Tag Archives: nonprofit sector

Workforce development for the nonprofit tech professionals of the future: It will be a consortium, not a building with a dome!

We don't need an edifice; we need a consortium!

 

It’s been about a year and a half since I starting agitating for a Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology, an initiative that will kick off by training the nonprofit data analysts of the future.

The concept has morphed and evolved a great deal in that time, thanks to all the great input from Massachusetts stakeholders, but also from a team of ELP fellows from the Center for Collaborative Leadership.

One thing that is quite clear is that there is no need to create a new institution, or raise up a building with a splendid dome.  (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology can rest easy, without fear of competition, or brand encroachment.)  I believe that all of the necessary institutions exist already here in the Bay State.  What is needed is a consortium that can knit them together for this purpose, some funding, and some candidates.

It’s a pipeline, or perhaps a career ladder that the consortium needs to build – not an edifice.  Although I love the splendid domes of MIT, we can simply admire them, and hope that eventually some of the people who work and study under those domes will become part of the consortium.

Here’s what I think we need:

  1.  Allies from workforce development, job readiness, and college readiness programs.  These are the folks who will raise awareness of the coming need for technology professionals who can provide data analysis and other data services to nonprofits, and guide them to the next rung of the career ladder. Examples include Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), Shriver Job Corps, International Institute of New England, JFYnet, Jobs For the Future, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, SkillWorks, Boston PIC, YearUp, and Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
  2. Allies who provide relevant training and education to candidates who aspire to careers in data services and data analytics for nonprofits.  Examples include Bunker Hill Community College and Tech Foundry.
  3. An organization that is able to place, mentor, and coach candidates in entry level data services positions at local nonprofit organizations.  That’s TNB Labs.  These entry level workers will be known as “data support analysts,” or DSAs.
  4. Allies from local nonprofit organizations who are willing to host (and pay for the services of) a DSA for a period of one or two years.  TNB Labs will be the official employer of these workers, providing them with a salary, benefits, a modest sum for further professional development, coaching, and mentoring.  The DSAs will be working on site at the nonprofit organizations and dedicating themselves to tasks assigned by the nonprofits.  Examples of distinguished nonprofits that could play this role are Community Servings, Saint Francis House, Community Catalyst, Health Care For All, Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, Perkins School, City Year, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Cambridge Health Alliance, Family Service of Greater Boston, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, Greater Boston Food Bank, the Boston Foundation, AIDS Action Committee, and the Home for Little Wanderers.  (Not that they’ve actually signed on for this, but that they would be great members of this consortium.)

At the conclusion of the one or two year placement at a nonprofit organization, I think that any of the following outcomes would count as a win:

  • The host nonprofit hires the DSA (with a raise and a promotion) as a long term regular employee.
  • The DSA lands a job providing data services at another nonprofit organization.
  • The DSA lands a job in a different field or sector that is congruent with his/her/their career aspirations.
  • The DSA is able to apply to a four-year degree program, transferring course credits, on the job experience, two-year degrees, or certifications that he/she/they have earned.

The latter scenario – of advancing in higher education – brings us to the final category of allies needed for our consortium.  The best example of this kind of ally is UMass-Boston, which has programs in related areas, such as:

In addition, our consortium has a great ally in an individual UMass-Boston faculty member, Michael Johnson, whose research focus is decision science for community-based organizations.  He has expressed a generous desire to be a mentor to community college students in this career ladder, and to encourage those who are qualified to apply to be Ph.D. students in this field.

And that’s just UMass-Boston!  I’m not as familiar with the offerings of other distinguished colleges and universities in the area, but the Boston University program in nonprofit management and leadership , the Nonprofit Leadership program at Wheelock, and the Institute for Nonprofit Practice at Tufts come to mind immediately as potential allies.

So here we are. The need is there for data service providers who can serve the missions, programs, and operations of nonprofit organizations.  If we can weave all these allies together into a network, we can meet these needs.

All that we require is:

  • Allies who are ready, willing, and able to pitch in.
  • Public awareness that this career ladder is available.
  • Funding to assist candidates cannot afford tuition for college coursework and other forms of training.
  • Funding to assist nonprofits that would like to host a data service analyst from this program, but lack the (modest) funding to support one.

Let’s do this!

“Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing”

don't tell

 

Back in the 20th century, when I first started working in Massachusetts in the field of nonprofit technology, it seemed to me that the unofficial motto of every nonprofit was “Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing, because if you do, they’ll know what we’re doing.”

I wish I could tell you the story of my first experience with this tacit rule, but the people involved are still living, and they would never want me to mention their names or give anyone any information about the programs that they ran.  So please use your imagination.  All I can say is that all of the relevant facts about this organization’s programs are freely available to today on this organization’s web site, for anyone who cares to look it up. As far as I know, providing the names and phone numbers of the people directing the sites at which the programs are offered has not led to any catastrophes.

We’ve come a long way in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector, thanks to leadership from folks at organizations such as the Boston Foundation, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, and the Caring Force at the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers.  They have done some hard work in fostering collaboration, and with collaboration comes more freely shared information about what each nonprofit is doing.  (In my opinion, sometimes information sharing is the cause, and sometimes it’s the effect.)

I’m much obliged to people who have taught me a lot about the importance of nonprofit collaboration, such as Tom McLaughlin (who does a great deal of hands-on work to make it happen), Heather MacIndoe (who is doing academic research on the interplay of nonprofit collaboration and competition in the Boston area), and Susan Labandibar (who is pioneering some important new ideas about how nonprofit technology assistance providers can support organizations in collaborating for greater mission success.)

However, the new spirit of openness is much more than a regional phenomenon; it is an information age phenomenon.  As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine have explained in their groundbreaking book, The Networked Nonprofit, we are living an age where every stakeholder is a free agent online.  People who have strong ties or no ties at all to a nonprofit can use any number of social media channels to make facts and opinions about the organization available to everyone. While the privacy and security of client data is still an extremely high priority, nonprofits have already lost most of the battles in the war against transparency.  So they might as well embrace the practice of sharing information with other organizations and start looking for ways to make their programs, operations, and missions complementary.

Transparency, accountability, and collaboration in the nonprofit sector are mostly positive developments – especially when compared to obsession with control, covering up wrongdoings, and stonewalling. As Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Even if it were not, it’s clear that greater openness is now a fact of life in our culture.  Our focus should not be on fighting the information age, but in balancing between its imperatives and the need to respect the privacy of the innocent and vulnerable.

 

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!

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.

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:

%d bloggers like this: