April is National Poetry Month. To celebrate, the Ad Council recently spoke with Mary Sitzenstatter, Director of Digital Programs at Power Poetry. Launched in 2012, Power Poetry is the world’s first and largest mobile/online poetry community for youth. This NYC-based nonprofit’s mission is to empower youth to leverage their words for personal transformation and social change. Power Poetry offers educational and action-related materials to its users and the web at large.
Although “poetry” and “data” are two words that rarely go together, the staff at Power Poetry realized that building up a data culture would be an incredible asset as they scaled. Power Poetry was introduced to the team at SumAll.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to doing social good by analyzing data, in early 2013 and the two organizations set out to examine hundreds of data points extracted from Power Poetry’s poems and community at large. This is a successful partnership–the groups attended SXSWedu together and they are now leveraging the data and insights to build new tools and create an even more engaged digital community.
Ad Council: Where did the idea of partnering with another organization come from?
Mary Sitzenstatter: Since Power Poetry started as a collaborative project with Whole Whale, our CTO George Weiner’s company, we’ve always thought that partnerships had the potential to strengthen projects. George introduced us to SumAll when he realized that having an analysis of our data would be helpful. Now the senior staff of our organizations are working together. Any small or startup nonprofit could benefit from this kind of partnership: in our case, Power Poetry never could have had the same capacity to think about data and use our huge data set (which is composed of hundreds of thousands of poems) and analyze them to see how best we can support users. There have been pain points, of course: when you’re working across organizations, communication can be extremely difficult. I work out of two offices, so I became point person to identify what access people need and to what tools or information. It’s essential to have clearly defined roles and process if you’re working with other organizations. What’s most helpful is when we take the time to meet in person, and it’s not just a constant email chain back and forth.
AC: Why does analyzing your data and asking the right questions matter?
MS: There are so many things you don’t know until you analyze the data you have, and there are questions you haven’t even thought to ask. The potential wealth of information can really help your organization grow. It’s also valuable to have other observers look at your data: when you write something, you have another set of eyes look at what you’ve written, so why shouldn’t the same thing go for looking at your data?
AC: What tips do you have for nonprofits considering partnerships with other organizations?
MS: It’s very important to come up with an MOU and clearly defined goals and roles for each part of the organizations involved. Once you figure out what your project management looks like, and who the key point-people will be, it’s much easier to streamline projects and work together. My own goal is to limit the number of emails we send and eliminate inbox clogging that can put a project on hold—it can be difficult because people want to be involved in all parts of an engaging project, but streamlining is key for accomplishing goals. However it’s important to note that if your organization has what our CTO calls a “data fiefdom,” that can make it impossible to do a project like this: everyone must be invested in innovating together and open to sharing all of the necessary information to move forward.
AC: What has surprised you the most in your joint work?
MS: How essential it has become to our project. This wasn’t just a one-time thing for us: it’s a true partnership that has changed the course of where our org can go. When we began talking, SXSW wasn’t even an option. Especially as a startup, it’s given us the ability to show our impact.
AC: Tell me about the inspiration behind Poetry Wars. What was the creative process like?
MS: The idea came from thinking critically about gamification to encourage youth to write. We’d been thinking about integrating it onto the PP site, but wanted to test it first. So we started with the open Twitter API, especially since our users are on there and interacting with us. A SumAll developer (amazing volunteer Ram Mehta), designer (Laura Kadamus) and I came up with the idea of “war” because Power Poetry’s founder Roland always talks about how “words are weapons” and language can keep you out of trouble, jail, and intellectual imprisonment. It’s essentially a war on two fronts: your words can change the world and empower you, and we, as a collective, need to recognize the power of language and literacy (fighting for literacy and fighting the world with our words).
AC: How can other nonprofits adopt these lean models? What are your suggestions for them?
MS: The best ideas can come about when you’re sitting in a room with friends. The fact that my new colleagues and I all get along well and feel comfortable enough to throw ideas around with each other allows us to be creative. Being in a shared space also enables us to engage with one another—while Gchat check-ins once a week might be sufficient, it won’t help us be creative. To do that, you need to get together in real life, in real time. Get out of the office together, discuss partnerships, and throw around ideas; become a marketer and come up with 20 or 30 things, have a pow-wow and find something that works.