Tag Archives: management

The ongoing revolution in philanthropy: An open-ended reading list

 

 

I recently had a conversation with a friend and colleague about what I perceive to be a revolution in progress.  Grant makers and nonprofit professionals are now talking openly about some very painful (and inter-related) issues in philanthropy, such as

  • The lack of inclusion and equity in philanthropy.
  • The difficult power dynamics among grantors and grantees.
  • The origins of some foundations’ wealth, which in some cases includes slavery and other forms of exploitation.
  • The tendency of philanthropic professionals, big donors, and other relatively privileged people to assume that they know what is best for the people who are directly affected by the problems that need to be addressed.

It is really inspiring to see philanthropic and nonprofit professional engaging in public conversations about these challenges, and even more inspiring to see them taking action to create positive changes.  I offered to send my friend and colleague a list of key articles and books about this revolution, and it now occurs to me that I can share this list with everyone who is interested.  Here it is:

Books:

Articles, reports, podcasts, and videos:

I’d like to point out that Vu Le, a few of whose publications are listed above, is a revolution in his own right.  He uses his blog, Nonprofit AF, to analyze overlapping issues such as philanthropy, justice, inclusion, power dynamics, racial equity, nonprofit leadership, outcomes reporting, and financial sustainability. And as a bonus, he’s very funny as well.

Tools:

 

This is an open-ended list. I plan to add more items, and I invite you to use the form below to let me know of anything that I have missed. I always have more lessons to learn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

Nonprofit Knowledge Management: It’s alive!

nonprofit knowledge management

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure and privilege of helping to facilitate a workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits at the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network conference, along with my esteemed colleagues Mollie Murphy, Kevin Palmer, and Jim Fisk.

This session also marked the debut of Annkissam’s new web site, Nonprofit KM.  I’m thrilled with the design work that Tsholo Thekiso (also from Annkissam) has done to make it clean and beautiful.  Right now, the new site only has a few items on it; more will be forthcoming.  At the moment, I’d especially like to recommend two items to your attention:

Special thanks go out to the uber librarian, Rachael Stark, who has worked very closely with me on Annkissam’s knowledge management for nonprofits initiative, and is responsible for much of the information and insight that is infused in the new Nonprofit KM web site.  To know Rachael is to understand the power of librarianship, and to glimpse the potential for collaboration between librarians and nonprofit professionals.

I’m also grateful to the Annkissam team in general and its Drupal development team in particular.  Although Annkissam has developed an excellent Drupal-based knowledge management system for small nonprofits, Habitat, the new Nonprofit KM is all about providing crucial assistance to those who are struggling with knowledge management challenges, rather than a commercial message about Habitat.  Likewise, yesterday’s workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits was all about brainstorming the main problems and possible solutions, and not a sales pitch for this specific product.

And that’s the way it should be.  In fact, it’s important to understand that not every problem in nonprofit operations can be solved by knowledge management, that there is a range of strategies that stretches far beyond any one software solutions, and that a commitment to organizational change is crucial to success in adopting a knowledge management strategy.  Annkissam is right there, helping nonprofits to understand what lies ahead, rather than urging them to commit time, effort, and money to without regard for what will meet their needs.

The new web site is  a good starting point for nonprofit professionals who are not inherently interested in knowledge management, but are focused on achieving organizational goals.  There’s very little available, online or on paper, about KM for nonprofits, and much of it is more than five years old; we were able to ascertain this with the help of Rachael Stark, the uber librarian.  Fortunately, we can use Nonprofit KM to aggregate all the information that currently exists, and to make available the resources that we have created.

Michael Fenter will be joining Tech Networks of Boston!

Michael Fenter Tech Networks of Boston

I’ve been doing a happy dance about this, because we’re all about to see fantastic people working together!

Susan Labandibar is the founder of Tech Networks of Boston (TNB), a passionate environmental activist, my friend, my colleague, my sometime client, and a fellow Boston Technobabe.

Michael Fenter is a consummate  technology professional, a man who cares deeply about making the world a better place, a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, my friend, my colleague, and my neighbor.

I was thrilled when Susan called me recently to say that she had hired Michael.  Two people I admire deeply will now be on the same team, and the beneficiaries will be nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts that need IT support.

