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2016 Annual Report


2016 Annual Report


I wish that each of you could sit where I am for a moment and see the amazing things that are happening in the Strong Towns movement. When I started writing in 2008, I never dreamed we'd be having this conversation, that our thoughts and ideas would be taking hold across North America in such a major way. Yet, here we are. Each day I am more and more amazed at what our movement has become.

Back in those early days, if we had 25 people read the site in a day it was a big deal. Now we don't get lower than 25 people at any one time, even overnight. Last month we exceeded, for the first time, our tracking limit of 1,000 people simultaneously on our site. Wow! Our audience doubled again this past year and in 2017, we'll reach over a million different people with a radical message of change and empowerment. That should give us all a touch of optimism.

I don't have to tell you that we're in some very strange and volatile times. As I imagine what the end of the Growth Ponzi Scheme will feel like for America, I envision a spinning top slowing down and starting to wobble dramatically from one side to another. Policies and approaches that seemed steady for a long time suddenly shift one way and then another, each new change a more dramatic counter-reaction to the prior change. We've been in this zone for a while. I suspect it will get crazier before the top is fully at rest.

I didn't set out to start a national movement to change the way our cities, towns and neighborhoods are developed. As our conversation has matured, I've felt a responsibility to reach a broad cross section of America and at least try and understand, if not fully reflect, the many different perspectives and experiences we find in this beautiful country. I'm a 43-year-old Norwegian-Minnesotan and that has it's intellectual limitations, both in my personal experiences and in the group of people I recruited to be my core team of strategic advisers from the beginning. It's a work in progress and I know I have work to do.

Still, as we sat down as a board and staff last week at a meeting in Chicago, I realized that we have today -- and have had from the start -- a type of diversity that is in very short supply in this country, yet is desperately needed. We have ideological diversity. Our core team, like our members and like our audience, cover most of the American political spectrum. We've stressed many times in the past few months that we're not a partisan organization -- we don't align or sympathize with any political party -- but that doesn't mean our movement doesn't have people who are deeply ideological.

We do. We have just found common cause in the Strong Towns movement. 

Here's a heat map showing where our members are concentrated. These are the people who have found our message to be so important that they have donated to Strong Towns to help us share that message with others. You can see that they are urban and rural. Red state and blue state. North and South. Inland and coasts. Rust Belt, Sun Belt, Dixie and Yankeedom.

You want a movement that is reaching a sharply divided America with a tough, yet empowering, message of local cooperation and change? Here we are.

In our annual report last year, I wrote that I had a sense of urgency, that our Board had a sense of urgency. I said:

It's clear that the current situation -- America's approach to growth and development -- is not stable, that we can't continue on along this course without more and more people being harmed. I don't want more Fergusons. More Detroits. More San Bernardinos. I fear an America that begins to accept decline as normal, even inevitable. 

I actually think our situation is now more dangerous than I had anticipated. Not only is decline becoming normal, we've found a way to blame the other for it. We skirt our own collective responsibility for not only causing the problems we share, but for also needing to work together to respond.

That makes our movement even more important and it puts a greater burden on each of us. Not only must we understand the human failings at the core of our approach -- failings that go far beyond a left/right paradigm -- but we have to work to bring people together on our blocks, in our neighborhoods and for our communities. It's not going to be enough to be right. If we want to see change happen, we have to be humble in our personal relationships, especially with those we may not immediately agree with.

This year I had the opportunity to travel to Shreveport, Louisiana, and experience the Allendale neighborhood, a place that truly embodies the Strong Towns ethic. There I walked past abandoned lots turned into neighborhood gardens, old homes with tended flowers out front and everywhere signs that said "We Care" as if it wasn't already obvious amid the standard signs of decline and struggle.

I met with some beautiful people in a place they called the "Friendship House" and heard the story of how their neighborhood was systematically undermined by urban renewal policies, zoning and disinvestment. I saw how they were doing so much with so little, how their efforts at working together to incrementally make their neighborhood better was exactly the mindset Shreveport -- and America -- needed.

And I heard about how, in 2017, as unbelievable as it sounds, the city plans to run a major freeway through the middle of this poor, struggling neighborhood, dislocated many residents and simply dividing the rest from the community.

We have so much urgent work to do, whether providing some sanity to a federal infrastructure surge, developing a scalable approach for cities like Flint or bringing people together to push for change on their own block. Our Annual Report looks back at our accomplishments but, more importantly, puts forth a 12-month strategy for implementing our Strategic Plan and bringing about important change on the ground.

