Archives for category: nonprofits

I’m excited to announce the newest report from the Kettering Foundation, Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums. It’s a handbook for anyone interested in creating materials to support deliberative conversations on difficult public issues.

30813.inddThis report has been a long time coming. It was one of the first things I was asked to complete when I came on staff at Kettering.

Our aim was to collect what we have been learning about “issue framing” and make it accessible to people so it didn’t seem like such a mystery. Throughout the dialogue field, people often talk about issue framing as some kind of specialized skill that only certain people can do — or that takes huge amounts of money, people, time, and other resources. But we’ve learned that it is relatively straightforward and really just takes a careful attentiveness to a few principles and key ideas.

Developing Materials is available here on the Kettering Foundation web site, or you can download it here: Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums

It’s also available for free in hard copy! Just drop me a line at and let me know you’d like a copy.

Here is an excerpt:

When issues are named and framed in public terms, we can identify the problem that we need to talk about (naming) and the critical options and drawbacks for deciding what to do about that problem (framing). . . .

A framework that will prompt public deliberation should make clear the options that are available for addressing the problem and the tensions at stake in facing it. It should lay bare what is at issue in readily understandable terms.

Three key questions drive the development of a framework for public deliberation:

  • What concerns you about this issue?
  • Given those concerns, what would you do about it?
  • If that worked to ease your concern, what are the downsides or trade-offs you might then have to accept?

Responses to these questions, together, can generate a framework that makes clear the drawbacks of different people’s favored options. Facing these drawbacks and coming to a sound decision about what to do is the ultimate concern of deliberation.


A North Carolina foundation has announced that its Facebook fan page cracked 1,000 fans. The Pretty in Pink Foundation in Raleigh, NC provides financial help to North Carolina women diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Pretty In Pink Foundation Reaches Social Media Milestone,” blares the headline. Says the executive director of the foundation: “Reaching this key social media milestone during Breast Cancer Awareness month demonstrates how much the community supports our efforts.”

Turnstile, Perranarworthal by Flickr user Tim Green aka atoach

"Turnstile, Perranarworthal" by Flickr user Tim Green aka atoach

On the one hand, this is an unremarkable event and the press release reads like the usual announcement from a PR firm touting anything and everything just to have something to say. That was my first reaction.

On the other hand, here I am talking about it. Why? I think there are lessons to be learned here for public leaders.

There’s a shift happening on what constitutes “support.”

In Facebook, “fanning” a page is a micro-action, taking just one click. So to announce 1,000 fans seems trivial indeed. To translate it into real world terms, it’s as if you set out an information table at the mall, and had a stack of fliers. A “fan” might be everyone who picked up a flier. By that logic, this announcement is akin to issuing a press release that you ran out of fliers.

But on Facebook, once you’ve picked up that flier, you’ve given permission to be contacted. While the act of giving permission, or fanning the page, is trivial – the effect goes beyond that.

Many leaders in the community benefit sector look skeptically at the hype and buzz surrounding social media, especially at numbers that purport to show “engagement” but that don’t bear a close relationship to the real world. Indeed, it’s easy to get sucked into Facebook-land and begin to think that a certain number of fans is the goal of any given initiative.

But if you can look past that, and see social media as an efficient way to get permission to contact people on an ongoing basis, the utility becomes much more apparent. Who doesn’t want 1,000 people who’ve agreed to get information from you?

But it goes beyond that. Facebook contains built-in mechanisms for interaction. Say I’ve fanned Pretty in Pink, so on my main Facebook home page, I see they’ve posted this reminder: “Remember, October is breast cancer awarness [sic] month. Share the gift of hope with someone you love. Spread the word that Pretty In Pink is here to help.”

I can then “like” the update, which lets my Facebook friends see that I support Pretty in Pink, and also gives feedback to PiP themselves. There is a series of self-reinforcing microactions PiP’s fans can take that, over time, can add up to more loyal fans. For instance, in addition to “liking” one of PiP’s updates, I can comment on it. Another PiP fan might comment on that. I’ll get a notification that someone has commented after me. Now we’ve got a little group going. (On my own page, these kinds of interactions happen regularly, with people exchanging views without my intervention.)

The trick, for community benefit organizations working in social media, is to turn these new kinds of “supporters” into real-world donors and volunteers. This is a hurdle that it’s both hard to get over, and easy to lose sight of. The most effective leaders will keep their eye on this prize, but they won’t dismiss the value of having a good social media footprint.

It’s a gateway. It not only gets people in the door, but lets them enter in such a way that they become more loyal friends.

