Promises vs Hope

Curtis Chang has a new post up on the Social Edge website regarding working with FORGE. The World Economic Forum has ended, but I’m staying on in Dubai for vacation with my wife. I have lots to write about, but I’ll hold off for another day. Today I’m going to the souks.

So onto Curtis’s post:

You have to hand it to my client. I challenged her to make her case for why FORGE should matter to the collective nonprofit sector. And she responds by throwing down a regression analysis. She’s making me feel like I’ve time warped back 15 years ago, when I was a Head Teaching Fellow in public policy classes at the Harvard Government Department reading essays from very bright students.

So in that same classroom spirit, I’m going to grade her response from my perspective. I do so partially in jest. It is certainly not because I ultimately think of myself as her teacher or superior (any consultant who conceives of himself as either of those roles for his client is both arrogant and a poor consultant). In fact, the more I get to know her and her achievements, the more I am in awe.

But I’m going to grade her response because I want highlight this critical issue: how FORGE must communicate its indispensability, both during this crisis and in the near future. Kjerstin and I have already talked about these points over the phone and she essentially agrees with my perspective. So, I’m sharing this here as part of our ongoing committment to let you in on our working relationship.

Overall, I’d give her effort a “reluctant “B.” “Reluctant,” because there is so much of her vision that is brilliant and deserves a sheer A+; but in the end I think she only half succeeds in what she needs to do.

The essence of FORGE is inspiring and paradigm shifting: to turn refugee camps from “warehouses of misery” into “incubators for social development.” This is just the kind of bold thinking needed in Africa. It is the job of any consultant to respect and nurture that kind of boldness.

But it is also my job as a consultant to take that bold vision and – without quashing it – discipline and translate it into organizational effectiveness. And even though I haven’t gotten deep into my research on FORGE’s sustainability plan, it is already quite obvious to me that more effective communication of its message will be critical.

There’s a lot of work that FORGE will need to do in terms of the mechanics of communication that I’ll discuss this in the future. But for now, I want to concentrate on the effectiveness of the message itself.

Promise vs Hope

I set up the “exam” as one in which she had to show why FORGE was deserving of a collective bailout. The two questions were:

* What damage to the collective are we averting with a collective bailout of FORGE?
* What collective good – even if it is in the future — are we seeking by working for FORGE’s survival?

A simpler – and probably more elegant – way to frame my twin questions was that I was asking her to communicate what she could promise us right now and what we could hope for in the future.

I feel that Kjerstin’s piece was a good at hope, but weak on promise. And it didn’t need to be that way…

…Promise is what you can deliver. Hope is what you can inspire.

As a social entrepreneuer, you need to communicate both. And sometimes, you need more of one than the other…

…What potential investors are looking for

I’m emphasizing this promise versus hope distinction because Kjerstin needs to be very, very long on delivering specific promises and short on inspiring hope right now. If things break her way, she’s going to get air time before more and more audiences the next couple of months. Her real audience in all those cases will be potential investors. For potential investors evaluating FORGE these days, hope is heavily discounted. They want specifics. They want deliverables.

Indeed, the suspicion that Kjerstin has to combat among potential investors is that FORGE somehow got into this deficit by being unrealistic, dreamy eyed, recent college grads. The more she talks about lofty, seemingly unreachable hopes — instead of the real concrete achievements happening in the field right now – the more I’m afraid she’s going to confirm that suspicion for this crucial audience.

Which would be tragic, because I believe she has so very much to talk about.

Read Curtis’s full post including his discussion of the lessons social entrepreneurs can learn from Michael Jordon and Spike Lee here.


  1. Leanne says:

    I agree that Kjerstin needs to change the way FORGE is viewed. One of the biggest deterrents to me is the first thing I read on her blog’s home page:

    “Kjerstin Erickson was 20 when she launched FORGE. She didn’t have a business plan. She didn’t have a revenue model. She didn’t have connections. And she didn’t have a penny. But she now works in three refugee camps in Zambia, helping 60,000 refugees build better lives. This is her story.”

    When I read, the reverse of what I think is intended happens. Instead of being in awe (which I am!), I am put off. As a professional and a potential investor, the statement, “She didn’t have a business plan. She didn’t have a revenue model.” turns me off.

    Rather than seeming daring, bold or courageous, it appears reckless and a bit smug. I seriously doubt that is what Kjerstin intends but that is what I hear every time I read her blog.

    The blurb on her blog is a great piece, don’t get me wrong but it’s not the whole story and right now, Kjerstin is going to have to become a very skilled story teller.

