Emerging tech for nonprofits

Recently, my friends at Washington Trails Association asked me to think about what emerging tech is likely to be relevant for them and for nonprofits generally over the next few years. Here’s an adapted version of what I wrote for them.

This is in no way a comprehensive list — if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear more about what you’re looking at and thinking about!

Customer Journeys

This is not exactly “emerging tech” — it’s more like “tech that is here now but most nonprofits aren’t fully using yet.” Here’s a general background piece from my colleagues at Salesforce. An email drip campaign (e.g. a “welcome series” for new members) is a simple example of a customer journey, and the concept can be elaborated from there.

Many (but not all) bulk email tools can do at least simple marketing journeys, including two from Salesforce: Pardot and Marketing Cloud. Marketing Cloud can is a really powerful tool for building customer journeys, including ones that use both email and SMS, which is pretty neat. Pardot is a bit simpler, and while Salesforce brands it as a “B2B” email tool, my friends at Cloud For Good explain why you shouldn’t be misled by this; it’s actually pretty amazing for nonprofits. And here’s a nice example of how we’re using it for employee onboarding here at Salesforce.org.

I think there is a ton of opportunity for any nonprofit that is trying to raise money, organize a community, or deliver services to explore how to apply customer journey concepts to their work, and that there will be tremendous rewards in both dollars and engagement from plucking the low-hanging fruit. Assuming you already have a decent CRM system that integrates with a bulk email system (and if you don’t — what are you waiting for?), this mostly requires staff time for planning and writing the journeys.

Machine learning

Robots, drones and driverless cars are all over the headlines these days, and there’s lots of distractions and noise, but machine learning is a real thing and we are investing a TON into this at Salesforce right now.

Right now, machine learning requires a fair amount of often-expensive expertise, but what I think we’ll see over the next few years is that companies like Salesforce will “democratize” machine learning techniques by building them into our existing products so that it is easy for non-technical folks to put them to work on their specific business problems. We’ve been starting to roll out the first few machine learning features and there will be a LOT more to come.

Where this will all lead for nonprofit CRM users is still unclear (and the subject of active conversation internally), but I think we can see a few classes of techniques that will be ripe for application:

  • Recommendation systems. Think “Netflix for hiking” or “If you did this, you’ll probably like that.” If you have rich data about what people have already done, then you can start using stats to predict that they might want to do next.
  • Predictive lead scoring. Salesforce is just starting to roll some of this out, but the idea is to use your data to figure out which of your “leads” are “hot prospects” worth spending time on. It is easy to imagine this eventually becoming something that could help you figure out which members to call to try to upgrade to major donor status, or which volunteers are most likely to go from “sign a petition” to “show up for a meeting.”

Bigger picture: we are just starting to figure out how to apply these advanced statistical techniques to nonprofit business problems, and I’m certain that we’re going to see some really interesting stuff emerging from Salesforce and elsewhere over the next 5 years.

If you want to pe deeper here, my data science colleague recommends this blog series: https://medium.com/@ageitgey/machine-learning-is-fun-80ea3ec3c471

It really opened my mind to understanding the techniques and the possibilities. There is a little bit of code, but I just skip over those parts. 😉

Network theory + organizing

http://www.netcentriccampaigns.org/content/seven-elements-advocacy-network

http://netchange.co/what-is-a-directed-network-campaign

This is the cutting edge of advocacy campaigning theory, IMO. Basically the question is: how do we create campaigns that are platforms for people to self-organize and be creative, while providing scaffolding and structure to channel the energy in productive directions and be successful?

Nonprofits have an opportunity to ask themselves

  • What are the opportunities for us to connect users to each other to “do stuff” (advocacy or non-advocacy related)?
  • How do we create a shared vision and common language and then empower network participants to work creatively towards a goal?
  • How do we flow resources to the leaders that emerge out of the network?

One-click giving

Relatively minor, but I saw in the news today that Amazon’s patent on “1-click” is expiring soon, and I think that means we’ll see some really interesting evolution in online giving experiences as more platforms can implement this technically-simple but great-for-UX feature.

When we combine one-click giving with emerging payment networks like Stripe, Apple Pay and others that can remember your credit card information across a broad range of merchants, I think we are on the cusp of a revolution in online giving experiences. The nonprofits that figure this out first are going to see huge jumps in donor engagement.