(P.S. I fanned them.)

Seeing Trible by Flickr user Foto43

"Seeing Trible" by Flickr user Foto43

A friend of mine recently made the following comment:

“[T]he dresses & hairstyles worn at the Emmy’s were really boring & predictable. Bring back the days before the stars paid stylists, please!”

While I do not watch awards shows, the comment struck me, because it applies equally well to management and leadership. Today’s obsession with effectiveness is killing individual creativity.

Organizations are mired in concern over process and practice. What’s the best way to do things? What are other organizations doing? Why aren’t we doing that? Leaders ask these and other questions, all designed to maximize effectiveness. They hire consultants who know the field, and ask them to dispense advice about what the best organizations are doing, so we can do it too.

But the problem is that they drive everyone in a given space to essentially follow the same pattern and fit the same mold. The general quality of the space goes up — but the creativity is squeezed out and new ideas tend to get killed.

Even worse, the focus on best practices leaves you blind to innovation.

For instance, think about philanthropy. Over the last ten years or so, foundations are concerned increasingly with “impact.” In an effort to maximize the impact of their investments, they now require organizations seeking money to demonstrate impact or at least the possibility of impact.

At some point, one foundation asked an organization for their “theory of change” — their basic logic model for why they will create impact. This has become the accepted practice among foundations and woe betide the community benefit organization that does not have an articulated and crisp “theory of change.”

This approach dries up the funding spigot for organizations that are just trying to help people. I can think of many soup kitchens and food pantries whose theory of change is best summed up: “We help people make it to the next day.” Foundations will see this as a band-aid approach and instead favor the neighboring organization whose theory of change might be: “If we teach adults to read they are more likely to be able to hold jobs that move them out of poverty.” Also a worthy goal, but the immediate, unsexy goal of feeding people is not a “best practice” for philanthropy.

What’s more, in today’s environment it may well be that “theories of change” and “logic models” are vestiges of old thinking. It is much harder to control how things unfold, and it is often much more effective to rely on serendipity and kismet. Think about the success of charity:water whose approach is to leverage the crowd on Twitter. Without the benefit of hindsight, think about how their “logic model” must have looked.

We appear to be at a turning point in the not-for-profit sector, where new ideas are about to take hold. But as they do, smart leaders will still leave room for new ideas and innovation, both to stay ahead of the curve and to harness the individual wacky idea, which 9 times out of ten is a failure but, when it is successful, is a real doozy.

"If you fail to receive . . . "

"If you fail to receive . . . "

At the drive through I saw this sign that struck me as amusing and I just had to snap a picture. It said:

If you fail to receive a receipt with your order please notify manager before leaving window for a refund of price paid.

After I finished chuckling, I felt compassionate. This is the restaurant’s attempt to generate trust with its customers. You can imagine the conversation: “We should make sure that people know they’re not getting ripped off, you know, like Joe Pesci complains about in Lethal Weapon. Otherwise we’re going to ” And so a sign is born. You’ve seen this sign, or others like it, everywhere there’s a drive through window.

Heart in right place, but implemented poorly, because the organization is thinking of itself first. It’s thinking, “How do we make sure people don’t get mad at us?” instead of, “How do make sure our customers feel served?” Even in this one sign, it’s evident:

  • The language is lawyerese instead of plain English. I am “receiving” and have to “notify” instead of “getting” and “telling.”
  • The promise is filled with restrictions and limitations. I only get a refund if I don’t get a receipt (not if I am overcharged, or they heard and gave me the wrong thing), and I if I drive away the deal is off.
  • Even the sentence structure implies that if there’s a problem it’s on my end, not theirs. I am “failing to receive.” But the real problem is that the restaurant “failed to give” me a receipt.

It’s a little thing, but it illustrates a problem that almost every organization has: a me-first mindset. It’s incredibly hard to break out of that.

It’s can be particularly vexing among nonprofits. Many foundations and other funders are under the gun and need to be able to show that their investments are having an impact in terms of improving people’s lives. You would think that grantees would be excited about this, as they are all about improving people’s lives, too.

But instead, there’s ongoing controversy. While some higher performing organizations have embraced the idea of actually measuring (and acting on) how well they are doing their job, many other organizations sullenly go through the motions of creating half-hearted metrics and easily-reached targets that they can pass on to their patrons — all the while thinking to themselves, “Our work is too important to let numbers stand in the way. We know we work hard and we know our supporters like us. That is enough.”

