A couple weeks ago, I went to an event for a local community non-profit. As the evening got underway, the MC realized that they had put the speakers too close to the podium. Every time someone got up to speak – a shrill feedback pitch would pierce the room until they got far enough away from the podium. For most people speaking this meant standing on the stairs off to the side of the stage.
After about the 15th speaker, I let out a slight sigh. A friendly guy beside me turned and said, “that sound is really annoying, but I guess they are doing their best.” He followed this up with, “they are just a non-profit after all.”
Over the years working and volunteering in non-profit organizations, I have heard people justify mediocre performance time and again with the sentence “its alright, we are just a non-profit.” This is usually followed up with a sentence or two about being too busy to think about presentation, or too focused on the “real work” to care. It is as if being a non-profit gives you an excuse to bore people or lack presentation. The non-profit sector is full of organizations that are not fixing their shrieking microphones.
At Pivot, we have our fair share of shrieking microphones. There are pieces of our work where we need to up our game (donor stewardship jumps to mind!), places we need to break out of familiar and comfortable patterns, and places we need to focus greater attention. And herein lies the opportunity. The non-profit sector is waiting for people and organizations that sparkle. Our supporters (and yours!) are waiting to be blown away. They want an experience to tell their friends about because it is not what they expected and it is connected to social good.
Setting up a creative advisory team
In order to answer this challenge, we recently convened a creative advisory team at Pivot. We brought together some of the most creative people we have worked with over the past decade – from a number of different disciplines: web, film, event planning, communications, and campaign strategy. They meet every two months, and the goal of the meeting is to generate new ideas that will add sparkle to Pivot’s work.
At Pivot, we define sparkle as additional pieces of creative work that add value or complement the campaign work we are already doing. The idea is to dramatically increase the impact of our campaigns without increasing our workload substantially. The meetings are carefully choreographed and based on our current work as defined in our annual campaign workplans and discussed in our weekly campaign team meeting (for more on our meeting structure check out: Meetings as Organizational Practice by my colleague Dr. Darcie Bennett). We usually bring two key questions to the group and spend an hour brainstorming creative ideas on each.
A key difference between our creative advisory and past attempts to engage creatives to help Pivot build on its work is that the creative advisory team’s only job is to come up with ideas. The space is exclusively devoted to generating ideas. They are asked to ignore the typical limitations (money, time, workloads, etc.) that hamper the expression of ideas. We have been very clear with the team that we want them to think big, to think strategically, and to think impact. The job of the Pivot staff present at the meeting is to facilitate the conversation and to transform the ideas into workable additions to Pivot’s campaigns.
The Wolsey poster as sparkle
In 2008, Pivot first began hearing from low-income residents of the Wonder and Palace Hotels, two single room occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, owned by George Wolsey. They shared stories of Wolsey abusing his (now suspended) pharmacist license to force tenants to buy methadone and other prescription medications from his business, illegal lockouts and evictions, unlivable conditions and a myriad of other complaints. Tenants have kept up the fight for over five years. Alongside those tenants, multiple lawyers, advocates, interns and volunteers have all been fighting for these tenants’ rights. Despite all of this work and the overwhelming body of evidence that Wolsey was breaking the law, bringing him to justice has been an uphill battle.
Wolsey has done his best to see us stymied at every turn. Pivot’s first case against him at the Residential Tenancy Branch, many years ago now, involved a woman who had been illegally evicted after refusing to purchase prescription medications from his pharmacy. Wolsey argued that the Residential Tenancy Act did not apply to him, because his rat-infested, decrepit SRO was actually supportive housing, because of his "methadone program." He lost the case, but continued to operate as he had been.
While the City attempted to address the issue on their end, Pivot took on the task of representing a large group of current and former tenants. Day after day, community organizers would track people in precarious situations down, and get them to the Pivot office, nervous, but ready to participate in the phone hearing. Wolsey, would fail to call in or adjourned hearings with little or no notice. He evaded service of documents, claimed he wasn’t the landlord, lied to a process server about his identity, and recently claimed ‘the dog ate my summons.’
After many attempts to properly serve Wolsey – including posing as high school students with a lovely bouquet of flowers – this summer we finally got a court order stating that attaching court documents to his front door equated to service. On the day Wolsey was to appear in court, we received a typed letter allegedly signed by Wolsey’s ex-wife stating that George no longer lives at the residence and that he would not be appearing in court because the dog ate his summons. This was too much for the Justice and he issued ten administrative warrants for Wolsey’s arrest.
The warrants for Wolsey were a tremendous opportunity for us to add sparkle and impact to our client’s long legal battle for justice. Recognizing the powerful role that “arrest warrants” play in popular culture, and the human imagination, we decided to create a wanted poster for Wolsey that we would put up in the Downtown Eastside, use in the media and share online. At first we were not sure whether the poster would capture popular imagination, but after unveiling it at a press conference we knew we had stuck a chord. The wanted poster became the story and Wolsey’s face was all over the news. Suddenly we had news agencies heading out to Wolsey’s residence in Langley looking for the “wanted” man. Three weeks later, much to our surprise, Wolsey turned himself in.
Unfortunately for our clients the story doesn’t end there. During his court appearance Wolsey evaded questions, offered mumbling inaudible answers, or claimed he had no memory of the charges against him. Recognizing his disorganization, the Judge ordered Wolsey to return to court in six months with the proper documentation to answer the questions posed to him. We will be there, with our clients, waiting for him.
The world is waiting
Despite such a disappointing end result in the courtroom – it was the wanted poster and the attention it garnered combined with the long legal fight that got Wolsey in front of a judge. After years of fighting Wolsey in the ways we know best (and watching him evade justice time after time), we broke out of our comfortable pattern and tried something creative, unorthodox and it worked! The best part was that it worked even better than we thought it would.
We convened our creative advisory team to help us deepen our impact by telling more compelling stories, working creatively, and breaking out of our familiar and safe patterns of creating legal social change. There is so much passion in the non-profit sector to create a better world. In order to get there we all need to add more sparkle to our work, fix our shrieking microphones, and be creative about the way we make change. The world is waiting for us.