Alright, that’s what I’ve got. What are you seeing on the horizon?

32 Theses About Nonprofit Compensation

  1. Nonprofit work is hard work. It is complex, adaptive work where the answers are not known in advance — we have to invent them as we go. Most nonprofits are tackling huge problems with few resources and many face deep-pocketed opposition.
  2. Nonprofit work is long-term work. The problems we’re working on — climate change, inequality and injustice — didn’t emerge overnight, and we’re not going to solve them in a couple of years.
  3. Because nonprofit work is hard, long-term work, the nonprofit sector needs to attract the most talented people we’ve got — and keep them around long enough for them to become wise and masterful practitioners.
  4. The skills and talent nonprofits need to solve big social problems are complex . We need to be able to draw in people with a broad range of experiences, skills and talents. Failure to do this not only hurts us tactically, it limits us strategically.
  5. Right now, access to wealth — inherited wealth, earned wealth from a prior career or spouses/partners who are the primary breadwinners in their households — is often an implicit filtering criterion for long-term nonprofit employment. This perpetuates and deepens the structural racism and inequity in our society, even as we say we are working to eliminate it.
  6. The student debt crisis is a huge, largely unacknowledged talent problem in the making for the nonprofit sector. While many millennials are drawn to mission-based work, their student debt will prevent them from entering the sector, or ensure that their stay here is short.
  7. The skills that it takes to build and sustain a successful and effective nonprofit are becoming more varied.
  8. Because of the explosion of nonprofits — and the immediate accessibility of a global audience afforded by the internet — nonprofits must not only be skillful at more things, they must be relatively more skillful at more things if they want to break away from the pack. The bar for success is, paradoxically, rising, even as the barriers to starting a nonprofit are falling.
  9. The skills that nonprofits must master to succeed in the twenty-first century are rapidly converging with the skills that organizations in other sectors must master to succeed.
  10. We can see this most clearly in the area of technology. But it’s not just technology, it’s also finance, leadership, marketing and more.
  11. The rise of mission-based “social enterprise” businesses and B-Corps further exacerbates the nonprofit’s sector’s intensity of competition for talented, mission-minded people.
  12. Nonprofits are therefore competing beyond the sector for talent more directly than ever before and the intensity of this competition is only going to continue to increase.
  13. Nobody expects (or deserves) to get rich working for a nonprofit.
  14. Many nonprofits are (or can be) amazing places to work. People will sacrifice some amount of money for challenge, meaning, flexibility and autonomy.
  15. Despite this, we should not expect nonprofit workers to forgo home ownership, children and a secure retirement in order to work in the sector.
  16. If nonprofits want to successfully compete for talent — and keep good people around for the long haul, they need to pay enough so that money isn’t an issue, then out-compete other employers on meaning, relationships, autonomy and opportunity.
  17. The amount of money that makes “money not be an issue” for the diverse, talented people we need to attract and retain is often more than the median nonprofit is paying right now.
  18. The amount of money that makes “money not be an issue” for the diverse, talented people we need to attract and retain is not insanely large. People who are drawn to and can succeed at the complex, adaptive challenges of nonprofit work tend to have strong intrinsic motivation and are rarely highly materialistic.
  19. There are many roles in nonprofits for which it is believed to be difficult to objectively and fairly evaluate employee performance and/or contribution to either the organization’s bottom line or its mission impact.
  20. Nonprofits rarely cut low performing staff.
  21. Nonprofits rarely if ever pay their top performers significantly more than their median or low performers.
  22. Most nonprofits would rather spend additional dollars growing their team or launching new programs and accept turnover as a “fact of  life” than invest in retaining their best people for the long haul.
  23. Nonprofits rarely account for the full costs of turnover: lost relationships, lost knowledge, lost productivity, damage to morale, etc.
  24. Many of the nonprofit sector’s most highly skilled people eventually are forced to leave the sector entirely or go into private practice as consultants in order to meet their financial needs.
  25. The “consultant-ization” of the nonprofit sector has some benefits (e.g. rapid, flexible team formation, deep specialization, diffusion of knowledge, etc.) but also considerable costs.
  26. While nonprofit culture and management practices contribute to some of the sector’s dysfunctions around compensation,
    nonprofit board members, donors and funders play a significant role in shaping the sector’s culture and determining how it allocates resources.
  27. The overhead myth, preferences for new programs over proven effectiveness, underinvestment in leadership development, failure to admit and embrace failure — these phenomena all contribute to unhealthy ideologies about compensation in the nonprofit sector.
  28. Nonprofit boards rarely involve themselves in staff salary structures or policies, restricting themselves to setting CEO compensation and perhaps approving incremental increases to the overall salary pool during the budgeting process.
  29. Foundation program officer salaries often serve as an effective upper bound on nonprofit CEO compensation.
  30. Funders rarely reward their highest-performing grantees with game-changing infusions of general support dollars — and even more rarely do they cut their low-performing grantees to free up resources for their high performers.
  31. Many funders are happy to reward effort rather than results. This is closely tied to risk aversion, because big results require big risks and it is often hard to claim credit for long-term success.
  32. There is no silver bullet solution to these challenges, but the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors must work together to open a more courageous conversation if we are to make progress.