What this attitude fails to take into account is that “hard work” can sometimes be misplaced and that good feedback from friends ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

A better attitude, one that is as accessible to the local Burger-Thru as it is to the neighborhood food pantry, is: “How can we make sure that the life of everyone we touch is improved?”

A question like that will generate different signs — and different metrics.

I got a note over the weekend:

I’m student [at an Israeli university]. I’m doing a Seminar work about Civil society in USA. I’m trying find an answer for the question: What have happened to the civil society in USA through the financial crisis. Is the civil society is getting stronger or weaker from it?

Kevins Utopian kettle bell workout by Flickr user ~ggvic~

"Kevin's Utopian kettle bell workout" by Flickr user ~ggvic~

This is an interesting question and I thought it might spark a good dialogue. But I’d like to shift the question slightly, as it’s easy to claim that civil society is hurt by the current economy.

More interesting, to me, is this question:

How is civil society helped by the current economy?

Here are just a few ways that spring to mind:

  • Better talent: With middle-management increasingly out of work, there is a broader talent pool to draw from at this important level.
  • More with less: Tough times are forcing everyone to do more with lest. Without the iron fist of a profit motivation, many community benefit organizations have a fair amount of flab in their operations. They’ve had to cut.
  • Revolutionary change: More with less is a the idea that you can do more by being efficient. Some new organizations are coming up with revolutionary ways to get the same things done, because.
  • New partnerships: Consolidation in some areas of the social benefit sector is removing duplicated effort and forcing organizations that used to compete over turf to partner up, pool resource, and behave in complementary ways.
  • Wake up call: My friend Hildy Gottlieb says that the current climate can jar people — especially governing boards — into taking actions that have been long-delayed or ignored because they are uncomfortable. (I am paraphrasing and probably getting it wrong, so Hildy correct me.)

Those are just a few. What do you think? What other ways can these tough times awork in the favor of the community benefit sector?

The White House announced yesterday that the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation “would fan out to every region in the country” (according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy) to search for worthy recipients of the $50 million social innovation fund created by the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The idea is to find and grow worthy programs and help them scale up.

I’ve been hearing that word “scale” a lot lately, I think because it sounds exciting and technological. Ten years ago everyone in the community benefit sector — nonprofits and foundations — talked about “replicating” programs. I think that word was popular because it sounded smart.

Either way, it amounts to a similar idea: If you think it through properly, and apply money properly, you can take what works in one context and make it work elsewhere.

Purple Mushrooms by Flickr user c.j.b

"Purple Mushrooms" by Flickr user c.j.b

It’s a reasonable thought and in many cases it’s probably right. But there’s something missing.

To me, the “scale” and “replication” terminology is too mechanistic and doesn’t capture what is at play. It implies that with a big enough brain you can do just about anything.

But good programs grow — organically. Like mushrooms. Instead of going around and try to find them to give them more funding, we perhaps ought to look more at creating the right conditions for them to grow and spread from place to place. In some cases this might be funding, but in other cases (perhaps more cases) it might be leadership training, or some other catalytic intervention.

We’re in danger, in the policy world, of being too clever by half. Indeed, I am growing to fear that we’ll look back on this period as “that time when we were overoptimistic about the power of our plans and technologies.”

As many of my readers and friends know, I am a firm believer that not all organizations need to exist in perpetuity. Especially in the community benefit sector, my feeling is that most organizations would do well to plan to close their doors in fifteen years from inception.

Even if you aren’t planning to close up shop, it can be very useful from a strategic perspective to think through how you might act differently if you knew you were terminating operations in, say, five years. I wrote a brief post and recorded a video about that some time ago.

From the Beldon Fund

From the Beldon Fund

Given all this, I was delighted to see come across my radar screen the story of the Beldon Fund. This is a foundation that received a significant boost in its endowment and the founder decided that it would spend out its assets completely over a ten-year period. Its goal would be to create national consensus to achieve and sustain a healthy planet.

The foundation closed its doors this month and has issued a fascinating report documenting what it learned. According to Bill Roberts, the executive director:

“Having a closing date absolutely focuses the mind. The board and staff feel a sense of urgency that’s exhilarating, and being able to go well beyond the required minimum payout for foundations is hugely positive. We’re more flexible, more nimble, more opportunistic. . . . If we try something and it doesn’t work, we have to figure out quickly how to fix it. Not having the luxury of time has largely worked in our favor.”

Of particular interest to me was the staffing and operations aspect of the spend-out. It turned out this was an opportunity to create a vibrant, entrepreneurial culture and to attract top talent.