A special thank you to all of our members and everyone who shares our stuff with others. Keep doing what you can to build a strong town.

-Chuck Marohn, Founder and President of Strong Towns

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2016 Annual Report

A briefing for our members


2016 Annual Report

A briefing for our members

Our Mission

Support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.

Our Vision

We seek to make the Strong Towns approach the default for every city, every state and nationally.

Our Identity

We are a media organization that is growing a national movement for change.

Our Strategy

We believe that the change we seek will occur when a million Americans care enough to share our message with others.
Our efforts are to create those million people.

 Carlisle photo entry for the Strongest Town Competition

Carlisle photo entry for the Strongest Town Competition

Highlights from 2016:

  • We grew our audience from 350,000 over the prior twelve months to 720,000, a 106% increase. We reached more unique people in 2016 than we did in the prior cumulative history of Strong Towns.
  • We did events all over North America and reached 8,000 people in person with our message.
  • We saw our message spread. Strong Towns was featured at least 250 times in various publications (these are the ones we are aware of - there are certainly many more).
  • We engaged over 40,000 people through our Strongest Town competition.
  • We ran 14 issue campaigns, including #NoNewRoads, housing, big box stores and our ongoing coverage of America's infrastructure crisis.
  • We documented 48 success stories, examples of the Strong Towns message in action.
  • We published two ebooks and released Volume 2 of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns.
  • We started the year at just over 1,000 members and reached 1,650 members by December, short of our goal of 2,000.

This was our first full year of implementing the strategic plan we adopted in 2015. We can really see the payoff from the focus it provided. A lot of what we worked on in 2016 was beneath the hood, things like tagging and organizing our content to make it more shareable, setting up a more complex membership tracking system and testing different content and advertising strategies. It's hard to remember that 14 months ago, we were an organization with a blog. Today we are a movement for change with a media stream, a diverse set of contributors and a growing community of people working to make change. 

Top photo from Hopkins Strongest Town submission.

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By the numbers

A look at the data


By the numbers

A look at the data

In God we trust. Everyone else: bring data.
— Michael Bloomberg

We don't have time or resources to waste. Our organization is small and lean but our goals are enormous. To be successful, we have to leverage every penny and every minute for the greatest return possible. In short, we feel compelled to practice what we preach.

At Strong Towns, we're always looking for a way to spread our message further, to engage with new people and to grow our movement. We try a lot of little things and then we obsess over what the data tells us. We build off of success and try to walk away from failures when they are still young. It's not always easy.

Here's some of what our data is telling us happened in 2016.

 On the street in Virginia, MN. We did a lot of walking tours as part of our events in 2016.

On the street in Virginia, MN. We did a lot of walking tours as part of our events in 2016.

Audience Trends

We track audience as the number of unique users we experience in the trailing twelve months. This is different than hits or sessions. We began implementing our Strategic Plan during the second half of 2015 and have experienced robust audience growth since. We're reaching a lot of people.

Communications Pipeline

Our operational strategy for creating a movement of a million people who care is to move our audience through a communications pipeline. We envision our communications pipeline as follows:

Audience --> Weak Connection --> Strong Connection --> Advocate --> Member

When someone finds Strong Towns and joins our audience, we work to make a weak connection with them, such as on social media. Once we have a weak connection, we work to strengthen that connection through Slack and/or email. Where we have a strong connection, we work to help that individual become an advocate, sharing our message with others. Ultimately, we need many of our advocates to become members of Strong Towns so that we can continue to expand the pipeline.

This year we focused on growing our weak and strong connections. We increased our social media engagement and supported those efforts with a modest advertising budget. We looked for conversion points for strong connections and tried to emphasize those. Here are the results, which we are optimistic about.

The Strongest Town contest in March was overwhelming in terms of the numbers of emails we collected. We were not anticipating, and were not set up, to handle them all, but we were able to shift and engage the tens of thousands of people who found Strong Towns through the contest. We lost quite a few, which was probably inevitable, but we also retained a lot. As the year has progressed, our ability to engage people through Facebook has become more and more critical to sharing our message. This has some disadvantages -- not everyone is on Facebook -- but also some major advantages in terms of reaching people and being able to deeply engage with them.

Last year we shared this chart showing our Facebook connections and our high engagement levels. 

