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Archive for February, 2010

Getting Past the Annoying and On to the Work

Oh My God. What is more annoying than a board meeting when a member, with all good intentions, wants the group to consider this fabulous new idea that’ll raise lots of money that no one ever heard of before? Or the person with the idea that they learned from another nonprofit that’s so sweet, it’s raising thousands of dollars and all we need to do is hire this event company to stage this great thing? That everyone else is doing and killing? Hello! Maybe the market is super-saturated with this event (a walk in the spring, an auction in the fall, a donate-your-car deal).
If the same person is continuously bringing the flavor-of-the-month event to the table for all to ooh and ah over, can we channel some of that energy constructively in an activity the board has already agreed it wants to do?
Don’t get me wrong.
Sometimes, Mr or Ms Energizer Bunny may be bringing a good idea for consideration. But before we launch a new event (here we are in February, and Ms Bunny wants us all to “turn-to” and put on a great walk in May! Sure!) can we see a business plan? A budget? How many volunteers it’ll take to get this off the ground? A time table? For Pete’s sake!
You may recall my post (#15 Feb 9) Sometimes You Gotta Tack to Stay the Course. Yes. There are on occasion excellent ideas that come to us. So we want a systematic way to sort out the wheat from the chaf and put our energies where our strengths lie.
Some thoughts to keep in mind when it’s $-raising we need to do, but we don’t seem to be able to focus:

  • There should be a development committee with people possessing skill in marketing, communication, sales, heck maybe someone who brings some real fundraising experience to the table.
  • If we can’t attract the muscle to build a development committee, seek short-term commitment to a work group that will review fundraising ideas, form a plan for the board.
  • In board orientation, and in the annual skill update for all board members, review the strategic role of the board and the way ideas come to the board, and how decisions are made.
  • The chair of the board gets some skill -building before taking the reins. Check your State nonprofit association or community foundation for low-cost workshops for board leaders.
  • Find the right experienced board member who can informally take the Energizer Bunny under his/her wing and help the wayward soul get religion on how to be a good board member.

There are numerous experienced, skilled consultants out there who can help you Get Past the Annoying. You can check www.nonprofitconsultantsnetwork.org for Greater Boston Consultants, you can check NH Nonprofit Association www.nhnonprofits.org and check their directory, you can contact Executive Service Corps – NH www.nonprofit-consultants.org. All good resources. I’m affiliated with all of these (of course they’re good!). Board leaders should consider the value of investing in the development of the board, just as the board must consider investing in the development of its CEO and staff.

If we aren’t investing, committing to continuous improvement, the fruit will wither on the vine.

Steve Smith, Principal, It’s The Results, LLC. website: www.itstheresults.com. Twitter: @STEVENETWORK.

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Charity Begins at Home

A simple statement, “Charity begins at home” can take on many meanings in various contexts. I believe most of us will agree that taking care of one’s own self is a good idea. It doesn’t necessarily mean at the expense of our neighbors.
It’s interesting that different sources attribute the phrase to different authors. Trivia-Library.com claims it belongs to Sir Thomas Browne, a noted British writer, in 1642. Wikipedia gives attribution to John Wycliffe who in 1380 said, “Charity should begin at himself.” Sure. Whatever.
Nonprofit leaders should think about the Charity Begins at Home sentiment. It likely has some impact right now in the USA when millions are still unemployed, and where a substantial % of the unemployed are in the lowest 20% of income. Yet, in spite of high unemployment Americans stepped up and donated tens, hundreds of millions of dollars, many in $10 text messages, in response to the Haiti earthquake. We appreciate the American spirit: so many, even in times of personal deprivation,get beyond “Charity Begins at Home” and find a way to pitch in. This says much about the character of the people who are our neighbors, friends, family. We take sharing seriously. We recall biblical stories about the poor family who welcomed the stranger and shared their meager meal. We relate.
So, in the midst of this, why is it that so many members of boards of directors of nonprofit organizations have a hard time reaching for their checkbook or credit card when they are asked to support the very nonprofit they are part of? I find in my board development work, that when we broach the subject of board giving, and it’s not settled practice, it’s a thorny issue to address. But when we do, the majority buy in and make the gift.
In a sense, if a person serves on the board s/he is “family.” And if we are family, get the concept that Charity Begins at Home. Over half of all boards have a policy about member giving. And I dare say that most give gladly. Some say, “give ’til it hurts.” On a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment on giving, a United Way executive said “give ’til it feels good.” Sure. But do give.
When leaders of the nonprofit, or public benefit organization, go calling on a prospective donor to ask for support all the askers must have made their gift first. Because donor prospects will frequently ask, “Did you make your gift yet? Great! Can you tell me how much? Should I match your gift?”
So herein lies another layer of meaning to “Charity begins at home.”
The board is the hub of the organization. And as we build relationships with folks who occupy the “spokes” territory, and as we ask these friends to join us in financially supporting our mission and our cause, it’s important that we the board are giving, too.

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Sometimes You Gotta Tack to Stay the Course

A real challenge for executive directors and their nonprofit boards is to find the balance between rigidly sticking to business and chasing after “opportunities” advocated by a persistent advocate. Seeking the “flex zone” in between is part of the art of nonprofit success.
Yes, we have a strategic plan and an annual budget and work plan, but…should we remain resolute and stick to the plan no matter what?
Well, it depends.
When the right opportunity comes knocking, the nonprofit should be flexible enough to open the door, check it out, and decide if this is just a distraction or if it’s something that can add value to our mission work.
A good sailor will tack her course when the wind shifts.
On the other hand, the nonprofit doesn’t want to go chasing after every “opportunity” that comes its way.
It’s this kind of thinking that separates the effective from the defective.
It brings to mind the “Generative Thinking” concept described by Chait, Ryan & Taylor in Governance as Leadership (Wiley, 2005), presented in Power Point at The Boston Foundation a few years ago http://bit.ly/c1rh38. Boards that take time to have conversations, drawing on change in their community as well as broader societal change, prepare themselves to make knowledge-based decisions and less prone to be distracted by the inconsequential.
In my work with boards of directors through It’s The Results, LLC, the first objective usually is to get the board’s work more focused. Focused on the mission. Focused on the customer. Focused on the market they’re working in.
But. Once the board and the staff leadership team are in sharper focus, the value of “flexibility” needs to be applied. By applying the intelligence of the group to the work (board: strategic, staff: operational) and bringing in market forces that are at play and are worthy of consideration, leadership will know when to stay the course, when to tack to improve direction to the desired goal.
Of course there are no guarantees. The leaders may make mistakes. No. The leaders will make mistakes. The idea is not to make the same mistakes over and over again. Bring sound data and informed discussion to the table and the liklihood of success will improve. Markedly. And you can take that to the bank. Just be careful which bank.

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Work It! Making Our Case in a Disaster Relief Environment

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing here about basic elements of fundraising: the annual appeal, follow-up to the appeal, and thanking donors. These are basics for nonprofit organizations building a revenue base. The base on which the donor pyramid is constructed.
Today, I want to write about the world outside your niche: the environment in which we live, work, recreate. Your nonprofit…your public benefit organization…is not an island unto itself. And the people who volunteer for you, donate to you, advocate for you likely have two to five other nonprofits they care ardently about. And, sometimes circumstance draws these supporters’ attention to bigger picture issues: witness the January 19, 2010 5:00 PM 7.0 level earthquake that struck Haiti, causing devastating death and damage to Port au Prince, dislocating and maiming and “orphaning” millions.
There are many fine public benefit organizations that have been in Haiti doing God’s work (will you allow me that reference?): World Vision, Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health, UNICEF. Lots of fine people doing hard work for the people of Haiti. And now hundreds of millions of dollars, including $25 million via texting to Red Cross at Michelle Obama’s recommendation, have piled up as have millions of tons of supplies at the Port au Prince airport.
I read Katya Andersen’s nonprofit marketing blog http://aCalDE and learned that the tidal wave of support is starting to slow down, as the data from Network For Good clearly shows. What we learn, too, in these horrendous natural disasters (like Hurricane Katrina) that Americans get in a giving frame of mind, and don’t limit their support to the current crisis. Actually, natural disasters seem to stimulate the propensity to give to causes beyond the crisis-helpers.
Sometimes board members, seeing all this attention to disasters, come to the conclusion that the nonprofit with a mission unrelated to the disaster should tone down the appeal. Maybe forgo the event or appeal or campaign because of “donor fatigue.” My experience tells me otherwise. And Terry Axelrod, founder of Benevon (www.benevon.com) has advised a nonprofit I was associated with back at the time of 9/11 that we should proceed with our fundraising campaigns and special events. I would classify 9/11 as an unnatural disaster. The destruction of the World Trade Center was a different situation, obviously, than Katrina or the Haiti quake. But what we learned was that in trying times, people look for a ray of hope…something to support in the community or in a broader arena that will do good. There is a need, a drive to bond with a group or organization that’s delivering something of value to people.
So, all this is to say: Work It! Keep telling your story, communicate with your supporters including volunteers, donors, stakeholders so they know what you are doing to deliver hope. To do good.
Noah Cooper wrote recently in Connection Cafe (http://bit.ly/8TdF6v) how advocacy groups used their networks, including social media, to influence the Obama administration to give temporary protected status to Haitians, whose immigration status might be not kosher, a break. Mr. Cooper (Convio) cited that as an example of how public benefit organizations with a humanitarian mission can use social media to make a difference. Some will argue that helping illegals is bad policy. Perhaps they’re right. But right now, sending thousands more people to Haiti who will need vs deliver services would make zero sense.
My message to you is, keep telling your story: ask for support of all kinds: donations, volunteers, advocates for your cause. Engage and channel the energy for public good. Even in their personal malaise, a significant pool of people are looking to do their part to make the world better. Help them connect with you. There is room in people’s hearts and wallets for your mission, if you help them make the connection. Sitting in silence, riding out the current financial storm, won’t get you where you need to go.

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