Continue reading 32 Theses About Nonprofit Compensation

The original sin of nonprofit capacity builders

Back in 2011, a few weeks before I left Groundwire (R.I.P.), I was at a nonprofit conference down in southern Oregon. I was delighted to run into Dianne Russell, who runs the Institute from Conservation Leadership. Dianne’s been doing organizational capacity building work in the environmental sector for… well, pretty much forever and has always been one of those people I’ve admired as we worked over the years with many of the same great people and organizations.

So there we were in the lobby, catching up, talking about the weather, our kids, I don’t quite remember. But then out of nowhere, Dianne dropped this idea on me:

“I’ve been thinking lately,” she said (and I paraphrase slightly), “that we capacity builders have really screwed up. We’ve systematically miseducated funders about the true cost of doing the work.”

I swear that the clouds parted and a great beam of light shone down on us. (Never mind that we were indoors.) I heard the clap of thunder, but maybe it was just the sound of my jaw hitting the concrete floor.

I picked it up and said, “Oh, wow. You are… totally… right. I never thought of it that way before. How come I never thought of it that way before?

In an instant, I flashed through all of the ways I’d failed at pricing over 15 years of doing mostly-below-market-rate technology and communications consulting to environmental nonprofits:

  • Giving work away for free: FAIL. very few clients truly value what they’re not paying for, and a price of “free” makes it really easy to fail to invest in making new tools and knowledge sustainable.
  • Charging meaningful but “below-market” rates: FAIL. This is a more subtle way to fail. When you charge a meaningful amount, clients have “skin in the game” and that’s good. You have far fewer failing projects. But think back to Econ 101 — if you price below market, demand is infinite, and every unit of below-cost service you deliver is another unit of charitable subsidy you have to raise. So, while each project is great and your clients love you, you are digging a hole to hell with your good intentions.
  • Charging “the low end of market rate:” NOT A TOTAL FAIL, BUT DANG HARD. Here, your clients are happy and you’re not losing money hand over fist, but you’re trapped in the tyranny of the billable hour and the constant struggle to keep staff from being poached by higher-paying for-profits,  etc.

But, despite having experienced all of this failure modes, I hadn’t really thought about how underpricing affects funders — who, along with the nonprofits themselves, are often “the customer” for capacity building services, even though they are not “the client.”

As we tie on our superhero capes and leap into action, we often fail to calculate our true costs. And even more often, we fail to disclose that full cost either to our clients or to our funder/customers. This happens for many reasons, all of them sincere and well-meaning.

We capacity builders, with our zeal to get the work done — after all, there’s so much good work that desperately needs doing — we’re wizards at cobbling together a few bucks here, a few bucks there. And maybe we feel a little bit guilty about charging all that money to do good work.  We’ve usually got at least a touch of impostor syndrome (“we’re not really that good”) so we hem and haw and there are a thousand reasons why we just sort of don’t get around to really showing everyone who’s paying for a piece of our pie just how much the whole pie really costs.

