29 May A gift I wasn’t sure I wanted changed everything for us
by Ann Christiano, MPAP, Director of the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida
One of the highlights of my year every year is the three days our team gets to spend working with the grantees of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation helping them learn to tell their stories and communicate the value of their work to their community.
These kinds of workshops and training have become a core function of the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida, which I direct. Public interest communication uses social, behavioral and cognitive science to drive lasting change on an issue that transcends the interest of any single individual or organization. It is unique to the UNiversity of Florida College of Journalism and Communication, though universities around the country are showing increasing interest in building their own programs in this field.
I met Sarah Owen and Carolyn Rogers through a gathering we organize called frank. Our dean, Diane McFarlin, had invited them to attend, and knew it would resonate with them. This not-exactly-a-conference brings together activists, scholars and strategists who are driving change in their communities all over the world. Each year, they come to Gainesville and share the best of what they know in a series of TED-style talks and roundtables in our downtown’s theatre, coffee shops and bars.
Not long after the first frank, Carolyn and Sarah asked me to develop a training program for their grantees that would distill the lessons of frank in to an actionable workshop that would help the non profits they supported build their connections with each other and the community. They recognized what too few funders do: that building relationships among leaders in the non-profit sector across South West Florida is as essential an aspect of infrastructure as any physical bridge or transportation system.
But I was hesitant. I worried that I didn’t know enough about this emerging field to train someone else to do what I was just beginning to understand myself. Sarah and Carolyn had more confidence in me than I had in myself, and pushed me forward.
I still remember how nervous I was at that first workshop. My upper lip was sweating, and I worried about being able to provide the non-profit leaders with enough value to justify having them step away form such important work for three days. But the non-profits put what they learned to work immediately. And we watched them thrive and embrace their role as communicators.
That workshop evolves every year, and has become a space where we offer our freshest ideas. The grantees learn a four-question guide to strategy that we developed for this workshop and have taught to thousands more. They learn how to use social, behavioral and cognitive science to drive strategy and tell stories that move others to act. They learn to gain others’ support by mastering social media, holding effective meetings with influentials and how to write and deliver a TED-style talk.
Sarah and Carolyn courageously asked me to do something we hadn’t before. Their support helps their grantees think strategically about how to build support for their work. It builds connections among them, providing another form of support beyond the funding they receive.
But their investment in UF and in public interest communications drove a critical piece of infrastructure for the field. We’ve developed a learning agenda for organizations that helps them apply social, behavioral and cognitive research to the work they do every day.
Our annual workshops look fundamentally different now than the first ones did. We’ve benefitted from the input of our research director Annie Neimand, who insists that every recommendation is supported by research. Our colleague Matt Sheehan on the journalism faculty has helped them make sense of the changing media environment and how to tell compelling stories that people will care about. And Ellen Nodine and Scott Blades, both talented instructional designers who are critical members of our team, insist that we never go more than 15 minutes in a workshop without an opportunity for our participants to experiment with these new ideas and approaches.
Today, we offer that workshop to partners around the world. And building and honing that product has made it possible to grow and sustain our team. Last year, we launched the Center for Public Interest Communications. We support six positions through our workshops and partnerships and are a bootstrapped organization. None of that would have happened if two brilliant women hadn’t made space for me to do something that terrified me. How grateful I am that they saw value and purpose where I could not. And what a joy it is to watch this organization do that same thing over, and over, and over again across their community.