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OTA-Pollen leaders’ Q-A: ‘Connections’ key to region’s community-building

The three co-executive directors believe strategic networking  can increase engagement and empowerment in Minnesota and the Dakotas.

OTA-Pollen Co-Executive Directors Meghan Murphy, Jamie Millard and Hugh Weber.
Photo by Abby Bischoff

Last week, two of the region’s premier community-building organizations — OTA and Pollen — announced their merger. I spoke to OTA-Pollen’s co-executive directors for a deeper view of how the organization hopes to help residents of Minnesota and the Dakotas build connections and spark transformative thinking throughout the region.

The following conversation with Hugh Weber (HW), Jamie Millard (JM) — a former colleague of mine at Fast Horse — and Meghan Murphy (MM) has been condensed for publication.

MinnPost: Hugh, you’ve said, “We’re better together than individually.” Is that the impetus behind this organization?

HW: I think the foundation is the belief that per capita, we have the same capacity in this region as anywhere on the planet — whether it’s entrepreneurialism, creativity or community-building. But we’re more spread out. Even in the metro areas, there’s this feeling of isolation. We have some very well-knit communities, but we have very little cross-sector, cross-geographic collaboration.

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JM: That’s also the way OTA and Pollen approached this merger. We knew we’d be better together: more efficient, better able to use grant dollars, better able to share admin costs and be strategically aligned with shared values.

MP: You have carved out this three-state area to work in. Is there really a set of shared values in this little corner of the world?

MM: I think there is absolutely a shared set of values. And we’re certain that our storytelling will really be able to engage the region. A good story is a good story, and we’re positive that we can truly harness that and engage this community.

MP: How is OTA-Pollen going to fit in as a media outlet — or is it? Are you a media outlet or a community outlet?

JM: I would say that we’re definitely not a publishing outlet, even though we do publishing. So when we talk about storytelling, what we’re talking about is a community-building effort, a capacity-building nonprofit that goes throughout Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota to find transformational individuals who live in those communities. Whether it’s metro or rural, we want to spark inspiration to show individuals in other communities how “someone like me” can also create change. And we believe they’re the kind of stories the traditional media don’t spend enough time spotlighting — because they’re concerned with advertising dollars, they’re concerned with click-through rates, they’re concerned with their next sponsorship opportunity.

MP:  At some point in your organization’s future, though, aren’t you going to have to start worrying about things like sponsorships and dollars?

HW: It’s a fair question, and it’s something that we’re in the exploration stage on. From the beginning, we’ve seen the Bush Foundation investment as a starting point. But while they’re the primary partner at this point, they’re not the only partner, nor will they be in the future. There’s absolutely a need for us to grow partnerships and sponsorships.

How I would differentiate that from advertisers is the nature with which we’ve engaged those partners. These are individuals that we’ve engaged in a long-term series of conversations about their values and the development of the community and the region. And we’ve been assured that the commitment is to the mission — not to eyeballs, clicks or logo visibility. I anticipate us really embracing that same mentality going forward.  And while we’re not free to share specifics right now, we’re working on partnerships with very well-established organizations in the three states. And their commitment is to growing alongside of us.

JM: It’s the native advertising/sponsored content model, and we have an amazing opportunity to redefine how that works. Not many startup organizations have a three-year grace period to prove their concept. So we have the biggest hopes and dreams for what we can accomplish.

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MP:  Meghan, you’re coming from a literary background at Paper Darts magazine. Do you hope to bring that literary sense to bear in your storytelling, or will you get caught up in feeding the beast every day like they do at the newspaper?

MM: I’m just so excited to take what we’ve learned at Paper Darts magazine and pull it deeper into OTA-Pollen. We have really been able to surround ourselves with some of the best writers in our region already through Paper Darts. They understand stories so beautifully, and we’re excited to empower some of those writers to use their passion and their skills and their love of the community to transform non-fiction writing as we know it in our region — to take the theory behind poetry and short stories and bring that into non-fiction journalism.

We’re also really excited to bring art into our non-fiction — to have artists work alongside the writers to create a deeply visual kind of experience that you just don’t find other places. We’ve seen that larger platforms are really striving for this: places like the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Pitchfork. We see that as something that we can be very competitive in: creating a new user experience.

MP: What kind of social media presence will the organization have?

JM: Both organizations have had their own social media presence. We’re working on merging those, and hopefully by April we’ll have one real solid organizational brand. At our core, if our mission is to be doing network-building and making connections, then we have to bring a social mentality to everything we do. We’re working to build a transparent, hyper-aggressive social mentality, both as individuals who work here and as an organization. You’re really looking at a team that understands social media and online community building.

MP: You’re bringing together the digital world and the physical world — not only having digital communities but also having physical gatherings. Why is it still important for people to connect physically — to be in the same room and share an experience?

HW: It comes from a core belief that I think we all have — the balance of creative collisions and connections. In this region, where folks have grown up in smaller towns, and they know everyone’s grandfather, there’s this sense that connections are the coin of the realm. These are sorts of relationships that we develop over cups of coffee and meals over time. There’s a real trust that builds in this kind of meaningful long-term engagement.

The flip side of that is collision, which is a short-term conversation, the brief moment, the serendipitous encounter. I think those are often overlooked. If we disregard those collision moments, we’re missing something important in what network-building does. So at the core of those collision and connection moments is to be intentional in network building. Networking has to be strategic.

With OTA we saw incredible spikes of engagement and empowerment coming out of our events. But within months, that excitement had returned to a baseline. So we realized there was this huge gap. On the Pollen side, there was this great digital presence, but there wasn’t the physical engagement to balance that out and create deeper connections and communal experiences. So both of us had a gap. And bringing those two organizations together really creates a full circle.

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MP: How many events would you expect the organization to sponsor or be involved with in a typical year?

HW: At this point, we definitely see growth. But right now, there will be two larger-scale events. We’ve announced an April 4 date in Sioux Falls and a Sept. 12 date in Fargo. So those are two tentpole events that we expect 1,000 to 1,500 people to attend. The next tier of events will be a series of six to eight – we’re calling them “conversations.” And these will be 100 to 150 people, spread throughout the region; Duluth, Rochester, Willmar, Grand Rapids — name a place.

And there’s a third element to the event strategy, which is partnership-based. We’ve had the opportunity to partner already with the Advertising Federation of Rapid City, for example. We don’t want to draw people to a central location and hope they’ll move there. What we want it to be is a place that empowers individuals to return to the place they live, better networked and better supported.

MP:  What about the smaller cities? Why should the people from Milbank always have to come to Sioux Falls? Why not have the people from Sioux Falls come to Milbank?

HW: I think our impact will be most deeply felt in those smaller cities. What happens when the CEO of Nike visits Milbank for a day? What does that look like, how does that impact not only the leadership in the business community and the nonprofit community — but also the 16-year-old kid who thinks that everything happens somewhere else? What about when the journalists in eastern South Dakota get to sit down with a senior writer from Fast Company? But that only comes from the ability to bring a full network to bear.

MP:  Meghan, as a young person who grew up in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., what were you thinking as a teenager? Could something like this have helped you imagine a greater range of possibilities?

MM: Oh, absolutely. Minneapolis wasn’t even on my radar as a kid —I didn’t even know it existed. I got postcards from the University of Minnesota that had skyscrapers on them, and I was like, “Really? There are skyscrapers in the Midwest?” I thought everybody had to go the New York to get their dream job. If there had been a network like this when I was growing up, it would have been huge.