Here is an updated snapshot from 13 months later. Our connections have grown substantially yet our levels of engagement -- the number of our connections that are actively engaging in our content -- is still very high. We're really proud of this, especially since we are not artificially inducing conversation with partisan buzzwords and other tricks; this reflects people genuinely engaging with our content.

When it comes to strong connections, we've worked hard to make our email stream timely and relevant for people and we avoid -- except during our two membership drives -- turning our lists into punching bags for fundraising. While our email list does have a secondary function for growing membership, the primary function is to drive engagement in the core Strong Towns message. We strive to send people information they will find relevant and useful and have seen that result in a tripling of our email list and much higher open and click through rates. 

Finally, we're really proud of the engagement levels we've experienced on the Strong Towns Slack. We get that Slack is not the right platform for everyone -- neither is email or Facebook -- but Slack gives us an opportunity for intimate dialog with our members as well as a way for people to self-organize and help each other. There are some great conversations going on there. Since we use Slack as an organization for most of our internal conversation, it is much easier for us to stay engaged there than on other platforms that are not part of our daily routine.

We're going to continue to use data from multiple sources to identify the best way to expand and increase the velocity of our engagement pipeline. That's our ultimate path to getting to a million people who care.

Top photo from Hoboken Strongest Towns submission.

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2017 Program Plans

What comes next?


2017 Program Plans

What comes next?

Our Strategic Plan outlines eleven program areas we are using to pursue our mission. These can be reduced to three core strategies: (1) Create powerful content, (2) Share our message widely and (3) Nudge people to take action. We're working to build on successes in each core area with a special emphasis in 2017 on the third: nudging people to take action.

We're continually amazed with all the things people do after they engage with our message, but we know we can make the path easier to walk and that would get more people out there building strong towns. This is also the area where we get the most requests -- We've heard the message; now what do we do? -- and so we're aware of the demand. The fine line we walk is that we're not community organizers, we don't have the resources to work at that level and every bit of time we take helping people individually is less time we have for sharing our message broadly, which is where we've seen the most impact. It's a balancing act, but we think there are ways we can help nudge people to take action more effectively than we have been without compromising what we do best.

Here's our implementation plan for 2017 as developed by our staff and Board of Directors.

Create Powerful Content

1.       Expand the Content Stream: Provide powerful and influential content in an expanding web of distribution channels.

  • Continue to publish regular content -- written, podcast and video -- with an expanding pool of contributors. Continue to use issue campaigns throughout the year to reach a broader audience and give our content a longer shelf life.
  •  Add a weekly video/podcast segment called Strong Talk to our content stream to provide a deep dive into the issues and highlight the expertise of our membership.
  • Start a rotating editorial review team in Slack that works to continually expand and improve our content.
 Engagement in Shreveport, LA, one of our most memorable in 2016.

Engagement in Shreveport, LA, one of our most memorable in 2016.

2.      Curbside Chat Program: Share our message in person with people around the country.

  • Deliver 50+ presentations in events across North America.
  • Finalize the Gross Negligence presentation (pedestrian safety) and a presentation on the Infrastructure Crisis so we can offer those in addition to our existing topic areas.
  • Continue to target non-traditional audiences (those lacking the resources to pay for an event) for Curbside Chats.

3.      Issue Campaigns: Operate targeted messaging campaigns around high velocity issues.

  • We have fourteen issue campaigns planned for 2017. We have found these to be most effective when they (a) have a story arc that builds during the week and/or (b) have a way for people to engage on the subject within their community. We are prioritizing campaigns that allow us to hit one or both of these strategies.

4.       Aggregate Content: Package and repackage content in ways that accelerate the distribution of our message.

  • Continue to develop landing pages around our campaigns and issues where we have developed a deep amount of quality content.
  • Convert our best content into written publications -- ebooks, booklets and full books -- to spread our content and expand our pipeline. Publish Volume 3 of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns.
  • Focus on the social media platforms where we experience the highest level of engagement and audience growth, namely Facebook and -- to a lesser degree -- Twitter. Continue to be active sharing our message in other places but rely on audience members to carry our message there.
  • Expand the frequency of our email blasts for those who are most active on email. Use advanced analytics to ensure emails are targeted and highly relevant to the recipient.

Share Our Message Widely

5.      Public Relations: Use traditional and non-traditional public relations strategies to broadly distribute our message.

  • Continue to target traditional and non-traditional media as part of our event promotion strategy.
  • Identified as an area of improvement: Seek to add staff (or establish a relationship with someone) with increased knowledge and ability in this area. Our message is ready for prime time but we need a sustained and focused PR effort to get it there. As our member base grows, this will likely be our next hire.

