Filmmaker Annie Leonard offers advice on becoming a network-centric organization
At the TechSoup Global Contributors Summit in San Jose on March 15, Annie Leonard, an independent filmmaker in Berkeley, Calif., gave one of the standout talks, discussing how The Story of Stuff — the film and the project — came to be.
Annie recounted that she had once worked for a traditional environmental organization that was typical of many mission-driven nonprofits: hierarchical, top down, holding its expertise close to the chest, wanting to “own” its cause. A remarkable thing happened that transformed the way she now creates and distributes projects: “The Story of Stuff,” which has received more than 12 million views in all its incarnations on YouTube.
Because her message resonated so deeply with me and the packed audience, I took her aside a few minutes later and recorded this 7-minute video interview that provides the backstory of how “The Story of Stuff” went viral and lessons that nonprofits, businesses and other organizations can take away.
The networked approach to getting stuff done
Over time, Annie says, she became “obsessed with all the environmental, social and health costs” of the way in which consumer goods are produced, and so she developed an hourlong presentation that she gave at schools, churches and community groups for four years. She took her passion and decided to turn her slide show into a film (an approach that reminded me of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”). With the help of Free Range Studios, a creative services firm, and backing from the Tides Foundation, they created a 21-minute documentary short that put it online for free in December 2007.
— Annie Leonard
“Our goal was to have 50,000 people see this film,” she says. “And to our total amazement we got that in one day. It’s now been over three years and we have over 12 million views in over 200 countries and territories around the world. It’s just exploded the conversation on how we make, use and throw away stuff and, most importantly, how we could do it a lot better.”
The film shows the damaging consequences of consumerism on the environment, developing nation, personal well-being and happiness. The Story of Stuff Project was created to extend the film’s impact by creating a network of people who are discussing the issue in the hope of creating a more sustainable world. The film has inspired ballets, puppet shows, entries in parades, high school and religious curricula and sustainability programs. It has been shown on several national television programs and translated into dozens of languages. One tactic they used that paid off handsomely: a Creative Commons NonCommercial No Derivatives license that allowed almost anyone to reuse it. “We wanted this to be a community-held resource,” she says.
After years of going it alone, Annie came to a realization: “I need to turn the volume up on this work. I need to inspire and engage millions of people so that the issues I care about are not just my personal pet project. So I turned to a more network-centered model and it has been so valuable. A network-centered model has been very different from an organization-centric model. Networks focus on collaborations and connections, on being inviting and engaging so that we’ll take anyone who wants to help on any terms they want.
“With the previous environmental organization I worked with, really the only way people could help was to write a check, and that’s really not [effective]. With a network-centered model, people have a lot more skills and talents and energies to contribute. Network-centered models are more about building those connections than building a big infrastructure. They’re more resilient, they’re more flexible, powerful and long-lasting.”
It’s a lesson many organizations and activists would do well to internalize. Adds Annie: “The real lesson is that if you want to get something done, you really have to work in networks rather than trying to go it alone.” Continue reading