Guest Post: Rich Polt

By Rich Polt

When Louder Than Words signed on to help FORGE with PR, my promise to Sean was to blog openly about the process and the issues that we encountered – understanding, that what we were embarking on was an experiment in the purest sense of the word. We’re now about two weeks into this experiment, during which time we’ve had several conversations with members of the extended FORGE team and started reaching out to colleagues in the media. I want to spare you the play-by-play and will dive right in to an issue that has been stymieing this group – IMAGE.

Here’s the million dollar question: What image is FORGE projecting at this very moment? And the natural follow-up question: Is this image helpful or hurtful to FORGE’s goals?

Mahatma Gandhi said “be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s a wonderful quote (particularly for the nonprofit sector). It means that change begins within each of us, and we must lead by example. When it comes to effective communications, a similar principle applies. Project the image you want others to see. Project confidence and passion and your audiences are more likely to be moved by you. Project confusion and self-doubt, and guess what your audience will see?

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that people or organizations be disingenuous in order to manipulate audiences. This is the slippery slope that the PR sector walks on, and one of the reasons why people don’t hold “spin doctors” in high regard. What I’m talking about is a best-practice in leadership. In the same way that Sir Ernest Shackleton maintained a disposition of optimism in the face of overwhelming adversity, an organization and its leadership must act as beacons of strength to engender confidence in those who surround it, particularly during tough times.

Now there is a difference between optimism and denial. Shackleton was optimistic but he was also honest with his men. In my view, vocal introspection is an admirable trait. It’s a sign of tremendous leadership and maturity when someone like Kjerstin can say “We’re in trouble, and I don’t have all the answers.” This was the spirit of Kjerstin’s early blog posts and the spirit in which the nonprofit community rallied around FORGE. This was also the spirit that I believed would interest the media because it was so refreshingly transparent. In fact, it was this very dynamic which grabbed the attention of San Francisco Chronicle reporter Meredith May and led to her recent story about FORGE.

But over the last few weeks, the public discourse has drilled down into the inner-workings of FORGE with much greater detail. And during this time, media interest has been tepid. Most want to monitor the situation (through these blogs) to see what happens. So what I’m wondering (out loud) is, has all the public blogging that we’ve been doing collectively made you – the readers who are following this saga – care more or less about the organization? Has your image of FORGE changed over the last month, and if so how?


  1. Leanne says:

    Rich asked:”So what I’m wondering (out loud) is, has all the public blogging that we’ve been doing collectively made you – the readers who are following this saga – care more or less about the organization?”

    Me: I don’t know if it’s affected my level of caring/concern as much as it’s produced some frustration. I think once we crossed over from Kjerstin transparently saying, “Hey, guys. I could use some help.” to others saying “Oooh, here’s a new good “show” to watch!” (w/out actually HELPING) I felt the first inkling of personal disconnect.

    Rich: “Has your image of FORGE changed over the last month, and if so how?”

    Me: I think my image of FORGE has changed a bit in that I have discovered from Curtis’s posts/assessments, that FORGE is not a big/established as it seemed they were. I think I got caught up in the slick presentations and all the five dollars words and made the mistake of assuming things about their operation that weren’t true.

    This doesn’t mean that I think there is anything wrong with the way FORGE is run. It just means that I felt they weren’t as completely transparent at the beginning as they could have been which made Curtis’s discoveries and the SF article very unsettling.

    In the end, the biggest frustration on my end has been the sense that the media attention (and the securing of it) has been the focus and the real issues, getting donors to come on board with appropriate communications/invitations and securing strong partnerships from business and foundations has taken a back seat.

    I was hoping that strategy and execution could be happening at the same time that media attention was being secured so that, when a reporter picked up on the story, FORGE would be much farther down the road in turning things around than they are.

    It feels like things have gotten stuck, even if that’s not the case, and that all the media is reporting on is the original plea and the history of FORGE. What needs to happen is that mention is made of the current situation, acknowledgment is given to FORGE’s history but ATTENTION is focused on how Kjerstin and the rest of the team have despite tremendous odds, tackled the problem and are in full blown execution mode.

    One side comment that I have yet to see addressed is mention of a contingency plan. What will happen if the money doesn’t come in by Feb. That needs to be talked about and shared. Not just in terms of what programs will be cut, but what FORGE will do in response to less than stellar response to their plea for funding. As it stands right now, I feel like we’re all waiting for the “shot clock” to run out.

  2. I think something that has gotten lost in all this is that it has been less than 3 weeks since I first teed up the various consultants to help FORGE. It seems totally irrational to me to expect that a new strategic plan, a contingency plan, a turn around and donations would have come flowing in by now.

    In fact, if a bunch of consultants had produced reports in a week or two I would have had to totally discount their value.

    Until a strategic plan is presented, should donors been sending their “help”? I’m not so sure and I’ve written as such. But from what I’ve seen so far, I think FORGE does have a strategic plan and by working with Curtis they can refine it and present a compelling case for individual and foundation donations.

    Internet speed is great for drawing attention to a speed, but no organization should try and transform themselves or build long term strategic plans at internet speed.

  3. Leanne says:

    Very good point, Sean. My comments weren’t in regards to unrealistic expectations for the consultants nor do I expect a full strategic plan in a matter of days/weeks.

    What I was hoping, though, was that there would be some plan, some outline that would be made public. Something that would help me, as someone new to the story, to feel that a financial investment was worthwhile, even if it was just to say, “hey, while our consultants are busy analyzing the situation and suggesting strategies, the team at FORGE is working on our financial situation by meeting with X number of donors, getting our board involved with X number of referrals, holding F2F’s where FORGE Ambassadors were telling the FORGE story and how they were personally impacted by our work, etc.”

