(Nonprofits+Politics)2.0

January 5, 2011

Thinking About Nonprofit Buzzwords & Priorities

Filed under: Nonprofit — Tags: , , , , , , , — kgilnack @ 1:40 pm

Another decade comes and goes (or did it end in 2009?), and with it, a slew of nonprofit buzzwords.  I strongly encourage you to take a look at Lucy Bernholz’s insightful post on the Chronicle of Philanthropy about how Philanthropy’s 10 Favorite Buzzwords of the Decade Show How Nonprofits Are Changing.

Lucy is spot on in pointing out the trend of how nonprofits have sought market-based solutions and new funding streams, largely as government and other traditional sources of revenue constricted during the recession.  But as I think back on the previous decade, I feel as though there was a significant shift in from pre-recession buzz to the point we’re at today.

Before the recession, the sector at all levels seemed to be focused on addressing the generation gap and I hope and expect that issue to move back into the forefront of conversation as we continue climbing out of this recession, funding & staffing stabilize, 401k’s bounce back, and more boomers get ready to retire.  Don’t get me wrong, many smart and talented millennial have continued the conversation – see http://nonprofitmillennials.org – but it’s time for the trades, major nonprofit publications, and execs to put “succession planning” “generation gap” “mentoring” “leadership development” back on the forefront of the conversation.

While discussion around nonprofit funding models is nothing new, drastic cuts to state and federal grants and contracts and lower giving from foundations and private donors created new urgency on this issue as we saw the emergence of research, writing, and experimentation around  “innovation” “collaboration” “social enterprise” and many of the buzzwords that Lucy points out.  I sincerely hope that  discussion and action in this area will continue even after dire economic times subside as these have the potential to transform and stabilize the important work of our sector.

Buzzwords may come and go, but I do hope our sector exercises its great ability to multi-task by focusing on these two areas to ensure that nonprofits have the strong leadership and sustainable funding they need to continue serving our communities – as well as continuing to look ahead strategically for the next buzzwords that can strengthen our work.

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September 16, 2009

More Reasons Seth Godin is Wrong

I recently read a great post on Cause  Wired Communications blog on why Seth Godin is wrong about nonprofits and social media, and wanted to add a few of my own thoughts..

First of all, the post is right on that Seth’s post perpetuates misconceptions of our sector and that the metrics of being on the Top 100 Twitterers, getting Digged a lot, and other comparisons to VC tech firms is ridiculous.  However, there is an even greater factual inaccuracy in the assertion Seth makes, purely on his observations.

I could get into how funders don’t want to put money into innovation, capacity building, or marketing – that they want every dime going to the services nonprofits provide their clients, and how that is a barrier to trying out new technologies.  There are also other potential barriers like confidentiality, limited resources in general, overall lack of technology infrastructure, etc.

BUT there’s no need.  The whole premise of Godin’s article is wrong, so that’s where I’ll start.

Godin inaccurately asserts

“The problem facing your group [nonprofits], ironically, is the resistance to the very thing you are setting out to do. Non-profits, in my experience, abhor change. … Where are the big charities, the urgent charities, the famous charities that face such timely needs and are in a hurry to make change? Very few of them have bothered to show up [in social media] in a big way

However, the Society for New Communications Research recently determined that nonprofits are leading the way in social media! For example, “their latest research shows the Fortune 500 with the least amount of corporate blogs (16%), the Inc. 500 with 39%, colleges and universities blogging at 41%, and charities now reporting 57% with blogs.

Here are some other great stats highlighted on SNCR’s blog:

• In 2007, 75 percent of the respondents reported using at least one form of social media. One year later, 89 percent of these organizations are using at least one form of social media. Usage increased for every tool studied.
• Social networking and video blogging are now the most common tools used, with 79% of charities using each of them. Use of online video increased by 38 percent; social networking increased by 47 percent in the one-year period studied.
• In addition, the charities reported that they have begun to use Twitter.
• When asked if they felt their blogs were successful, approximately 90% of charities with blogs said yes. This finding is consistent with studies in business and academia that have consistently shown those using social media are satisfied and feel it provides positive results.
• Sixty-six percent of respondents in 2007 and 75% in 2008 report they monitor the Internet for buzz, posts, conversations and news about their institution. This compares with 54 percent of colleges and universities and 60 percent of the Inc. 500.
• More than 80 percent of those studied feel that social media is at least “somewhat important” to their future strategy; 45 percent responded that social media is very important to their fundraising strategy.

