I don't go to enterprise keynotes expecting to get teary-eyed - quite the opposite. But there was an exception in 2012. That's when SAP debuted their stunning It Gets Better video.
Since that time, I've been a fan of the It Gets Better organization. Amongst other projects, they now have a deep playlist of It Gets Better videos from technology companies.
It Gets Better aims to get LGBTQ+ youth the help, support, and inspiration they need. As I see it, you want young people to see a place for themselves - in a world that can seem anything but welcoming.
The stakes are high: suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst youth aged 10-24. According to the CDC, LGB youth are fives times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
"I wish I could have told him that it gets better"
It Gets Better is determined to change that. But as we've chronicled on these pages many times, it doesn't matter how noble your mission is: if you want your organization to thrive and scale, getting technology and collaboration right is fundamental. When I learned that Workplace by Facebook enabled It Gets Better to get a handle on their collaboration issues, I wanted to learn more.
Soon I was on the phone with Brian Wenke, Executive Director of the It Gets Better Project. I told Wenke how I became an It Gets Better fan. He told me:
I definitely know the SAP video. It's very intense and very sad in terms of its intro, but it's ultimately one of the most inspiring videos that I've seen.
Wenke joined the It Gets Better Project in February 2016, after ten years with the American Cancer Society. So what inspired Wenke to take this on?
Our organization was born in 2010, during a very tumultuous time for LGBTQ+ young people. Now, don't get me wrong; I realize it's really tough for everybody. I don't know anyone who's gotten out of high school unscathed, but for LGBTQ+ people, it is acutely difficult. From higher rates of bullying, to peer and family rejection, to higher rates of depression and anxiety, and the worst-case scenarios; higher rates of suicide ideation and attempts.
It Gets Better was founded on a conviction. We have to do more:
Again, 2010 was a very challenging time for LGBTQ+ young people. Within a very short amount of time, several young LGBTQ+, or perceived to be LGBTQ+, young people died from suicide, motivated through excessive bullying and other negative environmental feedback. One kid in particular struck a chord with our founders, Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller. The kid's name was Billy Lucas.
It's a tragic but all-too-common story of a youth who was the victim of relentless bullying at school, and took his own life. It Gets Better founder Dan Savage had seen enough. As he wrote at the time:
I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.
From personal awareness to global reach
Two months later, It Gets Better was launched. Their YouTube channel has become a catalyst for sharing inspiring stories, via self-created videos for LGBTQ+ youth. The channel has 60,000 subscribers and more than 50 million views. Savage and Miller had no idea how far-reaching It Gets Better would become.
They asked others to share their stories as well, thinking maybe they would get a couple dozen across friends and family to record their story. But it was a message the world was ready to hear and embrace. As of today, more than 70,000 people have shared their It Gets Better stories.
It Gets Better now has a global, multi-lingual reach:
Our mission is to uplift, empower, and connect LGBTQ+ people around the world. And we do that through storytelling. Our campaign now spans continents, with storytelling initiatives in six major languages, making us the largest storytelling project to empower LGBTQ people everywhere.
I've seen plenty of organizations with worthy missions buckle under the strain of financial issues and mismanagement. How you sustain is everything. Wenke:
Exactly. It was a big reason why I was brought on board. Next year, I will hit two decades in the non-profit industry. The organization is ready to implement some structure that will carry it to the next decade. We'll hit our ten year anniversary next year. It's my goal to make sure that this organization survives as long as it needs to.
The global collaboration dilemma
But global reach brings global collaboration challenges. It Gets Better's Los Angeles headquarters is the hub of an international effort:
So much of what we do is virtual... Everyone is wearing multiple hats, and everyone stretches to capacity. As of today, we have affiliates in 17 different countries, launching their story initiatives in six different languages. Language has been a major barrier, but it's absolutely essential to broadening our reach.
Email wasn't getting it done:
Prior to adopting Workplace, we were communicating primarily through email, which I absolutely despise. It's clunky; it doesn't work anymore; people don't know how to use it appropriately.
Language issues twisted the email screw tighter:
When I'm communicating with directors from other affiliates, especially if we're not sharing the same language, it was very difficult. I would get a communication; I'd have to translate it; I'd have to formulate my response; I'd have to translate that.
