew is a proud member of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) cohort 5, and he has incorporated many of the constructivist and collaborative learning activities (spiritual check-ins, fishbowls, case studies, and consultancies) in to these and other school and faculty programs. You can follow Drew on Twitter @ugafrank.

Making Facebook Groups Rock

Facebook groups have changed a lot in the past year or so, and they’re more powerful than ever. Here are some helpful hints to make your Facebook group a truly vibrant platform: Maximizing group features for networking and engagement: Tagging individuals in posts. This is an excellent means of publicly introducing two (or more) folks within your group. Include bragging rights – what makes these members unique? Give them a question to explore together, and encourage the dialogue. This means you have to know your group – who they are, what they’re up to, what they need, etc. Think:

  • How can I encourage others to use the group in the same way, not just as a means for marketing/broadcasting information?
  • How do I go from network weaver to empowering others to weave one another?

The power of pictures. Facebook is a “picture economy” (whereas Twitter is a “link economy”); pics are the most engaged content, the most in-demand. Pictures are great conversation starters. Tagging folks in pictures and asking them to tag themselves also increases engagement, puts a face to a name, and humanizes the process by bridging online and on-land worlds. Questions and polling. Thoughtful, simple, directed questions can be a powerful engagement mechanism. Think about allowing others to add their own options to the poll – when is it appropriate, and when is it unnecessary or confusing. Expect to get answers both in the poll itself and in the comments, and run with both! Group chat. Facebook groups mostly function asynchronously, but a synchronous activity now and again can really rally the troops. (Note: this feature does not function with groups of 250 members or more.) Consider the following:

  • What are the deeper conversations your group seems inclined to have?
  • Can you assign someone to host that conversation and empower them to lead the charge?

Docs. Docs are like super-simple wikis, and probably the most truly collaborative aspect of a Facebook group. Because they are collaboratively editable, they are great for anything that requires a teasing out a group voice – agendas, statements or announcements, etc.

  • Docs live in a designated place within your group and are therefore not as subject to the news feed, which is more timely. Docs are great for posting information that you plan to come back to again and again.
  • Conversations will naturally spring up in the comments section of your document. It’s important to manage the flow between what is being written in the doc and what’s happening in the comments.

Events. Creating a group event for actual in-person meetings makes a lot of sense, but there are other ways the events feature can be used – general publicity, announcements, calls to action, booking a time for a group chat, etc.

  • Events need not be restricted to members of the group. Use them when you want to introduce a broader audience to your group’s good work.
  • Bear in mind – events can be great, but tend to get lost in the new Facebook layout. Timing is key. Be conscious of who you are reminding of the event and how often. Remember you can also post the event’s unique link to the group or your personal profile page.
  • Finally, events, like docs, also have a comment stream attached. Monitor accordingly.

Other big ideas: Have a goal for the group, or at least a project everyone can rally around. Give the group a sense of purpose. No one person “owns” a Facebook group. It belongs equally to all the members and should be treated as such. (Think about using the Docs to build a group statement of values – decide as a community how you will use the group and treat one another while active in it.) It’s easier to post than to reply. Engagement takes investment. Try setting aside a specific block of time every day or week to monitor and engage the group. Ask other members to do the same – spread the responsibility around and see what kind of ROE (return on engagement) you get. No medium exists in a vacuum. Think about the relationships between what happens in the group, on Facebook in general, over email, on the phone, in person, at events, etc. To be truly effective, the online experience should be tied – topically, in culture, in voice, in attitude – to the experience(s) of the group in other spaces. Groups don’t provide hard analytical data the way Pages do, so it’s up to you to gather both the qualitative and quantitative results. Consider asking:

  • Who’s posting most often? Who’s replying?
  • What topics are folks posting about? What topics are getting the most feedback and engagement?
  • What times of day are people posting?
  • Are members typically sharing links, photos, videos, event invitations?
  • What else can you learn about your members through their activity? What do they care about?

How have you made Facebook Groups work for you? What are your success stories?Making Facebook Groups Rock

Joining the Darim Team

Hey everyone! This is Miriam Brosseau, a newly inaugurated Darim Online team member, and I’m so excited to be on board. I’ll be blogging and conversing and generally getting my hands into all kinds of things around here, so I’d like to take a moment and introduce myself.

I’ve worked in the Jewish professional world for about five years now, with organizations like Hillel, the WZO, Shorashim, and Birthright Israel NEXT. I have a masters in Jewish Professional Studies from Spertus College in Chicago and am an alum of the ROI program for young Jewish innovators. Now I am proud to be the Social Media Coalitions Manager at the Jewish Education Project. In this capacity I will be helping congregations and early childhood centers use social media and other web tools to communicate and collaborate with one another (in a nutshell). Another chunk of my time will be devoted to working with the Darim community on some special projects. More to come on that…

A few other fun facts about me for ya –

I’m originally from Wisconsin, so I’m a big fan of all things cheese.

My husband Alan and I are both musicians and we are a “biblegum pop” duo called Stereo Sinai.

Alan and I have two cats, George and Pickles (both are rescue cats with place names – George was found on George Street and Pickles was living behind a deli).

…and that’s it for now. But let’s be in touch! I can be reached at [email protected] I also have a personal-ish sometimes-blog where you’re welcome to keep up with me: miriamjayne.weebly.com. Or you can follow me on Twitter: @miriamjayne.

The Jewish community and Jewish life never cease to inspire, amaze, impress, and flabbergast me. I love the interplay of tradition and innovation. I love the sense of discovery, and wrestling with ideas. And I especially love that there are so many talented, passionate, fascinating and fun people out there pushing the Jewish world to be better. It’s exciting, and humbling, to be a part of this incredible team.

With that, wishing everyone a very happy Passover! Here’s to new adventures!