Aashish Kumar, MS, MFA, MA
Associate Professor of Radio, Television, Film, Hofstra University
Community-based nonprofit organizations operate in the crucial public sphere of service-delivery, connecting ordinary citizens with larger public projects, negotiating community rights on behalf of underrepresented populations, and organizing at the grassroots level to address gaps in our existing service-delivery infrastructure. In the last decade this sector has grown 25 percent nationally,1 while here on Long Island it has increased by 32 percent.2 During this same period, the economy has spiraled into a recession, creating monumental budgetary and fundraising challenges for nonprofits. A related trend in the communication industry has added its own layer of complexity: Massive centralization and consolidation of print and electronic media industry have reduced news media’s local community footprint.3 At the same time a steady movement toward a “digital culture of public participation” has necessitated that organizations develop their own capacities in communicating within and outside their constituent communities. Given these dual pressures of enhancing their digital presence in order to survive in a tightening funding environment, it seems relevant to ask: How prepared are civil society institutions to communicate their effectiveness
and impact to a wider society by deploying the tools of the modern information age?
One of the measures of this preparedness is to examine how nonprofits allocate their scarce resources in communication-related and media initiatives. In a 2011
study 4 of 160 Long Island nonprofit organizations conducted by Hofstra University Public Relations Professor Jeffrey Morosoff, almost 90 percent of respondents indicated that less than 5 percent of their budgets were devoted to carrying out public relations (PR) campaigns. The bulk of these services, the study noted, is carried out almost entirely by “internal staff” and “volunteers or board volunteers.” The majority (60-70 percent) of those handling these functions are without the relevant background and training.
Ken Cirini, partner at the accounting firm Cerini & Associates (specialists in the nonprofit sector), is cited in the survey as saying: “In a climate where the nonprofit sector has been
hit hard with negative press and changes in regulation, now is the time for nonprofits to make their voices heard …” He emphasizes that nonprofits need to consider how to utilize both traditional and social media channels to get their message out.
In an informal email survey conducted by the author, a constant refrain from the leadership of these organizations highlights the uphill task that each of them faces in this endeavor — whether it has to do with resources to produce media or to train members in creating interactive, participatory media.5 Rahsmia Zatar, executive director of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, a Long Island gang and youth violence intervention and prevention organization, states: “We don’t have the knowledge of what it takes to create a successful media program, and the resources for getting that information are very scarce on Long Island. … Art and media empower our youth by providing them with safe outlets to express their voices.”
Jeannine Maynard, community-based organizer for GUAAC (Greater Uniondale Area Action Coalition), comments: “We are challenged by the large number of community meetings our members respond to, impacting time management and significant points of information that we need to communicate effectively to the neighborhood. The proposed media training [by the author] will maximize our capacity to advance our mission and also address those critical needs.”
How prepared are civil society institutions to communicate their effectiveness and impact
to a wider society by deploying the tools of the modern information age?
How prepared are civil society institutions to communicate their effectiveness and impact
Maggie Hoffman, speaking for Project DOCC (Delivery of Chronic Care), laments, “We have been at the mercy of either volunteers or high-priced consultants to develop an online presence; neither has been successful! … Social media is essential to our mission — giving voice.”
There is an incredible wealth of such resources and expertise in the numerous higher educational institutions that call Long Island their home. Hofstra University (through its Center for Civic Engagement), following in the tradition of other engaged campuses such as Trinity College, has formed collaborative relationships with its local communities in areas as diverse as public education, gang violence, affordable housing, and quality health care. According to a Center for Civic Engagement publication, “being a suitable partner to local communities requires … identifying and bringing on board faculty, administrators, and staff in all academic units who possess knowledge, skills, and experiences
in collaborating with community organizations.”
