Best practices for social change and environmental action

Archive for the ‘Nonprofit management’ Category

Getting the board to talk math

In Finance, Fund raising, Money management, Nonprofit management on June 25, 2012 at 6:37 pm

It’s a rare board member who can really get into a nonprofit’s operating numbers. Yet, every board has to know where the money comes from…and how it’s used.  Moreover,  it’s essential that the board understand – at strategic, tactical, and priority levels – what the organization needs to meet its goals and live up to its mission.

The trouble, of course, is that such discussions can devolve into dreary dog and pony shows.  How much more effective would it all be if you could flip the model to get the board talking, taking notes, and running some numbers themselves?

Fund raising guru Gail Perry, author of Fired Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action and the excellent Fired-Up Fundraising blog has some good thoughts on that.  It essentially comes down to asking three questions:

  • Where does our money go?
  • Why does it cost so much?
  • What do we need to invest right now?

She gives some excellent real life examples in her article over at the Guidestar site: What’s the Math? Three Questions Your Board Members Really Need to Know. (The article is reprinted from the blog.)

It seems so simple…at first…but it really made me think.

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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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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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Curing “shoot-in-the-foot” syndrome

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

Download event summary

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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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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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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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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Three cups of trouble

In Best practice, Communication, Media, Nonprofit management on April 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Crisis communication is a staple of corporate management, especially for organizations with diverse stakeholders. Unfortunately, the same does not hold true in the nonprofit and NGO worlds, where leaders often assume that good will and good intentions can help them rise above the fray.

Greg Mortensen, author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea and co-founder of the Central Asia Institute can probably tell you why such thinking is dangerous. He’s learning first hand.

Greg has been much in the news this week…for all the wrong reasons. First there was the recent investigative report on 60 Minutes alleging fabrications in his popular book and mismanagement in his charity, all amplified by testimony from some people who seem credible. Then came the story syndicated by the Associated Press and a follow-up report by the New York Times. None of it looks good for Greg and his organization.

There may be no legitimacy to the allegations (and like many people, I hope there is not.) Perhaps Greg is true to his claims that he is not always great with details and money. The facts may well bear out his side of the story in the end, but the hard truth is that neither he nor his organization have handled this crisis effectively.

For starters:

  • Even though they knew of the CBS investigation, they simply did not “get out in front of the story.” They seem completely – and inexplicably – caught off guard by it.
  • They tried to ditch the media when it did finally show up at a book signing. The CBS cameras rolled anyway, and the world was treated to the spectacle of Greg dodging questions, dashing from the room, and not following up later as promised. A much-admired philanthropist inadvertently made himself look uncharacteristically suspicious. Greg certainly didn’t deserve that, but given the modern rules of media engagement, he sort of asked for it.
  • The lack of specific answers made Greg look like he was fudging the facts…which the public eye often perceives as “hiding something.”

It’s not a pretty scene. Moreover, it highlights the need for a charity to avoid the “cult of personality” by which the fortunes of the organization are reliant on the reputation of a single individual.

The moral for nonprofit leaders: educate thyself and thy staff on the basics of crisis management and communication. Here are a few places to start.

Strategic Communications for Nonprofit Organizations: Seven Steps to Creating a Successful Plan – An outstanding workbook-style text used in graduate nonprofit management courses.

Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable  – A classic in the field – updated and as relevant as ever.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) – The field’s premier organization and an excellent source of expertise and professional development programs. There’s an active group devoted to the issues of non-profit management.

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