Excerpts from NPi's
On August 6th, 2009, Dave McLaughlin, Executive Director of Boston World Partnerships, participated in NPi’s community dialogue, “Building Community Online and Offline” at City Year. Additional speakers on the panel included Doris Sommer from Cultural Agents and Joseph Porcelli from Neighbors for Neighbors. NPi community dialogues bring together local leaders to discuss lessons learned, current projects, and potential collaborations. Click here for pictures and video from the event. Below are some excerpts from the conversation.
About Boston World Partnerships
Boston World Partnerships is a nonprofit founded and chaired by Mayor Menino. Essentially the genesis of this organization was born out of the mayor’s frustration with Boston’s historically poor performance at marketing itself nationally and internationally to increase opportunities and grow jobs. I had been at the Boston Redevelopment Authority at the time as the director of marketing. The mayor and some senior business leaders came to the conclusion that telling the city’s story in a very strategic way that would increase the opportunities available for Bostonians and that that was better done outside of city hall. So this nonprofit was born, and it’s a public/private partnership.
The conventional rule book for marketing cities is pretty straightforward. It’s print ad campaigns and trade missions, business traveling and junkets. We basically said we’re not going to do either of those things. We think they’re redundant at best and only marginally effective, and we also think that if we hit a bad economy, which we did last October, they won’t be sustainable. What we began to think about instead was how can we devise a methodology for telling the city’s story that actually reflects Boston’s greatest economic asset—the people of the city, the human capital of greater Boston as the greatest competitive advantage that Boston has to offer, its differentiating asset. Does a print ad do any justice to that? Does a trade mission do any justice to that? No. To go into a high level of detail—how can you use the emerging, robust, largely free infrastructure of social media to organize and even deploy this amorphous global community of people who are passionate about Boston? It’s kind of the business analog to Red Sox Nation. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re essentially making Boston the first city in the world to have a global alumni strategy.
When you think about alumni organizations… and some pretty forward-thinking corporations like McKinsey, Proctor & Gamble, Bank of Boston—Bank of Boston hasn’t even existed for probably 10 years and has about 600 really active Bank of Boston alumni that still communicate with each other and share information with each other about opportunities and so forth—Alumni organizations help to support the success of individual alums. They help to foster international collaboration. They help to create new channels for investment. These are the things that they do for universities. Can’t they in fact do the same thing for a city? Nobody’s really tried that before, but Boston is now trying it. We decided to launch this organization by trying to create a Boston chapter, which if we could get it right, we could use as a platform and a template for future growth.
The idea is that, rather than use a newspaper or a magazine or any other traditional medium as the medium for telling your story and getting your message out—instead, use a network of people as the medium… I would argue that what any of us thinks about Boston University, Harvard, Emerson—pick a school—has very little to do with any ad that we’ve seen, has very little to do with any brochure, and has everything to do with the people we know who studied there, who teach there, who are affiliated with these institutions. So here’s Boston, this city with this profound bucket of human capital. It is uniquely positioned among global cities to pursue this methodology.
There’s roughly three things that the BWP network does. We seeded this network with a group that we refer to as our connectors. Jeanne and Lex are both connectors. Connectors are analogous to the active members of university alumni organizations. They do three things: 1) They share information about Boston’s economic opportunities and assets, which they help to distribute in a way that media empowers individuals to do so today, via Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, Delicious, etc. 2) They also help gather what in the business context we talk about as competitive intelligence—information about companies that are particularly well-suited for Boston’s economic assets so we can make sure we reach out to those folks and say, here’s what the opportunities are… and 3) As compared to a print ad or a magazine ad, some more traditional medium, the people network can actually be reshuffled to service inquiries. Let’s say a medical devices company in Oslo expresses an interest in locating in Boston or establishing a facility here. I, as the director of the organization, don’t have to be an expert in medical devices. This is great because I can’t be an expert in everything, nor can my staff. But because we have this growing network of highly nuanced human intelligence and expertise and perspective, we can then say to that Oslo-based medical devices company, let us search our network and find the right person in the business community who can actually speak to you as a peer and share his/her own experience of Boston as it relates to that specific industry.