This is all well and good and well intended. The clients are happy, the funders are happy and the capacity builder might even be pretty happy too. But over the not-so-long term, Bad Things Start to Happen:

Even if you’ve been rigorous about showing all your cross-subsidies, the cumulative effect of underpricing is that it affects what funders (and clients) are willing to pay for future capacity building engagements. This is what my economist friends call “price anchoring.” Over time it means that funders (and clients) start to believe that below cost is what it costs and, worse, that’s all it’s worth. This means that if a future capacity builder should have the temerity to charge enough to cover their full costs (including the cost of paying people competitive salaries, not burning them out with overwork, etc.), they are very likely to be told, “Sorry, that’s too expensive. Last time I only paid $BELOW-COST-PRICE.”

Let me be clear: it’s not that clients and funders are naive or that they are trying to abuse us by setting up a race to the bottom. Prices are signals and prices are stories, and our prices are telling lies that have, over time, systematically miseducated our customers (and our clients) about the underlying economic reality of the work.

The bill for this is coming due.

 

What tech skills should mission-driven nonprofits expect all of their employees to master?

What tech skills should mission-driven nonprofits expect all of their employees to master?

The-IT-Crowd-006I’m not talking about what we should expect the “digital” people to know — or the IT staff. These folks are always going to require a deeper set of particular skills that are going to vary greatly depending on their role and the particular organization. I’m asking a bigger and more abstract question: what skills should we expect of everyone who works in an organization trying to make change in the world — from the CEO to the administrative assistants, and everyone in between.

Is it simply enough to expect “proficiency with Word, Excel and Outlook?” Or, in 2014, should we be expecting more?

I think we can and should expect more.

Let’s start by unpacking the notion of “proficiency” with “basic office productivity software.”  There’s more here than meets the eye. Here’s my list of tasks I’d expect someone who has solid “intermediate proficiency” with the basic tools that are essential to modern mission-driven work to be able to perform.

1. Format a document with style-based formatting, both in a word processor and in a website content management system
2. Create, share and organize online documents and spreadsheets.
3. Use “tracked changes” or similar document revision features to collaborate on a document with others
4. Perform a basic mail merge from a spreadsheet, and be able to translate basic mail merge concepts to online tools such as broadcast email systems
5. Compose and send a lightly-branded broadcast email message that looks good on a mobile phone
6. Sort and filter a list in a spreadsheet
7. Use common spreadsheet formulas to analyze data like SUM, AVERAGE, MEDIAN
8. Create a simple chart or graph that follows most of Edward Tufte’s rules of good information design
9. Crop and resize an image for use on the web or in an email
10. Create a lightly formatted but professional-looking set of presentation slides that are compliant with an organization’s brand guidelines
11. Set up and use an LCD projector
12. Host and deliver a presentation online through webinar or online meeting software.
13. Use text/video chat software like Skype, Google Hangouts, etc. for real-time communication with colleagues
14. Manage one’s calendar online
15. Book appointments with colleagues and partners electronically
16. Use a password manager to generate and use secure passwords for online services
17. Build a simple online survey and interpret the results
18. Create rules or filters in an email client to organize your inbox
19. Track tasks with a team using tools like Trello, Asana, Basecamp or Evernote
20. Export a list of names or other data from one system in CSV format and upload the list into another system
21. Create and manage an email discussion list
22. Look up and edit contact information for constituents in a CRM database system
23. Bonus: design the agenda for and facilitate an effective small group meeting

Bet you weren’t expecting 23 items. (Hey, did I leave anything important out? Leave a comment!)

Seriously: imagine how much more efficient and effective our organizations would be if we could count on all of our colleagues and allies to have mastered these basic skills.

I’m not naive; this is a high bar. Is the solution then to raise our hiring standards? Maybe. When I’m hiring folks, I certainly attempt to gauge how solid their technology skills are. But I realize that there are a lot of smart, bright and capable folks out there who couldn’t tick all of these boxes. That’s OK. College is supposed to teach you to read, write and think — it’s not supposed to be vocational education.

This means that employers need to be ready to train their people in the practical skills they need to excel in the workplace. Part of the job of any social mission organization is to bring in smart, bright and capable people and help them grow. This takes a strong organizational commitment to making those investments — and a strong organizational culture of peer learning. And you can be sure I am looking to hire people who are motivated and ready to learn (and to teach!).