    I get that things take time but like it or not, once Kjerstin went public and used the internet as her main vehicle of communication, she opened the door for not just feedback from others but for the expectation that the communication would be two-way.

    If Rich wants to know how to keep my interest in the FORGE story as a donor, then I say I need to hear more from Kjerstin and FORGE, even if it’s a Twitter update on their website, Facebook or blog.

    Yes, it’s only been three weeks since people came on board to help but because this thing exploded and is now gaining such interest/exposure, I feel it’s imperative to not keep getting the “site under construction, come back soon” feel to things.

    The silence is the thing that creates a disconnect. Add a less than confidence inspiring article and as a listener, I feel like things have stalled (again, even if that is not the case).

    When you broadcast an emergency, you better be prepared to give updates until the emergency is over.

    As a potential funder or partner in the work FORGE is doing, I wouldn’t expect total transformation but I would want to hear what direction they were leaning in to see if it still lined up with what I might be able to offer.

    This is what it looks like in my corner of the world in response to Rich’s questions about the effect blogging about FORGE has had. My hope is that somehow, someway, my feedback, whether heeded or not, might trigger a response that will help FORGE move into a new and better future.

  4. I didn’t agree with your first post. But I think your follow up makes some excellent points. Thanks.

  5. Rich Polt says:

    Like Sean, I agree with your second comment Leanne. Frankly (speaking for my team) some of the radio silence is a pure bandwidth issue. Volunteering one’s time to help an organization in need takes time enough. Having to blog about the work we’re doing doubles the work load. I’m not trying to make excuses. Just being honest.

    We are pursuing media ops, but are not pushing too hard, precisely because we want to see what emerges with Curtis’ strategic plan. The reporters who we have spoken with are also curious to see what happens next (as you are).

    I do value and appreciate your feedback to my post. Perhaps it’s also telling that you are the only one who responded. Onward and upward.

  6. Curtis Chang says:

    Just to provide further context behind Sean and Rich’s points, a strategic plan this critical to an organization would normally take at least 3-4 months of very focused work by the consulting firm AND the whole organization.

    Obviously, we don’t have that kind of time, so we’re working as fast as we can on the process.

    On my end, this has meant doing something on FORGE just about every day since my lunch with Sean three weeks ago. I also think that the discerning reader will start picking up at least the outlines of the plan the more my blogs accumulate along the way.

    Leanne is right in that, to borrow from that great philosopher Peter Parker, “with great attention comes great responsibility.” But as Sean pointed out, that responsibility has to be a balance of speed and due diligence.

  7. Leanne says:

    Yes, I understand that things will take time. What I sense though, is that my responses to Rich’s original question about how I, as a reader of the situation, am perceiving things is being taken as criticism or unrealistic expectations.

    What I am hearing in response to MY opinions is that I am being unrealistic or that I must not have any concept of just what it is going to take to turn FORGE around nor do I have any clue about the pressures the consultants are facing.

    I find that amazing and,like the direction the media is starting to take with FORGE (it being some desperate but brave/noble attempt a young woman is undertaking and let’s all watch to see what happens!)that the responses I am receiving about my impressions sound more like explanations or justifications when, the spirit of my responses matched the spirit of Rich’s initial post.

    It’s as if you asked people to fill out a survey but you felt that their answers were wrong so instead of being appreciative that they took the time to thoughtfully comment, instead you have shifted focus to defending things.

    Just like Sean mentioned in a newer post, the conversations that have taken place here would never have happened if everyone just lauded him w/out honest feedback.

    Ironically, it is the very fact that Sean and his readers desire to be “like iron sharpening iron” that I keep coming back to read and try and glean whatever morsel of understanding I can from everyone who posts.

    So, Rich wanted to know how the attention FORGE is receiving in the blogosphere was shaping my opinion and interest level. Like Kjerstin, I shared how I felt and how I was perceiving things.

    Never did I say that the way FORGE was being presented was in fact the truth of the situation and never did I expect that the consultants who came on board only 3 weeks ago would or even should have turned things around by now.

    What I did say, and what I have said from the very first day I read about FORGE on Tactical Philanthropy, is that I applauded Kjerstin’s transparency but had some very big questions/concerns.

    It’s those concerns that I know the consultants are trying to address but it seems (again, the way I perceive things from what I am able to discern from blog posts and articles on the net) that something has gotten bogged down, whether that’s the message, the mission, or the people at FORGE (staff/board).

    Just like Curtis would never disclose such information about a client’s situation to the public, neither would I comment or try and offer honest and constructive feedback where it not asked for.

    Since Kjerstin opened up the discussion and since it seems she wants to hear what people think-whether good or bad-I feel it would be disingenuous to not truthfully comment when asked for feedback.

    Rich stated that, “It was telling that [Leanne] was the only one who responded” to his post. That can be taken as I am completely off my rocker with everything I have said so far or……………..that, just like I mentioned with my first comment, my impressions and image of FORGE are changing as the situation wears on in the blogging world.

    Could it be that I’m not the only reader/observer who feels this way? Could it be that people have lost interest? Maybe I am the only one who feels the way I do.

    Believe me, there have been many times I’ve thought to myself, “Just forget it. Forget what drew you to this story and let FORGE handle this on their own. You’ve got enough on your plate w/out worrying about a handful of people you’ve never met.”

    Why don’t I take my own advice?

    Because, in a moment of pure beauty, Kjerstin and a group of people thought that maybe, just maybe, we could be stronger together than we were separately and that by asking for and receiving help from others, refugees in Zambia would have hope.