Tag Archives: nonprofit professional

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

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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.

Why are you always talking about “saving the whales?” (Redux)

This is an article that appeared in my first blog in January 2005.  Many thanks are due to the Wayback Machine, which enabled me to salvage it. 

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11:46AM (EST) on January 20, 2005

Whenever I am speaking or writing on the topic of mission-based technology planning, I seem to end up talking about  “saving the whales.”  Several people have asked me (or teased me) about this, so here are some reasons:

  • I like whales. It’s quite possible that they have forms of language, cognition, and social structure that are as rich as – but completely different from – what humans have developed. For someone with my moderate-progressive values, saving them from extinction seems like an obviously good idea.
  • It sounds like a very straightforward mission, but is actually fraught with complexity and nuance.  I have a sort of fantasy scenario about the disconnect between serious techies and nonprofit professionals.  The techies might be brought in to help a nonprofit organization that exists to save the whales; they get very excited telling the nonprofit team about how they are going to equip all the staff and volunteers of the nonprofit with personal digital assistants (with global positioning systems, naturally) and program them so that the PDAs will start beeping whenever a whale is washed ashore within ten miles of the person with the PDA.  Everyone on staff delves deep into considering whether there’s room in the budget for this exciting but possibly complicated and expensive technology.  Then the Cyber-Yenta does her best to call time-out and remind both the techies and the nonprofit workers that their organization does not actually “save the whales” by going down to the beach with big nets to drag them back into the water.  In fact, what they do is “save the whales” by working for laws and policies that protect the whales.  Can they think of a way that PDAs with GPS would help them do that?  Usually, the answer is no, because legislators and policy-makers won’t consent to being tagged and tracked like wildlife by lobbyists.  In this fantasy scenario, the optimum outcome is that everyone goes back to thinking about technology that actually supports their mission, strategy, and tactics.
  • It’s a great way to introduce the concept of realistic outcomes measurement to a nonprofit organization that is struggling with it.  The introductory question can be:  how many whales do you save a year?  This is actually very difficult to calculate, but is absolutely crucial before moving on to advanced questions such as: how many MORE whales will you save a year with that new technology implementation?

 

Harsh truths

Illustration from "Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person" by David Wong    http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/
Perhaps as a counter-balance to my previous blog post, I’ve been reflecting on an article by David Wong that appeared this month in Cracked.Com: “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person.”

While I don’t agree with all of Wong’s assertions, there are a few that I think we should take to heart in the nonprofit sector.  I present them here as bullet points:

  • “The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You”

Wong points out two corollaries to this:  “…society is full of people who need things….”  and “(e)ither you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving and polite you are.

He’s right, or at least he should be.

(We all know of high-profile nonprofit professionals whose main achievement is making people feel warm inside.  They don’t contribute to any lasting and positive change, but they get plenty of photo opportunities.  If this were an entirely fair universe, the world would be rejecting them, and instead it applauds them.  However, they are the exceptions.)

Most of us are plebs in the nonprofit sector, and we are obliged to solve problems in order to justify our continued employment.  That’s the way it should be.  At the end of the day, if our organization’s mission is to save whales, then we should be judged on how our efforts add up to success in saving whales.  That might involve sticking to methods that have stood the test of time, or to finding ways to save more whales with fewer resources, or to finding ways to ensure that once we save them they stay healthy for the long run.   We have to keep our eye on results, and not give free passes to people who are merely impassioned without being effective.

By this I don’t mean that personalities and processes should be completely discounted.  It’s important to be considerate, ethical, and fair.  It’s also important to value the processes enough to learn from both failures and successes.  But having a pure heart is not enough, either as a process or an outcome, when your self-proclaimed mission is to save the whales.

  • “What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People”
‘Nuff said, right?  This the nonprofit sector, right? It’s not just that people ask “what’s in it for me?” when they donate, it’s that we’re living in an WIIFM universe. If what’s in it for us, as nonprofit professionals, is the dubious glamor of altruism, I suppose that’s alright, but we still have an obligation to make our work more than a vanity project.  Again, if it were a fair world, then effective projects would get more love than vanity projects.  But even though it’s unfair, there’s still a principle involved that obligates us to be as effective as possible in benefiting the world, even when that’s less glamorous.
  • “Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement”

Thank you, Mr. Wong.  This is true indeed – not just for individuals, but for nonprofit organizations.  This one of the most compelling reasons why outcomes management is such an uphill battle in our sector.  It’s not just that we don’t like being judged by our results; it’s that we don’t like having to change.

I’m not using the first person plural (e.g., “we”) here in a abstract, vague, editorial way.  I’m using it, because I’m talking about flaws in which I fully partake.  When Wong says, “(t)he human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change,” he’s certainly speaking to my condition.

Here is his list of the powerful defense mechanisms of which I am (and perhaps you are) capable of fielding when we are challenged or criticized:

              “Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult”

              “Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message”

             Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content”

              Revising (My) Own History”

             “Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out (My) True Self”

Of course, my personal favorite is the last mentioned. When I start wallowing in it, I do my best to remember that there are more important (and perhaps more valid) ethical principles at stake than expressing what I take to be my essential nature.

In fact, it’s our obligation to submit to public scrutiny and criticism when we work in the nonprofit sector.  (At least, it is in the U.S.; I can’t say much about other countries.)  As George McCully points out in his book Philanthropy Reconsidered, we are engaged in private initiatives for the public good, and the public has a right to evidence that we deserve the trust that is vested in us.  They deserve to know that we are striving to serve them with both processes and results that are valid, and that we are quickly learning from processes and results that do not yield strong positive benefits over the long run.
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