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Alliance for Climate Eduction: Building Relationships for Change

Posted by Jon Stahl at May 12, 2010 |

Here at Groundwire, we think it's important to help organizations move beyond thinking about technology as a set of shiny new tools (websites! viral videos! social media!) and to help groups think instead about their systems for building and sustaining relationships that make social change.

Alliance for Climate Eduction: Building Relationships for Change

High schoolers take on the earth: Shepherd Hill Environmental Committee, MA

Here at Groundwire, we think it's important to help organizations move beyond thinking about technology as a set of shiny new tools (websites! viral videos! social media!) and to help groups think instead about their systems for building and sustaining relationships that make social change.

We believe that successful social change technology consulting starts with exploring the core business processes of a social change campaign and then identifies ways to use appropriate technology in support of these processes. We want to help the social change technology sector chart a path toward a deeper level of work; one that doesn't just focus on better marketing of social change campaigns through online channels, but pays more attention to better execution of the work itself.

ACE: Climate Change HIGH

We recently had the opportunity to put some of this thinking into practice with our allies at the Alliance for Climate Education, aka ACE. They're building a grassroots movement by delivering climate change presentations in high schools across the nation and inspiring students to action.

ACE has visited nearly 800 high schools and presented to over 350,000 students. Over 13,000 are on 130+ "Action Teams" that get involved in their communities to fight climate change and receive ongoing support from ACE's organizing staff. It's a great model for building an enduring grassroots movement, and helping develop the next generation of climate leaders.

As you might expect, ACE has a slick website, created by our friends at EchoDitto.  It's got a beautiful design, engaging content, and all of the multimedia and social networking doodads you can name.  It's an engaging on-ramp for students and teachers to connect with ACE.  But when ACE first approached us, it was something of an on-ramp to nowhere, because there was no systematic way for ACE to collect, track and act on all of the information the site might generate.

That's where we came in.


We started working with ACE in mid-2009 on implementing relationship management systems that could power their fast-growing, nationwide work.  Step one was building a core CRM system using and equipping ACE with solid, Salesforce-integrated email broadcasting powered by ExactTarget

Then it started to get interesting.

Once we had the basics up and running, ACE asked us to tackle the heart of their work -- the process of organizing, scheduling, delivering and following up on the hundreds of high school presentations they do each year.  When we started, ACE was doing the work, but it was chaotic, ad-hoc, hard to manage and harder to measure.  When we finished, it was systematic, coordinated, tracked and followed-through.  As you might imagine, the solution involved a little bit of web work and a bigger helping of custom Salesforce database work. 

How to Tailor a System That Fits Like a Glove

We knew that the key to turning ACE into a lean, mean event organizing machine was clearly defining their event organizing process.  How do requests come in?  What information does ACE need to collect?   When does an ACE staffer need to pick up the phone?  How will ACE's educators, scattered across 10 states, coordinate their work?  How will everything be tracked and measured?

We worked with ACE to create a clear set of process steps for their organizing, which we documented both in a narrative document and in a process map diagram.  Here's an excerpt of the diagram (click it to see the full-size version in a popup window):

ACE Presentation Workflow
ACE Presentation Workflow


This is a high-level overview of the process, with key steps broken out by the person (or system!) that takes action on each. 

We also created a more detailed, narrative version of the process diagram, where each step is explained in detail, along with the necessary steps the web and database systems needed to take to support the ACE staff.  (Once again, click to zoom.)

ACE Presentation Narrative
ACE Presentation Narrative

This is where the magic happens. We worked in close partnership with ACE to transform an ad-hoc, on-the-fly organizing process into a process that is concrete, specific and documented -- and thus something that we can build a tool to support.  But more importantly for ACE, working with us to think about their presentation organizing process in this level of detail forced them to really grapple with fundamental issues about how they planned to execute and scale out their program for maximum impact.

Design, then build

With a solid draft of the process in hand, we were able to weave into our document the details of the technical implementation-- when to use Salesforce's built-in objects, when to use custom objects, what needs to be a trigger or a workflow transition.  ACE was with us at every step, because only they could ensure that we were designing something that fit their real-world organizing needs.

Once we had both business process and a technical architecture sorted, we were able to start building the actual systems with a pretty good idea that we'd end up not just with tools that work, but with tools that work the right way for ACE.

What's the Punchline?

