Tag Archives: best practices

In search of my next vocation!

"Excelsior!" Cartoon by James Thurber

“Excelsior!”   (Cartoon by James Thurber)

After five very productive years at Tech Networks of Boston (TNB), I am now looking for my next professional challenge. I’m ready for a career shift! I’ve notified the leadership at TNB, so this is not a covert search.

If you know about any job opportunities at organizations that need someone with my skill set, I’d love to hear about them. In my next job, I’d like to focus on some or all of the following:

  • Weaving networks among nonprofit organizations in order to build collaboration, peer learning, and communities of practice.
  • Building the capacity of philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to achieve and document their desired outcomes.
  • Fostering equity, inclusion, social justice, and corporate social responsibility.
  • Aiding philanthropic and nonprofit organizations in seamlessly matching resources with needs.
  • Establishing best practices in the strategic use of information and communication technologies among mission-based organizations.
  • Facilitating candid dialogue and successful collaborations between grantmakers and grantees.

I invite you to peruse my LinkedIn profile and my résumé, and to get in touch with me about any contacts or opportunities that you’d like to suggest.

Please help me find new ways to serve organizations and individuals who are working to make the world a better place!

Deborah Elizabeth Finn – résumé – June 2018

 

 

 

 

Nonprofit technology and drive-by volunteering: Not a good combination!

scream

This is not a popular point of view, but hackathons and other short term tech volunteering opportunities bring on my anxiety rather than my enthusiasm.  I think of these situations as drive-by volunteerism, and potential disasters for nonprofit organizations.

Let’s switch to a less violent metaphor than a drive-by shooting – we can talk in terms of the perinatal year.  (I’ve worked with programs for teen mothers and their babies, which gave me the idea for the comparison.)

The birth of a child and the completion of a nonprofit technology project have a lot in common:

  • Planning (This does not always happen, but it’s advisable.)
  • Conception (I admit that this generally more fun in cases of human reproduction than in cases of nonprofit technology projects.)
  • Gravidity (This often includes nausea and stretch marks.)
  • Labor (This is usually painful.)
  • Delivery (This can involve emergency surgery.)
  • After care for mother and child (This often includes a hand-over from one specialist to another.)

Perhaps it’s not a perfect analogy; however, it illustrates my point that it’s realistic to think in terms of a twelve-month cycle for the successful implementation of a nonprofit technology project.  A technology implementation does not begin at the labor stage, and delivery certainly does not mark the end.

Skills-based volunteering, especially skills-based tech volunteering, is simply different from spending the afternoon stuffing envelopes on behalf of your favorite cause.

Moreover, volunteer management is a professional skill set in its own right; it requires experience and knowledge of best practices. It’s not something than just anyone can do spontaneously.

Unfortunately, the sort of nonprofit that is most in need of volunteer assistance with its technology – a small, under-funded organization – is the least likely to have a professional volunteer manager on staff, or an IT professional who can take long term responsibility for the tech implementation.

This is why the thought of a short term tech volunteer project for a small, under-funded and highly worthy nonprofit fills me with horror.  The likelihood seems so strong that the long term implications haven’t been considered, and that it might actually be a disservice to the organization.

This is also why I’m deeply grateful that Common Impact, a wonderful nonprofit based here in Boston, has developed a model for skills-based volunteering that is highly effective for tech implementations.  Fortunately for all of us, they are willing to share what they’ve learned.  Tomorrow, Patricia Vaccaro-Coburn of Common Impact will be our featured guest at a TNB Roundtable session on best practices in managing tech volunteers, and I am confident that this will be an enlightening experience for nonprofit professionals who see short-term volunteer tech projects as the solution to their problems, rather than the beginning of new set of challenges.

Data Day 2013 in Boston

Data Day 2013:  I'll be offering pro bono strategic tech consultations

 

I’m excited about Data Day at Northeastern University tomorrow, which is being co-hosted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Boston Indicators Project.

I’ll be offering pro bono strategic tech consults at this event; my time is being underwritten by Tech Networks of Boston. If you’re planning to attend, please come say hello to me! Just look for this sign.

 

“Forgive and remember”

Forgive and remember

File this under “lessons about failure that the nonprofit sector can learn from medical sociology.”

Forgive and Remember: Managing Medical Failure, by Charles Bosk, is a classic of medical sociology, an analysis of how coping with failure is built into the training that surgeons receive in hospital rounds, mobidity and mortality conferences, and other settings.

