Recap From Dec-16-2013 MVP Clinic With Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI)

On December 16, 2013 John Smith and I sat down with key members of the leadership team from the Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI) to discuss their plans for their 2014 EcoChallenge program.

The following folks took part from NWEI:

  • Mike Mercer, Executive Director
    As Executive Director, Mike has responsibility for the overall health and strategic direction of NWEI. He began his involvement with the Institute back in 1994 as a program participant and later a volunteer at the program and policy levels. Mike says, “I feel blessed to guide and learn from an organization that has had a profound impact on my life, and by extension others in my circle of relationships. I can’t imagine another place I would rather be.” Prior to joining NWEI as the Executive Director in 2007, Mike held a variety of leadership positions within the nonprofit sector including the YMCA and College Housing NW. He obtained his bachelor’s degree at Humboldt State University and sits on the board of trustees for the Rotary Club of Portland.
  • Rob Nathan, Director of Outreach and Technology
    As the Director of Outreach and Technology, Rob helps NWEI achieve its mission and foster leadership. He works with individuals and organizations across North America to implement NWEI discussion courses and the EcoChallenge. He has worked in the sustainability education field for ten years and has a deep passion for the pedagogy used by NWEI and its network. Prior to joining NWEI, Rob managed sustainability projects related to waste minimization across the Portland metro region. Rob holds a Master’s degree in Sustainability Education from Portland State University and an undergraduate degree from Prescott College. Rob also sits on the Board of Directors for our United Villages, a nonprofit community enhancement organization in North Portland.
  • Lori Davidson, Director of Marketing
    Lori is the Director of Marketing for NWEI. She joined the organization after spending many years as a marketing leader in the high tech industry in both the Bay Area and in Oregon, including professional experience in non-profit development. Lori’s vision for marketing for NWEI is very focused on telling and retelling the inspirational stories that emerge as people learn how to live sustainably. She also is eager to help higher ed professionals take advantage of the pedagogy and platform that have made NWEI a leader in enabling those “a-ha” moments. Lori believes in walking the talk, and that actions matter at least as much as words, so you will often find her looking deeply at the success of the programs and tweaking and retweaking until the results are what the organization needs. Lori is always looking to find ways to promote and connect NWEI with others, please  contact her with your good ideas. Lori holds an undergrad degree in Business and Finance from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from Santa Clara University.

Background reading: “NWEI’s Our Model For Change

NWEI is a sustainability focused non-profit in Portland  OR with  two distinct lines of offerings:

  1.  a series of discussion courses designed to help people internalize, practice and share more sustainable behaviors  and
  2.  an annual EcoChallenge program  designed to help people change their habits over a two week time period in October.

NWEI just celebrated its 20th anniversary and has  logged over 140,000 participants in discussion courses and about 3000  participants in the EcoChallenge.

  • NWEI  is well positioned in this space both fiscally and  through its  mission. NWEI has earned revenue through the sales of course books, and  receives grants and support from donors.

There  is a small, regular and reasonably   predictable market for the  discussion courses, and the EcoChallenge has grown steadily since its  initiation four years ago, topping 2300 participants this year. NWEI’s change model is founded on a three step process of “Connect, Reflect, Act.” A cyclical process that provides for different entry points. The EcoChallenge typically starts at the Connect or Act stages.

The EcoChallenge is the focus for this discussion.

Some notes from Lori Davidson to frame the discussion

  • Currently,  there is little follow up with individual EcoChallenge participants,  other than Thank You and an occasional newsletter…until the invitation  for EcoChallenge n+1 goes out.
  • The current website is adequate but could stand an update and incremental features
  • There is no app, but the team wants one. There is an app  for iphone which is largely based on open source: Open Source
  • The source code of EcoChallenge was published under the GPL 3.0 and is available here:
  • The  majority of the EcoChallengers are in the Pacific Northwest, but there  is a growing community outside of Portland, largely out of student  populations.
  • The 2013 EcoChallengers are a mix of groups sponsored by their school/corporation and of individuals.
  • I  believe that nurturing and developing an ongoing conversation with an  active community of EcoChallenge participants is core to the mission of  NWEI and could yield a much broader reach – and be 100% aligned with the  mission of NWEI.
  • I would like to develop an approach for NWEI to enhance and expand that community.