The question is can you marry the individual connectors’ self interest with the kind of civic interest that is embodied in our goals and objectives? We’ve found that [we can], so the next challenge is to grow and scale that concept.
In response to: How have you found online tools to enhance or strengthen your communities? How have you found them to limit your community building efforts?
With BWP, we’ve very deliberately created a highly heterogeneous community… It’s uniquely valuable for Boston because of the way it cuts across industries and countries of origin and cultural communities and so forth. At the same time, it’s harder to manage… For some people, [online tools] meaningfully enhance their experience, so there’s a subset of connectors who help on that front. They say, you have to have this widget, you have to do this, etc. And of course the idea is that they’re empowered to introduce these things. You find that some people adopt these tools and use them and others don’t.
We’ve structured the connectors as teams. This has been the structure that’s worked for us. There were 125 people in the initial cadre of connectors, and we told them, pick whichever thing matters to you and you’re on that team. Then each team has been able to use whatever digital tools they’ve wanted to organize and focus around tasks. It’s been quite varied in terms of which tools they’ve introduced. I think the short answer is yes [online tools have enhanced the work we do]. The more nuanced answer is it varies quite a bit from person to person, team to team within BWP and so forth.
I think that [when we talk about social media] what comes to mind for me is it’s not so much that we don’t know how to interact with one another in person; it’s that it comes to be the expectation that we give people the out to choose to not interact. So if I walk over to your house and knock on your door, you don’t really have the out. You have to answer the door. You have to engage with me a little bit. But if I call you, you can look and see who is calling on your caller ID. You’ve kind of got the out. It seems to me like social media is another way of giving people the out. I can send you a message and let you know we’re at this location on Saturday organizing around this thing. People jump in or not, but it’s very self-selective.
In response to: How do you create spaces for meaningful face-to-face interaction and networking or conversation? How have you done in this in your organizations? Or how have you struggled with this?
I think people like [Joseph Porcelli from Neighbors for Neighbors] are invaluable because they help people who are more shy to get over that hurdle of talking to other people… What’s worked well for BWP is we’ve taken the approach of introducing some light structure to every event, but try not to over-message events… If Dave McLaughlin is in a room writing brochures about Boston, the world doesn’t need it. But if, with some other people, I can convene resources, create a forum within which all of you people who care about the city can express your perspective and your unique knowledge, and we can share that en masse—that’s quite compelling. So when we do an event we don’t try to create this top-down structure. We try to offer a little bit of structure that helps the wall flowers, that helps people who need a framework in order to enable them to engage. But it also doesn’t constrain the people who want to move much more freely through the room. That’s been what’s worked well for us—light structure and wearing it like a loose shirt.
In response to: How do you keep members of your community, volunteers within your organizations accountable?
If you have that kind of Field of Dreams, we’ll build it and you will come, you’re deeply naïve. I think that a lot of people have proven that over the last couple of years in the social spaces of the web. You do have to be prepared to make the investment after creating the space to continue to program and populate the space so it is compelling. And I’m not sure if there’s an easy answer to how to do that. I think that’s inherently a trial and error process. But going back to what we were talking about before—you have to respect the perspectives of the people that you want to participate. You have to give them ownership… I read a really interesting paper by the Barr Foundation, or maybe it was funded by the Barr Foundation, but [it studied networks]. I remember it referred to networks as organisms. For me at least this was an important thing to understand, that these were really organisms you can’t box in and manage. You have to try to feed them.
In response to: Given that all of your organizations invite people to become actively involved, do you ever impose constraints on their participation?
We’ve generally taken the position that we’d rather reward behavior we want than penalize the behavior we don’t want. We’ve tried this in a couple of ways where we’ve said as a connector, here are the things that you can do that directly advance our mission. So we’re going to put a contrived point structure around that and we’ll offer you some incentives to do those things and to actually communicate to us that you did them. For us, the incentives were access to some highly visible business and civic leaders… We proved the concept that you could do this. There’s a lot of refinement that needs to happen, but that’s one thing we feel strongly about—reward, don’t nag.
The other thing is that we are about to begin to prune this group of connectors. So we’ll say to the 10% of connectors who are inactive or the least active, let us give you an out. We respect that you’re busy, we know there’s a lot going on, and we appreciate you’re interest and your desire to be supportive, but you’re not really engaged. We want to invite you to step down so that we can fill your spot with somebody who is going to be more active.
