Archives for the month of: May, 2009

Today I am giving a presentation for a group convened by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. But since I’ve already written about them (more than once), I thought I would let you know instead about an exciting conference I will be presenting at later in July.

It’s “No Better Time: Promising Opportunities in Deliberative Democracy for Educators and Practitioners.” It’s from July 8-11 at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Register here.  

I admit the title may sound a bit dry. But it’s going to be very cool!

Why? Because this field — “civic engagement,” “participation,” “deliberative democracy” — is on fire, that’s why! A number of threads are coming together that make this so, not the least of which is the fact that the White House just opened an office of public engagement.

The other reason it’ll be a hoot is that there are great “learning exchanges” planned. These are not your normal breakout sessions. They are meant to be highly interactive and useful — the “leaders” are really there to frame up some questions and then step back and let the magic happen.

Anyway, I will be one of the people leading a learning exchange on Thursday morning:

A tech-savvy citizenry: New media for public participation, policy deliberation, and social change

Facebook and other social networks. Online video. Twitter. Online neighborhood forums. Technology is already reshaping deliberative democracy. What are the most promising tools and resources now available, and where is the potential for future innovation? What technologies work best for local democracy, for national democracy, for community organizing, and so on? In this session, we’ll examine what’s hot, what’s tried and true, and what’s tried – and failed. We’ll also consider the kinds of skills citizens need – and students should acquire – in order to be active participants in a tech-savvy democracy.

I am proud to be co-leading this with Joe Peters, of Ascentum and with my friend Michael Weiksner, who founded

Everyone will be there! You should be too!

I used to direct a project that accounted for more than 2/3 of the revenue stream of my organization. It was a big, high-profile, multi-year initiative that we were understandably rather proud (and fond) of.

But the effort was only tangentially related to the organization’s core mission.

By Flickr user Auntie Shadrach

By Flickr user Auntie Shadrach

I remember a number of times the thought crossed my mind, “We should kill this. It’s distorting our operations.” Which was silly, in some respects, because I would have been firing myself.

Eventually, the initiative went away of its own accord, the victim of a passing fad in foundation grantmaking. 

Many years later, the organization is thriving, but it took a bit of time. 

Looking back, I still think I was right. While the organization got some good visibility out of the project, it sucked up management attention and resources that other efforts could have used. We should not have taken the job and, once we did have it, we should have used a natural break-point to end it.

How many projects are you working on that are off-mission or off-topic for you? Why don’t you kill them? Are there clients you should fire, foundations you should let go? 

Do it! Make room for something better.

President Obama made big news among the community engagement field when yesterday he announced the creation of the White House Office of Public Engagement. This is actually a re-tasking of the already-existing Office of Public Liaison, augmenting and building its role.

The idea is to have a dedicated office at the highest level of government that is in charge of connecting people and their concerns with policy. If ever there were a tangible example of what happens when someone who sees himself as a “community organizer” becomes president, this is it. Indeed, President Obama mentions this in his introductory video:

No ssoner had the news spread among colleagues in the engagement field, than the comments began to fly. I was saddened to see that most of the ones I saw, initially, seemed like sour grapes. People pored over the roster of leaders of the office, asking, “who are these people?” The subtext of many notes was, “why wasn’t I chosen?”

Others chose the moment to express doubt that the office would be devoted to “real” engagement and would not “empower” people, but would instead be just PR.

While much of the commentary is cloaked in polite-sounding academic jargon, it really seems to be quite bitter.

A bright spot is Sandy Heierbacher, founder of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, who asks a useful question:

How can we – as individuals, as leaders in public engagement work, as an organization, as a network – contribute to this effort?  How can we add value to what’s happening?  How can we get involved in meaningful ways?

It’s positive questions like this that I find myself wanting to spend time on. 

My good friend John Creighton has been working on an idea that outlines how civic life has changed fundamentally. Whereas we used to define civic engagement in terms  of how citizens relate to institutions, there’s been a power shift away from that. The action is all happening as individuals relate to one another.

That seems right on to me, and it has spurred a number of thoughts, some of which I will go into in the future. For now, though, it got me thinking about institutions and civic engagement.

Jail by flickr user the_kid_cl

"Jail" by flickr user the_kid_cl

Many of us in the “civic participation” field spend time worrying, and trying to measure, how “engaged” citizens are. Are they voting? Attending meetings? Writing their members of congress? Volunteering? And so forth.

But what if we have that relationship exactly backwards? Think of it this way: Citizens do what they do. They live their daily lives, they support themselves and one another economically, they get together to solve problems when they must. There’s a a whole range of connected activities that take place that have nothing to do with institutions.

But when we say “civic engagement,” the embedded assumption is that citizens need to engage with some system, defined in large part by institutional structures. But instead, let’s try measuring (and worrying about) how institutions are engaging with citizens. By that measure, I fear many institutions are not at all “civically engaged” — even (maybe especially) the ones that are in the civic engagement business!

Too many organizations think that by issuing a press release or starting a website they’ve somehow “engaged.” But meanwhile, citizens, going about their lives, are blissfully unaware of the the attempted communication. Us public-life junkies are Twittering to one another and starting Facebook groups — and we’re the only members. We’re all following each other.