This story showcases the building blocks of a very different approach to solving social change technology problems.  Rather than taking a "tools-first" approach and deploying the latest "hot" online system, we helped ACE:

  • Focus in closely on its core organizing work
  • Define a repeatable, distributable process for coordinating and scaling its core organizing work
  • Wisely use its core organizing tools in the smartest way possible, with precision and attention to detail

By approaching its technology challenges in this manner, ACE wound up not only with tools that let it be more systematic, more efficient, more thorough and more scalable in its outreach work, but also with a much more solid shared understanding of how ACE does what it does

By reframing the technology consulting engagement to focus on analyzing ACE's business processes instead of implementing software tools, we were able to help ACE think more clearly about:

  • Exactly how ACE builds relationships with teachers and students
  • The precise series of "touches" that need to happen in the relationship building and service delivery process
  • How ACE's fast-growing, nationally-distributed staff collaborate as a team
  • How a combination of online and offline tools can help ACE do that work crisply and professionally

What we love about doing this work is that it is grounded directly in ACE's theory of change.  It's not about selling their ideas better; it's about helping them do their work better.  Instead of focusing on shiny tools, this approach focuses on knitting disparate tools together into a coherent system.  It enables ACE to follow through and really deliver on the promise of their social-media savvy website.

Matt Stewart, ACE's Head of Marketing, says, "The key to this project was restraining our urge to guess at what the right process was, which sent us barking up the wrong tree. Instead, we laid out a complete picture of our problems, and let Groundwire apply their expertise to come up with a solution that made sense. The results: making lives easier and more effective for our staff and our target audience of busy teachers."

ONLY Part of a larger picture

The system we explore above is only part of ACE's big picture (although it is certainly at the core of their work!), and it's embedded in a mesh of other important work: online and offline outreach, SMS text messaging; follow-up "action teams" that are coordinated via Facebook.  Each of these tools plays a role.  But each needs to be considered as part of a system of organizing, not as an isolated "channel."

We're very excited about the potential power in this approach. 

What if we were able to make a big leap beyond "raising awareness" and "raising money" towards converting that hard-earned attention into meaningful, sustained, trackable engagement through disciplined, consistent action and follow-through?  What if our systems were more focused on scaling up our relationship-building efforts rather than getting our message out as broadly-but-shallowly-as-possible? 

We think that social change movements could be far more powerful if they focused their technology work on these broader, systems-level questions, and we think this approach can help point the way towards that goal.

What do you think?  Have you or your organization explored these approaches?  What worked for you?  What didn't?  We'd love to hear your stories, reactions and ideas in the comments.


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Terrific post

Posted by Marc Baizman at May 17, 2010 12:29 PM
Jon, this is an excellent post and realy gets to the heart of what makes Groundwire such an excellent consulting firm. The bottom line is that unless you (and the nonprofit) truly understand the organization's business processes, no shiny, new tool will help support what they do. Love the Visio diagram and the "Narrative" doc. I know the Visio "cross-functional flowchart" format, but the Word doc is unfamiliar to me. Can you say a little more about the format of that, and why you do both? I see the need, just want a little more insight into *your* process. Thanks agai, and keep up the great work!


Posted by Jon Stahl at May 17, 2010 01:23 PM
Thanks, Marc! I'm glad it struck a chord with you. The narrative document evolved out of the need to produce something that definitively documented the intended functioning of the system, in language that was specific, implementable and understandable by both ACE and us. The narrative document is actually the "truth" document, because it is the only artifact that contains enough specific detail for us to actually implement stuff, and for ACE to know that we are implementing the right stuff. The Visio swim-lane diagram is really just a high-level overview. In this case we created it post-hoc as a guide to the longer narrative document, but sometimes we create them as a step along the way to the more fully-detailed narrative version.

The "truth" doc and Agile development

Posted by Marc Baizman at May 17, 2010 01:34 PM
In doing many Salesforce implementations, I've often found an iterative, Agile-development style to be more effective. Does this jive well with having a canonical "truth" document, or do you do more of a traditional "waterfall" style of development where, once you have the truth doc, then you build the system. (No judgement, either way, to be clear. Just wondering. :)

Some of both

Posted by Jon Stahl at May 17, 2010 01:40 PM
The document does get revised iteratively as we go, so it is more "agile" than it might appear.

Thank you!!!

Posted by Marc Baizman at May 17, 2010 01:49 PM
Thanks for all the info, definitely cool to see under the Groundwire hood a little bit. Looks like ACE got a great "Action Team" to help them!