033: Shift & Reset your thinking about social impact with Brian Reich

Service icons_podcastHow should we be setting goals and measuring success in the nonprofit sector? We discuss this with Brian Reich, Author of Shift & Reset and founder of little m media. In his book he asks us to ‘imagine that there is a meteor headed toward earth/your cause’, given this urgency how can we test solutions that actually work, solutions that have a chance to knock this meteor off course. How should we think about our mission if we ACTUALLY want to change how the world works?

This is part 1 of 2 of our in-depth conversation with Brian.

Is your mission nice or is it important? Is it shifting the landscape or stagnating? Full interview w/ @BrianReich Share on X

Shift and Reset - think about the right actions.


Shift & Reset on Amazon. Follow Brian on twitter!

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Episode 33


Speaker 1: This is Using The Whole Whale. A podcast that brings you stories of data & technology in the non-profit world. My name is George Weiner, your host, and the chief whaler of WholeWhale.com. Thanks for joining us.


speaker 1: I had the chance to catch up and interview a friend of mine, Brian Rich, the author of Shift & Reset, a great social impact and change book, and he’s also the founder of little M media. We talk a bit about the book and his experience with that, and some work he’s currently doing with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and really fascinating thinking big-picture about how do we reach the right people, who are the right people, and ultimately what are we going to be measuring here. To find the conversation we break it up into 2 parts, this is the first part in the series and let’s jump into it.


speaker 1: I’m thrilled to be here with Brian Rich the managing director of little M media and also the author of Shift and Rest, a really awesome book but Brian, in your own words what exactly do you do?


Speaker 2: It’s a great question and I probably give a different answer every time I’m asked. but I like to say I’m a speech writer and a communication strategist. I spend a lot of time looking at how people get and share information and what impact that has on how we learn and how we behave and the choices we make and certainly what that means to all sorts of different types of organizations in terms of educating and mobilizing or driving people to take action. And then, my background is in politics so a lot of it comes to life in sort of, you know I run a lot of war room type projects, you know start-up, quick, aggressive, learning projects to help organizations and leaders within organizations of all types to try and make sense of how the world is changing and how we need to change along with it.


Speaker 1: Great, good summary there. That was a difficult question to answer. So, I want to start a bit with the book that you wrote a few years back, that was published in 2011 right? You decided to write a paper book, why did you do that?


Speaker 2: A couple of reasons. One, I am a big believer in the idea of long format, complex issues need space in order to be explained. Different people come at these conversations from different angles and you need to try and address them in ways that accommodate the various perspectives and experiences and ways that people learn and process stuff, and as much as I think the internet and mobile and all of the wonderful technologies that are out there support different kinds of information experiences, I still think that print reading informs and helps to shape the way people’s decisions are made, unlike a lot of other platforms. So that’s one, and then two is there is a certain credibility that comes with having written an actual paper book, gotten it published by a legitimate publishing company, and because a lot of the work that I do really is new and different every time I go into it, that credibility is one of the key things that allows me to have conversations with people who are trying to do interesting stuff. You know, it’s not a manual, I don’t have an answer for everybody in the first conversation, but the book allows them to appreciate my perspective and my approach and they take it a little more seriously, or seriously in different ways because it’s in print. You know, as well as something you could download or read online or listen as well. Maybe it’s a legacy way of demonstrating credibility but the fact that I have a book has served as sort of an oversized business card that people believe is good to have and eventually it works its way back to me.


Speaker 1: Yeah, and I’m obviously just revving you a little bit. I completely agree with that, long-form content, and the staying power of it. So, Shift and Reset is an interesting thing. In there, you blame many people for really not digging deep enough, not telling the right stories and not chasing down the true metrics and measurement and credibility ultimately behind the impact we should be having. You know, obviously I don’t expect you to give a summary, but what are the most salient points that drove you to write this?