Sometimes if I wasn't confident that our translation software was working. I'd have to run it by an employee that speaks the language, and then I would send my response... It really challenged our ability to be nimble.
Wenke says those arduous multi-lingual email exchanges could take a week or longer. But this isn't a "love at first sight" Workplace by Facebook story either. The truth is that Wenke had been burned trying multiple collaboration tools. Within their team, adoption of messaging tools was anarchic:
When the team brought Workplace to my attention, I was not jazzed about it at all. We were already using multiple communication platforms... They weren't being utilized to their fullest potential, because each one was introduced to address the shortcomings of its predecessor.
So we had a Frankenstein-like collaboration, through platforms that really weren't doing the job, which is why so much of our communications ultimately progressed to email. Because we didn't have full adoption of any one single platform.
But Wenke's team persisted:
When the team brought Workplace to me, I was like, "Forget it, we're not even using the ones that we have now effectively, why would we consider introducing something else?" As I said, we're a small team, and at the time we were in a very small office, and I couldn't escape my team.
I was constantly reminded that I was potentially making a mistake by not taking their aspirations to implement Workplace seriously.
His team prevailed.
I finally kind of acquiesced. I was like, "Okay, we will try this." I don't even remember the exact date that we started. All I can remember is that I've never seen new tech take over so quickly.
Hello Workplace, goodbye email
Why the fast adoption?
The user experience being so similar to Facebook, there was this natural intuitive kind of feeling to Workplace. My team obviously adopted it right away. But within six months, we had hundreds of people around the world, particularly the leaders of all of our affiliates within our network, using the platform as well.
Those email language barriers were instantly resolved, via Workplace language translation:
It didn't take long for me to understand the value that it brought to the table for me in my communications with other directors throughout the network, because again, going back to the language barriers, Workplace became a quick fix.
Bye bye internal email. Team collaboration is much more organic now:
We don't actually communicate with most of the affiliates through email at all anymore. It's just all through Workplace. The chat and the video chat features have been incredible.
Wenke told me the platform has been almost hiccup-free. The few performance issues they've run into are more about wifi access, or affiliate Internet bandwidth.
It's been really nice just being able to text an affiliate and say, "Hey, do you have five minutes? Can you just jump on this video call, so I can see your face and we can work through this issue?"
It Gets Better has pushed Workplace beyond day-to-day communications, into major event planning:
We had a summit in New York, in tandem with World Pride at the end of June. We coordinated travel scholarship opportunities and agendas for dozens of reps from 19 different countries. We got them all to New York in one piece, and organized the entire event through Workplace.
It was one of the most rewarding experiences this organization has had with its global affiliate network. And it was also the first time many of these directors had seen each other in person
Wenke's team is also managing It Gets Better's global grant-making programs through Workplace.
At this point, if Workplace were to go away, if we were forced to move off their platform, we would have to redefine how we do business.
One interesting aspect of Workplace: opening up groups to external partners. Wenke says they've begun to do that, with other partners that are also running Workplace. That has big potential for their corporate video collaborations:
It's very exciting in a lot of ways, because we do so much work with corporations and employee resource groups.
Wenke told me he believes they are only beginning to tap into what they can do across partners with Workplace, but he likes what they've accomplished so far:
I love the fact that we were able to abandon all of those other communication platforms, and all those other project management platforms that just weren't rising to the occasion.
And he's not the least bit nostalgic about all the emails he's left behind.
Like any organization of this kind, It Gets Better faces its share of criticism. I can think of struggling parts of the world where telling people "it gets better" might be perceived as a hard sell at best. Wenke acknowledges that suicide prevention is complex. Bottom line - there is no cure-all for the serious problems It Gets Better addresses.
That said, with so many disturbing stories of radicalization of alienated youth on YouTube by extremist groups, it's fantastic to see an example of a counter-narrative like this one - videos that bring the possibility of belonging and acceptance to those who may feel far away from such things currently.
Finding the right way to collaborate is a big piece of the puzzle. Wenke hopes that team mojo will help It Gets Better to stay out in front, rather than react:
What started and was motivated by a very challenging experience has really blossomed into this preventative strategy. We want to capture the hearts and minds of kids before they descend into at-risk behaviors, because there's no need for that simply because you're LGBTQ+.
If you, your organization or employee group wants to make an It Gets Better video, feel free to contact them directly.