    I’d like to see Kjerstin combine her past with her present and point to the future in a clear and compelling message.

    I’d also like to hear more about the FORGE team and not just “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” Don’t get me wrong, Kjerstin seems like an amazing person but I think she’s starting to “jump the shark” in terms of exposure.

    What I want to see right now are the faces of FORGE, the opportunities for me with FORGE, the whole interconnected, collaborative, partnering picture available to me for the benefit of African refugees.

    That’s what I’d like to see.

    (apologies for the 1970’s sitcom references 😀 )

  2. Alanna says:

    That blurb strikes me the same way – like it’s about self-promoting Kjerstin, and like they have somehow pulled something off because of her sheer genius. I am sure she was not the one who wrote the description, so she and FORGE are the losers in this.

  3. Hi all,

    This is really good feedback, and exactly what I asked for in my blog last night. Alanna’s right that Social Edge wrote the top caption to my blog. But I think your point about it sounding head-in-the-clouds and almost flippant is helpful – that’s definitely not the message we want to be convey. I do find that people who talk about “social entrepreneurs” tend to emphasize one of 2 somewhat conflicting characteristics: the willingness to take risks and not know exactly how you’ll land, and the ability to be smart, measured, and strategic in what you do. Depending on who you talk to, the relatively importance of one of these characteristics is usually emphasized over the other (as I think was done on my blog heading).

    In the end, though, I agree with Leanne – this isn’t supposed to be about me, or about any one person. Its supposed to be about a cause, or at the very least a group of people making the pursuit of a cause possible. In FORGE’s case in particular, we put the decisions about the cause in the hands of the refugees themselves, and they are the ones we want to spotlight. Yet in this current situation, that has gotten lost a bit in the story about how we have responded. Most of that attention has been turned on me, as the one writing and representing much of FORGE’s public face.

    In the last few years, we’ve all witnessed this explosion of interest in the ‘social entrepreneur’ as an archetype. Speaking as someone who has been labeled one, I find it a tricky line to walk. I think calling attention to efforts started by individuals is important, but I also think that the importance of the individual can get hyper-fetishized. This can sometimes overshadow the cause, and it can also create an ideal that is hard to live up to. There are a lot of reasons why focusing on individual entrepreneurs makes sense (it puts a face to a cause, makes it concrete and identifiable, keeps the story simple, and is more inspiring than hearing about the problem), but also a lot of reasons that it can prove problematic (can get in the way of the cause itself, downplays the role of others in the organization, gets people’s egos involved). And it can make people like you fed up of hearing/seeing just one name/face, which is valid (especially if that name is unpronounceable!). If you have any ideas on how I can better balance the conflicting pressures and interest, I’d love to hear them.

    – Kjerstin

  4. I’m Nicholas Talarico, former FORGE Operations Director and current president of FORGE’s Board. I’ve been following these discussions and I think it’s important to highlight two things in response Leanne’s post.

    The blurb on the Social Edge blog is something that I’ve been bothered by since we first saw it. Kjerstin’s business plan and revenue model is exactly what attracted me to FORGE. It should be noted again that one of the main reasons we’re in this position is due to a shift away from a proven revenue model in order to increase our impact. With this model shift, we also changed our business plan and placed intensified fundraising responsibilities onto ourselves. Unfortunately (and lack of foresight comes into this), the business plan proved inaccurate as we found ourselves ineligible for certain grants, un-chosen for others, and facing the worst economy in nearly a century (which has rendered past donors far less potent that previously). Our choices have been idealistic and perhaps somewhat naive. It may not be effective to forgo long term sustainability in the form of funding in favor of a few years of deep impact, and we’re suffering the results of our worst-case-scenario. We take it on ourselves, but I hope that we don’t appear reckless.

    Speaking to the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” effect, it’s something that has received a lot of in-house attention. In PR efforts, FORGE has reached out to press outlets across the country. We have tried ceaselessly to have our story (the story of the refugees leading revitalization on the ground) told to the public. It has been met with little success. In 2007, the final year of our Project Facilitation model that brought dozens of volunteers to work in the camps, we sent well over 100 press releases (written by a media consultant) to media outlets. The success was mixed and a few pieces went into local papers focusing on area residents serving as FORGE volunteers. The one story that has been consistently “saleable” is Kjerstin’s story. In-house, Kjerstin has resisted this notion, but has been forced to acquiesce for some of our larger media hits, like CNN and DoSomething. We’ve been saddened by lack of interest in what we consider the true stories of FORGE, but are thankful for the interest in Kjerstin as a social entrepreneur.

