Last week at the TechSoup Global Summit, I had an opportunity to meet Annie Leonard and do a quick interview about their lessons learned working as a networked. As I listened to her speak about their experience, I knew this would be a terrific case study to share in Beirut as an example of working in a networked way. Annie was kind enough to give me her notes so I could write this case study and hopefully, I’ve captured it correctly.
The first thing to point out is that Story of Stuff project is not an independent nonprofit (as far as I could tell) and is fiscally-sponsored by the Tides Center. This organization is one that was born as networked nonprofit, in part, because of the experience and vision of its leader, Annie Leonard.
Here’s some basic points she made about working effectively in a networked way compared to working in a traditional organization.
To Be Successful You Need both A Network Mindset and Networking Tools
A Networked organization is more than just the electronic infrastructure and tools that facilitate communication. It isn’t a matter of a Facebook profile or using Twitter. It is a collaborative way of working. It is about sharing. When you have a group of people working together in a network-culture and are facile with the tools, it can be unstoppable.
She described the networked mindset as different from working in a conventional nonprofit institution. These conventional nonprofits, what we label “Fortresses” in our book, The Networked Nonprofit, are all about command and top down control. Annie pointed out that these organizations have many rigid rules. It means that no one on staff or the outside can do anything without permission and had to be done a prescribed way. For example, everyone had to use the same font.
What’s more she described how difficult this way of working is and makes it almost impossible to collaborate with other organizations working on similar issues. In traditional organizations, they approach activism as “It is our issue.” These traditional organizations feel that power comes for their expertise and their institution.
In Networks, Information and Connections Flow in Many Directions
Annie talked about how networks focus on collaboration and action, rather than institution building. She noted, “In networks, the goal isn’t a big staff, but inspiring lots of people to do the good work through making connections and taking action.” She also observed that in networks, power and decision-making propagates outwards – rather than being consolidated in the center.
How and Why The Story of Stuff Is Successful As A Network
Annie credits the above ways of working as the secret to their success. She made the film because she was frustrated that the mainstream media and culture had ignored the underside of the American consumer economy. When she posted the short film online in 2007, it exploded. It turned up the volume on this important conversation.
In the three years since the film has been out there, there are still 10K views a day and 12 million views online. There are more than 220 countries have viewed the film in an unknown number of group settings. It’s been translated into dozens of languages, inspired curriculum for high school, inspired a ballet in Boston, a puppet show in Palestine, floats in parades and the list goes on. People have spray painted the URL on bus stops.
Annie suggests that one reason they were successful is that the film wasn’t just hers. It was conceived and created in a network context. Instead of doing everything herself, she engaged other people. She spent an entire decade building relationships with groups all over the world and building a network of organizations to address the issues in the film. She also got lots of feedback about the film while it was being created.
When the film launched, it was already on the web site of hundreds of groups all over the world. Hundreds of advocates and allies helped create it and had a stake in it. She says it was “network-held” resource.
Inspiring Others To Take Action: Credit Free Zone
Annie also mentioned that their focus was to inspire new thinking and conversations, rather than getting credit or making money. They used a creative commons license – allowing anyone to use their films, put them on their sites, and do anything they wanted except sell it.
While Annie isn’t suggesting that we bury the old-school, centralized, command and control model of organizing, she feels that different times demand evolving models. Annie says working as network offers these advantages:
(1) Networks are more resilient and flexible and can bigger risks because they don’t have to worry about the longevity of a big institution.
(2) Networks are participatory. They can get millions of people to help, not just paid staff.
(3) Networks offer many different ways to get involved. It’s a buffet of ways to engage people that fits them. Networks value people on whatever terms they want to participate.
(4) Networks are a reflection of where the world is going. There’s a big paradigm shift in everything from our relationship to material goods to organizational models. We’re moving from a “mine” to “ours” environment.
(5) Networks make us all smarter. By sharing information freely and welcoming input and feedback, learning is accelerated. Networks evolve faster because of this.
(6) Networks are more fun. Annie said that she had spent many years trying to get people to talk about the issues that she cared about, thinking her experience and expertise were enough. It wasn’t until she learned to let go of control and shift from lecturing people to inviting them in that conversation exploded.
As Annie said in her closing remarks, the Story of Stuff is about building a better world. In the story, the network is the hero. How is your organization embracing a networked strategy?