In keeping with this notion, the author founded a course titled “Media Action Projects, Hofstra” within The Lawrence Herbert School of Communication’s Radio, Television, Film Department. This course partners senior television students with community organizations to produce strategic media campaigns that benefit the community partners. Over the past seven years, this has resulted in fruitful outcomes for over 25 Nassau and Suffolk county as well as metropolitan New York area nonprofits, including Literacy Nassau, Workplace Project, Head Start
Long Island, Family and Children’s Association of Long Island, Nassau County Police Department, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Hour Children, Great Neck Arts Center, Huntington Historical Society, HorseAbility and Fresh Air Fund. However, by their sheer nature, these projects often tend to be temporary solutions with little or no follow-up built-in. The nonprofit partner is often left where it started — without that vital internal capacity to produce “community media.”
The author secured a $25,000 grant from the Long Island Community Foundation to launch a community media training and facilitation project in the 2014-2015 academic year. The aim of this project was to alleviate the increasing burden on community-based organizations of managing their information and communication needs by providing training and support
for electronic media access. The project design envisioned (a) transferring electronic media production expertise from Hofstra University to the community partners and (b) maintaining a window of support until the community partners could successfully implement their community media projects on their own. The following plan activities were implemented during the grant period:
Phase I: Training was provided within the first six months to 17 nonprofit organizations in a series of workshops conducted over two days by Hofstra University faculty and students from the Herbert School. Workshops were designed to have the nonprofit participants prioritize their specific communication needs and conceptualize a pilot community media project. Each participating nonprofit received a one-year subscription to a social media management tool (e.g., Sprout Social or Hootsuite).
Phase II: These projects were further developed at the four nonprofit sites using a participatory media methodology over the course of six months following the workshops. During this phase graduate students under faculty supervision assisted community organizations in actualizing “media milestones” conceived during the initial training workshops. Organizations assessed their own needs to identify what milestone they wished to target. Some identified the production of an actual participatory media project, while others conceptualized knowledge-transfer of web-based media technologies to their staff.
February/March 2014: After distributing a Qualtrics survey in February/March 2014 to over 45 area nonprofits and community-based organizations, we received responses from 17 organizations that wished to participate in the training and collaboration on creating community media. Survey questions delineated areas of need, preparedness, current use, and commitment to using electronic media in community-related work. Organizations were also asked to identify if they would be willing to work with Hofstra faculty and students in a longer-term capacity. A daylong workshop was planned for these organizations for April 2014. Three graduate students and a program coordinator were hired to conduct training and prepare documentation during the grant period.
April 4, 2014: A daylong session titled “Workshop on Electronic Media in Community Organizing and Advocacy” was conducted with 30 representatives from 17 participating organizations. The workshop featured introductory sessions presented by Professors Aashish Kumar and Mario Murillo on the historical use of video, radio, and new media in community work. In the post-lunch session, Professor Jeff Morosoff discussed how online tools could provide a low-cost way for organizations to reach community members, funders, and policy planners. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, WordPress, and YouTube were used to illustrate advocacy through social media. The final session of the day focused on how organizations could prepare for building their internal capacity in electronic and social media work. The grant objectives and methods for achieving them were elaborated. Participants brainstormed ways in which they could incorporate electronic media work in their ongoing projects with an eye toward developing autonomy and self-sufficiency. All participants voiced their opinion that the ability to tell one’s own story is both empowering and connective. Graduate and undergraduate students helped shoot cellphone videos of the sessions and interviewed participants. As the day wore on, these videos were uploaded to YouTube and edited utilizing a free, online tool called the YouTube Video Editor. At the end of the day, these videos were shown to the participants to emphasize how effective and economical modern electronic media technology has become.
April/May/June 2014: A second Qualtrics survey was circulated among the 17 workshop participants to gauge their interest in participating in a six- to eight-month period of facilitation and training with Hofstra students and faculty to build their internal capacity for undertaking electronic and social media projects. Of the 12 organizations that responded, four were short-listed for a one-on-one interview/planning meeting with faculty and graduate students. On June 5, 2014, we met with representatives from Long Island Wins, GUAAC, Project DOCC, and S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth to prepare for the next phase of site-based training and facilitation of participatory video projects. All participants were asked to submit concrete ideas for a project.