Unless his experience has been living under a rock, Seth seems to have missed the fact that nonprofits are the changemakers in our community.  Nonprofits find solutions for problems other sectors don’t even see like developing funding solutions, driving innovation, bringing vulnerable people out of institutions and into our community, addressing mental and physical challenges that require more than doling out pills, and, yes, taking advantage of new tools like social media. (pardon the random assortment of innovative changes recent and 40 years ago – there are lots in between but I’m writing this response on my lunch, so you’ll have to add to the list in comments below).

I appreciate a good call to action and do think there is more that non-profit and for-profit sectors can do to take advantage of new tools and embrace innovation.  But perhaps before making sweeping generalizations it would be useful to do a little research and look beyond your marketing/VC lens for viewing the world, and seek out some facts.

This critique of nonprofits’ use of the social web are particularly appropriate form someone who himself is antisocial on the web, refusing to tweet or even allow readers to comment on his blog.  Seth, why aren’t you among the top 100 Twitterers out there?

What do you think?  Is your nonprofit embracing web2.0?  What resistance have you found?  How have you overcome it?

PS: I do agree that naming yourself based on what you are not is not particularly effective, but the IRS classification (nonprofit) is still more appealing than the connotations conjured by the word charity.  Perhaps one day we’ll see a rebranding exercise to go for something like “community benefit organization,” but for now we’re busy meeting the needs of our constituents.. and staying ahead of your for-profit folks on this social media stuff 🙂

PPS: Seth, I do allow comments here and enjoy observing and engaging in dialogue.  I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

July 14, 2009

Twinnovation & Nonprofits: Open Beats Closed

Rule #2 of Umaire Haque’s list of Twitter’s 10 Rules for Radical Innovation is open beats closed.  Haque finds this in Twitter’s dynamic of allowing anyone to connect to and receive content from anyone.  And similarly, they put this principal to work in communication about problems.. and even admitting mistakes.  You can also follow the founders: Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone, and 3rd party partners can have open communication and troubleshooting through Twitter Development Talk.

There is a lot to be said for how principals of transparency might be applied to innovation and your organization’s business, program, and other practices.  And hopefully in the coming days this will be replaced with a link to that post, but until then I want to hone in on how we can use Twitter in particular to open up our doors from a communications and marketing perspective..

Nonprofits seem to get thee types of coverage (IMHO) in major news outlets: lack of funding and hard times (especially this year); feel good stories mostly from large mainstream, brand-name nonprofits; and corruption, mismanagement, or otherwise negative press.  In our newsletters and emails we highlight some of our successes – usually in articles longer than anyone is actually going to read (by the way, newsletters might or might not be an waste of time, but just in case, here are some great tips for improving yours).  But social media and Twitter in particular provide us with a new, instant, conscise way to deliver a message to our stakeholders, in a cheaper and potentially more effective way than our more traditional tools (depending on your goals).

How much are you really letting your funders and the public see of your day-to-day operations, your day-to-day successes? I found it incredibly interesting to read that a small sample done by NonprofitSOS’s look at how nonprofit organizations use Twitter found that

Some nonprofit organizations do not include much about their programming in their tweets. They will tweet requests for volunteers, requests for donations, links to studies or articles, but rarely will you see a tweet that gives you insight into what exactly that organization is doing.

For a human service agency, this could mean:

  • sharing the progress of an anonymous client to show the real world outcomes of community-based care
  • talking (deliberately and conscientiously) about tough choices that are being made and how they are putting the patient first
  • evaluation and accreditation survey results
  • event planning updates (also good for generating some buzz before a big fundraiser)
  • adding any bit of insight and humanity to an organization, whether it be through accounts reflecting the experience of a CEO or a direct care professional – and/or any and all in between that you feel is valuable

To start living up to my claim that we’ll look at politics (and I promise we will more in future posts), I’d also suggest campaigns think about tweeting their

  • canvassing stats
  • highlights of conversation at the doors
  • play-by-plays of key speeches and events
  • what you can about staff meetings and internal plans
  • and again: share something from behind the scenese to put a human face on how your spending people’s money, why, and what the results are.

All that being said, before I launch into some of the ways that this can apply to our mission-driven work, there is one disclaimer I should make.  You won’t see any communication coming out of Twitter until they have a handle on the issue.  You can read people, until they block you for being intrusive, spammy, they just prefer to keep a closed network, or for any other reason or lack thereof.  People can follow you.. and defollow you.  This is all by way of saying that just because Twitter provides access to instant communication, doesn’t mean it should always be used instantly.

