Winning the Internet

New Media Mentors: The Importance of Focusing on Executives

After a great run, the Winning the Internet blog has been retired. However, you can still keep in touch with New Media Mentors here.

We’re approaching the two-year anniversary of our New Media Mentors program and are proud to have now worked with 13 great organizations over four cohorts. In that time period, we’ve learned almost as much as our mentees.

One of the important things we learned after our first two cohorts was that working with digital and communications staff just wasn’t enough. It didn’t really matter how smart, creative, or well resourced those teams were; we knew that to change the DNA of the organizations we were working with, we needed to “mentor” at all levels. As we became trusted confidants for those staff members, we learned about a number of organization-wide challenges they faced. Those challenges tended to be fairly common among the groups we were working with.

So we started thinking about how we could really unleash the potential of our program. We discovered that our hunch all along was right, but we hadn’t gone far enough. In working with our first few cohorts we sought executive involvement in the application, interview, and check in process. But that’s really where it stopped.

We knew we needed to take a more holistic approach to our mentoring, and that some of the challenges we wanted to take on could only be changed through the organization’s leadership. So we created our Executive Mentorship Program to dovetail our intensive staff-level mentoring.

The challenges at the executive level are often more complex and difficult to solve, and executive directors are busy people. But we’ve found our approach to spur real organization-wide change. In many cases, that has meant making major breakthroughs in how the group works, internally and online.

While we work on myriad challenges with our mentees, there are a few key areas we always focus on.

Integrated Communications
One of the changes that’s slowly happening industry-wide right now is that digital communications and organizing are becoming more integrated with the rest of the organization, and those directors and managers are winning seats at the decision making table. That’s been happening the last cycle or two with political campaigns, but it’s been a little slower going in non-profit organizations.

So one of the key things we’re trying to accomplish is to speed that process up in the organizations with which we work. You can hire brilliant people to run your digital program, but there’s only so much they can really do if they’re not fully integrated into the organization.

Different organizations have different approaches to budgeting. But ultimately the person at the top is responsible and needs to have a decent level of understanding of the digital world. Fostering that understanding also helps build a level of trust in the organization’s staff.

One of the things we work on as a general rule is goal-oriented budgeting. It’s really easy to allocate money for things like advertising or email acquisition, but if you have no way to measure whether you’re getting a return on those investments it may be a waste of money and time. Diving into these topics and increasing the level of understanding often leads to bigger digital budgets that are focused on the most effective activities for the organization.

Culture and metrics
It’s hard to spend much time with online organizers before someone starts talking about a ‘culture of testing’ or gets into a conversation about data and metrics. And then there’s also the speed of the web, which necessitates working in different ways to be effective and relevant. There’s ample proof those things can dramatically change the way a program works. But if you’re trying to introduce this stuff for the first time it can often be a new and foreign way of working.

Again, having an executive director who understands these concepts and is supportive of them is key. Because it’s only through that kind of leadership that the organization as a whole can truly embrace measurement and metrics and figure out what works.

About Raven Brooks

Executive director of Netroots Foundation and Netroots Nation.

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