The emancipation of the charity employee

It’s already been a pretty damn good week. I gave a keynote on Monday at the Third Sector Social Media Convention (#nfpsm), and it was a huge thrill to be invited on stage by Jon Snow. Later, on the train home to Somerset, my spirits were lifted sky high by this spectacular sunset, which I did my best to capture by pressing my phone up to the window.

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In my talk I said we had designed our organisations for divisions, rather than for connections. Think about it; not only have we built silos, but we still call them ‘divisions’. I also repeated a line from my post last month:

Loyalty to a charity brand is being slowly augmented by a closer affinity with charity employees.

I’ve observed how it helps to develop the thread between a charity’s values and my own experience of that organisation – as I learn a little more about the individual daily contribution of those charity people I follow on Twitter (and who I might then meet). These ‘weak ties’ become stronger over time – more textured – and many eventually form bridges that connect us. But as Anne McCrossan (with whom I am fortunate enough to collaborate) writes in her post reflecting on this week’s event, charity leaders have been slow to appreciate how this connective tissue can create a compelling point of difference:

Job descriptions remain fixed, corporate reputations struggle with how to accommodate and integrate personal profiles into their own, the scope to build on the kind of affinity that can reshape organisational structure so it’s more fluid is limited. Hopping over the walls of internal departments to contribute to initiatives is often regarded as too provocative and challenging to the status quo.

Zappos – the online shoe and apparel store – expects each employee to “develop and cultivate the brand,” and shy away from any formal written guidelines, since their CEO, Tony Hsieh believes these are “too limiting and not aspirational enough.” We need to convince people that what they are doing has value. Of course some people – like Euan Semple – appreciated all this a long time before I did.

HCL Technologies in India has created the employee passion indicator – an instrument to establish what employees get most excited about. It might be financial reward (for less than half), recognition, advocacy, and so forth. Each employee gets a ‘traffic lights’ report indicating green, orange or red for the ‘fit’ between their own motivational factors and the requirements of their role. This helps them and the company to find the best match.

At Foviance, my friend Richard Sedley had the idea of sharing the business ‘lifestream’ on a blog. Elsewhere, SAY Media use employees’ images of their extra-curricular passions to start a conversation. I love what ihmmedia have done here on their ‘people’ page (thanks to @RobmDyson for this one), and I smiled with Heather Taylor as she shared her excitement at receiving her BBC staff pass.

So far these examples are all from the corporate world (but you get the idea).

Here come charity:water (who else?) to the rescue. They ‘big up’ their people (including interns) via a meet the staff category on their blog, and use photos to capture the heartbeat of their young and dynamic organisation – such as when sharing the delight of receiving a poem or a visit from a young fundraiser in the office.

charity"water sharing using Instagram

One last one. Now I have no idea whether the stunning new visual identity of the MIT Media Lab carries over into practice, but the intent is breathtaking (you really need to follow that link). Translate this to your charity: passionate and creative people from all kinds of backgrounds coming together, inspiring each other and collaboratively making change. Now imagine that branding extending out to those not on the payroll.

MIT Media Lab visual identity

All this goes way beyond ’employee engagement’; I’m thinking more ’employee emancipation’.

What do you think?

I’m now about to jump on another train to try and persuade a group of Big Charity Finance Directors that this is something worth focusing on; that there is value in the ‘who’, as well as the ‘what’.

Anyway, here’s my presentation from Monday.

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4 Responses to The emancipation of the charity employee

  1. “All this goes way beyond ‘employee engagement’; I’m thinking more ‘employee emancipation’.”

    Couldn’t agree more. We need to stop thinking of staff members as little marketing machines – it’s hideously simplistic and doesn’t use social media to its full potential. Staff should be trusted and given the skills to forge new connections, to try new things and to understand that occasionally making mistakes isn’t a problem – at least they tried.

    PS: Absolutely love the MIT Media Lab branding for individuals!

  2. Absolutely, Ross.

    Charities will always fall short of their potential to rally communities outside, if they can’t rally their (hopefully) passionate community inside.

  3. Rob Bowker says:

    Been a while since I caught your blog but this post is a gem – and thanks for sharing it.

  4. Steve Bridger says:

    Thank you, Rob. Appreciated.

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