    In this transparent approach, I’d say that press attention is one of FORGE’s weaknesses. One (of many) things that I’d love feedback on is related closely to Leanne’s post: how can we present our on-the-ground stories in a way that maximizes their exposure and gets them told to the public?

  5. Leanne says:

    I’m thinking.

    Give me a day or two and I’ll see what I can come up with in terms of message.

    Off the top of my head is the idea of backing away from the Social Entrepreneur thing.

    I think because SE is something relatively new, you are running up against generational road blocks.

    In all likelihood, your strongest supporters(speaking strictly in monetary value, here) are not going to be your peers but rather foundations, corporations, and individual donors-at least until you get yourselves stabilized and start recruiting new donors and moving them from P-E-O.

    (Even then, you’ll be dealing with a mix of ages/stages. That’s something to be very mindful of.)

    We’re a different bunch, us older folks. We’ve been around long enough to see some pretty wild things come………………and go. Riding the SE wave may generate recognition among those already in the “field” but from where I sit, it’s just slapping another name on NFP work.

    Because that’s how I see it, I then wonder why all the fuss about SE? Why not stop chasing the latest and greatest and just use the same language people in this line of work have been using forever?

    (This would be an example of generational bias, just so you know, but I can guarantee I’m not the only one you may approach who will think/ask the same thing.

    The longer it takes to explain who you are and what you do the quicker you will lose precious, precious time to deliver your message. Be very mindful of how you communicate guys and who you are communicating to.)

    In communicating FORGE’S message you need to identify your audience and I think you’ve been waaaaay narrow in your attempts (from what I’ve seen on the website and blog-which, most potential donors won’t be checking, just so you know.)

    Part of that is because you have done what almost every other NFP has done at one time or another. You’ve assumed your audience has the same level of understanding, awareness and passion about FORGE as you do, or worse, that they will actually put in the same amount of time you have to learn all they can about you from your………….website/blog.

    (Just so you know, they won’t. I haven’t, even, because I get lost on your website and the blog………..well, I’m not the intended audience and it FEELS that way, too. So, if I am feeling this way and I am a director of development and KNOW what to look for-as well as being invested in helping FORGE out in any way I can-then the chances of others feeling this same way are pretty darn strong.)

    I’m not trying to be mean, btw. Just showing you what I try to show so many others. FORGE has got to turn it’s focus completely around.

    You need to be able to look at yourself the way your donors and funders do, both established and potential partners.

    Pretend it’s your first day on the job. What happens? You go to HR and get an employee handbook. You watch a video or two to give you a heads up on your workplace policies. You then fill out some paperwork and it is reviewed for accuracy. You have the chance to ask any questions that may have popped up. Finally, you report to your office/desk/cubicle, etc.

    Even then, you are still given access to review things to make sure you understand what is expected of you as an employee and what is offered from your employer.

    THAT’S what I’m talking about when I say we need to focus on communicating the OPPORTUNITIES for people when THEY partner with FORGE.

    Not only that, but you need to start hitting all the learning modalities in your communications: Visual, Auditory, Tactile, Kinesthetic. Web only is really hurting you but there are ways you can offer different experiences without a huge investment of time/money.

    People are starved for connection, you guys. STARVED. We all want something to believe in. Something we can attach our names to and point to as work we have done that is good and right and true.

    Rather than lead with “Marcia” *winks*, or even with the refugees, lead with ME. Tell ME how I can be a part of the FORGE team. Right now, all I see is a pretty big gap between the FORGE staff and the refugees. It’s that gap that needs a bridge to span it.

    I would humbly suggest that your donors, your partners, your volunteers are the ones to help you cross that gap. They just need you to provide them the materials to build it.

    Now, how you go about achieving that is an art unto itself but I think you’ll catch on real quick because the secret ingredient is heart and from where I sit, FORGE and ALL the staff have plenty of that.

    I know I keep saying it, but I really think you guys are doing a tremendous job. Remember that when you grow tired or get discouraged, okay?

  6. Leanne says:

    Real quick. This has been in my head since I first learned of the shift from your old, student focused business model to your new one.

    In terms of immediate cash/volunteers, how hard would it be to implement the student model at a 50% level?

    I completely get the desire and need to switch gears but I think you might have switched too quickly (as we’ve all said by now). It’s always a good idea to make sure you’ve got a back up plan. It might have been a good idea to keep the student model until funding was secure/in place with the new model.