Ideal outcomes:

  • EcoChallengers
    • Become engaged community members – as measured by
    • Engage in online and in person dialog advancing the mission of NWEI (inspiring people to take responsibility for the earth)
    • Current EcoChallengers are inspired to bring their friends to EcoChallenge 2014
    • Volunteer to lead discussion courses
    • Joining (and pledging) to NWEI
    • 2013 EcoChallengers step up to engage and manage a community
    • EcoChallenge 2014 has 10000 members
  • One  key success factor for NWEI is the *deeply personal* and social nature  of the program.   How can we get that element into this community?

The EcoChallenge program builds on its virtual nature and expands its reach.  Meetups? Self organized camps?

  • More higher ed and corporate sponsors to work this into their sustainability/green agendas

Session Notes

Goal: taking things to the next level.

Sean: What’s worked historically?  To take EcoChallengers from 1,000 to 2300 participants.  what things do you want to make sure you don’t break?

Rob: institutional participation, turn-key participation.  organizations and companies who can engage their networks.  Connecting with organizations drives growth.  Introduced a point system to encourage participation in the event.

Lori: don’t want to break the revenue generation.  there is no requirement – not even  a pledge. They can pledge but its not a requirement.  The program falls short of covering the costs.  a tough spot because have seen a lot of growth, but it doesn’t pay for itself.  question: how grow but not compromise the openness?

Mike: Our belief in the program is based on the belief that change is a social process mediated by stories. it’s as much about stories as numbers.

Sean: numbers, stories, diagrams, pictures

John How are those stories broadcast, curated, and “metabolized” by the emerging community?  Can you use those stories to identify barriers at an institutional level?  to help institutions understand internal barriers to change?  The entire social process should be aimed both at successful changes and understanding failure or obstacle to change.

Answer: people read stories, find them, share them on featured page.  would a client institution pay for curation in order to gain greater insights?

Sean: might be a  process to curate beyond individual story-level — gather tips or techniques into a cookbook  for institutions of a certain type or about certain kinds of problems that people would pay for?  sharing common obstacles can be energizing.  Could be revised each year?  E-book sold for $2.

Lori: challenge is: whether people would value it, or be willing to pay for it.  This is a popular area to talk about.  How differentiate it from other collections of tips & tricks that are available for free?

Sean: where is the barrier between understanding and action.  You are clearly helping bring about behavior change.  But what’s the barrier in understanding the behavior change you cause?

Lori: this program is easy to explain.  It’s good because the level of effort depends on choices you make (from easy, like not using plastic bags to more difficult not using a car for a week).  Most people believe they ought to do more on the sustainability front. This program helps them actually do more.  Why take the action? If change is a social process then an important motivator is “I will participate since my friends are participating.  and I have been asked to participate.”  Episodic element is important for awareness — I can handle more intensive involvement in my busy schedule knowing that I can relax after the challenge is over.

Sean: question of increased donations or revenue.  Normally try to align value creation and payments. Not trying to get you to charge subscribers more but to offer differentiated advice.

Lori: concern that if a pledge were mandatory (to get access to blog, tips, ideas, etc.) might loose a large number of participants (especially students).  Institutions not willing to ask participants themselves for the pledge funds.

Sean: are there auxiliary products or elements that might be part of an ecosystem?  Can this EcoChallenge translate to new habits, e.g. meet a challenge for 10 of the 14 days it raises the bar on habits and future behavior;  if you run long term then it has a decrease in participation over time.  What can we learn from “quantified self” community?

Sean: long-term participation… willing to pay for those?

