Tag Archives: motivation

The telephone analogy (Redux)

This is another article salvaged from my now-defunct first blog.  (Many thanks are due to the Wayback Machine, which enabled me to retrieve a copy.) It was first published in 2005, well before smart phones were prevalent among non-geeks. 

An inherent flaw in the analogy at the time was that telephones, once installed, caused much less trouble to nonprofit executives than the typical IT infrastructure. 

As we flash forward to 2013, with a culture in which smart phones are not only prevalent but offer functions previously associated with information systems, it’s interesting to reflect on how well the telephone analogy has stood the test of time. 

So many of us, inside and outside of the nonprofit sector, devote an inordinate amount of time looking forward to upgrading our phones, and that’s a shocking change. 

One thing that hasn’t changed enough is the failure of many nonprofit organizations to think through the budgetary and operational implications of acquiring new technologies.

The telephone analogy

Fri 11 Feb 2005 10:52 AM EST

Are you a nonprofit/philanthropic professional who is having trouble making the case that your organization needs to bring its technology infrastructure into the 21st century – or at least into the 1990s?

Please allow me to acquaint you with the telephone analogy.*

First of all, can you think of a functioning nonprofit/philanthropic organization whose board, chief executive officer, or chief financial officer would ever say…

  • “… we don’t need to find or raise the money to install telephones or pay our monthly phone bill.”
  • “…we don’t need to dedicate staff time to answering the phone or returning phone calls.”
  • “…we don’t need to orient staff and volunteers about personal use of the phones, about what statements they can make on our behalf to members of the media and the public who call our organization, or about how queries that come into the main switchboard are routed to various departments, or about how swiftly high-priority phone calls are returned.”
  • “…we don’t need to make sure that when donors, stakeholders, constituents, and clients call our main number they can navigate the automated menu of choices.”
  • “…we don’t need to show staff members how to put callers on hold, transfer calls, or check voice-mail now that we have an entirely new phone system.”

Apparently, most mission-based organizations have resigned themselves to the fact that telephone systems are an operational necessity.  Somehow, the leadership finds the money, time, and motivation to meet the organization’s telephony needs.

If only we could get the same kind of tacit assumption in place for every mission-based organization’s technology infrastructure!

I propose two possible strategies, either of which would of course need to be tailored your organization’s culture:

  • Encourage your board, CEO, and CFO to see your technology infrastructure as analogous to your telephone system.
  • Persuade them that your telephone system is an information and communication technology system – and then encourage them to regard other components of the system (such as computers, networks, and web sites) with the same kind of tacit support and acceptance.

I look forward to hearing from anyone who has tried this strategy – or developed one that is even more persuasive.



* N.B.:  I need to warn you in advance that all analogies eventually break down, but this is a pretty useful one, especially since a telephone these days really is the front end of an information and communications technology system.

Why we do what we do

Candles lit in memory of those who died in the Sandy Hook murders

The horrific murders in Sandy Hook, Connecticut are on my mind.

On a theological level, I’m deeply annoyed by people who try to comfort the families of victims by saying that it was God’s will.  I think that that’s both offensive to suffering mourners and untrue.  We don’t have satisfying answers to the general question of why suffering, death, and evil exist in this world, and we certainly don’t have satisfying answers about this particular incident.

This is how I summarize my take on this, as a religious person:

  1. There’s a lot that we don’t know.  Perhaps we’ll never know.  However, we can keep striving for understanding.
  2. God gave human beings free will.  We all abuse that free will at times. What happened in Sandy Hook looks a lot like an egregious abuse of free will.
  3. We can choose to turn away from wrongdoing and act as God’s partners in the project of tikkun olam.  That’s a Jewish concept:  the healing or restoration of the world.

I’ve been thinking about tikkun olam, and doing my best to participate in it, for years now.  I feel so fortunate, because I work in a sector where my colleagues strive to make the world a better place every day of their professional lives.

When I think of what happened in Connecticut on December 14th, I think of friends and colleagues who work with at-risk youth, of violence prevention specialists, of civic dialogue facilitators, of mental health care professionals, of advocates of access to health care, of teachers of young children, and of alternative dispute resolution practitioners. They are engaged in a long, difficult, complicated, sometimes discouraging, often under-resourced effort. They seek to prevent harm wherever possible, to mitigate harm when it can’t be prevented, and to create a world where there is positive good.