June 17, 2014: A half-day workshop on utilizing social media and in particular Sprout Social, a platform for integrating and tracking an organization’s various social media activities, was conducted by the author, a social media expert, and Hofstra adjunct faculty member Jamie Cohen. Accounts and licenses were set up for all participating organizations.
August 29, September 19, October 24, November 14, November 21, November 25, 2014; January 16, 2015: Site-based training or workshops were conducted either at Hofstra or at the community partner’s location to help them move forward with their participatory video/social media projects. Three organizations (Long Island Wins, S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, and Project DOCC) initiated self-guided projects working with immigrant communities, middle school youth, and families, respectively.
Outcomes and Measures
The project’s aim was to assist grassroots organizations in attaining an evolving self-sufficiency in producing their own media as well as allowing their community members
to participate in storytelling.
We achieved our initial goal of introducing the concept of participatory communication and social media dynamics to the 17 organizations that attended our inaugural workshop. The videotaped interviews with participants, as well as the feedback and energy created by the event, were a testament to the deeply felt need for such training and investment in the participatory potential of the medium.
We provided social media training and a Sprout Social workshop and yearlong licenses to 12 organizations. A midyear assessment was circulated among the organizations to find out to what degree these organizations were able to incorporate Sprout Social in their ongoing work. All the organizations that reported indicated that a staff or intern had been utilizing the analytics aspect of Sprout Social, though not as much its broadcasting/multichannel posting capabilities.
Finally, by working closely with organizations and helping them conceptualize and apply participatory communication practices, we succeeded in establishing four pilot projects with tracking updates from the organizations.
The Future: Transformative Change and Lessons Learned
We are truly proud of how the organizations listened carefully to our plans for participatory communication and were slowly able to reorient their own practice of media to allow their membership to participate. Long Island Wins contributed its video cameras and editing equipment to help two young arrivals from Latin America tell their story of persecution in their home country and the anxiety of the asylum-seeking process in the United States. The organization has already deepened its know-how in filming and editing and is hoping to expand such storytelling to its constituents. S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth has initiated a new program at Turtle Hook Middle School in Uniondale, New York, to have students plan, script, and produce a story about a social issue. A half-hour documentary on their experiences was completed and screened for the public in early 2015. Project DOCC successfully migrated its website to a more user-friendly web environment using WordPress, with the assistance of project faculty and students. The organization is working to create blogging sites for family members who wish to share narratives of children with chronic health care needs with the wider community of health care providers and policy planners.
The response to the workshops and to participatory communication concepts clearly indicated to us that much more needs to be done in this regard. We are exploring co-op course models, future grants, and institutional support for graduate assistantships that can help continue and sustain the success of the first grant.
While it is too early to note any type of policy change as a result of these fledgling efforts, we remain convinced that the seeds of change will have an impact on how these organizations are able to help their communities become empowered through the sharing of their stories.
There were several important take-away lessons for both project faculty and the community partners. On our part, we learned that grassroots organizations are slow in reorienting and redirecting their resources to electronic media work in the short term. However, once such work becomes integrated with their core mission, they are better able to respond to the demands of such work. Another lesson was that organizations must have the necessary technical capacity, staffing, and responsiveness to take on training and participatory work. If we were to do this project over again, an important change would be to mention in the preliminary survey that media training requires an ongoing weekly commitment on the part of the partner organization. We would also ensure that funding would target human resources more than technical resources and software, since without the personnel available to provide site-based training, the latter remained underutilized.
1 The Nonprofit Almanac 2012, Urban Institute, http://www.urban.org/nonprofits/index.cfm
2 Long Island’s Not-for-Profit Sector: Doing More With Less During a Period of Economic Change, LICF, 2011
3 According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Media Economics (“Does Ownership Matter? Localism, Content, and the Federal Communications Commission,” JME, volume 23, issue 2), consolidated media ownership negatively affects the production of local content on local newscasts.
5 Participatory media is a set of techniques to involve community groups in creating and shaping their own media.