We shake our heads and cluck our tongues at civic apathy, and worry about how to “get people more engaged.” Perhaps we ourselves are the ones who need to be better engaged.

I am working on a report on strategic planning in the nonprofit sector. I am actively seeking your help. 

Please take this survey on strategic planning for nonprofits.

Strategy by flickr user Waponi

"Strategy" by flickr user Waponi

As some of my readers know, this is an area where I have worked for some time. Some people enjoy strategic planning, others don’t. I enjoy it and like to think about it. I learned how to do it from one of the people who was at GE when they created a planning revolution in the late 1960’s — by daring to look outside the organization, rather than starting with what widgets they wanted to build.

The report I am working on will provide an overview to nonprofit leaders as they think about how best to implement their own strategic planning efforts. It will be based on a survey, one-on-one interviews, group discussion, and other research.

I’ll make the report available here on my website, but I will make it available first to my email list. (To join, just fill out the form to the right.)

So, please:  help me out by taking the survey here.

Just 24 questions!

Some organizations “plan” but don’t call it “strategic planning.” If that’s you — I want to hear from you. Please do take the survey!

One last request: the more people take the survey, the better the resulting report will be. Please spread the link far and wide to your networks.


* They Knew
* DC Buys Foreign Electric Cars
* Journalist Slams Media Narcissism


Here are the stories that interest me this morning, along with my take on why they may be of interest to philanthropy and nonprofit leaders.

  • Lawmakers briefed in detail about torture. Reports are surfacing that a number of members of Congress had been briefed on the use of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has previously denied being given any details. The CIA submitted a report on Wednesday that outlined meetings with dozens of lawmakers and “presents the most thorough information we have on dates, locations, and names of all Members of Congress who were briefed by the CIA on enhanced interrogation techniques,” according to CIA director Leon Panetta. The information is drawn from contemporaneous memos and files. (A Pelosi spokesman says it confirms the Speaker’s contention that she had “been briefed only once.”)
      Waterboard by flickr user waterboardingdotorg

      "Waterboard" by flickr user waterboardingdotorg

    • My take: People were not as “in the dark” and “out of the loop” as they now like to say. Please let this chapter of our contemporary history be  closed.
  • DC buying electric cars. The mayor of our nation’s capital has announced a deal between DC and Nissan where up to 100 electric cars will be purchased, along with charging stations to support them. 
  • Newspaper big criticizes media “narcissism.” Pulitzer-winning Walter Pincus has written a lengthy essay in which he lays out his major worries for journalism. “My profession is in distress because for more than a decade it has been chasing the false idols of fame and fortune,” he writes. “While engaged in those pursuits, it forgot its readers and the need to produce a commercial product that appealed to its mass audience, which in turn drew advertisers and thus paid for it all. While most corporate owners were seeking increased earnings, higher stock prices, and bigger salaries, editors and reporters focused more on winning prizes or making television appearances.”
    • My take: This piece echoes my own sense that placing journalists on a “democratic pedestal” for so long has created a professional culture of entitlement. Bunker mentality will do that. Yes, journalism is critical for a healthy democracy. But it needs to pay its way by being useful, not by patting itself on the back.

Thanks for reading.


If you’re reading this, you may well be in the same field I am in. It goes by various names: civic engagement, deliberative democracy, dialogue, citizen participation, and more. The basic idea is that ordinary people have a lot more to say about self-rule than we often give them credit for.

Musical chairs by flickr use Benimoto

"Musical chairs" by flickr user Benimoto

There are many of us, and we’ve been toiling in obscurity for many years — some more than two decades.

There’s a heady whiff in the air, though. The Obama Administration likes us! The White House has created an Office of Social Innovation and is actively making plans to institutionalize a more collaborative way of getting things done.

This has so many of my colleagues jumping for joy, albeit in a sober and dignified way. After so much work, innovating and slogging, we’re about to see the culmination.

So, here is some counterintuitive advice. I am trying hard to take it myself, and it’s not easy.

Many of us have spent the last decade or so working out what we know. We’ve been creating new frameworks, honing them, experimenting in small ways to see how and whether they work. The temptation, now, is to shift to “dissemination mode,” because the time seems so right. But, when the music stops, not everyone will have a seat. Only a handful of the players in this field will see their models win out. Others will need to get in line behind these leaders. (And the leaders may not be theones with the most innovative ideas, or even the best. They will be the ones who can execute the best.)

Time To Move On

I suggest that the best thing for an innovator to do now is to move onto something else. What’s the next  important idea? How can it play out?

Here are some things to think about:

  • Are online social networks changing face-to-face democracy, and if so how?
  • Is it worth “scaling” collaboration or does it work best on a community level?
  • Has hyperpartisanship made “dialogue” obsolete already?
  • What’s the best response when politics-as-usual assimilates the language of participation without really using it?
  • What will the backlash against civic engagement look like?
  • What seemingly “dead” ideas are really just sleeping? (For instance, “authority.”)

