Tag Archives: failure

Every nonprofit needs a theory of change for its technology. . .and for its evaluation process

if then

I’ve spent a lot of my professional life (thus far) thinking about the missions of nonprofit organizations, and about information/communication technologies for nonprofits.

In the past few years, it’s become fashionable to talk about the importance of a “theory of change” for nonprofits.  This is merely a way of underlining the importance of making an explicit statement about the causal relationship between what a nonprofit organization does and the impact that it has promised to deliver.  I applaud this!  It’s crucial to say, “if we take all of the following resources, and do all of the following actions, then we will get all of the following results.”  An organization that lacks the capacity to marshal those resources and take those actions needs to reconsider, because it is on track to fail. If its capacity is not aligned with its commitment, it should acquire the resources or change its commitment to results.  Of course, it some cases, it will merely need to revise its theory of change.  In any case, it will have to work backward from its mission, and understand how each component contributes to achieving it.

This kind of thinking has lead to a lot of conversations (and a lot of anxiety) in the nonprofit sector about performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, and impact assessment.

I’d love to have some of this conversation focus on the information/communication technologies that nonprofit organizations are using.  In other word, it’s time to be explicit about a theory of change that explains in detail how every component of the technology an organization uses contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver a specific kind of social, cultural, or environmental impact.

Likewise, I’d love to have the conversation address the ways in which the efforts of a nonprofit organization’s performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, or impact assessment team contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver the kind of impact that it promised its stakeholders.

 

 

Where I fail: Balancing between billable hours and volunteerism

Balancing Stones

Inspired by Beth Kanter, I have been reading and reflecting intensively about how we cope with failure in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.  Today, I’ve been asking myself what my biggest failure is as an nptech professional.

No contest:  it’s my failure to balance the work I do on a volunteer basis with the work I do for which I am paid.

It’s tough to say no to anyone in our sector who needs help and can’t afford a consultant.  Fortunately, I have a much-loved client, the Data Collaborative, that underwrites my time to provide strategic assistance for a selected group of nonprofits that would not otherwise be able to receive help.  Unfortunately, the number of hours of my time that they can underwrite is limited.

In fact, I hate to say no, and in a typical week I often put in twenty or thirty hours of unremunerated service.

The truth is that, if I didn’t have to charge anyone, I could put in sixty hours of work a week throughout the year with mission-based organizations, and still have a waiting list. 

The demand for my services is that high – even if the availability of funding to pay me is somewhat lower.

So the big fail is that in the last month or two I have neglected to balance all the work I do without charge with the proper number of billable hours.  This is a bad idea, and works against everyone’s interests.

Here’s why everyone loses if I don’t achieve more balance in my consulting practice:

  • If I don’t charge for my work, then I cannot pay for food, for rent, or for health insurance.
  • If I don’t have these basics, then I will die of starvation, exposure, or chronic illness.
  • If I die, my services will not be available to mission-based organizations who need me, for either love or money.

So here I am, acknowledging my failure to bear these basic economic realities in mind.

Now I’ll go a step further, and ask for help.  You can help keep me doing useful work, by referring potential clients to me who are both willing and able to pay for my services.

Thank you!

“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.


 

Basic concepts in technology planning for nonprofits

501 Tech Club

I had a delightful time at last week’s meeting of the Boston 501 Tech Club.  The theme was technology planning (a topic close to my heart), and Gavin Murphy of Annkissam (a colleague, esteemed client, and friend) gave an outstanding overview that I recommend to any nonprofit professional who has mastered his/her own field and is ready to think about the big picture in technology for his/her organization.  Naturally, during the Q&A time after Gavin’s presentation, I did some nitpicking on the topic of metrics, but never mind.  What you see below is the complete set of Gavin’s notes for this presentation, with no editorial changes from yours truly.  Many thanks are due to Gavin for permission to post his notes!