Think about the really effective people you know. They probably don’t stay in place too long. Now, if you are managing an organization, think about what kind of people you might attract with an audacious move like this.

It may not be for everyone, but I am certain that there are more organizations that could benefit from this approach than are now taking advantage of it.

An offhand question asked by a colleague the other day got me thinking. She asked me, “In five years, what would you like to be known for?” This is a slightly different version of the standard where-do-you-want-to-be-in-five-years query.

The way it was framed drew me up short and made me think.

My immediate answer was “I would like to be known for helping people be the people they aspire to be in public life.”

The reason this got me thinking is that I am a part of the “nonprofit sector” or “philanthropic sector.” Among my colleagues, everyone is talking about change. They’ve been talking change since long before that young senator from Illinois took the reins of power.

For years now, every nonprofit organization has had to have a “theory of change ” that it could whip out and explain. Every funding request, it seems, now requires a statement of the recipient’s “theory of change.”

All this “change” business has always made me feel out of step with my nonprofit friends, but I never quite was able to put my finger on why. Now I know. I’m not too interested in change. That’s not what drives me. I’m interested in helping people.

It seems to me, surveying the field, that the clamor for “change” has pushed out an important — and, I might argue, fundamental — aspect of philanthropy. This aspect is directly related to the root of the word: love of humanity. Organizations and individual people who just want to help others tend to get set aside as funders seek more and more impact for their donated dollars.

This effect is completely understandable and I don’t indict anyone for it. Funders really do need to stretch their donations further. There really are large problems to be tackled, problems that will take change more than charity. And, many individual people do need help due to broader forces that ought to change.

But there’s also a human scale and I fear that there are too few people speaking up for it. It’s the individual person helped to find a job, or a place to live. It’s the citizen who learns she or he has a voice and can use it.

After all, “change” can come about from individual improvement just as it can come about through systemic action. My personal bias, simply because this is where I feel most comfortable, is to know that people on an individual basis can live better lives because of something I might have done.

We need both change and charity.

So, how can we keep the human scale of philanthropy and not shove it aside, even as we try harder to do more with less?

Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, recently spoke to gathered YMCA’s and gave a chilling overview of the nonprofit sector:

Early on in the crisis, we argued about whether the problem would be short- or long-term, about whether we could simply limp through to a resumption of what we’ve come to understand as normalcy. No longer. We are indisputably in the midst of profound structural shifts that will carry deep and enduring effects. There has been a fundamental breakdown in those systems that serve as the thermostat for much of our daily lives – not just in whether we can get a bank to make a loan, but also in the nature of the regulatory environment, the role of government investment, the need to manage against scarcity.

The nonprofit landscape of yesterday or today will not be the nonprofit landscape of tomorrow. Undercapitalization, chronically a problem, will become a death spiral. When revenues decline by 10 or even 20 percent, a nonprofit can put itself on a diet of discipline and flexibility and emerge at the other end with its mission pretty much intact. When demand skyrockets and revenues decline by 40 or 50 percent, however, you’re a different organization altogether.

An Honest To God Guillotine by Flickr user Augapfel

"An Honest To God Guillotine" by Flickr user Augapfel

This is the best description I have yet seen about the gravity of the new reality nonprofits face. Many nonprofits wonn’t be able to just belt-tighten their way out of it. They will have to change fundamentally or perish.

It is much like the defense industry in the earlly 1990’s, when the chief revenue source (the US government) fundamentally changed how it operated. Defense firms perished, merged, or retooled.

The good news is that, on the other side, the surviving organizations can be far more robust and effective than they were going into the crisis.

Even in good times, when I advise clients that are going through strategic planning, I tell them that no strategic plan is really complete without a “stop do” list. You really haven’t made the tough decisions unless you have included things that you are not going to do anymore.

But at times like this, when we’re in the “death spiral” that Rapson describes, it’s even more important. Organizations simply cannot afford to expend extraneous energy.

Here’s one way to think about it. Start with those things that only your organization can or is willing to do. Put everything else on the chopping block.

Here is how Rapson describes the questions that Kresge is facing:

Foundations . . . also need to ask themselves where their uniquely flexible resources can make the greatest difference. Is it in investing organization-by-organization in those elements of the safety net infrastructure that touch people directly? Or is it in putting money into efforts to change systems that bear so heavily on people’s life opportunities?

The answer to this question will drive very different day-to-day responses. Nonprofits can ask similar questions of themselves. Indeed, they must.

So what’s on your “stop do” list? What can your organization uniquely do?

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.