Some of these might spur some ideas about what’s next. I’m sure this is an incomplete list. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

* Cell Explosion
* NASA Back To Earth
* Nick Cave Pens Gladiator II? 


Here are the stories that interest me this morning, along with my take on why they may be of interest to philanthropy and nonprofit leaders.

  •  More cell-only households than landline-only. For the first time ever, according to a survey released by the Centers for Disease Control, the share of U.S. households that only have a cell phone has surpassed the share of households that only have a landline telephone. 20% have cell-only, 17% landline-only. (In 2003, it was 3% cell only to 43% landline-only).
    • My take: This has obvious implications for survey research, driving up its cost, although many pollsters say they are working on ways to weight data to account for the shift and still only call landlines. But that tactic will run out eventually, as cell-only becomes the norm. Eventually, landlines will be only for data. Think about similar demographic shifts: social networks vs. email; online content vs. physical cd’s and movies. Surely there are more. Which ones will upend how your organization does its work?
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds by flickr user jennder (Me: I was at this show.)

    Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds by flickr user jennder (Me: I was at this show.)

  • NASA back to Earth. Obama is expected today to announce a review of NASA’s manned spaceflight efforts, to be led by former Lockheed Martin head Norm Augustine. The last space shuttle launch is planned for 2010, and the first manned missions of the new generation of Ares craft. Some observers worry it “will be like 1975 all over again,” when Nixon unexpectedly cut the Apollo program. 
    • My take: It’s a damn shame. Space flight is forever taking budget hits, especially as scientific illiteracy becomes more prevalent and accepted even among otherwise educated people.  This may be a chance to demonstrate the commercial viability of space flight.
  • Nick Cave rejected Gladiator script discovered? The Guardian reports that a rejected script by artist Nick Cave may have been unearthed. According to accounts, actor Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott asked fellow Australian Cave to draft a sequel to Gladiator. Any sequel would face a key hurdle: Crowe’s character, Maximus, dies at the end of the film. In Cave’s purported script, “Crowe’s Maximus meddles with Roman gods in the afterlife, is reincarnated, defends early Christians, reunites with his son, and ultimately lives forever – leading tanks in the second world war and even mucking around in the modern-day Pentagon.” Here’s a full synopsis. The studios, sadly, just couldn’t take it and passed.
    • My take: Cave may be the most singular artist alive. Anything he does, or is rumored to do, is . . . well, it’s just cool.

Thanks for reading.


To go along with yesterday’s article and video on three dimensions for reviewing documents, here is a way of looking at programs and program plans.

You need to pay attention to head, heart, and hands.

  • Heart: What is the overall intent of the program? Is it on target?
  • Head: Do the plans make sense and hang together? Do they have a reasonable connection to the goal?
  • Hands: Are the right people on board to execute, do they have what they need, and are the proper controls in place?

Some time ago I wrote about the importance of hands when you are looking at why something failed. Especially in the nonprofit world, there’s an aversion to clear feedback. But often, plans fail not becuase they were poorly developed or ill-intentioned — but because someone goofed in the execution. These episodes need to be looked at. Sometimes the answer for next time isn’t a “better plan,” but “tighter controls.”

These days, that can seem anachronistic and old-school. But, execution is often about the hands.

* Shoplifting Up
* Have A Drink
* All The News That’s Fit



Contra la ley by flickr user Daquella manera

"Contra la ley" by flickr user Daquella manera

Here are the stories that interest me this morning, along with my take on why they may be of interest to philanthropy and nonprofit leaders.


  • Study: Shoplifting up amid worsening economy. A study released yesterday by the Retail Industry Leaders Association found shoplifting to have increased across the board over the last four months.  61% of the stores surveyed found increases in “opportunistic” theft, and 72% say they’ve seen a rise in organized retail crime.
    • My take: No surprise but it will get worse.
  • Study: Drinking up amid peace dividend. A study by the Rowntree Foundation finds a clear increase in drinking in Northern Ireland since 1986. It’s gone up on the Emerald Isle more than it has in neighboring Great Britain. Researchers say the trend may be due to a higher standard of living stemming from the peace process.
    • My take: While it sounds like a minor issue, lost productivity and illness from over consumption of alcohol is a large problem worldwide. Yet because it is so ingrained in Western culture, it is hard to address in the same way that smoking and seat belt use have been. Watch for this to change over time. 
  • Student: Teacher scolded me for reading the news. The case of a  Traverse City, Mich. student is getting attention after he called the Rush Limbaugh show to complain that, while reading news headlines during free time at the computer lab, he was told to turn off the objectionable material by the teacher. The problem? He was reading FOX News and not the BBC. From the transcript: “[T]oday I was on the Internet reading Fox News, and my teacher came up behind me and found out I was reading Fox News and yelled at me in front of the whole class and said I was not allowed to read Fox News in class, that I’m only allowed to read BBC and stuff of that nature.” The school says it is investigating.
    • My take: Episodes like this don’t help counteract charges of bias in the nation’s classrooms and on campuses. Many of the charges leveled by conservatives have merit. Journalism, public education, philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, and academe really ought to look carefully at such charges rather than dismiss them. 

Thanks for reading.