Best practices for social change and environmental action

Archive for the ‘Advocacy’ Category

Mission statement haiku

In Communication, Nonprofit management on June 22, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Considering the amount of time, thought, and debate  that go into most mission statements, one would think that the results would always be elegant and compelling. Yet, most mission statements still manage to be both over-wrought and irrelevant.  That’s why the great ones stand out for their simplicity, clarity, and meaning. Every word has a purpose, and there is a sense of wholeness throughout.

Writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Christopher Finney of The Nature Conservancy likens the best mission statements to the poetry of Haiku.  He notes that, while not necessarily limited to the classic 17-syllable structure of Haiku, an effective statement can andshould convey the essence of the organization’s work with no extraneous words.

As a proponent of “small words, big ideas” in all communication, I think it makes sense.

Not surprisingly the article is short and to the point. You can read it here.

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Social sector branding is about mission … not money

In Best practice, Communication, Marketing, Nonprofit management on June 22, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Among business concepts, the idea of “branding” must surely be the most overused and misunderstood.  Interpretations range from simplistic matters of graphic design to highly nuanced, multifaceted strategic plans.

In the private and corporate sectors, branding is an essential element of marketing and, as such, naturally focused on the for-profit bottom line: making money… and jobs.

Branding is a bottom line issue in the social sector as well. The trouble is that far too many nonprofits and NGOs get confused when they too focus it on money  –  through fundraising and development – while ignoring its importance to the true bottom line: mission and impact.

Considering the current fiscal challenges of the social sector, this should not be too surprising. After all, it’s difficult to achieve much of an impact, or even remain viable, without adequate funding. But the danger is that a narrow branding emphasis on fundraising can lead to a perception that the organization has really become just about the money and has lost its sense of mission.  That perception may not be fair but it is becoming more common.

The irony, of course, is that applying professional-caliber branding to the organization’s operations , methods, and outcomes is probably the most effective way to raise money.  It’s more challenging, and it takes a lot more work,  but it is the best way to illustrate organizational effectiveness.

Nathalie Kylander and Christopher Stone of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government  have explored this dynamic in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  Their article, The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector offers a provocative framework for bringing the benefits of good branding to good work.

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Shedding light on why the Web went dark

In Advocacy, Best practice, Communication, Methods, Online, Policy, Politics, Public Opinion, Tools on January 19, 2012 at 5:14 pm



Wondering what drove all those popular websites such as WikipediaInternet ArchiveReddit, and Boing Boing to “go dark” recently?  I didn’t really get it myself until I watched this presentation.

Leave it to Kahn Academy to figure out a clear, straightforward way to explain the near-unexplainable…in this case the cryptic sub-textual issues fueling the current brouhaha over the Stop Online Piracy Act – affectionately known as SOPA.  The simple hand-drawn animation elegantly amplifies the key points made by the narrator in a way that enables the audience to understand them without getting mired in sideshow minutiae and demagoguery.

All I can say is that we need a lot more of this clarity where the social sector meets public policy.  The Web seems to be the ideal venue for it.

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Enough stories, already!

In Best practice, Communication, Culture, Nonprofit management on January 11, 2012 at 10:30 pm


It seems that nearly everyone is big on storytelling.

Organizations cultivate stories for communication and outreach, marketers use them to build business and relationships, and the rest of us … we just like stories because they help us understand each other and the world around us.  Moreover, we all know that there’s nothing new here; we’ve been telling stories since the dawn of civilization.

Could there be a problem with all this storytelling here in the 21st Century?  Economist Tyler Cowen thinks so, and he makes a compelling case.  Professor Cowen is the Holbert C. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University and is co-author of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution.

He gave an overview of the concept at a TedX Mid-Atlantic conference a few years ago. The talk is  getting some renewed attention these days, perhaps because “storytelling “ has morphed from its quiet folk roots into something close to a cliché.

Cowen’s main contentions – articulated in the above video – certainly provide fodder for discussion, debate, and even a few laughs at ourselves.

  • Storytelling in our culture tends to portray the world in simplistic ways that don’t match the complexities we face.  “Every time time you tell a story of good vs. evil, your IQ drops,” Cowen half-jokes.
  • Most of the stories we remember end up serving dual and conflicting functions. They need to be simple to stick, and as a result they reinforce our biases.
  • Marketers and politicians don’t always send us the right stories. They manipulate us…even when we are aware that they are doing so.

Cowen posits that our present fascination with stories makes us predictably irrational and leads to bad decisions.  His antidote? Don’t always trust the stories you hear, get comfortable with the messy nature of life, and be more agnostic … about everything.

Treat yourself to the video of his lecture. You might even confirm your own suspicions about all this story stuff.

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Think like a designer

In Best practice, Communication, Design, Methods, Resources, Social enterprise, Tools on December 22, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Can the same kind of thinking that conjured up the first laptop computer, Oral-B toothbrushes, and Steelcase chairs work in the social sectors? Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review,  two experts suggest that it most certainly can.

Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt of the consulting firm Ideo posit that the way is through the emerging practice of design thinking.  They should know; Ideo is renowned for the application of such thinking to things as diverse as utility bicycles and pharmaceutical innovation processes.  Moreover, the consultancy now puts design thinking to work on some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems.

The three step process they describe is deceptively simple: inspiration, ideation, implementation.  The catch is that it all demands new approaches, real-world insight, and a much wider frame of reference. None of it is easy to come by.