Technology Planning
Presented at the Boston 501 Tech Club
Gavin Murphy
Chief Operating Officer
Annkissam

1. What is Tech Planning?

  • “Technology” can means lots of things, from office wiring and networks to social networking and RFID chips.
  • Today we will focus on concepts of technology planning that should be universally applicable to whatever planning you need to do.
  • One key concept is recognizing that most decisions involve trade-offs; there is rarely a “right” option, rather different options will present different trade-offs (upfront cost, ongoing cost, quality, time, other resources or risks, etc.).
  • At the end we’ll talk about some resources that are available for people that are interested in exploring more specific topics, and we’ll also have a short Q&A session.

2. Strategic Alignment

“Plans are worthless. Planning is essential.”  – Dwight D. Eisenhower, general and president (1890-1961)

  • Technology strategy (and planning) should support organization strategy.
  • Show of hands: how many people are part of an organization that has a strategy (and you know what it is, on some level)?
  • How many people’s organizations have a technology strategy (and you know what it is, on some level)?
  • If you don’t have an organizational strategy, that’s a bigger issue!  And, frankly, one that should be addressed first.

3. Why Plan?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin, scientist

  • Planning will help you be more adaptable to change.
  • The act of planning will force you to think through the resources you have to commit to the process (both time and money) and tradeoffs that different options represent.
  • The executive leadership needs to be involved in the planning process to some degree, although other staff or by someone from outside the organization can manage the process.
  • Even if your plans change, the act of planning will get people engaged in the options and will help to avoid “shiny object syndrome”.  Ultimately, planning will help you respond to both expected and unexpected changes to your organization or environment.

4. Planning is a Process!

  • It’s not an event, or even a single project (although there could be a project to kick it off or reevaluate things).
  • Similarly, planning can produce documents that are quite helpful, but only to the extent those documents are used to guide the decisions of the organization.
  • It’s important to budget time and resources to technology planning and implementation, just as you would dedicate ongoing resources to other critical aspects of your organization.
  • One potential trap is committing to an ongoing technology obligation without anticipating the resources it will take to maintain; for example, maintaining your own servers or establishing a social media presence.
  • It’s possible that technology is not a critical part of your organization, and that’s fine too as long as you are engaging in the process of evaluating tradeoffs to come to that conclusion.

5. Importance of metrics and measurements

  • Once you have decided on a strategy, the next thing is to think about is how to measure your progress.
  • Metrics are one way to make sure your technology strategy is closely aligned to your organizational strategy.
  • For example, if data security is a concern, you might track the percentage of your computers that have AV or disk encryption installed; if outreach is an organizational imperative then perhaps Twitter followers or Facebook friends might be a better metric.
  • Metrics should be as quantitative as possible, to minimize the risk that people will make subjective judgments and obscure the true picture of how things are going.

6. Need to set goals and track success (or failure)

  • Once you have chosen your metrics, you should set goals for those metrics and track your progress over a preset time period which should be long enough to judge results but short enough to preserve momentum.
  • If you succeed in achieving your goals–great! Adjust your goals for the next time period to be a little more challenging and keep trying to meet them. It’s important to avoid “autopilot” goals that are too easy to meet and never adjust up.
  • If you don’t meet your goals, that’s ok too. Now you have valuable information and you can either adjust your plan, your metrics, your goals, or the resources you are applying to technology. After a few cycles you should be able to find the right balance and establish a pattern of success.

7. Things went wrong?!

“Everyone has a plan – until they get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson, Boxer

  • If things go wrong, that’s ok! That’s all part of the process.
  • The benefit of having a plan is that at least you will know when things are going wrong, which is always preferable (even if nothing can be done about it in the short run) to finding out everything has already gone wrong in the past and now things are in crisis.

