“Scott Harrison was at the top of his world. The 28-year-old New York–based nightclub and fashion promoter excelled at bringing models and hedge-fund kings together and selling them $500 bottles of vodka. He had money and power. Yet his lifestyle brought something else: emptiness. Harrison felt spiritually bankrupt.
So he walked away, volunteering to serve on a floating hospital offering free medical care in the world’s poorest nations. Serving as the ship’s photojournalist, Harrison was quickly immersed in a very different world. Thousands would flock to the ship looking for solutions to debilitating problems: enormous tumors, cleft lips and palates, flesh eaten by bacteria from waterborne diseases. Harrison’s camera lens brought into focus astonishing poverty and pain, and he began documenting the struggles of these people and their courage.
After eight months, he moved back to New York, but not to his former life. Aware that many of the diseases and medical problems he witnessed stemmed from inadequate access to clean drinking water, he decided to do something about it. In 2006, he founded charity: Water, a nonprofit designed to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Harrison launched the organization on his 31st birthday by asking friends to donate $31 instead of giving him a gift. It was a success—the birthday generated $15,000 and helped build charity: water’s first few wells in Uganda. In the three years that followed, Harrison’s simple birthday wish snowballed into donations that today total more than $20 million, translating into almost 3,000 water projects spanning everything from hand-dug wells and deep wells to protection for springs to rainwater harvesting. The organization has now provided clean water to more than 1.4 million people spanning 17 countries. Its success can be explained through four design principles for generating engagement with a brand through social media.
Tell a story. Harrison’s personal journey—evoking themes of redemption, change, and hope—engaged others on an emotional level. By candidly discussing in media interviews and YouTube videos why and how he started charity: water, the thoughtful, accessible, and youthful Harrison helped viewers fall in love with him and his cause.
Empathize with your audience. Let people engage with your brand to learn what’s important to them and how it relates to your campaign. Charity: water evoked empathy through the use of photographs and videos that revealed the urgency of the water problem in the developing world. Instead of relying just on statistics, the organization promoted compelling stories that forced people to think about what it would be like to live without access to clean water.
Emphasize authenticity. True passion is contagious, and the more authenticity you convey, the more easily others can connect with you and your cause. Because of charity: water’s commitment to transparency, donors not only understand the history that gave rise to the organization but also know exactly where their money goes. Reports and updates on the charity’s Web site connect donors directly to the results of their generosity.
Match the media with the message. How and where you say something can be as important as what you say. charity: water has a staff member dedicated to updating various social-media platforms and creating distinctive messages for Twitter and Facebook fan pages. The organization also relies heavily on video. One of charity: water’s most effective video projects involved convincing Terry George, the director of the film Hotel Rwanda, to make a 60-second public-service announcement in which movie star Jennifer Connelly took a gasoline can to New York City’s Central Park, filled the can with dirty water from the lagoon, and brought it home to serve to her two children. The producers of the reality TV show American Idol agreed to broadcast the spot during the program, ensuring that more than 25 million viewers saw it.”
—-A case study from The Dragonfly Effect
St. Timothy’s is engaged in a process to call a new rector. We are doing this work prayerfully, deliberately and thoughtfully through our search committee. But as important as this work is in calling a new rector—a similar recruitment process goes on every Sunday as we welcome new people to our front door. Our lessons from the greeters and the stories of the newcomers are essential food for thought in the search process now underway—-and for the long term vitality of the congregation.
The lessons from the 2010 Census, the parochial reports of the Church, and our own experience looking around each Sunday are the statistics and facts that tell us that doing God’s work depends on more than just our prayers. To live into the mission work of the church we must be part—and feel that we ARE part—of that unbroken chain of faith that links our love of God and need to “give back” through service to others as Jesus taught us.
Our story may be less flamboyant than Scott Harrison’s in the case study above, but the work of many hands across this congregation in the many ministry and mission projects are as profound in the impact on a life we touch.
We can be a “welcoming parish open to all” to make the church warm and inviting and leave a lasting and good first impression. But I think God expects us to do more than just show up! He wants us to find a cause, a calling, a ministry or need that speaks to our heart—and just do it. And hundreds of people do just that unsung each week. We used to call this process of getting someone to commit to something as “incorporation.” It sounds too business-like for church and too boring to be spiritually rewarding—but we know how powerful incorporation can be when someone feels passionately about a ministry program and those it serves. Mama Grizzlies can learn much from these souls.
The Church as a Laboratory for Social Engagement
But business is learning that the church is actually a very good place to learn about incorporation or “social engagement” as the tech geek crowd might call it today. The rise of social media online in places like Facebook, Linked-In, MySpace and scores of others are on a mission to “hook us” with a zeal that would please the heart of any evangelist.
What have they learned?
- The most successful social media campaigns are focused on story-telling. Getting real people to tell real stories about how they changed their lives or lived their dreams through the social media connections they have made. Who has not seen a TV commercial for Match.com when the couple tells their stories of finding their “soul mate” on the site. These are tender, loving stories that speak to our heart.
- Telling stories that speak to the heart takes both art and science. Social media experts tell us that good stories have three parts: a strong start, a strong end, and tension in between. A compelling story does not just recite the events unfolding but uses those events to create “tension” or “suspense” or the search for a happy conclusion to keep our interest high–what’s going to happen next?
- Stories are the glue that unifies communities. If you have ever attended a newcomer’s event you know this truth—the most powerful part of such gathering is listening to the stories of how people came to the parish and why they feel connected to it. Listen and you will hear the stories speak to your heart. They are about connection, engagement, commitment and incorporation—the glue of any church. And it turns out the same “secret sauce” being used to build online communities on social media sites.
- Stories are effective because they are told first person, they model commitment and the values most desired in belonging, they celebrate and validate and speak to our hearts. We remember stories much more readily than statistics. The strong stories of the Bible have been told and retold for more than two thousand years and are the models for passing the faith onto future generations still today.
The search committee is working today to tell St. Timothy’s story is ways that speak to the hearts of candidates to be our new rector. Some will be attracted to St. Timothy’s because of our size or location or history or other facts. Others will be drawn to us because we find ways to speak to their hearts.
There is one more reason stories are important at this stage in our parish life.
God has already chosen the person He wants to be our new rector. But he needs our help to speak to the heart of that person He is calling in ways so compelling, so sincere that there is no doubt that He is calling both the rector and the parish to discover each other, receive the Holy Spirit and add a new length to our unbroken chain of faith.