On encouraging participation in organizations, letting the organizational models change and evolve
For us, we’ve found that a good portion of our job is to continue to be active participants in [our network] and to stimulate conversations around projects and subjects that are aligned with our mission. We don’t expect that to stop really. We went live in February… What has been entirely our focus is understanding connector behavior. Having introduced this platform and recruited this initial group of connectors and said here’s our mission, here’s what we want you to do—we then watched for a couple of months and asked ourselves, how are people using this? how do we want them to use it? what’s that gap? what might the appropriate structure be to narrow that gap? That’s when we said we’ve identified these eight subject areas that we think are going to be core campaign activities for us, and we’re going to articulate those activities as teams. Then we invited connectors through a survey interface to assign themselves to whichever team they cared about. That way, again, it was user-driven… People were populating teams themselves. We think that’s key to sustained enthusiasm and commitment and participation.
Also, we invited people to volunteer to manage those teams as co-chairs and 46% of the connectors volunteered to co-chair. We thought that was pretty extraordinary, that nearly half said not only will I do this, but I’ll also take on a management role. Then we said, let’s use our knowledge of the whole group to [assign the right co-chairs]. And to the point of this conversation, I said there were eight teams. We tried to help set a short-term agenda for each one so that each team would have a short-term project to organize and coalesce around. We found that with one team it wasn’t working. We realized that we hadn’t set this particular team up to be successful. We weren’t prepared as an organization to make the investment that would have allowed them to be successful. So we went back to them and [told them this] and invited them to move to different teams where they could have better experiences. I think that’s a really important lesson, too, which you hear about in the Google culture—fail quickly. Try a lot of stuff, but have the willingness to see when something is misaligned, kill it, put the investment back where something’s actually working—working both for the individuals and for the organization goals.
Advice he would pass on to others
My experience with this Boston World Partnerships has been that it’s been a pretty intense workload. But it’s also been enormously energizing. On the one hand, there’s this interesting intellectual puzzle of the model that we’re playing with, which is cool and meaningful to me. But what’s much more meaningful to me, and I think you all would agree, is the experience of constantly being in forums with people who are very motivated, who are very committed to an idea of what Boston is and what it ought to be and how to tell that story. That’s just an enormously energizing thing… At age 38, one thing I’m fairly confident about, one thing I believe about life is that the things that are really great give you more energy than they take. BWP is an example of this.
On being sustainable and generating revenue
Like I said before, we had some performance-based seed funding. We felt like it was our responsibility to use that as a way to think very creatively about the challenge ahead as compared to spending it all on an ad campaign. Part of what we tasked ourselves to think about was how would we become self-sustaining once we went through that money.
We’ve been thinking a lot about the revenue model that we’re going to introduce. The interesting challenge has been this: if you’re an organization that is dedicated to building a network as a medium, how do you identify revenue generating activities that both exist on top of that network and reinvest in that network? Given the progressive economic development strategy that we’re pursuing—we think there is a portion that will come from progressive-minded foundations. But that’s a minor portion.
Our mantra is very simple—inform and connect. Inform the world about what Boston offers, connect people to the resources they need to locate and grow their businesses and create opportunities here… One of the things that both informs and connects are events. We’ve had great success in building momentum with our events thus far. We now think that we can introduce a complimentary line of events that are actually revenue generating. So there are a bunch of different pieces, but [that question is] front and center for us right now.
In response to the question: Have you thought about using Neighbors for Neighbors to help achieve BWP’s mission?
Yes. I met [Joseph Porcelli] when he visited us six or eight weeks ago. We think of BWP as aspiring to be a network of networks, and in that sense to be inherently inclusive. We don’t want to try to be everything ourselves. Instead, we try to be a conduit for other people who already do something and do it really well… Part of BWP is user-generated content. I said before that each individual Bostonian has his/her own unique perspective and knowledge and so forth. Being able to share that and make that searchable is quite compelling both on a qualitative, neighborhood, social-texture point of view, and also from a industry-specific point of view. Joseph is a great example of that concept.
How to get involved:
Please visit bostonworldpartnerships.com for more information.
Image by Ari Klickstein