Follow your crisis communication plan when something goes wrong, but also remember to include Twitter in your crisis communication plan if appropriate.  Let people into the inner-workings of your agency, but do so strategically.  First, make sure you’ve developed a social media strategy and if appropriate, develop and implement an internal social media policy that will allow you to advance your mission, breakdown barriers between you and your stakeholders, and ensure that you’re using this technology thoughtfully and strategically.

Also, this post by no means indicates that this is ALL organizations should tweet about – petitions, pleas for volunteers, organizing, mobilizing, dialoguing are all useful, but let’s change the trend that NonprofitSOS saw in the lack of insight being shared around how we advance our mission.

Is your organization tweeting about how it is advancing its goal on a daily basis?

What anecdotes, statistics, and other information have you found your followers interested in?

June 17, 2009

Ranting on Nonprofit Media Coverage

Filed under: Nonprofit, Technology — Tags: , , , , — kgilnack @ 2:31 am

Before I could recap some of the great lessons that we could learn from the innovation that nonprofits are doing in Elkhart, Ind. there were a few things I had to rant about in article, and coverage in general when it comes to our sector.  I share these rants with you and am very interested in your take on them…

<rant1>

Nonprofits learn to stretch a buck?  We are the sector that has been caring for vulnerable members of our community, educating our children, instilling our values, creating positive change, and otherwise strenthing our communities – always on a shoestring.

The shoestring has gotten shorter and feels like it might be a lot closer to tearing now, but our history is built on stretching a buck.  So, MSNBC, please don’t overlook that history or perpetuate the misconception that we don’t already know how to spend wisely or do more with less.

</rant1>

<rant2>

Throughout the history of mankind societies have recognized the need for organizations that serve a public good and play a role that neither government nor business can (check out pg. 8 of this Introduction to the Law
of Tax-Exempt Healthcare Organizations
for a great history of nonprofits in the United States) . According to that chapter the American nonprofit sector goes back to the colonies starting with religious institutions.  This third of our economy has been along as our country has.

While it might be the smallest third, the sector employs 11% of America’s workforce and contributes $322 billion in payroll wages.  Interconnected with government and business, the third sector isn’t just vital to our communities for the public benefit they provide, it’s vital to our economy.  For some local flavor, see on how nonprofit human service providers contribute to the Massachusetts economy.

I shouldn’t be surprised or excited to see major news networks covering the sector – I should be used to it.  Much of the public’s lack of understanding for nonprofits stems from the fact that in between new, business, style, and other sections of the media, there is a lack of attention to this economic engine.

So, MSNBC, kudos on this piece, it’s full of interesting information. But, let’s step it up a bit.  I guarantee we’ll have newsworthy industry information tomorrow and the day after that as well if you’re interested.

</rant2>

Do you feel like you learn enough about the nonprofit sector from major media?  How is your organization’s relationship with the media?

Also, for any Massachusetts-based nonprofits, it would be a disservice to you and me if I didn’t shamelessly plug our Two Penny Project, which can help you develop strategies for delivering your message to the media and elected officials.  Download the Two Penny Maual for some great tips on framing if you’re interested.

Examples of Innovation: Fundraising, Service Delivery, & Community Outreach

I had planned to write about what Rule 2 – open beats closed – of Twitter’s Ten Rules for Radical Innovators can mean for nonprofit innovators.  But, there were a few great pieces on nonprofit innovation in news lately that had me thinking about the way I think about innovation, and provide great examples for us to learn from.

Working in an association of nonprofit human service agencies I participate in a lot of discussions about how our sector can innovate, and how we can support it.  Lately we’ve been talking a lot about diversifying revenues, social enterprises, and other ways to innovate business practices.

And, in a way, associations have been helping industries in America innovate since they were recognized in federal tax law 1913.  For the last 33 years, for example, the Providers’ Council has used economies of scale to negotiate more competitive Dental and other Insurance coverages for our members, and we now have 8 partners that help nonprofits save money.

However, it’s important for nonprofit leaders to remember that there are many other, though perhaps more discrete, ways to innovate in your organization.

I first started thinking about this as I was reading MSNBC’s coverage of the pain that the nonprofit sector is in – and trends on how we’re facing it, which I should thank Amy Neumann (someone I’m glad to be following) for sharing.  Using Elkhart, Ind. as a case-study are experiencing, including the Elkhart County United WayElkhart County Salvation ArmyBig Brothers Big Sisters of Elkhart CountyChurch Without WallsChurch Community Services, and YWCA of Elkhart County.

