Things I should write

The following article titles have been staring out at my from my “drafts” folder for months (or longer):

  • Can we save the planet with grants averaging $40k?
  • How do we measure the effectiveness of organizing and advocacy?
  • Running Agile non-software projects (like campaigns)

Clearly I’m not getting around to them. Crowdsourcing anyone? ;-)

How to measure the effectiveness of GiveBig and other “day of giving” campaigns?

Today, May 15, is GiveBig, Seattle’s third annual “day of giving” event. Created by the Seattle Foundation in 2011, the idea is to focus attention on charitable giving, raise the public profile of the Seattle Foundation and of course raise some dough. There are similar events in many other cities now, and even a national “GivingTuesday” event right after Thanksgiving.

But how do we know whether GiveBig and similar day of giving type events are really working?

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Needed: an open data standard for volunteer opportunities

I was chatting today with my friend Sameer about the challenges and opportunities in volunteer management software and had a bit of a realization: it’s crazy that we don’t have an open data standard for volunteer opportunities, so that organizations can publish a machine-readable list of volunteer opportunities on their websites, and let them get picked up and syndicated by services like VolunteerMatch and Idealist that specialize in aggregating and curating volunteer opportunities.

I’m thinking of something like RSS (or even better, ATOM), which provides a simple, open standard for publishing information about articles on websites so that they could easily be picked up, remixed and syndicated to reach a far larger audience.

Let’s call it “VSS” (Volunteer Syndication Standard). I haven’t thought about this deeply, and I’m no expert on designing protocols like this, but I would start by seriously examining ATOM, the most modern RSS-like standard for publishing articles. I’d also look at hATOM for inspiration about how to embed machine-readable data directly into a standard webpage. EDIT: Probably also .ics (the standard for event syndication, because volunteer opportunities often–but not always–resemble events.)

It would be hard to inspect one’s navel to design this right, so I’m not even going to try. But I’d definitely definitely want to include folks like:

  • Organizations that publish lots of volunteer opportunities
  • Organizations that aggregate and curate volunteer opportunities or recruit volunteers for many organizations
  • Makers of volunteer management software (or other tools that let groups publish volunteer opportunities online–this could include major CMS platforms, for example)

I think that a standard like this, if sufficiently widely adopted, could unlock a huge amount of innovation in how organizations (and intermediaries) recruit volunteers, especially if it was coupled with another set of standards for intermediaries to use to push data about volunteers directly into groups’ volunteer management databases.

 

 

 

 

How to make your organization’s story compelling

I got an email today from one of my all-time favorite organizations, Sightline Institute, that just blew me away. This is one of the best tellings of an organziation’s history that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s succinct, personal, filled with rich, specific imagery (especially for an organization that mainly trades in data and policy!) and best of all, it places the reader into the story. Sightline has a long history of top-notch writing, so it’s no surprise to seem them hit it out of the park. Any organization looking to tell its story better could learn a ton from studying this single email closely.

Dear Jon,

Twenty years ago, I lugged a refurbished library table into my cramped bedroom closet, drilled a phone line through the wall, and let myself begin to heed the mission that had been calling me: to make the Pacific Northwest a global model of sustainability.

Daunted but unswayed by the audacity of this goal, I began to do what I have been doing ever since: describing the challenge to others. And then as now, they—you—joined me. You brought your talent, grit, generosity, and faith, and the result was Sightline Institute, then called Northwest Environment Watch.

Sightline grew through eighteen books, scores of reports, hundreds of speeches, and thousands of articles and blog posts. It grew from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of monthly readers, each a force for change in his or her own community. It grew to reach media audiences tallied in the tens of millions and to shape the thoughts of governors, senators, and CEOs.

In time, it grew influential enough to leave fingerprints on Cascadia’s future. In our first decade, we launched Stuff, studied in hundreds of classrooms and in tens of thousands of copies. We planted the seeds for a carbon tax-shift in British Columbia. We coined the term “green-collar jobs,” words that would eventually issue from the lips of presidents.

In our second decade, we inspired bold commitments to compact urban growth in key Cascadian cities. We prompted new rules on toxic flame retardants by studying chemicals in breast milk. We played midwife to pay-by-the-mile car insurance and peer-to-peer car-sharing. We designed regional carbon-pricing policies and brought them close to adoption. We unmasked the dangers of Big Coal’s export plans, revealed the folly of urban highway expansion, and championed a new, green approach to managing the rainwater that falls on our communities. Sightline’s fingerprints, your fingerprints, are on all these things and more—much more.

Now, today, pausing for a quiet moment in Sightline’s Seattle offices—brimming as usual with passionate and intelligent people—I stand in awe of these accomplishments. They have been improbable, considering that Sightline’s annual budget makes us account for just two one-millionths of the regional economy. In the animal kingdom, we would be like a gnat trying to steer an elephant.

Yet I am filled with hope for the years ahead. The challenge is no less daunting than ever, but we have grown, in concert with you—our friends, supporters, and allies—into a force to reckon with. Sightline’s influence has never been a function of our mass. It is a function of the light you help us spread. Comets such as Halley’s are less than one ten-billionth the mass of the Earth, yet they’ve been known to change the course of history. Sightline’s strategy is comet-like: a small nucleus of staff and board plus a long tail of supporters and allies. Shining outward from this body, our ideas, presented well, can attract the attention of millions and even define a new direction.

A Cascadia worthy of our grandchildren and theirs is more attainable than ever before. But it is certainly not inevitable. It’s a possibility only—a possibility whose realization depends entirely on what we in this generation choose to do. In the span of 240 months, Sightline, now giant compared with my bedroom closet but still minuscule compared with the region we aim to influence, has begun to shift the public agenda in a region of 17 million people. It’s only a beginning, but, I hope you agree, it’s a promising one. Just think what we can do together in another 20 years!

