Filtering Myself

This October marks five years of writing Tactical Philanthropy. During most of that time I’ve written a blog post almost every day. If you include my Daily Digest posts, I’ve averaged 1.8 post per weekday for a total of 2,093 posts since October 2006.

I’m often asked how I write so frequently. The key for me was that at the very beginning I made a commitment to myself to post each day, even when I didn’t feel like it and I wrote my posts first thing in the morning before my day got too busy.

But a lot has changed in the last five years. The amount of online information about philanthropy has gone from a trickle (a trickle that was largely ignored by most people in philanthropy) to a fire hose of information about all things social sector related.

In early 2009, I reluctantly starting using Twitter and then embraced it when I realized its potential to act as an effective information filter so that I could weed out the noise and focus on the signal. Once upon a time, the most informed people where the ones with access to the most information. But in a world of information overload rather than information scarcity, the most informed people are the ones who are best at filtering out the noise to get at the signal.

A few months ago I started experimenting with filtering myself. Rather than writing every day, I started writing longer, more robust posts twice a week and featuring a weekly, carefully selected and edited guest column.

A few interesting things happened:

  • Readership stayed constant and then started increasing over the last month even though we’re in the slow, “dog days” of summer when my emails to nonprofit and foundation employees return far more “out of office replies” than normal.
  • “Engagement”, as measured by reader comments and the number of Twitter references of my posts increased sharply.
  • My ability to stay on schedule dropped off as the urgency of my daily routine faded and my ability prioritize my posts fell due to the more flexible schedule and the increased effort I’m putting into each post.

There is a certain safety in blogging every day. Like brushing your teeth, it becomes a part of your routine and requires almost no self-discipline to stick with once you’ve made it a habit. But blogging less regularly is tough. It is tough to stare at a blank screen not sure what to write about and hear a voice telling you that you can put it off until tomorrow when maybe, hopefully, you’ll have something halfway intelligent to say.

I write all of this by way of explaining that much as I use Twitter, Google Reader and other tools to try to filter the huge amount of information available about philanthropy in order to seek out the real knowledge laying hidden in the cloud of noise, I plan to continue working to filter myself. To reduce the flow of blog posts, while hopefully increasing the value of the posts I do publish.

So far I’m finding this new course difficult to execute, but worthwhile when I’m able to follow through. My goal is to publish original blog posts every Wednesday and Friday, feature a carefully selected guest post every Monday and continue using the Daily Digest post to share with you those interesting bits from around the web that make it through my philanthropy filters and deserve, in my opinion, to be more widely read.

Tactical Philanthropy continues to be a grand experiment for me. I’m not sure how this new approach is going to work. Frankly, I worry that if I’m not here each and every day, readers might themselves lose their habit of reading and the Tactical Philanthropy community might disperse. But hopefully, reducing the noise and increasing the signal will increase the value for those who care.

Let me know what you think. Are there other ways I could make Tactical Philanthropy more valuable for you? Is my strategy of filtering myself the right approach? Or does it simple represent a break in my self-discipline of daily blogging that runs the risk of reducing the relevance of Tactical Philanthropy?

[Update: If you choose to share your thoughts with me regarding this post via an email or comment, please let me know whether Tactical Philanthropy content is “pushed” to you via some sort of subscription or if you “pull” the content by visiting the blog directly. Thanks!

16 Comments

  1. Jim Canales says:

    Sean,
    Great post, and it sounds as though your metrics are confirming that people are coming to TP for its value-added and thoughtful commentary, whether that appears daily or not. In this era of information overload, you have created a venue for thoughtful and intelligent discourse about philanthropy, and I for one will take substance over frequency anytime. So keep up the great work and keep pushing those of us privileged enough to work in this field to do better, aim higher, and drive to impact.

    Best,
    Jim

    • Thanks Jim. I have a quick question for you: Do you have Tactical Philanthropy content “pushed” to you via some sort of subscription or do you “pull” the content by visiting the blog directly?

  2. Derek Aspacher says:

    Shawn – I agree that it has become a bit of a fire hose re the amount of information that is moving these days. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m starting to hide from my Twitter feed deck.

    As someone that has been in this field since 1998 – I definitely see a big shift in interest. I’ve always figured it is due to more and more people wanting to bring heart into their work – which is, as you know, a really powerful thing. Also, obviously, more and more resources are starting to aggregate in this area.

    Recently, my social justice oriented yoga instructor mentioned that there are so many areas that need our attention right now that it’s easy to get distracted and then not act. She went on to note that it’s important to find an area(s) that resonates inside of us (body/heart/brain) and then dive in and move on that vs. trying to keep track of and fix it all – she likened it to “everyone wants to expand and exhale, but we’re forgetting the importance of inhaling and focusing.” That of course means that we have to trust each other and that collectively we’re “stepping up” to make needed change happen. It’s something I’m starting to consider within the context of the “spray of information” that is coming into this arena. My mantra is becoming – focus on the area you want to impact and trust that others are doing the same & every once in a while step back to see how the entire weave is coming together> maybe that’s something that I can depend on you to do – or at least partially. I would imagine that the trick for you is to keep enough diversity in the perspectives and information coming in to really achieve that vs. speaking to or just influencing the choir. I know that I have always appreciated your inner compass.

    Derek

    • Thanks Derek,
      Your point is one that was made in relation to Jed Emerson’s recent post on impact investing. Everyone in the field needs a laser focus on their area while appreciating the value and importance of other areas and working to weave them together.