Speaker 2: Well I think there’s a few things that really bother me, and that have bothered me throughout my life and certainly my professional life, and working in and around serious issues. One is the lack of willingness and imagination and appetite for trying new things and learning and really, truly having an ability to fail and turn that failure into something. And I don’t think we’re going to make progress without that, so part of the reason that I wanted to use the book to call people out for the things that they were not doing and not trying was because I think there’s a lot particularly in the non-profit space. There are a lot of people who kind of get a pass because we’re trying hard, or we get a pass because we’re working on things that are more important than what the folks in silicon valley who are trying to build the next great app or whatever might be doing, and so I wanted to come at this in a very aggressive way, so I think one big part of the book is what I hope is a very blunt assessment of what is and isn’t working, what we are doing that is promising and what we aren’t doing that needs to stop, and then the book is organized into two parts. The shift part is about changing the way we think, because we have to. We’re not going to change our behaviors and we’re not going to change our approaches if we don’t just have a fundamentally different outlook on the challenges that we face in the world that we’re trying to function within, and then the reset part is about the organizational change since I can change how I think all I want but it’s not going to mean anything if we don’t put the structure and the process and the people in place with the capabilities to do whatever is needed. And since a lot of that is constantly changing, rapidly changing, it isn’t a an answer as in here’s the way to do, it is a way of thinking and it is a way of organizing yourself and operating that I think sets people up to take that criticism or take that awareness that comes from being called out for not doing something that’s productive or sustainable or constructive and allows them to change, so it needed to be aggressive and it needed to be structured, and I think those are the big summary points that I hope anyone goes into or comes out of reading it can take away.


Speaker 1: Yeah, and you didn’t’ bring it up as a point about the book, but there’s a certain elegance about time stamping this. You’re calling out and this is four years ago and you’re writing it 5 years ago. You’re calling out major shifts that technology and data are going to have on this sector, this sort of going from  “Hey this is nice”  to  “Shit this is necessary”  type of thinking. Talking about how foundations aren’t necessarily willing and open to start funding this thing, and we’re afraid of the experimentation and we’re not ready to deal with it. Do you feel like you could basically copy-paste most of that book and publish it again today, or have you seen some shift and resetting in the sector?


Speaker 2: I think I would probably answer yes to both. I think there are significant elements in the book including many of the examples in the stories of different organizations who are trying to do new and interesting and innovative things including some that you have worked for and worked with in the past, as well as those who are not understanding or embracing the different approaches that need to be taken that are still seen today, disappointingly, frustratingly so. So yeah, I think I could absolutely copy major sections of the book and they would be absolutely relevant and applicable today. That said, I think there are organizations, many of them, and some new entrants into the space, who are coming at these problems from a very different direction, that are embracing the types of things that I talked about, and things that I couldn’t have even imagined at the time that are exciting and leading to progress. My biggest pet peeve, my biggest frustration now even five years on from Shift and Reset is that one big part of the whole perspective and mentality of how to address serious issues in a complex and connected society has not changed and that is particularly in the non-profit space but not exclusively there. The perception that problems are going to be solved quickly, that you can run a short term campaign oriented type effort, and expect something monumental to come out of it. These problems are complex, and they persist in our society because they are sort of resistant to that approach, and so if there’s one thing I feel like is still here and I have not have enough of an effect on despite my best efforts, and great efforts by other people as well is we have not changed the other part of our thinking that really embraces patience and has the recognition that we are going to have to do 100 things that find the 1 right thing that makes us a little bit of progress, and then do 100 more things to make the next little bit of progress, but actually making progress as painful and unpleasant as it may be is far more important than celebrating some short-term success and confusing that with actual impact or actual achievement that might put us on or keep us on the path towards finding real solutions.


Speaker 1: So I want to dig in a couple points here, the idea of mission and measurement comes up in your work, and you talk about tactics like narrowing your focus and thinking from a going-out-of-business mindset. Can you talk a bit more about how we just bridge this, like, I’ve got a huge audacious vision of how the world should be, but how does that relate to what I’m doing day to day with regard to my metrics and my operations?


