Why it’s time to ditch the 30 page report

05 July 2016

Author: eric

Why it’s time to ditch the 30 page report


You spend months working on an issue you care about. You research it. And then, at the end of your project, you write a report to share your valuable conclusions.

Every year, countless hours of work go into projects that seek to make a difference. To have an impact. Despite this, the main instrument of change seems to be a long report that quite frankly almost nobody will ever read. The important text is usually locked inside a PDF document and that document ultimately ends up as just a link on a web page. Long story short, not even Google could find it.
This is an approach I call failure by design and is a common approach to problem solving among civil society organizations and the donors who fund them. It is an approach that breeds complacency and makes all our jobs easier. The only problem is that there is no impact. Unfortunately, this does not seem to bother either the organization or the donor funding the project.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. If changing the world means writing a report about issues we care about, then the world would be a perfect place by now. The world is not a perfect place.

So what went wrong?

I think, for the most part, we stopped thinking about the people we were talking to. We began to think too much of ourselves. If we say it people will listen. If we build it people will come. We started writing reports and expecting change. We stopped really measuring if our activities and our messages were reaching people. We stopped measuring if our activities really led to the change we were hoping for.

Over the last several years our team at JumpStart has tried to show that there is another way to communicate these issues we care about, no matter how complex they are. We are a technical team, but a technical team that understands that the message is what matters, not how smart we are. We are also a creative team and understand that the medium of choice can mean the difference between an audience’s thoughtful reflection, discourse, and change and a dust-covered report that nobody will ever read.

We see every fact and every event as a means to engage audiences around an issue. However, these opportunities will not just take care of themselves. We, as civil society organizations must strategize and be active in communicating with our audiences. We must plan to communicate at every step of the way to maximize our reach. And we must measure our reach to see what works and what doesn’t, so as we continue forward in our plan, our messages become more effective and not just a shot in the dark.

This last year we experimented with what we call micro-campaigns. We have tried three so far:

  1. #rightsnotflowers - a campaign for women’s rights,
  2. #sharetheroad - a campaign to improve pedestrians’ safety on roads and sidewalks, and
  3. #behealthy - a campaign to improve Georgian lifestyle choices to improve health.

These were small, social media campaigns that we planned out in advance by reaching out to partner organizations on the issue, developing social media hashtags, reusing existing media and content, sometimes creating new media and content, and strategically and intensively engaging our audiences on social media with daily posts and calls for action.

We learned that targeted communication, through strategic planning, even without any addition funding, can reach thousands of people in a short time and lead to online and offline action. We learned that if we can do this on a small scale, then with the resources to scale a campaign up it is possible for civil society organizations to reach many more people and perhaps have a larger chance of achieving what they set out to do.

Infographics, factographs, animations, video, photography, interactive visualizations, sound, radio, numbers, words, street performance - these are all tools in our toolbox. The media we create that people love, however, are a means to an end. The message dictates the medium and we are pushing the boundaries of how to maximize the message for our audiences and stakeholders.

We are asking tough questions about our audiences, the media with which to talk to people, and the messaging to use. Did it work? How do we know? For whom did it work? For whom didn’t it work?

We need to use existing research to get a toe in the door to solving our societal problems. But we also need to experiment, measure, adapt, and iterate until we find what works for our needs. This is the only way to affect change deliberately.

In the end, we are all in the business of talking to people. Ask yourself, what is your strategy to talk to people? Are you trying to prove how smart you are, or are you trying to reach out to people in a way that moves them?

If all you are doing is writing is a long report, chances are you are only writing for yourself. Ask yourself, what other opportunities exist to reach the people who can actually make a difference? What is your strategy to reach them? To move them?