Best practices for social change and environmental action

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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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Curing “shoot-in-the-foot” syndrome

In Best practice, Nonprofit management, Social enterprise on December 14, 2011 at 9:50 pm

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Could the extended economic turmoil become an “inflection point” for nonprofits and NGO’s? The signs are all there: demands for accountability and transparency from funders, an abiding need for operational efficiencies,  and the difficult quest to achieve real impacts at the systemic level.

Those are tall orders for boards and management alike. Yet, if there is something good coming out of these difficult times it’s a rising appreciation for the art and science of running a social enterprise like a true business.   The big hitch, of course, is the general indifference (or even resistance) to the tools of the trade.  Thus, there is largely lip-service for the effective development of data-driven management, human-capital reserves, and performance cultures.  Everyone talks about them, but few are willing to make the investments of time, money, and institutional equity that they need.

As a result, the roster of organizations on life support keeps growing and some important causes are falling by the wayside.  For lack of will, the nonprofit and philanthropic communities are essentially shooting themselves in the foot.

The Urban Institute recently took on this insidious dynamic by hosting a symposium called “Tough Times, Creative Measures.” The symposium featured an estimable lineup of participants to discuss the key themes in the book Leap of Reason, an acclaimed call for “managing to outcomes in an age of scarcity.”

It was a short event, but it encompassed a lot of ideas worth considering. Venture Philanthropy Partners, the book’s publisher, has teamed up with the Urban Institute to make an excellent summary available here.

It’s brief, bulleted, and on point: a good prescription for shoot-in-the-foot syndrome.

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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.


Open source impact

In Best practice, Collaboration, Methods, Nonprofit management, Social enterprise on September 28, 2011 at 2:59 am

Open source models are now commonplace in the for-profit world, most notably within the technology sector.

The thinking and the appeal are clear enough: offer an excellent product at no cost to the user, foster the development of a support community dedicated to enhancing it … and natural market dynamics will encourage its adoption and create an entirely new economic ecosystem around it.  If your computer systems run any flavor of the Linux operating system … or if you use the popular Firefox web browser … you are an open source beneficiary. If you are a software developer customizing applications for those platforms, you are doing business and making money from them.

The open source approach may not be sustainable for every form of endeavor, but it certainly seems like a natural for the nonprofit and social enterprise sectors.  For an organization focused on solving problems first and foremost, open source methods could be logical ways to accelerate solutions.

It’s a worthy possibility to consider…and the Stanford Social Innovation Review is doing just that with a series of articles from experienced practitioners in the field. The first installment — Scaling Social Impact by Giving Away Value has been written by Roshan Paul and Alexa Clay of Ashoka to give the series a thought provoking launch.

It all makes good sense to this writer, and I’m eager to see what others have to say on the subject.

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The “B Corporation” gains traction

In Best practice, Civics, Nonprofit law, Nonprofit management, Policy, Social enterprise on September 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Despite the impression given by media puff pieces, Corporate Social Responsibility is hardly a new thing. Since the industrial revolution, there have been businesses with a core sense of responsible public behavior.  Lots of large corporations and smaller ventures have put those values into practice, either in the interest of good citizenship, an abiding sense of ethics, or simple public relations.

It’s all been largely voluntary, however, and subject to the whims of senior management and governing boards.

Now there is way to integrate a social role into the structure of a business, in essence making it a formal part of the corporate charter: The B Corporation. (Benefit Corporation) 

This business model extends the concept of social enterprise into the greater for-profit sector. By achieving certified “B Corporation” status, a business commits to using the power of free enterprise to solve social and environmental problems.

Unlike the majority of social enterprises, B Corps are not neccessarily in business to address specific problems in the public interest (although the model does make good sense for a nonprofit or social enterprise.)  Instead, the B Corp certification is for any business — regardless of the products it makes or the services it provides.  It is a new way of addressing impacts and ethics in a world of constrained resources, changing climate, and humanitarian mandates.

That’s quite the challenge in this day and age, so it’s logical that certification is much more than just making a paper committment. To distinguish itself as a B Corporaton, a business must put formal programs in place to meet comprehensive – and transparent  – social and environmental performance standards and implement legal accountability practices for those standards.  Moroever, the business must strive for a like-minded consituency across its supply chain, partnerships…and even its customer base.