Folks who are already in the social change workforce: you should see mastering as many of these skills as possible as an essential part of your job. These are the building blocks of 21st century social mission work.

Update 7/4/2014: edited slightly to incorporate great feedback from commenters below and on social media. Thanks, keep the feedback coming!

Minor updates on 8/16/2016. Thanks Natalee Hill!

Approaching funders for program-related investments

At work, we helped put on  a great panel session on program-related investments (PRIs) [1] earlier this week. We had a packed house of 80+ folks and they asked a ton of great questions, including one from the CEO of a nonprofit with a revenue-generating social enterprise program: “As a nonprofit, who can I approach to invest in my social enterprise?”

Panelist (and my colleague) Peter Berliner offered the following answer: Foundations make PRIs for the same reasons they make grants: they see alignment between their philanthropic goals and the goals of the social enterprise. Second: they ask, “is it a reasonable business proposition?” So, it makes sense to ask for mission investments from foundations with whom you have existing relationships. Who supports your goals already?

Not only did I think this was a fantastic answer, it was almost verbatim the answer I gave for many years to nonprofits who asked me, “What foundations will be interested in funding my technology capacity needs?”

The old world connects with the new.

[1] PRIs, as the jargon goes, are foundation investments that are designed to yield below-market financial returns and accomplish social change goals.

Three dimensions of transformational leadership

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes truly effective leaders in the social change sector. There are people who’ve devoted their entire careers to the question, and I don’t presume to their erudition. But lately, I’ve been reflecting on three key dimensions of organzational leadership that have really helped me understand organizations I’ve been involved with over the years.

External relations leadership

External relations is the classic, outward-facing dimension of leadership. It’s the one we often mistake for the whole ball of wax. External relations is about charisma, storytelling and selling the organization to the world at large. It’s a vitally important dimension of leadership, especially in the nonprofit sector, where donors and grantmakers often give based on emotion and relationships. Many nonprofits are founded by leaders who are strong on this dimension of leadership.

Management leadership

This is the internal-facing “make the trains run on time” function. Management leadership is what builds systems and processes; it allows organizations to execute consistently, with excellence and at scale. Few organizations can grow or be successful over the long term without developing strong management leadership. Leaders who are strong at management are often very different personalities than those who excel at external relations–they tend to be more introverted and detail-oriented. Many management oriented leaders are found in COO roles.

In many nonprofits, the top two people are a strong external relations leader and a strong management leader. This can be a pretty effective leadership model for some organizations, and is far preferable to a single CEO trying to perform both roles.

But if we stop with just these two leadership functions, we overlook something critical to the long term health and success of an organization: the leadership function that is focused on taking care of its people.

Nurturant leadership

Leadership is not just about strategy, sales and management, leadership is motivating and supporting people so they thrive and excel. It’s great to have a charismatic leader out front, and a management leader who can build and refine the internal processes. But someone has to be focused on taking care of the organization’s people as whole human beings. This is not an “HR” function; it’s a core leadership function.

Nurturant leadership is this dimension of leadership–and, unfortunately, it’s often overlooked–and consequently one of the biggest barriers to long-term organizational excellence.

Lots of organizations have a strong ED/COO combination providing external relations and management leadership. But these organizations sometimes have a tough time retaining talented staff over the long haul, because they are missing third leg of the leadership stool: a strong nurturant leader.

“But isn’t this the CEO’s job?” you ask. Well, it’s certainly the CEO’s responsibility to make sure the organization has sufficient nurturant leadership. But many CEOs struggle with this leadership function–particularly CEOs who are focused on external relations. External relations leaders are charismatic and visionary, but they are often ineffective at nurturant leadership for several reasons:

  1. Being outward-oriented means you’re out of the office lot. There are so many meetings to go to, donors and clients to pitch, speeches to give. External relations leaders are often on the road so much and in so many meetings with stakeholders that they don’t have the focused time it takes to nurture their teams.
  2. The more visionary and charismatic the leader, the more intimidating they often are. It’s hard to nurture people who are a little bit scared of you.
  3. A certain degree of narcissism often goes with the territory, and while it’s not unhealthy per se, it does tend to interfere with the empathetic demands of nurturant leadership.