  3. I deal with many of the same issues with my own blog. Since I graduated from school and transitioned to a full-time job a year and a half ago, I’ve found it more difficult to keep up a regular writing schedule. Through a lot of last year I found myself pushing out predominantly quick, mechanical posts to keep up the appearance of new activity, ultimately at the expense of longer and more thoughtful pieces. I’m still struggling to find the balance, but one strategy I have employed with some success is a Fellowship program aimed at developing a “farm team” of guest writers who can contribute to the site in a consistent and meaningful way. In addition, I am planning on featuring more one-off guest posts in the coming year, though not on the kind of regular schedule that you’ve set out.

    I now read close to 200 blogs, and what I notice about my own consumption is that I value genuine news and on-point (not necessarily lengthy) commentary more than anything else. Whereas I used to treat every blog on my subscription list equally, I now organize them into tiers based on how essential they are to me and my work, and this has helped to preserve my sanity. I am still probably not using Twitter optimally, as I only check in every once in a while. So far, I have found it to be more useful as a random stream of possibly relevant supplemental content than as a carefully curated primary source of information (I use blogs to fill the latter role).

    Hope this helps. For what it’s worth, I am an RSS subscriber.

    • Thanks Ian. I have some thought to the ongoing guest contributor model. But what I hear consistently, especially from senior people in the field, is that they don’t feel they have the time to contribute regularly. I’m hoping if I can feature 50 guest posts a year from 50 outstanding thinkers, I might be able to use the Tactical Philanthropy platform to highlight important voice that we don’t hear much from.

      But I’m open to a regular guest author model in the future.

  4. Sean,

    Thanks for your post. I think what you’ve decided to do is the right thing, and it doesn’t surprise me that you’ve sustained, and even increased, your traffic.

    I appreciate blog posts that are thoughtful and well constructed–I read enough blog posts to know when someone is blogging for the sake of blogging. I don’t want to read a post a day from someone, unless it’s really original, insightful content. I can’t imagine one person having that many original thoughts, so I haven’t yet found a blog that fits that criteria.

    A side note about your addendum–I get your blog through neither push nor pull mechanisms. I subscribe to it through RSS (Google Reader.) This is a push of some kind, but I see it as a much different thing. Your blog is a part of my blog roll (I’m assuming you have a similar set up), so it doesn’t really matter how frequently you post. Anytime you do, I see it and read it. And really the only reason I unsubscribe to something is because there is too many posts that aren’t worth my time to read. So, although not everyone uses RSS, it’s becoming more popular and I think the blogger’s anxiety of “post or fade away” will soon itself fade away.

    Looking forward to more stuff.

    Thanks,

    Jeff

    • Thanks Jeff. Yes, RSS is a sort of push mechanism. When I started blogging, the thinking was that if you didn’t post every day, people would stop coming back. But I agree that with RSS and other ways of “following” someone, much less frequent posting can work just as well.

  5. Anne Murray says:

    Sean: I read your posts regularly (receive them via email). Thinking back over past posts, I would say that what I like about the regular, shorter posts is that you seemed to often link them to the days’ events, adding the philanthropy filter to a news item that I might would not otherwise look at from that perspective. I think this is a critical contribution of your work. I don’t need to see something every day (too hard to keep up, and I always want to make sure I read what you write), but feel free to mix up the longer and shorter postings, I’ll read them regardless.

    Anne

    • Thanks Anne. A little while ago I switched the software I use for the Daily Digest Post so I could write longer comments. I like the “cross-disciplinary” topics as well, so I’ll work to keep weaving them into the Daily Digest posts if a shorter comment will suffice.

  6. Barbara LambHall says:

    Sean,

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post. I enjoy your blog because it balances the brain and heart approach to philanthropy. Continue the current model and see how it goes. Btw, I receive mine as pushed, but go to pull mode on and off to explore posts I might have missed.

    Barb

  7. Elaine Ikeda says:

    Sean, I appreciate you thinking carefully about your process and sharing your thinking with all of us – transparency! It’s nice that you’re so open to feedback. I can’t even recall how I stumbled upon your blog many years ago, but have enjoyed it thoroughly over the years. As you were talking about the daily routine of blogging…I was thinking about how I have tried to keep up with your posts daily… but sometimes can’t…and they pile up (i’m responding to your 8/17 post a full week later!) and I pick an afternoon where I can read through a week’s worth. Anyway, all that to say… I appreciate that you’re going to write less frequently and I have enjoyed reading the guest posts. Substance and quality is always preferred over frequency! Keep up the good work…it’s very helpful to have someone like you processing the information and sharing your thoughts – especially for someone like me who isn’t able to read all that is out there in the Philanthropy world (in addition to keeping up on the reading in my civic engagement world). To answer your last question… I receive your posts daily through email (I signed up on your site for that). Don’t know if that is push or pull!

  8. Hi, Sean,

    What a timely post! I follow you through my RSS reader, and I had been putting off catching up on your posts for a few days because I was a bit overwhelmed.

    You write good stuff, but there is a lot of it. I know I have to invest significant time to read Tactical Philanthropy properly. I think it’s worth it, so I make that time eventually, but it’s not at the top of my list.

    On the other hand, I read my Seth Godin (for example) every day. He posts frequently, but always in short, pithy bursts. I think that’s the ideal. The best bloggers boil their message down to be as manageable as possible.

    Do I always follow this advice in my own blogs? I try. Sometimes posts creep up to 800 words, but I try to keep them closer to 500 through careful editing, and break up complex subjects into multi-parters when appropriate.

    Bottom line – in addition to frequency, please consider length; keeping in mind that longer is not always better.

    Nadine

    • Thanks Nadine. I generally hold a 700 word limit, but recognize that 500-700 is kind of the sweet spot. Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short article, so I wrote a long one.” Hopefully spending more time on each post will result in shorter posts!