After reading their thorough, excellent summary of the issues that many communities face – reduced giving for a variety of reasons and through a variety of sources + increased demand – I was expecting to read about how nonprofits were launching social enterprises; finding cheaper, greener energy; and otherwise innovating their revenue streams.

What I found was innovation in fundraising that reminded me to look beyond my preconceived notions of innovation.  So often we start thinking about our area of focus, our silo, our project at hand, and we might not think about areas on the opposite side of the organization that we can transform.  Whether it’s saving money, raising money, delivering services, advocating change, or any of the countless other aspects of an organization, there may be an opportunity to increase efficiency, efficacy, or other enhancement.

Here’s one great example that incorporates partnerships with businesses, technology, and a new look at how fundraisers can be held – virtually:

The [Elkhart County Salvation Army] staff also dreamed up a new fundraising plan: The “No Bells” auction launched in mid-May lists several hundred items online, everything from pizzas and autographed baseballs to cars and teeth-whitening service. The idea is to drum up cash through the auction for the Salvation Army while also creating some foot traffic for struggling local businesses.

Another mission-driven new initiative I want to mention from this article was led by the Elkhart County United Way who, with “less cash to disburse … parlayed its considerable clout into a new role — as coordinator of the county’s biggest food drive to date.”  They created a true community collaboration by leading

an effort to connect six local pantries to form a county-wide food network — both  United Way members and non-members. The organization enrolled the local newspaper to distribute the food donation bags, implored local sports teams and congregations to provide volunteers and called together church leaders from all over the county to get behind the food drive.

This is a very inspiring example of how a community can band together to ensure the most vulnerable among them don’t go hungry.  It also shows how an organization can stay dynamic and respond to circumstances; the United Way recognized a new opportunity to help lead the nonprofit community and seized it.

Serendipitously, almost immediately after finishing this article, I caught a recap on the great action that the United Way Mass Bay & Merrimack Valley held.  Meghan Keaney (@MeghKeaney, Director of Communications at the United Way), other staff, and many, many community members held a flash mob at South Station to “awareness of a very real problem tied to the recession we’re suffering through — a falloff in charitable giving.” (here’s more info if you’re curious)

This is a fantastic example of an organization leveraging social media and a new type of action to generate community and media awareness for their cause.  Be sure you check out the video clips from the WBZ story.

Each of these examples reflect organizations that recognized the innovation imperative created by our current challenging economic times and applied them to various areas of their organization – from fundraising, service delivery, to community outreach. Two prevailing themes seem to include leveraging technology such as social media and online auctioning and creating meaningful collaborations and partnership.  One constant is thinking differently and trying new things.

Just remember to stay innovative – even as you innovate.  There are a lot of moving parts in every organization and lots of areas to miss opportunities to do something different.  If you notice that you’re focused on innovating one process, program, or aspect of your organization, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself, or others around you: what else can we do differently? what haven’t we thought about yet?

Also, remember that while innovation starts from the top, there are many talented employees in your organization who may have unique insights into opportunities for improvement in their area of the organization.  Be sure to leverage that knowledge to make sure you’re not missing opportunities and empower others to think innovatively.

So what new strategies and tactics is your organization taking on? Whether in business practices, communications, fundraising, service delivery, or something else – I’d love to hear about the great examples you’d like to share.

June 8, 2009

Applying Rule 1 of Twitter’s Ten Rules For Radical [NONPROFIT] Innovators: Always stay Focused on Your Mission – Part 2: Communication & Evaluation

Beyond social innovation, Haque’s rule #1 “Ideals beat strategies” of Twitter’s Ten Rules For Radical Innovators reminded me of the classic fundraising conundrum that donors want to support mission, not overhead.  There is much our sector must do moving forward to ensure that the public understands that “everyone—donors, nonprofits and beneficiaries—loses when there’s an overemphasis on lean overhead.”  

One big step in the right direction was the inclusion of the Baucus-Grassley Nonprofit Capacity Building Amendment in the recently codified Serve America Act.  According to the National Council, this amendment “will cover the cost of organizational development assistance to small and mid-size nonprofit organizations” – a deeply under-supported area for our sector.  Many thanks are due to National Council of Nonprofitstheir members, and many other individuals and organizations committed to advancing nonprofit excellence for ensuring this became federal law.

