What comes next for Strong Towns

This is the last day of our member drive. If you've been with us all week, you've seen some amazing stories about Strong Towns, the impact our message is having and the amazing work our members are doing. Today I want to tell you about what we're working on next.

But before I do that, if you haven't already, take a moment and sign up to be a member. It's an important step we need you to take.

Strong Towns has a very powerful message, one that cuts through our polarized dialogue and gives regular people -- often along with their elected and professional leadership -- a new way to talk about, think about and act on the challenges faced by our cities, towns and neighborhoods. We find, time and again, that our core message is so powerful and so intuitive that all we need to do is expose people to it and, more often than not, it starts them on a different path. Give people Strong Towns and positive things happen.

Our theory of change is quite simple: The more people we can expose to our message, the more change we are going to experience, the more people are going to demand that change and the more mainstream a Strong Towns approach will become. We won't stop until we've fully discredited the Suburban Experiment and cities everywhere have adopted the Strong Towns approach as their default. We're on our way.

I started Strong Towns as a blog back in 2008. We didn't become a 501(c) until the end of 2010 and didn't have any full time staff until midway through 2012. In the five years since I've committed my life to this work, our audience has grown exponentially. Where our events used to be handfuls of people, I now speak routinely in front of audiences in the hundreds. We now add more social media followers each week than we used to have that first year. In short, it's working.

None of this growth in our reach is by accident. With the help of our board of directors, we've crafted a strategy that leverages a small amount of resources for maximum impact. We've always practiced what we preached, trying many small things, rigorously measuring the results and then incrementally scaling those that work.

The challenge we face right now? A lot  of what we're trying is working. Too much, in some ways. The demand for Strong Towns is overwhelming, and it has outstripped our resources, even with strong membership growth. We're ready to pour fuel on this fire. This Strong Towns movement is ready. We can see the next step clearly; it's just a matter of resources at this point.

So what does the next step look like?

Our growth will be incremental, certainly. But we have a base that is active and surging, so that next, smallest increment might be bigger than you'd think. First off, we need to add some staff. All of our contributors -- they write the bulk of our content -- are volunteers. We want to continue to expand our volunteers, but we also need to add some paid contributors. We have stories that need to be written, urgent things that need to be researched and followed up on and we don't currently have the bandwidth to do it. There are so many great stories to share and it's painful to watch them go untold.

We also need to continue to improve and expand our content. In the last couple of months, we've started to use a program called Edgar to share our massive backlog of content in our social media feed. Our total audience has doubled every year; that's tens of thousands of new people each month hearing us for the first time. They cannot possibly go through our backlog, so we need to find more ways to condense and simplify. I need to bring someone on who can improve our ability to share our message through graphics and video. This will also help our existing members who want to share our content and use it to create demonstrable change.

We need to continue to beef up our analytics. Right now I have one part time colleague supporting our analytics efforts and we constantly find ourselves short of capacity. The ability to know and understand where a dollar spent has the most impact, what messaging reaches the broadest audience and what strategies are effective in reaching elusive demographics is critical. We have way more questions than answers and it's simply time -- and a a lack of staff capacity -- that keeps us needlessly in the dark. I need to find the resources to make this a full time position.

We're also ready for a media strategy. I've had a benchmark goal for us to get in the NY Times and be on CNN before the end of 2018. For those things to happen, many small steps need to be taken. One of those steps came across our desk earlier this year when I got a request to be on CNBC. The only problem is that, when the request came in, I was traveling around the country and everyone else was slammed with other stuff. I'm embarrassed to say that we didn't even see the message until the moment had passed. I need someone to manage our media strategy, to handle the many requests we get for interviews and information and to leverage our successes to get our message into prominent places. These skills won't come cheaply but we're wasting time and energy if we don't make it happen.

As silly as it might sound, we need some basic help -- an intern and an office assistant -- to keep things running. I, Chuck Marohn, the primary writer on this site and someone whose time has grown incredibly valuable and scarce, spent a week -- an entire week -- stuffing envelopes this past December. It's a terrible use of time, but we had no other option. Right now I'm sitting at my desk with a pile of bills that need to be scanned in, checks that need to be endorsed and papers that need to be filed. We're a scrappy group, for sure, but we've reached the point where scrappy is hurting us on some things. I want to hire two part time people -- an intern and an assistant -- and I'll keep both of them busy.

We want to increase our advertising budget. We've been using our analytics to fine tune our approach with great success. Because I believe in radical transparency, I'll give you the real numbers. We're currently taking advantage of a special offer from Google that gives us $120,000 in Adwords each year. With more time, we can qualify for $480,000 in Adwords (that would be huge, but we need to spend the time each week nurturing the account to qualify). We're also spending $6,000 a year on Facebook advertising, which has turned into a self-perpetuating expenditure (for every dollar we spend, we're reach lots of new people and ultimately getting that dollar back). We need the investment to increase our ad budget.

And with all this comes a need for some management help. Many of you have lamented that I don't write as much as I used to. I share that lament. Yet, when I'm not on the road (and sometimes when I am), I manage this operation day-to-day. That means I'm approving payroll and expense forms, managing budgets, coordinating our Scrum board (where we coordinate our work), dealing with H.R. issues, etc... It's becoming overwhelming and is only going to get worse as we add more staff. I plan to invest in someone who can help me manage the day-to-day operation so I can stay focused on our mission, our message and the big picture.


These are the staff positions the Strong Towns movement needs, but it's not about people as much as about what needs to happen. Our content needs to continue to improve. We need more voices that speak to more people. That's how we continue to grow our audience, and audience growth is the key to our theory of change.

If we can get the staff on board, I want to do another Summit like the one we hosted in Tulsa this past April. That was a huge success and our movement gained a lot from it. I was not convinced before but I am now: We need to do these kind of gatherings regularly. They are healthy and productive for all involved.

I also want to continue to publish a book each year. Even though they take a lot of time, books are great benefits for our members and are a very handy -- and affordable -- way for people to share our message, in depth.

We had a staff meeting in Chicago two weeks ago, and I have a huge backlog of other things we want to do, from putting together t-shirts (perhaps our most frequent request) to putting together support materials for the many Strong Towns meet up groups spontaneously forming around the country. We call it the backlog. It's huge.

We want to continue to do events, which are important for paying our bills, but we also want to continue to reach audiences -- especially audiences outside of our core demographic -- who can't afford a Curbside Chat. We will continue to keep our content ad free, even though we have many lucrative advertising offers, because it lowers the barrier for people to enter our conversation. I could go on; there is so much to do.

Here's what it is going to cost to change the world, to move Strong Towns to that next increment of success:

  • 2017 Budget: $340,000 (membership and events)
  • Additional Funding Needed (annual): $300,000

Some of this additional revenue will come from generous donors who support our mission. We hope that some will come from foundations who see value in the change we create. Some will come from additional members we will add today and into the future.

The key to making any of this work is your support. If I can share our message with a donor or a foundation, they will be intrigued. When I show them our audience growth, they will be impressed. If I can tell them that a healthy percentage of our audience -- the very diverse set of people who know us best -- thinks so highly of what we are doing that they have taken the step to support us financially -- even if it's just $5 a month -- that gives me an amazing level of credibility. 

Your membership supports us financially, and of course that's important. But it's even more critical that our movement expand simply in raw numbers as well.

Where we are today, with the resources we need to secure to take the next step, the validation of a growing movement cannot be understated.

It is the difference. You are the difference.

Please take a moment and sign up to become a member. This movement needs you to get where we need to go.