Speaker 2: Well, I think there’s two ways that we need to look at mission and set out the goals and the outcomes that we want to achieve. One is we need a very long-term, perhaps unrealistically idealistic moon-shot of a goal. The way I look at a lot of this stuff is zero percent or a hundred percent. Progress is welcome and it’s necessary and it’s a good indicator that we’re on track for something, but the goal needs to be a hundred percent eradication of that disease, zero percent food insecurity. I’m working on a project right now with the UN high commissioner for refugees and the team in the United States. There are 56 million refugees in the world, and that number is only increasing. We can do a lot to support and make the lives of those who have been forced to flee from their homes better, but until we have zero refugees and a world that does not force people to flee from their homes, we have not solved that problem and we are not even close. So I think one part of it is you need to have these big, audacious, like I said perhaps totally naive, idealistically unrealistic goals so that you can have that hundred percent or that zero percent target, against which everything can compare. And then, the other side of this is there is no milestone along the way towards achieving a solution to a complex problem that in and of itself, in isolation, I think is worthy of total celebration. We should absolutely celebrate progress, we should absolutely use progress as a motivator for more people to become involved, but when we’re setting outcomes and we’re measuring progress towards achieving some big, audacious goal, we need to really look at this as a constantly rolling, constantly changing thing. So what I always try to look at, and what I always recommend to people on setting up measurement is what are we measuring that is new, as opposed to what are we measuring that is more or less of. So if there are X number of people in the United States that you are trying to reach, and you know that in historical data or intelligence we have always reached a million people, reaching more than a million people is good and it’s exciting and it’s worthy of consideration, but to me the better set of goals and metrics are what are the types of people that we currently reach, what do they look like, what do the actions that they take within that million person audience, and then going out and measuring our success by saying how have we reached someone who doesn’t fit that profile, so it’s not just the numbers then it is the change in the perspective. It is the breaking of new ground, it is the ability to test new things. That is the incremental progress towards solving these complex problems that I think you need to set out and measure against. What is new, what is different, what is revolutionary, what options do you prove are not worth further consideration and you can eliminate off your list, these things that make the task of going forward more efficient and more focused, and not just the things that make the short-term incremental achievements seem more impressive, so I’m less excited about how much money you raised or how many people you got signed up, or how many clicks you had, or how many shares were made or how many views were given. I’m much more interested in whether or not you’ve found or proved, or were able to test something new and different, because that opens up the possibility of actually making progress in my mind.


Speaker 1: Yeah, so are you just allergic to terms like  “Hey, we’ve moved the needle!”  and  “We got awareness on this topic.” 


Speaker 2: The first one, moving the needle I’m OK with because I think moving the needle is part of that trying new things and, you know, etcetera. My definition of moving the needle is actually learning something and actually attempting something that’s never been attempted before even if the end result is that you determine that was not something you would want to do again, because that has value because now you don’t have to question whether or not you should do it again. You now have proof that that was not a good option to make a part of your ongoing place. I do have a problem with things like awareness and celebrating size because with enough time and with enough money or enough focus I feel very confident that issues that are important to people will eventually take hold in their lives in some way, so awareness to me does not actually signal anything other than your ability to put something in front of someone. What I want to see are behavior changes, what I want to see are people making a sacrifice from one part of their existing life to do something new, do something different. Change the spending that they have on their non-philanthropic side and putting it into philanthropy. So not spending new money, more money, but actually making the choice because if they make the choice, that to me is a sign of a deeper commitment or a deeper recognition that this is important in their lives, stuff like that, that doesn’t happen much organically and it certainly doesn’t happen simply in most cases because someone becomes aware, so it just has to be much more specific. It has to be much more disciplined and discreet, and then it obviously then has to be tied back to whether in fact that thing you’re measuring is some indicator of progress towards that insanely big goal.


Speaker 1: I like that, but let’s move this into something maybe more specific. Can you talk about like a project or maybe even a case-study example in the book that really just nailed it with regard to mission management and your sort of philosophy.