A tall order, indeed.

In the US, the B Corporation designation is implemented at the state level.  So far only Maryland, Vermont, New Jersey, Virginia and Hawaii have passed legislation for it, but a number of other states have proposals on the table.

There’s a lot happening on this front. To learn about it, check out the B Corp website. 

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A week for water…a model for global conferences

In Best practice, Conferences, Environment, Growth and Development, Policy, Sustainability, Water on August 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm

World Water Week (WWW) is underway in Stockholm.

On the world affairs calendar, there are few events with the rare combination of gravitas, content, and social charm offered by this annual happening in Sweden’s beautiful capitol city.

Full disclosure: A few years ago, I was part of SIWI, the organizer of WWW, and I can tell you that much of the organization spends a good part of the year making sure that the week is filled with high caliber programming, meaningful discussion, and continual opportunities for networking that are as enjoyable as they are rewarding.  SIWI has been staging this amazing event for many years now, and their experience shows in the attention to detail and finely tuned cultural nuances.

In the spirit of imitation as the best form of flattery, it’s not surprising that the organizers of certain other conferences have taken some cues from World Water Week.  Indeed, there are facets of the event that really are models of excellence.  Here are three that come to mind as the week kicks off:

A diverse global audienceThe movers and shakers of the water and international development sectors have made World Water Week a priority on their annual calendars. This is not incidental; SIWI has carefully cultivated the event as the time and place to meet, talk, and get things moving. Attendees come from government ministries in developing countries, global NGOs, research institutes, advocacy organizations, corporations, national funding agencies, and the full gamut of United Nations leadership.It’s a blue-chip crowd.

State-of-the-art media resources.  When I first came on board at SIWI, I was impressed by the diligence given to the needs of journalists covering water issues.  From satellite feeds to personalized scheduling of interviews with prominent participants, SIWI literally works overtime to make sure that the media can cover things effectively (often way overtime, as my former colleagues can attest.)  The piece-de-resistance is the World Water Week press kit, which actually serves as a year-round reference for the field.  Moreover, each year, the kit just gets better and more sophisticated: Check it out.

A great agenda.  This is a conference that sheds light and understanding on every important facet of a very complicated field. That’s not unusual; a lot of events strive to cover everything in their respective domains. What distinguishes World Water Week is the panache with which this all happens. For example, while most conferences feature recognition of some sort…World Water Week features three professionally judged award programs with international standing: The Stockholm Water Prize, The Stockholm Industry Water Award, and – my sentimental favorite – The Stockholm Junior Water Prize.  The ceremony for the Stockholm Water Prize is really something to behold; a black-tie affair in the renowned Stadhuset – just like the Nobel prize ceremony – with the award bestowed by its patron,  H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.  Très elegant!

There’s more to World Water Week, of course. I’ll cover different facets over the coming weeks.

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Leap of Reason

In Best practice, Books, Fund raising, Grant writing, Methods, Nonprofit management, Resources, Tools on June 23, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Business books come at us a dime-a-dozen across the channels of the information age. Many, if not most, offer advice and “insights” that hardly make them worth the trouble to read, never mind the cost of purchase.  Yet, every now and then, something towers above the noise with uncommon wisdom, clarity, and sheer relevance. The justifiably-renowned From Good to Great is such a read – made even more useful for nonprofit and NGO leaders with the followup publication of a monograph for the social services sector. My advice on those is simple: read them, and read them again — taking notes.

Now comes along Leap of Reason, a compendium of essays and tools focused on the theme of Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity.  The project is a collaboration between Venture Philanthropy Partners and McKinsey & Company, who have worked together across the global nonprofit sector for years.  They’ve recruited an array of authors to lend their practical experience and know-how along with frameworks for addressing some well-known challenges out here in the real world.

There’s no need to go into the details here, other than to note that the publishers and writers are quite serious about getting this excellent resource in the hands of as many nonprofits as possible. In addition to making the hardcopy available through Amazon for a small handling and shipping fee, and a Kindle version with just a handling charge, the entire book is online for free in an iBook version or PDF.

Judging by a quick read, I’d say this one is definitely worth the time…and some discussion.

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