Stories of purpose

tumblr_static_7zp6wm11f5csw4owk4k8sg08wSince the spring, a team of us at On Purpose have been working on a collaborative storytelling project. A few weeks ago, we finally unveiled Humans on Purpose.

It’s not the first rip-off of the simple yet captivating Humans of New York idea – but it may well be the first to share stories of social purpose. We’ve got a pretty wide range: from CEOs and young entrepreneurs to former priests and ex-offenders. They’ve talked to us about their mums and their children; about pivotal moments and long-enduring passions; about anger and playfulness. People really are prepared to talk honestly about why they do what they do.

It’s the first time I’ve been involved in such a wide collaboration (we’ve had 50+ interviewers, 5 editors, and several people involved in the design and development of the site, plus numerous others organising the final event of the project). Here are some things I learned:

  1. Scope. Lots of people means lots of ideas, and the ambition can get way bigger than initially envisaged. That’s great, but be careful of scope – be clear about resource limits as an individual and as a team. We talked about a print exhibition and a book this autumn, but decided to put that on hold to focus on the event and the site itself.
  2. Ambition. To contradict the above: big ambition is worth hanging on to, because – with an exciting idea – you can find help. We managed to split out the multiple tasks among our extended network, pulling in expertise for specific needs from logo design to sourcing a venue. People wanted to be part of it, and making requests small enough to handle meant that they could be.
  3. Coordination. We used online project management tool Trello to keep track of which teams were doing which tasks, and to record discussions, decisions and milestones. And we had subteams who took responsibility for the doing, but also two people responsible for the oversight, who regularly kept us on track by checking that things were happening in the right order and on time – crucial with so many things going on side by side.
  4. Authority (and flexibility). There was discussion and disagreement on lots of details, but having agreed who was responsible for that area of work they made the final call. A few of us were responsible for coordinating all the content (defining what we wanted, briefing interviewers, encouraging people to get involved, editing and uploading interviews, etc.). Putting this out to dozens of contributors required tight editorial control and some fairly detailed, step by step instructions – which needed updates when we realised some things weren’t clear enough and as we saw the project taking shape. Set your standards from the start – even if you don’t know how they’ll work in practice – and then adapt as you go.
  5. Inevitability. Everything worth doing is more work than you think it’ll be. People need more chasing than you expect, details are more controversial than you realised, you get more into it than you planned and end up spending more time than you promised. (And then you regret it, but do it all over again.)

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