Similarly, many management leaders struggle with this as well. When you are focused on building systems and processes, it is easy to slip over the line into caring more about “the system” than the people that must operate within it. Overall, though, I’ve seen a lot more people who are successful management/nurturant leaders than people who combine external relations and nurturant leadership.

The biggest lesson for organizations, though, is to explicitly attend to and elevate nurturant leadership as a discipline co-equal to external relations and management leadership. More on this in a future blog post.

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?

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

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.

 

 

 

 

A course I’d like to see for social change organizations

I’d love to see a course for leaders (or prospective leaders) of social change organizations built around the following core readings:

  1. Nonprofit Strategy Revolution” by David La Piana
  2. Immunity to Change” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey
  3. Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath
  4. The MoveOn Effect” by David Karpf

What else would you add to this list?

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?

Should grantmakers be more like VCs?

At Web of Change 2012 last week, I had an interesting conversation with Drew Bernard about nonprofit boards vs. the boards of internet startups, and the very different roles that nonprofit and VC funders play.   Drew’s a great person to chat with about these topics, because he’s worn all the hats: startup entrepreneur, angel investor, startup board member, nonprofit tech consultant and nonprofit board member.

We think that advocacy nonprofits and startups have one huge thing in common: they are both highly entrepreneurial organizations, in that, as Eric Reis puts it, they both need to operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty.   Nonprofits are funded by grantmakers, startups by venture captial (VC) firms.  A typical VC firm has partners, each of whom has a portfolio of investees.  Grantmakers have program officers.

In a VC firm, each of the partners will carry a portfolio of roughly 7-12 firms, and in exchange for the firm’s investment, the partner will sit on the board of each of the firms in his or her portfolio.  VC board members not only look out for the interests of the investors, but they also serve as mentors, advisers, connection-makers and often-vigorous advocates for the startups they advise.  Even in situations where the VCs have relatively small amounts of money on the line (e.g. in angel-funded startups, which are what Drew works on), the VC board member<>startup relationship is often intense, hands-on and collaborative.  “I’m on the board of one startup right now,” Drew told me, “and I’m probably in their office at least once a week.”

Compare and contrast to the nonprofit sector.  All of the foundation program officers I know carry portfolios of roughly 20-50 grantees.  Serving on the board of an grantee is rare, and in most cases it’s done out of personal interest rather than as a part of the job.  There’s some coaching and mentoring and network-making that’s part of the relationship, but with 20-50 grantees, that’s just not a lot of program officer time per grantee.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m about the last person in the world to put VCs on a pedestal, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if a grantmaking foundation tried to use the VC model for its grantee relationships: big investments, small portfolios, intensive, supportive, hands-on involvement.

Failures in Generalship and the Nonprofit Sector

The thing I am loving most about grad school so far is that it is exposing me to bodies of literature that my former life as a nonprofit sector consultant just didn’t.  (Whether it could have, that’s another story.)  Today, I read Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s article “A Failure in Generalship,” which resonated for me in unexpected ways.

Yingling’s brief article is a tough look at the reasons why America’s military leaders failed in almost identical ways in both Vietnam and Iraq, despite the nearly thirty years they had to learn and adapt.  He concludes that the reasons are not about individual personalities, but in the systemic ways that we select our generals, and the ways those systems fail to produce generals that are capable of succeeding at important aspects of their jobs.

Here’s a long excerpt that you should read closely.  I’m blown away by how much this analysis is directly relevant to the failures of leadership in social change movements.  I’ve boldfaced some of the best bits.  Hint: every place he writes “generals” you can sub in “social change leaders” and every place he says “war” you can think “social change.”

I wish that the social change sector had the courage to examine itself so honestly and to ask tough systems questions like this.  Of course, it is also true that we lack the systems of accountability that are at least theoretically provided by Congress, so it may be that our challenge is even harder than the military’s.  Food for thought.

The Generals We Need

The most insightful examination of failed generalship comes from J.F.C. Fuller’s “Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure.”…  He found three common characteristics in great generals — courage, creative intelligence and physical fitness.

The need for intelligent, creative and courageous general officers is self-evident. An understanding of the larger aspects of war is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and four-star generals shows that only 25 percent hold advanced degrees from civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities. Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army’s senior generals speaks another language. While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.