Speaker 2: Well, I’ll tell you about the project I’m working on at the moment, which admittedly we’re in the middle of, but I think the perspective will help and be specific. So, for this project with USA for UNHCR, which is the US-based 501C3 that supports the UN high commissioner for refugees’ work around the globe with audiences in the United States, right? So they have to have a US outpost, the same way many organizations do. The primary focus historically for the organization has been on fund-raising and the audience in the United States that they have engaged follows what you would expect in terms of demographic and social profile, psychographic and social profiles of people that support other charities, and support humanitarian, and global issues and are educated and aware, and similar. We don’t know exactly how many people there are that fit that profile in the United States but my hunch is if we added up all of the global humanitarian organizations, all of their lists and de-duped them, maybe we have 10 million people in the United States, maybe generously we have 20 or 25 million people in the United States who are interested, aware of, knowledgeable about and compassionate for and willing to take some sort of action if presented with the right opportunity in support of a global humanitarian issue like refugees or whatever. The issue, from our perspective, is that there are 320+ million people in the United States, and if only 25 million of those people are presently connected to knowledgeable, passionate about and willing to take action in support of a charity like UNHCR or a cause like that facing refugees, we’re never going to solve this problem. Nor are we going to create the kind of fundraising windfall or political support that might unlock other more significant drivers of change, whether that’s additional government support or participation from corporations with really innovative solutions that might come up with technical or political state solutions that would address this problem. So, it’s not enough for us just to raise more money for UNHCR. It’s not enough for us just to have a bigger list, it’s not enough for us just to put out really compelling stories and videos and have more people watch them. In fact, for all the things that USA for UNHCR has not yet accomplished, it has actually done very well at getting people to think about refugees, or watch a video, or like a story on Facebook, and a couple of very specific awareness-driving situations. Our challenge, instead is not to look at those people that are already fitting the profile or who are already willing to take some soft, simple action because they’re already connected to the issue. Our job is to figure out what to do with the other 300 or so million Americans who, among that crowd, can we engage. What does engagement mean? What actions are they willing to take? What is the value of those actions? So if we could somehow get another 25 million, or 100 million people in the United States to have or recognize the connection that they should have to refugees. Maybe they’re not donors, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t great value in the actions that we would get them to take. So this whole project that I’m working on with USA for UNHCR is about new audience. Who are they, what do we know about them, what behaviors do they take? How do they relate to the issues as we understand them? Is there a connection to the organization, or if not the organization is there a connection to the issue of refugees? Is there a way to activate them directly in support of the organization, which is the traditional way, or in indirect ways because we have confidence that with greater community support of refugee issues, or greater soft political support of refugees coming out of the United States. Not only would the United States at an institutional and government level be able to do more, but other countries might look and say  “Wow, there’s all these people in the United States that think refugees are important .” That should tell us something. So it’s a very different challenge. It’s a data challenge because there’s a lot of questions about people that have never, I think, been asked by the philanthropic community that has been very heavily focused on fundraising and simple actions. It’s an engagement and communications challenge because it is not about raising awareness and it is not about getting all 300 million people who are not presently potentially likely to be aware of refugees to appreciate the same story or the single action, it’s actually about coming up with all of the different variables, all of the different potential opportunities, and then testing and prioritizing and trying to figure out what the business model is, for lack of a better term, to say this is how much it will cost, this is the likely return, this is the amount of time it will take, this is how these things can be applied going forward. And, you know, look we’re working on this for USA for UNHCR and around refugees, I think this is the same challenge that every non-profit organization right now, particularly in the United States is facing, and my hope is that as we go through this project we don’t have to do it just as USA for UNHCR, maybe we can do it for other humanitarian and global refugee-focused organizations. Maybe we can do it across topics and interests, because when you look at the population in the United States I don’t think that many people are going to raise their hands and say, “I’m a refugee champion.”  They are going to say they care about other people. Maybe they care about people as it relates to climate change, maybe they care about people as it relates to bullying, maybe they care about education because they see that as the driver for future opportunity. All of these things are related but at the core of this refugees are human beings, the people trying to get involved are human beings. I believe that there is a fundamental connection and compassion that exists with human beings. That is not something we know how to measure or activate, and nor is it something that we know how to value as non-profit organizations because we value actions and we value transactions and we value size of lift, and we’re not patient enough to go for the idea that over time compassion can be converted into something that has a meaningful and measurable output.


Speaker 1: Yeah, the raw ingredients though, may still be the same, but if it’s devoid of the context of the larger picture which you’re eluding to, you’re sort of just groping in the dark. I do think the larger your list size, if you have 320 million Americans on a list and you can tell that they were all doing certain levels of action, that would definitely be one version of a win if they were in that direction. It seems like your underlying process here starts with a very aggressive and thorough identification and analysis of the target audience and market size, interests, and then instead of saying no let’s build awareness, instead say let’s identify the type of behavior we want to see before we then launch off into certain types of awareness campaigns, which then inform the measurement. Is that a fair assessment of your process?


Speaker 2: Yeah, and I think what’s important is that we have to change our approach on both sides of that. So, on one side we have to get way more intelligent and way more disciplined and use a variety of different approaches of data to get a deeper understanding of who and why and when and how and what we’re targeting people for and what we can reasonably expect from them, but then very importantly we have to evolve the ways in which we go after those audiences instead of doing what I think happens a lot, which is we do improve our sophistication in terms of the data and setting of expectations, but then we go at them with the same stories and the same blunt, force object type approaches, expecting that these people we now recognize are different are somehow going to follow reasonably similar patterns to those people that we knew before. So, we can’t just get more sophisticated with data without changing our approach. We have to do both.


Speaker 1: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. I think a lot of Brian’s work revolves around this idea of getting people to try to wake up as he says, and think differently about how you want to make that type of change, what is that slight little shift we can make to the asteroid coming toward your social mission cause. How can you adjust your work so that you are actually really testing new approaches instead of simply running a play, trying old things that aren’t necessarily going to make the type of change you know the sector needs. Next time we’ll be talking with Brian a bit more about rapid-fire questions on social impact, his thoughts on the sector, it should be fun.


This has been Using The Whole Whale. For more resources on today’s show please visit WholeWhale.com/podcast and consider following us on Twitter @WholeWhale  “ thanks for joining us.