Lori: moving the discussion to courses offered by NWEI. Don’t have a way to motivate the EcoChallenge community to buy the other NWEI revenue producer: discussion courses.  Since ecochallengers are already involved & interested, they are a natural market.  but haven’t figured out how to do it.

Sean: suggest free discussion courses during the ecochallenge?  Parallel events?  To help people get a sense of what’s possible. The NWEI discussion courses are self-facilitated.

John: eco challenge has a “sense making’ aspect that could be developed more, perhaps with volunteers to help curate what has happened or what has been said. consider some courses that run in parallel and others that run afterward to reflect on challenge.

How to identify groups who want to get more involved?

The existing system suffers from a labor shortage to do sense-making, identify groups who want to or could get more involved.  Big risk of trying to do a lot automatically on the web during the EcoChallenge that may benefit from human expertise.  Learning and behavior change are the metrics; need to really understand them in detail, in many different settings before automating anything.

What is pattern of subscription to discussion courses.  What is the conversion rate between ecochallenge and discussion courses?  Uptake of discussion courses.  Are there frequent fliers who might be a different market segment?

more than half of discussion courses are in higher ed. used as part of a curriculum.  Also  faith-based organizations, business, and general community.  Faith-based: Unitarian adult education programs.  Only 10% of discussion courses are through businesses.

very diverse participants in both offerings, but eco challenge population is more diverse than the courses.

8,000 in discussion courses (historically has been NWEI’s primary program) and 2,000 in eco challenge (people who want to “just do it” not talk about it so much.  They say, “I don’t want to talk about it, I want to do it.”   There are different demographics: eco challenge is younger, more online.  discussion courses more boomer generation, f2f.

possible innovations:

  • get own App (but don’t have $100K for development).  Could they build on an existing open source platform?
  • can they define an API for the website?
  • How would the App work with the current website, e.g. story sharing?
  • App would be good for “in the moment” participation, e.g. on a smart phone, not waiting to get home and log onto a computer.
  • thinking of the app as an extension of the website.  (Notice that there are some 500 apps listed on the quantified self website

Big question: how to make stories easier to share (and retrieve) – using tagging, voting to guide promotion without linear search

  • Provide more small steps (e.g. similar to upvote by category, or tagging, or other crowd curation models)
  • tools for organizers
  • sharing photos is not easy on the website

Lori: how cultivate people who participate (for whatever reason)?

harder to find the stories: has NWEI found good curation tools for own team?  Add that in a way so that participants can do that for NWEI.  Creates an additional role.  Tagging or up-voting would be curation tools for work groups or globally.  How many stories and story fragments?  100’s.  need to categorize and pick top 10-50.  allow people to mark them with “I found this helpful”.  50 people doing tagging.

Ability to develop new kinds of tags: e.g., “stories who met challenge 12 out of 14 days”, or “3 out of 14.”  improve understanding of “levels of success or habit formation”.  Or understanding of different areas or settings that are
challenging.Explore different contexts – settings so understand differential challenges at the office, by activity – “reducing plastic” “biking”.  How harnessing volunteer energy? how channeling it?  how keep Disneyland clean: pick up the 1st piece of trash that’s dropped, encourages people to not drop trash.   So put a lot of effort into curation at the beginning so that people will do it themselves.

Reuse stories from last year!  starting from an empty slate is not such a good starting place.  collect best 100-200 stories into that e-book.  Special books under “time-saving” a popular tag.  or focused on the most popular stories.  Sell an e-book — with stories from last year that would start the process next time around..

  • a way of asking for a donation
  • contains challenges for participants
  • possibly a way to jumpstart workplace participation
  • collect wisdom from previous years

Closing feedback from NWEI panel:

  • helpful
  • don’t have to wait — can do a discussion course
  • good things to think about for 2014
  • App as an attractive nuisance – finding partners from existing or previous participants
  • asking existing community what apps they like

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