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When CauseShift launched WeCanEndThis.com at SXSW, they set out on a year-long quest to spark innovation and broader engagement in the movement to end hunger in America.
And they won’t be satisfied until they’ve helped shift the conversation and create real, tangible solutions.
I sat down with Brian Reich as part of our new series on Citizen-Centered Solutions to learn more about the initiative and their approach at engaging the public in problem solving.
Kari: Of all of the different tactics you could have employed, why did you choose to go the route of public participation?
Brian: Everything about our society is changing - rapidly and constantly. How we communicate, get and share information, and engage each other - online and offline - is different than it was just a few short years ago. Information moves faster, people are more closely connected, and the level of interest and commitment that people have when it comes to social issues and causes has never been greater. Our society has shifted, and thus, how we support causes, respond to disasters, and mobilize the public to help address complex problems needs to shift as well.
In other words, what we are doing isn’t working any more. We need to re-think our approaches. We need to re-design our processes. We need to re-consider how we structure and organize, not only our campaigns and movements, but the groups that lead them. We need to challenge everything we know, and think we know, and turn them on their sides. All of us have a role to play in solving major issues. Gone are the days when each group or each individual is on their own. We are all in this together. By fostering cooperation and collaboration, we can drive greater innovation. By tapping into the audience to help in the effort to re-think our work, anything is possible.
Kari: How are you ensuring you’re getting new ideas and participation from diverse groups with fresh thinking?
Brian: There are three things that we are doing to ensure that new ideas and participation from diverse groups with fresh thinking are driving the successful outcomes of this project:
First, while we welcome the participation of anyone and everyone who is interested in addressing the issues of hunger, our commitment is to ensure that the most diverse, forward-thinking and accomplished group of individuals and organizations are coming together to address this issue differently than in the past. As such, we seek out and are working to engage individuals and groups who have innovative insights and demonstrated expertise and experience across a variety of different sectors and issues - and importantly, not necessarily with specific focus on hunger - to participate and help to shape and pursue different possible solutions. This list includes leading digital creatives who push the cutting edge of technological change, web developers, designers, bloggers, wireless innovators, content producers, programmers, inventors, tech and new media entrepreneurs, gamers and game developers, investors and educators.
Second, we are structuring the conversation to ensure that the focus of the project, and the work that everyone who is involved will help to shape and advance, is focused on the most important aspects of this conversation and structured to identify solutions to the problems that exist and can be pursued. For all the success that organizations have had in the past decade (and beyond) in generating awareness, raising funds, and building a sizable following for their campaigns and causes, not enough has been accomplished. In many ways, the Internet has made us lazy. There are new, exciting tools. Collaboration happens quickly. Individuals can have impact. But, too much of what organizations are doing is focused on utilizing the next shiny thing, serving their organizational needs and not realizing the impact that we all want and believe is possible. The ways that we have structured the project and engage the participants - over the course of a year, with a specific focus on solutions, with an approach that looks to create and/or tap into a marketplace of ideas, and similar - we are shifting the way the issue of hunger is addressed and establishing a framework through which other issues can be tackled going forward.
Third, we simply are doing things differently. Rather than launching a new organization, we engaged the leading organizations in the hunger space - and other individuals and groups of all kinds - to participate in a coordinated effort. Rather than just creating an awareness building campaign WeCanEndThis is set up to be an accelerator and incubator of ideas specifically related to addressing hunger in America and to help develop and launch potential solutions in ways that those already working in the hunger space, or who see an opportunity to address this critical issues, can all become involved and benefit. We are not competing with other organizations, we are trying to elevate and improve the efforts of all who are interested in addressing the issue of hunger in America. We are not seeking to own the elements of the project or claim credit for their successes, we are hoping to create and advance a marketplace of ideas and solutions for others to utilize. Our role is to help re-think the way serious issues like hunger are addressed and facilitate new approaches, promote better practices, establish deeper commitments and more innovative partnerships, and through that work ensure a significant, meaningful, and measurable set of outcomes. That had never been done before on this type of effort, and its exactly what is needed if we are going to make any significant progress.
Kari: How do you deal with unpopular or controversial issues?
Brian: We embrace them. Significant change is hard. The process can be difficult, loud, and messy. But we aren’t looking for another campaign concept, a catchy slogan, or a new tool - we aren't looking to do more of the same. And when you re-think everything - how we communicate, operate, engage, mobilize, measure, and even discuss/explain the issue of hunger, in hopes of significantly shifting the way we address this issue, it can be very challenging. Not everyone recognizes the scope of the challenge or the need to approach the issue in a different way. Not every organization we have engaged feels comfortable shifting from their current way of doing things - which works well for the organization, but perhaps doesn't have the desired impact on the issue as a whole - to consider something different. Some people don't have the skills, the experience, or even the perspective to embrace this type of effort. But those challenges, and the many others we routinely encounter, are not reasons to shy away - quite the opposite, we see them as a sign that we are moving in the right direction, and a challenge to push more and try harder. Unpopular or controversial ideas by themselves aren't solutions, but they are critical pieces to finding the answers and approaches that are needed if we are going to shift how we address hunger in America and succeed in this effort.
About WeCanEndThis.com WeCanEndThis is a yearlong initiative to spark innovation and a broader engagement in the movement to end hunger in America. The project is designed to allow - and insure - that a diverse group of individuals and organizations are working together, along with our cause partners (Feeding America, Share Our Strength, and Capital Area Food Bank of Texas) to help solve a major social issue. Over the next year, as WeCanEndThis moves forward, the effort to find new and different approaches to ending hunger will continue.
The project officially launched at SXSW and hunger was designated as the official cause of the festival, a first for the event. The big event for WeCanEndThis at SXSW was the CauseLab, a day long, mutli-part, cross-discipline, brainstorming session. We invited lots of smart, innovative, collaborative minded thought leaders to help dream up to develop innovative solutions that address three central challenges:
- Building the Hunger Organization of the Future (and how that structure can create a hunger-free society)
- Humanizing the data (and how we make hunger relevant, and top of mind, to people across the nation)
- Advancing local activation (including how to make systemic changes in communities everywhere)
For more information about WeCanEndThis visit: www.wecanendthis.com
About Brian Reich Brian Reich is the managing director of little m media, his own firm, which provides strategic guidance and support to organizations looking to more effectively communicate, engage, educate and mobilize audiences in today's fast-moving, hyper-connected society. He is also a principal at at CauseShift, a consortium of leading marketing and cause-related communications specialists who work to shift how organizations think, innovate and solve problems by rethinking the core challenges and tapping into thought leaders and disruptor for innovative solutions that make a measurable difference. Brian writes, speaks, and teaches about the impact of the internet and technology on society and is well known for his expertise in new media, web 2.0, social networks, mobile, community, ecommerce, brand marketing, cause branding, and more. Brian is the author of Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience (Wiley 2007), editor of Thinking About Media, and contributes as a FastCompany Expert.