Neither the executive branch nor the services themselves are likely to remedy the shortcomings in America’s general officer corps. Indeed, the tendency of the executive branch to seek out mild-mannered team players to serve as senior generals is part of the problem. The services themselves are equally to blame. The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. Officers rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns. Senior generals, both active and retired, are the most important figures in determining an officer’s potential for flag rank. The views of subordinates and peers play no role in an officer’s advancement; to move up he must only please his superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.

If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper oversight function in three areas. First, Congress must change the system for selecting general officers. Second, oversight committees must apply increased scrutiny over generating the necessary means and pursuing appropriate ways for applying America’s military power. Third, the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure.

To improve the creative intelligence of our generals, Congress must change the officer promotion system in ways that reward adaptation and intellectual achievement. Congress should require the armed services to implement 360-degree evaluations for field-grade and flag officers. Junior officers and noncommissioned officers are often the first to adapt because they bear the brunt of failed tactics most directly. They are also less wed to organizational norms and less influenced by organizational taboos. Junior leaders have valuable insights regarding the effectiveness of their leaders, but the current promotion system excludes these judgments. Incorporating subordinate and peer reviews into promotion decisions for senior leaders would produce officers more willing to adapt to changing circumstances, and less likely to conform to outmoded practices.

Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.

To reward moral courage in our general officers, Congress must ask hard questions about the means and ways for war as part of its oversight responsibility. Some of the answers will be shocking, which is perhaps why Congress has not asked and the generals have not told. Congress must ask for a candid assessment of the money and manpower required over the next generation to prevail in the Long War. The money required to prevail may place fiscal constraints on popular domestic priorities. The quantity and quality of manpower required may call into question the viability of the all-volunteer military. Congress must re-examine the allocation of existing resources, and demand that procurement priorities reflect the most likely threats we will face. Congress must be equally rigorous in ensuring that the ways of war contribute to conflict termination consistent with the aims of national policy. If our operations produce more enemies than they defeat, no amount of force is sufficient to prevail. Current oversight efforts have proved inadequate, allowing the executive branch, the services and lobbyists to present information that is sometimes incomplete, inaccurate or self-serving. Exercising adequate oversight will require members of Congress to develop the expertise necessary to ask the right questions and display the courage to follow the truth wherever it leads them.

Finally, Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers. By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war. By exercising its powers to confirm the retired ranks of general officers, Congress can restore accountability among senior military leaders.

Nonprofit sector turnover rates

According to Nonprofit HR Solutions’ 2011 Nonprofit Employment Trends survey, the 456 nonprofits they surveyed reported an average turnover rate of 13% in 2010.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the private sector as a whole had about a 2.9% turnover rate.   Assuming these are not apples-to-oranges numbers, then this seems like a pretty troubling picture of the nonprofit sector’s ability to retain its labor force.  Interesting.

What Seth said…

What Seth Godin just wrote about getting funding in the tech sector could…nay, should!… be recontextualized for the nonprofit sector.  Turns out I only need to change a single word.  With apologies:

The goal isn’t to get money from a VC foundation, just as the goal isn’t to get into Harvard. Those are stepping stones, filters that some successful people have made their way through.

If you alter your plans and your approach and your vision in order to grab that imprimatur, understand that it might get in the way of the real point of the exercise, which is to build an organization that makes a difference

I don’t care so much how much money you raised, or who you raised it from. I care a lot about who your customers are and why (or if) they’re happy.

Groupthink is almost always a sign of trouble, and it’s particularly dangerous when it revolves around what gets funded, and why.

 

How to give to charity anonymously to avoid bacn

My wife’s parents, Jo and Thad, aren’t high-rollers.  But they are generous, regular, mid-level donors to a number of nonprofits (including Groundwire!).  Which is awesome.  But unfortunately, many of these organizations play a bit fast and loose with the principles of permission marketing, and as a result Jo and Thad are barraged with a never-ending stream of email and postal mail fundraising appeals, both from charities they support and ones they’ve never heard of.  As as a “nonprofit communications professional,” I know all of the the reasons for this, but what Jo and Thad know is that they’re overwhelmed by “bacn” (it’s not quite spam).  And so it was that they asked me over dinner the other night:

“Is there some way we can give anonymously to all of these groups so we don’t get on all of their mailing lists?”