Until our grantmakers, individual donors, state funders, and other revenue sources understand the need for overhead to advance mission, it is incumbent on our sector to simultaneously

  • communicate the importance of organizational effectiveness and the need for back-office operations
  • evaluate and communicate the effectiveness of our programs in advancing our missions 

Our organizations were founded based on ideals and while funding for capacity building is important, nonprofits should also see this as an obvious reminder that you should talk to your funders about the things they care about and ensure your fundraising efforts reflect your cause and what opportunities exist to advnace it.

While that’s an old idea, there are still plenty of new ways to demonstrate your values (and how contributions to your organization are advancing the) – especially with the constant evolution of technology.

Here are some questions for you to think about at your organization…

Does your website just link to a PDF of your Annual Report for donors to learn about your impact, or…

  • Do you have pictures or videos that show donors how their contributions help?  
  • Perhaps even a blog or Twitter feed from with content from the people you serve?
  • At least staff or an organizational presence that allows donors, clients/consumers, media, and public in general to interact with your organization an hear about how you’re advancing your ideals

Do you invite your donors to get involved beyond check-writing  so they can see first-hand what you’re doing?

Are there technologies that your organization could use to increase efficiency and reduce costs?

Are you using the same evaluation systems that you used twenty years ago?  

Do your evaluations include real world outcomes (ex: the actual impact of your services, like a substance abuse program tracking clients’ number of days sober”), or are you just tracking how many clients you’re caring for and how much it costs?

(Be sure to check out Integrated Program Evaluation: A Three Part Vision for Better Leadership, Planning, and Effectiveness for some great ideas on how your organization can plan effective evaluations. )

Once you have some meaningful, mission-related evaluation data, are you sharing it?

How are you helping your donors see how you’re advancing your shared ideals?

Applying Rule 1 of Twitter’s Ten Rules For Radical [NONPROFIT] Innovators: Always stay Focused on Your Mission – Part 1: Thinking About Social Enterprise

Nonprofits are businesses too, and there are many great resources from the for-profit world that our sector should draw on and adapt to our sector’s unique circumstances.  The blogs of  Harvard Business Publishing are one source of insightful ideas on management, leadership, career development, and innovation that I do my best to keep up with.

I read a very interesting post by Umair Haque, Director of  Havas Media Lab on how Twitter is defining how organizations can radically innovate, and it occurs to me that this fits well with many conversations that Providers’ Council members have been having on how we can transform our sector.  Over the coming weeks I’ll be taking a closer look at how the nonprofit sector can apply Haque’s Twitter’s Ten Rules For Radical Innovators to our sector.

In this flagship post for me I hope you’ll get a sense of how we can draw on sources outside of our sector for new ideas and come away with some new insight on the importance of considering your organization’s mission in the decisions you make and the way it interacts with the public.

The message of rule #1 “Ideals beat strategies” is that part of Twitter’s success comes from pursuing “its ideals — democracy, peace, equity — with the quiet intensity of a true revolutionary” rather than focusing on profit.”

When considering this in the nonprofit sector my mind first went to a recent panel discussion and breakout session on nonprofit innovation that the Providers’ Council held at our Annual Member Meeting.  One major theme from the day’s conversations was the importance of a nonprofit’s social enterprise being able to connect with its mission.  Here’s a quick excerpt from the summary I wrote about the discussion

[Lyndia] Downie, President & CEO of the Pine Street Inn discussed two examples in particular that helped her agency save and even generate revenue, while building collaborative partnerships with other agencies.  The first example Downie shared was her agency’s decision to use the infrastructure the Inn’s kitchen already had in place to prepare meals that could be sold to smaller agencies.  Because the Inn already had the equipment, staff, and talent for  preparing 2,000 meals for their guests, this revenue generator was a natural extension of their existing mission and operations.

Interestingly,  Seven Hills Foundation President/CEO David Jordan shared that his organization makes equity investments in businesses to generate dollars that his organization can put to use in advancing its mission – serving their clients.  With all of our conversations around social enterprises needing to fit the nonprofit’s mission and/or operations, this was an interesting reminder that with the right skill sets (ex: investing), there may be other new and effective ways for diversifying nonprofit revenue streams – however incongruous with Rule #1.

Or, perhaps there’s a distinction to be made between consumer/donor-driven endeavors (enterprises, communications, and the public face of an organization) and the the potential innovation and revenue diversification that nonprofits can pursue at an investment level.

Here are two more examples of what human service providers are already doing to innovate the way they deliver care and generate revenue…

What have been your greatest lessons in nonprofit innovation?

Do you have interesting examples to share?

Is your nonprofit generating revenue in a way that also advances its ideals?

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