Both Susan and Michael are individuals with a profoundly spiritual calling – though not necessarily in the denominational or doctrinal sense of that phrase.  They believe in service to mission-based organizations, and they manifest their commitments in the form of very practical assistance.  Their heads may be in the clouds, but their feet are on the ground.

Susan has a talent for hiring great people, and I hope that the other members of her organization’s staff won’t think I’m disregarding their wonderful qualities.*  However, it’s especially delightful when two of my special buddies work together. I’m expecting to see a great leap forward for TNB team, as they expand their “Collaborative Technology Management” offerings.


* Likewise, there are other firms in the Boston area that provide first-rate IT support to nonprofit organizations.  It all depends on finding a really good fit between the support model and the client organization’s needs – however, I will say that the other two firms that have really impressed me are Baird Associates, NPV, and InSource Services.

“We count our successes in lives”

Brent James

Brent James is one of my new heroes.  He’s a physician, a researcher, and the chief quality officer of Intermountain Healthcare’s Institute for Health Care Delivery Research.

We had a very inspiring telephone conversation this afternoon, about whether the lessons learned from evidence-based medicine could be applied to nonprofits that are seeking to manage their outcomes.  We also swapped some stories and jokes about the ongoing struggle to document a causal relationship between what a health care organization (or a social service agency, or an arts group, or an environmental coalition, for that matter) does and what the organization’s stated aims are.  In fact, documenting that an organization is doing more good than harm, and less harm than doing nothing at all, continues to be a perplexing problem.  The truth may be less than obvious – in fact, it may be completely counter-intuitive.

In this phone conversation, we also waded into deep epistemological waters, reflecting on how we know we have succeeded, and also on the disturbing gap between efficacy and effectiveness.

It’s not merely a philosophical challenge, but a political one, to understand where the power lies to define success and to set the standards of proof.

I doubt that this is what William James (no relation to Brent, as far as I know) had in mind when he referred to success as “the bitch-goddess,” but there’s no doubt that defining, measuring, and reporting on one’s programmatic success is a bitch for any nonprofit professional with intellectual and professional integrity.  It’s both difficult and urgent.

What particularly struck me during my conversation with Brent was his remark about Intermountain Healthcare:

“We count our successes in lives.”

On the surface, that approach to counting successes seems simple and dramatic.  The lives of patients are on the line.  They either live or die, with the help of Intermountain Healthcare.  But it’s really a very intricate question, once we start asking whether Intermountain’s contribution is a positive one, enabling the patients to live the lives and die the deaths that are congruent with their wishes and values.

These questions are very poignant for me, and not just because I’m cancer patient myself, and not just because yesterday I attended the funeral of a revered colleague and friend who died very unexpectedly.  These questions hit me where I live professionally as well, because earlier this week, I met with the staff of a fantastic nonprofit that is striving to do programmatic outcomes measurement, and is faced with questions about how to define success in a way that can be empirically confirmed or disconfirmed.  Their mission states that they will help their clients excel in a specific industry and in their personal lives.  They have a coherent theory of change, and virtually all of their criteria of professional and personal success are quantifiable.  Their goals are bold but not vague. (This is a dream organization for anyone interested in outcomes management, not to mention that the staff members are smart and charming.)  However, it’s not entirely clear yet whether the goals that add up to success for each client are determined solely by the staff or by the client or some combination thereof.  I see it as a huge issue, not just on an operational level, but on a philosophical one; it’s the difference between self-determination and paternalism.  I applaud this organization’s staff for their willingness to explore the question.

When Brent talked about counting successes in terms of lives, I thought about this nonprofit organization, which defines its mission in terms of professional and personal success for its clients.  The staff members of that organization, like so many nonprofit professionals, are ultimately counting their successes in lives, though perhaps not as obviously as health care providers do.  Surgeons receive high pay and prestige for keeping cancer patients alive and well – for the most part, they fully deserve it.  But let’s also count the successes of the organization that helps a substantial number of people win jobs that offer a living wage and health insurance, along with other benefits such as G.E.D.s, citizenship, proficiency in English, home ownership, paid vacations, and college educations for the workers’ children. Nonprofit professionals who can deliver that are also my heroes, right up there with Brent James.  While we’re holding them to high standards of proof of success, I hope that we can find a way to offer them the high pay and prestige that we already grant to the medical profession.

%d bloggers like this: