My mom

My mother, Grace Ketroser

This post is dedicated to my mother, Grace Ketroser, who died in October, 1985, from lung cancer, and who understood the value of community better than anyone I know. Between extensive volunteering and inviting every person in Minneapolis over for a home cooked meal, she was an advocate for being an active and giving member of the community. I still miss her every day.

Strong and engaged communities are hallmarks of successful nonprofit organizations. Whether it is fundraising, promoting events, or recruiting volunteers, a vibrant community makes everything about a nonprofit more effective. But the techniques for building these strong communities eludes many organizations. What do those successful organizations know that could be shared so that more nonprofits could benefit?

Sock Monkey

SMAC! Sock Monkeys Against Cancer

My friend Jennifer Stauss Windrum just finished a wildly successful campaign for SMAC! (Sock Monkeys Against Cancer) on the crowd funding platform, Start Some Good.   The entire back story of how this project came to be (here, here, and here)  is pretty heartwarming. The way that Jennifer went about creating and building this community was truly masterful. And although SMAC! and WTF (Where’s the Funding) Lung Cancer, the parent initiative that spawned the SMAC! campaign, are social good ventures, not nonprofits, the same principles apply.

I met Jennifer through a Facebook group called Punk Views on Social Media (PVSM.)  Jennifer first decided to create SMAC! in the spring/summer of 2011. Her crowd funding campaign was not until November of 2012, but she began planning more than a year in advance. Community building takes time. Jennifer enlisted support by asking questions and soliciting help in the very early stages. She created a private Facebook group, and utilized the collective intellect of the members of that group as well as that of PVSM. Jennifer really listened to what we had to say, incorporating much of our input into the choices she made. By crowd sourcing the development of SMAC!, Jennifer was able to build, in her own words, a “group of ambassadors on Facebook.” Jennifer said, “As a one-man band…I couldn’t possibly tackle all that I wanted to. I needed to build an army.” Jennifer had created a comprehensive PR/Marketing/Social Media strategy. This army helped her implement that strategy beyond what would be possible for just one person. Our involvement in the early stages of development created an emotional investment. We were enthusiastic about helping to bring SMAC! monkeys to life. When Jennifer was ready to consider funding sources for SMAC!, she decided to rely on this community she had created by embarking on a crowd funding campaign.

One of the key components of the SMAC! campaign’s success was Jennifer’s extraordinary ability to tell her mother’s story, particularly through video and blog posts. She openly shared the raw emotion of what it was like for her mother to be fighting lung cancer. We fell in love with her mother’s spirit and courage and felt as though we were building a living legacy to this woman who was losing her battle with lung cancer. This authenticity and transparency was a part of everything Jennifer did. She built our trust because she was very clear on the motivation for this campaign, and on what would happen once the money was raised. This inspired us to become (and remain) involved in the community.

Jennifer also realized that she needed to provide multiple strategies for engagement so that everyone could find a way to help promote the message.  She provided a clear plan with steps we could take to support SMAC! This meant that not all of her efforts were on just one platform or even online. She utilized Twitter and Facebook to reach people. But she also sent out email campaigns, text messages, and did extensive blogger and media outreach. For those not online, she created SMAC-downs, events to promote the cause, and provided instructions to people across the country about how to host their own SMAC-downs. And she live-streamed happenings as well. Her outreach was incredibly comprehensive.

This campaign was not easy for Jennifer. There was a fair amount of stress built into the process already. She was creating something that was, in many ways, completely foreign to her.  Just before the campaign was set to launch, her mother decided to discontinue all but palliative care. No one was sure how long she might have. But with aggressive stage IV lung cancer, her time was certainly limited. There were so many other hurdles and difficult situations along the way. But what impressed so many of us, was Jennifer’s tenacity, even in the face of extraordinary adversity. Regardless of what else was going on, she just kept going.

The most extraordinary part of what made the SMAC! campaign successful was Jennifer’s ability to show gratitude to everyone involved in the process. She thanked people online with Facebook posts and with video. She thanked people personally via email and Facebook messages. She continuously told us that it was our hard work that led to the success of the campaign and never seemed to take credit for her hard work. That great humility made Jennifer irresistible. We couldn’t wait to help her every step of the way because we had fallen in love with her.