Design Thinking for Social Innovation is available online for free at the publication web site.

It validates the common wisdom that real impact now demands systemic solutions rooted in the real world of daily lives.

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The usual suspects of bad web design

In Best practice, Communication, Design, Online on December 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Bad design seems to spring eternal on the net. Despite years of simple, clear advice from the pros, hilariously horrible websites still pop up like weeds.  Sadly, many of them belong to nonprofits.

I was reminded of this the other day when PC World ran yet another installment of its perennially popular coverage of the subject – The Worst Web Design Mistakes, and How to Prevent Them.

You can read it for yourself of course, but here’s the lineup of usual suspects.

  •  All-flash websites –  We’ve all encountered them, and we all know why we hate them.
  • All- flash websites, amateurishly done  – The quickest way to turn a website that’s merely ugly and annoying …into something utterly intolerable.
  • Low-contrast text, visually chaotic background – Good luck getting beyond the first paragraph.
  • Ugly, mismatched colors – Creative expression for the tasteless and the color blind.
  • Dysfunctional fonts – The worst offending sites might use several at once.  Some fonts even have their own websites … dedicated to their obliteration.
  • Layouts that don’t travel – What might work in one browser might not look so hot in another. This is why we have standards.
  • Horizontal scrolling pages – Annoying enough to make many visitors just click up and leave. Fit everything on the screen or else.
  • Animated GIF assault  – I happen to think even one is too many for most websites. Several or more make a page seem like an arcade game.
  • Social widget overload – There might be such a thing as looking too connected. Just pick a few of the most important social network connections and go with that.
  • Too busy to be serious – When the widgets, ads, and general clutter overwhelm the main subject, the page has lost its reason to be.  Stick to the point.
  • Updates that apologize for the lack of updates – Gee, maybe the time would have been better spent coming up with new content… rather than producing a long online excuse for its absence.
  • Seizure inducers – You know these websites when you experience them.  Flashing lights, flying animals, strange symbols, cryptic scrolling text … all of it often set against a flowing neon rainbow background … or some such hideous framework. Then there’s the insipid electronic “tune” looping endlessly away in accompaniment.  Some sites do it all.  Have the aspirin ready.

On the internet, everyone can be a “publisher.”  That doesn’t mean that everyone should. There’s a good reason why professional web designers are still in demand.

From the look of things, that’s not going to change anytime soon.


Can “solution journalism” save the news?

In Communication, Media on August 10, 2011 at 1:25 am


The quiet rise of solution journalism calls to mind Mark Twain’s famous aphorism:  “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

Consider the usual “distressing news of the week.” The media presents it, often in fine, professional detail several days in a row…and then moves on to cover the next disaster, scandal, or national disgrace.  In moments of self-reflection, editors will bemoan all the misery, failure, and mayhem but – let’s face it – that’s what keeps them in business.  In compensation, audiences also get treated regularly to the random puffery everyone likes to ridicule.

We all know that this is no way to run the news business, even if the industry seems on the brink of disappearing. But at least it’s been selling subscriptions and ads to keep the lights on.

Now, however, there’s a nascent movement toward something a little more substantive and, perhaps, a little more meaningful.  It’s based on the premise that coverage of events and issues should indeed depict developments with all of the ugly details if necessary…but that coverage can also contain the seeds of possible responses, answers…and fixes.   Logically, its called solution journalism.

The move toward this new model of journalism is especially welcome in an age of 24/7 news cycles, competing information streams, and disinformation pandering to audience biases.  Even so, it will not likely catch on overnight. Irrelevant journalistic traditions, outdated practices, and old-fashioned resistance-to-change will surely hinder its adoption.

Yet, if there is any sense left among the news media, the practice of solution journalism should reach its full measure much sooner than later.  (Maybe then we won’t have to endure all that sappy soft news they feel compelled to foist on us out of guilt.)

To learn more about solution journalism, check out one of its major proponents:  Dowser.

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It’s about impact…not output!

In Best practice, Communication, Fund raising, Grant writing, Nonprofit funding, Nonprofit management, Online, Resources, Tools on June 14, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Talking about impact – real impact – seldom comes easy for an issues-oriented organization.

It’s one thing to describe programs, services, and activities that depict output.  It’s quite another to frame results in a way that shows how it all solves problems out there in the real world. Yet, that is what funders and supporters want to know. Increasingly, they need to know it before making a commitment.  The problem is that many nonprofits and NGOs don’t even understand it themselves.

This is a common enough situation that several organizations serving the nonprofit sector have done something about it.  The result of their collaboration recently went online with Charting Impact–  a new web-based tool that helps nonprofits, NGOs, and social enterprises think strategically about what they are trying to achieve and how they go about it.

Developed with input from nearly 200 organizations, Charting Impact applies a proven framework predicated on five deceptively simple questions.

  1. What is your organization aiming to accomplish?
  2. What are your strategies for making this happen?
  3. What are your organization’s capabilities for doing this?
  4. How will your organization know if you are making progress?
  5. What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?
Some organizations might not be able to answer those questions quickly, but if they take the time – and effort – to work through the framework they will be rewarded with a crisp, detailed report that funders will appreciate.   Well worth the trouble…and well done by the creators – BBB Wise Giving AllianceGuideStar USA and Independent Sector.
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