In the next two decades, together, we will shine even brighter. We can put a price on carbon. Indeed, we can move the region along the path that leads beyond carbon and dirty fuels entirely, to clean energy. We can make prices tell the ecological truth in other ways, too: from pollution to traffic congestion to habitat destruction, we can better align the power of markets with the conservation of our natural inheritance—of Creation. We can measure what matters, replacing GDP with better indicators of progress. Through better reproductive health technologies and policies, we can help create a Cascadia in which every child is born wanted; we can help men and women have the families they want, when they want them, even as we temper population growth. We can build complete, compact, walkable communities—places where motorized travel is less common because less necessary. All these things and more we can do.

Twenty years ago, I was the one at the library table in the closet signing the papers to incorporate Sightline, but the resulting improbable cavalcade of hope has never been about me. It’s been about you: Your love for this place on Earth. Your confidence that we can do better, that we can build an economy and way of life that can last. Your faith that we, here, can set an example for the world.

For your love, confidence, and faith, I thank you. Here’s to the next 20!

Alan Durning Executive Director

On boards

As a public administration grad student, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about nonprofit boards of directors lately. I’m not the first person to think that nonprofit boards can be super-dysfunctional; there’s a whole industry of “self-help” books for boards. (The one I’ve most enjoyed lately is Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, if you’re looking for some bedtime reading.)  But the roots of board dysfunction are not to be found in some sort of failure to implement “best practices,” though. There are deeper problems with the institution of the board itself, and I’ve rarely seen these talked about.

Most of the time nonprofit boards work just fine, because there is nothing difficult they need to do. Sometimes, though, boards have to do urgent, important, difficult work–like an executive director transition–and that’s when they can get into big trouble.

The hard truth is that nonprofit boards have almost zero accountability for performance beyond meeting the bare minimum legal standards of “don’t steal the money or let it be stolen.”

  • Board members have no financial assets at stake, unless they also happen to be major donors–and that is all sunk cost anyway. And of course, nonprofit board members are typically unpaid. So there’s no economic incentive.
  • Board members have no real professional reputation at stake, and will typically experience no or few negative consequences even if they destroy the organization through mismanagement.
  • Most boards aren’t elected by a membership, and when they are, the elections are rarely competitive. So, pseudo-democratic accountability is rarely a factor, and weak at best.
  • Much of the time, board members don’t have strong enough relationships with each other to effective hold each other accountable for high performance. How many boards do you know of where the members are close collaborators or, god forbid, friends, outside the boardroom?

To be sure, board members have their own consciences to guide them, and for many boards, that is enough to carry them through the good times and even the slightly rocky times. But when the going gets really tough–as it sometimes does–it is far easier for board members to avert their eyes, pull away and even just resign rather than to “lean into the messy” and grapple with the really tough questions of organizational identity, executive performance, and leadership. There are few rewards for high performance, and fewer disincentives for low performance.

If that’s not bad enough, consider that the number of nonprofits in the US continues to grow rapidly–from 2001 to 2011, the number of nonprofits increased by 25% to over 1.5 million. More nonprofits means more board seats to fill, and last I checked, good board members were hard to find. (Proof? Name an E.D. you know who is turning away highly qualified board candidates.) At what point have we created more board seats than we can fill with talented, motivated people? Is this contributing to the phenomenon of low-performing boards that I describe above? How would we know?

I’m joining ActionSprout!

ActionSprout LogoI’m thrilled to announce that I’ve joined the team at ActionSprout, where I’ll be serving as Director of Strategy.  ActionSprout is a startup that was founded last year by my dear friends and fellow Groundwire alums Drew Bernard and Shawn Kemp, and we make tools that help nonprofits organize action and raise money on Facebook.  (For a quick example, check out this ActionSprout campaign from the Sierra Club, going live today, where they’re organizing folks in support of an environmental high school program in Los Angeles that’s threatened with closure.)

To say I’m excited would be an understatement.

First, I’m excited about the opportunity to have a huge impact on how progressive activists (and political candidates! and companies!) communicate and organize online.  Facebook has become a huge communications channel, but until now, the tools for organizing people in meaningful ways there have been pretty limited: you can “Like,” “Share,” and “Comment.”  That’s about it.  But with ActionSprout, organizations can take advantage of Facebook’s Open Graph to create all kinds of new action posts (e.g. “Stand with…” “Support…” “Stop…” “Donate…”) that are far more meaningful and engaging.  And did I mention that we can let groups take online donations directly inside of Facebook? So far as I know, we’re the only tool that makes that possible right now!  I think we’re going to upend the conventional wisdom that “you can’t raise money on Facebook.”

We’ve already thought of a thousand ways to use ActionSprout, and I can’t wait to see the creative things that all our smart friends and allies are going to come up with!

Second, I’m exciting to be working with Drew and Shawn.  They’re fearsomely fast and creative visionaries.  I’m stoked to be able to help them paint boldly on a wide-open canvas.

Third, I’m excited to be working for a startup.  I’ve long been nursing an entrepreneurial itch, and ActionSprout feels like the perfect way to scratch it: innovative, social-mission driven and with nonprofits as the primary customers.  What’s more, Drew and Shawn are both successful startup veterans, and so I have two amazing mentors as my colleagues.

I’ve still got two quarters of grad school remaining, so I’ll be part-time from now until June, then ramping up from there.  I’m going to initially focus on helping our early customers get up and running, building out a partner program for strategy, campaign and social media consultants and getting done what needs doing.

If you’re interested in finding out more about ActionSprout, drop me a line and I’ll give you a tour, or even better, just head on over there and check it out yourself. There’s a short video, some case studies, and best of all, you can test drive it for free.

Engagement organizing, movement building, politics. And stuff.