After a bit of digging around, I found the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, a massive donor-advised fund system run by one of the country’s largest brokerage firms.  (Full disclosure: I’ve been a Fidelity customer for years.)  The basic deal is that you can put money into an account, take an immediate tax deduction, then instruct them to make charitable donations out of the account over time.  Donations can be anonymous or not.  There’s a 1% per year management fee, and you have to put in at least $5000 initially, although you can pay it out very gradually over time.  So, this is a great way to manage giving for anyone who’s giving at least $1000/year or more.

If you are a more occasional giver who wants to give anonymously, then you could consider:

Both of these are reputable charitable giving hubs, and you can give as much or as little as you want, anonymously or not.  The only downside: JustGive takes 3% of each donation, and Network For Good 5%, which can add up quickly.

Paul Loeb on Greg Mortensen and the fetishization of “innovation”

Paul Loeb has just published a nice, thoughtful piece about the Greg Mortensen affair.  I particularly liked the following couple of ‘grafs, because they remind us that our fascination with Mortensen is part of a larger, unhealthy dynamic in which we fetishize “innovation” and “heroes” while ignoring systems approaches and long-term experience.

The arc of Mortenson’s fame also reminds me how much our culture enshrines lone entrepreneurs as the ultimate change agents, while displaying a commensurate disdain for those who’ve long worked in the trenches. We see this in international development, where businesspeople or celebrities receive massive publicity for their glamorous new projects, while groups like Oxfam or CARE that work year after year in local communities are left invisible in the shadows, or presented as dull, bureaucratic, and retrograde in comparison.  We see the same thing with America’s educational debates, where those who talk glibly of solving poverty and inequality with the instant solutions of high stakes testing, charter schools, or eliminating the long-held rights of teachers receive massive attention, while the experiences of those who’ve actually spent 20 or 30 years in the classrooms are disdained and ignored.

Sometimes fresh approaches can shake things up, and Mortenson’s focus on getting Pakistani and Afghan girls enrolled in school may well be one of those transformative ideas. But his books still feed the narrative that the best way to make change is to ignore pretty much anything that anyone else has been doing all along, and to charge ahead with your own Lone Ranger initiatives.

Love me some nonprofit spam

Following is the only-slightly-redacted text of an actual email exchange I just had with a well-intended but utterly clueless environmental activist trying to get the word out about his work.  The original message had about 400 people in the To/CC lines.

From: XXXXXXXX
Sent: Friday, April 22, 2011 8:47 PM
To: Jon Stahl
Subject: RE: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Jon: I have taken you from the list.

Thanks for suggestions, but I like sending to diverse strangers, in the field
of XXXXXX, especially gov people who live in a protected (idea) world. There
is to much time wasted, "talking to the converted".

Actually, I get very few complaints.

Best,
XXXXX
> XXXXXX-
>
> With all respect, we all really need you to stop putting your
> entire address book in the To/CC line of your emails.
>
> It is creating a huge amount of unwanted email, generating a
> "reply all" storm, and it's absolutely terrible online communications
> etiquette.  Please consider starting an email list (e.g. at
> http://npogroups.org or Google Groups) or using a simple email
> broadcasting service like http://mailchimp.com.
>
> Please remove me from your list, too.  Thanks.
>
> cheers,
> jon

Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

Nonprofit website benchmarks study released

Groundwire Website Benchmarks Cover
Download me!

I’m very happy to have pushed the “launch” button on Groundwire’s 2010 Website Benchmarks Study, a first-of-its-kind-so-far-as-I-know report that takes an in-depth look at website statistics and online behaviors of 43 small-to-midsized environmental nonprofits.

There’s a ton of useful information, not only about groups’ “raw” website statistics, but also about how much time and energy groups are investing in their web presence.  Lots to chew on for nonprofits of any size, but I think it’s especially relevant for groups up to about 50 staff.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is the fact that I was able to develop a highly scalable and repeatable methodology for quickly gathering data, using a combination of a simple, open-source Python script (written by my awesome colleague Matt Yoder) for interacting with Google Analytics and a quick-and-dirty online survey instrument.