6.      Advertising: Pay for the strategic distribution of our message.

  • Further refine our Facebook advertising strategy to de-emphasize page likes and place greater emphasis on pipeline conversion. Track the ROI of this investment.
  • Further refine our free Adwords offered by Google to focus less on aggregate traffic and more on traffic for high-conversion topics.

7.      Targeting Key Influencers: Identify and engage influential individuals and organizations that will benefit from distributing our message.

  • This is another area of improvement. We've done some of this, but we lack the capacity to really devote the time and energy it takes to do it well. This has overlap with our public relations program and so we will seek to deploy the same individual on this item.

8.       Issue Summits: Gather individuals together to draw attention to specific messages.

  • We are going to hold our first issue summit at the end of March in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The topic is America's Next Transportation System.
  • If Tulsa is successful -- and we have every indication that it will be -- we'll start planning another summit, likely for 2018.

Nudge People to Action

9.      Member Support: Support our members as they share our message with others.

  • Develop a Strong Towns 101 program for motivated people to get up to speed on the message.
  • Create a content series on how to do basic Strong Towns fiscal analysis.
  • Establish a Q&A submission/voting page so audience and members can prioritize which questions we answer and what value-added content we work on.
 A heat map of our membership.

A heat map of our membership.

10.  Curbside Chat Follow Up Campaign: Start local conversations following our in-person events.

  • Create geographic-specific conversations/communities in places where our concentration of members makes them viable. Support these conversations with content and engagement.

11.    Meetup Groups: Assist strong citizens in initiating local conversations. 

  • Create a member meetup guide to facilitate more member meetups.
  • Develop a member meetup strategy to increase the number of meetups happening.
  • Develop a strategy for a member directory so that members can opt in to finding each other along lines of mutual interest. 


Mission and budget in alignment



Mission and budget in alignment

The following are our basic financial statements. People are often shocked that we share this information as liberally as we do. We think it's important to do so for a number of reasons. First, we're not joking that we're a member-driven organization. We're not funded by any shadow organizations or people with deep pockets. When people donate to us, it makes a huge difference. We need the support of our members to do what we do.

We also think it's important to show the resources that we're working with. We run into people who think we have a staff of a couple dozen people and a budget in the millions. That's just not the case. We're changing the conversation in this country and we're doing it on a shoestring budget.

Finally, we want to show you that we're good stewards of your donations, this organization and the movement we're all a part of. None of what we do is possible without the buy-in of thousands of people across the country. You're not only the ones donating to us but you're the ones sharing our message and doing the hard work in this country's neighborhoods. It's never crossed our minds to not share this information with you. You're as vested collectively as we are. 

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After dealing with some transition costs in 2015 during our staff retooling following the adoption of our Strategic Plan, we were able to improve our balance sheet substantially in 2016. This is reflected in our profit and loss statement where we show a net income of nearly $38,000 (11%). If you would like a more detailed version of our P&L statement, we've made that available here

In February 2016, the Strong Towns Board of Directors approved the 2017 Budget. That document can be viewed as a Google spreadsheet.

The most significant item in our 2017 budget is that we are not relying on any support from foundations or major donors. We are not shunning such support and, in fact, are investing time and energy in developing those relationships, but nothing in our implementation plan for 2017 relies on those funding sources. If they materialize, we will be able to accelerate our approach. If not, we're still confident we'll be able to implement our 2017 plan at current staffing levels.


Closing Thoughts


Closing Thoughts

To put it another way: as long as we have people who care, the Strong Towns message will continue to grow and thrive. The question is only how fast our vision can become the default for our cities and towns.

If you've read this far, I'd bet you already believe in that vision. And I hope you feel we've honored your investment by showing you, in real numbers and facts, an organization you can believe in, that lives out its own mission in every aspect of  its operations.

If you already consider yourself a part of our movement, we hope you'll make it official by becoming a member today, at whatever level you are able.  

If you're already a member and you want to see us grow even faster, we hope you'll continue to support us, or consider making an additional contribution. 

But whether you're a sustaining member or an enthusiastic reader who can't contribute just yet, we value you, and we need you. You are the people who are doing the real work on the ground to make the communities that you care about stronger. Keep it up. Tell your friends. And when you can, we hope you come back to join us, so we can continue to share this message until we are #AMillionStrong.