I am so grateful to be a part of this truly awesome SMAC! community. Jennifer created an environment in which her journey became our journey and her victory became our victory. And we all felt as though we had been a part of something magical. Imagine if more of our nonprofit organizations became skilled at building communities the way Jennifer built this one. I can only imagine what might be possible if more of those organizations created some of that magic for their communities as well.

(Special thanks to the gang in PVSM, who helped me come up with the content of this post.)

I learned, as I was writing this blog post, that Jennifer’s mother, Leslie Lehrman, had lost her battle with lung cancer. May Jennifer find peace and comfort in the living legacy that has been created in this extraordinary woman’s memory.

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A few weeks ago, I made my kids pasta with pesto and sauteed green beans.  A fairly typical dinner for us.  But what made it unusual was that we picked the basil for the pesto and the green beans in our family’s organic garden.  A few weeks earlier I had decided I was a total failure as a gardener.  I had spent quite a bit of money to create this garden.

Our raised bed garden newly built

Unfortunately, in early September, I still had nothing to show for my efforts…or expenses!  I convinced myself it wasn’t a big deal and even laughed a bit about it.  But one day, while unlocking the door to my house, I glanced over at the garden and saw a big green bean waiting to be picked!  I ran to investigate and found that we had a whole bunch of green beans that were full fledged real food we had grown.  I was delighted!  I also learned from Peterson Garden Project‘s Facebook pictures that what I thought was spinach, was actually basil.  Thus, a home grown feast (at least partially) was born!

“Bountiful” Harvest of Success!

I created this garden because I thought we as a family would benefit from the experience.  I also felt it was a less expensive way to provide healthy food.   However, my expectations did not align at all with what actually took place.  The real benefits were ones I did not anticipate.  We really didn’t get much in terms of produce from our garden.  I found that, other than some limited time with my kids, I did most of the work alone.  However, when I first began this gardening project, I became a part of a large community of gardeners, both online and in face to face interactions.  Some of these interactions have expanded well beyond the concept of gardening and have blossomed into full blown engagement.  Additionally, when I first saw the beginnings of green things pushing up through the soil, I experienced a sense of joy that I didn’t anticipate.

And when I saw that one lone green bean, again, I felt a deep sense of happiness.  When I first embarked on this project, I assumed success meant lots of home grown vegetables for my family.  Although by that measure, the garden was a catastrophic failure, I am overwhelmed by how meaningful the experience was for me.  And I find that it aligns in significant ways with another recent experience.

About a year ago, I attended SocialDevCamp Chicago (SDCChi.)  Although much of the content at the conference was far beyond my ability to understand, I was moved by the incredible interactions I had with participants.  I suggested to Tim Courtney (one of the SDCChi founders) that we needed to do a similar technology conference for nonprofit organizations.  Tim said it was a great idea.

Over the next year I worked to build this nonprofit technology conference.  My vision was to create an event for 200-300 nonprofit professionals to learn about technology.  That event,  Chicago COUNTs: A NetSquared Camp took place on September 12.

(Created by Paul Saini Photography)

And like my garden, its success looked very different from what I first anticipated it would be.  We had 70 people participate, not 200.  However, those 70 people were a group of rock stars in my world.  And because the group was only 70 people, there was a feeling of intimacy among participants.  People felt as though they were part of a very special community that was filled with wonderful resources, insights and support.  The feedback I received both during and after the event confirmed my own reactions to the day.  People expressed feelings of being profoundly impacted and suggested that this event was the beginning of exciting new changes in the community.  Ultimately, I experienced the supreme joy that I had hoped I would at Chicago COUNTs…but not for the reasons I had thought.

So now, as I embark upon building my own nonprofit consulting business (please send organizations and individuals my way!) I am thinking about these two surprising experiences.  I have a sense of what I want to create.  I want to work with organizations to help them expand their networks and to design innovative and exciting substantive programming.  I am confident these are two areas in which I could have a strong and positive impact.  Once again, I have expectations about what my success will look like.  However, after this past year of surprises, I am a little curious too.  Because clearly, success isn’t always what we expect it to be.