Most of my work, if it brings any good or prevents any evil, consists of indirect service.  By serving these people, I’m supporting initiatives that I hope will make a difference.  Some of the organizations that I’ve been proud to serve are International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the Public Conversations Project, Family Service of Greater Boston, and Health Care for All.  Their missions make it so very fulfilling to spend my professional life this way.

More than ever, I worry about my friends and colleagues that work with such dedication for all sorts of mission-based organizations.  It’s not just that I worry about the safety of those who are on the front lines, such as violence prevention specialists.  It’s that I worry about professional burn-out in a world where there will have to be a significant change in the culture in order to achieve their goals.  And at the moment, I worry a great deal about whether all that heartfelt effort expended on behalf of mission-based organizations is really adding up to progress toward their goals.

In the nonprofit sector, we do what we do because we believe that real progress and real good are possible.  I do what I can because of a belief that I have something to contribute and because I find it satisfying to think in terms of engaging in tikkun olam.

In search of some wise and realistic words to sum up my motivation for sticking with the work, I turn first to Pirkei Avot:

And then to Martin Luther King, jr:

What I learned about outcomes management from Robert Penna

Robert Penna

Yesterday, along with a number of colleagues and friends from Community TechKnowledge, I had the privilege of attending a training by Robert Penna, the author of The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox.

As you probably  know, I’ve been on a tear about outcomes measurement for a few months now; the current level of obsession began when I attended NTEN’s Nonprofit Data Summit in Boston in September.  I thought that the presenters at the NTEN summit did a great job addressing some difficult issues – such as how to overcome internal resistance to collecting organizational data, and how to reframe Excel spreadsheets moldering away in file servers as archival data.  However, I worked myself into a tizzy, worrying about the lack, in that day’s presentations, of any reference to the history and literature of quantitative analysis and social research.  I could not see how nonprofit professionals would be able to find the time and resources to get up to speed on those topics.

Thanks to Bob Penna, I feel a lot better now.  In yesterday’s training, he showed me and the CTK team just how far you can go by stripping away what is superfluous and focusing on what it really takes to use the best outcomes tools for job.  Never mind about graduate level statistics! Managing outcomes may be very, very difficult because it requires major changes in organizational culture – let’s not kid ourselves about that.  However, it’s not going to take years out of each nonprofit professional’s life to develop the skill set.

Here are some other insights and highlights of the day:

  • Mia Erichson, CTK’s brilliant new marketing manager, pointed out that at least one of the outcomes tools that Bob showed us could be easily mapped to a “marketing funnel” model.  This opens possibilities for aligning a nonprofits programmatic strategy with its marcomm strategy.
  • The way to go is prospective outcomes tracking, with real time updates allowing for course correction.  Purely retrospective outcomes assessment is not going to cut it.
  • There are several very strong outcomes tools, but they should be treated as we treated a software suite that comprises applications that are gems and applications that are junk.  We need to use the best of breed to meet each need.
  • If we want to live in Bob Penna’s universe, we’re going to have to change our vocabulary.  It’s not “outcomes measurement – it’s “outcomes management.” The terms “funder” and “grantmaker” are out – “investor” is in.

Even with these lessons learned, it’s not a Utopia out there waiting for nonprofits that become adept at outcomes management.  Not only is it difficult to shift to an organizational culture that fosters it, but we have to face continuing questions about how exactly the funders (oops! I should have said “investors”) use the data that they demand from nonprofit organizations.  (“Data” is of course a broad term, with connotations well beyond outcomes management.  But it’s somewhat fashionable these days for them to take an interest in data about programmatic outcomes.)

We should be asking ourselves, first of all, whether the sole or primary motivation for outcomes management in nonprofits should be the demands of investors.  Secondly, we should be revisiting the Gilbert Center’s report, Does Evidence Matter to Grantmakers? Data, Logic, and the Lack thereof in the Largest U.S. Foundations.We need to know this. Thirdly, we should be going in search of other motivations for introducing outcomes management.  I realize that most nonprofits go forward with it when they reach a point of pain (translation:  they won’t get money if they don’t report outcomes). 

During a break in Bob’s training, some of my CTK colleagues were discussing the likelihood that many nonprofit executives simply hate the concept of outcomes management.  Who wants to spend resources on it, if it subtracts from resources available for programmatic activities?  Who wants to risk finding out (or to risk having external stakeholders find out) that an organization’s programs are approximately as effective as doing nothing at all?  Very few – thus the need to find new motivations, such as the power to review progress and make corrections as we go.  I jokingly told my CTK colleagues, “the truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.”  Perhaps that’s more than a joke.

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