Please note that I am not claiming that surgeons themselves have a lot to teach us about dealing with failure, because my experience is that while their sub-culture does have rituals and protocols that they enact privately, they still have a way to go in transparency and accountability to others.

This has been my experience in three instances of major surgery:

  1. Surgeon did not follow instructions given by the specialist physician managing my condition.  Acknowledgement: Partial.  Apology: No.
  2. Surgeon did not inform me that the tumor to be removed might be malignant and require addition surgery until I was under anesthesia. Acknowledgement: Yes, after I complained. Apology: Yes, after I complained.
  3. Surgeon did not respect my request regarding administration of anesthesia:  Acknowledgement: Yes, after I complained. Apology: No.

Not that I am bitter.

But let’s face it:  most of us are highly invested in showing the world that we are skillful, trustworthy, and deserving of whatever prestige is ascribed to us.  As a patient, I naturally blamed the surgeons, not only for their errors in judgement, but for the instances in which they failed to acknowledge or apologize for their mistakes.  As a fellow human being, I completely empathize with their reluctance.  I imagine that that reluctance is more acute among professionals who have to cut people open.  Their work is obscenely invasive but often lifesaving,  and therefore must maintain an impeccably trustworthy reputation.

That’s why Brent James is one of my heroes, along with surgeons and physicians like him who are putting it on the line for evidence-based practice.  There will be no accountability, transparency, or improvement in health care unless successes and failures are accurately documented.  Those results must then be carefully analyzed, made available to the public in appropriate ways, and used to improve their efforts.

As with medicine, so with other mission-based organizations.  We need to track outcomes, acknowledge failures, and then do better.  If it takes a pink feather boa and an amusing ritual for nonprofits to get there, I’m all for it, though I’m not expecting surgeons to adopt the feather boa.

As for the slogan, “forgive and remember,” I think of it as both a spiritual and a practical precept.  We not only need to forgive ourselves and others when we have failed – we also need to bear the lessons of failure in mind.  Both individuals and organizations not only need to keep learning, but to take appropriate action to protect those who are at risk.

I used to work in violence prevention, and for me, one of the most heart-rending aspects of it was the well-documented difficulty in stopping offenders from repeatedly battering their loved ones.  In some cases, they simply didn’t see their behavior as abusive, or their loved ones didn’t see any alternative to accepting abuse.

As I reflect on that today, it drives home very painfully the lesson that we cannot always change others, or even control a specific behavior of theirs.  The old cliche that they “have to really want to change” is true, and it’s also true that not everyone who wants to change can do so. This is the really difficult side of facing failure for nonprofit organizations – in some cases, there may be no alternative to severing ties with individuals or organizations, if the organization is going to face its failure and move on.  It’s going to take more than a pink feather boa, a “joyful funeral,” or a FailFaire to get past that.  When the well-being of vulnerable people is on the line, there are cases where forgiving and remembering is crucial, but it isn’t enough.


Bonus item:

Q:  How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A:  Only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.

Adventures in failure (and ritual studies): The “joyful funeral”

Beth Kanter and I are not twins who were separated at birth, but we have some things in common.

So perhaps if we were twins, I wouldn’t be the evil twin (I hope) but the lagging twin.  She’s succeeding at writing in a very engaging and helpful way about failure, and I am definitely benefiting from that.  Thinking about how to acknowledge failure flows very naturally from my current absorption in outcomes management for nonprofit organizations.

Beth recently published a blog article on “Six Ways Nonprofits Learn from Affordable Losses or Little Bets to Improve Impact” that appealed to me greatly, mostly because some the practices described have a ritual component.

I was especially excited when I saw that Beth had included the “Joyful Funeral” custom that was created by Moms Rising.  I had heard rumors of this ritual in nonprofit management circles, but couldn’t remember the details.  Fortunately, Beth’s article includes a cool video, in which she interviews Ashley Boyd about what it really entails.

Now, unlike Beth, I studied sociology of religion as a graduate student, and have a longstanding interest in ritual studies.  Regardless of one’s religious beliefs and affiliation – or lack thereof – it’s easy to see that ritual often has great power in assisting human communities that are confronted by change or loss.

Let’s look at the characteristic stages of a “rite of passage:”

  • Detachment or withdrawal from the status quo
  • Transition
  • Reincorporation into the social group

Likewise, consider a purification ritual, in which the transition in question is from an “unclean” to a “clean” state.

I propose that we think of a joyful funeral as a combination of passage and purification.  The individual or organization has an opportunity to mark the change (which may also be a loss) from a viable initiative to a failure, to acknowledge shortcomings, to mourn, to be supported by the community, and to achieve closure, and to begin the next stage of life.

Many people are left cold by any kind of ritual, and others are put off by the links between elaborate ritual and religious institutions from which they are alienated.  For that reason, I would never argue that a joyful funeral (or any of the other celebrations of failure that Beth describes) should be attempted by everyone.  But for many of us, a ritual can be a comfort, especially if it doesn’t demand that we buy into a dogma or denomination.  A ritual can also be goofy and fun.

I like the idea of building laughter without humiliation into a ritual acknowledgement of failure. It’s less scary and less punitive than a solemn occasion, and better for strengthening ties among the team and making it fun to learn from mistakes.  For this reason, I recommend the “DoSomething PinkBoa FailFest” to beginners in the art of failing and moving on.


Bonus item:  a joke for people who take ritual a little too seriously.

Q:  What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?

A:  You can negotiate with a terrorist.


 

My current daydream: The marriage of outcomes management apps with data visualization apps

The marriage of outcomes management with data visualization

Given my current preoccupation with both outcomes management and data visualization for mission-based organizations, perhaps it’s not a surprise that I’m daydreaming about integrating applications that were designed for these two tasks.

This daydream was inspired by a recent conversation with Patrice Keegan, executive director of Boston Cares (a HandsOn Network affiliate).  She is keenly interested in both outcomes and data visualization, and she leads a nonprofit of modest size that collaborates not only with many local partners but also with a national network of sister organizations that facilitate short-term volunteering.  In other words, Boston Cares provides a gateway to volunteerism for individuals, corporations, and community-based nonprofits, and then shares best practices with its counterparts across the United States.

What better poster girl could there be than Patrice, for my Cause, which is making it not only possible but easy for her to take her outcomes analyses and turn them in visuals that tell the story of the social impact of Boston Cares?

Moreover, what good is a cause and a poster child, without a poster?  Here’s mine:

Patrice Keegan of Boston Cares
Special note to software developers in the nonprofit sector:  please take a look at that bright, shining face, and give your efforts to the cause.

A word of gratitude for an online community: Mission-Based Massachusetts

Map of Massachusetts

Today is Thanksgiving, so I want to express some gratitude to a community of colleagues here in Massachusetts.

I started the “Mission-Based Massachusetts” (MBM for short) email list in 2005, in order to provide a forum for people who care about nonprofit, philanthropic, educational, community-based, grassroots, socially responsible, and other mission-oriented organizations here in the Bay State.

My inspiration for starting the MBM list (and several other projects) was a series of conversations with Tim Gassert of the Boston Foundation, starting in about 2003.  We agreed that nonprofits in Massachusetts needed some sort of online tool that would help them stay current with each other about upcoming events, best practices, and available resources.  At the time, I hoped that a highly reputable institution, such as TBF or Third Sector New England, would take on the task, but neither was able to espouse the cause.  (Later, when the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network was organized, I hoped that MNN would sponsor it, but had no luck there either.)

It didn’t seem to me that an individual should take on such a critical task, but in 2005, I hunkered down to the task of creating, moderating, recruiting members for, and maintaining the MBM list as a lone volunteer.  Fortunately, my friend John McNutt (then living in Massachusetts, but now teaching at the University of Delaware) kindly volunteered to be the alternate moderator, thus allowing me to take some urgently needed breaks.

I’m deeply grateful for the way that MBM members have coalesced into a peer network, a group of people who are helping each other make the world a better place.  People constantly tell me in person or email me how much they have benefited from participating in this community.  They thank me, but the truth is that it weren’t for each of them, the Mission-Based Massachusetts group would not be thriving in this way. I also believe that as a community, they have greatly benefited the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts, and the many people served by the sector.

It takes a lot of effort to maintain the MBM list, but I’m not really a lone individual anymore.  In addition to John (to whom I’m deeply grateful), and Tim (who continues to inspire me) I have more than 1,400 colleagues in group who are helping me and each other.  It is indeed an occasion for gratitude!

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