8. Resources

“Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” – Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister

Let’s revisit the concept of failure-friendliness

Eight years ago, I wrote a blog article about failure-friendliness in nonprofit technology. It was very much inspired by my friend and colleague, Dan Scharfman. Since Dan died this week, and this is also a week when I have been thinking hard about the obstacles that nonprofit organizations face in tracking their outcomes, it seems appropriate to reprise the article here and now. Having coped with the need for failure-friendliness in nonprofit technology for years, I see that my understanding is still superficial when it comes to the difficulties that nonprofits have in acknowledging programmatic failure. I invite your thoughts on how we can be more transparent about and more open to learning from failure. Meanwhile, special thanks go out to Beth Kanter, for her outstanding blog articles on this topic.

FAIL stamp

Wed 26 Jan 2005 05:41 PM EST

The term “failure-friendly organization” was first introduced to me by a colleague I revere – Dan Scharfman of Baird Associates.

My first impression was that he was an unlikely champion of failure, since Massachusetts is well-supplied with nonprofit organizations that consider the technology services that he has provided to them very successful indeed.

However, many of us in the nonprofit sector have seen the following things happen with major implementations or upgrades:

  • The technology doesn’t work, or doesn’t work nearly as well as it should;
  • The intended users won’t have anything to do with the technology;
  • Major changes in technology in the outside world quickly render the organization’s choices obsolete;
  • Programmatic priorities change, and the technology is all but irrelevant;
  • The organization has not factored in the shocking cost of customizing, tweaking, maintaining, and upgrading the technology.

Although techies vary greatly in their attitudes about projects that don’t work out, we also tend to make tacit assumptions that everyone concerned understands that we are not engaged in an exact science but in an evolving process.

Techies also tend to regard failure as pretty interesting – as a good source of information about what ought to be fixed when Version 97.53.01 of the software is released.  We also enjoy working on cool tools, even if such tools don’t actually deliver the outcomes desired by those who are underwriting the project.  This form of process orientation can be less than endearing to decision-makers in nonprofit organizations.

Oddly enough, nonprofit workers tend to be very good at process orientation when they are on familiar ground.

Sometimes this process orientation is a grim necessity, with governmental agencies strictly mandating, auditing, and enforcing protocols that nonprofits must follow in order to maintain their tax-exempt status, accreditation, or contracts for services.  These are headaches that would impel just about any organization or individual to worry a great deal about operating according to plan and documenting the process, rather than ensuring a specific outcome. This of course is a very “functional” (or “instrumental“) form of process orientation.

A more “expressive” form of process orientation is also frequently seen in nonprofit organizations – manifesting as a desire to be flexible and responsive to changing situations, or as a desire to arrive at decisions through consensus.  However, it can be difficult to extend that attitude to technology, which tends to be difficult for non-specialists to comprehend, time-consuming, and expensive.

Another challenge is that organizations and individuals (including yours truly) can be reluctant to cut their losses, and say, “This isn’t working.  Let’s stop, figure out why, and decide on some next steps.”  Of course, in some settings, the decoded version of this message is “Let’s find someone to blame and punish…maybe YOU.”

Yikes!

Is there any solution in sight?  I only wish I had something certain and simple to offer.  Here are a few ideas, although none of them come with guarantees of success:

  • Techies need to understand the nonprofit organizational cultures in which they are operating.  Progress toward this goal is possible if the techies listen, ask questions, and listen some more.  These conversations should start early in the planning phase.
  • Nonprofit workers need to understand how technology innovations and implementations happen in real life, and have a reasonable idea of what factors can lead to unexpected outcomes in technology projects.  Progress is possible if – yes, you guessed it – the nonprofit workers listen, ask questions, and listen some more.
  • Everyone needs to cooperate in creating incentives for spotting, discussing, and correcting errors rather than evading their detection.  I freely admit that I always find it easier to do these things when the mistake was made by someone else, but am always striving to do better.

I wish I could remember who it was that first said to me, “This is not about one person against another. This is about our team against the problem.”  Anyone who can say that is a saint, a boddhisatva, a tzadik, or an unusually effective manager.

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