    Switching most likely would have been much easier and, you would have had the chance to really work on developing your relationship with the students.

    While you’re waiting for funding, why not go back to what you know? Why not tap into some of your past students and see if they’d be willing to raise enough funds to take a second trip to the camps?

    I haven’t heard much about your efforts to recruit your students since the new model was implemented. It makes it seem like they were just cut off cold turkey. Especially hard to read is how crucial those students were to raising money for operations at FORGE yet very little is said about how FORGE has worked to thank them and support them as “founding partners” of FORGE.

    So, that’s the other thing that’s been in the back of my head.

    (and, you already have “buy in/belief” from me so if I’m asking these questions…….)

    I’d go back to the old model for a bit until you were ready to roll out the new one-financially-and I’d start talking to the former students and start talking about the former students to us.

    Those students, their schools, their associations and clubs and possibly their first real employers………, I’d have a field day with that, you guys. That’s a warm prospect if ever I saw one.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Nicholas – I wanted to address your earlier comment on getting the media’s attention. (I’m writing from Louder Than Words, the PR firm that has volunteered some time to help FORGE.) At this point, the best immediate press opportunity for FORGE is the story of the transparency it has exhibited by publicly asking for help in a time of financial hardship. Journalists that cover the philanthropy world will most likely be drawn to this novel approach to doing nonprofit business, and the success FORGE has seen from the outpouring of support. Think of the drama that’s unfolding before our eyes as an immediate opportunity to get FORGE’s foot in the door with key journalists. The deeper story – the stories of the refugees on the ground – can come as a result of building these initial relationships with journalists who are drawn to FORGE for its radical transparency.

    You raise a good point about Kjerstin’s role in the high-profile media coverage to date. The reason why Kjerstin’s story has resonated so well with the media is because it’s an interesting, personal story. Journalists – and most importantly the consumers who are reading, watching and listening to their stories – like to feel compelling, personal connections to a larger feature story. To the media and its consumers, Kjerstin is more than just a “social entrepreneur”… she’s a person telling a very meaningful story. Ultimately, it will be critical for FORGE to find a way to tell the stories of the refugees in their own words. Kjerstin tells us that there are several refugees who have successfully turned their camps into places that foster learning and growth. It’s important to let them tell FORGE’s story. The refugees will bring in the personal connection people want and need to hear. Which in the end could translate the success Kjerstin has experienced with the media into the success –and press coverage– the organization as a whole deserves.

  8. Tyr says:

    Hi, I’m a partner in a philanthropic firm, and I work primarily on our South American accounts. Another one of my partners recommended Kjerstin’s blog last week, and I have been so fascinated by the discussion going on that I check the Tactical Philanthropy site daily. Kjerstin clearly seems to be doing interesting, valuable work and articulates her vision very well. However, after working for over 16 years in philanthropic work with high level donors, I have some critiques and advice for Kjerstin that I’m hoping might help.

    I have a lot to say and not much time, but first I want to agree with those who have been put off by the blurb at the top of the Social Edge blog. It definitely suggests recklessness and a sort of ‘cult of personality’ that would be off-putting to many potential donors who would unfortunately not be impressed by Kjerstin’s youth or inexperience or idealism, but instead skeptical and nervous. ‘Cult of Personality’-type organizations (and there are quite a few out there) can do amazing work because of the vision and dedication of their leader(s), but are more often than not undone by the fact that their organizational models cannot be replicated and are not sustainable, as they rely so much on one person’s vision.

    I looked over FORGE’s website, and I was surprise to see that the Board consists of only five members, two of whom I can only assume are very close to Kjerstin. Her fiancé (I read his post on Social Edge—it was very moving) is the President of the Board and former Operations Director? And I assume that Karen Erickson is in some way related to Kjerstin? This Board structure seems that it would only encourage the sort of ‘cult of personality’ thinking that I mentioned above. It’s hard to imagine that if two out of five of an org’s Board members are personally connected to its ED that the organization would not engage in extreme ‘group think’ that is never helpful when running any organization or business. Think about where that sort of structure got the Bush administration.

    I’ve got a lot more to say and will when I have more time…but want to re-iterate that this is an invaluable, necessary conversation that is taking place, and thank you FORGE and Kjerstin for being so forthcoming and dedicated.

  9. Thanks for your comment Tyr. It is amazing to see so many people with deep experience lining up to help FORGE or at least offer advice. I’m also impressed with how Kjerstin takes all the constructive criticism in stride and seems to say “I’ll have some more, please!”